The Taita Falcon is a small and highly specialised, bird-hunting raptor, which is sparsely and patchily distributed down the eastern side of sub-Saharan Africa. Named after the Taita Hills in Kenya, from where it was first described, the Taita Falcon is a rare and poorly known species, with an estimated global population of <500 pairs. In South Africa the species is regarded as one of the country’s rarest breeding birds and is listed as Critically Endangered in the newly revised Eskom Red Data Book of Birds.
In an effort to extend our knowledge of this species in southern Africa, BirdLife South Africa has registered the South African Taita Falcon Survey Team as the Species Guardian for the Taita Falcon, under the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme.
The Taita Falcon is a small, thickset falcon capable of powerful flight. It has dark upper parts, a whitish throat and cheeks, black moustachial stripes and rufous patches on its nape. They are usually found singly or in pairs, perching unobtrusively on cliff ledges or in small trees growing on the cliff face. It feeds almost exclusively on small birds, with all prey taken in flight. Its nest is a simple scrape on a sheltered ledge on a cliff face, often overlooking a river valley or woodland. Breeding success is generally poor, with estimates of its age of first breeding, length of incubation and capacity to re-lay after clutch failure suggesting that the reproductive potential of the species is quite low.
The Taita Falcon is considered uncommon to rare throughout its known global range in eastern and southern Africa. Records are patchy as their natural habitat can be difficult to access on a regular basis. Its small size and unobtrusive behaviour also means that it is frequently overlooked by observers, resulting in a poor understanding of its range, distribution and population.
It has been recorded from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana, with a small number of birds occurring on the Drakensberg escarpment in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces in South Africa. Fewer than 50 nest sites are actually known. Even in previously recognised areas of concentration, the species seems to occur irregularly, with territories prone to sudden abandonment.
Taita Falcons are largely restricted to well-wooded habitats, as well as mountains and incised river valleys where high, sheer rock faces are available as nesting and foraging sites. As such it is especially associated with gorges and escarpments, particularly while breeding.
Although the Taita Falcon’s rarity is thought to mainly be a consequence of its specialised habits, it could also be threatened by habitat loss through the clearing of woodland or the impoundment of major river systems, and poisoning by pesticides, perhaps especially where chemicals are sprayed to control numbers of queleas, one of the falcon’s major sources of food.
Tasked with extending our knowledge of this species, as well as its range and population in southern Africa, the South African Taita Falcon Survey Team has been conducting regular surveys of the Mpumalanga/Limpopo escarpment since 2006, and of the Batoka Gorge system downstream of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, since 2013.
The Survey Team currently consists of the following core members:
• Dr Andrew Jenkins
• Anthony van Zyl
• Lucia Rodrigues
• Dr Alan Kemp
The 2006 survey of the breeding population on the escarpment found four breeding pairs. In October 2008 the same area was surveyed again, and three new pairs were found, bringing the South African population to seven breeding pairs.
The 2010 survey took place early in December. The team recorded a single bird at one territory, saw no birds present at two territories, and recorded adult pairs in residence at another six sites. Of the six occupied territories, four bred successfully, producing nine young (five males and four females) in broods of 2-3 young each. At all sites the adult birds were present on or in the vicinity of their nest cliffs for much of the time observed, and hunted regularly in the airspace immediately in front of and below these cliffs.
A number of food deliveries (all of them small birds) to young at successful nests were observed. Incidents of interspecific aggression was also observed, all of which involved Taita Falcons diving at, and in some cases striking, passing raptors or crows of various species. One pair repelled incursion by both adult and juvenile Lanner Falcons Falco biarmicus in defence of their fledged brood of young.
The team regarded this as a very successful field season. It was particularly gratifying to observe ongoing occupation of four known territories, the location of a new nesting territory, as well as successful breeding at four sites. However, the ongoing deterioration of the Olifants River may account in part for the low productivity at sites located on this river and warrants close monitoring in the future.
