Bearded Vulture

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In 455 BC the Greek playwright Aeschylus could not shake the feeling that he was going to die. A prophecy had warned him of falling objects, so he was spending most of his time outside. Unfortunately, a large bird (now believed to have been a Bearded Vulture) mistook his smooth bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it! Aeschylus died instantly, and it’s unclear if the vulture ever got his dinner.

The globally near-threatened Bearded Vulture is an unmistakable bird, with black ‘sideburns’ (or beard), red rings around the eyes (a feature only shared with some parrots) and a long wedge-shaped tail. It also has black wings, with the rest of the head, neck and body a rich rusty orange. This is because Bearded Vultures rub themselves with iron oxides. Soil and mud stained with iron oxide give the bird this fiery appearance. Theories to explain this feather staining range from dominance behaviour to parasite control. It could even be purely cosmetic, or might be for camouflage. They apply the dirt with their claws and then preen for about an hour to ensure a bright orange glow. They are also attracted to other red things, like leaves and red wood. Captive birds also partake in this behaviour, which suggests the activity is instinctual, not learned.

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The Bearded Vulture is sparsely distributed across a considerable range. It may be found in mountainous regions from Europe through much of Asia and Africa, including in the Alps, Pyrenees, Caucasus, Altai, Himalayas, Atlas and Ethiopian highlands. There is also an isolated population in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa and Lesotho. It requires large open areas with little or low vegetation, and that is not continually covered with snow. It relies on thermals and wind for gliding flight, but to a much lesser extent than most other vultures. It has been observed gliding in the Himalayas at more than 8000m (26000ft) above sea level!

Unlike the myth, Bearded Vultures do not hunt live prey, and even avoid meat. Up to 90 % of the diet of the Bearded Vulture consists of bleached carcass bones, the only bird with this peculiar eating preference. The bird is capable of swallowing and digesting bones the size of a sheep’s vertebrae. If bones are too big, they are dropped onto rocks from a height of up to 100 meters, to shatter them. This unique eating habit makes Bearded Vultures an essential part of the ecosystem. Besides bones, they also eat small lizards, hares and tortoises, also dropping them onto rocks from a height. The acid concentration of the Bearded Vulture’s stomach has been estimated to be of pH about 1 and large bones will be digested in 24 hours, aided by slow mixing/churning of the stomach content. The high fat content of bone marrow makes the net energy value of bone almost as good as that of muscle, even if bone is less completely digested.

Bearded Vultures live in mountainous areas, often above the tree line. Because of the many animals that do not survive the winter, carcass supply is greatest in winter. Therefore, this is the time when Bearded Vultures breed, and chicks hatch in about two months. Bearded Vultures usually lay two eggs, but only the strongest one survives. After hatching the young spend about 4 months in the nest before fledging. The young may be dependent on the parents for up to 2 years, forcing the parents to nest in alternate years on a regular basis. Wild Bearded Vultures have a lifespan of about 20 years, but have been observed to live for up to at least 45 years in captivity.

Fewer than 10,000 pairs exist in the wild worldwide. Declines today are usually due to poisons left out for carnivores, habitat degradation, the disturbances of nests, reduced food supplies and collisions with power lines. They were formerly persecuted in significant numbers because people feared (obviously without justification) that it regularly carried off children and domestic animals!

For a chance to see this impressive and interesting bird, along with many others, join us on a Nature Travel Birding tour. We offer tailor-made private and small group birding tours across the globe, including to many countries that the Bearded Vulture can be found in. For more information, go to www.naturetravelbirding.com or get in touch by sending your query to info@naturetravelbirding.com

Stresemann’s Bushcrow

Here at Nature Travel Birding we love interesting birds. Whether it’s one that can mimic others in order to confuse predators, or one that has a dazzling courtship display, or one that can achieve incredible feats of endurance or strength, we love interesting birds. The Stresemann’s Bushcrow certainly fits in the category of interesting!
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Only discovered in 1938 and initially taxonomically moved from family to family, the species name was assigned in commemoration of the influential German ornithologist, Erwin Stresemann. It is also less commonly known as the Abyssinian Pie. As its name suggests, the species is assumed to be a member of the crow family Corvidae, but this has been widely debated in ornithological circles since the species’ first description.

