Alpine Airshow


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Alpine Swifts (Tachymarptis melba), Vermont, South Africa. October 2014.

Swifts are among the most overlooked of birds, as they tend to fly fairly high above the ground (typically much higher than swallows) and they never land on branches, fences or other perches simply because their tiny, forward-facing toes do not allow this. As birds go, they are drably plumaged in shades of charcoal, umber and white so the majority of people are completely unaware of their presence.

Swifts are often confused with swallows although they are not related to them – both are aerial feeders, capturing small insects on the wing and they share many physical characteristics as a result of convergent evolution. The best way to tell these two groups apart is by the shape of the wings and the way they fly – swifts have narrow, sickle shaped wings and fly faster in wider arcs than swallows which have broader wings to glide and bank in a more relaxed manner. Swallows regularly perch on fences, branches and overhead wires, and many have bright blue backs and orange on the head.

The Alpine Swift is one of the largest and most impressive members of the family, arriving here as a migrant in August and departing around May. These white-bellied bombers frequent mountainous areas, building their clay nest between cracks in a vertical cliff. Here, their little feet are perfectly adapted to clinging onto the rock face. Several pairs usually nest close together in a colony of 20 or 3o and they forage together too. Depending upon weather conditions, flocks descend to lower elevations either because their mountain home is misted up or because warm weather has led to an emergence of abundant prey in flat country, above wetlands or along the seashore.

Watching these birds is always an incredible experience as they hurtle about at speeds well in excess of 100km per hour. I have had some memorable encounters along the Drakensberg escarpment with squadrons of these swifts scudding by at breakneck speed.  Once or twice, I’ve been so close that I could feel the rush of air in their wake.

However, it was while having a tea break on our balcony, that this group of a dozen or so appeared out of the blue. I’m not sure if they nest on the nearby cliffs of Hoek-van-die-Berg or further afield, but I must take a hike up there to check. Swooping low above the houses and out towards the sea, they were not alone, as White-rumped Swift, Rock Martin and Greater Striped Swallow helped to hoover up minuscule winged insects. They put on a show for about fifteen minutes or so before disappearing as suddenly as they arrived.

As their name suggests, the Alpine Swift occurs in the Alps of Western Europe, but its range also extends east to the Himalayas and south to our tip of Africa.

Vermont, Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa. October 2014.


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Damara Rockrunner


Damara Rockrunner (Achaetops pycnopygius), Waterberg Plateau, Namibia.

I’d seen a Rockrunner before somewhere in Namibia, in the distance or in a blur – or both. I guess it might have been at Daan Viljoen Nature Reserve outside of Windhoek back in the 80s.

But since I was traversing the huge and beautiful country of Namibia again, I hoped to get better acquainted with what I still prefer to call the Damara Rockrunner (some brightspark deleted the first part of its name from the accepted lists a few years ago; no doubt thinking that just ‘rockrunner’ was descriptive enough).

At any rate, this interesting little bird is said to be a member of the warbler family (the newly created Macrosphenidae, to be precise) but I have my doubts. Exploring the foothills of Namibia’s Waterberg Plateau, I came across several of them in the thickets of Combretum, Croton and Commiphora trees. Pairs were calling stridently from bush tops and from boulders decorated with vivid lichens in shades of orange, yellow, lilac and grey. The Rockrunners lived up to their name, bounding about on sandstone slabs as they challenged unseen rivals with their liquid song. In behaviour and voice, they reminded more of robin-chats than any kind of warbler.

For all intents and purposes, the Rockrunner (Achaetops pycnopygius) is endemic to Namibia, although like several other species that occupy the hilly escarpment country east of the Namib Desert, it also occurs in the very southern part of Angola (into which this unique biome extends).

Waterberg Plateau National Park, Namibia, July 2014

** Damara refers to the inhabitants of that part of Namibia known as Damaraland


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Sunbird Songpost

A rapid, scratchy whistle pierces the crisp morning air and I look outside to see him back on his favoured perch. This glorious male Malachite Sunbird is in full breeding colours now – complete with tail streamers – and he patrols his local patch vigorously. Lucky for me, the top of the Tarconanthus tree alongside our house is one of several ‘song posts’ he has staked out, and he returns every hour or so throughout the day.

From his lofty perch, this emerald beauty stretches out his neck and points his long bill skyward, in a striking balletic pose.

Now and again, he is accompanied by a female – less showy in olive and fawn – who is chased in speedy spirals of passion. There are likely to be a few females within his range, but they may also be checking out other possible suitors in adjacent territories.

It is midwinter now and aloes are in full flower in the gardens all around us. Sunbirds, white-eyes and weavers are drawn to the sweet nectar of these spectacular succulents, performing a vital pollination role in the process.

The females have probably made their purse-shaped nests already and will be laying soon.

Cape Robin Crescent, Vermont, Hermanus, South Africa. June 2014


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Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa), male.

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Resplendent Quetzal

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Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), Savegre, Costa Rica, May 2003.

There are many reasons to visit Costa Rica but seeing the largest member of the trogon family is high on the list. Sparkling in shades of viridian and gold, with a scarlet underbelly, the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) is nothing short of breathtaking. It occurs in mossy cloud forests on the mountain ranges of this biologically diverse country, feeding on insects such as cicadas and fruit such as the wild avocado.

Occurring from Mexico to Panama, this spectacular bird has played an important role in mythology and folklore throughout Central America. One Mayan legend claims that the quetzal used to sing splendidly before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, but has been silent ever since. Like all trogons, however, the beauty of this bird’s plumage and demeanor is not matched by its hoarse voice!

