Birdwatching in the Kruger National Park – a story in pictures

Following on from our previous post on how to enjoy the park fully (Read: Tips on how to make the most of your African safari), I’ve come to a realization. We have taken more pictures of birds in the Kruger Park than we realized, or know what to do with! This is what starts happening when you focus on more than just the Big 5. Birdwatching is such a rewarding hobby and a far greater challenge than looking for and identifying any of the large animal species. Well, probably after your first few visits, at any rate.

Grey heron with a juicy prize (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Grey heron with a juicy prize (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Slowly but surely, you’ll begin to notice the birds

You’ll notice the change slowly. At first, you want only THE BIG FIVE. Nothing else is good enough. Then, once you’ve seen three of these more than a few times in one drive (in other words: herds of elephant; herds of buffalo and possibly a few lions, or a few rhinos if you’re lucky), you start looking around. You look up. You look down. And you listen to the bush. You see a “big brown job”. Hmm… wonder what that is? Oh well, drive on. Keep looking for that leopard! We absolutely have to get Big 5 in one drive…

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

This starling is noted in Newman’s “Birds of Southern Africa” as: “living commensally with man in the Kruger National Park rest camps in winter”. If you’ve never heard that word before, don’t feel alone! It’s defined by Wikipedia as meaning:”eating at the same table”. Well this is quite literally the case, as you will see when stopping to eat at one of the rest camps. The starlings (and other birds) will land on your table, hop right up and help themselves off your plate! They are omnivorous, just like most humans (which explains their habit of eating at the same table, I suppose) and they will eat fruit, seeds and insects. Not sure how many insects they’d find on human’s plates, but anyhoo…They are really striking birds, with metallic blue/green colouring and eyes that look like yellow buttons sewn on.  Their call is similar to the plumcoloured starling mentioned below, but not quite as “electronic” sounding.

At one point you stop, and you hear a beautiful trilling sound. Hmm…wonder what that is? And again, you drive on, in search of the “big boys” …or girls! And then one day, it happens. Like it did to me when I was on a park visit with my folks in my early teens. I had been walking back from the camp shop to our bungalow one steamy hot summer afternoon when I heard an electronic sound in the trees. If I can describe the sound, and more importantly, if you can recognize it, it would be: zzzhh zzzhuuu.

I was intrigued and, despite the sweltering heat, I followed the sound around the entire camp – without luck. It was mid-summer, so all of the trees were covered in thick, green leaves, which makes it almost impossible to spot smaller creatures. Especially ones that move fast. I knew it had to be a bird. But the sound was so un-birdlike that I absolutely had to see it! Well, I eventually had to give up and get our supplies back, or my parents would have worried that I’d been eaten by a lion…or worse (according to my dad), was being chatted up by a park ranger!

Lilac Breasted Roller - the only roller with a lilac breast and blue belly (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Lilac Breasted Roller – the only roller with a lilac breast and blue belly (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

 Following the electronic sound

But, the next morning early, on our pre-dawn game drive, I heard it again. This was only because of my mother’s one rule if you recall: never drive faster than 25 km/hour, and keep all the windows open so that you can hear sounds! My dad became very tuned in to the fact that if we yelled “Stop!”, it meant we’d seen something really interesting. Or it might have been a rock, with spots like a leopard, or stripes like a kudu. But still, he’d slam on brakes nonetheless. When I heard my electronic sound again, I yelled for him to stop. Reverse. No, go forward a bit. Back a bit. Ah hah! There it is! Everyone had cameras ready, binoculars out, craning their necks to see what I was seeing. What is it? A lion? A leopard?

“Just look at that beauty,” I said. “Oh. That?” was the very disappointed response from the rest of my family. My electronic sound turned out to be a plum-coloured starling – pictured below. One of the most spectacular looking birds you’ll find. Of course, we had no bird book at that stage. And no Google yet! So after discovering what the bird looked like, I then had to find the guidebooks that would help me identify it. My parents dined out on that story for years afterwards, telling anyone who would listen about their strange daughter who had made them slam on brakes for a bird, of all things! ( I’m pleased to say that my love of birds rubbed off and my mom eventually bought her own bird book, years after I’d left home, so that she could identify the birds they were finally seeing. Their game drives became so much more rewarding after that, she freely admitted).

Plum-coloured Starling (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Plum-coloured Starling (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

The female of the species looks more like a spotted thrush, with none of the brilliant plum colour that the male displays (always such a sad thing with birds – the females are usually very drab!) You will only find them in pairs while breeding. The rest of the time they are found in nomadic flocks of mainly one sex. As fruit eaters, their preferred habitat is woodland and riverine forests.

And that was when my interest in, and my love for, birdwatching started to take off. Fast forward a few years, to my medical student boyfriend and his wonderful parents. They were so keen on birdwatching that they’d drag me along to sewage treatment plants to find the most interesting species as weekend entertainment! It is only when you find yourself standing on the banks of a place like this – and enjoying it! – that you realize you’re deep into the birdwatching world and there’s no going back. Think Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson in “The Big Year”.

Something else I learned from them that was very valuable – the credibility of what they termed the “PI” in the birdwatching world, or positive identification. If you couldn’t “PI” a bird, it wasn’t a valid sighting for your Life list! And a PI could include just the sound. So often, with the shy birds, you will really battle to see them, but if you can positively identify their call, you’re good! In more ways than one…

Black-winged stilts at Sunset Dam, Kruger Park (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Black-winged stilts at Sunset Dam, Kruger Park (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Another long-legged wader, like the African Jacana, these stilts are to be found singly, in pairs or in flocks at inland dams, pans and vleis, as well as coastal lagoons and estuaries. They feed by wading in the shallows, eating mainly insects and crustaceans.

