Category Archives: Southern Africa

Bee-Eaters and Rollers

Southern carmine bee-eater (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

30 January 2024: Day 12, Livingstone, Zambia — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

Bee-eaters and rollers are both members of the Order Coraciiformes that includes kingfishers, motmots, and todies. All of them have colorful plumage, large heads, short necks, short legs, and usually syndactyly toes. In other words, two of their three pointing-forward toes (toes #3 and #4) are fused at the base.

Here’s what syndactyly looks like on a European bee-eater and a lilac-breasted roller.

Syndactyly toes of European bee-eater and lilac-breasted roller (cropped photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Birds in this Order also have a behavior in common: They slam or thrash their prey onto hard surfaces to disarm or incapacitate them.

You’ve probably seen a kingfisher beat a fish to death. Watch this southern carmine bee-eater (Merops nubicoides) slam a bee.

video embedded from Smithsonian Channel on YouTube

Rollers get their name for their aerial acrobatic performances during courtship or territorial flights. They are often in the same habitat as bee-eaters because they both nest in mudbanks.

The lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus) is every photographer’s dream. He’s as big as a blue jay, very colorful, and willing to perch prominently for a long time.

Lilac-breasted roller (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Like other Coraciiformes they slam their food, too.

video embedded from African Safaris Co NZ on YouTube

p.s. We saw 5 species of bee-eaters and 4 species of rollers.

(credits and links are in the captions)

Starlings Are Gorgeous in Southern Africa

29 January 2024: Day 11, Chobe National Park, Botswana — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

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.

  1. Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus), shimmering green
  2. Greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus), showing blue
  3. Violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster), male
  4. Violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster), male & female, quite dimorphic
  5. Cape starling (Lamprotornis nitens)
  6. Cape starling (Lamprotornis nitens) with nesting material
  7. Burchell’s starling (Lamprotornis australis), showing many colors
  8. Burchell’s starling (Lamprotornis australis), looking blue
  9. Meve’s starling (Lamprotornis mevesii)
  10. Meve’s starling (Lamprotornis mevesii)
  11. Red-winged starling (Onychognathus morio), female stretching her wing
  12. Red-winged starling (Onychognathus morio), female & male
  13. Wattled starlings (Creatophora cinerea), female & 2 males
  14. Wattled starling (Creatophora cinerea), male singing
  15. African pied starling (Lamprotornis bicolor) has a face like Angry Bird
  16. African pied starling (Lamprotornis bicolor), feeding young

In case you’re wondering why glossy starlings are so gorgeous, it’s because those with the best colors get the best mates. Read more about how quickly they evolve new colors in this vintage article:

p.s. We saw all the featured starlings in this article except for Burchell’s and the African pied starling.

Africa’s Fish Eagle is a Lot Like Ours

Bald eagle (on left by Steve Gosser) and African fish eagle (on right from Wikimedia)

28 January 2024: Day 10, Chobe National Park by boat, Botswana — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

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.

African fish eagle carrying a fish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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).

African fish eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Birds of the World: African fish eagle

If you watch bald eagles, you’ll recognize the African fish eagle’s hunting technique.

video embedded from South Cape Images Photography on YouTube

African fish eagles are louder than bald eagles; they sound almost like gulls. Just as for bald eagles the female is larger — she’s on the left.

video embedded from Tekweni on YouTube

Here’s a pair of bald eagles calling for comparison. Their voices are much softer.

video embedded from Wandering Sole Images on YouTube

It’s no wonder these two were in the same genus for so long.

p.s. Fish eagles were easy to find along the Chobe River at the Botswana-Namibia border.

(credits are in the captions)

Most Spectacular Raptor Migration in the World

Amur Falcon, male in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 January 2024: Day 9, Chobe National Park, Botswana — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

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.

Male Amur falcon eating an insect in flight in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.
Range map and migration route of Amur falcon (image from Wikimedia Commons, annotated)

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.

video embedded from Ace Ventura on YouTube

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.

Amur falcons gather at Pangti, Nagaland, India on migration (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2018 Scott Weidensaul went to Pangti to see the birds and tell their amazing story in A Galaxy Of Falcons: Witnessing The Amur Falcon’s Massive Migration Flocks. Birders flocked to the spectacle last fall.

UPDATE on 29 January 2024: I was fortunate to see a female Amur falcon in Namibia today, swooping for insects near the Chobe River. (These photos are from Wikimedia.)

Female Amur falcon, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For more information see:

Babble, Ring, Toot and Shout

Arrow-marked babblers (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 January 2024: Day 8, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

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, houboubou 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.

