When we returned to our Mossel Bay home recently we were once again thrilled to find the Cape Weavers (Ploceus capensis/ Kaapse wewer) working diligently at building nests right outside our upper floor living area. It was a repeat of the scene of a year ago, which I featured in a post at the time (https://wordpress.com/post/mostlybirding.com/10946)
They are a source of entertainment from dawn to dusk and leave me feeling quite exhausted just watching their frenetic activity as they build one nest after another, hoping to impress the female weaver who “pops in” for an inspection at fairly regular intervals.
We have had up to four male weavers nest-building at a time and currently there are at least two vying for the attention of the female, whose arrival is greeted by a display by the anxious males, who hang below their best nest and display.
The display is nicely described by Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa as follows :
Once nest initiated, male displays at nest by ruffling feathers, shivering partly spread wings, swivelling body and singing. If female enters territory, male displays either hanging below nest or perched alongside; may also pluck leaves from near nest. If female enters nest, male responds with high-intensity wheezing song, either while hanging below nest or during circular display flight. Female apparently tests nest strength by pulling at material inside nest, then, once male leaves nest entrance, sits in nest chamber looking out of entrance; chases off male if he approaches at this stage
The images I took of one of the males show some of the above behaviour
The male will even get upside down in order to impress the female …
My last post (“Birds on the Beach”) highlighted one of Southern Africa’s most iconic birds, the African Penguin. This time the spotlight falls on another iconic species, this one being about as far removed from penguins as it is possible to imagine. Not that I had intended to write about this species at this juncture, but it drew attention to itself in ways that I simply could not ignore…..
Here’s how it happened –
I was on an atlasing trip out of Mossel Bay, which I try and do once a week, and was heading along a minor gravel road north-west of the town. After many years I have found that the most efficient way of atlasing (recording species in a defined area called a pentad) requires a combination of very slow driving, with windows open to pick up bird calls, combined with regular stops to get out of the car and scan the habitat all around.
Just as an aside, the ‘window open’ part had already paid huge dividends when I picked up a call which sounded warbler-like, emanating from roadside bush. I stopped and got out to listen carefully and when the bird carried on its warble I recorded it on my Iphone, knowing that it would probably not show itself and I would have to ID it on call alone.
This was fortunate as I realised that it could be a Marsh Warbler, considered a rarity in the Western Cape, which I duly reported to the SA Rare Bird News along with my recording. It was confirmed by Trevor Hardaker who runs the news service and he included it in that evening’s emailed report.
Anyway, back to the main theme of the post –
At one of my stops next to a wide field, I noticed a lone male Common Ostrich on the far side and, as I did so, he began trotting in determined fashion towards where I was standing alongside my SUV.
‘Hello’, I thought, ‘this could be interesting’ – but my camera was in the car and the ostrich was approaching quickly so I grabbed my phone, set it to video and started filming. Halfway across the field the ostrich stopped and called, a deep booming call that has been likened to that of a lion in the distance.
Turn your sound up to maximum to hear the call….
The ostrich continued coming towards me until it was just a few metres away, then suddenly went down onto its haunches and performed its courtship display, swinging its neck from side to side with wings spread wide. At that stage I was glad of the fence separating us – who knows what he might get up to next!
Still not satisfied that he had attracted my attention, it seems, the ostrich came even closer, just a metre or two from where I stood amazed, with just a flimsy fence separating us, and once again performed the courtship display.
This is when I believe the ostrich started having second thoughts about my suitability as a partner and he went behind the bushes for a minute or so then reappeared, giving me the once over and, I imagined, showing signs of mild doubt, even confusion as he eyed me from behind the bushes. That final tail flip is very telling…
I decided not to confuse the misguided bird any further and drove on….
However, I couldn’t help wondering about this strange encounter for the next day or two and came up with a few possibilities to explain it –
It was a very short-sighted ostrich
It was very lonely in that field all on its own
It was trying to prove its ‘wildness’ so that I might be persuaded to add it to my records for the pentad list*
* This last one probably needs some explanation for those not familiar with atlasing protocols and the status of the Common Ostrich in the southern Cape. Ostriches in this part of South Africa have been farmed for well over 100 years and most ostriches encountered are in fact of the ‘domesticated’ type, although not distinguishable from ‘wild’ ostriches which are generally only found in game and nature reserves. Atlasing protocols allow for recording of ‘free flying’ birds only which translates to ‘wild’ birds in the case of ostriches which of course are flightless, so none of the ostriches in the farming areas will be eligible.
