When one thinks of survival in the bush, we immediately think of buffalo battling with lions, impalas fleeing from cheetahs, or any other such violent encounters between two rival species.
A dictionary will describe the word warfare – of which survival is most definitely a part – as “conflict, especially when vicious and unrelenting, between competitors, rivals.” Two words from this definition stand out to me, conflict and unrelenting.
A warfare that goes on every day here at Londolozi but goes unnoticed to most passers-by, is not one of two heavyweights fighting, but one of two tiny feathered creatures protecting their future offspring. The warfare I speak of is the incessant work done by a Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus) pair to protect their eggs.
I have chosen a particular pair of lapwings on our property to describe how, on a daily basis, they are subjected to relentless threats to their brood of eggs. The two I have chosen are a pair that have decided to set up home around Taylor’s dam – a waterhole that many guests at Londolozi will see on a daily basis as it is situated just outside our camps.
The two protecting parents start work before dawn. They guard their nest – which is usually made very close to water in a hollowed out old footprint or scrape in the earth – one at a time. One sitting on the eggs (usually 3 – 4 in a clutch) and the other close by looking out for any threats.
The massive hippos that have been out the water for the evening begin to return to their water holes, with Taylor’s dam being a very popular spot for hippo. Work begins for the lapwings. As soon as the two parents feel the massive herbivores are getting too close to their nest, they start to sound the alarm, in the hope that this noise will cause the hippos to divert their course. The alarm is piercing and sounds surprisingly similar to a blacksmith hitting his hammer on an anvil, hence their name. The hippos don’t have any interest in the eggs in the nest as a food source, being vegetarians, and hopefully give the nest a wide berth. First job for the pair of lapwings done!
The sun starts to rise and the dawn chorus of birdsong with it. For people, this time of day in the bush is pure magic; everything smells and looks so fresh and crisp, birds serenade us with their beautiful calls; the day has begun. For the two little feathered parents at Taylor’s dam however, this simply means more threats to their eggs that they’ve hopefully managed to protect overnight. With most of the other birds in the area becoming active in the morning, the threat to the eggs can now come from above, and the lapwing’s vigilance needs to ramp up a notch. An African Harier hawk (Polyboroides typus) starts to circle around Taylor’s dam, looking for food in the morning; lapwing eggs would make the perfect breakfast. The lapwings see the hawk, and immediately the bird that isn’t on the nest takes off. Flying straight towards the hawk, it gains height just above the threat and then launches an attack by mobbing it, diving in repeatedly to harass the much larger raptor. The lapwings are extremely persistent. Even though the hawk dwarfs the lapwing in size, the sheer tenacity of these birds is enough to chase the hawk away.
As the morning heat begins to rise, numerous animals start to come down to Taylor’s dam to drink. The hammer-on-anvil is a constant noise, trying to ward off the hooves, paws and pads that pass by the nest.
The African heat really begins to settle over the reserve, and while most animals begin to seek out shade, some are only just getting going, snakes among them. After drawing energy from the sun for most of the morning, a common egg eater (Dasypeltis scabra) moves towards Taylor’s dam, knowing there may be potential food close to the water. Lapwing eggs are one of this snake’s favourites. As the reptile approaches the water’s edge, it notices the two lapwings tending to their nest and starts to approach slowly. The two lapwings, having had quite a busy morning already, are starting to feel tired. The snake gets within 15 metres before the lapwing notices it. The piercing anvil starts up again, accompanied by numerous diving attacks on the snake. The brave bird doesn’t even seem to consider its own safety, its just maternal instinct that seems to be driving the lapwing. After a few minutes of ceaseless attacks on the snake, the snake decides its not worth the trouble and decides to slither off and go look for food elsewhere.
While the day swelters on, the adults take turns to sit on the nest, usually shifts of 20 – 80 minutes.
As the sun moves past its zenith and late afternoon approaches, the lapwings begin to feel the earth shudder slightly bellow them, its that time of the day when quite literally the biggest threat to their eggs is approaching; a herds of elephants. The herds head towards the waterhole to quench their thirst, not knowing that they could potentially step on some tiny little eggs in the process. Elephants can smell water from a long way off, and in their excitement to get to it can sometimes come racing in at high speeds.
The lapwings again start alarm calling intensely to make their presence known. They even open their wings and run around the nest in order to attract the attention of the monstrous animals that are moving past. Incredibly, not one of the 90 massive feet that move past the nest trample on the eggs. The two parents’ relief is almost palpable.
The sun begins to set over Taylor’s dam. The two lapwings have managed to protect their eggs for another day. As soon as the sun sets however, the hippos being to make their way out of the water and the 24-hour-a-day for the two lapwings begins again.
It amazes me how these birds are able to secure the survival of their species with such a strange placement of their nests. One would think that over the years they would begin choosing nest sites further away from all the dangers that the edge of a water hole brings, but they seem to manage and the species survives.
Next time you’re driving past Taylor’s dam at Londolozi and hear the familiar sound of the hammer hitting the anvil, you can give a thought to the two little feathered lapwings who put in so much effort to raise their chicks; true protective parents.