The most abundant wild bird species on the planet, the red-billed quelea, has been swarming on Londolozi in their thousands. In fact, these tiny little birds have completely stolen the show.
Over the last two to three months these birds have been seen gathering. Earlier in the season, we’d see small flocks of twenty to thirty birds, which have since merged, joining forces to form super flocks. When flying over they number in their thousands and make one swivel around at the unusual sound they produce, like that of a breaking wave.
Such massive flocks have not been seen at Londolozi for many years and have blown us away. Get down to the river just before sunrise or at dusk and catch these clouds of weaver-like birds swarming down to drink and bathe. It’s mesmerizing to watch as hundreds upon thousands of flapping individuals pour over each other, seemingly in unison, to get to fresh foraging grounds or to the water’s edge. They appear as if it were one super-organism or the result of the most extraordinarily choreographed dance.
Why they gather en mass has been explained, but why this year we have seen larger flocks than usual at Londolozi, we have a theory for. Let me explain…
These birds are nomadic, following the rains to areas where there is an abundance of food. Food, for them, primarily consists of the seed of annual grass species. Annual plant species germinate, flower and seed all in one season. These plants put all their energy into a quick burst of growth to produce seed, then die, leaving their seed to germinate come the next rains. When the grass stalks start to dry out and drop their seed, the quelea move in, working together as a flock they search for food and, in areas with an abundance of food, they will concentrate. Flocks of millions of individuals have been recorded and the red-billed quelea has an estimated population of around 1.5 billion post-breeding season.
One thing to know about annual grass species is that they are often the first species of grass, also known as pioneer species, to establish in an area that has been disturbed. They play a crucial role, germinating and growing quickly they stabilize the soils, covering and cooling the soils, and as they die they return precious organic matter to the top-soil. This disturbance I am referring to can be due to human interference (like bush clearing) or from a natural phenomenon like a fire or drought.
In the latter part of last year, we saw a serious dry spell hit Londolozi. Waterholes dried up and food became scarce for the herbivores, especially the large bulk grazers like buffalo. Hardly a blade of grass could be seen by the end of the dry season. The end eventually did come with the rains flooding the valley’s green, which was brilliantly documented in Amy Attenborough and James Tyrrell’s transformation video.
With the rains came a flush of annual grasses took advantage of the blank canvas of earth created by the drought. Without such a severe dry spell many other plant species may have survived, not giving these quick seeding species the chance to dominate as they did.
Being annual species, these grasses all dropped their seed at around the same time causing an abundance of food, and that is what is attracting the massive flocks of quelea we are seeing.
Recently we have also been seeing an unusual amount of field mice crossing the roads at night as we return to camp after game drive. This may also be explained by the same phenomenon. It would be interesting to know how this is affecting the predatory birds like the owls who hunt the mice or the raptors that prey on quelea.
There is a beautiful message unfolding here that we have the privilege of watching play out before us. A message of hope. The burst of vegetation after the rains last year and the resultant number of quelea flooding into Londolozi this year shows natures resilience. In a world where nature’s systems are being seriously tested by human activity, it is comforting to witness natures intelligence and self-regulating ability. Life is thriving again. It also shows us that everything is not always as it seems and that what seemed like a dire situation for some has benefited others.