Oh, and there’s one more possibility – perhaps I look more like a female ostrich than I had previously imagined….. Here’s a recent photo of me to let you decide
Now these are not just any old birds on any old beach that I’m referring to, both the birds and their beach habitat are – well – very special and wonderfully unique.
Let’s start with the beach …….
Boulders Beach is a small beach at Simon’s Town, which lies on the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula, some 40 kms south of central Cape Town. For many years it was a little known, ‘out of the way’ beach favoured by couples and young families seeking a quiet spot to spend a day, Perfect for a picnic and safe for the kids to paddle and swim, with hardly a wave in sight due to the protective ring of large boulders which all but shut out the sea’s power.
Growing up in Cape Town, I can recall the occasional trip from our home in the suburbs, via bus and train, to Simon’s Town to spend a day at Seaforth beach, which adjoins Boulders beach. Later in my student years, I ‘graduated’ to joining my elder brother and his family in a leisurely day at Boulders itself.
I left Cape Town in 1970 to pursue my career ‘up north’ (actually my future wife played a major role in that decision, but don’t let on to her) and Boulders beach gradually drifted from my memory, until much later……
Some 12 years later, two breeding pairs of African Penguins decided that the beach would be a good place to settle, probably influenced by the availability of fish in nearby waters
From just two breeding pairs in 1982, the penguin colony has grown to about 3,000 birds in recent years. This is partly due to the prohibition of commercial pelagic trawling in False Bay, which has increased the supply of pilchards and anchovy, which form part of the penguins’ diet. (Ref : Wikipedia)
Since those first two pairs settled there, Boulders has gone from an obscure swimming beach to one of Cape Town’s best known tourist attractions and now forms part of the Table Mountain National Park
We had a reason to travel to Cape Town in January last year and decided to use the accommodation that we were going to use in March 2020 but which we had to cancel when Covid 19 and the subsequent lockdown changed all our lives. The B&B sits high up on a hill overlooking Simon’s Town with sweeping views of the town, the naval dockyard and False Bay beyond and turned out to be an excellent choice.
With the ‘business’ part of our trip done and dusted, we thought about what to do with the rest of our stay in Simon’s Town and first on my list was Boulders beach which we had last visited many years ago.
The thing with Penguins is that most people know what they look like from films and images, adverts and the like – they are just so endearing and marketable. But Penguins tend to choose remote spots to breed and live, often on islands, so relatively few people get the chance to see them in real life, outside of zoos that is.
Which makes Boulders a perfect choice for anyone wanting to see these birds in their natural habitat. After gaining entry with my Wild Card I walked along the boardwalk which snakes its way down to the beach, with a platform at the bottom for viewing the beach and nesting area.
Looking back from the upper part of the boardwalk, the view across the bay is quite striking
Once you are past the densely vegetated dunes, the first of the penguins comes into view, quite relaxed and unperturbed by human presence. Not the smallest or the largest penguins in the world, they would reach to about your knee height when standing. (Incidentally, we saw the smallest penguin, called a Little Penguin – obviously – during a visit to Philip Island near Melbourne Australia – the subject of a post a few years ago – https://wordpress.com/post/mostlybirding.com/8353 )
At various points on the boardwalk, information boards are placed with interesting facts about the colony and the habits of the African Penguins
Once you get to the lower viewing platform, you can see some of the residents of the colony – those not involved in breeding activities will be out in the deep sea looking for food, so what you see here is a small part of the colony
I took a few shots of some of the penguins in their burrows, only realising when I edited the photos and lightened up the shadows that I had captured a glimpse of an egg under one penguin’s belly.
There was constant movement of penguins to and from the sea – such a comical sight as they waddle towards the water but once in they are in their element, swimming swiftly and soon disappearing from sight.
I couldn’t help thinking of an elderly yet elegant gent tentatively going for a swim in cold water as I watched one penguin entering the sea…..
