Ballerina of the Grassland!

Mar 08 2019
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The first light rays from the rising sun held a lot of promise. The clouds that had covered the skies for the past few days were slowly making way for clear skies. With an African Wild Cat sighting the previous morning, we sure had our hopes flying high as we drove out of the gates of Satara Rest Camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Sunrise brought a golden glow upon the grasslands. The glorious landscape, with vast open spaces and just a couple of trees, called for the first photographs of the morning.

Sunrise in Kruger National Park

Something caught my eye at the far right-hand corner of the tree. A bird with long legs and a crest, seemingly standing on a nest. For a moment, it seemed like a Crane on a tree (is that even possible?). With the body of an Eagle. Was that a Sagittarius?!

A bird’s silhouette emerges at the corner of the tree? Sagittarius?

I’ve always been intrigued by a few enigmatic birds. A one-of-its-kind raptor that strides the grassland, disturbing and stomping prey with long crane-like legs? With a crest to announce its regality? Of course, the Secretarybird had to be one of the top contenders on that list.

The graceful Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)

The Secretarybird is a bird-of-prey that is so different from all its relatives – eagles, buzzards, kites, old-world vultures, hawks and harriers – that it is placed in its own family – Sagittaridae. This raptor is widespread through most of sub-Saharan Africa where it strides majestically over grasslands and open savannahs. The bird spends most of the day on the ground and roosts in Acacia trees at night. It is a threatened species (listed as Vulnerable by IUCN). Like many grassland species, loss of habitat (due to conversion of natural grasslands for agriculture, residential and commercial development) and extreme weather due to climate change are the key reasons for declining numbers of this species.

With the sun ascending swiftly into the sky, the bird decided that it had warmed up enough and descended onto the ground. And almost immediately, a Black-backed Jackal took interest in it. What followed was beyond explanation. The jackal would try to sneak up on the Secretarybird, only to chased away in a very boisterous fashion. It would then try a different manoeuvre. Again the same result – chased away. And it would try again. And again. Yet again! What was the jackal trying to do?

Face-off between the Secretarybird and a feisty Black-backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas)

With the Secretarybird towering over it, the jackal didn’t seem to pose any threat to the bird. Was it trying to steal the bird’s prey? Or was it just play? Eventually, the Jackal gave up and moved on to find other quarry.

That was not the end of the curious events for the morning. The Secretarybird walked around the grassland, seemingly searching for breakfast. At one point, a stump sticking out of the ground caught its attention. And the ballet began!

Secretarybird begins its ballet

For the next 10 minutes or so, the bird jumped and flew all around this stump. All the while giving it sharp jabs with its long legs. The grass (and the distance) prevented us from being able to see the ground very clearly.

The ballerina of the grassland!

With one final high-jump, the bird finally quit the game. Was there something hiding below the stump? Or did the Secretarybird find the stump annoying? We’ll never know.

High jump!

And the Secretarybird walked away into the grassland. Leaving an excited and dumbfounded audience in its wake.

Exit Secretarybird

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