We had a superb trip to Mashatu Game Reserve in early October and were privileged to have had wonderful sightings of predators and Elephants (for another post). One of the many aspects about Mashatu I love is that the birding is excellent no matter what time of the year you go. October is too early for the migrants so no Cuckoos, or Carmine Bee-eaters, no Wahlbergs Eagles or Steppe Buzzards. The residents though are always superb, with variety and colour. Mashutu is very dry after winter but when you looked around at what there was to eat, the game looked to be in surprisingly good condition this year. The predators were having a good time and it was interesting to see how the raptors were adapting to this.The bird of paradise alights only on the hand that does not grasp.
The Kori Bustard is a resident, meaning it lives in the area all year long and does not migrate. This is a large robust bird, which feeds on pretty much what the Secretary bird eats, such as mice, small birds, insects, frogs and what ever it can find. These birds have massive wingspans and are one of the largest flying birds in Southern Africa. You are likely to see them in pairs but sometimes you might find a family group of up to six patrolling the open areas.
The Bee-eaters never fail to impress, We saw numerous White-fronted and Little Bee-eaters. The White-fronted were not flocking in breeding colonies but were scattered along the river. There is obviously enough insects for them to eat but not enough for the larger Carmines, which migrate north in the winter looking for more food. All the Bee-eaters are extravagantly coloured. The aspect that amazes me most about the colouring of these birds is that most of us would never think of combining the colours you see in their plumage, but yet mother nature pulls off her palette combinations magnificently.
Often in the bush you will hear the bird before you see it. The Hoopoes have an onomatopoeic name, meaning their name sounds like their call, which is instantly recognisable in the bush. We disturbed this character who was foraging on the ground and it flew up into some spiderweb draped branches. This is another example of stunning, but unimaginable colour combinations.
Around the camps there are wonderful opportunities to see a huge variety of birds, partly because they can find water there, to say nothing of a little extra food. The Tropical Bou Bou’s was an infrequent visitor but could often be heard all around with their vast medley of calls.
White Crowned Helmeted Shrikes were frequent visitors coming through the camp in flocks of six to eight around early afternoon each day. They chatted away to each other feeding as they went but unfortunately their visits were brief.
The rich oboe sounding call of the Black-Headed Oriole was also heard each day. Striking colours finished off with a blood-red eye and pinkish beak. The colour combo works with the black head and vivid yellow body. Unfortunately this character appeared to have a broken foot which had healed. Nature never appears to be sorry for itself, it just gets on and adapts.
We saw Cardinal, Golden-tailed and a pair of Bennett’s Woodpeckers. When they are tapping on a branch or tree trunk, I am never sure whether they are communicating to each other through a form of morse code, looking for food or starting a hole for a future nest. The left hand image is of a female Bennett’s Woodpecker, which posed just long enough to get a shot. The strut-like tail feathers are clear and are used to brace the bird when they are clinging to vertical and overhanging branches, enabling them to peck more effectively. The right hand image is of a rather scruffy looking male Golden-tailed Woodpecker who had come down for a drink in the heat of the day.
Many of the birds seen flying through in the dry bush or hopping around foraging on the ground create splashes of colour like sparkling jewels. This Grey Headed Bush-Shrike was a regular visitor and was usually heard before it was seen. It has this long haunting whistle. The Afrikaans name is ‘Spookvoe’l or ‘ghost bird’ because of its long loud and haunting ‘oooooooop’ like whistle. Its call is unmistakable in the bush and always stirs excitement because you know that you will be richly rewarded when you eventually see it. This bird is stunningly beautiful. It is a large Shrike with a distinctive small hook at the tip of its beak. As you can see from the next three images, this bird presents a blaze of colour in the grey-brown dry bush.
“In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.”
Insectivores abound in Mashatu. The next image is of an Ashy Flycatcher, which is similar to a Dusky but has a white eye-ring and all black beak. It is an ash-like blue-grey colour. This little chap must have taken a break from hawking insects from its perch to come down for an afternoon drink.
The next two images are of two different Tawny Eagles sitting patiently waiting in a large dead tree in the blazing heat. Below them was a Lioness and her cub feeding on an Eland they must have killed the evening before. The Jackal were also hanging around out of harms way. These Tawnys watched the activity on the ground intently but appeared content to wait for the mistress at the dinner table to leave before coming down to feed. There was still plenty of meat on the carcass by the time the Lions had finished gorging themselves. We left before the Tawnys had come down to scavenge.
