Mashatu – a birding paradise

Mashatu Game Reserve is located in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve of Botswana between the Tuli Safari Area(a national park in Zimbabwe) and the Mapungubwe National Park, a World Heritage Site in South Africa. Mashatu shares unfenced borders with both these South African and Zimbabwean national parks in the south and north respectively. This is a massive cross boundary wildlife conservation area protecting the biodiversity of fauna and flora in this region. In this post, I wanted to show a small part of the avian diversity which a visitor to Mashatu is likely to see on their game drive wanderings.

“Serenity flows through the natural world

Listen ad you can hear the beating of your own heart

And the deepening of your breath

In rhythm and connection

With the powerful tranquility of creation

That becomes fully alive in you

As you return to the roots of your being.”

~ Bella Bleue

My fascination with the bush and birds was seeded in Zimbabwe as a youngster, fueled by friends such as  Adrian Lombard, the Condy family and the ornithological society at Falcon College. My interest in birds has been life long, sketching them when we were youngsters, collecting birds eggs and nests, and even preserving dead ones with formalin. As pre-teenagers we even had a mini  museum which was housed in life long friend Adrian Lombard’s bedroom.

My fascination with our avian friends is borne out of their remarkable diversity, incredible colours, and fascinating natural intelligence embedded in their purpose-built shapes and the fact that they are usually much more active than most animals. In the bird world, mother nature has a purpose for every shape, colour and behaviour.

Half of the southern African Coursers are nocturnal and the other half diurnal. Temminck’s is diurnal but is also active at night. The Temmnick’s is the smallest of the Southern African Coursers. Being ground birds their backs are cryptically coloured and they usually turn their backs to you when alarmed.


This Courser is named after Coenraad Jacob Temminck, a Dutch zoologist who has a long list of European and Asian birds named after him. He was the first director of  the National Natural History Museum in Holland in 1820.


I saw more Temmnick’s Coursers on this trip than in all of my previous trips to Mashatu put together. We found them in small groups of three or four. These Coursers seem to prefer open stony or sandy areas. In common with ground birds they have no hind toes so cannot perch on branches.20160213-_D801591

There are five species of Sparrow in southern Africa. The next image is of a Southern Grey-headed Sparrow. These are gregarious birds which feed on the ground usually eating seeds, fruit or insects and nectar when they can find it. Southern Grey-headed Sparrows have no sexual dimorphism, meaning that the male and female look the same though their bills change colour in the breeding season.


Raptors stir a little extra excitement in bush wanderers, as do terrestrial predators. The Martial Eagle is Africa’s largest Eagle and is one of the largest species of Eagle in the world. It has a body length between 78 and 86 cms , a wingspan of up to 2.6 m and can weigh up to 6 kgs. Martial Eagles can be found in sub-Saharan Africa inhabiting semi-desert, open savanna and moderately forested areas which suits their hunting technique.

From a distance you might be forgiven for mistaking the Martial for a Black Chested Snake Eagle from the back.  Once you get closer you will see how big the Martial is and its crown and white abdomen with grey/black speckling are distinctive.


Martial Eagles feed on gamebirds (even bustards and storks), hares, hyraxes, small antelope, monitor lizards and other medium-sized vertebrates that they can catch. While travelling along the Majale river, we came upon this Martial Eagle which had caught a Water Monitor and was busy feeding on it when we arrived. The Martial Eagle is a massive raptor. When it turns around and looks directly at you it sends a shiver down your spine. Martial Eagles can soar for hours and only when they have located prey, they use a long slanting stoop to gain great speed to hunt. It is really thrilling to watch a Martial stoop to gain speed then level out about ten metres off the ground at high-speed in full attack on  a flock of Guineafowl – easily as exciting as a Lion hunt. The Martial sounds like a Boeing as it flies past in its stoop.


“We  must take adventures to know where we truly belong.”

The next image is of a African Hoopoe on the ground searching for insects. The characteristic lengthy, slightly bent beak of the Hoopoe allows it to forage through vegetation, dig into the ground to find insects to eat, and quickly feed nestlings in mid-flight. They also use their beaks aggressively in territorial fights.


This Hoopoe has large, round wings which it closes halfway giving its flight an undulating look. The movement of its wings resembles that of a butterfly. Although beautiful it can stink. Breeding females and growing young smell like rotting meat, and all African Hoopoes excrete a  foul-smelling liquid from the preen gland when alarmed.


