Mashatu – a birder’s delight-part1

Mashatu Nature Reserve in January. It was a time of good rains which transformed the colour palette of the area from brown and gold to verdant greens and yellows. The migrants, inter-African and Eurasian had arrived. It was hot and blazing with colour. The Majale, the main river coursing through Mashatu, had plenty of large pools of water. It never flows perennially but can flow strongly after good rains.

“Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?” ~ David Attenborough

This post shows a further small selection of birds which were seen and photographed in Mashatu.

A Lesser Spotted eagle perched in a dead tree looking and waiting for insects to appear. This is a medium-sized, compact eagle which migrates from Eastern Europe to feed in southern Africa during summer. When perched, the adults are characteristically two toned with their dark flight feathers contrasting their paler brown body feathers and upper wing coverts. Usually, a white patch occurs on the upper wings, and adults have a clearly marked white “V” on the rump, usually only seen when flying. The head and beak are small for an eagle possibly because it is mainly an insect eater.

A pair of Red-billed hornbills. There are five species of Red-billed, but we find the southern species in southern Africa. This group of birds are conspicuous visually and sound-wise. It has mainly whitish underparts and head. Its back and head are dark grey and the upper parts of its wings are a dark grey with vivid white splotches. It has a long black tail and a long curved red bill which lacks a casque, which is usually only present in hornbills living in forests or heavily wooded areas. This species of hornbill has a characteristic long decurved red bill with pink skin around its yellow eyes. In the image above the male was about to present his female with a gift of bark as part of his courting process.

A Fork-tailed drongo perched on the branch of a Shepherd tree. This species typically perches on a branch and hawks insects. This bird has a large head with a hooked black bill (similar to a shrike), and a red eye. A key diagnostic feature is its deeply forked tail. This bird is a highly agile flier similar to bee-eater. The drongo is talkative and an accomplished mimic. The Fork-tailed drongo is a kleptoparasite specialist, using its mimic abilities to get effect. Birds of prey are often mobbed by the agile Fork-tailed drongo, who see the raptor as a threat.

“Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we will soon be in trouble.” Roger Tory Peterson

A female Bearded woodpecker. The female has a black crown on her head not a red one seen on the male. Both male and female have the characteristic black throat which looks like a beard and a black eye band which extends from the beak to the ear coverts. A woodpecker’s tongue wraps around its skull, acting as a cushion for the brain when it taps on the hard surface of a branch. The pecking and tapping on branches have several functions, one to claim territory, two to attract mates and three to reach insects and grubs the bark of the tree.

A Kurrichane Buttonquail on the track in front of the game vehicle. This is a small 15 cm high quail. Usually it flushes late when approached or surprised and flies about 20 metres before landing in the thick grass cover again. Its cryptic upper parts make it very difficult to see in the grass. The head and back are mainly russet brown. The eye is cream and clearly is visible, and its beak is blue grey and its legs pinkish. It feeds on insects and seeds on the ground.

A Burchell’s coucal with a large caterpillar for breakfast. This is one of four species of coucal found in southern Africa. The coucal is a member of the cuckoo family. It has the characteristic ochre brown back and wing feathers. Its head and nape are black, its eye is ruby red and its throat and underparts a creamy white. A key differentiating feature is the finely barred upper tail coverts. It has a beautiful liquid call which sounds remarkably like water being poured from a narrow-necked bottle followed by a series of “tu tu tu tu”. This species is often called the “rainbird” because it is often seen before the onset of rain. Its attractive appearance and gentle liquid song disguises its voracious predatory nature. It is feared by smaller birds as it frequently raids the nests of other birds to prey on any young nestlings and eggs. It will also prey on frogs, lizards, rodents and insects.

A Natal spurfowl declaring its territory from a prominent lookout early one morning. This species of spurfowl has distinctive yellow nostrils and a bright orange-red bill and legs. The spurs on this spurfowl were well worn signaling it was an older bird which must have been in many fights.

There are six francolin species and six spurfowl species in Southern Africa. The distinction be­tween these groups is apparent in their plumage, escape flight behaviour and vocalisations. The francolin is smaller and has yellow legs. It typically crouches and sits tight before flushing when disturbed, where­as spurfowls tend to run for cover. Francolins also have a more musical call whereas spurfowl have a more raucous harsh call. A spurfowl is larger and has orange, red or black legs. The spurfowl roosts in trees at night like a guineafowl whereas francolin trend to stay on the ground. The Crested francolin is the exception to the rule among francolins.

