We were driving slowly along the road from Polentswa to Nossob in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park when we saw a Secretarybird in the distance. Although we had seen many Secretarybirds over the previous few days, we stopped to take a closer look. Next to the Secretarybird was a brown bundle that morphed into a Tawny eagle as we watched. It took to the air and quickly flew to a nearby tree. Had we disturbed it? The Secretarybird immediately took a few steps forward and picked up a snake – it looked like a puffadder – that had been abandoned by the eagle. We watched in amazement as the Secretarybird swallowed the snake whole in great gulping movements, dipping forward and throwing its head back to facilitate swallowing. Had the Tawny eagle killed the snake and abandoned it to the Secretarybird, or had the Secretarybird killed the snake and been temporarily robbed of it by the Tawny? Whatever the course of events, it was the Secretarybird that enjoyed the spoils in the end. Its meal complete, it stalked off in the regal manner of its kind. Amazing! The photos are not of very good quality due to our distance from the scene, but well worth looking at.
We drove on and came upon the waterhole at Polentswa in the late morning to find a group of fourteen Secretarybirds gathered together. These magnificent birds are classified as “near threatened” and this is the biggest group that we have seen in one spot.
They are very large birds, up to 150 cm in length and weighing up to 5,000 g. They are pale whitish-grey with a drooping, conspicuous crest of feathers that gives them their scholarly “secretary” appearance; the tips of their wings, tail, and thighs are black. The bare parts of their long legs are pinkish-grey and the orange patches around their eyes is quite striking. They are therefore easily recognizable and very unlikely to be confused with any other species. The sexes are alike, although the males have slightly larger crests that the females.
Secretarybirds are found throughout Africa south of the Sahara, except for the more thickly forested areas. Although they are uncommon through most of their range, they are conspicuous birds that are not easily overlooked. They are usually found in pairs or in small groups, but, as indicated in the second paragraph, they may gather in larger groups at waterholes, especially in arid regions. Although they can fly well, soaring to great heights, they are usually seen on the ground. They take off after a short run and when landing will also run a short distance with their wings spread wide.
While feeding they walk, nay, stride, slowly across the veld catching their prey on the ground. They may catch prey in their beaks, or, when hunting a larger rodent or a snake, they may stamp on the unfortunate creature with their feet. Smaller prey is swallowed whole. In spite of their reputation as snake-killers, they eat mainly insects, lizards rodents and the like, with snakes making up a very small proportion of their diet.
The Secretarybird is monogamous and the nest of is a large, flat platform of small sticks up to 2,5 m in diameter, with a central depression that may be lined with grass, usually located on the top of a thorn tree. The female lays a clutch of 1 to 3 while or pale blur-green eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 42 days.
They are mostly silent when away from their nests, but when roosting they utter a croaking korr-orr-orr.
The Secretarybird appears on the coat of arms of both the Sudan and South Africa.
The scientific name for the Secretarybird is Sagittarius serpentarius, Sagittarius from the Latin for an archer, perhaps referring to the fact that the “quills” dangling from the back of its head resemble a quiver of arrows and serpentarius from the Latin meaning pertaining to a snake, probably relating to the birds diet.