While our South Africa trips are about mammals and not only birds, we can’t go past the incredibly colourful and spectacular birdlife that we encounter during every visit. While we have stunning birds in Australia without a doubt, South Africa is also blessed with beautiful birds and photographing the myriad new species for our files has been nothing short of amazing.
No. 10 – African Grey Hornbill
While we were lucky to see three hornbill species in South Africa, sadly missed the large Ground Hornbill at every location, we fell in love with these African Grey Hornbills. While not as colourful as their Southern Red-billed or Southern Yellow-Hornbill cousins, these were the ones we saw the least. Their grey/black plumage is most elegant and their regal poses make for wonderful images. Having found a pair on our very last day in Pilanesberg National Park, we were drawn to their loud, piping like calls, a bit raptor like to be honest, as they were chatting while feeding in a tree with those pretty red berries. We took many photos to get a few good images, some of which we want to share with you below.
No. 9 – Burchell’s Starling
If we think about it, the starlings we have locally in Australia can be gorgeous with their irridescent plumage, so any bird that has a similar appearance will greatly appeal to us. While these were relatively common, there was not always a possibility to get a good angle or nicely lit shot. So we pointed our lenses at these spectacular starlings at any time we could. On our last Kruger day we were driving down the S28 when we noticed one sitting perfectly posed on an open branch, at eye level in nice soft light, due to the overcast conditions. The bird looked as spectacular as they do under the warm glow of the morning or evening sun.
No. 8 – Sunbirds
We can’t simply pick one of the few different species that we have encountered across South Africa. The first one – a White-bellied Sunbird – we saw at the entrance of Lower Sabie camp on our way out after breakfast one morning. The colourful little bird was simply feeding in a small shrub close enough for a few images in not so ideal light. We were excited, especially Netra, who with her design mind loves anything with gaudy colours. And those sunbirds mostly satisfy that love of colourful critters. A brief visit on another day to Skukuza Camp yielded a Red-throated Sunbird, which was incredibly challenging to photograph in the middle of the day with its deep black and red plumage. These kinds of birds are best left for early or late in the day, when the light is lower, but beggers can’t be choosers really. Gotta get the shots while we can.
No. 7 – Kingfishers
By all means, kingfishers are amazing birds in their own right. One afternoon while we were traveling the S25 in southern Kruger, we stopped at a small creek and started to marvel at the juvenile Bataleur Eagle bathing in the shallow pool, though the image was strongly backlit, we still took photos anyway. Why not? Can’t miss a good opportunity. Then suddenly, a small flash of colour caught my eye approximately 30 meters out as the bird settled back onto a big rock. I took some photos of it from the distance and almost screamed in excitement as it was none other, than one of the most wanted birds on our kingfisher list, the Malachite Kingfisher, a small, colourful jewel of a bird. Adding a 2x teleconverter to my 500mm f/4 lens meant I was now able to magnify my image significantly, yet not quite enough for happy images, still only good for IDs. Later during our 2018 trip we were able to take much closer shots of one in Cape Town, which was an incredible experience. Pied Kingfishers are fairly common and they are often seen hovering over the water as they look for prey, then dive suddenly to snatch their quarry from just below the surface. Pilanesberg National Park was great for these birds as we photographed them from Mankwe Hide. On one of our evening drives out of south Kruger, not far from the Crocodile Bridge entry point, we were fortunate to take photos of our first Brown-headed Kingfisher, a quite common species. Later, just as we finished our last day of photography, exiting Pilanesberg National Park, another Brown-headed Kingfisher posed very nicely for us on a tree, even courteously turning its face into the light.
No. 6 – Lilac-breasted Roller
When Netra and I first saw a Lilac-breasted Roller driving along one of the roads in Kruger National Park, we almost screamed out loud. They are incredibly colourful and just sit out on open branches in between sorties as they hunt terrestrial insects, reptiles and even small birds. Their method of disposing can be quite brutal as they literally bash the living daylight out of their prey as they smash them against a branch.
But all that brutality aside, they make for amazing photography subjects with those pretty colours, don’t you think?
No. 5 – White-fronted Bee-eater
Who doesn’t like a bee-eater? Their plumage reminds us of a painter’s palette with their spectacular colours and we wonder how something could or had to evolve to represent such a vivid spectrum.
