Mashatu – summer bird life

It is the green season in Mashatu. All the avian summer visitors from Europe and Russia are there. There is water everywhere, the flora is a verdant green and there is an abundance of insects and caterpillars.

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

This White-fronted Bee-eater looked to be trying to dust bath but it was doing so on fine stones so maybe it was just enjoying a pebble massage, and an alternative form of dust bath.


It was fun to watch. This little bundle of colour was thoroughly enjoying itself, as it continued for a good couple of minutes, quite oblivious of us.


Normally you see the resident Namaqua Doves pecking at the ground searching for seeds. The adult male has a yellow and red beak and a black face, throat and breast. The adult female lacks the black face and has a red-based grey bill. This little dove is the size of a budgerigar.


“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson
We saw Lesser Spotted Eagles on one of the afternoons, and there were a number of them. The head and wing coverts are pale brown and contrast with the generally dark plumage. In contrast to the brown plumage, the eyes, feet and the skin at the base of the beak are yellow. These eagles migrate south from eastern Europe in our summer mainly for the abundance of insects, especially flying ants. This eagle has stove-piped feathered legs and is smaller than a Tawny Eagle which is smaller than a Steppe Eagle. Our guide, Maifala, said there were plenty of Steppe eagles around but we did not see them. These eagles seem to be highly mobile moving to where the insects are most abundant.


These Lesser Spotted Eagle will not let you get too close but it is wonderful to see these migrants. It is an amazing to think of how far these wanderers have flown to get to our part of the world.


There is water everywhere at this time of the year. Even slight depressions are full of water. Needless to say the frogs have been busy and there are many tadpoles in these temporary pools. The insects and tadpoles attract beachcombers like this Wood Sandpiper which was lightning fast to catch this tadpole. I have never seen a Wood Sandpiper catch anything more than small insects and midges on the surface of the water’s edge.


Anyone who has spent any time in thornveld bush will immediately recognise the call of a Crimson Breasted Shrike. You usually hear them before you see them. This character was not waiting around to show off its majestic crimson plumage. The crimson breast plumage is a vibrant scarlet-crimson colour which I doubt an artist would be able to replicate with oil paints.


“Colours are the smiles of nature.”

~Leigh Hunt

When you hear the sound of a bath-time rubber-duck being squeezed in the bush you know to look for a sandgrouse. This pair of Namaqua Sandgrouse were foraging through the yellow Devil-thorn flowers looking for seeds.


Both male and female have cryptic colouring on their backs because they feed on the ground. The male has a more definitive blonde chest with a white-trimmed chestnut coloured waistcoat marking.


Early one morning we found this Swainson’s Spurfowl declaring his territory to the world from his vantage point. This character’s spurs were disguised in the foliage but the length and sharpness of the leg spur gives an indication of the age of the male.


“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson
A panorama  looking down through a saddle onto the treeline along the Majale river from one of the adjacent ridges.


A male Kori Bustard with his neck puffed out. This was obviously the season for love, judging from how the male were parading around. We never got to see a full display but it was clear which was the male and which was the female.


“Raise your words, not your voice. It is the rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”


The next image is of  a Long-tailed or Meves Starling. They are ubiquitous in Mashatu. When the sun catches them they radiate these gorgeous  shades of blue and aquamarine.


These Long-tailed Starlings are also very talkative. When in the croton groves they, together with the tree squirrels, act as good alarms systems making it very difficult for predators and snakes  to move around unnoticed.


First thing in the morning, we saw many White-backed Vultures  which were either standing on the ground or perched in trees or bushes. Most birds of prey wait until around 9h00 for the thermals and dust devils to form before taking off  catching their sky lift.


Despite all the scenes of these vultures squabbling over carcasses they always seem to look relatively clean. With all the water around no doubt there was frequent bathing.


Mashatu must be one of the cuckoo meccas. I have never seen and heard so many different types of cuckoo as I do in Mashatu. We saw the Greater Spotted Cuckoo,  heard the Red-chested and Klaas’s Cuckoo and saw the Diedericks Cuckoo,  the Striped and this Jacobin Cuckoo. The Striped and Jacobin look quite similar until you see them from the front. The Jacobin has a pure white front unlike the Striped or Levaillant’s Cuckoo which has black stripes on its white front.


Sabota Larks are ubiquitous residents in Mashatu.


We had been watching a coalition of three male Cheetahs and were moving off when Maifala pointed to this lone Pearl-spotted Owlet. These guides have the most remarkable eyesight and are finely tuned into the bush. It was late afternoon and its seemed relaxed perhaps having just woken up. The white/pale eye brows are a distinctive feature, as is the small size. Next to the Scoops Owlet this must be one of the most distinctive owl calls at night.The song of the male is a series of clearly fluted whistles, rising gradually in volume and in pitch – “feu-feu-feu-fue-feu” and after a short pause, there may be several explosive notes with a downwards inflection – “peeooh peeooh”.


Juvenile Temmnick’s Courser. We often see Temmnick’s Coursers in Mashatu. This diurnal courser eats mainly insects and seeds and seems to prefer drier areas. This species can be found all over Africa from Chad to South Africa. We also got to see the largest courser, the  Bronze-winged Courser, which is nocturnal, but I was on the wrong size of the vehicle to get a decent image – perhaps next time!!


