The Taita falcon is not the most elegant bird you’ll ever see. It definitely won’t be the easiest sighting either. These small turbo-charged raptors don’t fly slow enough to be easily watched, and their numbers are vanishingly small. But there is a place you might spot them – with help.

Did you know?

The Taita falcon gets its name from the Taita Hills in south-western Kenya, where it also lives.

Taita falcons are just this side of being the unicorns of the bird world. There may be fewer than 50 in South Africa, and, soberingly, this reflects the situation in the rest of their range in Africa.

The Taita falcon (Falco fasciinucha) competes with the blue swallow and the wattled crane to be the rarest bird in South Africa – and wins claws down. There are fewer than 10 known nests in the country.

The fact that it is tiny, nests high up on massive cliff faces and flies at astonishing speeds just adds to its near-mythical status.

Its historic stronghold has long been the length of the Rift Valley and the Batoka Gorge between Zimbabwe and Kenya, but Taita falcons are very sensitive to human disturbance. This and the possible effects of habitat change from savannah to agriculture, with attendant chemicals, may account for the dramatic drop in population.

Their main prey is other birds, which they hawk from the cliff faces, but they also catch insects.

Finding them takes inordinate patience and sharp eyes, but insiders will tell you the best chance of seeing them is at the JG Strijdom Tunnel near Hoedspruit and the Kruger National Park, in Limpopo province. Even then, the chances are slim. They slide through the air like blurs, but you may only recognise them because unlike most raptors, they’re built more like Vin Diesel than Viggo Mortensen.

BirdLife describes the Taita falcon as a dumpy, muscular bird with a short tail and powerful flight. Not much bigger than a turtle dove, this pocket-sized raptor flies as if it were turbo-charged. If it were a plane, it would be a Pitts Special.

Fortunately, help in sighting them is at hand. Michael Kumako sells curios at the JG Strijdom Tunnel, and he has been trained and equipped with a spotting scope by the Inkwazi Bird Club. Michael is the unofficial guardian of this famous nesting pair and if you want to see them, he’s your man.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Taita Falcon Birding Guide
Michael Kumako
Tel: +27 (0) 79 261 1559

André Botha
EWT Birds of Prey Working Group
Tel: +27 (0) 82 962 5725
Email: andreb@ewt.org.za

How to get here

The closest airport to the most visible nest at the JG Strijdom Tunnel is at Hoedspruit. From Hoedspruit, take the R531 towards Lydenburg. After about 35km, you will pass through the JG Strijdom Tunnel. Once through the tunnel, follow the road as it bends to the right. There is a waterfall on your right. Pull into the first lay-bye as the road straightens, and call bird guide Michael Kumako.

Best time to visit

The falcons can be found throughout the year, but it's easier to see them in the early morning.

What will it cost

Michael charges approx R200 per couple.

What to pack

If you have a birding scope, bring it, but Michael Kumako does have one if you don't.

Where to stay

Hoedspruit or Lydenburg would be the most convenient.