The White-fronted Bee-eater is a year round resident in Mashatu, unlike the Carmine Bee-Eater. They can often be found perching on a dead branch from which they hawk insects. As its name suggests, the Bee-eater’s favorite food is bees. Many other insects are taken, including wasps, grasshoppers, moths and dragonflies.
The Bee-eater catches all its prey in flight. To make bees and wasps safe to eat, the Bee-eater holds the insect in the tip of its bill, then rubs the insect’s tail-end against a branch causing venom to be discharged or the sting to be pulled out. It’s an acquired skill, young Bee-eaters are frequently stung during their first attempts.


The White-fronted Bee-eater prepares for parenthood several months before it actually mates. At the end of the rainy season, when the ground is still soft, the bird digs a new nesting tunnel— usually about a metre long—in a sandy riverbank. The nest is then abandoned until the breeding season begins.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
~ Rachel Carson


A juvenile Red-billed Buffalo Weaver. The adults have a red bill and look the same, no sexual dimorphism. Their nest is one of the most scruffy of the Weavers but they are highly social and talkative birds. Buffalo Weavers thrive in the dry thornveld section of Mashatu.


A young male Wattled Starling. He had the facial colouring but his wattles had not yet grown. These Starlings move in relatively large flocks and are usually found following herbivores such as Elephants which disturb the ground and grass and flush out the insects.


A pair of young Wattled Starlings – a male (with the yellow facial skin) and a brown coloured female – noisy, gregarious birds.


A Wood Sandpiper foraging at the water’s edge of the weir on the Matabole river. The beauty of this location is that you are almost at eye level with the birds at the water’s edge.

“…drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see.”
Rachel Carson


The Wood Sandpiper is distinguished from its similarly sized cousin the Common Sandpiper as its  upper chest and throat are a dark olive-brown with prominent spotting and streaking on its breast and head.


I am not good at identifying the Larks. The geography is one distinguishing factor but the dark markings make me think this next image is of a Dusky Lark. The markings on its back and upper parts of its wings are striking. Sabota Larks are common in Mashatu.


A male Saddle-billed Stork is identified by its yellow wattle under its chin and its black eye. Both the male and female have the characteristic yellow saddle on their red bill. This species is highly endangered but fortunately there seem to be a few pairs in the reserve. You can see a pinkish-red patch on the chest of this male. Both the male and female have this “brood patch” which is used to transfer body heat to their eggs when they are brooding. 

“Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.”
Rachel Carson


The female Saddle-billed Stork is similarly coloured but does not have the yellow wattle and has a distinguishing yellow eye-ring. Their knees always look sore but it is only their colouring. They are found in a range of habitats including marches, rivers, lakes and areas of wet grasslands. Saddle-billed Storks prefer wide, open spaces and avoid forested areas. These storks forage, in river pans and pools of water, for grasshoppers, frogs, fish, crabs, molluscs, lizards, and even young birds.


The ubiquitous Lilac-breasted Roller. I defy any photographer to just pass one of these Rollers sitting on a clean perch in good light.


In breeding season, the Lilac-breasted Rollers do thrilling rolling mating displays. These rolling displays are extremely fast and spectacular to watch.


The next image is of a female Namaqua Sandgrouse. These birds have cryptic colouring and must be very difficult to spot from above as they are so well camouflaged. In the field it can be quite tricky to tell the female species of Sandgrouse apart but their eyes are usually their defining features and from my experience you seldom the different species mixing. Though having said that, we did see Namaqua and Yellow-throated Sandgrouse mixing near a waterhole in the Serengeti.


This female Namaqua Sandgrouse was just stretching her wings in preparation for a quick get away if needed.


A male Namaqua Sandgrouse. They prefer dry savanna or semi-desert areas where they feed on seeds. The Namaqua Sandgrouse is the only Sandgrouse in southern Africa with a long pointed tail.


“Wherever your mind goes, your body follows. Wherever your thoughts go, your life follows.”


The Kori Bustard is one of Mashatu’s big seven. It is an omnivore, eating both plant-like berries and animals like lizards and snakes. 


This is the heaviest flying bird in Africa and can weigh up to just under 20kgs. The Kori Bustard would rather than walk or waddle away from you if possible. When it takes off you can really hear it pumping the air with its wings.


They are ground dwellers, hence the name Bustard, meaning birds that walk. We usually see them individually and very occasionally in pairs. They forage mainly in grassy plains and scrub. The Kori Bustard walks slowly with measured strides and flies reluctantly because of its weight.


The Arrow-marked Babblers will tell you well in advance that they are coming to drink. They forage in small flocks of up to eight individuals and are very talkative, hence the name. The White-crowned Helmeted Shrikes are similar in behaviour but we did not see any this trip.


It was hot in Mashatu in mid-February, so the birds would come down to bathe in the bird pool near the camp. They particularly liked the patches of water which were in the shade.


