Some Southern Africa Birds

Southern Africa: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia

The opportunity to visit southern Africa was very exciting. Anticipation and planning were the order of the day. I was to be with a Smithsonian Journeys group for most of the time but I thought a day or two of birding prior to the trip would be in order. Through a web site called BirdingPal I found a wonderful South African birder named Andy Featherstone. He met me about an hour after the plane landed (almost 16 hours after take-off and overnight) and we went right out to a great reserve called Marievale Bird Sanctuary which part of the Blesbokspruit Wetland (a RAMSAR site), more than 16,000 acres and full of wildlife. It was a treat. This blog page will show some of South Africa’s wetland birds and the next blog will also feature birds. The remaining pages (whenever they get done) will be mostly mammals from the trip.

The Hadada Ibis has a heavy decurved bill like all ibis’. It is a widespread and quite common bird of parks, savannas, hotel grounds, and wet fields. It is loud and raucous and often calls in unison with others. The name “hadada” comes from the sound the bird makes. They are a common feature of the morning and evening sky as they depart and return to roosting areas. In many places they can serve as an alarm clock as they call loudly just after sunrise.

 The bird below is familiar to many of you as a coot.The two little round pea-like knobs on the head are red; hence this is the Red-knobbed Coot. This is a common bird of wetlands that have reeds or cat-tails around the edge. Coot are not too closely related to ducks and geese but are related to gallinules, moorhens, crakes, and rails. In the United States many of our coot winter in southern Florida and are a common feature of the Everglades and almost every golf course pond as well.

In the center of the image below is a Hottentot Teal; head turned to the rear and bill tucked into the feathers of the back. This is an exquisite little duck and one that a visitor looks forward to seeing. Though this teal belongs to a very common Genus (Anas) it only has one similar-looking relative, the African duck called Red-billed Teal. His Genus-mates include mallards, American Black Duck, Green-winged Teal, Pintail, and American Wigeon.

 It seems that cormorants are everywhere and that the taxonomy is a muddle. This small thin cormorant is the Reed Cormorant and is found in fresh water in most every reed-lined pond and wetland. Like all cormorants it swims and dives and eats things caught in (under) the water. Also like many cormorants it develops a set of plumes, on the head, during breeding season not unlike the Double-crested Cormorant here in the USA.

Another wetland representative is shown below; this is a small grebe called Dabchick or Little Grebe. It is a dynamic diver and bright little creature. Like all grebes it has a chicken-like bill and toes with webbing – that is separate webbing for each toe, not a webbed foot. The legs attach to the body in the very tea making them rather clumsy on land. Grebes are a separate lineage from ducks and geese and are found on all the continents except Antarctica.
Heron and egrets belong to the same group; generally white birds are called egrets and those that are colored or patterned are called herons. Here are four heron/egret types. The bird immediately below is very white when in flight but a hazy brown when standing around. It is a Squacco Heron and is about the size of a Green Heron, smaller than a Cattle Egret.

 The Intermediate Egret (sometimes called the Yellow-billed Egret) is in between the Cattle Egret and the Great (White) Egret in size.  It rarely has plumes and is built quite solidly making it have a different jizz (from general shape and impression) from the other egrets which are a bit more elegant looking.

During the last Ice Age our Great Blue Heron and the Grey Heron of Europe and Africa were separated for thousands and thousands of years by a great ice sheet. The two groups went on with life and when the ice melted away (often said to have retreated though it never moved backwards) the two populations were different enough to be seen as separate species. The Grey Heron is often found as a solitary statue poised in shallow water waiting for a frog or fish to swim within reach.
 The Green-backed Heron is the same as our Green Heron. It has been “lumped” and “split”as a species several times. Like the Gray and Great Blue Heron the Green and Green-backed were separate populations for a long time due to the most recent Ice Age. Species is a rather subjective category and speciation is a relentlessly continual process; hence we have no idea how close or how distant many related species are from each other. Be what it may, this cute little heron is rather common and widespread on a planetary basis.
Africa is rich in storks. The Marabou is not attractive and is a scavenger often found around lion kills or abattoirs. However the Woolly-necked, Black, White, Yellow-billed, Abdim’s and the spectacular Saddle-billed Stork are really very attractive in addition to being large and easy to see. The stork pictured below is the Open-billed Stork which probes in muddy areas looking for snails. The bill is just right for breaking, but not crushing, the snail shells. Once the shell is fractured the Open-billed Stork can get at the animal inside. 

Much of southern Africa is drained by either the Orange River, the Zambezi River or the (dead-ended) Okavango River. I was along the Zambezi most of the time and Nile Crocodiles were regular companions; along with the wetland birds and tons and tons of Hippopotami.

Though the next blog will likely be on more birds of the region please stay tuned (and follow along) for blogs on the mammals and adventures we found in southern Africa.

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