We saw many Laughing Doves, and they all looked to be on good condition, so obviously there is enough seed in the sand and soil just waiting for a little rain to carpet Mashatu in green with yellow flowers. It is such a common bird but we seldom take the time to look at its subtle, soft pinks, browns and greys. It has beautiful colouring in a gentle way. Doves suck up the water when they drink and do not have to throw their head back to swallow like a Pigeon The other notable distinction is that doves walk on the ground because they are terrestrial seed-eaters while pigeons usually hop on the ground as they are aboreal fruit-eaters, more often than not.
You will see many Grey Louries, also called Grey Go-Away Birds in Mashatu. They also have an onomatopeic name. Like all Louries they look much better than they sound. These birds are highly sociable clustering in groups. They seem to run up, down and through the branches of trees and are highly dexterous. All Turacos are endemic to Africa. The Grey Go-Away Bird is the only one that likes the dry thornveld, all the others prefer dense trees or forests
We had been watching a small family of Elephants which had come down to a dry river bed and were digging for water. After watching their successful endeavours for about half an hour, we were just about to move off when the game ranger spotted this Giant Eagle Owl resting in the tree above us. They can be really difficult to see because they perch in dense shade, close to the tree trunk which adds to the camouflage. As you can see from the first of the two images, these are very big birds. I have only ever seen them singly. The day was overcast and there was a lot of wind which made the photography tricky, especially with long lenses. It did not rain but hopefully the disturbed weather was heralding the onset of the rainy season.
I could hear the Black Collared Barbets singing their duo but only saw this Crested Barbet. It is always a treat as they have lavishly coloured plumage. You are likely to hear them before you see them with their sustained, , ‘trrrr’ sounding trilling call. This Barbet seems to be equally at home in suburbia as it is in the deep bush.
The Starling family is a particularly striking group. I have been fortunate enough to see the beautifully coloured Superb Starlings in the Masai Mara and Plum-coloured Starlings in Kruger Park. You will see many Long-tailed (or Meves) Starlings in Mashatu. They are very talkative and seem to mimic many birds. In the afternoon sun their feathers are an iridescent blue. We also saw flocks of Wattled Starlings but not the large flocks you will see in summer when they seem to capitalise on the insects disturbed by herds of Elephant wandering through the grass and bushes.
I start to wobble in my identification of LBJs (little brown jobs) such this next pair. I think they are Neddicky’s, a type of Cisticola with a brown crown and light greyish-brown belly and darker grey-brown back. These two were having a wonderful bath in the intense afternoon heat. It was 37 degrees centigrade in the shade that afternoon.
These midget beauties are eye-catching. They are Blue Waxbills and can often be seen in small flocks with canaries eating grass seeds on the ground in front of you. It is not often you see blue colouring in animals or birds in the wild.
There were a sprinkling of Red-billed Buffalo-Weavers to be seen in the thornveld along the rivers. The males are black and the females a grey-brown colour. These large Weavers make probably the most untidy nest of all the Weavers and build their nests in large communal structure. Whenever I see large these communal nests, I am always on the look out for raiding cobras.
I must have thousands of Lillac-brested Roller images, but every time a see one in the bush, I cannot help myself. They are just exquisitely beautiful birds and look even more spectacular when they fly. It is easy to see why Zulu King Mzilikazi had its feathers in his headdress. In Zimbabwe, in our youth, we used to call this bird the Mzilikazi’s Roller. The Rollers were doing their rolling flying displays. They are incredibly agile fliers and their high-speed rolls are breath-taking.
I hope this handful of avian images give you a sense of the variety and colour these birds add to the bush in Mashatu, especially when it was so dry. When we reluctantly left, the clouds were building so hopefully the rain is not far away. The rain transforms Mashatu from an extremely dry-looking bushveld into a verdant green paradise carpeted in yellow flowers – it is spectacular.
Even in its dry condition in spring, the Apple Leaf trees were in covered in their subtle mauve flowers, which they dropped to make an attractive carpet at their feet.
Seek to understand nature, marvel at its interconnectedness and then let it be.