Ginger Giant

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Like butter in a hot pan, the mokoro slides effortlessly out from the inlet onto the still, coppery-bronze surface of the Okavango floodplain. The prow of the dugout parts rafts of waterlilies as Tshenolo poles us silently towards the little island, now illuminated by the first crimson glow of the rising sun.

Beady-eyed reedfrogs watch us from their sedge-stem lookouts and an otter breaks the surface to check us out, before carrying on with his search for an early breakfast.

Last night at Jacana Camp, under the outdoor shower, the palm trees and the light of a thousand stars, I’d heard the distinctive deep ‘boom’ of two Pel’s Fishing-Owls communicating. To be honest, it’s a rather ominous call, like the distant beat of a war drum, but the owls were simply keeping in touch and letting rivals know of their presence. They were on the tiny island that we were now approaching and our early start was in the hope of finding one or both of them before they retreated to dense cover. In midwinter, owls frequently take advantage of the warm sun.

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Two jacanas scurry away as Tshenolo guides the mokoro beneath the arching branches of a waterberry tree and with one final stab and shove we are beached on the muddy bank. I raise myself up and clamber out, camera over my shoulder and binoculars around my neck. We step over some old, dry elephant dung – they were probably here for the palm nuts – and find ourselves beneath an enormous African Ebony. This ancient tree, says TH, is where the fishing-owls roost by day. The sun is up and now illuminating the trunk and lower branches as well as the crown – the whole tree is glowing. And there, staring down at us with its inky eyes, is a great ginger giant of an owl. Scotopelia peli – Pel’s Fishing-Owl – that most awe-inspiring of African birds. Only the strange, prehistoric-looking Shoebill of the Rift Valley swamplands, seems to rival Pel’s in the desirability stakes among birders.

I manage to take a couple of photographs, but they are not what I really want and so I move around the tree to try and get a better vantage point. The owl is higher up than I had hoped for, and there is no sign whatsoever of its mate. ‘TH’ signals for me to move in his direction, but as I step back into a small clearing, a twig snaps under my foot and the owl decides to shuffle deeper into the foliage. There will be no more photo opportunities here, but the tenacious and wily mokoro pilot-guide has a plan. We are heading off to another small island where Tshenolo knows of a second pair.

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“And there, staring down at us with its inky eyes, is a great ginger giant of an owl.”

Measuring 64 centimetres from the point of its bill to the tip of its toes, Pel’s Fishing-Owl is one of the largest owls in the world, only a fraction smaller than the Giant (Verreaux’s) Eagle-Owl. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see a few of these magnificent owls, although my first Pel’s was stone dead and stuffed in a 1970’s display cabinet at the Transvaal Museum. Back in 1986, it was a bold juvenile that appeared out of nowhere to perch briefly on a stump in front of a glorious amber sunset at Xakanaxa. Then, at Xaro on the ‘pan-handle’ where the broad Okavango River is yet to fan-out, I watched an adult hunting catfish after dark. Before these sightings I had picked up a ginger flight feather on a small Okavango island and – pinned on the dashboard of my VW kombi – it went everywhere with me, for years.

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Pel’s Fishing-Owl specimen at the Transvaal Museum, 1976.

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My first Pel’s Fishing-Owl at Xakanaxa, Okavango Delta, 1986.

The sun is up now and bouncing off the crystal clear water which in places is just half a metre deep. It is still cold though, so the dragonflies and damsels remain on their perches, transparent wings glittering with dew. In a few months time, the Okavango floodwaters will have receded and there will be zebra grazing where otters are currently pursuing tilapia. ‘TH’ poles on and we cross a larger channel before re-entering the shallows then enter a little lagoon crowded in by waterberries. Then, in an orange blur, a huge owl launches out in front of us and rises above the papyrus before dipping down and gliding off out of sight. A Pel’s Fishing-Owl had been right there, perched on the broad horizontal branch at our eye-level – just two metres ahead of us! This is not a big island, however, and it must have landed nearby so we are out of the mokoro in a heartbeat. A mob of bulbuls and helmetshrikes are kicking up a racket on the edge of a dark-foliaged mangosteen tree. Knowing that the hidden owl is almost certainly watching our every move, I calmly walk away from the mangosteen and into a palm thicket before doubling back in wide arc, under cover. I am about ten metres from the tree and the lens on my camera is set for a possible flight shot. A step closer, then another. The small birds are still bothering the hidden owl, urging it to take flight. Suddenly, the ginger giant launches out and for an instant it seems to just hang in the air, right in front of me. It feels as if I might be able to count its primary feathers. I swing the camera up, but its too late, the owl is now gliding away – I’ve blown it.