Currently it sits in its own unique genus with genetic analysis revealing its evolutionary history to be more related to that of the Asian Ground Jays. It is an unmistakable pale grey crow-like medium-sized bird, with a striking black tail and black wings and bright azure-blue around the eyes.

Its evolutionary history is interesting in itself, but the explanation of its range restriction (the species is endemic to central-southern Ethiopia, in a very small area in Sidamo Province), with vast areas of seemingly suitable, unoccupied habitat existing directly adjacent to the species tight range, is nothing short of remarkable. Recent studies suggest that its current area of occupancy is delimited by a climate envelope that harbours a cooler, dryer and more seasonal climate than its surrounding area, but no one knows for sure. The bushcrows prefer flat, open-grass savanna with mature acacia and thornbush stands, with the greatest densities of birds where there are large stands of acacias close to grazing pasture or cultivated fields.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, the Stresemann’s Bushcrows appear unspecialised in their diet and rely heavily on traditional Borana pastoral rangeland for their survival. Their diet consists almost entirely of invertebrates, particularly insects, including larvae and pupae. They forage on the ground, strutting about alone, in pairs or in parties of five or six individuals. They sometimes dig vigorously in the soil, and have also been seen extricating prey from wood in the manner of woodpeckers. Increases in agricultural land, intensification of grazing regimes and a growing human population throughout its range have led to changes in land cover and subsequently to the degradation of the rangeland it depends on.

The Stresemann’s Bushcrow’s breeding usually starts in March, with the birds building their nest high in an acacia tree. The birds usually lay five to six cream eggs with lilac blotches. The nest itself is globular in shape with a tubular entrance on top. It is possible that more than just the breeding pair visit the nest and that the young of previous years help in rearing the new young.

There are currently thought to be only 9000 breeding pairs of these amazing birds left, and the species is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

For a chance to see these interesting birds and many others, come join us on a Nature Travel Birding tour to the incredible African country of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the most incredible birding destinations in Africa with over 860 species recorded which is about 9.5% of the world’s and 39% of Africa’s birds. For more information, visit www.naturetravelbirding.com or enquire directly at info@naturetravelbirding.com.

Crimson-rumped Toucanet

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The Crimson-rumped Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus haematopygus) is a species of bird in the Ramphastidae family. It is not the only species of Aulacorhynchus toucanet whose rump is red – but it is the only red-rumped member of the genus in northern South America; because of this, it is unlikely to be confused with any other members in its genus.

Its beautiful plumage is overall green (often faintly tinged blue), except for a maroon-red rump and tail-tip. The bill is black and maroon with a white band at the base.

Crimson-rumped Toucanets are fairly common in lowland premontane to montane evergreen forest and secondary growth, also in forest edges and dense thickets, and sometimes in isolated fruit trees in pastures and gardens. It occurs from southwestern Venezuela south to southwestern Ecuador.

It is a noisy, inquisitive, social bird; this species is usually found in pairs or small groups foraging for fruits, palm nuts, invertebrates, bird eggs, small vertebrate and other prey in the forest canopy.

Breeding is usually from January to May, with much singing, calling and chasing until a pair is established at the start of breeding. In most cases the nest is in an old woodpecker hole with rotted wood excavated out. The female does much of the incubating, but the nest is kept clean by both parents. The young develop slowly, with fledging only at 7 weeks. The young probably return to roost with their parents, and may stay together until the next breeding season.

Crimson-rumped Toucanets are fairly common in Ecuador, and you can join us on one of our Nature Travel Birding trips to see these cartoon-like coloured birds and many others in this fascinating South American country.