All of the nine confirmed or possible Taita Falcon territories in the area were visited, as well as two additional cliffs. At two different territories the team recorded only a single bird. They observed no birds at another territory (which had apparently been taken over by Lanner Falcons Falco biarmicus), and recorded adult pairs in residence at six other sites. Of the five occupied territories, four bred successfully, producing eight young (four males and four females). These young birds were already flying when observed at three of the sites, and were just about to fledge at the fourth (suggesting a mid-September laying date at the latter site). Interspecific aggression between Taitas and Verreuax’s Eagles Aquila verreauxii, Brown Snake-Eagles Circaetus pectoralis and Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus were also observed.
Although it was disappointing to observe the loss of one of the known active territories, it was positive to observe the ongoing occupation of five known territories as well as successful breeding at four sites. The team was unable to add any new sites to the study.
The 2012 survey represents the sixth year of data collection on the Taita Falcon population. Of the eight regular sites that have been found and checked during the previous years, one was occupied by breeding Lanner Falcons, three of the sites only had a single Taita Falcon present, one site had a non-breeding pair on the cliff and the remaining three sites had breeding pairs. A potential new site where a single Taita Falcon had been previously recorded was occupied by a Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus instead.
The survey revealed that of the eight known Taita Falcon pairs in South Africa, over half are either missing one member of the pair or have disappeared entirely. This may be cause for concern, however, as the survey took place at the end of the breeding season it may be that individuals may wander and not be observed at the breeding cliffs. It is interesting to note that the most successful breeding Taita Falcon pairs are those in the most remote areas. It could be that increased settlement and development along the Blyde River Canyon edges could potentially favour the other larger and more competitive falcons.
Early in December 2013 the survey team embarked on their seventh annual survey of the Mpumalanga/Limpopo escarpment. The results were not that encouraging. Two known sites appeared to be permanently vacant, three held only single birds, two held pairs that failed to breed in 2013, and only two territories featured actively breeding pairs, with a total of only five chicks raised to near-fledging age. While it is probably premature to start panicking about the long-term survival of this population – we could just be seeing a short-term fluctuation in numbers coincident with temporary changes in local conditions – nonetheless, these numbers are concerning.
Coupled with the apparent absence of Taita Falcons at Victoria Falls, the continuing downward slide of the South African population has given us pause for thought. Is the plight of South Africa’s rarest breeding falcon more dire than we had originally thought, or is it a species naturally prone to colonising an area and then fading away in response to changes in some as yet unknown environmental variable? Either way, our recent findings suggest that the need to learn more about the nature of the Taita Falcon, its global status, and the factors controlling its strangely patchy distribution, is even more urgent.
In 2013 the survey team travelled to the Batoka Gorges in Zimbabwe to clarify the current status of the Taita Falcon in the area. The survey included all the breeding cliffs identified in the gorge system over the last 50-odd years. Although the survey located numerous pairs of Peregrine Falcon, Lanner Falcon, Augur Buzzard and Verreaux’s Eagle, not a single Taita Falcon was observed. It is too early to base a conclusion on these results alone, but all indications are that Batoka is no longer a stronghold for this species. A possible reason for this may be the declining water quality of the Zambesi River and its knock-on effects on insect abundance and consequent populations of martins, swallows and swifts, thought to be important prey for Taitas in this habitat. It is hoped that a return visit to the gorges in 2014 will elucidate the matter.
The Taita Falcon was uplisted to Critically Endangered in South Africa in 2014. If you wish to make a donation to BirdLife South Africa and the South African Taita Falcon Survey Team's research efforts to determine the global well-being and status of Taita Falcon in southern Africa, please go to http://birdlifesouthafrica.givengain.org and click on “Projects”, “Taita Falcon” and “Donations”. For alternative ways to make a donation please contact Linda van den Heever at firstname.lastname@example.org or +27 (0)11 789 1122.
The surveys are made possible through the generous support of Palabora Copper.