To say that I’m fascinated by birds is an understatement. For me, as I’m sure for many guides, birds are some of the unsung heroes of a bushveld experience, who are not always given their due. One thing I absolutely love doing is trying to evoke an interest in birds in people who never had one before. It doesn’t always happen, but it is very rewarding to have someone go from not caring about the difference between a vulture and a seagull on day one of their safari, to lunging for the binoculars to try and identify a nondescript brown thing hopping around in the undergrowth by day three or four.

Although there is certainly a market for bird-specialist safaris (it is, in fact, a rapidly-growing, multi-million dollar industry), most of the more well-known game reserves have guests visiting to see the more iconic mammal species like elephants and lions. Mention a malachite kingfisher to most first-time bush visitors, and you’ll find it far down on the list of things to see, waaaay below zebra and giraffe. That’s assuming a bird was even on the list in the first place. Which it probably wasn’t.

I’ll always try to point out the various bird species to my guests as we drive along, focussing at first on the ones more likely to pique their interest (eagles, storks etc.) and moving on to the smaller, possibly less colourful ones as we get further into the safari. Not everyone gets into their birding, and if I sense a lack of interest I’ll tone down the bird commentary. Every now and then however, I’ll see a bird while out on drive that makes me slam on the brakes so hard, whatever the guests’ interest, that the tracker is likely to go flying off the bonnet, cameras will probably fly off seats, and there’s a good chance my excited scream will scare the bird out of its wits and cause it to dive in headlong flight for the nearest cover, ruining any chance of seeing it.

Such was my first Narina trogon sighting in the Tugwaan drainage line, the time I heard a gorgeous bush shrike calling in a thicket near the Sand River, and when we saw an Osprey fishing a few hundred metres from camp. All those sightings are burned into my memory, highlights as rewarding as any predator interaction I’ve witnessed (well… almost…).

My first ever sighting of a narina trogon was probably the hardest I have ever hit the brakes whilst out on game drive. We were looking for the Dudley Riverbank female leopard in the Tugwaan drainage line when we rounded a corner and spied the bird sitting low in the riverine foliage.

Searching for the Dudley Riverbank female in the Tugwaan riverbed we happened upon this female Narina trogon; an incredibly special bird to see at Londolozi.

One such moment to rank in my top 5 bird sightings came only a few weeks ago on the banks of the Sand River. October is a month during which many of the migratory bird species start to arrive (about 30% of our species are only here in summer), so every week has its new arrivals. We know when to expect the woodland kingfishers (not here yet, probably coming sometime this month), the Wahlbergs eagles (first to arrive, usually at the end of August/early September) and the rest, but every now and again a bird turns up that takes us completely by surprise.

As far as I can recall we were looking for leopards that morning, doing a last loop along the river before returning to camp, when a slightly funny flight pattern of a bird caught my eye. The apex predators like lions and leopards are very good at targeting the sick or weak in a herd of prey animals, and people often ask how they do this. Well, as a lion, if you have seen several thousand impala over the course of your lifetime, and they all walk a certain way, you will instantly be able to spot one that isn’t walking normally i.e. limping or staggering or whatever the case might be. It is the same thing with bird identification.

When you have seen a lilac-breasted roller a few thousand times, you get pretty used to what its flight pattern and call are, so when something flies almost – but not quite – like a lilac-breasted, and sounds almost – but not quite – like a a lilac-breasted, you stop and consider, knowing it’s something different.

roller2-3

A regularly encountered species at Londolozi – the lilac-breasted roller.

Diving for my binoculars, I whipped them up with my heart in my mouth, with the memory of this uncertain bird call from a year or so previously, in a completely different area of Southern Africa, trying to claw its way to the surface. All it took was a single glimpse of the bright yellow bill as the bird flew into the branches of an apple-leaf tree for me to know instantly what it was. A broad-billed roller! The first time I’d ever seen one at Londolozi, and to my mind, the most beautiful of all the roller species.

roller3

The bright yellow bill, unique to the broad-billed amongst the other roller species of Southern Africa, renders them unmistakeable. Photograph by Frank Droge

Thrilled at seeing just one of these stunning birds, I couldn’t believe my eyes when a second one appeared and joined the first in vociferous display from the top of the tree. All became clear when two lilac-breasted rollers, one of our more regularly-seen (yet also beautiful) bird species, began mobbing the broad-billed pair, and the four began dive-bombing each other in and around a dead knobthorn tree. It was evident that the two species were competing for a nest site in the dead knobthorn, as most of the action was centred around a prominent hole near the top of one of the biggest branches.

TerritoryMapBlank

Map of sightings since we first saw the rollers in mid-October

After a couple of minutes the two broad-billeds, most likely outmuscled by the lilac-breasted roller pair, flew off down river, probably to seek out a less hotly contested nesting site. My heart was beating just as fast as if I’d been witness to a lion-buffalo takedown (I’m not exaggerating!), and I hoped fervently that the pair would stick around for the Summer.

