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.
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.
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.
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.
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…