The avian residents of Londolozi are certainly not the foremost reason why people visit. There are far more popular birding destinations throughout Southern Africa where people are likely to tick more than a few lifers and that boast a bird list more impressive than ours (which is just shy of 400, unless my memory serves me wrong).
Birding is an integral part of the guiding regime here though, and is a large component of the guide training that takes place. Understanding the different microhabitats of the reserve and all their inhabitants – feathered or otherwise – is the only way to give a truly all-round bush experience.
Some guests visit the African bush without any interest in its airborne fauna, but there are a few species that we see at Londolozi that can not only pique a first-time visitor’s interest, but can actually leave them speechless.
While other people’s lists may differ, I’ve selected a few of my own favourites that have never failed to impress the people they are shown to:
One of Africa’s largest, and certainly the largest eagle we see at Londolozi, the Martial is virtually unmistakeable thanks to its sheer size. Able to kill small antelopes (although their favourite prey is monitor lizards), the resident pair we know of on Londolozi have an incredible assortment of grizzly remains littered around their nest; monkey skulls, duiker vertebrae, lizard tails and a whole host of gory trinkets dot the grass at the base of the enormous marula tree in which their nest is placed.
Birds are often not on first-time visitors’ “must-see” lists, but if guests are lucky enough to see this one of these imposing eagles, they will generally become instant bird converts.
Many of you will have seen our delightful Valentines Post from earlier this year, featuring the female ostrich of Londolozi. As lovely as her story was/is, it was simply a happy ending story about her long wait for a partner, and made no mention of some of her species’ basic stats.
When a bird stands 2 metres tall, can run at 70km/h, has a toenail that could potentially kill a would-be predator when used in conjunction with a fearsome kick and lays eggs that are 15cm long, you are bound to be impressed.
We are fortunate to now have a number of these, the largest birds in the world, roaming our southern grasslands.
A tiny bird that is often overlooked, one cannot help but gasp when first viewing the azure blue of a malachite kingfisher through binoculars. These small yet incredibly colourful birds populate Londolozi’s waterways, but are only occasionally seen, usually as one zips by like a hypersonic mosquito, low over the water, on their way to another reed perch, from which it will spy out small fish to hunt. A combination of the low number of sightings and their striking blue make them one of my favourites. Sadly for them, their colours don’t get as much press as the next bird on the list…
Unofficially Africa’s most photographed bird, the Lilac-breasted roller certainly tops the list of birds that make guests go “Ooh, stop, stop, stop!” as one flies past at the start of the safari. With 7 different shades of blue in their plumage, as well as greens, purples and a host of other colours, the LBR is hard to miss out in the field. Their raucous call is certainly not as beautiful as their plumage, yet it is their breeding display that adds to their appeal as a bird to watch; swooping down on spread wings, rocking dramatically from side to side as they try to impress a mate. Fortunately they are a common bird at Londolozi, and are a virtual guarantee to see on a safari.
African Fish Eagle
The Fish Eagle is found all over Africa where there is water in abundance. They pair for life (like most eagles) and can usually be seen soaring high over the Londolozi camps in the middle of the day, their haunting call echoing out along the Sand River. As their name suggests, they exist mainly on a diet of fish, swooping low over the river and waterholes to pluck their prey from just under the surface while still on the wing. They are notorious thieves as well, and aren’t above chasing one of the local herons off a catch it has just made.
A lot of American visitors are partial to a fish eagle sighting, as thy look so similar to the American Bald Eagle.
Visitors to the Kruger National Park over the last few years may have seen posters asking for updates and information on any Saddle-billed storks that had been seen. Their population was on the decline and the Park was initiating a monitoring program.
Thankfully, we have a very healthy population on Londolozi, with a number of pairs dotted around the reserve. Their striking bills and black-and-white plumage are unmistakeable, and their sheer size never fails to grab attention. Watching one take off is a truly impressive sight, and of all the stork species we see on Londolozi, this has to be the most popular.
Lesser Masked Weaver
For sheer constructive genius and efficiency in the bird world, one need look no further than the weavers. The lesser masked species (pictured here) is a colonial nester, and as the grasses surge through over the next few weeks after the onset of the proper rains, we can expect the local weaver population to leap into action as the males begin their nest construction. Forget about the intricacies of the weave and the flights back and forth and back and forth to collect grass to build with (only fresh green grass is used). Know only that this tiny little bird can make one of these nests in a single day!
We’ll go into the actual mating displays and construction of the nests in a later post; for now I just wanted to draw attention to the massively under-appreciated skill of this masterful little builder.
Africa’s largest vulture, the Lappet-Faced defines impressive. With a wing-span of almost 3 metres, a huge beak and bright pink face, there’s no way it can be mistaken for any other bird.
Although we don’t see them often at Londolozi, owing to their low numbers and large territories, it’s quite an event when we do see them at kills, standing to one side and towering over their smaller cousins.
Despite being part of the ‘Ugly 5’ – the fact that these birds weigh up to 10kg and stand over a metre tall can’t help but breed a certain amount of admiration from even those with no outward interest in birds.
With this being just 8 of 400 or so possible birds to see here, you begin to get a taste of what diversity an interest in birds can give you on a safari. If you could choose your top 8, which species would you include?