We ran a post just over a month ago on Birding for Beginners, which looked at some of the more common species you can encounter around camp.
Birds aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and when trying to introduce people to the wonders of the avian world, a common approach is to start with the members of the class Aves that will have the most impact; the most colourful, the biggest, the best hunters…
We therefore thought we’d make the eagles the subject of our second Birding for Beginners series, as there are number of species on Londolozi, some of which that can be easily confused with each other.
Here then are the 8 most commonly encountered eagles, and how to tell them apart:
- Martial Eagle
The biggest eagle at Londolozi by some margin, martial eagles are imperious in their looks, commanding rapt attention form those who view them. These birds are so powerful that they regularly include small antelopes like duikers and impala lambs in their diet. I have personally seen a martial feeding on a duiker carcass, the majority of which was left, high up in a dead leadwood tree. The power of that eagle to fly up to the perch while carrying the deadweight must have been phenomenal.
Martials are almost unmistakeable, with their large size and prominent crest; the only potentially confusing species in flight would be the black chested snake eagle, but these birds are considerably smaller and have white underwings while the adult Martial has a dark underwing. Juvenile martial eagles are also white under the wings, but they lack the dark head of the adult.
2. Fish Eagle
One of Londolozi’s – and Africa’s – more iconic birds, the African Fish Eagle is often to be seen (and heard) soaring above the Sand River in front of the camp decks. A pair of them actually nest on the opposite side of the river, and their courtship flights during the breeding season are something to behold. Although it’s difficult to tell male from female on appearance, they can be distinguished when calling in duet, as the male has a higher pitched call than the female.
The Fish Eagle obviously gets its name from the fact that it eats fish, and so successful is it as a hunter that it only needs to spend about 1% of its day actually engaged in the activity of fishing. Having said that, these large eagles often find it easier to simply steal from other birds, and on many occasions I have seen them watching and waiting for a heron or stork to snatch up a fish, and then swoop down to scare the rightful owner of the catch away.
Look out for fish eagles flying above camp in the day time, or perched above a waterhole in the morning or evening.
3. African Hawk Eagle
Africa’s fastest eagle, these birds are often seen in pairs, as in the above picture, which will almost invariably be a male and female breeding pair. Most of the big eagles are monogamous, forming pair bonds that last for life.
African hawk eagles are easily identifiable by their black backs, rounded heads and mottled black and white plumage in front. The are significantly smaller than martial eagles, so confusion between the two should not occur. Juveniles can be difficult to ID, and we’ve actually run a week-long competition to see if anyone could identify one before.
These eagles focus their hunting attempts largely on game birds like francolins and guineafowl, and a strategy they commonly employ is to have one bird flushing prey species out of the undergrowth while the other in the pair swoops in from above. Shorter and wider wings give them the maneuverability they need to execute this strategy among the trees.
Pairs can often be seen circling together scanning for prey.
4. Bateleur Eagle
In many people’s opinion the most beautiful eagle in Africa, the bateleur is one bird that cannot help to pique people’s interest, whether they are birders or not. Its scientific name of Terathopius ecaudatus, derived from Greek and Latin, means “beautiful face, short tail”, in reference to its bright red facial skin and shorter tail than most eagles. The short tail creates instability on the wing, which in turn gave rise to the name bateleur, which in French was a generic word referring to street performers that included tumblers and tightrope walkers, a reference to the eagle’s rocking motion in flight.
Bateleurs, although they belong to the snake eagle family, are primarily scavengers, but they will sometimes catch live prey. When snake hunting they will puff up their feathers to form a defensive layer against the snake’s bite.
In the above photo, the female can be identified as the bird on the right, with her pale wing patch towards the tip. The underwings of the sexes are also diagnostic, with the male having a broad black band at trailing edge and the female a narrow one.
Juvenile bateleurs, like the one pictured above, are absolutely unmistakeable when viewed from close-up, thanks to their grey facial skin and bill structure, less broad than a tawny eagle’s. It takes them up to seven years to acquire their adult plumage, which they do steadily over successive moults. They have slightly longer tail feathers than the adults, giving them a bit more stability in flight.
