As is understandable, most of our guests arrive with visions of the Big 5 in mind; lions, leopards and elephants are what they anticipate seeing, and hopefully are also what they get to see.
However, the feathered inhabitants of Londolozi, and indeed the African bush in general, often get overlooked, and this is a real shame, seeing as how their sheer numbers and diversity are far greater than those of the mammals. Whilst the total mammal count at Londolozi hovers somewhere in the double digits, the bird total nears the 400 mark; an impressive number to try and tick off. Some of them (about 30% in fact) only visit us during the summer months, but we are still left with well over 200 birds that are here year round, and no safari should be considered complete without ticking off at least a few of the more prominent ones.
Where to start, though? That is the tricky part. It can be a daunting prospect setting out to try and identify a few hundred birds. But as Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So too should birding. Start with a few basics, learn ten or twenty different birds, and hopefully this will be enough to pique your interest.
Since any visitor to Londolozi will have time off between game drives, spent in and around camps, we thought we’d launch our birding series with seven common birds that can either be found on the camp pathways or viewed from deck.
Learn these and I can almost guarantee you’ll start to want to know more…
- Emerald Spotted Wood Dove
A number of doves and pigeons inhabit Londolozi and the surrounding areas. First of all, the difference between a pigeon and a dove is pretty vague, so don’t even ask.
Secondly, a number of them can look quite similar, so I thought I’d avoid those, also avoiding the green pigeon which, although beautiful, can be a difficult species to spot as it spends its time in the dense canopy of fruit trees.
The Emerald Spotted Wood Dove is an easily recognisable species. It spends much of its time on the ground foraging, and when startled flies off with rapid wingbeats. A patch of cinnamon is visible on the trailing edge of the wings at it flies.
The bird gets its name from the brilliant emerald spots seen on its wings, although the emerald is not as iridescent and is a little bit harder to make out when the bird is in shadow. In direct sunlight however, it certainly does look like two brilliant jewels are embedded in the wings.
As DNA analysis and species classification has developed in recent years, so too have a number of birds had their names changed in order to keep up with the times, and the emerald spotted wood dove was changed to the emerald spotted dove, and then the far less romantic sounding green-spotted dove. Thankfully however, the powers that be reinstated the original name, and the emerald spotted wood dove is what it is today. You should see a number of these pretty little birds during your time here, whether in the camp or out on drive.
2. African Fish Eagle
One of Londolozi’s – and Africa’s – more iconic birds, the African Fish Eagle is often to be seen (and heard) soaring above the Sand River in front of the camp decks. A pair of them actually nest on the opposite side of the river, and their courtship flights during the breeding season are something to behold. Although it’s difficult to tell male from female on appearance, they can be distinguished when calling in duet, as the male has a higher pitched call than the female.
The Fish Eagle obviously gets its name from the fact that it eats fish, and so successful is it as a hunter that it only needs to spend about 1% of its day actually engaged in the activity of fishing. Having said that, these large eagles often find it easier to simply steal from other birds, and on many occasions I have seen them watching and waiting for a heron or stork to snatch up a fish, and then swoop down to scare the rightful owner of the catch away.
Look out for fish eagles flying above camp in the day time, or perched above a waterhole in the morning or evening.
3. Giant Kingfisher
Continuing the waterbird theme, we thought we’d introduce one of Londolozi’s noisiest, the Giant Kingfisher. As the name suggests, this bird also catches fish, plunging into the water to spear them with its powerful sharp bill.
A highly vociferous bird, the giant kingfishers of the river can often be heard uttering their nasal chatter as they fly rapidly up- and downstream in front of the camp decks.
The bird in the picture above is a female, identified by the russet only starting low down on her belly. The male giant kingfisher has the russet patch higher up towards his chin. If you imagine the male wearing a russet shirt and the female a russet skirt, it makes it easier to remember…
Look out for Giant kingfishers when crossing the Sand River, in particular at the Causeway, as there is often one perched on the Matumi tree towards the Northern bank.
4. Grey Heron
One of Africa’s more ubiquitous waterbirds, the grey herons of Londolozi can be found at almost every large waterbody on the reserve, either wading in the shallows or perched on the bank or a prominent feature. Their colouration makes them almost impossible to confuse with almost any other heron here, except occasionally the black-headed heron, although since the black-headed heron is quite rare in these parts and doesn’t frequent water-side habitats as closely, the situation should not arise.
Looking at the photograph, it is easy to see how the body structure of the heron is perfect for stabbing at fish. The long neck provides the thrust and the sharp bill is the weapon.
Look out for grey herons perched upon the Granite Camp rocks or flying with slow ponderous wingbeats in the evenings as they head towards their roosting sites.
5. Pied Kingfisher
Another relatively ubiquitous bird, the pied kingfisher is significantly smaller than the giant (25cm vs 44cm) yet is far more numerous, with multiple individuals being found along most stretches of the river.
The pied kingfisher is difficult to overlook, as it fishes from a hovering position (flying stationary in one spot) above a pool, diving vertically onto its prey. Kingfishers (and other fishing birds) have a unique ability to compensate for the refraction of light through the water. In essence, the fish or prey species they are looking at under the surface is not actually where it appears to be, yet their brain makes calculated adjustments that sees them diving down to the right spot.
If you sit for only ten minutes with some binoculars, scanning from the deck of your room or from the main camp decks, you should be almost guaranteed a pied kingfisher sighting.
6. Purple Crested Turaco
This is a bird that is heard far more than it is seen, but is worth including for its sheer beauty. A frugivore, it spends most of its time in the densely foliated canopies of the riparian trees that are found dotted throughout the Londolozi camps, particularly the figs and Jackalberries. It’s loud kok-kok-kok call is usually the first giveaway of its presence, possibly followed by a brilliant flash of scarlet as it spreads its wings and flies to the next tree. The bright red pigment, Turacin, that forms this colour, is unique to the Turaco family, as is its counterpart, Turacoverdin, that gives some turacos their green hues.
7. White-Browed Robin Chat
Another bird that is heard more than it is seen, the white-browed robin chat has a beautiful melodious call, which we often associate with the robins. This bird has also changed its name, as it used to be called the Heuglin’s robin (after German explorer Theodor von Heuglin) but it is its distinctive white eyebrow that gives it its name today. Definitely one of the camp’s more beautiful birds, it is however fairly furtive, often preferring to remain in cover, and actually get a clear view of one can be tricky.
Those are just a few of the more prominent birds you might encounter during your next stay at Londolozi. We’ll be running an ongoing birding series in the forthcoming months, looking at different habits, birds of prey, nocturnal birds etc., so keep following the blog if you want to learn some more about this hugely undervalued part of the safari experience.