Or have I? This is what seeking out Pel’s Fishing-Owl is really all about. It is not about the perfect shot, it’s about moving carefully in its watery world, it’s about patience and anticipation, but also knowing when it is time to let the shy owl be, and move on. And more than anything, it is about the knowledge and perseverance of an Okavango mokoro pilot and guide – in this regard, there are none finer than Tshenolo ‘TH’ Mahongo of Jacana Camp.

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Master mokoro poler, guide and owl-finder: Tshenolo ‘TH’ Mahongo of Jacana Camp.

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Jacana Camp, The Jao Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Note: Jacana Camp is one of six superb tented camps in The Jao Reserve – a private concession in the north-western part of the Okavango Delta which comprises permanent and seasonal swamp as well as the large savanna-dominated Hunda Island. The term ‘birder’s paradise’ is bandied around way too frequently, but it is hard to avoid using it here. All of the Okavango ‘specials’ can be seen at Jao, with Slaty Egret, Coppery-tailed Coucal, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Swamp Nightjar, Wattled Crane, Long-toed Lapwing, Rufous-bellied Heron and Swamp Boubou among the over 160 species I saw in a few days in early June. Add to this, close encounters with Malachite Kingfisher, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, African Fish-Eagle and Saddle-billed Stork and it is very hard to beat. Oh, and by the way, all of Africa’s great mammals are here too – an abundance of elephant and some of the most relaxed leopards you can hope to meet and photograph.

Jacana Camp, The Jao Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana.

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Ladies First

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The Brown-throated Wattle-eye (Platysteira cyanea) is a delightful warbler-sized bird of closed-canopy forest. More often than not, its clear, descending whistle call – or grating alarm notes – are heard before the bird itself comes into view. These are terrific birds to watch as they are forever busy – moving up and down vines, launching out to snap up flying insects or gleaning the underside of leaves. Very often, they join mixed feeding flocks – a gang of unrelated insectivores that move through the forest together – flushing prey and eating as they go. They are also among the first on the scene when an owl needs to be mobbed.

The purpose of the fleshy lipstick-red eye-wattles is not known, but they probably have some role in courtship display. Unusual among birds, the species’ English name refers to a trait of the female rather than the male. Finally, some gender equality in bird nomenclature!

I watched this pair while exploring small forest patches on the Oloololo escarpment in western Kenya with Tyler Davis of Angama Mara.

Angama Mara, Maasai Mara, Kenya, February 2015

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The Swallow, the Milkwood and the Hairy-legged Fly

milkwood-copy Wander along the southern Cape coast at this time of year and you’ll quickly become alert to the pungent, summertime scent of the Milkwood tree. This is not everyone’s cup of tea, however, with words such as ‘ghastly’, ‘foetid’ and ‘smelly socks’ being bandied about by locals. I’m not sure if I should be admitting it, but I don’t find the powerful Milkwood fragrance at all unpleasant. It is so sharp, that if you inhale deeply, it seems to burn the back of your nostrils – with a distinctive salty zing! I guess that mustard or menthol might be the closest comparison, but the Milkwood is not as fresh, and perhaps it is a little rancid.

The other thing that I have noticed about the flowering Milkwood trees, is that they attract large numbers of Barn Swallows. Every so often, a particular tree is surrounded by dozens (if not a hundreds) of swallows, as well as martins and swifts which sweep above and around the shiny, evergreen foliage.

It doesn’t take much to deduce that these aerial insectivores are capturing the insects that are being lured to the tree’s tiny flowers. But what kind of insects are drawn to such a strong, overpowering perfume? To find out, I whisked a small net through the foliage of a flowering Milkwood tree. The net was immediately abuzz with tiny flies – about a third of the size of the common House Fly. Close inspection (did you know that reversing your binoculars turns them into magnifying glasses?) revealed these flies to have extremely hairy middle legs. Pollen from the anthers of the waxy little flowers will stick to these hairs and be transported to the ovaries. I can find no published information on the pollinators of Sideroxylon inerme, but these flies almost certainly belong to the genus Trichopoda – the so-called ‘Feather-legged Flies’. Perhaps they are even an undescribed species? Sideroxylon.inerme

Why are some trees surrounded by feeding swallows and others not? My theory is that the rapidly moving birds create enough air turbulence to disturb the flies and send them into the air where they can be scooped up. A gentle shake of a flowering stem bears this out, as clouds of little flies take to the air. One swallow darting around a Milkwood tree full of flies might struggle to find sufficient food, but a flock of swallows that keeps sending swarms of flies into the air provides enough prey for all the participants.