While South Africa is home to up to nine bee-eater species, travelling in winter meant we only ever had a chance to potentially see three of those species. Having seen the one, White-fronted, meant we at least got to observe another stunning bird among the many stunning birds that were completely new to our birding experience.
Having just looked at a point along the Crocodile River called Hippo Pools, at the end of the S27 road, we were making our way back towards the S25 to head to the exit at Crocodile Bridge gate. Then as we slowly motored along the dirt road, the bee-eater stuck out against the pale blue evening sky as it perched atop a dead tree taking its rest among sorties for its flying insect prey. We were delighted to be presented with such great opportunity, close to the road, as being in a public part of the reserve, we were not allowed to exit the vehicle to pursue animals on foot. Considering the thick scrub all over the place and the possibility of a lion or other large and dangerous animal, it’s a sensible rule to implement.
No. 4 – Pearl-spotted Owlet
We were driving along the S137 road on our first Kruger morning with our guide David Moffatt from Khakiweed safaris and as we drove along, I was carefully scanning the trees for signs of birds along the roadway. Suddenly, I exclaimed, STOP! STOP! Go back please! As poor David got a shock from my booming voice, as he and Netra were in conversation about something, while I was focused on critters.
They asked me what it was, so I said there is a tiny owl in the tree! It even made its high-pitched yelp-like call, and you can hear a sample of that by clicking here.
Netra and I agreed that they remind us of small potatoes with talons, but their adorable demeanour hides a vicious killer of other things. They are tiny compared to an average sized owl, like say a barn owl. But for what they lack in size they sure make up in hunting prowess.
Each individual we observed sitting out near the edges of vegetation, ready to pounce on unsuspecting prey. One near the Gardenia Hide along the S119 and another on the S27 not long after we saw that White-fronted Bee-eater.
Very special memories!
No. 3 – Verreaux’s Eagle Owl
A quick stop to say hello to a car full of people along the S25 one afternoon allowed us the privilege to witness this female Verreaux’s Eagle Owl with its baby right beside the road. After the normal pleasantries were exchanged, the group asked whether we saw the Spotted Eagle-owl nesting about 400 meters up the road. Well we didn’t, as we came from another direction. Therefore, we decided to investigate the owl, as we wanted to see a Spotted Eagle-owl. When we arrived, it was clear, that it was a Verreaux’s Eagle-owl, rather than a Spotted. In any case, we didn’t want to dwell and worry about the misinformed tourists, but be grateful they kindly shared the spot.
The female bird was sitting quietly off the nest, just being nearby and doing sentry duties perfectly. She had not a care in the world at the camera toting travellers merely 30 meters from her open nest with a chick clearly visible in it, all hunkered down, resting.
We visited the nest another time, on our very last morning to check on the welfare of the mum and baby, but we have not seen the male bird during either of our two visits. Sadly, night driving is not something we are allowed to do here unescorted, so we would not really get the opportunity to spotlight and find amazing nocturnal life to see and photograph.
No. 2 – Bataleur Eagle
Almost like the kestrels of Australia, these raptors were so numerous, especially their immature ones characterised by their brown plumage. They really inhabited pretty much every road along which we drove, and being raptors, the temptation to photograph them at any given opportunity was too hard to resist. One of the more memorable encounters was the juvenile bird bathing in a small pool along a creek on the S25 late one afternoon.
No. 1 – Martial Eagle
Before we left for South Africa, we joined a Facebook group where members shared their Kruger sightings, which was kind of cool in a way. Through this group we learned, that along the S27 towards Hippo Pools a pair of Martial Eagles were nesting and raising a chick close to the road. I guess close to the road means something different to different people. For me close is 5-10 meters, not 50 meters, in this instance. However, we did have some powerful lenses to be able to capture good images, it was still about 20 meters further than I would have preferred.
The nest was in an old dead tree and you could see it from about a kilometer away. When we arrived, we could see the female sitting on the edge, waiting, and the chick was only just visible, as it was sleeping, but big enough not to be obscured by the rim of the nest structure.
Suddenly, the female started yelping, like a puppy in pain. My first thought was food. I said to Netra let’s see which way she is looking, as I bet her mate is coming back with or without food, so this is like the excited call when she knows he’s on his way. True to my words, ten seconds later the male glided in and landed on the nest with prey of a feathered kind, its identity unknown to us. We spent about four hours with the nesting eagles over two days, it’s not something we will see for quite some time, so it was very exciting to witness.