Tropical boubou pair sing a duet at Hwange (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Pearl-spotted owlet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Hadada ibis (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Hadada ibis drying off on a roof after bathing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For more sounds of the African bush, including mammals and frogs, see Derek Solomon’s wildlife sound recordings.

p.s. I heard every one of these birds and I saw all except the pearl-spotted owlet. The owlet called from a hiding place just before sunset.

Hoping to See the Heaviest Flying Bird

Kori bustard closeup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

25 January 2024: Day 7, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

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.

Kori bustard (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The males use courtship displays to attract and breed with as many females as possible, then take no part in raising the young. Dancing and neck puffing are some of the many tricks they use to attract the ladies.

Male Kori bustard neck puffin courtship display (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve wanted to see this bird since 2009 when I found out they tip the scales for flying birds. My best chance may be at Chobe National Park, Botswana in three days time (28 January).

Fingers crossed that I’ll see him while I’m here. He doesn’t even have to fly for me to be enthralled!

Find out why he’s at the top limit of flying birds in this vintage 2009 article.

p.s. I *did* see a Kori bustard. In fact, a pair of them walking near Hwange National Park Airport on 26 January.

Safari at Hwange

24 January 2024: Day 6, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

Yesterday we went on a bird drive in Zambezi National Park. Today we drive to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe for our first game drive. We’ll see many of the animals pictured above and listed below.

  • Lion
  • Elephant and zebra
  • Oryx (did not see this animal)
  • Greater kudu
  • Impala
  • Cape buffalo

During our tour the words Safari or Game Drive mean “Drive around and look for birds and animals.”

To give you an idea of what I’m experiencing I’ve included a promotional video from Road Scholar, created for one of their other African programs.

This is NOT the program that I’m attending. (The video is Program #3645, I’m on Program #21528.) However some of the locations and many of the experiences are the same.

Road Scholar safari program # in southern Africa

Go Awaaaay! Go Awaaaaay!

Gray go-away bird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 January 2024: Day 5, Zambezi National Park — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

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.

Gray go-away birds in a thorn tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Wikipedia: grey go-away bird

At some point I’m sure they’ll tell us to “Go Awaaaay!”

At Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls from the air, border of Zambia & Zimbabwe (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

22 January 2024: Day 4, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

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.

Wikipedia: Victoria Falls

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!

Panorama of Victoria Falls (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.
Satellite view of Victoria Falls from ISS, NASA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
  • 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.
Satellite view of Victoria Falls from ISS, NASA (photo from Wikimedia Commons, markup by Kate St. John)

Learn more about the falls in this 5 minute video. (It sounds as if the script is read by a computer).

video embedded from World Travel Guide on YouTube

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.

video by Guardian News on YouTube

Marievale Birds: The Same and Different

African spoonbill at Marievale Bird Sanctuary, 2015 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

21 January 2024: Day 3, Marievale Bird Sanctuary — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

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.

video embedded from Safari Moments on YouTube

List of Birds in the Marievale video above and their familiars in North America.

vid#Species at MarievaleSimilar to Eastern N.American bird...
1Red-billed Tealresembles Ruddy duck, but related to mallard
2Cape ShovelerNorthern Shoveler
3Malachite KingfisherBelted Kingfisher
4Pied KingfisherBelted Kingfisher
5Red-knobbed CootAmerican Coot
6Reed CormorantDouble-crested cormorant
7Spur-winged geese in flightCanada geese in flight
8Yellow-billed duckMallard
9Sacred Ibisresembles Wood Stork, not related
10African SwamphenGray-headed Swamphen, introduced in FL
11African snipeWilson's snipe
12Common /Eurasian MoorhenCommon gallinule
13Grey-headed (or Gray-hooded) gullBonaparte's gull
14Three-banded ploverKilldeer or Semi-palmated plover
15Blacksmith LapwingNorthern lapwing
16Black-winged StiltBlack-necked stilt
17Red-eyed DoveRock pigeon
18Blue-billed tealBlue-winged teal
19Speckled doveRock pigeon
20White-breasted cormorantSubspecies of Great cormorant
21Great crested grebeHorned grebe
22Purple heronGreat blue heron
23Squacco heronresembles Green heron
24African spoonbillRoseate spoonbill
25Black-headed heronGreat blue heron
26Glossy Ibisthe same bird is in Florida!
27Goliath heronGreat blue heron
28Grey heronGreat blue heron
29RuffEurasian; sometimes visits US (NY, OH)
30Egyptian Gooseintroduced to US & Europe
31Cape WagtailEurasian; white wagtail is in AK
32African RailVirginia rail
33Little EgretSnowy egret
34Black HeronSnowy egret wearing black
35Burchell's (White-browed) coucalnothing like it in the U.S.
36Long-tailed Widowbirdnothing like it in the U.S.
37African Stonechatnothing like it in the U.S.

(credits are in the captions)