Mashatu – birder’s delight – part11

This is my third post on birds seen and photographed in Mashatu Nature Reserve in January. Mashatu is a private nature reserve in the Tuli Bloc in south eastern Botswana, in southern Africa.

In this post I show 27 different species of bird seen and photographed in Mashatu. There are many birds seen but not photographed. I am not a birder with a list. I prefer to see the bird, enjoy and photograph it. No bird will ever be a tick on a bird list. In my world the number does not count but seeing understanding and identifying its unique character and behaviour is much more important to me.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” ~ John Burroughs

My photography has gone a long way towards improving my knowledge of birds because I get to see them up close and have a lingering image to be able to search for the identifying characteristics. Often I get a chance to sit quietly on the game vehicle and just observe the behaviour of the bird which adds to my general bird knowledge.

The next image is of an adult female Saddle-billed stork which had been fishing in one of the small remaining pools of water in the Majale river. The female is identified by her yellow eye and lack of yellow wattle under her chin. Both the male and female have the characteristic bi-coloured red beak with a black band across the bill just below the yellow wattle above the upper mandible. The Saddle-billed stork also has the pink knees which, look sore. This is a tall strikingly coloured black and white stork.

A Spotted flycatcher sitting on a twig just above the sand bank along the Majale river. Spotted flycatchers hunt from conspicuous perches, making sallies after passing flying insects, and often returning to the same perch. Their upright posture is characteristic. This is an undistinguished looking bird with long wings and tail. The adults have grey-brown upperparts and whitish underparts, with a streaked crown and breast, giving rise to the bird’s common name. The legs are short and black, and the bill is black and has the broad but pointed shape typical of aerial insectivores.

A Marsh Sandpiper foraging along the bank of a shallow pan which had formed in the recent rains. This is a medium-sized wading bird, with a long thin straight beak which is yellowish around the nares and darkens to a black tip. It has yellowish legs. It is most similar to the Green sandpiper but differs by lighter colouring, white underwings, and larger white spots on back. Like the Wood the Marsh sandpiper has a diffuse border between speckled chest and white belly. Its tail is not banded like the Green sandpiper, The Wood and Marsh sandpipers’ plumage leaves an overall much paler impression than Green Sandpiper, particularly in flight.

“The lesson which life constantly repeats is to ‘look under your feet.’
You are always nearer to the divine and the true sources of your power than you think.
The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive.
The great opportunity is where you are.
Do not despise your own place and hour.
Every place is under the stars.
Every place is the center of the world.”
~ John Burroughs

An immature Steppe buzzard. It was perch hunting from a dry tree close to the Apple-tree grove down near the vlei in Mashatu. This a migratory raptor and one of the most common species of raptor in southern Africa during the summer months. The Steppe buzzard shows great variation in colour which vary from rufous to grey in its plumage. Common to all morphs of the Steppe buzzard is a pale zone across the breast which separates the streaked underpart on the breast with a more brown banded belly and rump. The juvenile does not have the belly banding. Like all buzzards it has yellow legs which are bare to half way its tarsals and a yellow cere and small aquiline black beak.

The Red-backed shrike is a summer visitor. The male has distinctive colouring, with blue-gray head, black eye mask, rusty-brown back; female has warm brown upperparts, fine dark scalloping on breast and flanks. It has a typical shrike like beak with a sharp tip to it. It is found in open areas with scattered bushes and trees. This carnivorous shrike hunts from perches on top of bushes and favours areas with thorny plants on which prey (small birds, large insects, rodents) can be impaled in “larders.”

A lone White-backed vulture patiently waiting for the air to warm up in the morning and thermals to develop. It uses these thermals to climb to great heights without major effort. It is always remarkable that you may not see a raptor in the sky and when a carcass is discovered by one how all the others, watching each other, soon get a lock on the position of the carcass on the ground and descending rapidly from great heights in numbers.

A Kori bustard foraging in the long grass for edibles. This bustard is omnivorous and will eat anything it can find ranging from small birds, to insects and rodents. These large birds are shy and will walk away as soon as they see you. The males put on majestic mating displays by standing upright, lifting his black crest feathers, fluffing out his neck feathers, pushing down its wings and lifting his tail.

