Selati: birdlife

At Klipspringer Lodge in Selati Game Reserve there is a photographic hide. It is positioned about 100 metres down the hill from the lodge. The hide looks onto a man-made waterhole. The hide is positioned about 15 metres from the near side of the waterhole and the waterhole is roughly circular with a 20 metre diameter. This means you need a short focal length lens for large mammals and a very long focal length lens for the small birds on the far side of the waterhole.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” ~ Walt Disney

Birds, like mammals, are very sensitive to sounds in the bush around the waterhole and from the hide itself. Each month the hide is in place the wildlife is becoming progressively more habituated to it, which helps the photographers.

“You will enrich your life immeasurably if you approach it with a sense of wonder and discovery, and always challenge yourself to try new things.” ~ Nate Berkus.

There is an open section around the waterhole which is about 15 metres in width at its narrowest point which provides adequate thick cover for francolin and spurfowl to run into when alarmed and for the smaller birds to fly into the surrounding trees.

We visited the hide in mid-September which is early spring in southern Africa. This means that none of the migrant birds have arrived yet. That said there was still a remarkable diversity of birdlife in Selati.

Throughout the day Crested francolin visited the waterhole with the males chasing the females around the water’s edge. Its small size and rhythmical call makes it a francolin. This francolin has a distinctive thick white eyebrow and it lifts its tail up like a Bantam chicken when it runs.

At around 18h00 each day many Double-banded sandgrouse arrived in pairs and small groups to drink at the waterhole. The males fluff out their breast feathers to absorb water which they carry back to their chicks. The water is collected by repeatedly “rocking” and shaking his belly feathers in the water. This process can take as long as fifteen minutes which makes the males vulnerable to predation. The sandgrouse chicks use their bills like tiny squeegees, “milking” their father’s belly feathers for the water they need. You can hear these sandgrouse flying in as they make a instantly recognisable call.

Crested barbets came down to drink a few times each day. They can be quite aggressive chasing other birds away from the edge of the water. Like sandgrouse we could often heard barbets before we saw them. Most birds flew into a nearby tree overlooking the waterhole to look around and make sure there are no threats before flying down to the water’s edge.

A Black-collared barbet at the water’s edge taking deep long drinks of water.

We were excited to see a Dark Chanting goshawk. It few into the trees away from the waterhole and spent some time looking around possibly for potential prey before eventually flying down to the water’s edge to drink.

Like many raptors, this Dark Chanting goshawk scooped up water with its beak. Birds generally do not have the ability to suck liquid into their throats so they fill their beak with water then tilt their head back to enable gravity to pull the liquid down their digestive tract.

Early on the second morning just after the hyaenas had stopped to drink, this dark morph Tawny eagle came down to drink. It was overcast and the light was low making the photography tricky. This Tawny did not stay long and left just as quietly as it arrived.

The arrival of birds at the waterhole was usually quiet unless it was a sandgrouse, barbet or drongo. This meant that you needed to be alert and watching the waterhole all the time. The birds arrive and departed much faster than the animals.

We only saw Red-billed oxpeckers around the water hole. Many oxpeckers arrived on the backs of impala, Sable, Kudu and Nyala. This species of oxpecker has olive-brown plumage with a vivid red eye and beak. Around the eye is a bright yellow eye ring.

A lone Red-billed oxpecker grooming itself after having been foraging through a young Sable antelope’s pelage. The Red-billed oxpecker feeds on ticks and parasites on the antelope’s hide. This species of oxpecker has a narrow bill which it uses to comb through the antelope’s hair to pry out parasites. These birds will also clean up open wounds and lesions.

After much practice we eventually managed to get reasonable images of the Emerald-spotted wood-dove taking off from the water’s edge after having slated its thirst. The five emerald spots are clearly visible among the tertiary wing feathers.

It is vital to watch these Emerald-spotted wood-doves to establish their pattern of behaviour around the waterhole when they are drinking. Without this pattern you will not consistently be able to capture these birds taking off from the waterhole. The ten primary wing feathers propel the bird through the air and the secondary wing feathers give it lift.

A Three-banded plover feeding on insects at the water’s edge. With its small sharp beak it plucks insects from the mud and the water surface. Its three distinct breast bands are clearly visible, two black and one white.

A Golden-Breasted bunting. We saw many pairs of these buntings at the waterhole. The male is instantly recognisable by its bright yellow breast. All southern African buntings have the characteristic black and white striped face.

A Groundscrapper thrush standing tall on long legs. It has a heavily streaked white breast and throat. Its face is strongly marked and its back feathers are brownish-grey. These thrushes are usually seen in pairs.

A Kurrichane thrush flying in for a drink. We usually saw individuals not pairs. This thrush has quite different colouring to its Groundscrapper cousin. It has a white belly, buff-orange flanks and underwing feathers. It has a light brown throat with a black moustache and a bright orange beak and eye-ring. This thrush loves picking through leaf litter for insects.

