Category Archives: Bird in the Lens

Nest building 101 – Cape Weaver does his thing

Our recent short ‘end-of-winter’ visit to Mossel Bay was made interesting by a Cape Weaver (Kaapse Wewer / Ploceus capensis) who had chosen the neighbour’s tree for his nest for the new breeding season. Although not in our garden, the tree overhangs our small lawn and as luck would have it the branch that was chosen by the Weaver was no more than 2 m from our bedroom window and marginally more from our balcony.

By the time we spotted it, the initial ring had already been woven by the busy Weaver and I promptly set up my camera at our bedroom window, linked it to my iphone (using the clever Nikon app and the built-in wifi connection of my Nikon camera), then sat in the lounge where I would not be seen by the bird and clicked away whenever the Weaver appeared on my iphone screen. I love it when technology comes together!

This technique produced some clear shots of it arriving at the partial nest with a length of grass or piece of leaf and as it set about the intricate task of weaving it into the growing structure. Fascinating to watch as the nest slowly grew and took shape. Once the nest was more or less complete and well-shaped the Weaver shifted his attention to the thin branch to which it was attached, stripping it of leaves – we could only guess this was a strategy to prevent unwanted “visitors” from using the foliage to conceal their approach.

After a couple of days of frenetic activity the bird seemed satisfied – except nothing happened, no female took occupation and the nest just hung there, unoccupied. A very windy day tested the nest structure to the limit and it seemed to withstand the battering without damage.

Then a day before we were to leave, a second ring frame appeared, attached to the outer wall of the first nest and we once again watched fascinated as the same Weaver set about building a “semi-detached” extension to the nest. This is not something I have seen before although Weavers are known to build more than one nest, often several, usually in different locations in the same tree, before the female of the species indicates her acceptance and takes occupation. (Right now I am resisting the temptation to make some further comment about this behaviour, relating to the female of another species that I am familiar with….)

Unfortunately we could not stay to see the outcome of this new development – perhaps there will be some evidence of the outcome when we return in November.

Anyway, here is a selection of the photos I took surreptitiously of the Weaver

Monday

Arriving at the nest with fresh grass strand

Starter ring being constructed

Friday

Finishing off

Busy Weaver

A bit of displaying might impress her

Saturday, one week later

You think semi-detached will work better? – Yes, of course dear!

Now where does this one go again?

I really don’t like being watched while I’m weaving

Wonder if this one is going to be good enough?

Can’t wait to see what happened!

 

Bird in the Lens – Sociable Weaver

The Sociable Weaver, chosen by Birdlife South Africa as their “Bird of the Year” for 2016, is unique in many respects and more than worthy of its selection.

It is also a bird that has fascinated me ever since I first saw their massive nest structures on Camelthorn trees in the Free State, long before my interest in birding began. This was in the early 1970’s when I moved to Bloemfontein, Free State and developed two loves – for my wife and for the wide open spaces of the Free State, represented by the family farm near Hoopstad.

Although the farm we used to visit every couple of weeks is no longer in the family, the same massive Sociable Weaver nest sits securely in the same Camelthorn tree in the family cemetery, watching over the generations of the family who have found their final resting place in its dappled shade.

Sociable Weaver, Boskop Dam (Potch)

Why Unique?

Apart from being endemic to Southern Africa, the Sociable Weaver’s nest is the largest built by any bird in the world, large enough to house more than a hundred pairs of birds, often of several generations (why am I thinking of the Dallas Ewings right now?). They construct these enormous nests of stiff grasses, forming chambers at different distances from the outside face, which provide protection from the temperature extremes of Southern Africa’s arid zones.

Described as being like “giant haystacks”, the nests are constructed in trees or on artificial structures such as telephone and electricity poles, windmills and the like and have become an icon of the arid areas of Southern Africa.

Sociable Weaver nest near Hoopstad
Sociable Weaver nest near Hoopstad
Closer view of nest
Closer view of nest showing construction from stiff grass and some of the entrance holes

Species Names

Scientific : Philetairus socius – from the Greek philos = love and hetairos = companion

Afrikaans: Versamelvoël

Indigenous : Thantlagane(NS),  Kgwêrêrê  (Tw)

German : Siedelweber

French : Républicain social

Portuguese : Tecelão-sociável

Dutch : Republikeinwever

Sociable Weaver, Hoopstad
Sociable Weaver, Hoopstad

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Distribution

Distribution is across north-western South Africa, south-west Botswana and northwards across Namibia and is strongly associated with the arid savannahs of the southern Kalahari region.

