The Secretarybird is a charismatic and familiar species, and uses a variety of habitats across its range in sub-Saharan Africa. It occurs in all nine provinces in South Africa. The Secretarybird is assigned to its own family, Sagittariidae – an endemic African family found nowhere else on earth.

The Secretarybird is easy to identify; it has long legs, grey-black plumage, crest feathers and orange facial skin. In flight its long elongated central tail feathers are characteristic.

Conservation Status of Secretarybird

The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) was uplisted from Near-threatened to Vulnerable. In South Africa there is considerable concern about the conservation status of the species. A preliminary analysis of SABAP1 and SABAP2 data shows a considerable reduction in the areas this species previously occupied. This is probably mostly due to habitat loss and habitat degredation, but other threats such as power lines collisions are also taking their toll.

How you can help to conserve Secretarybirds

Seen a Secretarybird nest?

Log your Secretarybird sightings on BirdLasser

Biology

Biology

The Secretarybird is a charismatic and familiar species, and uses a variety of open habitats across its range in sub-Saharan Africa. It occurs in all nine provinces in South Africa. The Secretarybird is assigned to its own family, Sagittariidae – an endemic African family found nowhere else on earth.

The Secretarybird is easy to identify; it has long legs, grey-black plumage, crest feathers and orange facial skin. In flight its long elongated central tail feathers are characteristic.

The Secretarybird is an effective hunter, striding across the landscape in search of prey which when sighted are usually stunned or killed with a series of rapid and accurate kicks with a force up to five times the mass of the bird itself. Their diet consists mainly of arthropods including locusts, beetles and spiders (87%), rodents (3.9%), lizards (3.3%), birds (1.8%) and despite being well known for their ability to kill snakes, these only make up a small proportion of their regular diet (1%).

Breeding can take place at anytime of the year but appears to be linked to rainfall. Nests are constructed as large, flat stick structures in the tops of flat thorn trees or dense bushes approximately 3-6 m above the ground. Broods can have up to three chicks and in a good year both parents will be able to fledge all three individuals.

Threats

Threats

The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) was uplisted from Near-threatened to Vulnerable in 2011.

In South Africa there is considerable concern about the conservation status of the species. A preliminary analysis of SABAP1 and SABAP2 data shows a considerable reduction in the areas this species previously occupied.

In Botswana a recent road count survey showed that in just a few decades the counts for the sepcies had reduced by 78% (Garbett et al. 2018).

Secretarybirds face a numerous range of threats the biggest of which is undoubtedly habitat loss through the degradation of natural areas and conversion of areas into agricultural properties or human settlements. A number of fatalities have been recorded from collisions with power infrastructure and fence lines as well.

Birds also face risks from collisions with motor vehicles, drowning in farm dams and secondary poisoning by consuming poisoned prey.

Conservation & Research

Conservation & Research

BirdLife South Africa initiated research on the Secretarybird in 2011 under the guidance of Ernst Retief and Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson in order to understand aspects of the species biology which could assist with its conservation. This research included tracking the movements of Secretarybirds using GPS-GSM solar-powered tracking devices. With these devices, the movement of individual birds was determined in great detail. These devices provide accurate locations to within 10 m every 15 minutes from sunrise to sunset. Not only is it possible to determine long distance movement patterns, but also habitat use and territory size.

Dr Melissa Whitecross took over the project at the start of 2018 and analysed the large tracking dataset into a publication titled ‘Dispersal dynamics of juvenile Secretarybirds Sagittarius serpentarius in southern Africa’ which was published in Ostrich in 2019. This paper illustrates the vast distances which juvenile Secretarybirds are able to travel and provided the first evidence of the age of first breeding through a bird called Taemane.

BirdLife South Africa has set up a citizen science project with two objectives. The first is to monitor sightings of Secretarybirds around South Africa as part of the Bird of the Year 2019 initiative using the app BirdLasser. The second is a breeding database where citizen scientists can submit sightings of breeding Secretarybirds. We encourage everyone to contribute to these valuable datasets.

Current Project Status

Melissa Whitecross, Ernst Retief and Hanneline Smit-Robinson are using the tracking data to investigate fine-scale habitat use by the dispersing Secretarybirds. From this, habitat management guidelines will be produced and sent out to relevant land owners.

The tracking aspect of the project continues with the addition of a KZN bird near Besters that was fitted with a tracking unit in February 2019. This bird is called Kwezi, you can read more about her below.

If you would like to donate towards the purchasing of a tracking device please email melissa.whitecross@birdlife.org.za. Devices cost R10 000 each.

Tracked Birds - Find out more about the tracked birds below:

Kwezi means “Morning Star” and was named in honour of a young girl who sadly lost her life in an accident on the day that we tagged this Secretarybird. The girl was a friend of the Cumming Family who own the farm on which Kwezi’s nest is built.

