Mokala – flights of fancy

Mokala National Park is located in the northern Cape which is a large land locked province in South Africa with low rainfall. Given its position it is in the transition zone between the Kalahari and Nama Karoo biomes. As such it dictates the type of birds you are likely to see in the park.

“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” ~ Chinese Proverb

We found many European rollers in Mokala, many more than its Lilac-breasted cousin. The European roller does not have the tail-shafts seen on the Lilac-breasted and Racket-tailed rollers. Rollers put on a flight display much like the lapwing where it twists and turns creating a sense that it is rolling, hence its name.

Its blue and brown-coloured plumage is the most distinctive feature of the European roller. This bird breeds in Europe in the northern hemisphere summer and winters in sub-Saharan Africa. It covers over 10 000 km on its migratory route. This is the only species of roller to breed in Europe. Rollers prefer to perch prominently on trees and bushes looking for large insects, small reptiles, rodents and frogs to prey on. The diet of adult rollers is dominated by beetles.

A Southern Pale Chanting goshawk is identified by its red-orange coloured legs, beak and cere. Its plumage is a lighter grey than its northern Dark Chanting cousin. The male vocalises during the breeding season. He will perch at the top of a tree and call to the female in a series of “kleeu-kleeu-kleeu-ku-ku-ku” chants.

The Southern Pale Chanting goshawk is distributed throughout South Africa but its dark cousin is distributed mainly in the Limpopo and North-west provinces of South Africa, northern Namibia, northern Mozambique, northern Botswana and throughout Zimbabwe.

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

A Steppe buzzard usually hunts by gliding down from its conspicuous perch. This individual was standing on its perch near Stofdam keenly watching for any potential prey. The Steppe buzzard differs from the Forest buzzard in that the Forest buzzard has more white on its belly and breast. It also prefers forests and thickly wooded areas while the Steppe buzzard prefers open areas.

Sociable weavers build their metropolis in Camelthorn trees. The next image shows one example of many to be found in Mokala. Where there are Sociable weaver colonies you are likely to find a Cape cobra and Pygmy falcons. Sociable weavers build large compound community nests. They are large enough to house over a hundred pairs of birds and last several generations.

Red-billed oxpeckers sitting on the neck of an old darkened giraffe. The adults have a distinctive red beak and red eye with a yellow eye-ring. The adult’s plumage is dark brown on its upper parts and a beige colour on its neck and belly. The juvenile will develop the red beak and colourful eyes. Oxpeckers have short legs but strong sharp claws which enables them to cling to their host. The Yellow-billed oxpecker has a stouter beak and uses a pecking motion to extract ticks from hosts, whereas the Red-billed oxpecker uses a scissor-like action.

A Shaft -tailed whydah which refused to turn around and face us. During the breeding season the male has black crown and upper body plumage, golden breast and four elongated black tail shaft feathers with expanded tips. After the breeding season is over, the male sheds its long tail and grows olive brown female-like plumage. This species imitates the song of the Violet-eared Waxbill, which it parasitises. All Indigobirds and whydahs are brood parasites.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

The next image is of a female Red-backed shrike. In the female and young birds the upperparts are brown and vermiculated. Underparts are buff and also vermiculated. This is probably a juvenile female as it has not yet developed the black eye band evident in the adults of this species. Shrikes like to perch prominently on the tops of bushes, fence posts and telephone wires, where they have a good view of potential prey. Items caught are then taken to a larder where they are impaled on a thorn or wedged in a fork.

An adult male Long-tailed Paradise whydah dressed up in all his finery. In Mokala, this species is at the southern most reach of its southern African distribution. The breeding male has a display flight in which he holds his two wide short black tail feathers erect. Like a Pin-tailed whydah, he hovers over females in a slow bobbing flight which makes his long tail flow up and down in a mesmerising display. This species of whydah parasites Green-winged pytilias.

A Cape wagtail foraging for insects around the edge of Stofdam. This wagtail has dull grey upper plumage and a creamy-white breast and belly plumage. Like most wagtails it has a black collar and has a characteristic stride while wagging is tail up and down. There are six species of wagtail in South Africa.

A female Yellow canary. The male and female are dimorphic with the female having grey-brown upperparts, black wings with yellow flight feathers, a yellow rump and a pale supercilium. The underparts are white with brown streaking. The adult male colour ranges from almost uniform yellow in the northwest of its range to streaked, olive backed birds in the southeast. The underparts, rump and tail sides are yellow. This canary is abundant in the western and central regions of southern Africa. This is a gregarious seed-eater.

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” ~ Socrates

You can expect to see Pygmy falcons in Mokala. We saw several individuals along the main road between Mosu and Lilydale camps and along the Matopi and Kameldoring loops. This is the smallest bird of prey on the African continent which prefers dry habitats. It is the size of a shrike. This falcon preys on reptiles and insects and sometimes small birds and rodents.

In Southern Africa the Pygmy falcons have a symbiotic relationship with Sociable weavers. The weaver give up one of their nest chambers in exchange for a degree protection of their colony. These tiny falcons help deter predators, such as snakes, from the weaver colonies. The Pygmy falcon uses a nest in the Sociable weavers nest structure to roost and breed. The temperature variation is huge between night and day in the dry arid regions of Namibia, Northern Cape and western Free-state. The Sociable weaver nests regulate the birds’ environmental temperature and keep air cool in summer and warm in the freezing nights of winter. Pygmy falcons are not the only raptors occupying Sociable weaver nests, as Secretary birds and Giant Eagle owls also nest on top of deserted weaver nest structures.

We had a short three day stay in Mokala. This was not long enough to do it justice and see all this small national park had to offer.

Given its conservation and breeding orientation and that fact that it is in a biome transition zone, these features make it a unique park to visit. It is not a “big-five” park but it does offer buffalo and rhino. Spending a little longer in the park may yield sightings of Wild cat, Caracal, Aardwolf and Bat-eared and Cape foxes. Over 200 bird species have been recorded in Mokala so we only got to photograph a very small selection. We will definitely be returning to this fascinating park.

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. ” ~ Rachel Carson

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

Have fun, Mike

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