As the one penguin swam off, more entered the water
A little bit more…
The African Penguin is the only penguin that breeds in Africa and is restricted to the coastline and seas of Southern Africa. Penguin numbers fell from over a million pairs a hundred years ago, to just 18,000 pairs today so they are justly classified as Endangered.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s egg collecting and guano scraping (which I can remember being taught about at school with not a hint of criticism, such was the relaxed attitude to conservation in those days) caused havoc with the survival of penguins. Nowadays the decline in availability of fish due to overfishing is the major cause of the further downward trend
Their ‘wings’ are in reality efficient flippers for swimming at speeds up to 20 km/h – which may not sound that fast but they would easily beat any Olympic swimmer you can think of – and they can dive to depths of 130m while holding their breath for an average 2,5 minutes, when feeding.
Their black and white colouring aids in camouflaging them from predators, both from above (black back blending in with dark sea for predators looking down) and below (white front melding with light skies for predators looking up).
These unique aquatic birds are certainly deserving of conservation – hats off to Birdlife South Africa for being at the forefront of penguin conservation efforts.
Table Mountain National Park information boards at Boulders
African Birdlife Magazine September/October 2021, published by Birdlife SA
At the end of a memorable year which has left many of us with a somewhat negative feeling about 2021 and hopeful for a better experience in 2022, it seemed appropriate to write about something which holds promise for the future. and what is more promising than the sight of an iconic bird in breeding mode.
We were recently privileged to view a Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus (Bloukraanvoel) on its nest, something we have never seen before and our short ‘stay’ with this National Bird of South Africa was truly uplifting.
It happened purely by chance, as is often the case with special bird sightings, and only a few days into our latest stay in Mossel Bay over the December/January summer ‘season’
We had travelled to Plettenberg Bay from our Mossel Bay home (both part of the famous Garden Route of South Africa and some 150 kms distance from each other) to follow up on a sighting of a rarity that had been located at the Keurbooms River Estuary (more about that in a future post) and were on the road from the estuary back to the N2 National Road for our return trip home.
Gerda spotted a bird in a field and I duly stopped on the quiet road to see what it was. A car going in the opposite direction had also stopped almost alongside us and I wondered if they were also birding, whereupon one of the occupants got out and told us “There’s a Blue Crane on a nest if you are interested” and proceeded with a description of where we could find it. I didn’t pick it all up but thanked him and we set off in search of the spot he had described.
Fortunately between Gerda and myself we had understood enough of this thoughtful birder’s directions to find our way to the road along the Bitou River just outside Plett (which is how most South Africans refer to this Popular town) and after carefully scanning the river and vleis for a few kms we came to the spot he had described, with a pair of Blue Cranes in attendance a short distance from the road.
One was clearly on a nest and this was confirmed moments later when he/she stood up so that we could see at least one egg, which turned into two when I later studied the photos.
The other Blue Crane was a short distance away in shallow vlei water, seemingly keeping an eye on the situation. According to Roberts VII the male and female spend almost equal amounts of time incubating the eggs over a period of around 30 days.
We had no way of knowing how long they had been incubating so it’s impossible to say when they may hatch – perhaps we will travel that way in a couple of weeks time and see if there has been a change in status.
Blue Cranes form monogamous pairs when breeding and are well known for their spectacular pairing and courtship displays, which we were fortunate to witness some time ago and which I featured in an earlier post – a couple of the images from that post are repeated below
My last post for 2021 comes with best wishes for a peaceful and healthy New Year
Observing birds going about their daily business is often fascinating – when that business involves raising youngsters it becomes really special.
We were treated to a very special “show” during the late winter / early spring months of August and September this year while resident in our Mossel Bay home, which started with a casual comment from our neighbour (a non-birder who happens to be our brother-in-law).
My journal chronicles it as follows :
Day 1 : (1st August 2021)
Brother-in-law – let’s call him Tienie (mainly because that’s his name) – posed a question “what’s that bird in the garden with the long tail that likes the Protea bushes ?”. Well, there weren’t too many options so I surmised immediately that he was talking about the Cape Sugarbirds that frequent our garden almost year round.