We found a small flock of Abdim storks on the open grassland south of the Majale river which was unusual. This bird breeds north of the equator, but spends the rest of the year in eastern and southern parts of Africa. This is a medium-sized stork with glossy, black body except for its white belly. The Abdim’s Stork underparts are pure white, except its throat, chin, and upper breast, which have the same colour as its upperparts. Its underwings have black flight feathers and white coverts. It face is bare skinned and blue in colour with red lores. The legs are grey and the feet and ankles are pink in colour. The Abdim’s diet consists mainly of insects including swarming locust, grasshoppers, and crickets but can extend to small mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, crabs, scorpions, and molluscs. This gregarious African migrant often appears in huge nomadic flocks numbering in the thousands, normally in response to heavy rains or large fires, after which they forage on the escaping insects.

The White stork is another summer migrant from Europe. It is a large stork standing around one metre in height substantially bigger the the Abdim stork which stands just over 70 cm. The White stork has white plumage with black flight feathers and wing coverts. It has a long pointed vivid red beak which it uses for probing in the grass and stabbing its prey. This stork’s legs are red but often appear whitish. White storks direct their faeces and urine onto their own legs, making them appear white. This acts as a cooling mechanism. When it evaporates creating a similar cooling effect when we sweat. The White stork is a carnivorous and its diet varies from insects to earthworms, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. Less commonly, they also eat bird eggs and young birds, fish, molluscs, crustaceans and scorpions.

An adult southern Carmine bee-eater perched on a small branch of a Shepherd’s tree ready to hawk flying insects. The adult bee-eaters are mostly aerial foragers. Their diet consists of various invertebrates (e.g. dragonflies, termites and locusts), There are two species of Carmine bee-eater, the southern and northern both of which are found in Africa. Southern Carmine Bee-eaters are summer migrants to woodland savanna. They have a wide distribution range within Africa. The Carmine is the largest of the southern African bee-eaters. It has dark brownish carmine colouring on its back and wings and a lighter carmine colour on its breast and belly. Its neck has pink plumage and under tail coverts are a power blue. It has a dark aquamarine coloured crown, and a black eye band extending from its lores to its ear coverts which is thought to reduce glare in the bright summer daylight.

An adult male Village indigo bird. This is a small 11 cm dark steel blue finch-like seedeater identified by its red beak and legs. The other three species of Indigo birds have white beaks. The Village Indigobird mimics the song of another species, especially the Red-Billed Firefinch. The Indigobird is another brood parasite and specialises in deceiving the Red-billed Firefinch. This mimcry is “diagnostic” because, although the other Indigobirds are also brood parasites, each of them mimics the species it uses as a host. As a brood parasite the female Village Indigobird lays her eggs in the nests of Red-billed firefinches. Unlike the common cuckoo, it does not destroy the host’s egg. Typically, 2-4 eggs are added to those already present. The eggs of both the host and the firefinch are white, although the indigobird’s are slightly larger.

The next image is of a male Indigobird coming into its breeding plumage. This Indigobird visited the bird bath in front of Rock Camp’s main lodge.

A Sabota lark talking to the whole world from on top of a dead tree stump. A medium-sized, streaky lark with a strong white eyebrow that gives it a capped appearance. It has a bold face pattern which is emphasised by a white crescent under the eye and strong moustachial streaks. The heavily streaked breast contrasts with a plain whitish belly and throat. In spring and summer, the male sits up on a prominent perch singing a rich, melodious, variable song that often includes imitations of other birds. The Sabota Lark lacks the rufous wing panel present in Fawn-coloured, Flappet, and Rufous-naped Larks. The Sabota Lark feeds on seeds and insects, the latter of which include ants, spiders, grasshoppers, termites and beetles.

An adult Barn swallow perched precariously at the end of a twig while being buffeted in the wind. This swallow is the most widespread species of swallow in the world. The adult Barn swallow has a chestnut rufous throat and forehead, a blue-black breast band, glossy steel-blue upperparts and a deeply forked tail. It has a white belly and flank which clearly shows on the tail when spread. This swallow typically feeds about 7 to 8 m above shallow water or the ground and is a highly agile flier which flies in an erratic pattern. It is often seen following animals, humans or farm machinery to catch disturbed insects.

