How the Kalahari turned me into a birder

Posted on 7 September 2011

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is famous for its birdlife and particularly for its raptors. When I left for the Kalahari in August all I wanted to see were lions and leopard. Now that I am back in Cape Town all I want to see is birds.

We left for the Kalahari in a band of 6 and the sighting everyone wished for was the ever-elusive leopard. Just one of us was already a keen birder. His early attempts at sparking some enthusiasm for the Kalahari’s avian residents were fruitless. ‘It’s a bird, keep driving’ was the slogan that moved us swiftly past anything that sat in a tree and was not a leopard. The fascination of birds is less obvious; compared to Africa’s big game, birds are smaller, their kills aren’t as impressive and to the untrained eye they all look the same: feathers, beak, two wings – it’s a bird, keep driving.

My moment of truth came when our bird-loving companion stopped for what he declared to be a marital eagle. I looked at this animal covered in black feathers and was once again underwhelmed. However, as I turned my head to look for something more interesting the eagle spread his wings and with a few powerful strokes lifted himself off the ground. As he spread his wings the eagle seemed to multiply in size. Watching this predator soar above, I could not suppress a feeling of respect and admiration. Later that day at the Twee Rivieren campsite, we started disputing the correct spelling of this raptor. Was he a “˜marshal’ or a “˜martial’? The argument heated up and then the unthinkable happened: One of us birding ignoramuses went to the car to grab the Birds of Southern Africa. We were hooked.

With a newly found love for my feathered friends I started keeping a lookout for birds less obvious than the ostrich or the kori bustard. We saw tawny eagles, ostriches on heat, crimson-breasted shrikes, lilac-breasted rollers, bateleurs and goshawks in just about every second tree. We also saw pigeons and crows, but those I will never be a fan of. Not even our veteran birder liked them.

The highlights of our first two days of game driving were two black-shouldered kites diving for a tawny eagle, who was apparently sitting too close to their nest. The giant eagle remained calm, but the continuous kamikaze-style attacks by the kite were enough to get us off our seats. Later on we spotted a nest in the distance. It was a tawny eagle with her chicks. I needed a decent pair of binoculars to see what was going on. Still, an infantile eagle is not something you see every day.

On our third day in the park we headed to !Xaus Lodge (say it with a palatal click if you can). The lodge is only accessible via a sand road traversing 91 dunes. After parking the car well away from the public roads within the park I was treated to the view from the tracker seat. Racing through the pale grass and red sand small birds emerged everywhere. They flew ahead of the vehicle for a while and then headed back into cover.

As the sun set over the lodge we got our first glimpse at the two resident barn owls. Our excitement ceased a bit when we realized that you could not take photo of the sunset without an owl flying through it. Still, owls are amazing creatures and I spend a lot of time just watching their silent flight. During the day we had a stunning view of a large salt pan. On our last afternoon we were sitting on the deck watching two female ostriches standing on the crusty earth of this pan, when a male ostrich came towards them with an air of determination. The intense colour of his leg and reddish tail feathers indicated that this bird was on heat. And hot he was! The feathered Casanova threw himself to the ground and started showing off his fluffy black and white wings. One of the females was quite impressed by this and lowered herself to the ground. Reminiscent of the Jackie Brown scene with Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda, the male was running back over the dune less than 3 minutes later.

We didn’t see any leopards during our 6-day trip to the Kalahari, but that might have been because we only had eyes for the birds.

Kgalagadi Birds

These are the bird species I could identify during the 5 days in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park:

  • Martial eagle
  • Tawny eagle
  • Goshawk
  • Bateleur
  • Black-shouldered kite
  • Barn owl
  • Ostrich
  • Kori bustard
  • Secretary bird
  • Yellow-billed hornbill
  • Black Korhaan
  • Crimson-breasted shrike
  • Lilac-crested roller
  • Crowned plover
  • Red-headed finch

Images by Robert Bernatzeder unless otherwise indicated.

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