So I eagerly followed up with “why do you ask?” and it turned out he had noticed a nest in one of the Protea bushes in his garden, with said Sugarbird in attendance and when he investigated further he was able to spot what he thought were “two fluffy babies” in the nest. My guess is that the chicks had been born in the last day or so.
Tienie’s comment had sparked my interest more than he could realise, even though he knows I am a keen birder, and Gerda and I commenced a daily check from our bedroom balcony, which has a good view of the Protea bush in his garden.
The nest was quite well concealed among the stems and leaves and it was not always easy to pick up details, so I started by doing a recce from Tienie’s garden, carefully approaching the bush on foot to confirm for myself that there were chicks in the nest.
The only evidence I could pick up was an adult female apparently feeding the chicks which I could not see, while the adult male stayed in the vicinity, occasionally going to the nest himself.
We continued to monitor their progress at various times during the following days, but had to interrupt our observations as we had booked a trip to Franschhoek from 6 to 11 August, after which we resumed keeping an eye on the activities around the nest.
I was thrilled to see that the chicks were preparing to fledge as they were clearly visible in the nest and spent time perched on top of the nest, presumably working up the courage to explore the world around them.
Both adults were never very far from the nest, venturing out to forage for something and taking turns to feed the chicks, whose appetite had by now increased exponentially.
As I had suspected, the chicks had fledged and the great news was that they had chosen to spend their day in the trees right in front of our enclosed braai room which is almost level with the canopy of the trees, so we had the best views of the two young Sugarbirds.
They were still being fed by both adults and were moving about now and again, but chose to spend most of their time on a small but sturdy branch, as the wind was strong and was testing their ability to balance themselves to the utmost.
The fledglings were getting stronger by the day and starting to lose their “baby fluff” but had no tail to speak of and were still dependant on the adults for food
They hung around for another day or two and soon we were not able to find them at all, so presumed they had moved elsewhere in the vicinity. We didn’t spot them again until –
What a nice surprise to find one of the youngsters feeding itself on a Protea flower in our front garden, its tail now well developed and the young bird now confident and strong, which it displayed by flying quickly and directly from one bush to the other with none of the hesitancy of an inexperienced bird.
It was a real privilege to see these Sugarbirds develop from new-born chicks to their juvenile independence and to be able to observe them at such close quarters
There are numbers of migrant birds to southern Africa that herald the start of the Austral (Southern Hemisphere) summer from September each year, but two stand out as the icons of summer’s arrival and become the subject of excited messages on the various birding chat groups as they are spotted or heard for the first time in the early summer months
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica (Europese Swael)
One is the Barn Swallow, which has become the best-known of the migrant swallows, certainly because it outnumbers the others, is highly visible and occurs virtually across southern Africa.
A staggering, estimated 20 to 40 million “Barnies” (as they are known to birders who like nicknames) migrate to Africa from western Europe and another 40 to 80 million from eastern Europe and Asia annually on their southward migration, many of which end up in southern Africa.
In southern Africa, during the summer months, they can be found just about anywhere outside the built up areas of cities, preferring moister, open areas such as grassland, pastures, cultivated fields and vleis and occurring in loose flocks of varying numbers.
Anyone who has witnessed Barn Swallows settling in their thousands into their roost at the end of the day, as we did many years ago near Umhlanga, will not forget this amazing sight.
I have been fortunate to see Barn Swallows in other parts of the world during our travels in the northern hemisphere summer, including Europe, Canada, Malaysia, Cuba and Egypt.
Their status in southern Africa is ‘non-breeding Palaearctic migrant’ which means they breed ‘at home’ in the northern hemisphere, so we do not see any nesting behaviour, which is why I was particularly excited to find a nest tucked under a roof overhang during a trip to western Canada some years ago.
Interestingly, these Barnies looked a little different to what we are used to seeing in SA – clearly these particular swallows would not be seen in our country as their migration path southwards would take them to South America.
Another encounter on a different continent, during a cruise on the Danube River, had me equally excited – it was April and Barn Swallows were flying above the river right next to our river cruise boat and I realised that they must have just arrived back from their return migration at the end of the Austral summer, with anything up to 10,000 kms ‘under their belt’.