From what I have seen, Barn Swallows are more abundant here in the southern Cape than in the eastern Lowveld (where I lived for the past 20 years). But perhaps this is only an impression caused by the large number of flowering Milkwood trees in our neighbourhood. Who would have thought that the migratory Barn Swallows that must soon make the 10,000 km journey back to Europe are fuelled – in no small way – by the hairy-legged flies lured by the smelly Milkwood flowers?!

The Milkwood tree (Sideroxylon inerme) is adapted for life by the sea – its glossy, evergreen foliage being able to withstand the salty air and strong winds. It is able to grow on sand dunes but does better along seeps and watercourses. In general, the more sheltered from the wind, and the closer its roots are to water, the greater the Milkwood’s stature. A height of 15 metres seems to be the record, but it is usually wider than it is tall. Trees that grow on sea facing dunes are ‘pruned’ by the wind and salt, shaped more like a hedge than a tree. Like other members of the family Sapotaceae, the stems and leaves contact a white latex – thus the name, milkwood! Once the little flies have performed their pollination role, the stems become crowded with inky-black berries – relished by mousebirds, bulbuls and white-eyes.

Vermont, Hermanus, Southern Cape, South Africa. February 2015

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Beach Runners

 

Plover,White-fronted2Like other plovers, the White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus) does not build a nest but lays its camouflaged eggs directly into a shallow scrape – above the high-tide line among dried kelp or rocks. The young are precocial, able to walk about after their parents within a few hours of hatching. Dogs are a known predator of the young, and people or vehicles can easily destroys the nests.

These sparrow-sized plovers are resident on the beaches here in Hermanus on the southern tip of Africa. This lively youngster was watched as it followed one of its parents close to Onrus beach. The adult let it explore its surroundings, but made a soft call when it strayed too far. The hatchling then dashed to its parent’s side but soon went off again in search of sand-hoppers and other morsels.

Hermanus, South Africa, December 2014

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Ground Batis

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White-tailed ‘Shrike’ Lanioturdus torquatus, Aba Huab, Namibia

 

More often than not, the longer a quest takes, the more satisfying it is.

I had seen the strange and monotypic Lanioturdus torquatus (aka ‘White-tailed Shrike’) once or twice on previous trips to Namibia, but these were inadequate views of birds moving away from me and at some range. Nothing more than hasty flashes. Being the sole member of its genus this little bird has a unique appearance and behaviour to match. In recent years, taxonomists have come to regard it not as a shrike at all, but rather as a close relative of the batises and wattle-eyes in the family Platysteiridae. As it is, the generic name of Lanioturdus means shrike-thrush, so there has clearly been confusion from the start.

While preparing for a work assignment in Namibia earlier this year, I hoped to encounter this interesting bird on my travels and perhaps get to know it a little. According to the literature, it is apparently quite common in the hilly country of central Namibia, extending north into parts of Etosha and Kunene province. It is one of a suite of ‘near endemics’ that occur principally in Namibia, but also in a small part of southern Angola. As such, it is high on the wanted list for international birders traveling through southern Africa. My objective was not to tick it off any list, but rather to watch it and form an opinion of my own as to whether it was more batis than shrike.

Since one of my previous sightings was of a distant group at Okonjima, I figured that the not-too-distant Waterberg Plateau (south-east of Otjiwarongo) would be a likely place to meet Lanioturdus again. The elevation, geology and vegetation were practically the same. I arranged an overnight stop here and walked the hill slopes and valleys for several hours in the afternoon and morning but did not hear nor see these dashing little pied pipers. Damara Rockrunner, Rüppell’s Parrot and Violet Woodhoopoe were numerous, but no White-tailed ‘Shrike’.

A day or two later I found myself setting up camp at a place called Hobatere, adjacent to the western boundary of the Etosha National Park. This was not planned, but very fortuitous as this particular spot – a landscape of granite outcrops, mopane woodland and seasonal drainage lines – was apparently a good location for Namibian endemics. Unfortunately, I had very limited time at Hobatere and there was not a peep nor a glimpse of Lanioturdus during the late afternoon and early morning. Monteiro’s Hornbill, Carp’s Tit and Rosy-faced Lovebird were numerous, but no White-tailed ‘Shrike’.

