Winging it around Serengeti

Serengeti is well known for its herds and predators. I visited the Western Corridor section of the Serengeti in mid-March around two months before the Wildebeest herds were due to arrive. I was surprised to see substantial herds of Zebra, Topi, Buffalo and Eland already heading northwards in the Western Corridor in mid-March. But another pleasant surprise was the variety of our avian friends. This post shows some of that variety.

“Why is it you can never hope to describe the emotion Africa creates? You are lifted. Out of whatever pit, unbound from whatever tie, released from whatever fear. You are lifted and you see it all from above.”

~ Francesca Marciano

White-bellied Bustard adults have blue-grey necks. The adult female has a grey crown, a brown and buff line below the eye, and black speckling on the throat. The adult male has a black crown, black lines on his white cheeks, a black throat patch, and a pinkish-red bill.

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This adult female White-bellied Bustard was busy stretching. I did not see the male  but they usually forage in pairs or small family groups.

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A juvenile Yellow-throated Longclaw with breakfast.

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This was an adult Yellow-throated Longclaw conspicuously perched on top of a bush declaring its territory. It was all puffed up as it had just been shuffling its feathers to get them back into place after the bird had been moving in what looked like a puzzle bush, Commiphora Africana.

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Male Saddle-billed Stork perched on top of a dead tree getting ready to settle down for the night. It is easy to identify the male as he has a yellow wattle under his throat and a black eye.

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This pair of Saddle-billed Storks settling in to roost for the night at the top of a dead tree, out of nocturnal harm’s way. They were busy preening and adjusting to the most comfortable position.

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This was also a male Saddle-bill Stork, the female has no yellow wattle under its chin but has a yellow eye ring.

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“Nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it, can communicate the indescribable sensations.”

~ William Burchell

At the dam where we found the large pride of Lions were a resident family group of White-faced Whistling Ducks. It was a flock of about 12 birds. They were surprisingly quiet, possibly because of the lions.

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The characteristic whistling call of this duck is one of my favourite and an iconic sound along waterways in sub-Saharan Africa. This character was a little muddy because it had rained recently but they are exquisitely coloured ducks. They can comfortably stand dead still on one leg with no wobbling like we do.

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At the same dam where we saw the White-faced Whistling Ducks were a number of passers-by. One such passer-by was this Hammerkop. Among certain African tribes the Hammerkop is believed to be the “lightning bird”. Among others the “lightning bird” is believed to manifest itself only through lightning, except to women, to whom it reveals itself as a bird. In these instances the bird is of imaginary nature and may take several forms. The lightning bird is a mythological creature in the folklore of the tribes of South Africa including the Pondo, the Zulu and the Xhosa. The impundulu (which translates as “lightning bird”) takes the form of a black and white bird, the size of a person, which is said to summon thunder and lightning with its wings and talons.

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This Wood Sandpiper is a small wader with green-yellow legs. It has a dark brown streaked crown, white eyebrow, and dark line through eye. It also has white underparts with brown-gray streaks and marks on neck, breast, and flanks and a white rump. Its back is a grey-brown and its wings have a pale brown mottling. A group of sandpipers has many collective nouns, including a “bind”, “contradiction”, “fling”, “hill”, and “time-step” of sandpipers.

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The Wood Sandpiper can easily be mistaken for a Green Sandpiper which has the same distribution but has darker colouring on its upper wing and back feathers and is lightly larger and dumpier than the more elegant Wood Sandpiper

 

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This juvenile Grey Crowned Crane was foraging alongside its two parents quite close to the Grumeti Tented Camp. These youngsters definitely improve with age.

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We came across many pairs of Grey Crowned Cranes scattered all over the Western Corridor. These two were performing a ritualised mating dance. This breeding display involves dancing, bowing, and jumping. This Crane has a booming call which involves inflating the red gular sac. It also makes a honking sound quite different to the trumpeting of other crane species.

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There are two species of Crowned Crane in east and central Africa. The one species, which we saw in the Serengeti and which we see in southern Africa, is the Grey Crowned Crane. There is also a Black Crowned Crane which is found  in northwest Kenya and Uganda. The Black Crowned Crane looks similar in size and shape but its body feathers are black and it has different facial markings and less prominent red facial skin and red throat wattles.

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These are exquisitely beautiful birds whose honking or croaking call does not match their feathered finery.

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“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

~Langston Hughes

Tanzania and Kenya have an incredible variety of Barbets and Tinkerbirds. This next character is an Usambiro Barbet and found mainly in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.

