Monday, 26 September 2011

Raptor rapture

Howdy folks,

First to clarify: I am not using the word 'rapture' in the biblical sense. As far as I'm aware, we are not facing any sort of judgement day/end of the world scenario at the talons of eagles, falcons, or any other bird of prey. Though as always, I reserve my right to be completely wrong. Rather I refer to the joy that can be had in observing such magnificent birds.

I've just returned from my second trip to Etosha National Park, in the North of Namibia. Etosha translates as the 'great white place', and the 23000 km2 park is named after the 4730 km2 salt pan. The Etosha pan is dry for most of the year, though floods after heavy rains from the Ekuma and Oshigambo rivers, at the north east of the pan. The adjoining Fischer's Pan usually holds water. Around half of Etosha National Park is well developed for tourism, and is far from a wilderness experience. A well developed network of roads makes self-drive safaris in a car possible, and three lodges inside the park cater to your every need: camping sites, chalets, restaurants, even swimming pools. The lodges do suffer from infestations of Germans though. The rest of the park is more remote, and out of bounds to self-drive visitors (like me). 

The wide open spaces and scattered trees of Etosha make it a great location for spotting raptors. Etosha is home to around 44 species of vultures, eagles, buzzards, harriers, harrier-hawks, goshawks, kites, sparrowhawks, kestrels and falcons. I regularly spotted Tawny eagles (Aquila rapax), as well as black breasted snake eagles (Circaetus pectoralis), and lappet-faced vultures (Torgos tracheliotus). In addition to the pictures below I successfully photographed black kite (Milvus migrans), black-shouldered kite (Elanis caeruleus), and dark chanting goshawk (Melierax metabates). Most of my pictures from this trip have been committed to slide film and won't be processed until I get home, so the pictures below from my digital camera are just a taste. When perched, the silhouettes of their often large frames make a picturesque addition to the skyline, while the circling of buzzards and vultures can be a little unnerving if you find yourself temporarily misplaced (especially on foot in the desert; not that I would ever do such a thing...). 

Alas my time in Namibia is drawing to a close. I've had a fantastic time getting my bird geek on here, but after a few days in Capetown my neglected doctoral thesis will be getting some much deserved attention. 

Till next time, bird geek out.

Tawny eagle with it's eye on the prize.

Southern pale chanting goshawk (Melierax canorus), perched atop an Acacia arioloba tree. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Namibian madness...


Although it may be a few days before these words see the light of the internet, I pen them camped on the bank of the Kovango river-the border between northern Namibia and southern Angola. The sun beats down in the afternoon swelter, and the voices and laughter of the Angolan village children drift over the water, which in turn drifts it’s way east through the Kaprivi strip to the Okovango Delta. I munch on my staple African diet of peanut butter sandwiches and Windhoek lager. Having mislaid my lighter my pipe and tobacco sit forlornly in front of me.

In keeping with the musician theme from my last post, there seems to be a belief here that ‘I’m going slightly mad’. A song, incidentally, performed by Queen, whose front man, Freddy Mercury, was born on the African island of Zanzibar. A crazy place with a fascinating mix of culture and history, you should all visit. But I digress to my alleged madness. Last night a tour group of mostly Australians (pot calling kettle black?) showed up at the local tourist lodge and found it simply incredulous that I arrived here on foot. Admittedly Namibia is not a country to tour on foot-it’s mostly a desert, and hence very very hot and settlements tend to spaced very far apart. However I’ve spent the past four days in the very hospitable, and ridiculously poor village Kayengona (another story for another day…). As my destined campsite was not too far away I opted to walk, the only option really as my ride to the village had long departed. My habit of walking around barefoot just confirmed their view. Going bare foot doesn’t seem to be the done thing in Africa. Even the most destitute people in the poorest villages stare at my unclad feet, and often point and laugh when I pass. The owners of the lodge also seem to think me some sort of lone mad wanderer in need of charity-and have invited me to dine for free in their restaurant. Having sampled their fare last night I am very excited about this-their kudu stroganoff sure beats peanut butter sandwiches.