Only the male possesses the ribbon-like tail streamers and – with these – it measures almost a metre in length.

Choosing the most beautiful or awesome of the world’s approximately 10,000 bird species is an impossible task but the Resplendent Quetzal must surely be a contender.

Savegre Mountain Hotel, Costa Rica. May 2003.

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Beach Patrol

Walk along any beach in Africa and – sooner or later – you’ll see a small, pale plover hurrying away from you. Typically, there will be a pair of these active little birds and at no time will they take their beady, deep-brown eyes off of you.


White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus). Benguerra Island, Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique. February 2014.

The White-fronted Plover feeds on small invertebrates such as isopods and larval crabs which are chased and then snatched up with the sharp bill. Like many coast-living birds, these plovers occupy and defend linear territories the size (length) of which is dependent upon the density of prey. On a recent short visit to Benguerra Island in Mozambique, I counted four pairs over a three kilometre stretch which gave an average territory size of 750 metres. When they move up and down their stretch of the shore, these chubby little plovers are not only in pursuit of  food, they are on active beach patrol, keeping others of their kind away.

Two or three superbly camouflaged eggs are laid in a shallow scrape in the sand on the upper beach, often among shell shards or the trailing stems of the Beach Morning-Glory (Ipomea pes-caprae). And should a potential predator threaten the clutch, one or both parents will perform a distraction display – which may involve feigning injury – to lure the danger towards them and away from the eggs or young.

Benguerra Island, Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique. February 2014

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Kilmorna King

The temperate, evergreen forests of South Africa are home to a community of trees, plants, birds and other wildlife which occur in pockets from the southern Cape to the Drakensberg escarpment in the north-east. Since average maximum temperature is a limiting factor, the further north one goes, the higher the elevation of the forests above sea level. Our home town of Nelspruit is within easy striking distance of numerous small Afro-montane ‘cloud forests’ – including those at Kaapschehoop and in the Schoemanskloof at around 1,500 metres – where a host of  interesting birds can be found in the cool, mossy kloofs.

One forest bird stands out above all others, however, and that is the regal yet often elusive Narina Trogon. Dressed in complimentary shades of viridian and vermillion, the male has a truly royal appearance. The deep, double-note hoot of the territorial trogon is a common enough sound in spring and summer, but getting a good view of the king is another matter.

That is, unless you visit Kilmorna Manor during October or November. Here, nestled below the escarpment ridge of the Schoemanskloof, one male trogon has taken up residence in the gardens of the authentic Tudor-style guest house, an abode truly fit for a king. The trogon brightens up the day of anyone who sees him, as he perches on mossy tree limbs, lichen-painted stone walls, or even – wait for it – the washing line! Wherever he sits, the trogon hoots relentlessly, letting his partner know that he is on his throne, and advising rivals of his presence. Twisting and tilting his head to detect the movement of a katydid, a cicada or some other insect, he glides out to snatch it from the foliage, his rictal bristles serving to guide moths and smaller invertebrates into his gullet.

I think I found his mate (not quite so resplendent and with a buffy-brown face and chest) alongside the gurgling stream deep in the forest, some way up from the Manor, but could not locate their nest where the pair must now surely be raising a family.

Kilmorna Manor, Schoemanskloof, South Africa. November 2103 

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Narina Trogon Apaloderma narina, Kilmorna Manor, South Africa. November 2013

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Helmet Strike

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African Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) being mobbed by White-crested Helmet-Shrikes (Prionops plumatus), Southern Cross Estate, Nelspruit, South Africa

While driving through the savanna landscape of Southern Cross Estate (about 15km due south of Nelspruit on the edge of the Barberton Valley) I noticed a large eagle perched close to the top of a massive skeletal gum tree. The tree was at least 30 metres tall and had probably been ringbarked and killed as part of the estate policy to remove alien vegetation. Raptors just love to perch in big bare trees, however, and when I got my binoculars onto it, I could see that it was an African Crowned Eagle. Huge and awesome, it is regarded as the continent’s most powerful eagle – feeding mostly on monkeys, hyrax and duikers.

Although some way off, I was quite certain it was female – always considerably larger than the male. I came to this conclusion because I was able to compare it with a small group of birds that were mobbing it in an attempt to drive it away. The birds in question were White-crested Helmet-Shrikes and it was quite astonishing to witness their aerial prowess and bravery in taking on such an adversary. These small birds go about in family groups (they are cooperative breeders) and typically forage for insects low-down in trees, less often in the canopy – I’ve never before seen them in such an exposed position. They were obviously so concerned about the eagle that they attacked it at the top of this giant Eucalyptus.

The helmet-shrikes took turns to dive-bomb the eagle and I couldn’t help thinking how strangely appropriate their name had become (in reality, the ‘helmet’ is nothing more than a short, forward-pointing crest of feathers!). Each bird would fly up from a perch, get a few metres above the eagle, then fold-its wings to stoop like a falcon and actually clip the top of the eagle’s head! Several times I saw this happen, but the eagle did not appear to be overly concerned by the repeated strikes and held its position.

It is quite normal for small birds to mob goshawks, owls and eagles – in a bid to drive them out of their own territories – but such bold anti-predator behaviour is something that I have previously only ever seen Fork-tailed Drongos engage in.

Southern Cross Estate, Nelspruit, South Africa. November 2013

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