Africa is the most rewarding birding destination in the world. The continent has close to 2,500 recorded bird species, about two-thirds of which are endemic to the continent. Both Kenya safaris and South Africa safaris offer a rewarding birdwatching experience.
Africa's birds are found in all sorts of ranges -from grasslands, marshlands, forests and mountains, to water-shores, woodlands, arid interiors, and lowlands. The Indian Ocean islands, including Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles are also abundant with bird-life. Here you have superb opportunities to see extremely rare and endangered species with over 140 species endemic to the islands.
Raptors- birds of prey- are the princes of the bird world. They are charismatic and are among the most fascinating birds to watch. Raptors fly faster, further, higher and more elegantly than any other bird species. They are feared and despised by other birds and indeed by many other animal s- particularly those that they prey upon. Raptors are perched right at the top of the food chain, and are good indicators of a habitats environmental health.
Worldwide there are about 500 species of birds of prey. The family of raptors includes: eagles, hawks, kites, falcons, vultures, buzzards, harriers, owls, and the secretary bird. All except the owl -which is nocturnal, are diurnal -meaning they are active by day. These birds are different in many ways; yet share many common features.
Birds of prey have powerful, sharp and hook-shaped beaks that are designed for tearing of flesh. Their beaks comprise of two horny keratin plates that are hooked at the tips to suit their feeding habits. Raptors generally have sturdy legs, spiked with exceptionally strong and non-retractable claws called talons, which they use for attack and grip. This is no doubt where their greatest physical strength lies.
In addition, they have purposely built spindle-shaped bodies, enabling them to be nimble and sprightly fliers. The aerodynamics of wing size and tail shape determines each species' hunting strategy. These attributes are complemented with perfect vision and an acute sense of hearing, to make raptors lethal flying machines.
Vision is a raptors most important sense. They see in colour with vision acuity up to 3 times that of humans and focus well using telescopic vision. Their eyes are proportionately large, with more eye sensory cells than other animals. They have a third eyelid beneath the lower eyelid -a thin clear membrane that can expand horizontally across the eyeball. They thus can close the extra eyelid to protect the eye without loss of vision or focus.
Raptors have inconspicuous external ears at the lower back of the eyes and their hearing is sensitive. They have a less sensitive sense of smell but an acute sense of taste that basically guides them to avoid harmful feed. Lacking the gift for music, their vocalizations are anything but melodic; their cries are sometimes shrill calls, fierce screeches, sharp whistles, guttural squawks and hair-raising hoots.
Raptors generally wear ashen coloured gowns with hues ranging between black, brown, white and greyish-blue. Colour is rarely a distinction between males and females but rather between the young and adults. Mating and breeding for these birds is seasonal. Most species are monogamous, and both mates are adept at incubating the eggs, brooding and parenting. Among most raptors, females are larger and heavier than males- a phenomenon referred to in scientists jargon as reverse dimorphism.
Females normally pick the warmer months when temperatures are just right to lay eggs. Hatching is a process that may take days; one egg at a time. The hatchlings break out of their shells using an "egg-tooth", which falls off shortly after hatching. The raptors little ones are featherless and largely helpless. The mother broods her nestlings as her mate is constantly away hunting for the young ones who seem to be in a recurrent feeding frenzy.
The parents typically care for the nestlings until they are fully fledged. This may last for about 2-3 weeks for the smaller raptors, 5-10 weeks for the mid-sized and several months for the larger eagles and vultures. Young adults will normally leave the nest on their own, or when the parents discontinue their food supply, or sometimes when they leave to migrate.
Migration is a seasonal movement, usually between north and south, based on an internal calendar triggered by climatic and other environmental factors. The birds are able to re-trace their paths guided by dynamics such as: scenery, past journeys taken and the earth's position in relation to the sun, moon and stars.
Raptors are not particularly social, and may choose to migrate solo or in small flocks; they are therefore not true migrators. They are territorial and home ranges - which vary between species, are based on availability of prey.
