One of the visual treats for birders in southern Africa is a genus of iridescent birds known as glossy starlings (Lamprotornis). They make up only 18% of the starling family (Sturnidae) yet out-dazzle all the others from the mynas of Asia to the invasive common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) in North America.
The slideshow above shows eight species I expect to see in southern Africa, two slides per species in no special order. Five are glossy starlings (Lamprotornis genus) including the African pied starling which isn’t glossy. One is a monotypic genus that is glossy violet like a hummingbird. The red winged starling is shiny black. The wattled starling male grows black wattles on his face for the breeding season. Here’s the list with links to the details.
In Africa there’s a fish eating eagle that has many characteristics in common our own bald eagle. It eats fish, builds a stick nest near water, has a white head and tail, and perches and calls in pairs.
Prior to 2018 it was in the same genus as North America’s bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) but DNA evidence moved the African fish eagle to Icthyophaga vocifer, the “fish-eater with loud voice.” It is closely related to the Madagascar fish eagle (I. vociferoides).
Nonetheless it behaves a lot like a bald eagle. This description of the African fish eagle could be written about the bald eagle, including the habit of stealing fish from ospreys.
… Red-knobbed Coot are important prey in addition to fish. Hunts mainly from a perch by swooping down to pluck prey from near the water surface, rowing larger prey to shore. Rarely hunts when soaring, but regularly pursues and pirates other piscivorous [fish-eating] birds. Perches for 85–95% of day in productive tropical habitat. Usually solitary, but more than 100 may gather at concentrations of stranded fish.
Amur falcons (Falco amurensis) breed in Siberia and northern China and travel 22,000 km (13,670 mi) each fall to southern Africa. Not only is their migration the longest of all the raptors but when they stopover in autumn to refuel in Nagaland, India their flock can number half a million birds. Right now they’re in southern Africa where I hope to see them.
Amur falcons are insectivores who, on migration, capture flying insects to eat in mid air.
They time their migration and choose a route to take advantage of insect swarms.
In northeastern India winged adult termites swarm in autumn in Nagaland.
Over the Arabian Sea dragonflies migrate in the fall from India to Africa.
In southern Africa, December to March rains spawn swarms of termites, locusts, ants and beetles.
Amur falcons are present from October to December near the Nagaland village of Pangti where they fatten up on termites before continuing their journey. There are hundreds of thousands of falcons in the air at once.
Their abundance led to near tragedy, however. Until the practice ended in 2012, Nagaland hunters caught tens of thousands of falcons per day in fishing nets hung from the trees. Each year they killed 250,000 Amur falcons to sell as meat for mere pennies. They thought the falcons would never disappear.
The killing ended abruptly when journalist Bano Haralu returned to her homeland, witnessed the destruction, and got a hunting ban placed in November 2012. More importantly, she and her colleagues taught the villagers, and especially the children, the importance of the falcons and a way forward through ecotourism. It was a stunning turnaround and a credit to the people of Nagaland.
Though I can identify birds by song at home, it’s almost impossible to do in southern Africa among birds I’ve never heard before. To prepare for this trip I spent time learning about the birds I might see. Then I discovered their odd and distinctive sounds. Here’s a sample of some notable ones.
Babble: Arrow-marked babblers (Turdoides jardineii), pictured above, are gregarious birds that nest cooperatively and love to sing together. One or two birds may start the babbling song, then everyone joins in. Even after the cacaphony stops a few will mutter to each other. Babblers are members of the Laughingthrush family (Leiothrichidae). When I listen to them it makes me laugh.
Ring: The tropical boubou or bellshrike (Laniarius major) is a frequent singer with a bell-like voice. Contact calls like bou, hou, boubou or bobobobo give the bird its name but in song its vocal repertoire really shines. Boubous often duet in male-female pairs or two males in adjacent territories who call-and-respond so quickly that they sound like one bird. The songs are so amazing that I’ve included three examples.
Toot: The pearl-spotted owlet (Glaucidium perlatum) is the smallest owl in southern Africa, similar in size to our northern saw-whet owl. Though they aren’t in the same genus, the owlet’s call reminds me of a saw-whet’s toot except for this: The owlet toots louder and higher until he drops off at the end.
Shout: The hadada ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) is just plain loud. His name comes from his extremely loud and distinctive “haa-haa-haa-de-dah” call which he makes all year long, especially at dawn and dusk. Hadada ibises are now very common in suburbs where people hear them every day. Imagine one shouting from your roof.