The SABAP2 distribution map looks like this :

SABAP 2 Distribution map
SABAP 2 Distribution map

Identification

The nest is unmistakable, so once you have found the nest the birds will not be far away. Although classed as Weavers they are more Sparrow-like in appearance, small (14cm) and fairly drab-coloured to match the dry browns of the habitat they prefer. Their outstanding features are the black chin contrasting with a light-coloured front and face, black barred flanks and scalloped back

Images

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Other Stuff

Several other species “borrow” nest chambers for their own breeding – such as  mud-nesting wasps, nesting Pygmy Falcons, Red-headed Finches and Rosy-faced Lovebirds. Others use them as roosts including Ashy Tits, Familiar Chats, Acacia Pied Barbets and  Pearl-spotted Owlets. So the great nest becomes a “bird hotel” for many, even snakes like visiting for a nestling or egg take-away.

There is certainly nothing else quite like it in the bird world.

Additional sources :

Robert’s Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa

Latin for Birdwatchers (Roger Lederer and Carol Burr)

Wikipedia

Birdlife SA Media Release – Bird of the Year 2016

 

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…….

HAMERKOP

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

Photography

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.

 

References

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa

Birdlife International

Birds of Africa South of the Sahara

SABAP2 (Maps)

Latin for BIrdwatchers (Roger Lederer and Carol Burr)

Bird in the Lens – Southern Ground-Hornbill

SOUTHERN GROUND-HORNBILL

Species Names

  • Southern Ground-Hornbill                                                                                     (the name includes “Southern” only because there is a related “Northern Ground-Hornbill” which occurs further north in Africa as per the extract from Birds of Africa below)

Ground Hornbill-15

  • Bromvoël (Afrikaans)                                                                                                as with many Afrikaans names this one is most appropriate, “Brom” translating directly as “drone” , “grumble” or “grunt” which describes their early morning call
  • Ingududu, Intsikizi (Indigenous)
  • Hornrabe (German)
  • Bucorve du Sud (French)
  • Zuidelijke Hoornraaf  (Dutch)
  • Bucorvus Leadbeteri  (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 – Bucorvus – is the Genus which  is derived from the Greek Bu- meaning ox and Latin Corvus being the fairly well known term for Crow – so literally “large crow”. The second part – Leadbeteri – is the species name which in this case is named after the British taxidermist and ornithologist Benjamin Leadbeater
Southern Ground-Hornbill, Tamboti KNP
Tamboti KNP

Ground Hornbill-4

Where to find it

This is another species that is easier to find in protected areas such as the National Parks in the north-eastern parts of Southern Africa. Most likely place in South Africa would be in Kruger Park.

My first sighting was during my first visit to Kruger in the early 1970’s and I still recall my surprise when we came across a small group of Ground-Hornbills on the first stretch of road as you leave Skukuza camp and head towards the Lower Sabie road. They were right next to the road and, it seemed, accustomed to the attention of passing visitors and clicking cameras (they still clicked in those days)

The distribution map below is from SABAP2

Ground Hornbill-14

Look ……..  and Listen

There is absolutely no chance of confusing this species with any other, except if you mistake it for an escaped turkey, which it does resemble up to a point with its black colouring and vivid red throat patch. In fact, it has in the past been referred to as a Turkey Buzzard. (Not to be confused with the Turkey Vulture which we encountered in Cuba)

Ground Hornbill-5

Southern Ground-Hornbill, Tamboti KNP

This is a large bird, up to 120cm long and weighing up to 6 kg and largest of all the world’s Hornbills by a long way.

They move around in small family groups, waddling slowly as they search for food – anything from reptiles, frogs, snails, even small mammals such as hares.

The call is a low-pitched booming sound, not typically bird-like at all. My first encounter with calling Ground-Hornbills was early one morning in Kruger – a group was perched in a tree, silhouetted by the morning sunlight, sounding every bit like a rock-band warming up as they called in varying tones in a rhythmic fashion. Males and females call in different tones (much like humans)

Ground Hornbill, KNP
Early morning calling from tree

Ground Hornbill-6

Ground Hornbill, Punda Maria
Punda Maria
Ground Hornbill, Chobe Game Reserve
Chobe Game Reserve

Photography

Probably one of the easiest birds you will get to photograph, because of its large size, vivid colouring and the fact that they are often found not too far from the road in places such as Kruger National Park

It is always pleasing if you can get close enough for a detail shot of the head with the long eyelashes often prominent and the bright red throat pouch

Ground Hornbill, Chobe Game Reserve
Chobe Game Reserve

Other Stuff

Conservation status is listed as “Vulnerable” on the Red Data list – in SA it is considered “Endangered” and may soon meet the Red Data criteria as being “Critically Endangered”. Loss of habitat is the reason for their decline coupled with the fact that on average one chick is raised to adulthood every nine years by an adult pair.

Lifespan is 30 years or more and in captivity some have lived to 70 years

Nesting is generally in deep hollows in large trees or occasionally in clefts in rock faces

In Africa it has been a focal point of some traditional cultures and is a symbol of the arrival of the rainy season, thus the taboo against killing of the species.

An older version of Roberts mentions the indigenous interpretations of the booming calls, such as the female saying “I’m going, I’m going, I’m going home to my relations”, and the male responding “You can go, you can go, you can go home to your relations!”

