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.

Pel’s Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli)

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There are very few birds that bring more excitement when spotted by a birder for the first time than the Pel’s Fishing Owl. You can sense the anticipation as you slowly and quietly approach a possible roosting spot trying your best to not step on any dry leaves or twigs that might alarm the birds while not taking your eyes of the roosting tree in case it takes off. We recently had the fortunate encounter with a wonderful  individual on Impalila Island in the far Eastern Caprivi or Zambezi region of Namibia.

This very large ginger-coloured owl is between 60 and 64cm tall and can weight around 2.4kg with a streaked or spotted breast. Their most striking feature is their huge black eyes that stare down at you with a look of annoyance when you have found them at their day-time roost which is usually in a big, dense tree closer to the water. They are found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa but is patchily distributed as they are only found in Riverine Forest/Woodland around lakes or slow-moving rivers. The Pel’s Fishing Owl is always a highlight and big attraction on our Nature Travel Birding’s Namibia, Botswana and Zambia Birding Safari.