Mashatu: an avian wonderland

Mashatu is a private game reserve located in south eastern Botswana which undergoes the most amazing seasonal transformations. This post is about the avians we saw when we visited Mashatu in mid-summer in February which is also the rainy season in the southern Africa.

“Travel in Africa is not always easy. Sometimes the journey is difficult but it is also punctuated with experiences which are so evocative that they linger with you forever.” ~ Mike Haworth

At that time of the year you get to see not only the resident avians but also the international visitors. Migrants include the cuckoos, Lesser spotted eagles, sandpipers, both European and Carmine bee-eaters and kingfishers such as the Woodland.

“The way to make your dream to come true is to wake up”. ~Paul Valery

At the summer solstice, the sun rises around 5h15 and rises one minute later everyday until the winter solstice, so by mid-February the sun was rising around 6H15. On our first morning game drive we drove to the opposite side of the vlei (marsh) which was blanketed in a light mist, which was cool air trapped in the vlei for a short period.

Guineafowl and Spurfowl declare their territory early in the morning. This character was standing on a dead tree trunk talking to the world. There were a few Helmeted guineafowl on the ground around him but he seemed to be gathering the troops.

If you make too much noise you cannot hear. So every now and then this guineafowl would stop calling and listen intently.

The mist evaporated as the morning began to warm up. It was certainly not cold when we started our drive. When we first drove into Mashatu, it was wet but still looked barren. A day or so later with rain and a little sunshine this was the result. Acres carpeted with these yellow devil thorn flowers. The devil thorns are the seeds which germinate into the plants which produce this beautiful yellow bush carpet. The devil thorns are very soft at this point and most of the herbivores love to eat the soft shoots and flowers. Once the devil thorns dry out it is easy to understand why they were so named. This is not a place you want to walk barefoot in the dry season.

“Outer beauty is a gift. Inner beauty is an accomplishment.”~ Randi G. Fine,

The Lilac-breasted roller is the most widespread of the African rollers. There are 12 species in total, of which eight occur in Africa. This gorgeous multi-vibrant coloured insectivore is endemic to southern Africa. The birds prefer live in open woodland and savannah country with well spaced trees. The conspicuous colour and behaviour of this roller has captivated people since ancient times. In Zimbabwe, the lilac-breasted roller is often known as Mzilikazi’s roller – its feathers having once been used to adorn the head-gear of the 19th century Matabele king, a Zulu who founded the Matabele kingdom in what is now Zimbabwe. Mzilikatzi was originally a lieutenant of the Zulu king, Shaka and who revolted against the Zulu king and was forced to retreat North.

“The best and most beautiful things in life cannot be seen, not touched, but are felt in the heart.” ~ Helen Keller

Lilac breasted rollers are frequently seen perched on a stump or on top of a bush. They are perch hunters swooping down to catch insects, frogs and lizards on the ground. These rollers are highly territorial. They breed between August and February so we were looking out for their breeding displays but it was little late in their breeding season. It is always a thrill to see these rollers swoop from great heights in a high speed dive, rocking and rolling from side to side – their hallmark breeding display.

Mashatu has numerous Kori bustards. This is the heaviest flying bird in Africa. It can be up to 120 cm tall and has a wingspan reaching 275cm. It does not match a Martial eagle for power or the wingspan of a Wandering albatross (4metres) but it’s impressive nevertheless. It is an omnivore, eating both plant-like berries and animals like lizards and snakes. These birds are fundamentally walkers. Ground dwellers which would rather walk away from you than fly away. In breeding season the males inflate their neck and trail its wings and dances impressively in front of the female.

Soloman’s Wall is in the north west part of Mashatu game reserve. It is a vertical igneous dyke which formed a natural dam wall across the Motloutse river. The dyke decomposed over the millennia and was eventually breached by the river. For much of the year it is just a dry sand river bed but when the rains come it can flow from bank to bank. In mid-February there was still enough water in the river to make it impassable for all but the most intrepid off-road adventurer. Its vista was impressive sprinkled with cattle egrets flying across the water in front of the buttress.

Down on the banks of the river we found this Wood sandpiper very busy foraging for morsels in the sand. This little wader migrates down to southern Africa to escape the northern hemisphere winters. It can be confused with a Green sandpiper but has a darker brown face with white flecks and a white supercilium and short dark beak. The plumage on top of its head, back and rump is dark brown with white spangling. Its neck has dark brown spots and its belly and top of its legs are white. It has yellowish green legs. The Green sandpiper has shorter greyish legs and a more distinct brown to white transition between its breast and belly. It always a wonder when looking at these small waders how they manage to migrate such vast distances each year.

We were on our way back to camp after a successful morning’s game drive when, in a tall dead tree which had grown out of the large rock outcrop near camp, we saw a pair of African Hawk-eagles. We sat in the vehicle watching them for about ten minutes. This looked like a serious hunting party. Perched in a lofty lookout, both were very alert with the sun behind them. They have piercing yellow eyes.

