“When is the best time to visit the bush?” is a question that those of us who are lucky enough to live in this environment get asked fairly often. The answer is not a straightforward one. “It all depends who you speak to you” is the response I usually give before launching into a whole lot of different reasons why. Many people will say that you should visit in the drier winter months of the year because the bush is not too thick and its easier to spot animals. It is also much cooler out on game drives and there are less mosquitoes and bugs etc. etc. Whilst this all has elements of truth to it, it leaves out one very important piece of information and that is that during this time that a whole host of colourful, melodious, rare and beautiful feathery creatures leave us in search of better feeding grounds and more comfortable climates during the winter. So in honour of these oft –overlooked avian friends I’ve decided to look back at the last couple of months and put together a list of some of the birding highlights at Londolozi, as well as take a look at where some of the most abundant birds in summer disappear to during our winter.
Thick Billed Cuckoo
The Cuckoo family is one of the more famous traveling families in the bird kingdom, with the majority of them leaving Southern Africa at the end of summer and migrating to various parts of Africa and Europe. Whilst it is not uncommon to see most cuckoo species during their stay in Southern Africa, there has always been one species that has eluded me for quite some time and that is the Thick-Billed Cuckoo. The irony here is that it is one of the only species of cuckoo that’s listed as a resident in Southern Africa which means that it doesn’t migrate! However, The bird books list it as “uncommon to rare” and to the untrained eye it can sometimes be confused with the Jacobin or the Levaillant’s Cuckoo when viewed at a distance.
Early one morning in late January a couple of us set off on a birding mission with Graeme “Stompie” Marais who had come up for a few days to lead us in some birding training, as well to set some pretty tough refresher bird call and picture tests for the ranging team! He was still on a birding high after just having seen a rare Spotted Crake for the first time back home in Johannesburg and so the expectations were big. The morning progressed slowly as we bumbled around the northern parts of the reserve until Kate Imrie directed our attention to a bird perched at the top of a nearby tree; simultaneously all binoculars went up as everyone wanted to be the first one to call out the name of the bird. I immediately could tell that it was a cuckoo but wasn’t too sure which one. Graeme could barely contain his excitement and started rattling off all the distinguishing features that separated it from the other cuckoos and then triumphantly proclaimed “Thick Billed Cuckoo!” Even though Graeme had seen it before it was a new one for the rest of us and became the definite highlight of the morning!
Rufous Bellied Heron
Grey, Purple, Goliath and Green-backed herons are the more famous members of the heron family and are often seen around the river and various waterholes on Londolozi. One that is not often seen at all is the Rufous-Bellied Heron and we were lucky enough to have this beautiful bird come and visit us for a couple of weeks at the beginning of the year. Knowing that this bird had recently been seen at Trogon Dam, not far from the lodges and the Sand River, as well as knowing that it favours the thicker vegetation alongside the water’s edge in order to prey on fish, frogs and insects, I would scan every inch alongside the waters edge each time I passed the dam hoping to spot it. Eventually, in a pile of dead branches tucked away in the shadows and very close to the water I made out the distinctive dark reddish-brown colouring and the striking bright yellow bill of this beautiful and shy bird for the first time.
The Rufous-Bellied heron is not regularly seen at all in South Africa, and with most of the population regularly found in wetlands alongside the Okavango, Linyati and Chobe Rivers further north, it was certainly a special bird for the area. There were various sightings around the reserve of it (most likely the same bird) and so most of the rangers and their guests were able to add this one to their lists.
African Emerald Cuckoo
Arguably the most beautiful cuckoo in the family, it has evaded most of the birders at Londolozi for quite some time. Only a lucky few had been able to add a tick next to this exquisite bird until early one March morning when it landed in a tree right outside some of the houses in the staff village and practically shouted out to be seen. With it’s very distinctive “Pretty Georgie” call it had a lot of staff abandoning their duties to run and fetch their binoculars and cameras to try and lay eyes on it. David Dampier, looking for any excuse to leave his desk in the finance office, was very quick on the draw and managed to snap some pictures in the tough light that showed off its stunning green and yellow colours.
There is still a chance we may get another glimpse of this mysterious bird but so far it’s been over a week and we haven’t heard the distinctive call again. With winter only about two months away and food sources starting to dwindle it may be the case that it has turned northwards in search of more favourable conditions. The African Emerald Cuckoo does not leave the continent during our winters, like some of the other migrating birds do, instead it heads up to central and west Africa where it favours the dense woodland and riparian forests in search of caterpillars and grasshoppers.
Being one the largest birds of prey we find out here, Vultures are not too difficult to spot. We are very lucky to get excellent sightings of White Backed, Lappet-faced, Hooded and White-Headed vultures and watching them interact around carcasses is always fascinating. Kevin Power couldn’t believe his luck one morning a couple of weeks back when on his game drive he saw some vulture activity in the distance and went closer to investigate. Upon his arrival he saw lots of vultures scrapping over the last remaining pieces of a carcass. At first glance they all seemed to be White-Backed Vultures but then he saw one that looked just a little bit different to the others. It was considerably bigger and paler than the more common white-backed vulture, and when it took flight it had a row of black dots running along the underwing which meant that Kevin could now add the Cape Vulture to his bird list as all those features are very diagnostic of this magnificent bird.
One of the reasons this was such a special sighting is because even though the Cape Vulture is a southern African resident, it is usually associated with higher, more mountainous areas further inland like the Drakensberg Mountains and over the escarpment into Lesotho. They nest high on cliff faces and are known to cover very large distances in search of food. This particular bird that Kevin saw must have flown all the way from the Drakensberg mountains that lie a hundred kilometres to our west. With only a few thousand Cape Vultures left in the wild and the fact that they are listed as near-endemic birds to Southern Africa it certainly went down as a sighting to be remembered.
These are just 4 of the special sightings that we were lucky enough to see this summer and they were chosen because they caused the biggest stir amongst the Londolozi birders. The other top highlights which caused excitement amongst everyone included a Broad-Billed Roller pair, Dwarf Bittern, Dusky Lark, Kori Bustard, Collared Pratincole, Montagu’s Harrier, Eurasian Honey Buzzard and then, of course, there is the one lonely female Ostrich that continues to be seen in the open areas in the South of the reserve.
Now that summer in the Southern Hemisphere is over we bid farewell to a number of birds who head further north into Africa and also off the continent. The extremely colourful and noisy Woodland Kingfisher who’s call is arguably the most indicative of a lowveld summer spends our winter further north in Africa around the equator even venturing as far north as South Sudan. The European Bee-Eater and European Roller leave the continent entirely and, as their names suggest, spread out through most of Europe making the most of the summer up there. The Red-Backed shrike leaves Africa to venture far and wide throughout the western parts of Asia as well as Europe. The Great Spotted cuckoo travels to Spain, Turkey and Iraq. (To name just a few.) Jacobin Cuckoo’s are spotted in Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka and Burma and some Spotted Flycatchers even head to Scandinavia and Finland.
Even though some birds choose to leave us many more do stay behind and brave the winter chill. The reasons they stay behind vary but one positive is there is not as much competition for food like there is in summer and so birding during this time can definitely still turn out a few specials!
Even if they are not particularly rare birds, keeping a bird list and taking time to appreciate all of them around us everyday opens up a whole new world to us in the bush and makes us realize the true diversity and beauty of what we have around us on a daily basis. You can even start with the abundant bird life we have right here in the camp. Here’s looking forward to the next ‘lifer’!