Bird in the Lens – Hamerkop

What happened to “Bird of the Week” ?

I was overly optimistic when I started a series of blogs titled “Bird of the Week” – what was meant to evolve into a weekly study of a specific bird species has seen me publish just two such blogs in the past few months. No excuses other than being too busy working, birding and blogging on other subjects that I felt compelled to get down in writing.

The caption I have now adopted is more flexible and I will be producing a series of similar “Bird in the Lens” blogs from time to time (now that’s vague enough not to be accused of misleading anyone). So here goes with the next species…….


Species Names

  • Hamerkop  (English and Afrikaans)      One of just two SA species with the same name in English and Afrikaans. (The other one? Bokmakierie) Sometimes translated to the English equivalent “Hammerhead” but no one I know uses that name
  • uThekwane, Uqhimgqoshe (Indigenous)
  • Hammerkopf(German)
  • Ombrette d’Afrique (French) – rather nice sounding name
  • Hamerkop  (Dutch)
  • Scopus Umbretta  (Scientific)   The beauty of scientific names is that they are common throughout the world no matter what country or the language spoken. The first part – Scopus – is the Genus which  is derived from the latin for “broom of twigs” – so named for the huge nest of twigs that the Hamerkop builds, up to 1,5m across  . The second part – Umbretta – is the species name which in this case means shade or shady, probably to describe its uniquely shaped crest, head and bill, which give it an umbrella-like appearance.

Where to find it

The Hamerkop is found right across Southern Africa with the exception of the very arid areas. Distribution is also widespread in the rest of Africa, but it is never common and always elicits a “hey look, there’s a Hamerkop” when seen.

My first sighting was in Kruger National Park in the late 1970’s, long before I took up birding seriously.

It is usually found near water and hunts at the water’s edge, sometimes venturing into the shallows to snatch its prey from the edge of the water. Prey is mostly toads whose distribution is very similar to the Hamerkop, suggesting that Hamerkops depend on toads for food.

The distribution map below is from SABAP2

SABAP Hamerkop


Look ……..  and Listen

There is very little chance of confusing this species with any other, although I have been misled once or twice by a Hadeda flying over at a distance. The anvil-shaped head and overall brown colouring are instantly recognisable as belonging to the Hamerkop.

This is a medium-sized bird, up to 56cm long and weighing up to 500g.

The call is not an identifier as it is mostly silent.

Punda Maria
Punda Maria


Not a difficult bird to photograph, once you have found one near water, as it will not move around much if engrossed in hunting for a frog or other small prey.

Photos taken from the low water bridge between Skukuza and Tshokwane in Kruger National Park :

Hamerkop, Bridge near Skukuza

Hamerkop, Bridge near Skukuza

Hamerkop, Bridge near Skukuza

Other Stuff

Conservation status is listed as “Not threatened”. Where many species are suffering due to habitat loss, the Hamerkop is actually benefiting from irrigation schemes in arid areas. This is a survivor amongst bird species. It also features prominently in indigenous folklore, is regarded in awe and is generally unmolested.

Lifespan is 20 years or more.

Nests are massive structures built up out of hundreds of sticks and when completed they are decorated with anything that comes to hand …….. or beak – from cattle manure to dish cloths. One of my colleagues had the nickname Hamerkop given to him by the office general assistant, apparently due to his habit of hoarding all kinds of things at his home.



Roberts Birds of Southern Africa

Birdlife International

Birds of Africa South of the Sahara

SABAP2 (Maps)

Latin for BIrdwatchers (Roger Lederer and Carol Burr)

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