“Memories of old Africa are punctuated with dust, sleeping bags around campfires and stories around told by the flickering flames. Hyaenas whooping and nightjars trilling all night long. Early morning walks where all the fragrances make your senses swim. Big blue skies and emptiness.”~ Mike Haworth

When I was around 10 years old in Zimbabwe, long standing family friends, the Condys had a menagerie of wildlife at their home across the valley in Harare. Dr. John Condy was the chief wildlife vet for the Zimbabwean Department of Veterinary Services. In the Condy’s garden down near the stables, John had series of chicken wire cages to hold various birds some of which were raptors. In one of the cages he had an African hawk-eagle called Nimbus. On one particular occasion, John Condy asked his son Mike and myself to go and feed Nimbus. So we dutifully went and got some mince and entered the cage. To my astonishment and horror this hawk-eagle went for us. Throwing the mince in all directions we hastily escaped from the cage. That was my first taste of how aggressive this raptor could be.

Eventually the female, the larger of the pair, took off from the dead tree right in front of us. This Hawk eagle is not as big as a Tawny or Fish eagle but it makes up for it with aggression. An African hawk-eagle pair is a cooperative hunting team where the one partner flushes the prey and the other ambushes the fleeing victim.

An African hawk-eagle has a distinctive shape, size and colouring. Being around 1.5kgs it does not have the bulk of an eagle. A Tawny eagle weighs around 2.3kgs and Steppe eagle at 2.7kgs. This hawk-eagle’s plumage is blackish on its upper parts and its breast and belly are white and heavily streaked with black. The female is larger than the male and was the first to take off and she flew between us and the rocks.

On another sortie out into the game reserve, we saw this White-backed vulture which was waiting in the early morning summer sun for the thermals to start developing. It would use the thermals to give it the cue to catch the thermal elevator to reach great heights it needed to start its aerial surveillance for the next meal.

Another early morning just after dawn looking across the Mashatu vlei. The promise of a colourful day ahead.

“There is a silence in the imminence of animals and also in the echo of their noise, but the dread silence is the one that rises from a wilderness from which all the wild animals have gone.” ~ Peter Matthiessen

A Red-billed hornbill with breakfast. There are four species of hornbill in Mashatu, the Red, Yellow and Grey billed hornbill and the Southern ground hornbill. We saw many Red and Yellow billed hornbills on this trip and heard the piping call of the Grey hornbill.

On our last morning in Mashatu, we were privileged to find a pair of Martial eagles. I have a penchant for raptors created from my schoolboy days at Falcon College in Zimbabwe. The first time I saw a Martial eagle was on a Sunday morning when a few of us from the ornithological society went out with photographer and now raptor expert, Peter Steyn, to check raptor nests. The Martial eagle nest we went to see was located at the top of a tall tree high on the side of a hill with a spectacular view looking down into a valley. I was a good tree climber so I was summoned to climbed the tree to see what was in the nest. It was a very tall tree with few climbing branches, I eventually manage to crest the nest and as I did I saw the fledged juvenile Martial eagle launch itself off the nest, open its massive wings, and soar down into the valley below. It was an experience I will never forget as, for me, it represented the ultimate physical freedom.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
~ Ansel Adams

This male Martial eagle was in a tree some distance from his nest. He took off and in doing so broke off a large branch. These are powerful raptors. They are the largest raptors in southern Africa. Martial eagles can weight up to 3.7kg, much larger than Steppe eagles.

It was exciting to see a Martial eagle pair. They were building a nest as they tend to breed in the wet season. The female does the incubation but the male does not feed her, though he does help with feeding the chick. You can see the female is much bigger than the male.

Martial eagles are strategic hunters. They are excellent flyers and hunters. The last time I saw a Martial eagle hunt was at Chudob waterhole in Etosha. There was a large flock of guineafowl drinking at the waterhole around mid-morning. We saw a Martial eagle sitting in a large tree about one hundred metres to the right far away from the waterhole. This Martial eagle took off and flew away in the opposite direction to the waterhole. Far way from the waterhole it gained sufficient height. It must have been a couple of hundred metres away and suddenly it tucked its wings in went into a stoop. This Martial leveled out about 20 metres above the ground flying at such a speed that its sounded like a low flying Boeing coming past, such was the roar of the air over its wings. The guineafowl heard or saw the Martial eagle and the flock scattered. The Martial hit one guineafowl which was taking off and hit it so hard that its was dead before it hit the ground. Before the Martial had time to collect its prize, a Black-backed jackal which had been watching the hunt from the ground stole the fallen guineafowl. It is difficult to explain how thrilling it was to experience a hunt like this, it is beyond imagination, utterly thrilling.

The wonderful thing about these sightings in the bush is that they are unexpected and often trigger floods of memories of previous incidents in the bush. Intriguingly what you see often rhymes but is never the same. The behaviour rhymes but the context and scene is always different. Understanding behaviour is a critical part of anticipating wildlife interaction and anticipating what is likely to unfold in a scene is a critical success factor to achieve these exceptional wildlife images.

“Anticipation is a craft. It is about seeing ahead. Being prepared, getting into the right position ahead of time. It is about understanding and interpreting behaviour and knowing what to expect.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

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