When planning a safari in Africa for the first time, I would imagine that most people immediately dream of seeing the Big 5. The thought of birds and exploring the rich world of birdlife seldom seems to be the driving factor for a trip to Africa. Yet once guests arrive, and are bombarded with the sheer diversity and abundance of birds that Londolozi has to offer, it is fantastic to see the shift in appreciation of these incredible animals. With their abundance comes a kaleidoscope of striking colours and an assortment of shapes and sizes to be seen, so what are the ‘Big 5’ equivalents in birds?
The Lappet-faced Vulture is a magnificent bird of prey that inhabits the semi-arid regions of Africa. It is possibly the most impressive and attractive of the vulture species, with its large size, bare face, and distinctive features. This vulture aptly gets its names from the lappets, or large fleshy folds of skin, on the sides of its neck that can be extended, giving the bird a menacing appearance, especially during aggressive encounters.
The Lappet-faced Vulture is known to be the highest flying bird in Africa, recorded soaring at heights of over 7,300 meters (24,000 feet)! Despite being a scavenger, it plays a vital role in the ecosystem by cleaning up and preventing the spread of diseases. With its impressive size, fierce appearance, and unique features, the Lappet-faced vulture truly stands out as one of the most remarkable birds in the African wilderness.
With its similarly impressive size, the Saddle-billed Stork is arguably one of the most recognisable African birds. With its striking black and white plumage distinctive red and yellow bill and unique trumpet-like call, this giant of the stork family is a bird to look out for at any waterhole. Often found in monogamous pairs, these masters of fishing can be found standing dead still waiting for an unlucky fish or frog. The female has a distinctive yellow eye, while the male has a brown eye and a small yellow wattle hanging under his beak.
Southern Ground Hornbill
With deep booming calls sometimes being mistaken for that of a distant lion roar, how could the largest of the hornbill family not take a spot on the list? The Southern Ground Hornbill is a large, black bird with a distinct red facial and throat patch, as well as a large, casque-like structure on top of its bill. With a wingspan of up to two meters and a weight of around four kilograms, it is an imposing and charismatic species. Add in a complex social structure, phenomenal hunting prowess and strong social and cooperative breeding, this is one of my favourite birds.
This powerful raptor is known for its incredible strength, intelligence, and hunting prowess. With a wingspan of up to 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) and tipping the scales at around six kilograms (13 pounds), the Martial Eagle is one of the largest eagles in the world. It has a distinctive black-and-white plumage and a sharp and powerful beak that allows it to quickly and efficiently dispatch its prey, which includes a variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles. A must-do is to visit the resident nest on the reserve and take a look at the magnitude, and diversity of skulls and bones dropped on the ground. These raptors are killing machines.
The largest flying bird on the continent certainly deserves a spot on the list. Adult males can weigh up to 19 kilograms (40 pounds), making them the heaviest birds capable of flight. The Kori Bustard is known for its striking appearance, with greyish-brown plumage and a distinctive black-and-white pattern on the wings. To watch elaborate courtship displays, during which males stand upright and puff up their feathers and air sacs in an attempt to impress females, in the open grasslands is a once-in-a-lifetime sighting not to be missed.
So that concludes what could be deemed the Big Five of the birding world, and all equally deserving of their spot on the list. However, there is one more bird that is just as impressive as the five mentioned above. A large and incredibly unique Owl.
Pel’s Fishing Owl
Honourable mention must go to the most elusive bird on the list, the Pel’s Fishing Owl. With only one record of this beautiful owl on Londolozi to my knowledge, I know of many a ranger (and guest) who have dedicated a large amount of time and effort looking to tick this bird off their list. Their hunting behaviour, which involves diving into water to catch fish, is a spectacle that birders are eager to witness. The combination of its rarity, limited distribution, and captivating hunting technique makes encountering the Pel’s Fishing Owl a significant and highly coveted tick on any birder’s checklist.
The thrill of encountering the Big 6 of African birds while on safari at Londolozi is an experience that truly captivates and inspires. From the striking Martial Eagle to the majestic Lappet-faced Vulture, the Big 6 represents the pinnacle of avian diversity and magnificence. The rare and elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl, the vibrant Southern ground hornbill, the elegant Saddle-billed stork, and the charismatic Kori bustard complete this prestigious group, each possessing its own unique allure.
Observing these magnificent birds in their natural habitats is a testament to the incredible biodiversity that Africa has to offer. The anticipation and awe that fill the air as one catches sight of these extraordinary creatures soaring through the skies or perched upon a lofty tree branch is a truly unforgettable experience. The vibrant plumage, intricate behaviours, and distinct calls of the Big 6 serve as a reminder of the intricate tapestry of life that exists in the African wilderness.
The sheer excitement of spotting each member of the Big 6, often considered a rare and coveted achievement among birdwatching enthusiasts, adds an extra layer of adventure to the already thrilling safari experience.
How many of the Big 6 have you seen? Keep a lookout for them on your next safari!