Few people have heard of South Africa’s rarest bird – and even fewer have seen one. But Andre Botha hopes the tiny and enigmatic Taita falcon will continue to hunt from the skies of the Lowveld, despite its critically low numbers.
“I often ask birders what is South Africa’s rarest bird and they mention the wattled crane and the blue swallow,” explains Botha, the manager of the Birds of Prey Programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
“Few people know of the Taita falcon because it’s so rare, but there’s a lot more reason to worry about this bird species than some others.”
There are just 25 birds in South Africa “if we’re lucky”, says Botha, who has spent years monitoring the fragmented populations of the little-known species – and searching for more.
“We know so little about this species. The birds were first discovered in South Africa about 18 years ago. They live on these massively huge cliffs and they’re so tiny, it’s easy to miss them. They’re fast flyers that hunt on the wing. People just didn’t see them for what they were.”
Next month, Botha’s team embark on their annual survey, scouring cliff faces along the escarpment in Mpumalanga and Limpopo and even flying in with helicopters, if necessary, to spot nesting sites.
“The team will head to the known sites and look at a few spots where we think there is potential we might find more. But in essence, from what we know and what we’ve seen, 25 is probably a realistic assessment of how many birds there are… It’s never been an abundant species and we’ve cottoned on to it late.”
Historically, the species occurred in greater numbers along the Rift Valley.
“The South African population now seems to be the healthiest. Everywhere else where they occur are scattered, broken little populations throughout Africa, but in low numbers.
“The birds are sensitive to human disturbance and prefer to nest in remote areas that are inaccessible, which makes them quite difficult to study. They tend to live in cliffs and forage below in savannahs, but with the changes happening to these habitats, obviously their prey base is undermined.
“They’re small as falcons go and there are records that they’re killed and hunted by other falcons as well.”
This week the Endangered Wildlife Trust and Birdlife SA highlighted how bird species like the Taita falcon were disappearing, globally, at an alarming rate, because of human activities. Raptor conservationists will be recommending an endangered listing for the species next year.
Several South African bird species are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and some, like the wattled crane, of which about 250 remain in the wild, are close to extinction, with their wetland habitats destroyed by human activities.
The blue swallow, with around 50 pairs, has lost large parts of its range to afforestation. African penguin numbers have fallen 60 percent.
Botha is raising awareness of the Taita falcon’s plight. He says large parts of the Lowveld have been lost to agriculture, while an increase in air traffic and secondary poisoning from agricultural chemicals could be affecting the numbers of birds. Also, nest robbers may have targeted the species because of its rarity.
“But the fact they’re still there tells us they’re hanging on and are tougher than we think. The goal is to encourage landowners… to build an ecological awareness to benefit the species.
“We can’t change back natural habitats that have been lost. For us, the solution is to ensure there are natural habitats and try to maintain those.”