The other morning I was on Founders Camp deck, looking over the beautiful, albeit quite dry Sand River when I noticed a great variety of storks.
A saddle-billed pair, the most beautiful of the family, came in for a gentle landing a few metres in front of a hunched marabou stork. To its left were three yellow-billed storks, their plumage tinged pink and above them in a Marula tree was an African openbill, typically quite a rarity. Below them, on the edge of a large shallow puddle was a black stork and as if that wasn’t enough, a woolly-necked stork flew overhead. It was a birder’s paradise.
It seemed to me that there were more storks than normal but why? The different species of storks differ ever-so-slightly in terms of their favoured habitat but as I looked out, I saw that all of them were getting what they needed. The saddle-billed stork and black stork enjoy forested water bodies, river systems, lake margins and wetlands. Whilst the yellow-billed stork is mostly found in inland freshwater bodies. The wooly-necked stork enjoys wetland or rivers, both natural and cultivated and the marabou stork actually prefers semi-arid areas where carrion is readily available. As I looked out from the Founders Deck, I realised that the area stretching in front of me offered every single one of these species their ideal habitat. There are also plenty of fish, insects and frogs in the river at the moment, which are common delicacies in all of the storks diets.
But why had we never seen storks in such high concentrations together before? What had changed?
Well what I soon realised was that the water level was much lower than it normally is at this time of the year. With the lack of rainfall, the water level in the river is leaving fish, frogs and small water insects exposed. This makes fishing easier for the storks and enables them to all have a good meal. As barbels or frogs moved around in the shallow water, the storks snapped them up easily and it was fascinating to watch. We even got to see the incredibly dextrous and well-adapted way in which the African openbill uses its beak to open fresh water mussels. The Cubs Den kids I had with me at the time were absolutely riveted and we watched this show of nature through our binoculars, right from the comfort of the camp.
And what I ended up seeing that morning was a whole different perspective of this dry summer, from a storks view. Five of these birds are listed as Near-Threatened and one as Endangered and yet they were all thriving in this area due to this now easily accessible food source. It reminded me that although the coming months may be difficult for some species, it is also going to show up some really interesting, unseen behaviour and sightings and that it will encourage us to look at life from some new and different perspectives.