Amber Assassin

Grey-headed Bushshrike (Malaconotus blanchoti), Nelspruit, South Africa

A series of strange, mechanical noises coming from the tree canopy outside my window had me out of my seat and peering into the foliage. Two clear clapping notes followed by a hollow, drawn-out whistle. I scanned the branches of the large White Stinkwood but nothing moved. Silence. And then he came into a view – a striking, fiery-amber bird with a massive, charcoal-black bill. He straightened up, extended his bill skywards and snapped it shut twice in rapid succession . . . this was the clear clapping noise; then he arched over and bowed his head to produce the mournful hoot.

This, the largest of the African bushshrikes is also the most predatory. It will take on and overpower tree-snakes, chameleons and nestlings, and it makes mincemeat out of large mantids, beetles and cicadas. Smaller birds despise this rapacious hunter; flycatchers, sunbirds and white-eyes ganging up to bleat and wail at it until it departs their home range.

Here in in the Nelspruit Nature Reserve, it is just one of six different bushshrikes. The Southern Boubou, Olive, Gorgeous and Orange-breasted Bushshrikes are all heard more often than they are seen, only rarely permitting a glimpse, while the Black-backed Puffback is less secretive.

Turaco Wood, Nelspruit, South Africa, February 2012


About Duncan Butchart

Duncan Butchart is interested in all aspects of the natural world, with a particular fascination for birds and their ecological relationships.
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