The diet of the birds of prey heavily contains flesh and generally comprises insects, snakes and reptiles, fish and clams, eggs and birds, small mammals, and carrion -depending on species' taste and preference. Though hunting methods vary with species and type of prey hunted, they are based on the principle of high-speed ambush.
Most raptors hunt by coordinating their body muscles and a number of senses, all calculated into a timely reflex. They are able to spot prey from miles away and can detect slight movements with their super vision. In a very high-speed stoop dive, they approach their prey and within a split second on contact, they incise their powerful talons into the unfortunate prey.
The synchrony of spiny claws and muscle power squeezes the life out of the victim. They then begin to rip off the flesh with their hooked bills, consuming all that is edible. Raptors' table etiquette allows feeding while still in mid-air flight.
Eagles -which are quite large in size, are the most common of the raptors. There are 59 eagle species in the world, classified into 4 major categories: booted eagles, fish eagles, snake eagles and forest eagles. Eagles have long, broad wings best suited for wind gliding and soaring. They are known for the dramatic way in which they hunt; they grab their prey in a dash and fly off.
Eagles specialise in hunting small and medium-sized mammals, including mice, rats, rabbits, monkeys and even small antelopes. They build their nests high among tall trees or high crags. Their nests -made of sticks -are usually large, sometimes weighing close to 100 kg with a diameter of over 3m. They live significantly long, varying with size and species- and larger eagles are known to live 40-55 years.
From ancient times, the eagle has been a symbol of power and governance. Even today, it is one of the most common symbols on emblems, and is the national bird of numerous countries. In ancient Egypt, the eagle symbol was the seal of the Ptolemaic leaders. Today, the eagle -the bald eagle in particular, is the official American national symbol.
Booted eagles are mainly found in southern and eastern Europe and some northern parts of Africa and migrate south to sub-Saharan Africa during winter. They prefer the forested, undulating countryside and open savannah where their shrill vocalization is occasionally heard. Relative to other eagle species, they are smaller in size but still considerably larger than other raptors, with an approximate wingspan of 130 cm at full-grown length.
Booted eagles have wholly feathered legs and live on birds, small mammals and reptiles. They breed between April and July, laying 1-2 eggs per season. They have a lifespan of up to 12 years.
Fish eagles prey on fish and clams and necessarily live around water shores and coastal areas. The common species widely seen in Africa south of the Sahara is the African Fish Eagle. Fish eagles are specialised fish-eaters and are usually about 2ft from bill to tail-tip. Equipped with strong barbed talons, they can easily clutch slippery prey. They usually have white-feathered heads, short tails and narrow wings with a span of up to 5.5ft outstretched.
Fish eagles have remarkable sight and can see well through water. They dive feet first, at high speed to grapple their aquatic prey with a perfect calculated plunge that outsmarts water refraction. They breed around fresh shores and practice strict fidelity to their mates.
Snake Eagles -like their name suggests, prey on serpents though sometimes they take on lizards and small mammals. Widespread throughout out the continent, they are mainly African species and hang out in arid savannahs and tropical forests. Their short, featherless legs are studded with tiny talons. Common types include: short-toed eagle, black-chested snake-eagle, brown snake-eagle, banded snake-eagle and the fasciated snake-eagle.
Falcons look more like eagles but have narrower wings, well suited for high speed flying since they prey hastily. They are the fastest animals in the world, and can attain speeds of up to 150 km/h. Falcons are spectacular hunters and mostly prey on live birds, which they prefer to catch in mid air. They use their powerful legs to strike and destabilize a bird in flight then move speedily to grasp it before it falls to the ground.
The falcon's kicks are deadly, though their talons are not as lethal as those of the eagle. Their diet also includes smaller mammals and reptiles. They mostly come to Africa just to breed. The pygmy falcon is the smallest of the raptors, weighing less than 60 g; it feeds on insects, tiny reptiles and mammals. It is light coloured on the underside and darker on the upper and wing sides. It is mainly resident in east and southern Africa.