References

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa

Birdlife International

Birds of Africa South of the Sahara

SABAP2 (Maps)

Latin for BIrdwatchers (Roger Lederer and Carol Burr)

Bird in the Lens – Saddle-billed Stork

What Now?

For the last 2 years my blogging has been about birding trips, birding spots, holidays etc which has been very rewarding for me – I love recalling some of the great moments and places we have been. Now I believe it’s time to broaden the scope of my ramblings to include my take on particular birds that I have become familiar with over the years.

There are plenty of birding books out there and a number of Apps that make it simple to access a mountain of detail information on every species in your locality, so I will be taking a more informal, down-to-earth look at a random selection of birds, on a regular basis. A sobering thought is that, if I manage to do one species per week, it will take me 16 years to cover the 850-odd “regular” species in Southern Africa (excluding the vagrants that drive twitchers crazy every now and then). By that time I will have had my 84th birthday – if I’m lucky enough to still be around – talk about long-term planning!

Where to start?

I wasn’t sure what species to kick off with, then I had a moment of clarity (happens infrequently when you reach pensioner age) and decided that I would start at the beginning ……………  of my birding career. So I went back to my very first records, written into my first copy of Roberts Birds of South Africa, which I purchased during one of our early visits to Kruger National Park. This was around 1978 and it was only about 10 years later that I started listing birds with any regularity – 3 kids growing up and a busy professional career tend to keep you busy and don’t leave time for much else.

The very first bird recorded was noted in the margin of my Roberts : “Woodland Kingfisher, 27 August 1978, seen KNP”. Well it seems I managed to start with an incorrect ID, as the Woodland Kingfishers are migrants that only arrive in Southern Africa from October…… so it was probably a Brown-hooded Kingfisher that I saw that August.

The next one was more likely to be a correct ID, particularly in Kruger, and hard to confuse with any other bird –  the note in the margin says “Saddle-billed Stork, 28 August 1978, seen KNP” – so that’s where I am going to start.

SADDLE-BILLED STORK

Species Names

  • Saddle-billed Stork
  • Saalbekooievaar (Afrikaans)
  • Kandjendje, Hukuinihlanga (Indigenous)
  • Sattelstorch (German)
  • Jabiru d’Afrique (French)
  • Zadelbekooievaar (Dutch)
  • Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis (Scientific)

That scientific name is very long-winded but if you break it down it starts to make sense : the first part is the Genus which  is derived from the Greek words “ephippos”  for “Saddle”  and “rhyncos”  for “bill” and refers to the frontal shield which “saddles”  the bill. The second part is the species name which in this case is based on where it was discovered

Photography

Despite their large size, they are seldom close enough for a finely detailed photo, unless you are lucky enough to come across one near a hide.

Most of my photos have been taken at a fair distance, but I did once get some shots of a pair in flight as they came into land on the river bed just below where we had stopped, near Letaba in Kruger National Park.

Saddle-billed Stork, KNP Saddle-billed Stork, KNP Saddle-billed Stork-3

Where to find it

This is one species that is almost exclusively found in protected areas such as the National Parks and then only those in the northern parts of Southern Africa. Most likely place to find this species is in Kruger Park, along the larger rivers, such as the Shingwedzi, Letaba and Sabie Rivers. They may also be found in wetlands in savannah areas.

The didtribution map below is from SABAP2

Saddle-bill map

Look ……..  and Listen

This is such a stand-out bird that it is unlikely to be confused with any other.

It will be standing on its own or with a partner on the river bed or in the shallows. It stands about 1,2m tall so a 7 year old child is going to be looking it straight in the eye, although it won’t compete on weight, being just 6kgs or so (it’s those long thin legs, you see). Adults have a wingspan of some 2,5m which is as wide as a Smart Car is long. In flight they fly with neck outstretched, like all Storks, compared to Herons which fly with necks drawn in

Most noticeable feature is the massive bill, from which it gets its name and which is bright red with a black “saddle” in the middle. Other than that they are, like most storks, a combination of black and white. Oh, and they have red knees (actually their ankles) and feet , just to make them look really cool

The Saddle-billed Stork is not known to call so don’t bother trying to listen for it!

Saddle-billed Stork, Letaba KNP Saddle-billed Stork, Letaba KNP Saddle-billed Stork, Letaba KNP

Other Stuff

Conservation status is listed as “Least Concern” on the Red Data list – it is reducing in numbers gradually due to loss of wetland habitat (which affects a lot of species) but is still widespread over most of tropical Africa

Nesting is done on the top of a tall tree – we once came across a nest in Kruger with a young Saddlebill doing short jumps on top of a nest of large twigs, seemingly testing its wings before taking the big plunge – quite comical but very serious if you are a young Stork about to head into the world.

The following photos are of that event but please forgive the poor quality – scanned from negatives taken 25 years ago!

1998 to 1993 KNP_0001 1998 to 1993 KNP_0002

References :

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa

Birdlife International

SABAP2