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Birding with Nico Myburgh

From Issue No 5

The Black Harrier: Fynbos raptor

 

Text by Maré Mouton

 

In the 1930s the Black Harrier (Circus maurus) was a common resident in the Stanford area, often seen hovering over the shortish fynbos where it bred. Then the rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) and other aliens started invading the area, and by the 1950s there were no Black Harriers left.

“They will only breed in fynbos that’s less than a metre high,” explains Mr Nico Myburgh (79) of Onrus, doyen of South African bird photographers and a man who has been studying this particular bird virtually all his life. Mr Myburgh first farmed at Faure, and from 1970 served as curator of the Helderberg Nature Reserve for 18 years.

“Then, in the mid-1960s, County Fair chose the flat area southeast of Stanford to build chicken farms. The cool air moving through the trough there meant that they would not need air-conditioning for the chickens. Because of the rooikrans, however, they found that the air was moving over the vegetation, too high to be of any benefit. They started clearing the rooikrans, and soon the Harriers returned,” Mr Myburgh recounts. “Langley Roberts, now over 90 and widely respected for his lifelong study of the Black Harrier, found three nests, each with three eggs in them, in the area where the first buildings were to be erected. Eventually we approached Brian Brown, Chairman of County Fair, and Peter Steyn, well-known birding expert. Luckily the contractor had other work to continue with nearby, and County Fair agreed to delay the construction of their farms until all the chicks had hatched!”

When Mr Myburgh started working in the Helderberg, there were no Black Harriers in the area. The bird would venture as far as the Hottentots Holland Mountain, but no amount of coaxing could get it over the mountain. Eventually a single breeding female settled in the reserve for one nesting season, raised her chicks, and then left, never to return.

She once was involved in a bloody fight with a Steppe Buzzard, and afterwards bathed in a pond to clean herself. Black Harriers are fond of bathing, Mr Myburgh says.

With the shrinking of the bird’s natural habitat in the Overberg Strandveld, it moved further up the West Coast, and was observed breeding as far north as Nieuwoudtville. Sightings of these birds in the Karoo are, however, of seasonal migrants – Mr Myburgh is convinced that they only breed in the coastal and montane fynbos. They have been seen nesting in wheat stubble fields, but then lost their nests when the land was ploughed.

The Black Harrier is the only bird of prey that nests on the ground. The young (usually three) leave the nest after three weeks and move about in “funk tunnels”, where the mother finds them by sound. It takes another three weeks before the chicks can fly.

The Black Harrier also relies on his acute hearing to locate prey while it hovers low over the fynbos. One of its Afrikaans names, Swart Paddavanger (“black frog eater”) is a misnomer, as its diet consists of mice, rats, moles, and even finches, doves and long-tailed sugarbirds – but no frogs. It is unusual in that both the male and female may feed the fledglings. The Black Harrier cleans food on a “plucking perch” about 80 metres from its nest before taking it to his young. The pile of feathers – sometimes enough to stuff a pillow – around this perch is a useful indicator for locating the nest.

Now Mr Myburgh observes a Black Harrier slowly patrolling along the mountain at Onrus. “They are definitely back – I hope to stay."

 

A Black Harrier in flight, with its distinctive banded tail

A Black Harrier in flight, with its distinctive banded tail

A Black Harrier on a plucking perch near its nest

A Black Harrier on a plucking perch near its nest

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