Birding Through The Lowveld

Text & Photos by Warren Schmidt

The lowveld is a landscape of subtle extremes as you navigate through river valleys and up steep hillsides. It is an area of rich and varied plant life invigorated by a sub-tropical climate. The lowveld, as the name suggests, is the large swathe of land found east of the escarpment and includes the majestic Kruger National Park. It stretches out onto the endless Mozambique plain and curves around the Lebombo Mountains into the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal. It was the playground of Jock of the Bushveld and many writers have written about epic adventures and interactions with wildlife. The contrasting landscapes have provided inspiration for many artists who have encapsulated the views to canvas – from silhouetted acacia sunsets to rocky outcrops.

The Kruger National Park and many of the surrounding game reserves and lodges attract millions of visitors annually, with many wanting to catch site of the famous “Big 5”. The wetlands, forests and savannas are also a wonderland for avid birders, where one could tick off over 200 species on a good day. In this feature article we take you up close to some of this region’s amazing birds.

Egrets, herons and storks

A group of usually large unmistakable birds with long stilt-like legs and often associated with wetlands. Many species feed on invertebrates and small vertebrates with some specialising in amphibians and fish. Others are granivores.  

As dusk engulfs the light, flocks of Cattle Egrets settle in for the night in shrubs around reedbeds. These flocks can consist of dozens of individuals. During the day they forage alongside grazing mammals, catching insects and frogs flushed from the disturbed vegetation. Herons are superb predators with spear-like bills used to catch fish, tadpoles, and aquatic insects around water. The Green-backed Heron can remain motionless for long periods and then rapidly strike out at unwary prey. Herons construct large flat nests made from sticks and reeds and often placed above water or up in trees. The Saddle-billed Stork with its bizarre red and black bill is a sight to remember as it moves along shallow rivers.  

 

Ducks and Geese

Waterways attract around 10-14 different species of duck and geese. One of the most prevalent are the White-faced Ducks which congregate around feeding spots in large flocks. Male and female white-faced ducks look identical but there is marked sexual dimorphism in the other species. Yellow-billed and African Black Ducks are less common but still often seen around ponds, dams, and quieter backwaters. Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese are also commonly found in the lowveld. Ducks and geese are superbly adapted to floating along water and ducking down to grab aquatic plants and the occasional invertebrate.  

Raptors

The lowveld is a bird-of-prey stronghold that attracts many raptor enthusiasts from around the world. The vultures are a well-known and often despised group, but they form an important ecological role in the lowveld system. Unfortunately, vulture numbers are decreasing due to poisoning and accidental collisions with infrastructure such as powerlines. The big eagles are also taking strain with the conservation status of several species being elevated into a higher threat category. The Secretary Bird, Martial Eagle and Bateleur were all recently up-listed to globally Endangered (see Biodiversity & Environment Africa Issue 1, January 2021). 

Another famous raptor is the iconic African Fish Eagle with its characteristic call as it flies over waterbodies. These birds are excellent at catching fish by swooping down and grabbing them in their sharp talons. Brown and Black-chested Snake Eagles have excellent eyesight, as do most raptors, and keep a sharp eye out for any snake or lizard scuttling through the undergrowth. The smaller Sparrow-hawks and Kites are just as efficient in capturing small rodents, birds and insects. Raptors are characterised by their sharp bills used for piercing and tearing apart prey as well as the sharp talons used to catch, impale, and hold their prey.

Game birds

The Helmeted Guineafowl is one of the most commonly seen birds in the savanna. They often gather around roadside verges where they feed on insects and seeds. The Spurfowls and Francolins are closely related and can be mistaken for the sandgrouse. The Natal Spurfowl is another terrestrial bird often seen next to the road. These birds are cryptically coloured and easily overlooked when they remain motionless. Spurfowls have double spurs on the legs of male birds which sets them apart from the francolins. These spurs are used in territorial fights and may assist during mating by latching onto the female.  

The wetlands

Many dams and rivers in the lowveld are seasonal and dry up over winter, but the summer rains fill depressions creating numerous pans. Flooding is common, and at certain times dams and rivers overflow their banks. The wetlands attract thousands of birds where they forage and nest. An entire magazine could be devoted just to wetland birds. The Black Crake scuttles effortlessly between reeds and over floating vegetation. Nearby, the African Jacana with its rufous brown plumage, white neck and exaggerated toes, runs effortlessly over floating weeds. On more open sand and mud banks, Three-banded Plovers are often seen running up and down after small invertebrates.

Doves, pigeons and sandgrouse

Doves and pigeons are known to most people because of their strong association with urban environments. In the savanna there are other species not often seen in the central urban areas. One such species is the African Mourning Dove with its orange-rimmed eyes. These doves are frequently seen perched in riverine forest around campsites in the Kruger National Park. The Emerald-spotted Wood Dove is another savanna dove with iridescent wing coverts. Perhaps the most attractive savanna species is the lemon-green African Green-Pigeon with its contrasting bright yellow legs and red feet. Sandgrouse are a species of the central arid regions but one species, the Double-banded Sandgrouse is found in the lowveld and easily mistaken for a francolin or spurfowl.