I went on leave the next day for a two week visit to a game reserve in northern Zimbabwe, where we saw a number of broad-billed rollers (they are a lot more common up north. Londolozi is right at the southern edge of their migratory range). Seeing them where one expects to see them was one thing, but it was seeing them at Londolozi, where as far as I knew only two people have seen them in the five years I’ve been here, was what made our sighting that day so special.

Imagine my thrill when upon returning back to Londolozi after my break, one of the rangers rushed up to me and said “Hey did you hear? We’ve seen broad-billed rollers near the river downstream from camp!”

Maybe they are going to stick around after all…

Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Ranger
Broad-billed Roller Photograph by Frank Droge

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

More stories by James

17 Comments

on Crazy About a Bird
    Marinda Drake says:

    Wonderful sighting James. I love birds and are always on the lookout for something different and special.

    Vickie says:

    It always amazes me that such creatures with such delicate eggs and such defenseless young can make it in some tough environments.

    Ricardo says:

    Your blog posts are just awesome James – you’re living the dream πŸ˜‰
    One of my biggest surprises when I first visited southern Africa was the endless variety of birds. My wife and I -both bird lovers, we have 2 african greys and 2 dusky headed conures- could not believe our eyes the first time we saw a lilac-breasted roller. It was the most pleasant surprise for our trip, just like the cherry on top to an amazing safari week. Every time we go back now we’re definitely prepared and eager to encounter more species of birds. Africa is not just about the big 5. Sometimes the little ones are just as, if not even more, amazing. Our next target is definitely the Narina Trogon. Would love to photograph that guy. Thanks again for your post!

    Arden Zalman says:

    Absolutely breathtaking. But I still love Bateulars!

    David Attenborough says:

    Thanks James, so nice to hear of someone with a passion for birds. I am not sure whether you have heard of Birdlife SA monitoring project being conducted on European Rollers and they are asking for data to be collected and returned to them. If you haven’t received this, let me know and I will forward the detail to you.
    Thanks David Attenborough

    James Tyrrell says:

    Hi David,
    Thanks very much. We haven’t received anything, so if you could forward the details to us, that’d be great!

    Brian C says:

    I love my leopards and big cats but I would be so happy to see the birds of S Africa on safari. Its always great to see photos of the rollers, sunbirds, bee-eaters, owls, storks, etc. Sounds like October/November might be good months to visit if one has an interest in the birds.

    Ian Hall says:

    Super photos, it is about ten times harder to get good bird photographs than Big 5 photos.

    One of the reasons I went to Londolozi was because it offered me the chance to hire a Land Rover for the day, and I at last got some decent King Fisher photos.

    It is very difficult to take decent bird photographs when the guests you are sharing a vehicle with have their own agenda

    I am always fascinated by the beauty of different birds, though I don’t know their different names.

    Jill Grady says:

    Great blog James and wonderful pictures. I really loved seeing all the different species of birds while I was there visiting Londolozi and my particular favourite was the beautiful Lilac Breasted Roller. Also, I have never heard a bird call like the Hadeda Ibis and woke up to it every morning while in the beautiful wine region of Franschhoek.

    Kate Collins says:

    Great blog James, the broad billed roller is beautiful, what an amazing sighting to have.

    Jenny says:

    Many years ago we were also “converted” by another amazing Guide in Zimbabwe and thanks for sharing your brilliant photos of the Rollers. A Narina Trogon – lucky guests!

    Tony Goldman says:

    Awesome blog James and as you know i just love the birds – the Broad Billed Roller is just fantastic and so cool to see a Narina Trogon there.

    James T says:

    Hi Tony,
    One of the guys saw the broad-billeds again the other day, at the same tree, so hopefully it means they beat out the lilac-breateds to claim that nest spot.
    If we’re lucky they may still be here when you come for your next visit!
    All the best

    Courtney M says:

    This post makes me smile as I was definitely not so interested in birds when I arrived at Londolozi. I seem to recall rolling my eyes every single time James whipped out “the book.” However, given James’ enthusiasm and having met birders in Botswana post Londolozi, I came home and started learning about them. (PBS.org/nature has some pretty interesting bird documentaries.) Anyway, my dear James, you will be happy to hear that I now get excited when I drive to farm country and encounter vultures, and just yesterday I spotted on the side of the road some sort of hawk just standing in the grass looking at something on the ground (odd behavior, no?). I couldn’t stop to get a picture without causing an accident, but I thought to myself “where is that damn book when you need it?!” ? Glad you had an exciting sighting!!

    James T says:

    I always knew you were a twitcher in the making! πŸ˜‰

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