Birding is an adventure around almost every corner in the Kruger National Park – even though the rain initially put a dampener on this activity. One’s experience starts in the camp on rising: a variety of birds from Redbilled Buffalo Weavers and Crested Barbets to Grey Louries and Great Sparrows – as well as starlings and Arrow-marked Babblers – scratched around in the leaf debris of the trees we were camping next to. From the first morning I was made very aware of the new world of birds that awaited me.
Cape Glossy Starlings abound, attracting one to their presence by their beautiful blue metallic sheen and bright orange eyes. One cheeky bird alighted on the counter of the camp kitchen and stole a slice of sausage from my pan while I was cooking! Burchell’s Starlings are reasonably easy to recognise from their longer tails, while I found the Greater Blue-eared Starlings more difficult to recognise in the field.
Spurfowl are abundant too, especially on the road early in the mornings and towards sunset. Swainson’s Spurfowl and Natal Spurfowl seemed to be the most common – several of the latter wandered around Satara Camp too – although we also saw Crested Francolin from time to time.
What a delight to find Brown-headed Parrots feeding on the long pods of the Long-tail Cassia tree right next to our tent!
It is always interesting to see familiar ‘garden birds’ in a game reserve and there were plenty of Laughing Doves and Cape Turtle Doves around. Although I saw Namaqua Doves once, it is the African Mourning Dove that was dominant in the camp and at the various picnic spots where we stopped. Its melodious call became familiar to us during the week we were in Satara.
Of course the Lilac-breasted Rollers are magnificent looking birds. They are eye-catching, both when sporting their beautiful blue feathers in flight and when perched conspicuously on the top of bushes and old tree stumps. Their presence brightened up any drive.
The Purple Rollers are beautiful to look at too.
What I find interesting is that in our home garden, the Burchell’s Coucals are heard far more often than they are seen, preferring to skulk around in the thick foliage. Here they are commonly seen flying across the short amber grass to perch in low bushes, often right next to the road! These birds have a special place in my heart, for many years ago we raised a fledgling that had fallen out of a nest and broken its leg. In the then Eastern Transvaal, where I grew up, Burchell’s Coucals were commonly referred to as ‘rain birds’ for their calls were a welcome sound during periods of prolonged heat and drought: many people believed this presaged the coming of rain.
A spectacular surprise awaited us in a dip where the S100 road crosses the N’wanetsi River. A mecca of birds were in and near the water: Saddle-billed Storks, Marabou Storks, Spoonbills, Egyptian Geese, Hamerkops, a Pied Kingfisher, Goliath heron, Blacksmith Plovers, a Great Egret, Woolly-necked Storks, Fish Eagles, a Black-headed Heron, Common Ringed Plovers, Common Moorhen, a Little Bittern, Yellow-billed Storks and a Squacco Heron all in one place!
This was a magical place to park for a while in order to watch the mating rituals of the Yellow-billed Storks and the efficiency with which the Pied Kingfisher and the Hamerkops speared their prey.
While this feast for the eyes was going on at water level, another fantastic spectacle was unfolding in the tall riverine trees: a pair of African Hawk Eagles flew about in impressive mating displays while – we presume – a juvenile remained perched in the top of one of the enormous trees lining the river bank.
It was equally exciting to watch the flight of those magnificent, iconic birds, the African Fish Eagles as they swooped down from their high perches or circled above us. Their call is a distinctive and thrilling one.
Another was a Golden-tailed Woodpecker working its way through an old log near a waterhole. Southern White-crowned Shrikes would appear from nowhere – usually in a most difficult spot (such as against the sun) for photographs.
Generally speaking, I have found the photographic field guide, Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan, a useful companion to my trusty and well-thumbed Roberts’ Bird Guide. The Magpie Shrike is a good example of a bird easily identified in flight when the distinctive white patterns in their wings (as illustrated in Roberts’) are clearly visible. Seeing one perched on a branch with the white back showing was puzzling at first – that is where the photographic evidence came up trumps!
There is always something to see in the KNP!