My bird atlasing trip this past week took me to Ezemvelo Nature Reserve some 70 kms north-east of Pretoria, a small nature reserve comprising mainly rolling grasslands. Before arriving at the entrance gate at the entry time for day visitors, I had managed to complete 2 hours of atlasing in the pentad immediately west of Ezemvelo and was looking forward to spending time in the reserve, which I had last visited in 2013.
After completing the gate formalities, I headed to the Reception a few kms from the gate, paid for my day visit and parked at the nearby picnic spot, nicely located under large trees near a low tree covered hill and overlooking a small dam.
I literally had the whole place to myself – I’m sure it gets busier over weekends but on a weekday the only visitors are probably keen nature lovers such as myself, of that rather pleasant age when you, rather than others, decide how you are going to spend your day.
As I enjoyed coffee and rusks, I heard the familiar summer sound of a Red-chested Cuckoo – or Piet-my vrou (pronounced piet-may-frow) as most South Africans know it, a name based on the 3-syllable call which carries long distances and is often difficult to trace.
I would hazard a guess that, doves aside, this is one of the best known calls of all birds in South Africa, with farmers often referring to it, somewhat hopefully, as the “Rain Bird” because it’s arrival coincides with the hoped for start of the summer rains in large parts of SA.
The call I heard suddenly sounded very close and I walked to the nearby trees, camera in hand, to see if I could find it. This is a bird not easily seen as they tend to choose a branch in the depth of well-foliaged trees to perch on and call. I followed the call and was thrilled to find the Cuckoo after a short search and approached carefully, not wanting to scare it away.
I took a couple of photos, thrilled at getting this rare chance to photograph the species, but mildly disappointed that it refused to turn around and show its front. With a few photos under the belt I decided to try to get a video while it was calling and managed to complete a short clip before the bird flew off, leaving me very pleased with my first reasonable images of a Red-chested Cuckoo in 40 or so years of birding!
We are getting back into our Pretoria routine after 3 months in Mossel Bay, and I decided to go out atlasing in Roodeplaat Nature Reserve one morning this week. Heading into summer the weather in Pretoria is already warm with temperatures in the low 30’s and the skies are clear – some rain has fallen but the ‘big’ summer rains accompanied by the typical highveld thunderstorms have not yet arrived – hopefully they are not far off.
It was a good morning’s atlasing with 71 species logged on the Birdlasser app, including one which put on a brief display for me (well that’s what I like to think) ….
I was out of the car listening to a Lesser Honeyguide calling near the nature reserve offices, when I saw what looked like a woodpecker fly from a tree to a bare wooden utility pole. I could not make out what it was as it seemed to be purposely hiding from me so I approached carefully until I had a partial view and took a few record photos.
It then started pecking at the pole in a rhythmic fashion creating a loud drumming sound and I immediately wondered why, as there was no hope of anything edible to be found and the pole was completely unsuitable for nesting or similar purposes.
Here’s the short clip I filmed of the woodpecker, which I later identified as a Bearded Woodpecker, in action – do excuse the shakiness of the images – I had to film it at a distance on full zoom so as not to scare it away and the wind blowing didn’t help matters.
Best viewed in full screen mode ….
A read through of the species habits on the Roberts app on my phone provided the following insights into this behaviour – nothing to do with food or nesting it seems –
Presence often given away by loud, distinctive call, or by loud tapping (while foraging), or drumming.
Moves out of sight behind a branch in response to danger.
Both sexes drum frequently, mostly early morning; used in territorial advertisement and to establish contact with partner.
Drums in bursts of ca 1 sec at ca 12 strikes/sec, beginning fast, then slowing; usually on a high dead branch (same branch often reused); audible to 1 km.
Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa
It flew off after a while and I continued with my atlasing, pleased at having witnessed this behaviour and at having everything one wants to know about birds available on my iphone.
While parked at a material shop, waiting for Gerda, I was entertained by a female Cape Sparrow who was “shadow-boxing” a supposed rival she saw in the chrome frame to the grille on my SUV
I have seen several birds doing something similar but usually when they see their reflection in a glass window or door or occasionally the car mirrors, I haven’t seen one doing it in the reflection of the chrome
Just shows there’s always an entertainment potential with birds…..
