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Between our three weeks in 2015 and our extended stay this year, Steve and I have identified 83 species of birds, often with the expertise and generous help of Chris, nice-guy and former Fulbrighter. It isn’t a lot, but we have great fun comparing photos to our guidebooks. It is awesome to identify a new-to-us bird, and there are so many fantastic and fantastical species here that we almost always spot something interesting. Below are a few of what we’ve seen – not necessarily our favorites (though some are) but the ones that I’ve managed to get halfway decent photos of (birds are difficult to photograph). Any mistakes in identifying are all mine. Which is your favorite?


Starlings, like this Cape starling, are common but beautiful. The plumage is extraordinary. Cape starlings occur in large groups and forage on the ground. It’s a host to the Greater honeyguide, which is a brood parasite that will lay eggs in other birds’ nests. If the adult honeyguide doesn’t destroy the other eggs in a nest, its offspring will – killing its nestmates of a different species with a sharp, hooked beak.


The crowned lapwing looks like a shore bird – all long legs. Here we find them everywhere, from the sidewalks on campus to the CKGR.


This oddball was in the Kalahari. I love how sweetly strange-looking it it. Chris identified it for us as Double-banded sandgrouse. It’s basically a ground pigeon, from what I can tell. They’re monogamous, and I think they’re adorable.


I think that this is a White Helmet-shrike, which we were lucky to spot on one of our drives through Mokolodi. Look at that ingenious little nest!


Ostrich, female. Largest bird in the world. These guys are bananas.


Ostrich, male. Equally bananas.


Steve’s favorite – the pale chanting goshawk. This bird of prey has an orange bill and long orange legs. They nest in acacias and walk along the ground. Their main food is lizards. We see them all over the CKGR.


Kalahari scrub robin. A wonderful little guy, full of character. He was fearless in seeking water from the truck, and kept flying around to take little sips off of the dripping faucet. The female incubates the eggs and when they hatch she removes the shells to another location to disguise the nest location from predators.


If there are any doubts that birds are descendants of dinosaurs, the Secretary bird should put them to rest. This bird is *insane* – it is a tall bird that hunts by foot, stalking the plains in search of lizards and snakes, which it stomps to death with its feet. It walks around with beak open and that crazy look in its eye. We were lucky enough to see one grab a lizard-breakfast one morning and it was truly amazing – if I were a lizard I’d live in fear of these guys.


I’m pretty sure this is a swallow-tailed bee-eater. They’re wonderfully colorful birds that live in woodlands and follow the rains. This species of bee-eater has a particular taste for honey bees.


We spotted this Tawney Eagle in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, on the South African side. They are big, common birds.


The kori bustard is the largest flying bird in Africa. Tall and stocky, it is easy to spot though we often flush it out of the brush on the side of the road. It is more inclined to run away than fly away, and we’ve only seen one fly once – just far enough to feel safe before it landed and walked off.


This beauty is a Shaft-tailed Whydah. The males have four long, elegant tail feathers during the breeding season. Unfortunately I couldn’t get them in this shot, but this was probably the prettiest bird we saw in the CKGR.


The northern black korhaan is a bustard that lives in the open plains of Botswana and southern Africa. They don’t like us, and fly off screeching every time we drive close to one. This was an extremely lucky shot.


This guy, from the CKGR, is a Red-billed Quelea. Audubon says that mass nestings of up to 2 million birds is not unusual and that they sound like a swarm of bees when in colonies. They can cause massive crop damage and, in such great quantities, attract predators such as snakes, small mammals, and bigger birds who feast on their eggs. When they’re not part of a massive flock they gather in smaller groups of 10-100.


Chris identified this little lovely as an immature Red-backed shrike. Apparently their sweet looks belie their wicked hunting strategies, which are to hunt from perches and impale the insects, frogs, lizards, and small birds and rodents on thorns, building up a larder. They breed in the Northern Hemisphere and winter down here.


