In November last year, friends Neville and Sue Kelly invited Helen and I to their bush retreat in Mabalingwe, west of Bela Bela in the Limpopo province of South Africa. It is a wild life estate with plenty of space and a wonderful sense of the bush.
“Time spent with friends in the bush who also love the wild wide open spaces is filled with interesting drives where knowledge is shared and new insights gained. Then later back at our base many stories are told around the campfire accompanied by trilling nightjars, whistling Scops owls under a canopy of glittering stars.”
One of the amazing aspects of this bush retreat is the plethora of bird life. This area is cuckoo paradise. We were also in store for some unusual sightings of grey hornbills.
On the banks of the north side of the top dam, Neville and Sue knew where to find a hornbill’s nest. Early one morning we went down to the dam to see if there was any activity at the nest. The next image shows an African grey hornbill, having caught a chameleon, was busy ‘tenderising’ it to be able to push it into the nest’s entrance.
The opening to the nest was small and this grey hornbill had trouble getting the chameleon into the nest. The nest is usually made in the hollow of a tree where the female lays two to four white eggs. The female undergoes a full moult at the time of laying her eggs. The entrance to the nest is blocked off during incubation with a cement made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. Once completed, the entrance to the nest has one narrow aperture, just big enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and the chicks. When the chicks and female outgrow the nest, the mother breaks out and rebuilds the wall at the entrance to the nest, after which both parents feed the chicks.
Time and time again this male flew up to the nest and hovered momentarily to try to place the chameleon into the nest entrance, but there seemed to be no takers. African grey hornbills eat insects, fruit and small reptiles.
The adults were very busy gathering insects and pushing them into the nest entrance. We must have watched them go back and forth for about three-quarters of an hour. The male has a black bill and the female has red on its mandibles. The next image shows a female with a grasshopper. She was ‘tenderising’ it before pushing it into the nest’s hole.
This adult male African grey hornbill was taking a break from its food gathering activities. The African grey hornbill has a unique somewhat melancholic piping “pee-o pee-o pee-o” call.
This image was taken in the afternoon when the light was shining directly onto the nest making the photography considerably easier.
“For the 99 percent of the time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we still have a longing to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.”
~Janine M. Benyus
After watching the grey hornbill for quite a while we moved further down the valley to see what other animals and birds we could find. On the rocky slope next to the road we found a small family group of klipspingers. This female scent marking her territory with a secretion from the orbital gland just below her eye.
At one of the remaining waterholes we found a group of Nyala. The adult female on the right and her offspring on the left were drinking from what looked to be a stagnant pool of water.
As we arrived the male in the group of Nyala was walking away having already sated his thirst. It always amazes me that evolution has resulted in these antelope having such long hair in the thick bush and in areas where it can be very hot.
A male blue headed agama busy feeding on insects on the bough of a tree. The bright blue colour of its head suggests that it was breeding season. We only saw one male but they usually congregate in small groups.
A Striped cuckoo perched in the shade some distance away from the road. Mabalingwe has the densest seasonal population of cuckoos I have ever seen and heard.
We drove down a gravel road to have a look at the busy bird activity at dam further down the valley. While we were parked watching the European Bee-eaters bathing in the dam, I looked around and in the tree next to us saw this little Pearl Spotted owlet.
It seemed quite relaxed and its mate was in the opposite tree about 20 metres away. After about a half an hour the pair eventually flew off.
The Red-chested cuckoo is one you so often hear, with its characteristic “Piet my vrou” call, but rarely see. This was the first and only time I have ever seen a Red-chested cuckoo out in the open.
It was calling away and in plain sight. I have spent many hours in the past trying to just see this species of cuckoo. After about two minutes it was gone. This species like all the other cuckoos is a summer migrant. The red-chested cuckoo is polygamous and parasitises about fifteen others birds nests, mainly wagtails and robins.
We stopped at the the top dam on the opposite side to the grey hornbill’s nest to have a cup of coffee. Before I had time for a sip of coffee I heard a Diederik cuckoo. I stealthily crept around a cluster of bushes to get a better view of the cuckoo only to find a Great Spotted cuckoo in the same tree. The only other place I have every seen this cuckoo species was in Mashatu in Botswana.
The great spotted cuckoo feeds on insects, spiders, small reptiles and hairy caterpillars which other birds avoid. They are known to parasitise crow and starling nests. The female cuckoo adds one of her own eggs to the host’s clutch.
On the other side of the dead tree was a Diederik cuckoo. This was an adult given its mostly green and white plumage. It is an exquisitely beautiful cuckoo with a distinctive red-eye ring. Adult males are glossy green above with copper-sheened areas on the back and whitish underparts. They have a broken white eye-stripe and a short, green malar stripe.
The Diederik cuckoo usually lays one egg in the nests of weavers, bishops and widowbirds. This cuckoo has an onomatopoeic call which is a loud and persistent “deed-deed-deed-deed-er-ick”.
“Nature is man’s teacher.
She unfolds her treasure to his search,
unseals his eye, illumes his mind,
and purifies his heart;
an influence breathes from all the sights and sounds
of her existence.”
~Alfred Billings Street
In late spring before the rains had started in earnest, the top dam attracts a variety of wildlife which we watched moving through a tapestry of colours.
After a wonderful day’s game and bird watching this was the scene of the sun setting in the west.
A big thank you to Neville and Sue for a wonderful weekend. They are both accomplished birders with an excellent knowledge of trees. They also love the bush so it was great fun sharing stories and learning new things with them.
“Your deepest roots are in nature. No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation.”
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.