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 –
The wonderful thing about visiting South Africa’s National Parks is that there is just about always something new to see. This was the case during our recent trip to visit two of the Eastern Cape’s gems – Addo Elephant National Park and Mountain Zebra National Park – I will be posting more about our trip but thought I would share this video which I took while on a late afternoon game drive in Addo.
I had never seen Ostriches drinking at a waterhole and it didn’t occur to me that they cannot slurp it up like an elephant, so have to first scoop the water into their mouth, then lift their long neck and swallow.
I think you will agree it is a fascinating sight …. the one on the left was initially rather aloof, but deigned to join in briefly towards the end
What it lacks is some appropriate music to accompany the video as those elegant necks go up and down – I am open to suggestions …..
It was the start of our Christmas in Kruger week and we were nicely settled in our rondavel in Mopani Camp, so much so that we chose to spend most of the first day in camp, enjoying the shady stoep with its theatre-like patch of bush and rocks directly in front which attracted all sorts of bird and other species. The stifling heat also played a role in keeping us in the camp for the day in a state of semi-stupor.
Come the second day and I was keen to do some exploring of the surrounding areas, particularly as I had started to record the birds in that particular pentad and wanted to maximise the birding and atlasing experience by surveying as much of the surrounding areas as Kruger’s roads would allow
Gerda was content to enjoy the restful atmosphere of the camp, so I set off on my own, binoculars at the ready and keyed up for those surprises that await the intrepid Kruger explorer (actually tourist but explorer sounds more exciting)
Overnight thunderstorms had kept us awake at times, with some of the lightning strikes feeling very close, loud enough to have us jerking upright in bed. There was plenty of standing water in the countryside around the camp as I made my way slowly to the main road and headed south.
I stopped to view a Swainson’s Spurfowl near the road, which was in full voice at this early hour. They have a raucous call, akin to someone being murdered, I’ve heard it said, a call which carries long distances on a quiet morning and this one was giving its all.
After about 2 kms on the road towards Letaba, a road known as the Shongololo Loop branches off to the right and this was the road I was hoping to explore – I was glad to see the gravel road was still open despite the heavy rains, which can quickly turn such roads into a muddy quagmire. Nevertheless I had a good look down the road before turning off and, not seeing anything other than some deep looking standing water, set off feeling a tad adventurous but confident in my SUV’s ability to handle such conditions
The first stretch was quiet, then I crested a rise and around the next bend came across a low water bridge with water flowing across and what looked like several large birds that had taken up position on the concrete bridge.
Birds on a bridge
I stopped opposite one vehicle that was already there and had a look through the binos at the birds on the bridge – it was obvious that the herons, storks and thick-knees were using the conditions to do a bit of effortless fishing for a change – no stalking or stealth involved. The water flowing over the bridge was clearly bringing with it fish and other aquatic life, creating an easy “take-away” opportunity for the birds waiting in the ankle deep flow.
Over the next 15 minutes or so, various birds took up position on the bridge then moved off to the river itself, including Yellow-billed Stork, Green-backed (Striated) Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Water Thick-knee, African Jacana, Black Crake and even a Goliath Heron.
I drove across the bridge and parked on the opposite side where I enjoyed coffee and rusks while continuing to watch the interaction, then carried on along the Loop to the bird hide at the Pioneer dam a little way further, which was overflowing and causing the bridge to be under water.
In the deeper water on one side of the bridge, a pair of Hippos were doing their best to draw my attention away from the birds with some typical hippo antics
Croc gets in on the action too
Returning along the same road, I came to the bridge again, only to find that a sizeable Crocodile had taken up position on the bridge – bang in the middle, jaws at the ready and just waiting for a fish or two to be drawn in by the fast flowing water. I had seen this before where a croc lay in wait on one side of a low water bridge but this was the first time I had found one on the bridge itself.
After a while I edged the car forward and the croc dutifully stood up and walked to the edge where he slid into the river and swam off slowly, no doubt intending to return to the same convenient fishing spot once I had gone.
That was enough excitement for the morning so I headed back to Mopani camp with stories to relate to the family.
Our main Christmas dinner was enjoyed on Christmas Eve in Mopani Camp, with the cooler weather brought on by constant light summer rain during the day making it a most pleasant evening. We joined Andre and Geraldine and daughters at their large family chalet, and their friends who were also in Mopani made up a jolly group, with each family contributing a dish or two to turn it into a really delightful dinner.
We had not made any specific arrangements for Christmas day itself, other than the inevitable leftovers (just as delicious) for the evening meal. We started the day in lazy mode, sitting on the stoep and observing the passing show of birds and other small wildlife.
Shingwedzi Christmas Picnic
When Andre and Geraldine suggested that we drive to Shingwedzi Camp, some 62 kms to the north, for a braai (barbeque) at the day visitor’s area, it seemed like the ideal way to spend the day in relaxed, yet active, fashion. We quickly got ourselves ready, packed a picnic basket and set off in mild weather, reaching Shingwedzi just after 1 pm.
We didn’t dawdle, but still found plenty of game to view in passing along the way
We found the day visitor’s area already crowded (yet socially distanced), but were fortunate to find one empty picnic table and the camp personnel helpfully brought a portable braai to our table. Andre got stuck in and braai-ed burger patties while a large leguaan moved between the tables looking for scraps, waddling along and flicking its tongue in true serpent fashion. Soon the buns were buttered and loaded with tomato, lettuce, onions and sauce, ready to receive the patties and we tucked into our simple but delicious meal
All in all a very unique Christmas Day lunch for us!
An ice cream on a stick from the small shop was our dessert, after which we set off on the road back to Mopani, taking our time.
Dinner for One ….. Martial Eagle
We were hardly out of Shingwedzi, driving next to the lightly flowing, broad river, when I spotted a commotion amongst a small flock of Starlings gathered in and around one of the large trees that line this stretch of the river.
I pulled off the road and stopped under the tree to have a look at what may be causing their agitation – glancing up I looked straight into the piercing eyes of a Martial Eagle, which was engrossed in the task of devouring an unidentifiable, partly hidden prey from which he was ripping chunks of meat.
Apart from an occasional withering stare, the Eagle ignored us, despite us being a few metres away, and carried on with its festive meal while we enjoyed the luxury of being able to observe this magnificent raptor at close quarters
The road back to Mopani had a few further interesting sightings….
And last but not least ….. well actually it is the least in terms of size –
This is one Christmas day that we will fondly remember