Parrots and louries

The Brown-headed Parrot is found throughout the lowveld, but a second species, the grey-headed parrot, occurs in the far northern regions, being associated with mopane savanna. Brown-headed Parrots are frugivores feeding on a wide range of seeds, nuts, fruits and flowers. They use their dexterous feet to manipulate food items to their bill. They have powerful beaks which can open hard encased seeds and strip fruit. They are partial to flowers like the red blossoms of the flaming coral tree. Parrots nest inside hollow tree cavities. Attracted to rest camps, the all-grey Go-away Bird (or Grey Loerie), is a common resident and like the parrots, it is a frugivore feeding on various seeds and fruits.

Owls and nightjars

Evening time in the savanna is a magical time when a range of nocturnal and secretive animals emerge. These include the leopard, hyenas, jackal, civets and genets. Many birds return to their favoured roosts, but this is the time when the owls and nightjars take flight. During the day, nightjars are a superb example of cryptic camouflage, blending invisibly against their background. At night they hunt and are often seen absorbing heat from the road surface. Their nocturnal calls are one of the bushveld’s distinctive calls. Around 10 species of owl can be found in the lowveld, from the large Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl to the diminutive African Barred and Pearl-spotted Owlets. Owls are nocturnal predators feeding on invertebrates, rodents, and in the case of the Pel’s Fishing Owl, taking fish and frogs. Owl pellets (regurgitated fur and bone fragments) are often seen around favourite trees or buildings.

Kingfishers, bee-eaters and rollers

The lowveld is home to some spectacularly colourful birds of which the rollers and kingfishers stand out. The Lilac-breasted Roller is an efficient aerial predator catching insects in flight and sometimes small lizards on the ground. The brilliant blue is notable during flight. Several other rollers are found in the region, some like the European and Broad-billed Rollers are seasonal migrants. The Bee-eaters are another colourful group which feed on bees and wasps. They construct their nest sites into the side of earth banks.  

The rivers and wetlands attract a diversity of kingfishers, including the Giant Kingfisher and the black and white Pied Kingfisher. The smaller kingfishers have brightly contrasting colours of bright blue and purple. As the common name suggests, these birds catch and feed on fish of various sizes and the Giant Kingfisher can take exceptionally large prey. The Brown-hooded Kingfisher is a generalist, feeding on insects, frogs, and lizards.

Hornbills

A trip to the lowveld would not be complete without seeing the hornbills. The most sought-after is the massive Southern Ground Hornbill. It is a large black bird with a fleshy red face and crop. Their clumsy marching gait can be deceiving though, as these birds are voracious predators. Snakes, lizards, tortoises, small birds, and rodents are not safe when these birds patrol along the ground. Ground hornbills have been observed with several prey items hanging from their beaks.

Yellow- and Red-billed Hornbills are a common sight around campsites where they can become very tame. They forage in trees, shrubs and on the ground. Hornbills are omnivorous, feeding on fruits and various invertebrates.

Drongos, Orioles and others

The lowveld trees and riverine bush create a paradise for hundreds of smaller birds. Many often go unnoticed as they scurry inside thick vegetation which affords them protection. Others forage along the ground raking leaves and debris aside to get at small invertebrates, including spiders and grubs. The Chin-spotted Batis is a small, attractive bird which often calls from the branches of shrubs and flutters between thickets. The Fork-tailed Drongo perches on exposed branches and keeps a watchful eye out for insect prey, either hawking insects when in flight or pouncing on prey on the ground. Black-headed Orioles are often seen around flowers, especially aloes during winter.  

Some of the other common lowveld residents include the Dark-capped Bulbul, Southern Black Tits and the similar-looking Southern Black Flycatchers. Wagtails are distinctive around lawns and gardens and the African Pied Wagtail is often found in the vicinity of rivers and streams.

The thrushes are numerous and have a strong preference for riverine forests and thick bush clumps where they scavenge through leaf-litter for invertebrates. The Kurrichane Thrush and Groundscraper Thrush are two common species in the lowveld.

The starlings

The lowveld region has at least eight different starlings. In the hills leading to the escarpment, Red-winged Starlings are found, and the Violet-backed Starlings are seasonal migrants visiting the lowveld in summer. The blue glossy starlings are the ones that can easily confuse visitors to this region as they all look very similar. Identification is also affected by lighting as different iridescent shades highlight under shade, cloud, or sun. Meve’s Starling is found more in the northern parts and has a characteristic long tail. Burchell’s Starling is one of the larger species and also has a relatively long tail. The greenish blue and dark facial line running through the eye differentiate the Greater Blue-eared Starling from the Cape Glossy Starling which tends to have a more bluish gloss. The glossy starlings are often attracted to rest camps and picnic spots and are therefore easy to observe. Wherever big game roam, the Red and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers will occur. They have feet suitably adapted to clinging on the sides of giraffe, zebra, and antelope where they feed on external parasites, loose skin, and other flaking bits. They can be a nuisance to wounded animals as they peck at the exposed flesh.

Sunbirds

The sunbirds are a group of small dainty birds with scimitar shaped bills used to extract nectar from flowers. They are important pollinators of many plants.

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