SOUTH AFRICAN SHELDUCK

When is a goose-like bird not a goose? When it is a South African Shelduck (Tadorna cana), which looks remarkably like a goose at first glance – particularly when in flight where they could easily be confused with Egyptian Geese. The ‘shel’ of shelduck originates from the Middle-English sheld meaning ‘pied’ – a reference to their plumage. Tadorna is the French word for ‘shelduck’ while cana refers to the greyness of the head. It is the males who sport the grey head and females the white. Both sexes have chestnut bodies marked with black, white and green.

They are fairly commonly found at inland dams and rivers. These ones were photographed at the Hapoor waterhole in the Addo Elephant National Park. They eat algae and crustaceans in the water and can also be seen in farmlands where grain crops are grown.

These birds form long-term pair-bond and tend to gather in large flocks to moult after breeding.

South African Shelduck

 

Advertisements

IT IS NOT WATTLE YOU THINK

Wattle: a fleshy carbuncle hanging from various parts of the head or neck of (in these cases) birds.

Have you ever wondered about the role played by the wattles that some birds sport?

The White Crowned Lapwing (Vanellus albiceps) is a good example to start with as it has large, pendulous yellow wattles on its face.

I have been fortunate to see these striking birds in the Kruger National Park and surrounding areas.

It is thought that the wattles serve the dual purpose of helping to regulate the temperature of the bird and to attract potential mates – which it would, if you were ‘into’ such things!

Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris) are ubiquitous in South Africa.

Their blue and red wattles contain blood vessels which, along with the bare parts on their head, apparently help to regulate their brain temperature.

A visit to the Kruger National Park would be incomplete without a sighting of the spectacular Saddle-billed Storks (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) These are the tallest storks in Africa and, while the sexes are similar in appearance, if you observe closely you might note that the females have yellow eyes, while the males not only have brown eyes but sport small yellow pendant wattles on the underside of the bill.

Perhaps these wattles are simply to look smart. I cannot find any information on any other function they may serve.

SUNDAY DRIVE

We are fortunate that we can drive only a few minutes from home and be within sight of wild animals. Their presence isn’t guaranteed for it is in their nature to move around according to the available grazing, water, the sun or the shade. Nonetheless, we often see zebra only five minutes away – they share grazing with a herd of cows on a farm – and only a few kilometers further on is a private nature reserve with a greater variety of game.

This is a scene I photographed at the weekend, showing zebra and a variety of blesbuck. The latter come in shades of their normal dark brown to completely white – why anyone would want to breed white blesbuck is beyond me. Nonetheless, these animals make a pleasant change from the Urban Herd, donkeys – and moths!

The grey logs are from Eucalyptus trees that were cut down years ago. Many of the scrubby bushes are a re-infestation of wattle, and the odd humps scattered in the background are termite heaps – there are a lot of them around here. At this time of the year the grass has been grazed down to within an inch of its life. Once again, we are sorely in need of rain – do not let that distant hue of green deceive you.

 

NOTE: Click on the photograph for a clearer view.

RED BIRDS

A number of South African birds have ‘red’ in their name, although this appellation does not necessarily refer to bright red feathers such as those of the Scarlet-chested Sunbird, this one seen in the Kruger National Park:

Or the Black-collared Barbet, as seen in my garden:

Instead, these birds have red in their name because it is a defining feature of their appearance. Among them are the African Red-eyed Bulbul, which has reddish eye-rings and is a common resident in the drier northwest region of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. This one was photographed in the Augrabies Falls National Park:

The Red-knobbed Coot, this one photographed in Cape Town, not only has two distinctive red knobs – which turn bright red during the breeding season – on its head but red eyes too. They are common resident water birds in South Africa and, interestingly, do not have webbed feet!

Delightful birds to watch are the Red-headed Finches. While they tend to live in the dry savannah areas, I photographed this one in Boksburg:

Hornbills are comical birds and the Kruger National Park hosts several varieties, among which is the Red-billed Hornbill. Although it is one of the smaller hornbills, the Red-billed Hornbill is one of the characteristic birds in the park:

While there are many more birds with ‘red’ in their name, such as the Red-eyed Dove, Red-necked Spurfowl, and the Red-winged Starling, I leave you with a particularly interesting bird, the Red-billed Oxpecker – also photographed in the Kruger National Park. This one is feasting on ticks on an impala:

NOTE: Click on a photograph for a larger view.

REDUCING THE LUCK FACTOR

It is not all about the camera you have. Whenever I see beautiful photographs other people have taken of animals, birds, frogs, and insects, I cannot help thinking how fortunate those photographers are to have seen those creatures – let alone photograph them. Yet, when recounting what we have observed in a game reserve, for example, the response is often along the lines of “you’re so lucky!”

Luck does play a role in what we come across in any environment. I often declare that what we see on a game drive is a lucky draw. Is it only that? Of course not: one can reduce the ‘luck factor’ in several ways.

