The birding at Londolozi over the past couple of days has been quite spectacular. Several species are in the peak of their breeding period, sporting lavish breeding plumages while the insectivorous kind are gorging themselves on the many creepy-crawlies that emerge with the rains at this time of year.
Migrants have become more plentiful with the arrival of the Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, Harlequin Quails, White Storks and Spur-wing Geese to name a few.
There has also been a pair of Red Billed Teals seen on the reserve as well as two separate sightings of a Capped Wheatear, neither of which are common species in the region – the latter in fact having never been recorded at Londolozi.
Another species that we see a great deal more of during the wetter summer months is the rather peculiar looking, intra-African migrant; the African Comb Duck (formally the Knob-billed Duck).
Male Comb Ducks get their name from the large, compressed protrusion on their upper bill, known as a comb, which swells during the breeding season. It is used to impress females and challenge other males during courtship displays. Here, a Comb Duck sits perched in a dead tree; not neccessarily a place you’ll often find ducks.
With good rains having fallen this season relative to the last few years, the many wallows and pans are being kept filled with a healthy amount of water. This may be the reason we are seeing more of these Comb Ducks (as well as many other waterbirds) than we usually do, given their dependence on bodies of water.
Recently while out on game drive, we came to a marshy area that regularly plays host to an array of water birds. On the far side of the marsh we immediately noticed a burst of activity as water was being splashed all about. We drove a little closer and saw two male Comb Ducks squaring up for battle. They both paused for a moment to look at us and then continued their dual. The amount of aggression shown from both birds was astounding as they thrashed their bodies around in the water. We sat there for a while as things unfolded.
Initially the birds were slightly out of the deeper water, on the grassy patches in the foreground, but took to the deeper parts soon after we got there. With wings stretched wide and heads tilted back, they would circle around each other for a few seconds before clashing.
Shoulder to shoulder and wings still out-stretched, they would push their bodies into one another, butting heads from side to side at the same time. Both began to use their combs as a weapon in this moment, each delivering a few blows to the other’s neck and head.
Birds often use their wings as tools of intimidation, to appear larger than their competitor, as clearly seen here by the duck on the right. Treading water frantically with his webbed feet, he raises his body almost entirely out of the water while the other prepares himself for the blow to come. If anyone has ever treaded water for any length of time you’ll be able to appreciate how much energy these birds must have used in this fight – a clear sign of how important breeding rights and dominance are for these wild animals.
Taken a few moments after the last image, this photograph shows an amazing counter-attack executed by the bird on the left who, with a lightning-fast swing of his left wing to the head of the duck on the right, diffused an attack that was building up from the other. Left and right wing blows were shared for at least 10 minutes while we watched.
We soon started to see the duck on the left start to dominate. He was getting his body higher out of the water than his competitor and delivering some hefty blows.
The final shot! Almost airborne, the duck on the left leaps forward and swings with his right wing. The duck on the right, with no apparent defense, takes the blow to the neck and finally turns his back to swim away in a clear display of submissive behaviour. With the victory now sealed, both ducks retreated to their corners to gather their breath with the loser eventually leaving the marsh altogether.
Having just witnessed out very own version of the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ we moved on, leaving the winning duck to recover in peace. Although no females were in sight at the time of the fight, the victor would have secured his dominance in the area which ultimately allows him a better chance of mating in the coming days. Given that he overpowered the other duck, it ensures that the stronger gene among the species is passed on to future generations. Most certainly not a sighting that is seen very often.