Tag Archives: Secretarybird

The day of the mouse!

You don’t have to spend very long in a game reserve or park to realize that it a very treacherous environment for the four-legged, two-legged and even the legless inhabitants. With very few exceptions, almost every animal or bird or reptile is on some other animal’s or bird’s or reptile’s menu. Take the mouse as an example.


Recently we spent four days in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a wonderful experience (except for the state of the roads – corrugations to test the strength of the cement anchoring your dental fillings). The larger animals are, as always, the dramatic drawcard, but we noticed that mice are also fairly common and several times we watched them feeding in the branches of shrubs at the side of the road or scurrying about in the sparse vegetation.

In quick succession, though, we were exposed to the dangers that these little rodents face throughout their lives. First we happened upon a Pale chanting goshawk perched on a dead branch quite near the road, feeding on a mouse or rat. He (or she) took just a minute or two to rip the rodent into pieces and bolt these down with hardly a pause.

Southern pale chanting goshawk Southern pale chanting goshawk

We moved on and quite soon stopped to watch a Secretarybird hunting. He (or she) pounced forward and stamped his (or her) feet enthusiastically on something that was hidden from us in the long grass. He (or she) stooped and came up with a mouse, holding it rather daintily in his (or her) bill. The little rodent was swallowed quickly in one piece and there was nothing dainty about that.

Secretarybird Secretarybird

On we drove, and literally within minutes spotted a Black-headed heron in the dry scrubland. We stopped to watch as we are far more accustomed to seeing these large birds at rivers and dams, but there were no rivers or dams anywhere near this spot. We had seen a Black-headed heron at a small artificial waterhole a little earlier and had idly wondered what it found there to feed on. The bird we stopped to watch in the arid scrub had caught a Striped mouse, and within a few seconds had swallowed it whole. One second the mouse was in the heron’s bill (presumable dead), and the next it was gone. Well, not entirely, for just another second the short end of its tale hung from the heron’s bill. Then it was gone.

Black-headed heron Black-headed heron

Three mice taken by three different species of birds within just a few hours, and just within our limited view. What is the daily total within the vast area of the whole park?

Each time we look at the mice we photographed during that visit to Kgalagadi we wonder where they are now…



Bird of the week – Week 18 : Secretarybird

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.