Raptors rule the skies. Birders love them for their sheer power, telltale features and seemingly effortless soaring.
African fish eagle
Where you’ll find it: Sunset Dam, Kruger National Park
The African fish eagle hunts by gliding over the water and snatching fish that come up to the surface to feed. The sight of one of these birds swooping down to lift a fish clean out of the water is one you won’t easily forget. Sunset Dam is a great spot to look for these raptors. You can park right at the water’s edge and because the dam is home to crocs and hippos, there’s no chance you’ll get bored. Despite the name, Sunset Dam is worth visiting any time of day, though it is particularly beautiful when the sky turns to red.
How to ID it: The white head and breast, chestnut underparts and black wings make identifying an adult of the species a cinch. Young birds aren’t quite so easy; they start out mottled brown and white, only getting their adult plumage around 4-5 years of age. If in doubt, listen for the bird’s iconic call – the sound of Africa.
Did you know? This eagle can lift fish of up to 2kg out of the water!
Where you’ll find it: Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve
This large, powerful eagle is synonymous with mountains, so where better to view it than among South Africa’s most spectacular peaks, the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg. Giant’s Castle has a purpose-built hide that overlooks a vulture restaurant where animal carcasses attract birds of prey. The hide is situated high up on the slope, perfect for enjoying stunning mountain vistas and sightings of the Verreaux’s eagle. Time in the hide must be booked in advance on 036 353 3718.
How to ID it: This raptor was previously known as the black eagle, which gives you a clue to its distinctive appearance. Adults are jet black with a telltale V on the back. The large size makes it easy to pick out.
Did you know? Verreaux’s eagle feeds mainly on dassies – this rodent makes up 90% of its prey!
Where you’ll find it: Golden Gate Highlands National Park
This raptor is only found in the towering mountains that separate the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho. Our choice for seeing it is Golden Gate, where the honey-coloured sandstone the mountains perfectly match the bird’s amber and russet underparts. The park has a bird hide and vulture restaurant so visitors can enjoy close sightings.
How to ID it: The bearded vulture has an unmistakable black face mask and a bristly beard of feathers (hence the name). It has very dark wings with reddish-gold head, breast and legs.
Did you know? Another name for the bearded vulture is lammergeyer, since these birds were believed to feed on lambs. In fact, they eat carrion – bits of meat, skin and bone that other birds can’t feed on.
Where you’ll find it: Marakele National Park
With a colony of around 800 breeding pairs, making it one of the largest in the world, Marakele is a stronghold for the endangered Cape vulture. To view vultures soar high above the Waterberg, follow Lenong Drive to the Sentech Towers on top of the massif. Once you’ve seen these birds ride the thermals, you’ll never think of these scavengers as ugly and ungainly again.
How to ID it: The overall impression is of large, pale vulture with a bluish head. In flight the dark primary feathers are visible, giving it a top-deck appearance.
Did you know? Cape vultures have massive wingspans, some 250cm, which enable them to harness rising air currents effectively.
Where you’ll find it: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
You won’t have to stay awake at night to see this owl – the pearl-spotted owlet is often seen during the day. Visitors to the Kgalagadi know to look for it in trees, its perch often revealed by a series of ‘tu-tu-tu-tu-tu-tu teeeu-teeeu-teeeu’ whistles. Pairs like to duet and there is something amazingly soothing about being in the bush with the pearl-spotted owlet as soundtrack.
How to ID it: It’s all in the name: the pearl-spotted owlet is covered in white dots. And at no bigger than 18cm, the bird’s diminutive stature puts it in a class of its own. It might be confused with the African barred owlet, which is slightly bigger, but their ranges don’t overlap in the Kgalagadi.
Did you know? This owl has two large black spots surrounded by white feathers that make it seem as if it has eyes on the back of the head.