Juvenile bateleurs start putting us into the realm of the brown eagle group, which in summer can be quite confusing owing to the influx of migrant species into the area. In winter though the only two brown eagles commonly encountered are juvenile bateleurs and tawny eagles, which are totally different from each other thankfully.
5. Tawny Eagle
Widely distributed across sub-Saharan Africa, the Tawny eagle is a permanent resident at Londolozi, not departing for the summer like some of its counterparts. Although brown like the juvenile bateleur, it has a completely different head and body shape, as well as a much heavier bill.
Tawny eagles can occur in a variety of colour morphs, from relatively pale to dark brown, but the medium brown tone that gives them their name is the one most commonly encountered in our area. Pairs generally set up a territory that they will defend against other birds (I have seen one attacking a much bigger martial eagle), and there are two nests currently in use by pairs on Londolozi. The can breed year-round, but peak breeding is generally in the winter months. Like bateleur eagles, tawnies will often scavenge, and a combination of vultures and a tawny eagle or two in a tree is a sure sign that there is a carcass close by.
6. Steppe Eagle
The bird most easily confused with a tawny eagle is the Steppe Eagle, which are only here for the summer months. Although similar in size (Steppe eagles are slightly bigger), shape and colour, there is a way to differentiate between the species, and that is by looking at the gape. The gape of a Steppe eagle is much wider than that of a tawny, and extends to the back end of the eye, whereas a tawny’s gape only extends to the middle of the eye.
Steppe Eagles get their name from the Russian and central-Asian steppes; extensive grasslands characterised by a lack of trees, which is where these birds spend the Southern African winter.
7. Wahlberg’s Eagle
The Wahlberg’s eagle gets its name from Johan August Wahlberg, a Swedish naturalist who was trampled to death by a wounded elephant in the area of what is now Maun in Botswana. Chances are that the elephant was ‘wounded’ by Wahlberg shooting it, so I guess one could say the elephant got its revenge…
The eagles that bear his name are summer visitors to Londolozi, and out of all our migrant species are the first to arrive, with sightings often starting from late August or early September. Like many eagles, Wahlberg’s pair for life, and the amazing thing is that the same pairs make their way back to the same nests year after year. Like tawny eagles, there is a great deal of colour variation in Wahlberg’s, and one of the more recognisable pairs on Londolozi consists of a pale morph male and a dark morph female. Their return to the same marula tree near Shingalana Dam is always a sign that spring is just around the corner.
The smallest eagle species we get here, the Walhberg’s can be identified in flight by their usually narrow rectangular tail (which isn’t a sure thing to go on as it can sometimes be splayed), and when perched, by their small stature, small crest and delicate bill. A lot of their diet consists of small birds, mammals and reptiles, but after the rains, they will often focus on the termite emergences that take place for food.
8. Brown Snake Eagle
This is a bird that you can make a snap ID of from over a kilometre away. They are almost always perched at the top of a tree, and their upright stance and large head size relative to their body makes them almost unmistakeable as a species. Closer inspection will reveal a bright yellow eye and bare legs.
As their name suggests, snakes form the bulk of their diet (any snakes; the ‘brown’ part refers to the eagles’ colouration) and are usually subdued by violent pecks to the head. A lot of visitors to Londolozi ask why we don’t see snakes all the time, and it is in part due to the danger from above in the form of birds like the brown snake eagle that the slithery reptiles are loath to spend time out in the open.
As well as the above-mentioned species, there are a couple of others like the lesser spotted, black-chested snake, long-crested and crowned eagles that occur here but aren’t often encountered. Ok, the lesser spotteds (summer time) and black-chested snake eagles we do get fairly consistent sightings of, but I’ve only ever seen a crowned eagle here once back in 2011, and long-cresteds I’ve seen maybe two of in five years.
The eight we’ve covered above should be more than enough to get you started.
Feel free to leave suggestions as to what bird group you’d like the next bird post’s focus to be on.