“The earth laughs in flowers.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson
This young Temmnick’s Courser did not like all the attention and decided to look for a quieter spot.


The Woodland’s Kingfishers had also flown in for the summer and the abundance of insects. They are inter-African migrants. The males call constantly through the breeding season. The call is very distinctive and unmistakable in the summer bushveld. Their call begins with one sharp, loud, high note, followed by a repetition of trills in descending pitch which eventually fade away.


I was very “chuffed” to see a small flock of Southern Pied Babblers. The only other place I have seen them in southern Africa is the Pilansberg Game Reserve in South Africa.


We often see and hear Arrow-marked Babblers but it is treat to see Southern Pied Babblers. These babblers are co-operative breeders and are highly territorial.


Another summer migrant from higher up in Africa is the Carmine Bee-eater. They can be found in groups scattered across the park. They too were enjoying the abundance of flying insects.


A resident Red-backed Shrike.


A male Diederick’s Cuckoo. Its name is onomatopoeic as it has a persistent and loud “deed-deed-deed-deed-er-ick” call.


“In nature, light creates the colour. In the picture, colour creates the light.”

~Hans Hofmann

Adult males are glossy green above with copper-sheened areas on the back and whitish underparts. They have a broken white eye-stripe, a short green malar stripe and a red eye-ring.


These cuckoos are often found feeding on insects and caterpillars on the ground. There seem to be plenty of caterpillars from the Mopani trees and bushes.


An African Hoopoe on one of the dirt roads in the park. This bird also has a onomatopeaic name. It is named after its call which is a loud “oop!” in sets of three.


Their heads have a distinctive crest with long chestnut coloured feathers which have black tips. The crest lies backwards when the bird is resting, however, if alarmed or excited, the crest opens up and displays a beautiful circular shape. This male was taking a dust bath in the late afternoon.


This character would peek at the soil and then put his head down and squirm in the dust with his wings extended to fully cover himself with dust. He did this repeatedly for about 10 minutes. Dusting or sand bathing, is part of a bird’s preening and plumage maintenance which keeps feathers in top condition. The dust that is worked into the bird’s feathers will absorb excess oil to help keep the feathers from becoming greasy or matted. The oil-soaked dust is then shed easily to keep the plumage clean and flexible for more aerodynamic flight and efficient insulation.


“If your ever want your soul to dance in the clouds, you will at some point have to juggle lightning and taste the thunder.”

~Christopher Poindexter

This White Stork is a European migrant which has also flown down for the summer to enjoy the abundance of insects. They do not breed down in sub-equatorial Africa. These storks are on Jackal and Martial Eagles’ prey lists.


A Crested Francolin foraging for seeds fruit and insects. This francolin has a broad white eye-stripe which contrasts with the dark head, and it has a white throat. When it runs it cocks its tail, like a bantam chicken. Male crested francolins can be distinguished from females and juveniles by their brighter plumage colours and up-curved spurs on their legs. You will only see the crest which is extended when alarmed and gives this francolin a mohawk look.


A ubiquitous Yellow-billed Hornbill. These hornbills were having a field day with all the grasshoppers and ants to feed on. We also saw the Red-billed, Grey and Southern Ground Hornbills in the park.


I have been waiting to get a half reasonable image of a Plum-coloured, now called a violet-backed Starling.  This species is dimorphic and only the male has this irridescent purple-plum colouring which sparkles in the sunshine.


“Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways”.

~Oscar Wilde

This was the first trip to Mashatu where we saw these birds almost everyday. They were difficult to photograph as they would not allow us to get close to them. The male’s upper parts, including the chin, throat and wings are iridescent purple. The underparts are pure white. The coloration varies from dark to rosy depending on the light. The bill and legs of the male are black, the eyes have a yellow outer ring around a brown centre. The female lacks any of the iridescent plumage


A resident Lesser Grey Shrike, a cousin to the Red backed Shrike. Both are insect eaters and can often be seen  on top of the bushes scanning the area for food. They are perch hunters.


A Barn Swallow which has come down from the Northern Hemisphere for summer. This swallow has steel blue upper parts and a rufous forehead, chin and throat, which are separated from the off-white underparts by a broad dark blue breast band. The outer tail feathers are elongated, giving the distinctive deeply forked “swallow tail”. These agile fliers hunt insects on the wing. They were abundant in the park.


A Dusky Lark foraging in among the flowers for insects. This is a large, slender, thrush-like lark with striking facial pattern, very dark upper­parts and boldly streaked breast and primary and secondary coverts.


I hope I have given you a sense of the wonderful bird life which can be seen in Mashatu. Summer time has the added benefit of all the summer migrants but the birding and bird photograph is excellent at any time of the year.

“To find the meaning of life, enjoy the journey, the beauty of the nature, the glint of a dew drop, the warmth of the morning sun, the songs of the wind, and smiles of flowers. These are all there to make your journey worthwhile and make your life meaningful.”
~ Debasish Mridha

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

Have fun,


2 thoughts on “Mashatu – summer bird life

  1. Hi Mike, trust you are very well my friend! Thank you for yet another interesting blog. What I appreciate so much about your blogs Mike, is that you go out there to give us a better understanding and feel of your destination. We as photographers (more than often) get so bogged down with what is a great photo, are all the techs in place? etc, that we miss out on the diversity, the little things, the scenery, the beauty. Love what you are doing, keep up the good work. Kind regards, Elana

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