The secretary bird is a large bird of prey that is native to sub-Saharan Africa. It’s known for its unique appearance, characterised by its long legs, a distinctive crest of feathers on its head, a mostly grey upper body, and a black-feathered lower body with grey and white accents. A truly remarkable bird and one we thoroughly enjoy when ever we get a chance to see one. Thankfully for us, there have been a few individuals that have been seen fairly regularly over the last little while.
The scientific name of the secretary bird, “Sagittarius serpentarius” has an interesting origin:
The genus name, “Sagittarius,” comes from the Latin word for “archer” or “hunter,” which references the bird’s hunting behavior.
The species name, “serpentarius,” is derived from the Latin word “serpens,” meaning “serpent” or “snake.”
This refers to the bird’s notable ability to stomp and kick at snakes and other small animals on the ground to immobilize and kill them. The secretary bird is renowned for its impressive snake-hunting skills, often using its powerful legs to deliver lethal blows to its prey.
When out on a game drive, I am always on the lookout for this unique bird of prey and on one particular morning, my guests were treated to an extraordinary sighting of a Secretary bird in pursuit of a Nightjar. The nightjar is a small nocturnal bird that mostly sleeps on the ground during the day and then breaks cover at night to feast on nocturnal insects. While perching still the nightjar’s feathers and colouration allow it to camouflage perfectly, blending in with the environment and allowing it to remain undetectable during its daily slumber.
To the surprise of all present, this diurnal raptor had somehow spotted the camouflaged nightjar and with its gaze unwavering, the Secretary Bird took a few small deliberate steps towards the frozen still nightjar, hoping it had not been seen or could have been fast asleep and unaware of the imminent danger.
In a swift and calculated move, the Secretary Bird unleashed a powerful trample, its long legs and sharp talons proving formidable. The Nightjar, taken by surprise, met its fate in a tragic instant.
As the Secretary Bird began to feed on its freshly caught prey, the stage was set for an even more astonishing twist. A Tawny Eagle, the embodiment of opportunism and aerial prowess, swooped down from the sky. With the precision of a seasoned hunter, the Tawny Eagle made its move.
In a breathtaking display of agility and audacity, the Tawny Eagle managed to snatch the lifeless Nightjar from the Secretary Bird’s grasp. The Secretary Bird, momentarily taken aback by this audacious intrusion, leapt out of the way, surrendering its prize to the powerful Tawny Eagle.
As the Tawny Eagle took flight, clasping the Nightjar in its talons, the drama was far from over. The eagle, now carrying its ill-gotten meal, sought refuge in a nearby dead tree. It began to feast, tearing into the Nightjar’s lifeless body with a ruthless determination as its feathers drifted through the air down to the ground.
Throughout this dramatic standoff, the Secretary Bird looked on from a safe distance, its majestic form a symbol of both caution and respect. Nature has demonstrated its unpredictable and unyielding nature, highlighting the fine balance of power and vulnerability that exists among species. The sighting of a Secretary bird hunting a Square-tailed Nightjar, only to have its meal stolen by a juvenile Tawny Eagle, is a testament to the wonders of nature and the thrilling experiences that await at Londolozi Game Reserve.