So am I mad? Mad about birds maybe… mad at birds, definitely. There always has to be some bird that tries its darndest to ruin your sleep on a nice trip into the wilderness. While the New Zealand kiwi (Apteryx spp.), kaka (Nestor meridionalis), and saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus) are all lovely birds, they aren’t exactly musically inclined. If you’re lucky enough to visit somewhere with all three in significant numbers you’re in for some restless nights until you get accustomed to it. Here the babblers nicely fill this raucous role. There are four species of babblers in the genus Turdoides in the area, though so far I have only managed to sight two, the arrow-marked babbler (T. jardineii) and Hartlaub’s babbler (T. hartlaubii). Although they are rather handsome birds in their own way, their incessant, well, babbling as the name implies, means they have struggled to secure a place in my heart.

It’s not all bad though. Having not gone much more than 100 metres from my tent I have so far positively identified just over 40 different species, and a whole lot more have gone unidentified (so far…). The bee eaters (Merops spp.) are as cute as ever, but the most delightful to watch has been the white-bellied sunbird (Cinnyris talatala), a tiny nectivore I have seen feeding on the small flowers of a local banksia tree. I also found some nest building today. Unfortunately their small size, rapid movements and the thick bushes they’ve been hanging out in have made them elusive to photograph, so I’ll leave you with a picture of a raucous babbler, and a little bee eater.

This post is getting far too long now, so I’d better sign off. Although I’ve traveled a long way to get to my current birding location, don’t forget the message from my previous posts-no matter where you are, there’s always a nearby opportunity to get your bird geek on good and proper. 

An arrow marked babbler. Babbling.  

A little bee-eater (M. pusillus). Being cute.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A lesson on sparrows for Alanis Morissette

In the past few weeks I've been doing a lot of touring of Namibia, visiting and camping in some of the most beautiful spots in the country, and indeed the world. So what to write about... the bull elephants clearing a waterhole of a pride of lions so they could bathe, or the black breasted snake eagle soaring over the plains of the Erongo? Or perhaps fixing the car in the middle of Etosha National Park at sunset, watched by herds of zebra and passing jackals? What has inspired me more than all this has been a bunch of sparrows. 

There are around 27 species of 'true' sparrows in the genus Passer found naturally throughout Africa, Europe and Asia, although most people are no doubt most familiar with house sparrows (Passer domesticus). However the most intriguing aspect of the ecology of sparrows is also the reason they tend to be overlooked, and disregarded as a bird worthy of watching (take note Alanis, that really is ironic). Sparrows got the roughest deal in China in the late 1950s, where they were included in the 'four pests campaign', in the mistaken belief that they were consuming large amounts of grain, lowering agricultural productivity, Chinese people were encouraged to kill sparrows (along with rats, flies and mosquitoes). Take note again Alanis-as the sparrows were persecuted and pushed to the verge of extinction, agricultural productivity in fact dropped. Further investigation revealed that the sparrows were actually consuming large numbers of locusts-which were the real threat to agriculture from the beginning. This lesson came too late however, and the 'kill a sparrow' campaign has been linked to a famine resulting in the starvation of over 30 million people. 

Getting back to that first irony though-everywhere people settle most birds suffer from localised extinctions, not sparrows however. They manage to not only survive, but thrive in the highly altered environments we offer them-a fascinating phenomenon, although over familiarity with them tends to lead to our overlooking them. As with urban areas throughout the world, house sparrows are also found in african cities and towns. In less modified areas, however, the Cape sparrow, P. melanurus, is much more common. I was surprised to find them in the numbers I did though in the harshest environment I have had the pleasure of visiting-the Namib Desert. The Namib desert covers around 81,000 square kilometres in South West Africa, with rainfall within the desert varying from 5 to 85mm annually. The only occasion I had to get a temperature reading in the area was 44 degrees Celcius... and yet sizable flocks of Cape sparrows were to be seen. With even the hardy Acacia erioloba trees in short supply, the few existing trees were clogged with nests. 

So next time you see a few sparrows catching your muffin crumbs at your favourite cafe, don't fob them off as being too common to engage your interest-take the opportunity to get your bird geek on and give them the thought they deserve. 

Female Cape sparrow.

Namib desert.

Southern Bird Geek trying to fit in with the the local springbok crowd (thanks for the photo, Willem).