“Many birds have eye-rings, which are either brightly coloured feathers or bare skin around their eyes. These eye-rings are thought to convey different signals between birds. These signals may be associated with sexual maturity, age and health. They also provide birders with a vital aspect of identification.” ~ Mike Haworth

We saw this Pearl-spotted owlet fly in and land next to the waterhole. It was only the movement that caught our eye otherwise we would never have seen it as it blended into the ground perfectly.

After having spent some time on the ground, this Pearl-spotted owlet flew into a nearby tree overlooking the the waterhole. This one of the few owls that is often seen during the day. It has white speckles on its back and tail; white spots on the crown and head and brown streaks on its breast which are diagnostic. This owlet has an iconic and instantly recognisable call with an accelerating series of upslurred, piping “fwooo” notes, followed by a set of downward “puuueeeww” whistles ( Source: eBird).

It is always a thrill to see Green pigeons. They are beautifully coloured with light green body and head feathers with darker olive green back feathers. It has muted burgundy shoulder feathers. It has a pale coloured eye, red cere and pink feet with bright yellow leg feathers. This pigeon is often heard but not easily seen when it is high up in the trees because of its green colouring. Pigeons and doves are among the few birds that can suck water while their head is down so don’t need to lift their head to swallow.

The Green pigeons flew to the edge of the waterhole quickly and silently, drank quickly and flew off just as quickly and silently.

A flock of Red-headed weavers flew down to the far side of the waterhole to drink and bath. The male weaver has a red plumage on his head and throat during breeding season. The females have yellow plumage on their heads and throats. Both sexes have a yellowish-pink coloured beak.

Apart from their colourful bathing antics they looked to be really having fun. The breeding season is October to March which is when the males develop their characteristic red heads, which they use to impress females – and as a sign of maturity. Once the male has completed his nest a female will inspect the nest and, if she accepts it, she will line the nest with leaves as a sign of approval. After the eggs are laid the parents remain on high alert as the Diederik Cuckoo is a well-known brood parasite of the Red-Headed weaver.

The waterhole was frequented by a pair of Brown-hooded kingfishers. It has a brown head and blackish and turquoise wings. The wing coverts are mostly brownish-black, and the secondary flight feathers are turquoise. The rump is azure-blue. This kingfisher is an insect eater and unlike the Woodland is not migratory.

Often during the warmth of the day, this kingfisher would dive off its perch and dunk itself in the water to cool off.

“When you look at something what do you see, what do you hear and what do you feel and what were you looking for? ” ~ Mike Haworth

Another bird which is usually heard before it is seen is the Black-headed oriole. Often you will see flashes of bright yellow flitting between the trees before it eventually comes down to drink. This bird is immediately identifiable with its black head, red eyes and pink beak and most noticeably its bright yellow body plumage.

This bird prefers the acacia and broad-leafed woodland habitat and feeds on nectar, fruit and insects. It has a beautiful musical liquid call that sounds like “wholeucoo”.

Photographing birds from the hide at Selati was a treat. The birds tended to avoid the waterhole when the animals are drinking. I can only assume that it would even better with more diversity during the summer months once the migrants had arrived. For all but the raptors, you need a long focal length lens of a minimum of 600 mm and preferably 800 to 1000mm to photograph birds at the waterhole.

“Our eyes are wondrous things, but they have limits. Seeing is a much more intellectual process than looking. Perception and perspective can limit what we are looking at. That is the purpose of camouflage. Stop making a noise, pay attention and tune in. Use your ears and sense of smell to see. Pay attention to things and make the connections. When you do this the world around you will become infinitely more fascinating than you coulkd have imagined.” ~ Mike Haworth

It was fascinating to see how colourful the birds were in the the passing parade. The wonderful array of colours begs the question of whether birds see colour. The variety of colours suggest they do. A Yale/Cambridge study showed that birds not only do see many more colours than humans, but they see many more colours than they have in their plumage. Birds have additional colour cones in their retina that are sensitive to ultraviolet range so they see colours that are invisible to humans.

“Perception is your understanding and/or interpretation of people, situations and the world around you – it’s your mental impression. By contrast, perspective is the angle you are looking from – it’s your point of view.” ~ Sara Ballinger

There are times when there is so much bird activity around the waterhole that it was difficult deciding where to focus. With birds you have to pay attention all the time as they do not announce their arrival. Recognising bird calls helps in anticipating which birds are likely to come in to drink. They fly into the trees overlooking the waterhole to ensure the area is clear before flying down to the water’s edge to drink.

“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

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

Have fun, Mike

2 thoughts on “Selati: birdlife

  1. My gosh! I was going to pick a favourite, then another … no, that one … these photographs are outstanding. Apart from the clarity of each of them, I enjoy that you have captured the birds in action and in ways which elude the more casual observers of birds.

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