A friend contacted me via WhatsApp the other day: my phone has an appalling camera, but there is a bird in our garden – orange and yellow chest, carnivore type beak … any idea what type of bird this is? It makes a clicking meerkats type of noise and then also a crying sound. Even though the accompanying image showed a minute blob of yellow high up in a tree, there was only one explanation: a Grey-headed Bush Shrike (Malaconotus blanchoti).
My own image is nothing to brag about either, for they move very quickly and are rather photo-shy. These birds tend to be wary and forage in tangled growth, such as creepers, as well as among branches and the foliage of trees. I have seldom seen one truly out in the open for long enough to photograph it.
It was the clicking meerkats that clinched the identification for me even though the Roberts Bird Guide describes their call as a “repetitive and mournful drawn-out whistle, whooooooooo …” to which the Complete Photographic Field Guide Birds of Southern Africa helpfully adds “also loud clicks and dry ‘skeeerrr’”.
The Grey-headed Bush Shrike is strikingly attractive and one usually hears it before being able to spot it. I once had one perched above me while I was working in the vegetable garden (no camera at hand – of course!). It would swoop down silently to catch beetles, earthworms and caterpillars that had been exposed as a result of my digging. They also eat lizards, small snakes and bats. A lot of people do not like them because they – like the Burchell’s Coucal – also eat small birds. Our neighbour once complained bitterly that the ***** Spookvoël (ghost bird) had eaten the chicks out of the Greater Double-collared Sunbird nest that they had been observing from the time it was being constructed!
They also have to eat.