A trio of White-fronted bee-eaters nestling close to each other in the cool early morning. This species of bee-eater is resident in Mashatu. The White-fronted bee-eater has a black eye band like most bee-eaters and a white and red band on its throat. Its neck and belly are a brownish buff colour and its upper and lower tail coverts are a powder blue. Its upper parts and wings are an emerald green. These birds hawk bees, as well as other small flying insects such as wasps, dragonflies, butterflies and flies. These aerial insectivores use their tweezer-shaped bills and wide open gapes to catch the flyting insects and displaying incredible manoeuvrability on the wing to do so. They have one of the most complex of all avian societies, featuring families, clans, and pirates!

A male Square-tailed nightjar resting on the ground early in the morning on a bank next to the Limpopo river. These nightjars are usually found in shady gravel areas where their camouflage helps them blend in to their surroundings. Key identifying features are the white markings on the outer tail feathers and folded wings, , in the case of the male, and its tawny-buff collar. It has a prominent black crown markings without clear cut grey surround. The adult of this species has vermiculated grey wings, richly marked with white and salmon teardrop-shaped spots on it median and greater wing coverts which are interspersed with black markings. A line of white spots on the lesser wing coverts form a white bar. This species prefers more open woodland than the fiery-necked nightjar and have a steady trilling call.

We watched these two African hoopoes for about 40 minutes. We saw them first foraging on the ground in the sand in one track of the road. They then flew up into a nearby high dead tree. One partner seemed to be searching for food under the bark while the other was very interested in a hole in the knot of the tree which could have been a nest.

A Brown-hooded kingfisher on top of a dead branch looking up at the storks circling high above. This is a medium-sized woodland-dwelling kingfisher. Its tail and flight feathers are blue, and its back and shoulders are dark brown. It has grey-brown streaked head, a a red beak and red feet. It has all the qualities of a kingfisher, but does not feed on fish. It is an insectivore eating insects, small lizards, centipedes, spiders, scorpions and even chameleons. Brown Hooded Kingfishers usually catch their prey on the ground and kill it by beating it against a tree and in the process break the exoskeleton to facilitate digestion. After a few meals, this kingfisher will often cough up a small pellet removing part of the exoskeleton it cannot digest.

A fledged but young Martial eagle perched on top of a Shepherd tree. This a large eagle, close in size to that of a Black eagle. The juvenile has mostly white underparts and brown upper parts. The adult by contrast has a brown head neck and chest and the belly and legs are white with brown spots. The Martial, like the African Crowned Eagle and African Hawk-eagle, has piercing yellow eyes. It has a grey beak with a black tip and a yellow cere. Birds form an important part of this eagle’s diet, and include guineafowl, francolins and bustards. It will also prey on small mammals and reptiles as large as a full grown monitor lizards. Martial Eagles spend around 85% of their time perched and take to the wing later in the morning once the thermals have begun to develop. This eagle is predominantly opportunistic perch and ambush hunter.

A male Diederick cuckoo sitting call in a Purple-pod Terminalia. These birds can been hard to see as they are small and blend well with the trees and bushes they occupy, especially when looking at them from behind. The Diederick cuckoo has a distinctive red eye, emerald green head, nape and back and white underparts which become strongly barred from the breast to the belly. It has a central white stripe over its crown and several white markings on its secondary feathers and upper coverts. All cuckoos are summer residents and are parasitic breeders. The Diederick cuckoo parasites weaver, bishops and sparrow nests. The female lays either one or two eggs in the host nest and will remove the host egg before laying her own. 

“Nature we have always with us, an in exhaustible store-house of that which moves the heart, appeals to the mind and fires the imagination — health to the body, a stimulus to the intellect, and joy to the soul.”
~ John Burroughs

An adult Tawny eagle perched on top of a Shepherd tree which it was using as a lookout. Tawny’s have a huge variety of plumage morphs but this one was a rich rufous colour all over. A Tawny is a mid-sized eagle with a long neck, well-feathered legs, well-proportioned frame and large bill which lacks a deep gape. The gape only extends in line with the middle of the eye. It has strong yellow feet. Like many large raptors, the Tawny eagle spends the majority of its day perched but take wing a few times a day once the thermal have developed. They scavenge and pirate when they can, and hunt when they cannot. The Tawny’s diet varies from what they can scavenge at a kill to birds and small mammals to termites.

