Chanting With Goshawks

A dark chanting goshawk perches on a short bush, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

One of the species I was hoping to see in Africa this spring was the pale chanting goshawk. I got lucky in that I not only saw a few of them, but was also rewarded with a beautiful sighting of a dark chanting goshawk as well.

The chanting goshawks get their name due to their tune-like “whistling” calls primarily during breeding season. At this time the males are rather vocal, and their calls resemble a kind of chant.

A pale chanting goshawk perches on a sturdy branch, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

Dark chanting goshawks prefer a habitat of open woodlands, while the pale species frequent open grasslands and more arid climates. Dark chanting goshawks have a sub-Saharan range, but are replaced by pale chanting goshawks in the south. Parts of Namibia fall in both species distributions, where you can see both in a single day.

Each pale chanting goshawk I saw was perched rather high up, either near the top of a tree of in one case a power pole. However, I lucked out with the dark chanting goshawk because it was perched on a low bush, putting it directly at lens height.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Southern Masked Weaver

A non-breeding male lacks the black face and beak of a male in breeding colors, Windhoek, Namibia.

On my very first morning in Namibia, I woke early to photograph any song birds that happened to visit the garden of the bed and breakfast in which I was staying. I was quickly rewarded with sightings of both male and female southern masked weavers. In general, female birds are usually harder to identify than males, which tend to display more color and distinct markings. This identification was made more difficult by the fact that even the male that I saw was in non-breeding colors, looking much more like the female.

A non-breeding male lacks the black face and beak of a male in breeding colors, Windhoek, Namibia.

The first two photos here are of a male, while the last is a female. Although the male’s colors are similar to the female, it is distinguished by its red eye. In breeding season, the male has a black face and beak (giving the species its name), looking very different.

A female southern masked weaver lacks the black face of the male, Windhoek, Namibia.

These weavers did not hang around for long. I had a total of about 30 seconds with the male (which is why cameras with high frame rates are vital with bird photography!). The female perched for a few brief seconds before she was off to the next spot.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

An Early Ooty Morning

A red-whickered bulbul perches on a berry busy in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

There was a chill in the air as I walked down the four flights of stairs to the garden below. Then I remembered that I was close to 8,000 feet of elevation, which also explained my slight shortness of breath. I was in the hill station of Ooty, a mountain top town surrounded by tea plantations. My friend Frans Xavier generously offered to play host to his home state of Tamil Nadu, India for a few days, and this was our first stop on the way from Coimbatore to Mudumalai National Park. We had flown into Coimbatore the day before where we met Frans’ good college friend Frank. This was truly the best way for me to see such a beautiful part of India, with two locals showing me the way!

A female house sparrow eats a grub from the ground in the early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

But of course day one saw me up at dawn, anxious to see which birds I could photograph before we hit the road later that morning. At first I spied one of my regular usual suspects, the house sparrow. Here is a female in the grass, just pulling a fat grub from the earth. I suppose this was the epitome of the “early bird!”

Unfortunately, what was once a common species throughout India, the house sparrow is rapidly disappearing, due most likely to urbanization. It is the typical story we see over and over in this planet’s wild places – loss of habitat.

A red-whickered bulbul perches on a berry busy in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

I slowly wound my way through the garden, which was terraced – carved into the side of a steep hill. My journey was very quiet until I got to the very bottom, at which point the manicured garden met the thick, wild forest. It was alive with bird song, monkey calls, and other unidentified animal sounds that could only be attributed to the beasts of my imagination. At this point, I struck gold (at least from a bird photographer’s perspective). I was eye level with the tops of several bushes, thick with red-whiskered bulbuls.

Two red-whiskered bulbuls perch on a berry bush in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

I had photographed this bird on two occasions in a trip to India last year, but this was by far the most I had seen at once. From my position, it was difficult to move as I was perched on the side of a very steep hill. Any time I tried to move closer to the birds, I ended up underneath them, as I dropped in elevation. So I was pretty much stuck at a fixed distance from the bushes, which fortunately was close enough.

A pied bush chat perches on a branch in early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

In addition to the bulbul clan, I found a couple of male pied bush chats (a new species for me), flitting up and down the hill. These guys proved to be more skittish than the bulbuls, most likely because they weren’t busy gorging themselves with berries.

A pied bush chat perches on a branch in early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

After about half an hour, the birds were clearing out and the world around me was stirring. I was happy with my haul – an excellent start to wonderful trip.

Recent Publication – Bay Nature October 2016

Image of a California Condor in Pinnacles National Park used for an article about the rehabilitation and release of Condors.

Run to your local news stand and grab the current issue of Bay Nature. There is an article on California Condors that features one of my photos taken of a condor in Pinnacles National Park. This is a popular release point for these birds bred in rehabilitation centers, and the rocky area has proven a successful wild breeding area. As there are less than 300 of these birds in the wild, each is given a wing tag with a unique tracking number, and a radio transmitter.

A California Condor perches on a branch in front of a rock wall, Pinnacles National Park

The condor feature in my photo had a wing tag of number 340, which allowed me not only identify this as a male, but also get some detailed information about the bird’s history from the National Park Service:

Upon arrival at the Pinnacles flight pen, 340 was by far the most active and aggressive juvenile. Perhaps he was aware of his distinction in being the first chick produced by the Oregon Zoo, where he hatched on 5/9/04. As a culturally significant species to the Wasco tribe, the honor of naming 340 was given to Chief Nelson Wallulutum, who named him Kun-Wac-Shun, meaning Thunder and Lightning.

After his release at Pinnacles in 2005, 340 started to expand his range and quickly ascended the dominance hierarchy. He is outfitted with a GPS tag and has taken flight within 50 miles of the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge condor release site. His continued exploratory flights make him valued within the flock for his ability to lead others to new areas. During the winter of 2013, he began courting Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) condor 444. Unfortunately, 444 died due to lead poisoning in the summer of 2014. As a high ranking male, 340 found a new mate in VWS condor 236 and they are currently nesting within park boundaries, raising their chick, 828.

It is an honor to view and photograph these gigantic and extremely rare birds.