Kruger National Park named their BIG 6 Birds as a mirroring of the Big 5 animals in order to create bird awareness and satisfy visitor’s interest in spotting species. They are easy to identify and because of their generally large size are fairly easy to spot in Kruger Park….all except one of them that is. The Pels Fishing Owl is nocturnal and is restricted to large water courses making it difficult to see.
Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosis)
Description: Martial Eagles are large, very powerful birds. They have a bright yellow eye and deeply hooked robust bill. They vary between 78-83 cm in height. Females are heavier than males (like most raptors). Males weigh 3.3kgs and females weigh 4.7kgs. Wingspan is between 1.9m and 2.4m. Both sexes have white under parts with dark brown spots, females have more spots than males. Neck, top of wings and rest of body are dark brown. They have a short crest on the head and relatively short tail.
Prey: Their favoured prey is monitor lizards but have a varied diet of small to large rodents, small mammals, other birds like francolin and ibises and other reptiles. Martial Eagles spend most of the day in soaring flight and hunt on the wing. They can spot potential prey up to 6 kms away and stoop in from height using available bush cover to kill smaller prey on impact. Larger prey is strangled. Prey may be taken up to a perch to eat…..even items as much as 8kgs can be carried.
Conservation: Although not threatened globally, Martial Eagles are listed as Vulnerable in Southern Africa due to population decline. They require large hunting territories between 100-1000kms2 in size. The decline in population is primarily due to habitat loss, human encroachment and death by poisoning and collisions with high voltage power lines.
Breeding and Young: A breeding pair of Martials is monogamous and the pair bond is maintained for a number of seasons. A large nest is built and maintained by both sexes usually in the fork of a large tree. The nest can be up to 2m in diameter and is used for more than one season. The inside of the nest is lined with leaves.
Many predatory birds, like the Martial Eagles practice Canism where the first chick to hatch is larger and develops more quickly than the second chick. The first chick aggressively pecks the younger one to death which eliminates its competition for food.
The female is a devoted mother to the chick in its first few weeks of life. The male brings most of the food during this time. The female spend less time on the nest after the 10th week and begins to hunt again.
Confusing Species: The Black Chested Snake Eagle although this is much smaller than a Martial and doesn’t have spots on the chest and belly.
Lappet Faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotus)
Description: Lappet Vultures are the largest and most dominant of the Southern African vultures. With a wing span of up to 2.8m and height of just over 1m they rule the carcass when they arrive. They have a bare red to pink head and neck with conspicuous skin folds. The bill is heavy, sharply hooked and yellowish in colour with a blue-grey base to the bill. Both sexes look alike.
Prey: Lappets Faced Vultures are often last to arrive at a carcass. They favour the tougher parts of the carcass that other vultures cannot eat such as tendons, ligaments and tough skin using their massive, strong bill. They will push other vultures out the way, sometimes engaging in a short scuffle to do so. Spending much time soaring, they approach carcasses in a downward spiral and land singly or in pairs. In some regions like Botswana there may be up to 50 or 60 Lappets on a large kill, like elephant. They may, on occasion, take a large piece of meat and will then generally fly off with it.
Conservation: These vultures are listed as Vulnerable in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. This is primarily due to decreasing ranges and poisoning. In an incident in Namibia in 1995, 86 birds were deliberately poisoned in1 incident which was about 10% of the population for that region at the time. Vultures are also used in traditional medicine and are poached for this. They have a slow breeding cycle so populations do not recover easily. There is only an estimated global population of 8500 and in Southern Africa about 3500.
Breeding and Young: Vultures are monogamous and probably pair for life. The nest is a large structure up to 2.2m in outside diameter and lined on the inside with dry grasses and skins. Both sexes build and repair nests. There may be up to 3 nests in a territory, with only one being used per breeding cycle. The nests are usually built at the top of an isolated tree and can be as close as 100m apart or up to 10kms apart.
The chicks hatch only 2 days of the egg is laid. Very rarely 2 eggs may be laid. Both parents feed the chick by regurgitating food directly into the young chicks bill. Larger nestlings may pounce on regurgitated items dropped into the nest.
Confusing Species: Probably only the juvenile White-Headed Vulture or juvenile Hooded Vulture but both species are much smaller than Lappet Faced Vultures.
Pels Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli)
Description: Pels are large owls with a rufous and tawny colour and dark brown eyes. Unlike many owls they don’t have distinct ear tufts so the head appears rounded and smooth. They grow to 63cm in height and can be up 2kgs in weight. Both sexes look alike. Females are slightly larger than males.