I’m fairly certain that what I have here are three kites, perched at Deception Pan in the CKGR. The two in the foreground are yellow-billed kites, common to southern Africa. The fellow in the background is a migratory black-billed kite, wintering with his southern cousins during the Northern Hemisphere winter. This isn’t the best shot, but it is my favorite. Birds of prey look so serious and regal from certain angles, but head-on they’re plain goofy. That guy in the back makes me chuckle every time.


The guinea fowl is perhaps the stupidest bird on the list – maybe even stupider than the ostrich. I’ve written before that they resemble nothing so much as clowns let out from a small car – they run in all directions when startled (it takes nothing to startle them), and they have a strange, bobbing run that cracks us up every time. They are edible.


The crimson-breasted shrike lives in thorn trees and is a very pretty bird – startling against the brown and rust background of the desert.


This cheeky White-browed sparrow weaver was our camp companion in the CKGR. They are bold, interesting birds – I managed to get them to eat out of my hand in the campsite. They are about the size of an American robin and clearly intelligent and, in camp, accustomed to humans.


Another lucky shot, this time of a pearl-spotted owlet with the common “cross” expression. They nest in trees and hunt by day.


The grey go-away-bird has an unfortunate call – sort of like a jeer. The closet thing I can compare it to is the sound a pica makes. They mostly eat fruit.


The Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, who had the honor of being our first Beast of Botswana, is everywhere in Botswana. Steve always says that they look like they’re working so hard to keep that beak aloft while flying. We love seeing them – when they’re not trying to break into the truck.


One of the coolest things about being in the southern hemisphere is seeing the migratory birds in the “off” season. This is a European roller. This lovely bird could have traveled from either southwest Europe or eastern Europe, as both populations winter in Botswana. They migrate roughly along longitudinal lines. Populations have significantly declined in recent years due to hunting, loss of habitat, and use of pesticides that reduce their food.


Chris identified this guy (gal?) as a Burchell’s Sandgrouse. Once I found that out I looked them up and it seems that sandgrouse, including the Burchell’s, bring water, stored in their breast feathers, to their young.


The Lilac-breasted roller looks like a little flying jewel – more beautiful in flight than even this. Yes – this is a thing in the world. Amazing.


Presenting – the Goliath heron. This is the largest heron in the world. It can range up to 5′ tall – which is taller than me. It forages in water and eats fish. We found two of them (!) along the Boteti river, standing still and solitary looking out over the water.


A lucky sighting – a Greater kestrel in Nxai Pans. This guy was all puffed up on the cold morning, which meant he was easy to photograph as he didn’t startle easily. Kestrels are falcons and this one stands out for the incredible scalloped coloring on his back and tail.


The African fish eagle, similar to our own national bird but with more white. They are the national birds of Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Sudan. Females are larger than males and both can have a wingspan up to 8 feet! We saw this one perched above the Boteti river.


Chris identified this lady as an ant-eating chat. She’s dull colored on top but underneath her wings are bright white. We saw lots of them on the trip to Nxai Pans. Songbirds are really hard to identify, I think.


This isn’t the best shot, either, but it feels like an extremely lucky sighting. This is an Amur Falcon, and he is probably the baddest-ass bird on this list. This dude flies from northeast China/Siberia, where he breeds, down to southern Africa. His route takes him over India and the Indian Ocean, where he will pick migrating dragonflies out of the air while he travels.


“It’s a duck. No, wait. It has a pointy bill.” Identifying birds is fun, especially when you’re trying to figure out what the heck you’re looking at. This is a hammerkop, found along the Boteti. It is the only member of its family, Scopidae, and has a hammer-shaped bill and partially webbed feet. It builds huge nests, almost 5 feet across and strong enough to hold a person. Nest building can take up to 14 weeks, and they build up to five nests a year! Wikipedia says that “it is known in some cultures as the lightning bird, and the Kalahari Bushmen believe or believed that being hit by lightning resulted from trying to rob a hammerkop’s nest. They also believe that the inimical god Khauna would not like anyone to kill a hammerkop.

One comment on “Photo Essay – Birds of Southern Africa

  1. Cheryl says:

    These are all amazing. I love the wading birds. And the small colorful ones. And the raptors. And that dinosaur one!


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