Before flying home via Windhoek, I was able to spend a morning at the Daan Viljoen Game Reserve west of the capital. This, too, is another alleged ‘hot spot’ for White-tailed ‘Shrike’. I walked a couple of trails, searched the camping area and drove the road network – slowly. Short-toed Rock Thrush, Dusky Sunbird and Violet-eared Waxbill were numerous, but no White-tailed ‘Shrike’.

Fast forward to September, and I had to return to Namibia. Unsurprisingly, finding the elusive Lanioturdus had become the sub-plot for the actual purpose of the trip: installing exhibition material at Olifantsrus in Etosha National Park. Once again, I would be in the Hobatere area but this time I was going to travel home via Damaraland where a number of sites looked promising. Not only that, I have always wanted to visit the alluring landscapes of Twylfelfontein, Brandberg and Spitzkoppe.

Once I had completed the Etosha assignment, I refueled in the dusty little sprawl of Kamanjab and headed towards Khorixas. Entering a hitherto unseen landscape always gets my mojo going and this was no different. Massive, rounded blocks of granite punctuated the rolling savanna of bleached grass and dry mopane. Himba and Herero pastoralists watched over their goats. Snake-eagles sliced through the cloudless sky. The dirt track crossed numerous dry watercourses that cut through the starkly beautiful semi-desert. These watercourses, fringed with taller and leafier trees than occur on the plains, are said to be the preferred habitat of Lanioturdus.

I reached the Twyfelfontein UNESCO World Heritage Site around mid day, had lunch under a pearly-blue sky, then took the guided tour of this phenomenal outdoor gallery. Hundreds of Stone Age engravings occur on the red sandstone slabs – all were chipped into the rock several thousand years ago and the images of animals such as rhino, giraffe and ostrich have attracted great interest from anthropologists. What really caught my eye, however, was the Aba Huab riverbed that I crossed on my way in. Lined with gnarled mopane trees, this looked like ideal habitat for the bird that had become something of a minor obsession.

As luck would have it, the local community have set up a simple camp site for travelers at Aba Huab. The sun was virtually on the horizon by the time I had found my way back there. And then it happened – that thrill and satisfaction when something you’ve hunted long and hard for actually shows up. In the middle of pitching my tent in a grove of arched mopane, I heard a strange snapping sound in the foliage above me. I looked straight up into the pale amber eyes of a White-tailed Shrike! A second, then a third and fourth, flew in to join it. With the western sky now burnt orange, they were settling down to their night roost. Not only had I seen Lanioturdus up close, but I was about to spend the night in their company and I would be up before sunrise to see them start their day.

It was such a perfect night that I never bothered to put the cover on my tent, choosing to just sleep under the mosquito-gauze dome. Moonshine cast mopane leaf shadows onto my sleeping bag and illuminated the riverbed where the footprints of desert elephants mingled with those of the local cattle. Barking geckos tapped out their morse-code calls and some way off, a single African Scops-Owl uttered its cricket chirp. Waking well before sunrise, I was able to take in the full glory of the milky way without lifting my head from the pillow. Truly, it never gets better than this.

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My campsite at Aba Huab, Namibia

 

The little foursome of Lanioturdus were moving about at first light and I spent the next hour or so following them as they foraged not so much in the foliage, but on the ground. Their striking plumage of black, grey and white made them easy to see and they were far from shy. The white tail feathers – from which they get part of their name – are short and when the bird is hoping about on the ground it has the appearance of a diminutive pitta. In every other way – the movements, the eyes, the overall plumage, the calls, the bill snapping  – Lanioturdus cries out: “I am a batis!”.  Fallen mopane leaves were flipped over, dry seedpods and bark chips were probed. In the trees, small caterpillars were pulled off leaves and spiders were extracted from crooks and crevices. All the time, the four kept in touch with soft grating calls occasionally breaking out into a chorus of sharper buzzing squeaks.

It was not easy to pull myself away from what I like to call the White-tailed Ground-Batis, but Namibia is a big country and I had Spitzkoppe on my mind.

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Lanioturdus torquatus, Aba Huab, Namibia

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Abua Huab, near Twyfelfontein, Namibia

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White-tailed ‘Shrike’ in Mopane tree, Aba Huab, Namibia

Aba Huab, Damaraland, Namibia, September 2014

 

 

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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

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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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