Dr Melissa Whitecross, with assistance from Craig Nattrass, Caroline Howes, Sakhile Mtalane and Carina Coetzer, lifted the young Secretarybird from its nest and fitted the solar-charged Iridium Biolog tracker to its back using a harness made of Spectra. The tracking device will provide us with half-hour locations as Kwezi grows up and we hope to follow her for a long time to come.

See below for Kwezi’s latest movements.

Nest Site (Photo: Jan Griesel)

About Spyker
A nest was discovered by farm workers on the farm Spingfontein (also known as Garingboom Guest Farm) in January 2012. The owners of the farm, Jan and Riette Griesel, who are avid bird watchers and conservationists, informed the National Museum in Bloemfontein about his nest. Spyker and his/her sibling hatched in January 2012 and their growth was closely monitored by Dawie de Swart, the ornithologist at the National Museum.

For more information about Garingboom Guest Farm click here.

Spyker

Sponsor
The tracking device was sponsored by OFM Radio. For more info about OFM Radio click here. OFM Radio gave Spyker his/her name!

Tracking Device
The tracking device was fitted on 22 March 2012. Spyker was then roughly 8 weeks old and weighed 3.5kg. On the right hand side is a photo of the nest.

Map of Spyker’s Movements
Spyker left the nest for the first time on 10 April 2012 and moved about 10kms per day in an easterly direction. We unfortunately have not received any data since 9 June 2012. The map below indicated Spyker’s movement until we received its last position.

BliNG

About BLiNG

We learnt about the nest site through Arnaud Le Roux, who is the Conservation Manager at Sondela Nature Reserve. Arnaud closely monitored the nest site before we attached the device to BLiNG. Sondela provided us with fantastic support.

For more information about Sondela click here.

Sponsor
The tracking device was sponsored by BirdLife Northern Gauteng, a bird club based in Pretoria. For more info about the club click here.

Tracking Device
The tracking device was fitted in January 2013 to an immature bird at Sondela Nature Reserve near Bela-Bela in the Limpopo Province. The event was filmed and broadcast on the SABC’s 50/50 environmental programme on 25 February 2013. BirdLife South Africa also funded a cameratrap that was placed near the nest site in order to monitor the nest. Below are some of the photos of the birds at the nest.

Map of BLiNG’s Movements
Below is a map showing the location and movement of BLiNG since it left its natal area.

After leaving its natal area, BLiNG moved almost directly to Botswana, more than 250 km away. It spent quite a few days just north of Gaborone sleeping each night at a new locality. BLiNG then moved north all the way to the Magadigadi Pans before moving south to the last position indicated on the map. Unfortunately cell reception in this area in Botswana is not so good and as the data are downloaded through the cell network, positions are only received intermittently.

Taemane

About Taemane
Hermie Swart informed BirdLife South Africa about the location of a nest site on his farm not far from Warden in the Free State. It was a typical nest, and located on the top of a small tree and very well hidden (see photo to the below).

Sponsor
The tracking device was sponsored by De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited. They gave he bird the name Taemane which means “diamond” in Setswana and SeSotho.

Tracking Device
The tracking device was attached to Taemane in February 2013. The tracking device is smaller than the one previously used for Spyker, weighing only 38 grams. The photo below show the tracking device being fitted to Taemane.

Map of Taemane’s Movements
Below is a map showing the location and movement of Taemane.

Taemane left the natal area for the first time on 30 July 2013. This was about 3 months and 3 weeks after Taemane first left the nest. As shown on the map Taemane first moved to the neighbouring farm, then to a location east of Warden, then east of Bethlehem. On 3 August 2013 Taemane was in an area between Bethlehem and Kestell.

Taemane left Bethlehem and moved back north to Warden before moving south all the way to the KwaZulu-Natal coast. After a few days it moved north again and settled in and area to the east of Ixopo. Within this area it forages in the relatively small grassland patches between plantations.

Current Project Status

Melissa Whitecross, Ernst Retief and Hanneline Smit-Robinson are using the tracking data to investigate fine-scale habitat use by the dispersing Secretarybirds. From this, habitat management guidelines will be produced and sent out to relevant land owners.

The tracking aspect of the project continues with the addition of a KZN bird near Besters that was fitted with a tracking unit in February 2019. This bird is called Kwezi.

If you would like to donate towards the purchasing of a tracking device please email melissa.whitecross@birdlife.org.za. Devices cost R10 000 each.

Thank you to our partners and sponsors
Petra Diamonds (Blue Diamond Mines) is Species Champions for Secretarybird conservation in South Africa.