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The Western Banded Snake Eagle

The Western Banded Snake Eagle

The Western Banded Snake Eagle
The Western Banded Snake Eagle

This bird is common around Livingstone, mainly along the river, but also inland. As its name implies it exclusively eats snakes. It is frequently seen sitting motionless on top of a telegraph pole. I have often seen it flying along with a snake dangling from its talons, usually quite a small snake.

Unlike the Brown and the Black-breasted Snake Eagles, it does not spend a lot of time in the air – the Black-breasted is the one that hovers, looking for snakes on the ground below. The Western Banded sits quietly on its perch, sallying forth if it sees something. The prey is carried to a branch in a tree, where I’ve frequently seen it perched, tearing away at a snake with its sharp beak.

The beak in snake eagles is small by raptor standards, but strongly hooked. Another feature of snake eagles is their large heads, giving them an owl-like appearance. Their eyes are widely separated, giving them good stereoscopic vision.

The Western Banded Snake Eagle, Ciracaetus cinerascens is smaller than the other snake eagles, and a bit more stocky, not a soaring bird although it does go high in the sky during its display flight. It is dark and sombre in plumage, but with a distinctive white patch at the base of the tail. The other Banded Snake Eagle, the Southern, found on the eastern seaboard, differs in having a banded black-andwhite tail rather than a single white patch.

It is a noisy bird, giving a loud gamebird-like “quark” from the top of a tree, and it has an aerial display giving a series of calls “kwokwokwo kwark” which sounds almost like a farmyard. This display flight is sometimes interspersed with dramatic vertical stoops down to the canopy.

The nest is difficult to see, a standard nest of sticks hidden in the middle of a densely covered tree, usually but not always on the river bank. In July we saw a specimen at Bovu Island carrying a snake to its nest to feed its young, but we could not see what was going on since the nest was hidden in the branches of a mangosteen tree, which it uses every year.

Surprisingly it was making its display call as it flew. Later we heard the young calling from different places nearby, so concluded that the young had already left the nest.

Read more from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 06, Sept 2011)

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