Prey: As their name indicates Pels Fishing Owl feeds mainly on fish but will also take small crocodiles and frogs. They typically hunt from a few meters above the water from a branch and swoop down with legs outstretched to catch their prey which can weigh up to 2kgs. The yare nocturnal feeders and this makes them particularly difficult to spot in the wild.
Breeding and Young: Pels are monogamous and territorial. They build nests in the fork or large shady trees, even up to 200m away from the water edge. They may use the same next site during successive breeding cycles. They are thought to breed only once a year and generally lay 2 eggs although the chick last to hatch normally dies of starvation. It is thought that the female does most of the egg incubation while the male brings food for her. The chick is dependent on the adults for up to 4 months and will remain in the adults territory for 9 months before moving of and establishing a territory of its own.
Conservation: They live in areas of dense riverine bush, particularly along large rivers in northern South Africa, Limpopo, Luvuvhu and Olifants rivers and in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Their populations are decreasing primarily due to human encroachment and disturbance, river siltation and pollution. They are listed as threatened in the region
Confusing Species: Unlikely to be confused with any other owl species. This is a rare bird and for the birders out there is considered a “mega-tick” if seen in the wild.
Saddle-billed Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis)
Description: Saddle-billed Storks are very large and beautifully coloured birds. Males and females are similar except the male has brown eyes and a yellow wattle under the chin and females have yellow eyes and no wattle. Both sexes have a distinct heart shaped red skin patch on the chest. They get their name because of the bright yellow saddle on the top of the red and black coloured bill.
They favour large rivers and water courses, lakes and wetlands.
Prey: Frogs, fish, small reptiles, small mammals, birds, crustaceans and aquatic insects.
Breeding and Young: These magnificent birds are monogamous and probably pair for life. They forage for food independently. Both sexes build and repair nests which are large structures up to 2m in diameter and 20 to 30 m above the ground in large trees. Because of their reliance on water courses the nests are built within 500m of a river, lake or other water. They will have between 2 and 4 eggs and the newly hatched chicks are helpless and unable to stand. The male and female adult both take turns brooding and feeding the chicks.
Photo: A Male Saddle-billed Stork on the left with a bark eye and the female on the right with a yellow eye.
Conservation: They are listed as endangered in Southern Africa and are rarely found outside of large protected game reserves. They are not threatened globally.
Confusing Species: None due to large size and distinct colouration.
Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri)
Description: Large, mostly black birds with bright red skin around the eye. Males have further red skin folds on throat whereas females have a blue patch. Males have larger bills than females. Young birds have a grey brown skin instead of red and this turns a pale yellow colour after 1 year.
Prey: These impressive hornbills are mostly seen on the ground, walking through the bushveld looking for food items. They eat small mammals, reptiles, insects, frogs and snails.
Breeding and Young: Often seen in family groups. They are monogamous and breed co-operatively. The dominant breeding pair will mate and may have a number of helpers, often males and juveniles from previous years. They nest in tree cavities and this is not sealed by the female unlike many other bird species. Males bring leaves for nest lining and often this contains parcels of food for the female.
Conservation: Listed as Vulnerable in Southern Africa and confined to large protected game reserves, esp Kruger National Park and the surrounding Lowveld. They are slow breeders and only one of the two hatched chicks survive, the second one to hatch dying of starvation within a week or so. They are susceptible to poisoning while foraging.
Confusing Species: None
Kori Bustard (Ardiotis kori)
Description: This is the largest of the Bustard family and one of the heaviest flying birds in the world and is the heaviest flying bird in Southern Africa. Males weigh 12kgs and females nearly 6kgs. They have a grey coloured neck with fine barring. They have a black crown which is more distinctive in the male.
Prey: They eat a variety of insects, lizards, chameleons, snakes and will also take carrion. They also eat berries, seeds and bulbs.
Breeding and Young: They are polygamous and solitary nesters. Males display by strutting and puffing up their necks. Fighting consists of two males standing chest to chest and pushing each other. The nest is an unlined hollow in the ground.
The female lays 1 or 2 eggs and is solely responsible for incubation, sometimes going without water for many days.
The chicks are preyed on by leopards and jackals.
Conservation: Listed as Vulnerable in Southern Africa. Threats include poisoning, collisions with overhead power lines, snaring and habitat loss. They are well represented in large conserved areas but are also present in some smaller reserves.
Confusing Species: None due to large size