An encounter with a visitor to our shores

Steppe Buzzard sat in an oak treeRecent posts are beginning to suggest to me that I am becoming a bit of a twitcher. Unfortunately, as per previous posts, I am about the World’s worst bird spotter. I see a bird and think, I should find out what that is! So I remember the detail as best I can and look it up in our trusty, much thumbed, edition of the Sasol Bird Guide, only to discover that I have yet again seen a bird that only lives in 1square kilometer of tropical forest the other side of Zimbabwe.

I could be right of course, though I am more inclined to think that I just cannot identify the birds properly. The recent innovation of managing to take photos of the birds should have helped. It hasn’t, it has just removed my excuse of not remembering the details properly.

Not that it matters all that much, I enjoy seeing different birds going about their business, from colourful little sugarbirds to huge big eagles, they are fascinating to watch. The problem for me is that putting them into blog posts opens me up to all sorts of ridicule when I proudly announce the sighting of a lesser spotted dooby, which everyone in South Africa knows is actually a greater spotted loopy.

So from now on I am going to plough blindly on (with my eyes wide opening- if that makes any sense) and revel in my terrible ornithological abilities. You will just have to forgive me if a photograph of a bird does not match the title and description. All I can suggest is that you don’t take my word for it that the photos relate to what I say it does, and if you pilfer my images for your own use (at least ask first!) I cannot be held responsible for any ridicule that is heaped onto you in return.

My latest ornithological encounter was on a walk along the Silvermine River. Having taken advantage of a drop in temperatures I did one of my favourite, low level, hikes. The route leaves my house in Fish Hoek, cuts across the valley floor to Clovelly, takes a cheeky sneak through the golf course and heads up towards the Sunbird Valley nature reserve.

There were a few things skittering and flitting around, not much to get excited about. And then there they were, two huge raptors, lazily circling around on the late afternoon thermals, doing the leisurely slow circles that only large birds of prey can.

You always have to be careful in this area when looking at large birds flying- there are a lot of crows and it is easy to think they are something else. Not in this case though, there was no mistaking a large bird of prey of some kind.

I was also confident of making a good identification (as I always am- see above) as there were a number of easy to identify markings on the birds: white stripes on the wings, size etc. First impressions were that the pair was not eagles, leaving the door open to them being large buzzards of some kind. Eventually they elegantly disappeared into the crags of the higher cliffs and we carried on.

Steppe Buzzard in the Silvermine River Valley- Sunbird ValleyWe weren’t done with the birds, or rather, they weren’t done with us. As we came around into Sunbird valley on of the pair suddenly swooped across our path and landed at the very top of a nearby oak tree, completely side on, almost posing for photographs.

This should have made identifying the birds later so much easier. We new they were buzzards, and you regularly see buzzards on perches around the area (telegraph poles, tree branches etc), but it is all too easy to leave it at that and not look further, making an understanding of what type of buzzard, where they live and what they do.

When we got home the bird book came out and the inevitable debate began. Eventually the decision was made that it was a Steppe Buzzard- not the rarest of birds, but worth seeing none the less.

They are a wide spread bird that favours a lot of habitats, but here is the fun fact- whilst some Steppe Buzzards stay in South Africa throughout the year, most are only summer visitors, having migrated from their summer habitats in eastern Europe through to Asia (hence the Steppe bit, being taken from the Asian steppes of the former USSR southern states and Mongolia). That’s quite a distance to fly, even by Emirates. Presumably the feasting on Duiker and Dassies in the southern African sun is preferable to trying to find lemmings in the snow and frost.

And that is the amazing thing about wildlife- as majestic as it is to look it, the stories behind animals is even more amazing. The complexities of their lives are fascinating, so watch out for these visitors to our shores while they are here, before they embark on their epic journey back to their northern homes.

3 thoughts on “An encounter with a visitor to our shores

  1. Cathy Withers-Clarke says:

    My immediate thought was that this was a Jackal Buzzard, judging by the colouring. How did you decide that it was a Steppe ?

    1. Russell Hepworth says:

      I am by no means a good bird spotter, so you may well be right- in the majority of cases, if I was right in my spotting then we would have some very rare visitors to the area, and the whole place would be abuzz with twitchers hiding in bushes; because usually I identify a bird in the book and then realize that it is only found in some remote part of Botswana!
      We looked at the Jackal Buzzard as a potential, but discounted it for two reasons- one, the lack of red colouring, and two, we don’t see these birds in the winter (though they are very common in summer), suggesting that they are summer visitors.
      Also, the image was taken at the extreme limits of the camera, and has been heavily manipulated to get a clearer picture. In the process some of the colours may have been distorted, making them darker than they actually were.

  2. Cathy Withers-Clarke says:

    I am certainly no expert, but we do see a lot of Jackal Buzzards at Cape Point, and he seems to match them well. When I am in doubt, I usually refer to birdforum, and someone infinitely more knowledgeable than me will come back pretty rapidly with an identification for my photo.
    Both Buzzards have a lot of different looks, though this one does look quite dark for a Steppe, although as you say, that could be the camera. Tough when you see these things and just don’t know enough about the subject !

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