What Is That … African Bird?

Waddells

We want to share with you one more article about our excellent adventure in southern Africa, this time looking at some of the birds. We saw many beautiful, exotic birds including African penguins, yellow-billed hornbills and red ox-peckers, but in this piece we thought we would focus on six that reminded us of home and the cottage at White Lake.

One of the first species of bird we encountered in South Africa was the African rock pigeon.  It looks a lot like our mourning dove, both in shape and colour of plumage, but it is about the size of our rock dove, (commonly called a pigeon). The African rock dove has a distinctive red bare patch encircling its eye, putting Carolyn in mind of the eye makeup Elizabeth Taylor wore in the movie Cleopatra.  We saw large numbers of these birds in and around Stellenbosch which is an important wine-growing region in South Africa.  Could their proximity to so much fine South African wine explain why these birds have red rings around their eyes? More likely, the red rings attract mates, similar to Elizabeth Taylor’s eye makeup.

Another somewhat familiar looking bird that we saw in South Africa was the glossy starling.  It is about the same size as our European starling.  A better comparison would be with our common grackle, though, as their longer beaks and tails are similar and they both have yellow eyes.  The glossy starling’s most distinctive feature is its solid iridescent green plumage … something spectacular to see in the full African sunlight.

The fish eagle is a majestic raptor we encountered along rivers and lakes in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana.  At a glance some of our fellow Canadian travellers mistook them for the bald eagles we regularly see in Ontario.  However, on closer examination, you can see that these birds have far more white plumage than our bald eagles.  The fish eagle’s white feathers cover its head extending to its shoulders as well as its throat and the top of its chest.  You will also note that their body plumage is part black and part reddish brown while the bald eagle’s body is dark brown all over.  The fish eagle was especially numerous in Botswana along the Chobe River.

The lodge we stayed at in Zimbabwe ran a number of environmental programs including one where they fed leftover meat scraps from the restaurant to wild vultures.  However much some Ontarian birders may disagree with that approach, it was an amazing experience for the guests and is clearly popular with the vultures.  Large numbers of vultures start to arrive at the feeding site five to 10 minutes before the scheduled feeding.  It is something to see hundreds of birds circling and then landing to enjoy their feast of meat scraps.

On the day we observed this spectacle we saw mostly white-backed vultures but mixed in were some of the smaller hooded vultures which can be easily distinguished by their pink, featherless heads.  The hooded vultures are roughly the same size as the turkey vultures we routinely see circling in the sky near our cottage.   Another amusing element was the warthog family which arrived on site for the final clean-up of any remaining small meat scraps.  The warthog and the vultures seemed oblivious to each other.

Along the banks of the Chobe River in Botswana we saw many pied kingfishers.  They look a lot like the belted kingfishers we see fishing along the shores of White Lake, with a large crested head and long heavy bill, but they are about half the size of our local kingfishers.  We found it particularly interesting that with these black and white birds the male pied kingfisher has a double breast-band and the female has a single breast-band while with our blue and white belted kingfishers it is the female that has a double reddish breast-band and the male a single blue one.  Fascinating how Mother Nature likes to mix things up.

Lastly, the prize for the cutest birds goes to the flocks of blue waxbills in Botswana.  These little finches are about the size of our American gold finches.  But, instead of the gold and black colouring of our finches, these birds have striking turquoise underparts and tan upper parts.  We observed them congregating in flocks along the banks of the Chobe River apparently drinking and bathing.

So the next time you find yourself in a new area and are feeling like a foreigner, look around at the local birds and you will probably find some that remind you of familiar species back home.

Books about the birds and animals of southern Africa are not readily available in local libraries.  Fortunately we were able to buy online a 1987 edition of Birds of The National Parks of South Africa by T. Campbell, R. Findlay and M. & A. Kemp.  It was helpful.