a Black-breasted Snake Eagle scarfing down a Cape Cobra on the wing in South Africa

Our Observation of the Week is this sequence of photos depicting a Black-breasted Snake Eagle scarfing down a Cape Cobra on the wing! Seen in South Africa by @happyasacupcake.

When I look through faved observations to find the Observation of the Day and see a photo capturing a cool behavior or interaction, odds are good the photo was taken by Copper, who goes by happyasacupcake on iNaturalist. And when I saw the above photo and the rest of the series, I just had to choose it.

“Kgalagadi [Transfrontier Park] is one of our favourite game parks, especially for the raptors,” explains Copper.

We noticed the snake eagle with the cobra as it flew up from the ground. We were lucky beyond belief in that it didn’t fly away, but flew slow circles over a clear area close to the road. Every time it flew towards us I took more shots. When I look at the time it took to take the photographs, I can’t believe it was only three minutes. It was so exciting and so charged! We knew this was the sighting of a lifetime.

While it seems kind of inconceivable, this behavior is pretty standard for black-breasted snake eagles. They do prey mainly on snakes but will take lizards and other small vertebrates. Like many other raptors, they dive swiftly and grab their prey with sharp talons, which are protected with thick scales. After crushing or tearing off the snake’s head, these eagles do often swallow the animal whole while in flight.

In this case the prey was a cape cobra, a diurnal serpent equipped with powerful venom. It hunts a variety of small vertebrates and its habit of hanging out near buildings does mean that people and Cape Cobras do run into each other. In addition to snake eagles, honey badgers, meerkats and and secretary birds will also hunt the cape cobra.

When I asked Copper how he was able get so many amazing behavioral photos (check out his most-faved observations for some examples), he told me “I’m on the lookout for them all the time, that is when I learn the most,” and advised:

  • “Patience is key. Usually the animals have to settle down from your intrusion before being themselves again.”
  • “Always being ready to take a shot. You never know when a raptor is going to do something amazing.”
  • “[Go with] a buddy with the same interests. I don’t mean nature broadly, but birds, or snakes, or scorpions.”

He expands on that last tip by saying “I have read lots of tales of woe of plant enthusiasts trying to make observations when they are with reptile enthusiasts.”

While he was always interested in nature, Copper says it was retirement and a move which allowed him the opportunity to start exploring and photographing it.  “I spent decades with my nose pinned to a computer screen working on spreadsheets, accounts and maps,” he recalls. “When we retired, we moved to a conservancy close to Kruger National Park and found a whole new world on our doorstep just waiting for us…Birds will probably always be my first love. But I became more interested in insects and spiders when I saw the amazing observations on iNat. One day in April I decided to take a walk around the house and do my best to photograph every small creature I saw. I couldn’t believe how many different, fascinating things I saw. I am well and truly hooked.

There is no question that iNat has changed the way I interact with the natural world. I find that now instead of just assessing whether something is ‘pretty’ or not, I’m much more inclined to stop and watch. I have much more respect for the natural world…There is nothing scientific about what I do, I just have a love of nature which iNat has flamed into an obsession! I now get triple enjoyment from the things I see, firstly the sighting, then working through the photos, and finally, sharing the observation with people who are interested. I value the identifications, the information available, and the fact that in some small way I may be helping.



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