Sticking with the “stoepsitter” mode of birding as described in my recent post on the ‘Lawn Raiders’ of Verlorenkloof, here’s another version in a somewhat different location – Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park.
(For the benefit of international readers “stoepsitter” is an Afrikaans term that translates roughly as one who spends much time on the stoep or verandah – but you knew that anyway, I’m sure)
It’s a well known fact amongst birders that, when visiting Kruger’s camps, time spent relaxing with binos on the stoep of your accommodation is bound to be rewarded with views of a variety of birds as they go about their daily business, on the grass, in the bushes and in the trees that most of the camps have in abundance.
That’s not to say one shouldn’t spend time getting out and about on game drives, exploring this national treasure of our wildlife, it’s just that when you want to relax in the rest camp, there’s no better place to do so than on the stoep of your rondavel or other accommodation.
Satara Rest Camp
During our December 2020 visit to Kruger, we spent four nights in Satara Rest Camp, one of which was in a fully equipped rondavel close to the perimeter fence, the other three in a more basic rondavel facing onto an expanse of grass with well established trees in close proximity.
This meant there was ample time for some serious stoepsitting, in between forays into the surrounding areas on game and birding drives and to visit the picnic spots for our traditional Kruger brunches (ooh, just typing that makes my mouth water and my nose prickle with the imaginary smell of a tasty brunch braai-ing on the pan).
The first afternoon and morning produced a fair sprinkling of interesting birds, before we changed rondavels, some of which I managed to photograph –
Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger
A Spotted Flycatcher, a non-breeding Palaearctic migrant, was quietly going about its business on an outer branch with a view over an expanse of lawn, which in some camps has been allowed to grow “wild”, as you will see in the featured image at the top of this post.
Just a note on these “wild” lawns : it was initially jarring to see the lawns in such a wild state, having been used to manicured lawns in the camp for so many years, but I will admit that I now find this quite appropriate to the surroundings, as the contrast between the camp gardens and the natural habitat of the surrounding veld has been reduced – the ‘line has been blurred somewhat’. I like to think this was a conscious decision by the Park authorities.
Another migrant, the stunning Violet-backed Starling, but this one hasn’t got as far to migrate, being an intra-African migrant from tropical Africa.
And the missus was there, no doubt keeping an eye on handsome hubby to make sure he didn’t attract any competition. One of a number of species with significant, even dramatic, differences in plumage between male and female (known as dimorphism)
The Woodland Kingfisher is also a breeding intra-African migrant, strikingly coloured and always a joy to find. Although they were present in the camp, this photo was taken on one of our drives.
On the second morning we had to move to another rondavel, this time without a kitchen, but we had come prepared with a fold-up table, little gas cooker for the all-important boiled water for our tea and coffee and our picnic hamper that always accompanies our trips to Kruger. The camp has communal kitchens close by for the washing up etc .
Once settled in to the new accommodation, I continued with stoepsitter birding and soon noticed that one particular bird was almost constantly present on the stretch of grass in front of the rondavel. It was a Red-billed Hornbill, a common species found throughout Kruger. I assumed it had found a good spot to find the small insects that make up most of its diet and did not pay too much attention to it as it came and went at regular intervals.
Hornbills look ungainly with their huge bills, but they have an admirable ability to find and pick up insects with some precision
At one stage I kept watching the Hornbill after it had found an insect but not swallowed it, which led me to think it was feeding its young. It flew up to a large tree nearby and settled on the trunk where a branch had probably broken off years earlier as there was a large scar, visible about halfway up the left hand trunk in the image below.
The Hornbill then poked its bill through a small hole in the trunk and that’s when I realised what it was doing.
Red-billed Hornbills nest in natural cavities in trees, which the female inspects before selecting one. The entrance is usually just wide enough to allow entry and is then sealed from the inside by the female, using own faeces, leaving just a narrow slit and effectively holding her prisoner during the laying and incubation of the eggs.
