Since many of our guests at Kapama are from outside South Africa and often first time visitors to our gorgeous country, most game drives start off by being about finding the big stuff, like elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, and big cats. Giraffes, zebras and other general game make the list too, so there’s seldom a dull moment, but sometimes you come across something you didn’t even think to hope for.
One morning, after a few very successful drives in which we spent a lot of time with most of the Big Five, we left a particularly good lion sighting and came across one such surprise sighting: three ground hornbills foraging in the road.
Anyone who’s ever come across a ground hornbill will tell you they’re fascinating birds, not just in appearance, but also in their habits. They’re large (nearly 4 kilograms heavy and up to a meter tall), black and heavy looking, with adult birds boasting bright faces and wattles. If you’re lucky enough to see them it’ll probably be when they’re ambling unhurriedly through the bush, rooting out goggas (bugs), rodents, lizards and just about anything that takes their fancy. Up close (they’re sometimes inquisitive enough to approach vehicles) they have large, intelligent yellow eyes, and long dark eyelashes that would give the Kardashian sisters a run for their money. Even if you haven’t seen them, it’s possible you’ve heard their deep, reverberating booming call early in the morning, like a distant lion roaring at the rising sun.
Ground hornbills are critically endangered, mainly because they’re so picky about where they nest – big, natural holes in old trees are hard enough to come by even in protected areas – but also because they have very specific requirements for successful breeding. Every pair mates for life and needs at least one other pair of helpers to help them keep a handle on things, even though only one chick from every brood survives. This chick is dependant on his/her team of caregivers for over two years, which means that even those who find a suitable tree and have responsible helpers can only raise one chick every three years. You might be justified in thinking it serves them right for being so difficult, but perhaps the fact that they’re the only bird species believed to play with their chicks might redeem them.
So every ground hornbill sighting is one to cherish, and whenever I get the chance to share those sightings with guests from home or abroad, I hope they’re if not more, then as memorable as all the big stuff.
Written by: Janri Olivier
While driving back to the lodge at the end of a great afternoon game drive we came across a spotted eagle owl sitting in the road. We stopped to enjoy the presence of this wise old owl.
We noticed that she was holding something in her talons and on closer inspection saw see that she had a dung beetle in her grasp. She held it down and did not seem very interested in her prize. All of a sudden she hopped into the air leaving the beetle behind and flew to the other side of the road where we could see some movement on the road.
As we continued watching her we saw that she was dancing around a large scorpion, trying to get the scorpion into a position that would suit her. The whole time the scorpion kept up its defence by lashing out with its tail, trying to sting the owl. This didn’t deter the owl as she pounced on the body of the scorpion and in a flash had bitten the sting off the tail of the scorpion, rendering it harmless.
How wise of the owl as now the spotted eagle owl could take her time and just stood on the scorpion for a few moments before picking it up in her beak and swallowing it alive.
She proceeded to spread her wings and fly off into the night.
As summer arrives, we have many new visitors in the form of feathers. With their beautiful colours and impressive flying skills, we have quite a few keen birders coming through the lodge. I enjoy watching all our summer migrants, but one of my favourite to photograph is the Lilac Breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus). I have sat for some time watching, and waiting for them to fly away to get the perfect action shot.
They usually prefer open woodland and savanna, sometimes alone or in pairs, it perches conspicuously at the tops of trees, poles or other high vantage points from where it can spot insects, lizards, scorpions, snails, small birds and rodents moving about at ground level.
They have quite a distinguishable lilac colour on their breast, and a unique set of tail feathers which separate out into two distinct ends, quite different (but often confused with) to the other roller in their family, the European Roller.
If you enjoy your birds, whether looking at to appreciate or to take photos of, summer is a good time for birds, especially all the colourful ones we don’t see during the winter months.
Story by Kevin (River Lodge)
Birds are such fascinating creatures… for example, the male hornbill would first attract a female by singing to establish his territory, thus after a certain period of advertising, he would find a suitable mate.
The female will then select a hole in a tree for the nest in which she will be laying the eggs. When the female is ready to lay eggs she will go into the hole, pull out all her feathers to make it safe and comfortable for the hatchlings and then the male would then cover the hole with mud. He makes with saliva and soft sand to protect the female and the young. He will leave only a small hole through which he will be able to feed the female.