A Burchell’s coucal perched on a dead branch. Identified by the fine barring on its upper and low tail coverts.

A yellow-rumped widow also known s a yellow bishop was displaying to passing females from the top of a thorn bush. This widow bird was seen on the west side of the vlei in Mashatu. This male was in full breeding plumage which is black with yellow upper coverts and a yellow rump. The female is brown and heavily streaked below, without yellow highlights.

This was one of three alarmed Three-banded coursers on the gravel road encountered when we were returning to camp around 19h00. This is one of the only two nocturnal coursers in southern Africa, the other being the Bronze-winged courser. This courser is not often seen possibly because it is nocturnal and it has cryptic markings on its upper parts make it difficult to see in daylight. It has a prominent dark brown crown with a broad white stripe extending from its buff coloured supercilium. These white stripes meet on the back of the neck forming a “v”. It has large brown eyes with a thin yellow eye-ring. It has a short yellow beak with a black tip. It has three bands on its throat and breast. The upper band is dark brown and extends from the ear coverts to to the upper chest to form a “v” shape. Below that band is a white band. Below the white band is a broad buff band with dark brown streaks. The third band is a rust coloured extending across its white lower chest and belly. This courser prefers semi-arid areas. During the day these coursers roost on the ground in the shade of a bush. They are insectivorous.

A Swainson’s spurfowl sitting on a dead log early in the morning. The distinguishing characteristics are red skin on its throat and face, and black/brown legs. Swainson’s spurfowl appear brown at a distance but a closer look shows vermiculated upper parts and light brown underparts with dark brown streaks. Its legs and feet are dark grey to black. These birds are found in savanna areas in the northern and eastern area of southern Africa.

This male Swainson’s spurfowl was declaring his presence to the world. This character’s spurs had been worn down signalling an old bird which had been in numerous scuffles over mates. Spurfowl are omnivorous in their habits and feed on bulbs, seeds, berries, shoots insects and molluscs. Swainson’s perch low down in trees at night and don’t drink much during the day but will typically drink before they go to roost.

A Lesser Grey-backed shrike. This is another summer migrant from Europe. It has a distinctive black forecrown and mask which extends to its ear coverts. It has a grey nape, back and upper rump coverts. It has a white underparts from its throat to its rump coverts. and contrast between pinky breast and white throat distinctive. This shrike prefers thornveld areas and is insectivorous. This species of shrike migrates back to Europe in the early part of April each year and by mid-April they have all gone north to breed and feed.

A male long-tailed Paradise whydah looking out for females. In his breeding plumage the male has a black head crown and throat. His chest is a rust brown-orange and his belly and back of his neck are a rich creamy light yellow colour. Its back wings and tail feathers are all a glossy black. This whydah is polygynous and will mate with as many as 10 females. The female is a host-specific brood parasite and lays her eggs in the nest of the Green-winged pytilia. Unlike other brood parasites, paradise whydahs do not remove the host’s eggs when laying its own and the parasite chick does not kill its host “sibling”.

A European roller is yet another summer visitor. This roller was preening itself while sitting on an elevated dead branch. Two other types of roller are seen in Mashatu, the Lilac-breasted and the Purple roller. Like all rollers the European roller is known for its aerial acrobatics during courtship or territorial flights. This roller is light azure powder blue colour on its head and underparts and the underside of its tail feathers. It has a light brown back and rump but reveals electric blue wings in flight. This roller perches on a prominent lookout and hawks prey. Its diet includes large insects, small reptiles, rodents, and small frogs.

The small sample of bird images I have shown in the last three posts offer an idea of the prolific bird life to be found in Mashatu, especially when all the migrants have arrived for the southern African summer months from November to March.

“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and
the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk
or an evening saunter…to be thrilled by the stars at night;
to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring—
these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”

~ John Burroughs

Game vehicles are allowed to go off road in Mashatu which contributes greatly to the photographic opportunities. There is also a varied occurrence of smaller birds around the camps which adds to the interest when in camp.

Have fun, Mike

One thought on “Mashatu – birder’s delight – part11

  1. A ‘birder’ you may not be at heart, yet these photographs are exquisite! While it is difficult to choose between them all, I love the pair of African Hoopoes: their pose and the lighting go so well together.

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