A festival of birds in the Kruger National Park

Posted by Chloe Cooper on 4 August 2014

On a recent day trip to the Kruger National Park I was introduced to the private Mananga Trail – a discrete off-road route that follows the winding Nwanetsi River near Satara, and provides solace for an astounding amount of game. And birds!

For twitchers like me, the Kruger National Park is a haven for bird watching, and along this quiet trail near the well-known Satara rest camp, secretary birds, bateleur eagles, saddle-billed storks and African hawk eagles cast shadows on the ground. Wire-tailed swallows, white-fronted bee-eaters, lilac-breasted rollers and Cape glossy starlings add splashes of colour to the green and brown foliage, while oxpeckers and cattle egrets lead us to herds of elephant, buffalo, and hippo seeking shade from the sun.

The brown snake eagle a prominent sight in the Kruger Park, often seen atop trees. In true snake eagle fashion, these hunters descend on their snake prey, crushing the spine with their talons and biting the head simultaneously. Photo by Chloe Cooper

The brown snake eagle is a prominent sight in the Kruger Park, often seen atop trees. In true snake eagle fashion, these hunters descend on their snake prey, crushing the spine with their talons and biting the head simultaneously. Photo by Chloe Cooper.

 

The drive to Satara (entering at the Orpen gate near the Timbavati Game Reserve) was far from uneventful, and even on the main tar roads, we were stopped constantly by the crossing of zebra, kudu, giraffe, and impala. Elephants browsed close to the road; white rhino flicked their ears while dipping their horned heads toward the ground; not one but two lion prides lay camouflaged in the yellowed grass; and two cheetah brothers caused a commotion as they surfaced from the veld and set the pace for the evening hunt. Guineafowl and francolins scampered and squawked to evade our vehicle and the tree tops were alive with the take offs and landings of lilac-breasted rollers, grey go-away birds, fork-tailed drongos and magpie shrikes.

 

Lilac-breasted roller - known for their outstanding plumage and dramatic flight patterns whereby they plummet towards the ground using a rolling action. Photo by Chloe Cooper

Lilac-breasted roller – known for their outstanding plumage and dramatic flight patterns whereby they plummet towards the ground using a rolling action. Photo by Chloe Cooper.

The crowned lapwing. This was one of a pair that were noisily and conspicuously occupying this patch of road. We suspect there was a nest nearby, as lapwings act very defensively when they have eggs, even adopting a spread-winged stance when provoked. Photo by Chloe Cooper

The crowned lapwing. This was one of a pair that were noisily and conspicuously occupying this patch of road. We suspect there was a nest nearby, as lapwings act very defensively when they have eggs, even adopting a spread-winged stance when provoked. Photo by Chloe Cooper.

 

The first bird to really grab my attention took me quite by surprise. The southern ground hornbill is a strange, prehistoric-looking bird with glassy, blue eyes and luscious eyelashes and a bright red wattle. The juvenile that accompanied the two adults at this sighting was just as big with striking black plumage, but a blue-grey wattle instead of red. It is a treat to see these endangered birds so close to the vehicles, and to watch the young experimenting with their beaks. Southern ground hornbills are cooperative breeders, and in a group of 2-10 birds, only one female lays eggs, which happens only once every nine years! Their difficult breeding and nesting behaviour, as well as habitat destruction has rendered these hornbills vulnerable on the IUCN red list.

 

Adult southern ground-hornbill in all its glory. These birds hang around in groups of about 4 or 5 and do not flee approaching vehicles. These in fact caused quite the traffic jam! Photo by Chloe Cooper

Adult southern ground-hornbill in all its glory. These birds hang around in groups of about 4 or 5 and do not flee approaching vehicles. These in fact caused quite the traffic jam! Photo by Chloe Cooper.

 

At Satara rest camp I was treated to my very first African scops owl, peacefully asleep among the green leaves of a tree. Much smaller than I had anticipated and undeniably cute, this little guy was contently posing for many pictures. This is typical behaviour from a scops owl during the day. As it does not roost in tree holes like some other owl species, it has perfected the art of staying very still. Its feathers are streaked and mottled to create the perfect camouflage against bark and its ear tufts (not visible in this picture) aid in breaking the owls profile and helping it blend in to its natural surroundings.

 

An African scops owl huddled up for a day of rest. In woodland habitats the scops owl blends in surreptitiously with the bark of trees. Photo by Chloe Cooper

An African scops owl huddled up for a day of rest. In woodland habitats the scops owl blends in surreptitiously with the bark of trees. Photo by Chloe Cooper.

 

I was lucky enough to be travelling with somewhat of an ornithologist and an expert in falconry, so we treated every good bird sighting the same way we treated our sighting of lions on a kill… well, almost! We parked off next to a tree and admired a beautiful martial eagle that we spotted soaring in to land on the top of a foliaged tree. The biggest eagle in Africa and capable of lifting a weight of 8kgs, this raptor has been known to feed on ungulates as big as impala. They specialise in hunting monitor lizards and practice ‘ambush hunting’ whereby they sit silently still between the branches of a tree and soar down to snatch up their surprised prey from the ground. Martials have exceptional eye sight and can spot prey from a distance of 6km. They are often seen exploring from a height, covering an area between 100 and 1000 square kilometres.

 

The stern looking martial eagle scanning the surroundings for prey. Photo by Chloe Cooper

The stern looking martial eagle scanning the surroundings for prey. Photo by Chloe Cooper.

 

On our way out the Phalaborwa gate of the park (be aware that you must be out by 5:30pm sharp during winter), we were stopped once again by movement from the treetops. I was fascinated and enthralled as we focused on a gangly-legged saddle-billed stork perched high above the ground on a bare branch. What made this sighting even more interesting was the grey, fluffy juvenile stork standing awkwardly next to its parent staring, unmoving, at the ground. We watched for a while (always give yourself time for stops on the way to the gate) and the pair just stood there; adult preening its plumage, while the chick continued to look unsteady in its position above ground. Perhaps it was fleeing the nest and only got halfway? We thought its parent was perched there for moral support, silently encouraging it to take the rest of its flight.

 

Saddle-billed stork and juvenile. Although these are large wading birds, they nest in trees and after a period of incubation chicks will stay in the nest for up to 100 days before flying. Photo by Chloe Cooper

Saddle-billed stork and juvenile. Although these are large wading birds, they nest in trees and after a period of incubation chicks will stay in the nest for up to 100 days before flying. Photo by Chloe Cooper.

 

Birds were in abundance that day, and it was not a special show put on just for me (believe it or not) – the Kruger National Park is thriving with over 500 species of birds.

Share my Kruger sightings with me and see the numerous bird sightings that I couldn’t fit into this blog! Video filmed and compiled by Dave Jackson.

 






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