For more information, go to www.naturetravelbirding.com or enquire directly at info@naturetravelbirding.com

Choco Toucan

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The Choco Toucan (Ramphastos brevis) is a large(although among the smallest Ramphastos toucans), predominantly black bird with a striking yellow and black beak, a yellow bib, white uppertail coverts, red undertail coverts and green ocular skin.

It is considered a “Choco” endemic, found in the humid Pacific lowlands and lower foothills of southwest Colombia and northwest Ecuador. It generally inhabits lowland forest and also forest on lower Andean slopes, as well as adjacent pastures with fruiting trees or plantations.

It overlaps almost completely with the nearly identical Chestnut-mandibled Toucan (Ramphastos swainsoni), and is best separated by its slightly smaller size, its black, as opposed to “chestnut” lower mandible, and most-importantly voice. The Choco Toucan gives a series of croaking “grrrack…grrrack….grrrack….grrrack”  calls, placing it firmly in the so-called “croaking group” of larger toucans, rather than the “yelping group”.

They are often found foraging in fruiting trees in the forest canopy in small groups of 2 to 5 individuals, eating mainly fruits, but also insects and small vertebrates. They have been recorded following raiding army ants, presumably for the animal prey they disturb.

In aviculture, their requirements of spacious cages and a high-fruit diet, and their sensitivity to hemochromatosis (iron-storage disease), make them difficult to maintain for novice keepers.

This beautiful toucan and many other colourful neotropical birds can be seen on a Nature Travel Birding trip to the wonderful South American countries of Colombia, Peru or Ecuador. Contact us at info@naturetravelbirding.com or visit us on www.naturetravelbirding.com for more information.

Bird of the Week: Snowy Owl

Perhaps there is no other bird that better represents the Arctic wilderness and the season of winter than the enigmatic Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus.
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When one thinks of Snowy Owls, one immediately envisions a large ‘snow’ white owl with penetrating yellow eyes. While it is true that Snowy Owls possess extensive white plumage, all degrees of black barring exist with only adult males being pure white, while female/immature birds have extensive black barring.
The Snowy Owl is an inhabitant of the treeless tundra across the northern hemisphere, breeding further north than any other owl, though Short-eared Owls do breed on the tundra as well, but are not permanent residents. It is superbly adapted to this harsh environment with many adults remaining in the Arctic even during the darkness and bitterness of winter.
Though the birds preferred habitat is the tundra, they irruptively, but regularly, migrate south of the boreal forest to habitats that superficially resemble the tundra such as the prairies, beaches, farm fields and even airports of the United States and Canada. While they are known to hunt from the ground, in more southerly locations birds can be found loafing on fence posts, telephone poles, barns and even farm equipment.
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Wherever they reside, these owls are excellent hunters, hunting 24-hours a day and specializing in rodents, particularly lemmings in the Arctic, but any number of rodents further south, even resorting to rabbits, hares, and squirrels. Birds that winter near coastlines will hunt ducks, even out in the open ocean, using buoys as hunting platforms! Even though this is the heaviest owl in North America, it is very agile and can even catch small passerines mid-flight!
During the brief Arctic summer, the males perform elaborate courtship displays involving rising high into the air holding prey and then descending to the waiting female where he then lowers his head and fans his tail, presenting her with a token of affection, namely a lemming.
Nesting on the ground, Snowy Owls are known for highly variable clutch sizes with up to 11 eggs. Survival of the chicks is highly dependent on the lemming population during that particular summer.
Whereas most owls are notoriously difficult to observe, photogenic Snowy Owls provide birders with excellent views and stunning photographic opportunities. Please join a future Nature Travel Birding trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where over-wintering densities of Snowy Owl are routinely higher than anywhere else outside of the Arctic!
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Secretarybird

