Hwange National Park: A Mecca for Raptors4 min read

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Do you want to hazard a guess as to how many raptors occur in Hwange? And here I’m only talking about the accipiter and falcon families, which includes the kites, hawks, eagles, vultures, harriers, goshawks, falcons and a few others, but not the secretary bird and osprey, nor the owls. Consider that the whole of Zimbabwe has 63 raptor species… okay let’s not be stingy, we’ll toss in the secretary bird and osprey and make it 65.

Of course you’re not going to see some of these every second Tuesday; there are some rare occurrences like the Egyptian vulture that 99% of casual birdwatchers won’t see in their lifetime unless they fall off a bus or travel to another country. Then there are the ‘headline-news’ ones like the grass- hopper buzzard that was seen by Brendan Ryan (jammy fellow!) on 7 December 2014 at Ngamo Pan in Hwange National Park. What made this sighting so exceptional and utterly unpredictable was that grasshopper buzzards are normally distributed from Senegambia east to Eritrea and Ethiopia. When the bird migrates to East Africa it extends south to just north of northeast Zambia and Malawi, reaching 4-5°S. So what it was doing sojourning at 19°S at a time when it should have been migrating northwards is anyone’s guess. Well, never mind such imponderables – Brendan was amazed and delighted, southern Africa scored a new species, and most twitchers were wildly envious! We call this chance event a vagrant and hope it will happen again and are happy that Ngamo was thereby decisively placed on the birder’s map.

You may ask where Ngamo is. The pans and area of Ngamo straddle the railway line forming the eastern boundary of the park down towards the southeast corner, roughly on the latitude of Kenmaur. It’s not the sort of place you are likely to just drop in to visit on your way to anywhere. On the park side you’ll ind the Makalolo and Linkwasha concession area run by Wilderness Safaris and on the Gwaai side you can stay at Bomani Tented Lodge (Imvelo Safari Lodges). This is a wonderful area of acacia savannah and woodlands broken by open plains and seasonal pans and water holes full of some very special wildlife and birds, some of which include those raptors.

After the arid heat of the dry season and tremendous pressure on the water resources comes the welcome relief brought by the start of the summer rains in November-December. Another bonus at this time of the year is the influx of migratory eagles and smaller rap- tors. You anticipate locks of eagles arriving ahead of a front and hope they will include the Palaearctic steppe and the lesser spotted eagle. The steppe eagle is a large brown eagle and one of its distinguishable features is the length of the gape extending to just behind the eye; you might also note the oval nostrils if you are close enough. (Be careful about confusing him with the resident tawny eagle, especially the darker tawnies

because brown eagles can be a challenge!) But seeing this majestic eagle is getting more difficult these days and it has been classed as Endangered due to serious declines in Asia and Europe. The Park is also a great place for seeing the eurasian hobby, which has been seen in locks of up to 70 when associated with rain fronts.

Another treat of the rainy season is the swarms of emerging alate termites, an irresistible attraction to so many birds. If you see one, get into position and enjoy the show! I recall one really big emergence that brought in so many birds it was a positive marvel. I can’t possibly list all the smaller species hopping around or hawking from perches – the list would simply be too long. The sky was full of all sorts: hundreds of bee-eaters, swifts and swallows; a wide variety of falcons and kestrels – some like the lanner zooming through at speed-the more manoeuvrable ones twisting and turning as they snatched the termites from the air in their claws; black and yellow-billed kites, those airborne adding to the others feasting on the ground… and a host of other species including hawks and eagles.

On the ground an impressive number of vultures of all species were gathered along with a variety of eagles, all those already mentioned plus a few more in the mix. There may have been storks involved too but I can’t remember. Do note that attending these events often requires a dress code: I wandered down to the pan in rafting sandals and only after a long while took note of the variety of insects that had also come to dinner. They weren’t a problem but the same can’t be said for the large number of centipedes and scorpions that were scurrying about – you don’t want one of those between your toes!

This is just a taste of what Hwange National Park offers. To experience it first-hand you’ll have to get there. And back to my question at the beginning, well Hwange has 56 raptor species! How close were you.

For further information on birding hotspots around Zimbabwe check out the Birding Zimbabwe website www.birdlifezimbabwe.or

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