You have to be awake when these small seed-eaters arrive at the water’s edge. They make no noise and drink quickly. Every day around the same time in the afternoon the Jameson’s Firefinches and Blue Waxbills would come down to drink.


The next image is of a male Jameson’s Firefinch down at the water’s edge with his female higher up the bank. The Jameson’s Firefinch can be mistaken for a Red-billed Firefinch because its body colouring is so similar but the colour of the latter’s back is brownish and its bill is red. We saw many Village Indigobirds which brood parasite the Firefinches. 


The Blue Waxbills seem to hang out with the Fire Finches. There is probably safety in numbers though I did not see any Goshawks which might give them a hard time.


I have found Mashatu to be an unusually good area to see a diverse number of Cuckoo species. Cuckoos are migrants so you will only hear and sometimes see them in the summer. I have seen many Great Spotted, Jacobin and Levaillants or Striped Cuckoos in Mashatu. I have often heard Black, Didericks and Klaas’s Cuckoos. The next image is of a Striped or Levaillant’s Cuckoo.

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew i would never see it again?”
Rachel Carson


One afternoon at the camp, I saw this Striped Cuckoo come down to drink at the bird bath. There is plenty of water in the reserve so I figured this must be one of its drinking spots. The next afternoon I waited until a similar time around 15h00 just before our game drive to see if it would return and sure enough!! These birds drink quickly and are gone so you have to be ready.


The trick was the area around the bird pool had to be quiet with no human movement or disturbance. Cuckoos are very  secretive and skittish birds probably because most of the bird world don’t want them anywhere near. The Striped Cuckoo can be mistaken for the Jacobin Cuckoo from the back but the Jacobin’s breast is pure white with no stripes.


African Grey Hornbill is a greyish dun coloured bird. It has a distinctive white eyebrow. The male’s bill is black  and the female’s bill has a splash of red at the tip, and greater part of the upper mandible is a creamy-white. The African Grey Hornbill is very vocal and has a plaintive whistling call which is distinctive. It generally prefers wooded savannas and woodland. The Hornbill’s beak is honeycombed with air chambers, making it as light as a sponge. The casque on the top mandible is thought to serve as a means of visual recognition but may also be used to amplify calls. The more dense the habitat the bigger the casque is likely to be to project the call.


A Long -tailed Starling looking like a sparrow with the wind blowing up his tail feathers. These  Starlings are ubiquitous in Mashatu and are very talkative.


Only once did we see a few Double-banded Sandgrouse. This male was easily identified by the white and black marking on its forehead. The Double-banded Sandgrouse prefer the more wooded areas than the Namaquas but their habitat does overlap as in Mashatu.


The next side-on image did not properly show this male Double-banded Sandgrouse’s double band (white and black) running from its shoulders across its breast. The double band demarcates very different colouring and markings on its belly  and breast.


Southern Ground Hornbill with a beak filled with food ranging from snakes to crickets. These are shy birds so it is tricky to get good shots of them particularly in the low mopani shrub type bush.


“They won’t remember the latest tablet or the latest smart phone.

They will remember walks in the bush and the quality time they spent with you.

Invest in what matters!

The male is distinguished from the female by its red throat patch and the female has a blue throat patch.  Both have the red facial skin on their face and neck. The male and female duet with a booming “ooomph, ooomph, ooomph” which is usually heard in the early morning.


There are plenty of Crowned and Blacksmith Lapwings to be found in Mashatu. The Blacksmith Lapwings are usually found near water. 


Pied Kingfishers were abundant due to plenty of water in Mashatu’s rivers at this time of the year. There are obviously enough small fish for them to feed on. Males are distinguished from females by their double black breast bands. The next image is of a female Pied Kingfisher.


The ubiquitous Grey Lourie or “go-away ” bird so-called after its distinctive call. These birds are clumsy fliers but are highly agile in the branches of well wooded trees and bushes. A Goshawk will have to work hard to catch one of these Louries in a bush.


A male Namaqua Dove with his black face mask and black throat and yellow bill. This bird has bright chestnut coloured wings which are instantly recognisable when it flies. The Namaqua Dove is one of the quietest of the dove species.


A female Namaqua Dove is not nearly as attractive as the male but both sexes have their distinctive long tail. These doves avoid dense wooded areas and seem to prefer semi-desert grassland and savanna type bush.


“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”
~ Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,



3 thoughts on “Mashatu – a birding paradise

  1. Howie – you continually amaze and educate me. I just love these images. The pic of the Bluey just fills my heart withy joy. God is a Master at colouring His creation. Just love love love these. Thanks for your continued productive work. Mick

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