Developing an awareness of one’s environment is one. If you do, then any colour, shape or movement out of the ordinary is bound to attract your attention. This applies to anything from animals to beetles.

There were a number of Vervet Monkeys about. Careful observation drew attention to this one with an incomplete tail.

Patience is a necessary part of observation. One must be prepared to walk or drive slowly enough to pay attention to the environment one is passing through. Likewise, one needs to be willing to watch and wait.

The sun was near setting when this small herd of Zebra approached the waterhole with caution. We waited twenty minutes or more before they finally bent down to drink.

Consider the time of the day. The temperature rises considerably in the middle of the day in South Africa. Wild animals tend to seek the shade during the hottest part of the day, when only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” (Noel Coward). There is likely to be more activity during the early mornings and late afternoons, so these are good times to move through the veld and when the light tends to be better for photography anyway.

I photographed this White-crowned Lapwing while walking through a camp very early one morning.

Engage other visitors in conversation to find out what they have seen and where. While one cannot expect an animal to remain in a particular area for long, you can at least develop an understanding of what might be there.

Waterbuck

A collection of vehicles along a road in a game reserve is a sure sign of something unusual and interesting to see – very often a predator. Be patient instead of trying to muscle in and possibly blocking the view of a visitor who has been waiting there for a long time. Your turn will come. Sometimes it is better to assess the situation, note the spot and to return later.

We would never have spotted this Cheetah had our attention not been drawn to it.

A very simple way of reducing the ‘luck factor’ is by lowering your line of sight. It is surprising how many visitors miss seeing animals close by because they are looking too high! This may be fine for bird watchers, but for animal watchers ground level is best.

IN DEFENCE OF THE COMMON FISCAL

This strikingly handsome bird is burdened with an unfair reputation for cruelty. Imagine being known as Jackie Hangman, the Butcher Bird, or Fiscal Shrike. What is in a name you might ask – a lot, especially if the connotations of it are negative! What does hangman bring to mind? Synonyms for butcher include destroyer, killer, murderer, slaughterer, and slayer. Fiscal is a word associated with budgets, bursars, and being pecuniary. These names have come about because the Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris) is known to sometimes impale its prey on thorns – or even barbed wire fences – for later consumption. If you visit the interesting blog run by the De Wet family at https://dewetswild.com/2018/09/26/common-fiscal/ you will find a photograph of a rather large frog impaled on barbed wire.

Does anyone condemn a spider for catching unsuspecting moths or beetles in its delicately spun web? Are spiders considered cruel when they wrap their prey in silken thread to eat later? Are people who work in abattoirs and butcheries condemned by society and treated like outcasts? We have to eat, some may argue, and would rather someone else did the killing, the cleaning, the cutting up and the packaging of the meat that we buy in neatly wrapped polystyrene packaging in the supermarkets or carefully wrapped in butcheries so that we can store it in our refrigerators or freezers for later consumption. Perhaps if we had to kill for our daily meat, more of us would prefer to bake our daily bread and grow our own beans and pumpkins. We have to eat. The Common Fiscal has to eat too. Its diet consists mainly of insects, although it has been recorded as eating small birds, reptiles and rodents too. I have frequently observed these birds eating seeds, fruit and even food scraps in my garden. This one has just been pecking at apples on the feeding tray.

As they also eat locusts, crickets, and caterpillars they should be appreciated for ridding gardens of potential pests – they perform a valuable function. Usually the Common Fiscal makes itself conspicuous by perching on an exposed branch or fence post from where it closely observes its prey before dropping down to catch it. This Common Fiscal is cleaning its beak on a branch.

The next time you are in a game reserve or see a Common Fiscal in your garden, watch it carefully: it often returns to the same perch over and again. I suspect they have marked out territories for the ones I see in the Addo Elephant National Park, for example, appear to be fairly evenly spaced from each other and they seem to scare away any other birds that venture into their space.  I see their aggression relating to food sources when there is something to their liking on the feeding tray, such as the bacon rind this one is eating.

A Common Fiscal will not tolerate other birds feeding with it – the Black-collared Barbet doesn’t either and the size of the Red-winged Starlings ensures a solitary meal for them too. It has been claimed that this habit of theirs negates efforts to create a bird-friendly garden. A glance at my monthly garden bird list is proof that this is not the case.

Their hooked beaks are adapted to their diet – nature finds ways to fill niches – and are described by the uninformed as ‘cruel’. Have you ever carefully looked inside your pet cat or dog’s mouth? Why do tourists marvel at the sight of a lion’s teeth and yet shrink from the beak of a Common Fiscal? Large raptors are described as ‘majestic’: what are their beaks and talons designed to do?

Despite its unfair reputation, I consider the Common Fiscal as being well worth having around for they definitely do much more good than harm!