Each year, BirdLife South Africa – a registered non-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation of birds – selects a particular species as ‘Bird of the Year’.
This initiative aims to simply raise awareness and bring some understanding to the general public of the species chosen.
This year, the Southern Ground Hornbill was selected as the Bird of 2020. As a species that has come under threat in the past few decades, largely due to poisoning and habitat loss, the Southern Ground Hornbill is certainly a bird that needs a bit more recognition. And what better way to celebrate this threatened species than finding a nesting flock on Londolozi!
Ground Hornbills are not often seen at Londolozi, they are quite shy by nature but also simply don’t occur in large numbers. Sadly, they have decreased by 80% of their original range and are nowadays only seen consistently in protected areas. Aside from habitat destruction (usually to make way for agriculture) and poisoning (which is in fact often indirect, and passed on through them feeding on poisoned pests like rats) these hornbills have a very slow reproductive rate which makes it very difficult for them to bounce back from their endangered status in South Africa. On average, a flock of Southern Ground Hornbills will successfully raise a single chick to adulthood only every 6-9 years!
The past few weeks we have had some fairly consistent viewing of these rare birds in a particular area of the reserve alongside one of the many dry river beds. The fact that they were repeatedly seen in this small area sparked suspicions amongst the team that they could possibly nest there but, given that they don’t breed every year, we didn’t keep our hopes too high and just continued to enjoy having them around while keeping a sharp eye for any sign of a nest.
A few mornings ago we happened upon these same birds in the same area; a flock of about six individuals, milling about in a Tamboti thicket.
While viewing them, tracker Euce Madonsela was scanning with his binoculars before he turned to us and suggested that we have a closer look at a dead Leadwood tree nearby in which two of the birds were perched. Ground Hornbills will almost always nest in a large, natural tree cavity a couple of feet off the ground so, as we slowly approached the tree, we were looking to see if the Leadwood had any suitable nest sites in its thick trunk.
The two birds that were perched there flew off as we got a little closer and soon we saw what would be an ideal cavity for a nest, about four meters above the ground. As we took a closer look with our binoculars another hornbill, presumably the mother, hopped out onto the rim of the cavity and then off into another tree. We were now quite certain that the hornbills were either inspecting a potential nest site, preparing the nest or already incubating eggs inside. With the mother now off the nest, we had the chance to see the base of cavity and caught sight of two eggs safely stashed inside on a bed of dead leaves. We didn’t hang around and decided to move off and allow the mother and the rest of the flock a to chance to return to the tree.
It’s difficult to be certain when the eggs were laid but they will be incubated by the mother for about 40 days in total. Once they hatch, the mother will remain in the nest for another four weeks, all the while being fed by the rest of the flock whose sole purpose is to provide for the mother and her chick and who will never actually breed themselves.
Interestingly, although two eggs have been laid, only the first to hatch will actually be raised by the flock – the second egg being laid only as an insurance policy should the first hatchling not survive its first few days. This is quite a common practise among several bird species.
Over the next while we will give the nest some space in order to allow the birds to comfortably get on with their task without the disturbance of vehicles and people moving about around them, all in the hopes of giving them their best chance of success. From a safe distance, we will await any clues as to when the chicks have hatched at which point we’ll post a follow up story or two which will delve into some of the finer details of this fascinating bird and its co-operative breeding behaviour. For now, let’s hope the flock and the eggs remain safe and hopefully there will be one more Southern Ground Hornbill roaming about in a couple months time.