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Usambiro Barbets are usually found in pairs and are often  seen and heard performing a rattling duet. While “duetting” the pair bob up and down with their tails waving up and down.

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A frequent visitor around the camp during the day, when we were editing our images, was this Slate-coloured Boubou. It was very inquisitive and would hop onto the tables where we were working presumably looking for food.  The Slate-coloured Boubou is one of four types of Black Boubou in East Africa but the only one found in the Serengeti area. It had that distinctive rich BouBou-like call.

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As you would expect there are a huge variety of seed eaters in the Serengeti. This was a male Purple Grenadier similar to our Violet-eared Waxbill in southern Africa but with a much greater covering of purple on its breast belly and tail feathers.

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The Silverbird is found in the Serengeti, western border of Kenya and Uganda. This is a Flycatcher which prefers wooded acacia and bushed grassland areas.

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This Silverbird, in full plumage, was having a good stretch. Both sexes have similar colouring.

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“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while
I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more
distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any
epaulet I could have worn.” 
~ Henry David Thoreau

This White-headed Buffalo-Weaver was gathering grass for its nest which is a rough construction. The Buffalo-Weavers are weavers but are bigger, and heavier set with thicker bills than their normal weaver cousins. I think the White-Headed Buffalo-Weaver is the most attractively coloured of the three Buffalo-Weaver species found in East Africa

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This Northern White-crowned Shrike is similar to its southern cousin but has a darker back and upper wing feathers and its white crown does not extend down its neck like its southern cousin.

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These Northern White-crowned Shrikes gather in small flocks. As with many East African species of birds there is an extensive variety and these are one of the six species in the Helmet-shrikes clan.

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East Africa has a fantastic array of Starling species which are grouped into Rufous-bellied, Bi-coloured, Glossy Blue, Red-winged and Elegant Starlings. This Superb Starling has a  small insect in its beak. The Superb Starling is similarly coloured to the Hildebrandt’s Starling but the former has a white eye and white colour stripe across its chest. Its nape and back feathers are bluer and not as purplish as the Hildebrandt’s Starling.

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Its ordinary name belies the gorgeous colouring of this Grey-breasted Spurfowl. This Spurfowl has a grey chest and belly with black streaking which  is combined with blood chestnut stripes along its underparts.

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This lone Grey-breasted Spurfowl was sitting on a branch jutting horizontally out of a large tree and in between extensive preening it was declaring to the whole world that this was its patch.

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The Grey-breasted Spurfowl is slightly larger than the Red-necked Spurfowl which looks very similar but the former has  grey breast feathers and no white stripes on its neck and chest but does have chestnut stripes on its belly. The Grey-breasted Spurfowl has grey legs while the Red-necked Spurfowl has orange-red legs.

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The white malar stripe is evident in both the Grey-breasted and Red-necked Spurfowl. The Grey-breasted Spurfowl is narrowly distributed in the western Corridor of the Serengeti.

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“The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet.
A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and
intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with
every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how
many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives
— and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song! “
~ John Burroughs

There are five woodland Woodpeckers in East Africa and they look very similar but can be identified according to their facial markings, breast spots or stripes and home ranges. The male woodpeckers, in all but the Green-backed Woodpecker, have a red stripe on either side of their throat.

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Three species of male woodland Woodpeckers are found in the Serengeti, Nubian, Golden-tailed and Green-backed. The Green-backed does not have a red facial moustache and the Golden-tailed has streaked markings on its breast so I presume this must be a Nubian Woodpecker.

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The Grey-backed Fiscal Shrike looks like the Fiscal Shrike we see in South Africa but has a long tail and has a black mask across its eyes and its fore crown.

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These are noisy birds which like to gather and display by waving their tails up and down much like Wood-Hoopoes
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Down at the Ngokeo dam the bird life was prolific. The Ngokeo dam was around 20 kilometres due east of the Grumeti camp.

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I think this is a juvenile Yellow Wagtail. It certainly has the size and shape of a Wagtail. It also had the characteristic tail wag action.

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This was a real beauty and a can only imagine how pretty the adult is, even with its highly varied head colouring.

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This next little character looked like a juvenile Killitz Plover. It could be mistaken for a White-fronted Plover but the Western Corridor is not its distribution range.

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These little Plovers tend to operate alone foraging along the water’s edge.

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Again the Serengeti delivers a variety of Plovers and their larger Lapwing cousins. This next image is of a Black winged Lapwing.

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This Lapwing, like most of its family, had a harsh, strident and staccato call.

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We saw the occasional Kori Bustard in the Western Corridor but they were relatively scarce.

