By chance we were back in the “big smoke” for a week after our week at Giant’s Castle when my brother Jerry told me that his guest who was going to take the week in Mashatu could not make it. Helen and I jumped at the opportunity to return to Mashatu in February this year which was toward the end of the rainy season. We are members of a syndicate operating Rock Camp in Mashatu which is sited along the Limpopo river close to the Ponte Drift border post.
“Opportunities do not come with their values stamped upon them. Everyone must be challenged. A day dawns, quite like other days; in it, a single hour comes, quite like other hours; but in that day and in that hour the chance of a lifetime faces us.” ~ Maltbie Davenport Babcock
There is prolific bird life in Mashatu when in and around the camp and when on game drives. Part of the beauty is that you often do not see the same species on consecutive game drives.
“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.” — Sun Tzu
A male Bearded woodpecker in a large tree in the front of Rock Camp’s patio. The top of the male’s crown is red while the female’s crown is black, otherwise they look similar. They use their beaks to search for grubs under the bark and to communicate by tapping on the trunks of trees.
This Blue waxbill waited for the activity around bird bath to quieten down and proceeded to have a proper bath. It was very hot so many of the birds that visited the bird bath also bathed to cool down.
A male Green-winged pytillia was also cooling down in the heat of the afternoon.
A Spotted flycatcher found a perfect perch from which to hawk insects in the heat of the afternoon behind the Rock Camp main lodge near the swimming pool. The Spotted flycatcher is a summer visitor and is identified by the light brown streaks on its buff coloured breast and belly.
“Most people miss great opportunities because of their misperception of time. Don’t wait! The time will never be just right.” ~ Stephen C. Hogan
Although there are many birds in the camp area, it was summer so the birdlife was more spread out and could find water everywhere. There are many Sabota larks in Mashatu. This lark is identified by the strong brown streaks on its chest and its distinctive white eyebrow. This species seems to prefer the Mopani woodland interspersed with rocky areas where the grass is sparse.
Southern African summer is a time when the palearctic and inter-Africa migrants arrive to feast on the profusion of insects that respond to the rains and warmth. Mashatu is well known for being a good area to see most of the species of cuckoo which visit in summer. The most common cuckoo was the Diedrick’s cuckoo. The male has barred flanks, white flecking on the wing, white patches in front of and behind the eye, and a distinctly red eye surrounded by a red eye-ring.
The bronze-green female has a diagnostic white patch in front of the eye, a plain back, and white patches in the wings and her eye ring is brown not red. Both images are of male Diederik’s cuckoo as the female has a more pronounced coppery sheen on her back. The name “diederik” is an approximate rendition of the loud, persistent “deed-deed-deed-er-ick” call of the territorial male.
At Rock Camp we often hear the distinctive call of a Black cuckoo along the Limpopo river but I have yet to see one. During this visit we saw many Jacobin cuckoos but very few Striped cuckoos. Usually it is the other way around.
The Jacobin is differentiated from the Striped or Levaillant’s cuckoo because the former does not have black stripes on its chest. Both the Jacobin and Striped cuckoos have black plumage on their head and a crest on the back of the head. Both species have black and white bars on their tail feathers.
We also regularly see the Great spotted cuckoo. This is the largest of the summer migrant cuckoos. The adult is grey above, it has a grey cap, grey wings, a yellowish face and upper breast, and white underparts. This species of cuckoo prefers warm open woodland savanna. It feeds on insects, spiders, small reptiles and hairy caterpillars, which are avoided by many birds. Like most cuckoo species, this is a brood parasite, but it targets larger species such as crows and starlings
Another summer migrant is the Carmine bee-eater. It has exquisite carmine red, blue and brown plumage with an aquamarine crown. It is an adept aerial hunter and is usually seen hawking flying insects in the afternoon when it is very hot.
We see Carmine bee-eaters – young and adult. The fledged juveniles are browner and have not yet developed that gorgeous carmine breast and throat plumage and its crown has not yet turned to a vivid aquamarine.
Several shrikes are also summer visitors such as the Lesser grey shrike and the Red-backed shrike. The Red-backed shrike is quite skittish and normally will not let you get close so a long focal length lens is needed. This shrike migrates from its breeding grounds in eastern Europe and Russia down to southern Africa.
The Fiscal, Southern White-crowned shrikes and Grey-headed bushshrike are common residents in Mashatu. Another migrant, the Lesser grey shrike has a full black facial mask with a grey crown and back. Its belly, chest and throat plumage are white. These shrikes hawk insects from a prominent perch. The Lesser grey shrike also migrates to southern Africa from its breeding grounds in southern Europe and western Asia.
The White-browed sparrow-weaver is a common resident. It has a distinctive white eyebrow, black cap and black malar stripe. This species is very talkative and seems to be constantly busy building its untidy nests on the west side of larger trees. Since breeding mainly occurs in the warmer months, it may be because easterly winds prevail during summer, thus the nests are more protected on the western side of the tree.
A male Chestnut-backed sparrow-lark. It has a distinctive chestnut coloured back and covert plumage. Its head is black and it has a white cheek and white stripe on its nape. These diminutive sparrow larks are found in the dry rocky areas of Mashatu. They are normally seen in small flocks.
A male Black-backed puffback shrike. This diminutive shrike is usually heard before it is seen. The male has a black crown and face mask and a bright red eye. The female differs in that it does not have a black face mask. This is a highly active shrike constantly moving around in the upper reaches of the tree canopy. The males puffout the loose white rump and lower back feathers in display.