The Kori bustard (Ardeotis kori) is a large ground bird native to Africa that forages by walking along, repeatedly poking it’s beak to the ground. The male of this species can weigh more than 44 pounds and is reputed to be the heaviest bird that’s able to fly.
Today we’re on a birding drive through Zambezi National Park where we’re sure to hear the unique call of a very plain bird.
The gray go-away bird (Crinifer concolor) is named for the whiny sound he makes that, in English, sounds like “go awaaaaay.” All gray in color, he has a crest like a northern cardinal but he’s more than twice its length and 10 times its weight. Unlike the cardinal’s beautiful song the go-away bird sounds like he’s whining.
In fact he’s making an alarm call and all the birds and animals know it, fleeing or freezing in place while he warns them.
He whines alone …
… or with a crowd.
Go-away birds don’t fly well but they can clamber.
Though their flight is rather slow and laboured, they can cover long distances. Once in the open tree tops however, they can display the agility which is associated with the Musophagidae [Turacos], as they run along tree limbs and jump from branch to branch. They can form groups and parties numbering even 20 to 30 that move about in search of fruit and insects near the tree tops.
Today we fly north from Johannesburg to the town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, a distance of 574 miles (925 km) — about the same as Atlanta to Pittsburgh. I’m looking forward to my first sight of Victoria Falls, a Wonder of the Natural World.
Locally called Mosi-oa-Tunya [MOsee O TOONya] , “The Smoke That Thunders” is well named in the Sotho language. Its thundering noise can be heard 25 miles away while its mist rises to 1,300 feet. When David Livingstone was scouting the Zambezi River in 1855, looking for a trade route to the sea, guides helped him get to an island near the cliff edge where he looked down on the cascade and named it for Queen Victoria — Victoria Falls.
While it is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, the Victoria Falls is classified as the largest, based on its combined width of 1,708 metres (5,604 ft [more than a mile]) and height of 108 metres (354 ft), resulting in the world’s largest sheet of falling water. The Victoria Falls are roughly twice the height of North America’s Niagara Falls and well over twice its width.
Before I saw an aerial photo of the falls I thought its entire span could be viewed from a distance as we do at Niagara Falls, but it’s impossible to see the complete sheet of water from the ground because Victoria Falls plunges into a crack!
This is due to its unusual geology, illustrated on this National Park marker in Zimbabwe. Take a look and I’ll summarize it below. (I have divided it into two pieces so it is readable.)
The origin of Victoria Falls began in the Late Jurassic during the time of the dinosaurs.
150 million years ago a volcano erupted and poured a lake of lava at the site of Victoria Falls. The lava hardened into basalt rock. The rock cooled and cracked into fault lines.
Sand blew in and deeply filled the faults and covered the basalt. The Zambezi River was far away as it flowed south to join the Limpopo.
5 million years ago the south land in present day Botswana rose up and divided the Zambezi River from the Limpopo, forcing the Zambezi to go east.
The Zambezi eroded the sandy surface and flowed widely over the basalt. When it found a fault it fell into the crack as a waterfall.
The river is wide on the flat basalt then zigzags after the falls as it follows the fault lines, as seen in this photo from the International Space Station.
The present day waterfall is the 8th location since the falls began. Erosion continues up the watershed. A marked up map below shows the first seven falls in yellow, the current waterfall in blue, and two future fall locations in pink.
Learn more about the falls in this 5 minute video. (It sounds as if the script is read by a computer).
The big question as I write this article a month ahead of time is this: How much water will be coming over the falls? October to March is the wet season so the river should be running high. However this is an El Niño year and one of its global effects is to lower rainfall in this part of Africa. So we shall see …
Five years ago the dry season in 2019 was so severe that the falls slowed to a trickle.
Today we’re birding at Marievale Bird Sanctuary southeast of Johannesburg. In the third week of January it’s mid-summer in South Africa, similar to July in the U.S.
Many of the birds at Marievale are similar to those in Florida. For instance, the African spoonbill pictured above resembles our roseate spoonbill. (I prefer the roseate spoonbill because it is beautiful pink.)
There are also several species that are native in both places: fulvous whistling duck, common moorhen, cattle egret, great egret, glossy ibis, barn swallow and peregrine falcon. At Marievale not every bird is a Life Bird for me.
See Marievale’s birds in the 8-minute video below and you, too, may conclude that South African marsh birds are the same as Florida’s and yet they are different. After the video I’ve provided a table with the names of similar North American species.
List of Birds in the Marievale video above and their familiars in North America.