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This unmistakeable, unique, long-legged, mostly ground-dwelling raptor with possibly the coolest scientific name (Sagittarius serpentarius, meaning “of snakes) was announced recently as Birdlife South Africa’s Bird of the Year for 2019.
Appearing as if it is the offspring of an eagle and a crane, its English name is thought to be derived from the Arabic saqr-et-tair, which means “hunter bird”. Although they can fly, the prefer to stay on the ground, sometimes walking up to 30 kilometres (18 miles) a day!
It is quite a special sight to see one of these uncommon birds purposefully striding in the open grassland savannas of Africa, overpowering and eating anything from insects, lizards, small mammals, birds and of course snakes. Interestingly, despite its fearsome snake-killing reputation, snakes actually don’t make up a large proportion of the Secretarybird’s diet.
Secretarybirds build large flat nests in the tops of thorn trees or dense bushes and breed year-round. The female does most of the incubation and is fed by the male during this time. A clutch usually contains one to three eggs. Siblings do not show any aggression to each other and if conditions are good it is likely that all of the chicks will fledge successfully. Both adults feed the chicks by regurgitating prey stored in their crops while hunting.

Endemic to Africa, these amazing birds are most easily seen in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa, the Serengeti in Tanzania, Awash in Ethiopia and the Masai Mara in Kenya.
Secretarybirds are indeed special, and with populations rapidly declining and their habitat severely threatened, it is imperative that we try our best to save these charismatic birds.

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Join us on a Nature Travel Birding trip in Africa to see these fascinating “snake-killers” in action!
Enquire by sending us an e-mail at info@naturetravelbirding.com or visit www.naturetravelbirding.com for more information.

Green-breasted Pitta

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If one had to draw up a list of iconic birds to see on the African continent, the Green-breasted Pitta Pitta reichenowi would almost certainly be very high up on that list.

Like most of the other Pittas, it is a brilliantly coloured terrestrial bird with a rainbow of colours to show off. That is, if you can find it! It is a very shy and skulking species and rarely seen or photographed.

It is one of only two Pitta species in Africa, and is found in deep, dense, moist forests of the tropics from western Cameroon to southern Uganda and to central DRC. Pittas in Africa are almost impossible to find when not in display, but Kibale in Uganda has been a fairly reliable spot for some time now.

Interestingly, some authors have considered the Green-breasted Pitta conspecific with African Pitta Pitta angolensis on the basis of apparent intermediate birds from Cameroon and southern Congo and more recently southeastern Nigeria, resulting in a postulated hybrid zone extending from southeastern Nigeria to southern Congo.

The Green-breasted Pitta’s diet consists of mostly insects, including hairless caterpillars, beetles and beetle larvae, termites, small millipedes and small centipedes.

It probably breeds in most months of the year, laying 2 to 3 eggs in a fairly large, domed nest about 2 metres above the ground on a horizontal trunk or branch of a tree. The nest is built from a few large twigs and tough dead creeper stems interwoven with large mass of dead and skeletonized leaves.

 

Wallcreeper

A bird many enthusiasts want to add to their European or Asian or World Lists is the very elusive Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria, a small passerine bird found throughout the high mountains of Eurasia from southern Europe to central China. The genus name Tichodroma comes from the Ancient Greek teikhos “wall”, and dromos “runner”.

Its plumage is primarily dull blue-grey but its most striking plumage feature is its extraordinarily bright crimson wings. It is easy to see why its alternative name is the Red-winged Wall Creeper.
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It prefers rocky regions, typically including steep, rugged cliffs and boulder-strewn slopes, and damp, shady gorges in mountains. In some areas in winter it may even be found in quarries and sea cliffs, also earth and clay banks and even city buildings. It is surprisingly difficult to spot on rock faces, as many birders can attest to!
It is the only member of both the genus Tichodroma and the family Tichodromidae. There is some disagreement among ornithologists as to where the wallcreeper belongs in the taxonomic order. Initially it was placed along with the treecreepers, while others believe it is very closely related to the nuthatches.
The female wallcreeper builds a cup nest of grass, plant fibres and moss, sheltered deep in a rock crevice, hole or cave. The nest is lined with softer materials, often including feathers, hair or wool, and typically has two entrances. The female usually lays three to five eggs and incubates them for about 19 days until they hatch. During incubation, she is regularly fed by her mate. Both parents feed the nestlings for a period of 28–30 days, until the young birds fledge.

