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The adventures of flying “Toad” the young Black Sparrowhawk

Soysambu Conservancy is an incredible place with every conceivable habitat squeezed into one small space. It is famous for its big buffalo. Walking with Toad I tried to estimate the numbers of encounters we had with buffalo. On day 7 of our test period I began to see a familiar pattern emerging in which she would fly off and soar about ignoring me and head for a group of buffalo. There she’d sit waiting for me to come to her and pick her up. It should be the other way around of course. I’m not good at statistics but after encountering buffalo everyday for a week - some far too close for comfort - I thought to complete 10 days and use this to measure the percent of potentially dangerous encounters.


While tramping desultory after her I was writing a “blog” in my head aimed at my falconer/rehab friends in the UK, Europe, USA. I thought to lean it towards the fantastic, but honestly I didn’t have to elaborate the truth. I cautiously tiptoed from one tree to the next skirting my way around grumpy buffalo trying to locate Toad by the sound of her bell. She’d be off “hunting” on her own and I would have absolutely nothing to do with it or the outcome. Life to her was a blast. It’s like having a teenager who has just been given wheels.


I had three days to go to complete the stats when behind me two massive buffalo stood up and spun around to face me before smashing their way through the thicket. One was a very large dagga boy whose horns spanned the length of my bed; the other was a less impressive cohort with part of his nose torn off by a lion. I knew these guys well but when they suddenly appeared out of nowhere some 3 meters from me my heart jumped so badly my feet sprang into action on their own shedding flip flops to the nearest tree. I was angry with Toad who then thought it would be fine to fly around the hill summit and give me yet another trek to get her back. Day 8 she flew 4km in a direct line chasing one group of guineafowl after another through the most dangerous country imaginable. Lava flow rocks and thicket…filled with guess what!


We made it to day 10 with 100% of all flights putting me in direct line of contact with buffalo. I spoiled the stats thereafter by using a car for a few days, not that it mattered because she’d still fly off to distant hills whose foothills were patrolled by buffalo…and lion. Not that the latter mattered.


On the 17th of January I decided to not fly her on the hills but to get her to fly to me a short distance for food. To get it into her fickle head that when I asked her to come to me the use of her wings made it easier than me having to use my legs. She did a few 5m jumps to my glove when we heard a scream. It was only some 50m away and I immediately thought it was a leopard taking one of the Dik-dik that live around the house. I ran to the spot just under my old tree house to see something I have never seen before. It was a caracal rolling over a kicking Dik-dik to get a firm windpipe grip on its throat. I took it all in paying attention to small details though it lasted just a few seconds. The bite was just below the jaw, the head twisted around to avoid the flailing sharp hooves. Everything about it was a leopard-type kill except in miniature. Unfortunately because I blundered into the scene she let go and ran…and Toad in a fit of madness took off after her! In seconds I lost the sound of her bell as she coursed through the forest after the caracal.

I put up a camera trap over the attempted kill. The Caracal returned at 18:53 hrs an hour and a half after she was rudely chased off her Dik-dik by Toad. We saw the Dik-dik again later that evening but remain unsure if he made it. (We since learned that he didn’t make it…dying about a week later in another attack. His wife and daughter joined my rear window Dik-dik family which consisted of one male and four females. After the rains came this group split up…with one female being killed by a leopard on the front glade at 5:30 PM. Dik-dik lives are precarious but we always respect their monogamous way of living.)


The Dik-dik was gurgling blood from his mouth and I raised his head to clear the airway. I thought the chances of the caracal coming back were very small so the plan was to move him to one of my warm sheds to recover. The dilated pupils narrowed as the blood ran from 4 neat holes around his windpipe. I thought he was going to shake and die but with a backward smack of his head his sharp horns hit me on the inside of my leg and off he went 5 paces. They are bigger and more formidable than you think so I didn’t try to hang onto him. He swayed, staggered and then, collecting himself, moved into the bush. The obvious hematoma under his throat was probably applying enough pressure on his punctured jugular to stop him bleeding to death.


I see caracal about twice a year and although I have seen them on kills (Guineafowl, Marsh Owl, White Stork and rodents) and found gazelle fawns killed by them I have never seen one in the act of killing prey. Soysambu yet again delivered this unique experience.


I wasted no time to race off after Toad. I heard her bell move again through the forest to the north, and I ran through the now very dry open undergrowth shouting her name. I was worried, for if she had closed the gap between the caracal and her…she would be killed immediately. I emerged on the northern end of the forest and saw her on Leopard ridge flying the updraft about 1.5km away. Then she flew high over me back into the forest. I ran back…this time through a family group of stunned buffalo.

Toad and I using the car. On this occasion she zoomed about after impala and then slope soared on half hill summit. An unusual very large Black Sparrowhawk that soars high (picture by Hollie Mgog).


I got back to the house and looked for help, and rustling up Mwanzia and James who had heard her on a hill kilometers away from the previous hill we raced off again. Now she was moving fast from one amusement to another, chasing Dik-dik, Plovers, Guineafowl and hoopoes completely disregarding me. Now remember Toad is an imprinted Black Sparrowhawk. She is learning on her own how to, and what to hunt. For ethical and legal reasons I make a point of not assisting. She is odd in that she soars high, because accipiters do not as a rule do so when trained. So she covers a lot of ground like a falcon. I also made a mistake of allowing her to train me. I, not her, would habitually close the gap to feed her. It makes sense in this terrain but it has consequences. She assumes I am a hawk and thus should be able to follow her wherever she goes. I have managed to do so thus far…but at some risk to my own life. She doesn’t understand that part, nor the fact that I suffer from a number of fractures that hurt more these days especially when I am unfit.

Toad aged 5 days after being flown in from Nanyuki by Alain after being rescued by Anne Marie Gordon after falling from a tree nest.


We found her of course and she plopped down on the lure panting after such a fun run over hills and dales and buffalo ridden forests. We all walked together with her feeding on the glove as evening gathered and noticed that the roosting baboons were barking at an unseen predator…perhaps a leopard or the lions. We were all exhausted…and shared that now rare camaraderie of running through very dangerous terrain and told embellished tales of Toad swooping down on everything she met and waggishly shook our heads at the strong likelihood that a large carnivore was behind us and buffalo were ahead of us.


It had been an eventful afternoon.


 

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