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…).
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.
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.
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.
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