Birdwatching by sound

Identifying birds just by sound is probably one of the most challenging aspects of birdwatching and the most rewarding. Having learned to identify a few of my favourites just by their birdsong or alarm calls, I had the greatest fun when guiding clients in the Kruger Park, driving along and pointing out birds they could not yet see. That’s a woodland kingfisher; there’s a plum-coloured starling; a fish eagle (that’s an easy one!); watch over there and we’ll soon see a red-crested korhaan launch itself into the air as the aerial display of its mating dance. This one is really fascinating – as soon as you hear the call (a very high-pitched ascending call), stop. You probably won’t see the bird until he takes flight. He flies straight up and then suddenly drops as if he’s been shot, levelling out into a smooth landing just above the ground. A most impressive display to lure his female!

Kori bustard (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Kori bustard (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

This is the heaviest flying bird on the continent, weighing in at a hefty 18 kilograms. It stands at 135cm tall, almost as tall as the Goliath heron. You will usually find them striding purposefully through the long grass on open plains, in search of their favourites – locusts, grasshoppers, dung beetles and caterpillars. They are omnivorous however, and have a varied diet. Although they can and do fly, they spend most of their time on the ground.  Unlike the other birds featured here, these males will breed with as many females as possible and then have nothing to do with raising the chicks

You SOB (not really an insult in the birdwatching world…)

Surprisingly, birdwatching has some terms used in other spheres of life with completely different meanings. The first two that spring to mind are “lifer” – meaning your “Life list”, or the list you make of all birds you’ve ever seen; not someone jailed for life, as most people would think; and “SOB” – meaning “spouse of birder”… not sonofabitch! (although you’ll frequently hear that expletive around birders, I have to say). These significant others are usually not quite as obsessed with our beautiful feathered friends as we are – although in many cases they do grow into it.

African Pied Wagtail (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

African Pied Wagtail (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Distinguished from the other wagtails by their striking black and white markings, they have the same long tail that wags up and down as they walk, almost as if unbalanced. These wagtails love water and can be found at the rivers, dams and waterholes of the park (this one was having a lovely swim in the Sabie river). They too like sewage farms when found in suburban areas! In this species, males and females look the same and form monogamous pairs. Hmm…I’m starting to see a pattern in our bird preference here! They breed throughout the rainy season and their small cup-shaped nests are usually found hidden in a tangle of twigs on river banks. They too are omnivorous, with a preference for insects, but they will also eat grass seeds, tadpoles and small fish.

Yellow-billed Hornbill (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Yellow-billed Hornbill (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Apart from the starlings, the next most common visitor in the rest camps of Kruger Park is the hornbill. We have already been introduced to the endangered Southern Ground Hornbill. These are their cheeky cousins. The Yellowbilled hornbill; the Grey hornbill; and the Redbilled hornbill (less common). Most of you will know the Southern yellowbilled hornbill as Zazu, from the movie, The Lion King. They are the real characters of the bird world, with their extra large yellow beaks (their beaks account for up to 1/6th of their body length), their beady yellow eyes that miss nothing, and their comedic hopping from one place to the next.

Goliath Heron (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Goliath Heron (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

This is the largest of the herons, standing at 140 cm (that’s almost my height!). You will find them singly or in pairs on any large stretch of water – rivers, pans, lakes, dams. They fly with very slow wing beats and hunt in deeper water than most other herons – because they can! You will notice when watching them that they stand absolutely motionless for long periods of time, waiting for the perfect moment and that perfect fish.
African Jacana (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

African Jacana (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

This wader is also known as the Jesus bird, because it appears to walk on water. Another “aka” is the Lily trotter. And this is the main reason it appears to walk on water, as it steps from lily pad to lily pad, feeding on insects, larvae, worms, crustaceans, molluscs, and sometimes seeds.

That grass just got up and ran away!

Watch our YouTube video below for the perfect example of what happens when you stop and wait. We had stopped to look at something else, thought we were just looking at grass…until the “grass” jumped up and ran away!

Burchells' Coucal (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

Burchells’ Coucal (Photo: Otto Westerweel)

This bird has one of the most beautiful calls. It’s known locally as the “rain bird” – because it calls actively before, during and after rain and you’re also more likely to spot them on a rainy day. Being a very shy bird, if you’re lucky enough to see it, you will usually find it at mid-ground level, hiding in dense scrub. The call is referred to as being the sound of liquid pouring. We like to think of it as a good bottle of red wine being uncorked and the sound of that first pouring into a glass. It behaves in rather a clumsy way and seldom flies. They eat a variety of food types, including mice, eggs, nestlings, insects, and fruit. They love snails, and break the shells by beating them against a stone.

So, with this birdwatching information as a start, combined with the post on how and what to look for, I think you have enough to get out there on your own and make some superb memories on your African safari in the Kruger Park. What do you say?

Don’t forget – we’d love to hear how this has worked for you and hear your comments and feedback, as well as your own experiences. Please send us any comments or questions you may have, or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; sign up to receive new posts; or click on the Booking.com search box to book your next adventure!

Until next time!

 

About the Author

Hello there! Welcome to our travel blog. We are the Westerweels – Janine and Otto.
Our passions in life (apart from each other) include: travel; wildlife; photography; wine; fine dining; our children; our animals... and experiencing as much as we can.
We'd love to share that with you, so here we go...!

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