This continues for a certain period of time until the hatchlings are ready for first flight. This will only happen once the female’s feathers have grown back. As cruel as nature might be, if the male somehow dies while the female is in the hole then the female and the young will unfortunately perish too due to the fact that they cannot break out and there is no way of being fed. This is the unfortunate fate of some of our interesting creatures.
Pieter – Kapama River Lodge
There are sightings and then there are sightings. While most first time safari goers are looking for The Big 5 sightings and other things like a Lion killing a Buffalo, people who have been on safari over and over and over again are looking to build up their safari sighting profile with more exotic, or unattainable, sightings. For some, like Twitchers, they’re looking for Lifer Birds like Pel’s Fishing Owl, or for big cat specialists, their looking for unusual interactions between species or for specific Leopards, etc. For myself I am always looking for the unusual, the different, or the once in a lifetime type sighting.
The other day, my guests and I were fortunate enough to witness a sighting in the different, or even once in a lifetime category. W were busy looking for Lion, when one of my guests asked me to please stop and back up as he’d seen a bird he was interested in. As we reversed there, on the left hand side of the car not more than half a meter from us, sat a Dark Chanting Goshawk on a very low branch. We stopped and chatted about it for awhile. The Goshawk was very calm, not moving, just enjoying the day. After five minuets or so, the bird still had not moved, which is unusual. It was a full grown adult, not a juvenile, so he should had carried off after sitting so close to the vehicle for so long.
Then, to my delight, the Goshawk jumped to the ground and started hop-walking towards a very small bush. He then started to jump and flap on top of the bush, moving this side and then that. For twenty-five minutes we watched this beautiful raptor try and hunt something out of a thorny bush. There were no audible noises coming from the small shrub, so I could not for the moment ascertain what type of creature the bird was after, but I explained to my guests that they usually eat small mammals like mice and shrew and also other smaller birds. I’ve even seen one eating a fully Crested Francolin.
As we were reaching the 30 minute mark of this fantastic sighting small little squeals started coming from the bush. Bingo! A mouse and the Goshawk had obviously finally hit home with his sharp and slightly curved at the end beak. A few seconds later in a furry of half opened wings and squeals the Goshawk emerge with a baby field mouse in his beak struggling and pleading. He then proceeded to fly up the tallest tree he could find to consume his hard earned meal. FABULOUS and unusual sighting indeed!
By: Noelle DiLorenzo – River Lodge Ranger
Every year in November birders from across South Africa get together and try to identify as many birds as they can within a 24 hour period. The competition is organised by BirdLifeSA and the results are used to establish which birds occur where, as well as other information about numbers and distribution of rare birds.
At Kapama we have some especially good sightings, particularly of the big cats. But we also have a huge variety of birds here. So on the 27th of November tracker Vusi Nkosi, ranger Jordan Jacobson and I set out to see how many of the birds we could find.
While many people find the birds intimidating and think that they are hard to identify, once you break it down they become much easier to recognise. Once you exclude those that don’t occur in your area, you can then narrow it down further by looking at which family they belong to. From there you can look at the sizes. This should then leave you with a handful of birds to sort through. By this process of elimination you can identify many birds quite simply. Another big clue to the different species is to listen out for their calls. Interestingly many of the more drab, shy and seldom seen birds have quite distinctive calls that offer instant identification to any avid birder. Again, with the calls there is a huge variety and it can seem overwhelming. How could you possibly identify a bird from just a few notes? And you can’t even see it? Well if you think about it, how many songs can you identify just from the first few notes? Even songs you may never have heard for years.
In the end, using both sight and sound we were able to identify 154 different bird species. Most of these species we were able to see simply driving around, while some we found walking along the Klaserie River. Unfortunately, even though we looked for a few “special” birds we were unable to find them. Those on the “specials” list included the Pel’s Fishing Owl, Narina Trogon and the White Backed Night Heron. These birds are lifers for many birders and even for the guides who are out here every day.
Next year we hope to improve on these numbers and even though we came first in our category for birds we should be able to find at least 50 more species, and get past the 200 mark.
Mike Kirkman – Senior Ranger, Kapama Karula