A male Namaqua dove. It has a very long black tapered tail, and the size and shape have led to comparison with the budgerigar. The plumage is mostly a grey-brown apart from a white belly. Its primary feathers are chestnut and very visible in flight. The adult male has a yellow and red beak and a black face, throat and breast. The adult female lacks the black and has a red-based grey beak. There is no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorise them by size where a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon.

A Grey heron standing alert on the branch of a dead tree. The Grey heron has a black streak on its head whereas the Black-Headed heron has a solid black head and the former’s feathers are predominantly grey. The Grey heron has a yellow beak and brown legs, whereas the Black-Headed heron has a dark grey beak and grey legs. The Grey heron has light grey feathers, whereas the Black-Headed heron has dark grey feathers. Herons are waders, and have long legs and can measure up to a metre in height. Their preferred diet is aquatic creatures, caught while foraging in shallow water or from the bank. The beak is large and pointed to assist its predatory behaviour. Its diet comprises fish, frogs, insects, beetles and small birds.

A Terrestrial Brownbul having a bath in the bird bath in front of Rock Camp which is one of several camps located along the Limpopo river. It is inconspicuous and camouflaged, occupying the shadowy undergrowth of thickly vegetated habitats, It mainly eats arthropods (spiders, beetles, mantises, moths and butterflies etc.), probing and overturning leaf litter in search of prey.

A White-browed Robin-chat, also known as the Heuglin’s robin. This character also came to the bird bath to cool off in the heat of January. It has a black head and face with a white brow. Its neck and underparts are a bright orange. One of the charming features of the bird is its beautiful call where a pair’s duet can often be heard just after dawn and at dusk.

“The homing instinct in birds and animals is one of their most remarkable traits: their strong local attachments and their skill in finding their way back when removed to a distance. It seems at times as if they possessed some extra sense – the home sense – which operates unerringly.” ~ John Burroughs

A Wood sandpiper foraging in the pans filled by the recent rains. This sandpiper is a summer visitor from Eurasia. It eats a variety of insects, small fish and frogs, foraging by slowly walking on the ground or in shallow water, probing, pecking and sweeping its bill from side to side in search of prey.  This sandpiper has dark brown upper parts with white spots and a broad distinctive white eyebrow which starts above its lore and extends above and behind the eye. Its neck and breast feathers are a light buff-brown colour which transitions gradually into white belly and rump feathers. Its beak is dark grey but transitions into a green-yellow around the lores and gape. It has long yellow legs. By contrast, a Green sandpiper tends to be stockier than the Wood sandpiper, and is less elegant and shorter-legged. The Green sandpiper’s legs are a greenish-grey colour.

An adult Hammerkop preening itself on the jutting branch a dead tree above the Majale river around mid-morning. This is a squat, brown bird the size of a small ibis with a bushy-crested “hammer-head”. It is commonly found near wetlands and rivers. Hammerkops eat frogs, fish, invertebrates, and crustaceans found in shallow water. The Hammerkop is also known as the “Lightning bird” in certain African tribe’s folklore. It takes the form of a bird which is the size of a person, with the power to summon thunder and lightning with its wings and talons. The bird is of imaginary nature and may take several forms. According to folklore, the Lightning Bird is impervious to gunshots or stabbing, it cannot be poisoned or drowned, but according to folklore can be destroyed by fire.

A Lanner falcon hunting from its perch on a dead Shepherd bush. It is the largest falcon in southern Africa and is differentiated from the Peregrine falcon by its larger size and and whitish-buff coloured underparts with brown spots. This was a juvenile as seen by its light buff coloured crown. The adult usually has a russet coloured crown. The yellow eye-ring and black teardrop-like moustache extending from the eye down its cheek are characteristic features of most falcons and Hobbys.

I have a special interest in Lanner falcons. I have not seen them often and they have a special place in my birding heart from memories of senior school friends, especially Adrian Lombard, flying their Lanners at our bush boarding school, Falcon College, located south of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

Mashatu boasts more than 350 species of birds on the reserve. During the winter months the variety diminishes as the migrants return north to feed and breed. In winter in Mashatu, the resident birds gather around the small pools of water that remain from the wet season. During the summer months huge flocks of birds arrive from the north to feed. The unique variety of ecosystems in Mashatu ensure a wide variety of bird species can be seen from wader and waterbirds at the vlei to coursers and sandgrouse in the drier areas.

“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 Wilson Lynd

I have one more post on birds from my Mashatu trip in January after which I will shift onto mammals and the varied scenery.

Have fun, Mike

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