The Wallcreeper is an insectivore, feeding on terrestrial invertebrates (damselflies, spiders, crickets, beetles, woodlice, centipedes, ants, bees and others) gleaned from rock faces. It usually forages alone and progresses mainly with short, jerky hops, sometimes with sidling, creeping and walking on vertical surfaces sometimes makes upward leap accompanied by single rapid wingbeat. It occasionally also takes prey in flight.

Join us on a Nature Travel Birding trip to Spain, India or China to see this rare and elusive, but very special red-winged bird.

Ibisbill

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“Unique” is an overused word these days, but, as a descriptor for the Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii), it is surely appropriate. It is a bird related to the waders, and in the same order as sandpipers and plovers, but still sufficiently distinctive to merit its very own family Ibidorhynchidae. The species is named in honour of Dr Struthers of Glasgow who collected specimens of the bird from the Himalayas in the 19th century.
It is a strikingly unmistakable wader; grey with a white belly, red legs and long down-curved brown to crimson bill, and a black face and black breast band.
It occurs on the stony shingle riverbanks of the high plateau of central Asia and the Himalayas, all the way from Kazakhstan to China, at an elevation of 1500 to 4400 metres (5000 and 14400 feet) above sea level. It occupies the same habitat in winter, but at lower altitudes, being an altitudinal migrant. The river valleys frequented by the Ibisbill tend to have very little vegetation and gentle slopes to ensure a slow flow of water. It must live near slow-flowing water in order to feed, limiting its habitat despite having a very large range.
They are generally not shy of humans. They are good swimmers and prefer crossing rivers by swimming instead of flying. Ibisbills are vocal birds and produce a ringing ‘klew klew’ call.
The Ibisbill is a monogamous breeder. The nest is located on a riverbank, river island or surrounding peninsula and is little more than a scrape on the ground, sometimes lined with small pebbles. Eggs are laid in the end of April and the beginning of May. The clutch size varies from two to four eggs. They behave similar to lapwings around the nest site, defending it quite vocally. Both parents share incubation duties.
It feeds on land and water invertebrates including mayfly larvae, stoneflies, beetles and crustaceans. It forages by pecking, probing and raking, usually while wading in water roughly reaching up its belly. It will also eat fish and insects such as grasshoppers.
Due to their striking appearance, distinctive taxonomy, solitary nature, the high elevations and special habitats where they live as well as their relative rarity, they are highly sought after by birders who often consider this species to be a “most wanted” bird.
Join us on a Nature Travel Birding trip to India for a chance to see this unique bird.

Chestnut-banded Plover: Namibia’s Special Plover

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It is Africa’s smallest and palest Plover and with a total population estimated at 18 000 individuals, the Chestnut-banded Plover (Charadrius pallidus) is one of the birding specials in Namibia. The chestnut breast band is diagnostic in adults with the juveniles only sporting an incomplete grey band. Adult birds are only about 15cm in length and they are easily overlooked unless moving.

Their habitat consists of Salt Pans (of which the Etosha Pan in northern Namibia is a massive example), soda lakes (East Africa), estuaries and coastal wetlands. In Namibia they are found on the Etosha Salt Pan when wet but the Walvis Bay coastal lagoon is home to the majority of the world population and in fact one of the reasons why this wetland is considered a RAMSAR site in terms of water bird habitat protection. They are a sought after bird on our Namibia Endemic and Namibia, Botswana and Zambia birding safaris.