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As in Mashatu, these Kori’s do not like you to get too close. The best place to get close up images of Kori Bustards is in the Ngorogoro crater.

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Like the Kori, this Southern Ground Hornbill was striding out in the open grasslands foraging for anything from small birds to rats, insects, reptiles and snakes. The male has a bare bright red skin around its eye and has red throat wattles.

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The female Southern Ground Hornbill looks very similar to the male but has a violet-blue coloured skin throat patch. 

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These Ground Hornbills would rather walk away from you than fly but are capable fliers for a few hundred metres. When they do fly their bright white primary wing feathers are clearly visible.

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“There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the
way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was
before.”
~ Robert Lynd

This pair of Marabou Storks were bathing at Ngokeo dam. They are really ugly storks and tend to hang around on the fringe of all the action at a carcass because they  eat scraps as their beaks are not designed for tearing meat off the bones. Marabous have two inflatable air sacs, one bright red one at the base of their hind neck and a bulbous throat sac.

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This was an unusual resting pose. It just shows that some yoga poses are very natural. A Marabou Stork’s legs are dark grey in colour but often appear white as they have been splattered with excrement.

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On a few occasions we saw small flocks of Yellow-throated Sandgrouse drinking at the water’s edge of the Ngokeo dam. The male Yellow-throated Sandgrouse is a bulky Sandgrouse which has a pale Yellow throat encircled by a black band. Its wing coverts are a chestnut-brown and its belly is a dark chestnut-brown.

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These Sandgrouse seemed to arrive at the dam around mid-morning just before we stopped for our coffee and rusk break. They fly in from foraging in the open grasslands for seed.

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These Yellow-throated Sandgrouse seemed to always arrive in pairs, The female had a similarly coloured head but with no black neck-band. Her body and wing feathers are heavily mottled with black, brown and buff colouring.

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This was a group of Egyptian Goose goslings. There were only five goslings left. The typical clutch size is around eight eggs.

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Both Egyptian Goose parents were in attendance. The parents are highly aggressive towards any other birds which are a perceived threat.

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A White Stork resting on a log partially submerged in the dam. Most of the White Storks where not “washing powder” white because it has been raining and it was reasonably muddy.

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These White Storks, which had migrated down from Europe, spent most of their time foraging for food in the grass plains.

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There were lots of Black-headed Herons in the Serengeti. They tended to forage close to water.

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These Black-headed Herons are not fussy eaters and will devour frogs, reptiles, terrapins, baby birds and mice if they can find them.

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“The bird of paradise alights only on the hand that does not
grasp.”

~ John Berry

We found this solitary White-winged Tern at Ngokeo dam. It would not let us get close but its colouring makes me think this was its non-breeding plumage.

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Wattled Lapwing about to land in a patch of shallow water at the Ngokeo dam.

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There were a pair of Wattled Lapwings at the water’s edge which were very busy defending their turf from lots of other passers-by.

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One of the passers-by which was chased off was this Blacksmith Lapwing.

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We saw African Hoopoes regularly  and they were usually foraging in the open patches of ground in the grasslands.

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It is quite something to be a ground feeder in open Serengeti plains where there are some many animals constantly on the move.

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We saw Spur-winged Lapwings both close to Grumeti tented camp and next to the Ngokeo dam

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We saw this Black-faced Sandgrouse also down at the water’s edge of Ngokeo dam.  The various Sandgrouse species do not seem to mingle.

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A female Black-faced Sandgrouse about to take off.

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“Use those talents you have. You will make it. You will give joy
to the world. Take this tip from nature: The woods would be a
very silent place if no birds sang except those who sang best.” 
~ Bernard Meltzer

A girls morning out. This was a large “waddle” of female Ostriches. We could not work out why their were so many females together.

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On many occasions we saw pairs of Ostriches but only once did we see a gathering of females like this.

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The Two-banded Courser is easily identified by its heavily scaled upper parts and  two clear narrow black breast bands. 

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These Coursers can be found on the open patches of ground in the vast grassy plains. This particular species of Courser has a call much like a Thick-Knee.

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A large flock of Abdim Storks was resting along the side of the Ngokeo dam.  They were all standing around and preening themselves. I was intrigued by this congregation.We saw them once and never again.

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I hope you enjoyed this narrow selection of the birds you could see in this part of the world. The variety of birds is spectacular.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.”

~ Beryl Markham

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

3 thoughts on “Winging it around Serengeti

  1. Thanks Mike! I think this is one of the best birding posts I’ve seen on WordPress – ever. Can’t pick any favourites really as all shots are so crisp and lively. Although that perching Saddle-billed stork…

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