I woke up at 03h00 in the morning hearing an incredible amount of roaring. My fear of missing out took over me and I grabbed a vehicle & spotlight to mission off into the darkness and find the lions. Halfway across the Sand River I managed to sink the vehicle in the soft sand.
So alone I sat in the middle of sand river, hip high in water and in the pitch dark at 03h45 in the morning. After trying to dig myself out, the paranoia of crocodiles hearing the commotion in the water and coming up behind me sent me onto the dry land. I started walking up and down the banks trying to find logs to put under the tyres all the while lions, somewhere in the distance, were roaring their heads off. It was only after jacking the vehicle up 10 times that I realized I was not going anywhere and decided to sit it out with water rushing over the gear box.
After what seemed like an age, my fellow ranger, Rich Ferrier, comes past me and I leave the sunken vehicle to jump, ice cold and wet, into the vehicle with him and his guests. We manage to find the 4 males who are still roaring. Shortly after finding them, they stop to hunt and kill a buffalo bull.
We finished the sighting and went to stop off for a hot mug of coffee at the Sycamore Fig. It was here that we heard an unusual call from the top of the tree. Rich identified as a Cuckoo. As soon as I saw it I realized it was the bird I have been looking for for ages – The Thick Billed Cuckoo.
I know that former ranger, Gaving Lautenbach, had seen it once before at Makomsava on the Manyeleti River. Given the number of Retz’s helmetshrikes in the area (the Thick billed Cuckoo is a brood parasite specifically on that bird) I was sure we should be able to see it at some stage.
Described as a rare resident or local visitor, I discussed the possibility with a leading South African ornithologist Geoff Lockwood and he said it is possible that the Thickbilled Cuckoo would be found in our area. He requested that if we did see it we must try and get a photograph of it. These pictures can be seen above and below:
Having researched the sightings, the bird has been seen in the Sabi Sand area before, but the majority of sightings have been in the Pafuri area in the north of the Kruger National Park. There are very few sightings of Thickbilled cuckoo in winter in the Mpumulanga region.
The call was completely different its pale chest and plain grey back characteristic and yellow ring around the eye put it behind doubt. As I danced around the Sycamore fig hacking for a clear shot of the bird jumping from branch to branch in the canopy I finally had a glimpse of the bird in the open.
What started off as a complete nightmare of a day ended up being one of my greatest days in the bush.
Written & Photographed by: Graeme Marais