Once eggs are laid, incubation takes up to 25 days, followed by another 16 to 24 days during which the female cares for the young, all the while being fed by the male. Then the female breaks her way out leaving the youngsters in the nest and joins the male in providing food for the chicks, while the youngsters then re-seal the opening until they in turn are ready to take on the world at the ripe old age of around 50 days.
That’s quite a partnership! I felt privileged to have been able to see them in action.
All of this kept the male busy the whole day, but he still found time to go and see his reflection in my car’s window and frustratingly shadow box with what he thought was a possible intruder.
Let me start by saying : “I saw millions of birds this past weekend” – now I know what you’re thinking ….. just a bit of harmless hyperbole on my part, not unusual in these attention-seeking times. But what if I really did see millions of birds? What kind of bird gathers in those sort of numbers?
There is only one possible answer to that question and that is – the Quelea, or to be more precise in this case, the Red-billed Quelea.
Some background to this latest exceptional birding experience –
We were travelling back to Pretoria after a long stay in Mossel Bay and arrived in Hoopstad, Free State for our second overnight stop, primarily to pay a short visit to Gerda’s family. It was just after 3 pm when we arrived in the small town, the centre of the farming community in that part of the Free State. Piet and Marietjie kindly accommodated us and Piet invited me to join him on a quick trip to their farm some way out of town.
The farm lies on the southern side of the Vaal river, which forms one of its boundaries, and is a well-stocked game farm with a variety of game in a bushveld setting to rival the best that Southern Africa can offer, so for a lover of nature such as myself it is always a special treat to visit this piece of paradise, albeit briefly.
The day was waning as we approached the farm and our progress along the dirt road was punctuated by flocks of Queleas rising up out of the roadside grass at regular intervals, each flock numbering a couple of thousand at a guess. Piet remarked that he had seen many more flocks of larger size that same morning, so we were on the lookout for more Queleas, without realising what we would experience a bit later.
We did a quick tour of the farm, marveling at the numbers of game, ranging from Antelope to Zebra, with the standout animals for me being the incomparable Sable Antelope with their dark brown bodies and graceful, curved horns. (The photo below is from one of my Chobe trips as I did not have my camera with me)
After a brief stop at the farm house, occupied for the week by a group of hunters, we headed back to the main road, but hadn’t gone far when Piet pointed out what looked like a distant cloud of smoke stretching across the horizon. He stopped and we got out to have a better look and realised immediately that this was not smoke of course, but a huge flock of Queleas, visible against the rapidly darkening skyline, moving like a giant serpent across the horizon.
For the next ten to fifteen minutes – I didn’t time it so it could have been longer – the enormous flock grew in length and made its way to some distant, unknown roosting spot, probably along the river. There is no way of beginning to estimate numbers of birds in a flock of this magnitude, suffice to say “millions” is not an exaggeration.
At one stage the flock moved in an elongated tube-like formation directly over our heads and as we gazed up the sound of several thousand small wings filled the silence with an eerie soft humming, like nothing I had heard before.
As it was rapidly getting darker, we left the farm and headed back to Hoopstad, mulling over the impact that birds in these numbers could have on the area, which is one of the prime maize and wheat-producing areas in our country. Piet mentioned that some farmers had already decided not to plant their usual winter crops due to the risk of the crops being devastated by the Queleas.
Suddenly I realised that birds are not always to be regarded as “Threatened” by human behaviour but can also be “Threatening” to some of our food sources – a sobering thought.
Roberts VII Birds of Southern Africa has the following to say about Red-billed Queleas under Population and Demography :
Perhaps the most abundant bird on earth
The major pest of cereal crops in Africa
Population estimate post-breeding is 1 500 billion (so about 200 Queleas for every person on earth!)
Most abundant bird in Kruger National Park at 33.5 million
More than 100 million birds killed annually in control operations in South Africa – methods used are aerial spraying and explosions at roosts (but the latter is not favoured as other species get killed in the process)
Prey of Peregrine and Lanner Falcons
Drinking birds taken by predators including pelomedusid turtles (!), crocodiles, Marabou Storks and Striated Herons
All in all, this is an interesting bird, often for the wrong reasons. Despite this I always enjoy seeing them in small numbers as they are quite variable in appearance, some drab, others colourful.
Here are a few photos of those I have come across while atlasing –