With the drought – that thankfully we slowly seem to be emerging from – having made for incredible predator-prey interactions, the birding world was sometimes overlooked, but over the course of the last few seasons a number of anomalies occurred that bear a closer look at. Rare visitors, abnormal behaviours, competition enforced by adverse conditions; all of these have redefined what we though we thought we knew about the bird populations of Londolozi.

The start of this year saw a noticeable dearth in the number of cuckoos of all species being encountered on Londolozi. Cuckoos are migratory, leaving their North African and European wintering grounds for the southern hemisphere summer, where many of them breed and they generally have an ample supply of their main food source; caterpillars. With thinning vegetation during the drought not providing enough food for the caterpillars themselves, their population was also noticeably thinned (thankfully in some cases, as the annoying little hairy ones that cause an irritating itch were conspicuously absent). For the cuckoos, this was obviously not ideal, and by the end of January most of them had departed back north. Bear in mind that most of what I write her is conjecture, not proven fact, but ask any of the rangers or trackers here and they will concur that the characteristic cuckoo calls fell noticeably silent far earlier than usual last summer.

Emerald Cuckoo-1

An emerald cuckoo, one of the rarer species to be found at Londolozi. Unrecorded on the property since early 2009, this individual was perched in one of the staff gardens, and its unmistakeable call was what alerted us to its presence. Photograph by David Dampier

The weaver birds that can provide hours of entertaining nest-building activity around the prominent waterholes of Londolozi were also much quieter last summer. Poor grass growth due to lack of rain meant that they did not have the necessary material required for the delicate weaving tasks they perform with such incredible dexterity, and the usual raucous chattering that is associated with a growing weaver colony was noticeably quieter, if not absent. The recent rains have thankfully provided the weavers of all species with the grass they need, and a number of colonies are once more a hive of activity, with the males displaying for all they are worth to try and attract the attention of a willing female.

Weaver building nest by Kate Albert

A Village weaver applies the finishing touches to his nest. Photograph by Kate Albert.

A number of rare birds have made an appearance over the course of the year; birds that haven’t been recorded on Londolozi in the time that I have spent here. We are not entirely sure if it has been the changing conditions that have forced them to venture away from their normal areas of residence, or if it was simply a complete lack of vegetation cover due to the drought that made them more visible, or ultimately a combination of the two, but the unusual bird sightings from the last year or so have been significant.

Most recent among these was a black heron that was seen hanging around the Sand River just upstream from camp. Formerly called the Black Egret, many will know these birds from the “Night time, Day Time” YouTube clip they feature in. The one that has been sighted is the first I know about in at least 7 years at Londolozi.

black-heron-2

The black heron’s bright yellow feet, which contrast strongly with it’s black plumage and legs, render it unmistakeable. Photograph by Callie de Wet

A pair of great painted snipes was seen at the Causeway a few weeks ago, and just across from the pool where they were spending most of their time, Callum Gowar and Freddy Ngobeni spotted a gallinule (swamp hen) only last week. The sighting was too brief for them to be able to identify it as a Purple or Allen’s gallinule, but either of the species is a rarity for this area. Truth be told if it was just Callum who claimed he saw it, we more than likely would have suspected it was just a misidentification of a black crake, but Freddy knows his birds, so…

The drought has of course been what we believe to be the main contributing factor towards the continued success of the ostrich family, so it is with fingers crossed that we watch the thickening of the habitat in which they have been living, and the inexorable spread of just the type of cover that potential predators could be lurking behind.

ostrich-and-chicks-kp

The ostriches when the original six chicks had just left the nest. Photograph by Kevin Power

Amongst the other specials have been little bittern, rufous-bellied heron, broad-billed rollers returning to nest for the second year in a row, and a pennant-winged nightjar seen displaying in full plumage near the Maxabene riverbed.

With Summer in full swing now (we had 64mm of rain last night), the termites and smaller invertebrates are emerging in droves, providing an abundant food supply for migrants and residents alike. If the drought really has broken, it will be interesting to see if those birds who were forced to venture further afield in search of habitable areas will return to more traditional territories or remain here. Either way, we’ll be sure to keep our binoculars at hand…

Filed under Birds 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

10 Comments

on Surprises in the Birding World
    Wendy MacNicol says:

    Dear James
    What a lovely set of bird photos! I have, as usual, taken a couple of them to be screensavers. I keep adding Londolozi pics of birds and animals and now have a really huge number of them as screensavers which go round and round. Instead of our friends visiting us, we are beginning to think they visit our screensavers – because they sit gawking at them right through their visiting time with us. It is difficult to hold a conversation with them! Neil and Wendy

    Jeff Rodgers says:

    Do you know of an app where I can photograph a bird and the app will let me know what kind of bird it is? It is so difficult to get great bird photos but then not know what they are when I return home. Thanks.

    James Tyrrell says:

    Hi Jeff,

    We’ve discussed an app like this many times and thought how useful it would be. Similarly a sort of Shazam for bird calls!
    Unfortunately there isn’t one that I’m aware of… The best bird app I can recommend is the Roberts Bird App, available from the iStore, but you’ll be identifying everything yourself. That is half the fun though!
    Regards,
    James

    Senior Moment says:

    As you mentioned the ostriches, how are they doing?

    James Tyrrell says:

    Pretty well, Ian!

    They’ve been seen fairly regularly around the grasslands, still with four chicks.

    Regards,
    James

    Jean Kreiseler says:

    I have only recently been enjoying you news and wonderful photos. I visit Botswana regularly where I see some wonderful birds, so am hoping you will include more photos for us birders!

    Claude Lecours says:

    Lovely bunch of photos, and does make me really want to confirm a few things. I’m coming to your camp next September so 1. Does that mean the bird population is pretty light or do you have some non-migratory birds anyhow.
    2. Is it worth bringing a 500 mm lens – pictures often share settings but not focal length – pictures of people on safari appear to be 70 to 200 or 100 to 400 mm lens – but I am a birder too.
    Any clarification would be great !
    Thanks

    James Tyrrell says:

    Hi Claude,
    1. Absolutely not, the bird population is thriving again now that the rains have returned. The cuckoos are back in droves and the weaver colonies are in full swing. It was only during the height of the drought that the bird population seemed quieter. It seems to be business as usually by now, and we have approximately 300 species here at the moment.
    2. For bird photography, a 500mm lens would be great. The extra 100mm, combined with the clarity that a fixed lens brings, makes a big difference. I’ve used a 400mm for birds before and have often found it a little bit short. For general game and the predators a 500mm can be limiting, as you will largely be restricted to portrait shots and photographing things in the distance to capture scenery, but if you have a different lens to bring, say a 70-200mm, you’ll be fine.
    Alternatively we have many lenses for hire here at the lodge, so instead of lugging a whole lot of gear along, you can rent any lens for a few days, even trying different ones if you feel like it.
    Follow this link to check out our rental site: http://photography.londolozi.com/
    Regards

    Trevor says:

    Hi James great blog. Wow how lucky to see that Cuckoo!! Which bird call app do you think is best? We hear bird calls all the time that we can’t identify. We live in a coastal forest with an abundance of birdlife. Some of the calls we learned at Londos but we would like to get more in tune with our feathered friends.

    James Tyrrell says:

    Hi Trevor,
    The Roberts bird app is by far the best. No question! It’s a little more expensive than the others but is far more comprehensive and definitely worth the extra money!

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