The ubiquitous Lilac-breasted roller. A stunningly coloured roller which is common in Mashatu. It was usually seen hawking insects from a perch. In Mashatu during summer, we see very few European rollers and the odd Purple roller. By contrast, we saw many more European rollers further south in Zululand and very few Lilac-breasted roller in that region.
“We’ve moved from a small world on a big planet to a big world on a small planet.” ~ Johan Rockstrom
Another summer migrant, a Woodland kingfisher. Its trilling call can be heard in camp and along the Majale river. It is an insect eater with a vibrant turquoise blue back, wing and tail plumage.
A Barn swallow migrates to the southern Africa summer flying from across Eurasia. This annual migration has been recorded covering up to 11,660 km. The Barn swallow is distinguished by its brown forehead and throat and steel blue back and shoulder plumage and white breast with a steel blue collar.
“Taking an image, freezing a moment, reveals how rich reality truly is.” ~ Anonymous
A male Paradise whydah preening himself. Whydahs are distinguished from widow birds as the former has more colour on its body. Widow birds have all black plumage but for a flash of colour on their throat, rump or shoulders. The Paradise whydahs congregate in flocks and the females are parasitic breeders. The male Paradise whydah is all black except for a thick brown band across its chest to its shoulders and a yellow-buff coloured nape and belly.
A male Namaqua dove preening itself.
The bantam-like Crested francolin foraging in the underground. These francolin can be heard all over Mashatu and often gives away the presence of either a predator or snake.
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau
The ever shy Kori bustard. This bird will always walk away from you in Mashatu and will not let you get close. Usually we see a single Kori but at times we are lucky enough to see the whole family which can comprise two adults and three juveniles. This is a ground-dwelling bird and an opportunistic omnivore. Male Kori bustards can be more than twice the weight of a female and will try to breed with as many females as possible and consequently takes little or no part in the raising of the young.
We invariably see a Secretary bird striding around the southern section of Mashatu near the vlei. It strides through the grasslands searching for anything from small birds to rodents, and grasshoppers to chameleons. The Secretary bird is a large bird standing up to 1.3 metres in height and is instantly recognisable because of its eagle-like body on crane-like legs which give this raptor its height.
“The value of biodiversity is that it makes our ecosystems more resilient, which is a prerequisite for stable societies; its wanton destruction is akin to setting fire to our lifeboat.” ~ Johan Rockstrom
The Secretary bird hunts and catches prey on the ground and is very nimble aided by its wings. Having caught its prey it usually stomps on its victim to kill it. This bird of prey is omnivorous. The sexes resemble one another, although the male is larger and tends to have longer tail feathers, more black erectile crest plumes, a shorter head and more blue-grey upperparts and less extensive bare orange facial skin behind the eye.
One of my favourites, a Lanner falcon perched on top of a Shepherd tree scanning the surrounding area for potential prey which can include queleas, doves and sandgrouse. This falcon is larger than a Peregrine and usually hunts in a horizontal pursuit rather than a vertical dive. The Lanner has a brown crown and a buff coloured head with a black eye stripe and a black malar stripe. Its belly is buff coloured with brown blotches across its chest and belly. Watching this bird of prey hunt is a thrilling experience because of its sheer speed.
A beige morph Tawny eagle. This species of eagle has many colours from fawn to tawny, striped and even a dark morph.
Tawny Eagles are opportunistic hunters, meaning they will feed on just about anything they are able to catch or find. They will hunt mammals including hares and dikdiks, birds such as francolins, bustards, and even hornbills, and will also take reptiles, such as lizards, fish, amphibians, and insects (including termites). They are not adverse to scavenging on a predator kill.
I was confused as to whether this was a dark morph Booted eagle or a juvenile African hawk-eagle. A lifelong birder, Terence Archibald, thankfully corrected me indicating it was a juvenile African hawk-eagle highlighting it strong beak, powerful talons, narrow stovepipe like leg feathers and spots on the wing coverts. This is an aggressive aerial hunter, targeting mainly birds up to the size of francolin and small-sized mammals. It will also prey on rodents and lizards when it can find them. This raptor prefers miombo and especially Mopane woodland in southern Africa.
A Brown snake-eagle with its distinctive brown plumage and vivid yellow eye. Snake-eagles have a distinctive angular shape to their head, with a crest of sorts on the back of its head and a small very hooked beak. We see many Brown Snake-eagles in Mashatu but no Black-chested snake-eagles or Western banded snake-eagles.
The Limpopo river is the southern boundary of Mashatu. There are numerous pairs of Fish-eagles along the Limpopo but every now and then one or a pair venture along the Majale river when it is drying out hoping to find stranded fish. A juvenile fish eagle can take between four and five years to develop its adult plumage.
The bird photography in Mashatu is highly productive. Patience and guidance is always required. The guides know where resident species stay and when unique species are in a particular area, which is particularly helpful.
There is a big difference in the diversity of species seen between summer and winter due to the influx of migrants in summer. Mashatu is known for its diversity of species and not necessary the quantity of a particular species. This is mainly because of the six different ecosystems in Mashatu which attract very different species.
“The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.” ~ Johannes Kepler
This post has shown is just a smattering of the diversity of avian species that you can see in Mashatu. In summer this dry part of Botswana transforms into the garden of Eden with its verdant greenery and carpets of yellow and pink flowers. Inevitably, the garden provides a wonderful background for bird and wild wild photography.
“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” ~ Ansel Adams
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its diversity and let it be.