It’s mid-winter, late afternoon and we’re heading north. The sun is slipping fast in the west, casting a warm glow to the tawny grass and stretching long, dark shadows across the gravel road. The cloudless sky is powder blue. We are on route to Ladybrand and using this quiet ‘secondary’ road to avoid the R26 which runs up the eastern side of South Africa’s Free State province but is presently peppered with potholes. All around us, it is sheep-farming country and the gently undulating landscape is serene.
We’ve passed a few Rock Kestrels and there have been larks, longclaws and pipits perched on the fences. Suddenly, I find myself bearing down on a group of four largish birds standing right in the middle of the road. They’ve seen our car’s approach however, and lift themselves up in whisp of dust, to glide off into the adjacent grassland. Blue Korhaans! This member of the bustard family is endemic to South Africa where it inhabits high grassland on the eastern plateau above 1,200 metres. It is actually small as far as bustards go, being about the size of a guineafowl, albeit less meaty and with longer legs.
Just a few minutes later, the scene replays itself but this time there are five korhaans. Their behaviour is identical but now we are more aware and notice the bolder facial markings of the males. Over the next 50 kilometres or so, we count a total of 49 Blue Korhaans while travelling a speed of about 80km/h. The korhaans always take off about 200 metres ahead of us, and are always in these family groups of between 3 and 6 individuals. Why they are gathered on the road like this, I am not sure, but they are clearly traffic-savvy.
When we see the first oncoming vehicle in nearly an hour, I realise that our odds of counting more korhaans have just been dramatically reduced. The small, hay-laden pick-up will have flushed all the korhaans ahead of us, and they are unlikely to have returned to the road by the time we pass them. Neverthless, we do count a further 12 before reaching the tarmac at Wepener, and that makes 61 Blue Korhaans overall. Clearly, these birds are thriving in this area.
The Blue Korhaan is not a bird that I know too well, although I’ve tracked them down in places like Zastron and Wakkerstroom in the past. This species is regarded as ‘near threatened’ in the South African Red Data Book of Birds, with an estimated population of around 5,000. It has been a great privilege to get to see so many of them here.
Klawerhoek road (between Rouxville and Wepener), Eastern Free State, South Africa. July 2013
Note: ‘Korhaan’ is an Afrikaans word which – roughly translated – would mean something like: ‘crowing hen’. Most korhaan species have raucous and sometimes quite remarkable voices, that of the Blue Korhaan being rather like a loud croaking toad!