Breakfast on my doorstep
I’m a new ranger at Kapama and have been guiding here for about 3 weeks. One morning, I was woken early by the loud, unhappy screeching of a guinea fowl, but it was only when I left my room on my way to work in the pre-dawn gloom that I very nearly stumbled over the reason for its distress: a Verreaux’s eagle-owl on the ground right in front of my bedroom door, its feathery meal clutched in its talons, but as I walked closer to the sighting the guinea fowl saw an opening and managed to escape while it sidestepped the large bird of prey.
I glanced back at the eagle-owl, which was nowhere to be seen. I gave a step forward to have a look at the injured little guinea fowl and all of a sudden I felt a wave of air rushing through my hair. As I looked up I watched as the eagle-owl swooped down unseen from the roof and instantly injured the guinea fowl only two metres away from where I was standing. Noticing my presence the owl took off, carrying its breakfast to an African Thorn tree at the nearby waterhole.
It was amazing to get close enough to admire the eagle-owl’s big pink eyelids, mottled feathers and its sheer size. Later that afternoon it flew away from the waterhole, taking what remained of his prized kill with him, I wondered if it was taking the remains of the guinea fowl to its nest. In persuit of its nest, I followed while respectively keeping my distance. The sound of chirping chicks became more evident and at about 15 metres from the waterhole the owl started to slow down as if it was about to make a landing. My eyes caught a stick nest (constructed by other birds), I couldn’t see if there was any chicks inside, but the sound was clear enough to hear the little owls, the eagle-owl has landed, passing the food into the nest.
As you might know by now, the Verreaux’s eagle-owl or giant eagle-owl (Bubo lacteus) is a large, nocturnal, African bird of prey. It is Africa’s largest owl and the third largest owl species in the world, and a close-up encounter such as this is incredibly special. Interestingly enough, it hunts at night for mostly small to medium-sized mammals, like monkeys, hares, and hyraxes, as well as birds up to the size of a bustard, so a guinea fowl would be a perfect light meal.
It’s not every day you see these magnificent nocturnal hunters, especially in the middle of the day and so close and on the ground, but no matter what the situation, if you encounter a Verreaux’s eagle-owl, stop what you are doing and enjoy the special sighting, you never know where the eagle will land next!
Written by: Matthew McDonald
Kapama River Lodge
Watching scavengers consume the remains of a rhino
Not long ago, one of our mature rhino bulls injured a young female rhino to such an extent that she died of her injuries the next day. It was a very sad event, more so because the poaching of rhino in South Africa for their horns is an ongoing and escalating problem, despite authorities’
best efforts. Sad as it is, this is not an uncommon occurrence – mature rhino bulls sometimes underestimate their strength and cause massive injuries to other younger and less aggressive individuals.
The carcass was moved to a quiet spot on the reserve and our ecology team removed its horns to keep it from attracting unwanted attention. Since we seldom have entire rhino carcasses at out disposal on the reserve, I decided to put up a trail camera nearby to record any interesting interaction and to record the whole breakdown of the carcass. I was not disappointed, and I am delighted to share what I captured throughout the consumption stages.
It did not take the keen-eyed vultures long to realise that a feast was waiting. Within twenty minutes there were white-backed vultures perched all over the vicinity, making sure there were no predators around before digging in.
White-backed vultures are the most common in the area, but in the five days it took for the carcass to be cleaned up we were lucky enough to see four other species as well. It was interesting to see how late some vultures fed into the night.
A Spotted Hyena made an appearance at nightfall, which was expected, but two unexpected visitors showed up in the night too – the bull that injured her and another young rhino.
The vultures were there early and a tagged white-backed vulture also joined in on the feast – his yellow tags are clearly visible on the photo. These marker tags help researchers tracking vulture numbers and movements all over South Africa and into our neighbouring countries.
With the carcass still very much intact, it wasn’t strange for one of the giants of the vulture world to make an appearance: the lappet-faced vulture. It was nice to see that there are still a few around. A serious tug of war for scraps took place between an vulture and a black-backed jackal, with the jackal realising quickly that it wasn’t a battle he was likely to win. That evening was marked by not one but two spotted hyenas coming for dinner.
This was by far the busiest day around the carcass. It was in an advanced state of decay and easily accessible for any scavengers who wanted an easy meal. Hooded vultures were present alongside the more common white-backed vultures and Cape griffins, and all of them tucked in gustily. Unfortunately, the lappet-faced vulture didn’t show up again.
In the evening, the carcass was once again visited by a single hyena – probably the same female that frequented the carcass the previous evenings as well.
The carcass was still a hub of activity, but the number of vultures had decreased. I was delighted to find a white-headed vulture on some of the photos as they are among the rarer and endangered vultures.
With not much meat remaining, only a few hooded and white-backed vultures remained until sunset, and that night the same hyena arrived to dine alone on what she could find.
This morning I found only three vultures hanging around the leftovers, and I got the feeling that it was all over. I’ve decided to leave to camera for another 24 hours, but I am not getting my hopes high for much more activity. What is left is pretty much dead skin stretched across an empty skeleton, and except for a couple of smaller scavengers who may come to scatter the bones, the bulk of the work is done.
Watching the gradual breakdown of such a large animal has made me realise again what a massively important part scavengers, and especially vultures, play in the natural environment. By getting rid of decaying meat they ensure that there is no spread of diseases and by cleaning up in and around dead carcasses they play a vital role in keeping the environment healthy. It was sad to see only one lappet-faced and one white-headed vulture come around, as I remember a time not too long ago where you would find at least three or four of these endangered species of around a carcass. Due to ongoing conservation efforts by a myriad of wildlife organisations and safe areas like Kapama Game Reserve, I am hopeful that we can get these vulture numbers to steadily increase over time.
It was indeed sad to lose a rhino, but very interesting to witness what goes on after such an event. Luckily in this case it died of natural causes – a privilege fewer and fewer rhinos will get because of man’s arrogance, ignorance, and insatiable greediness.
Written by: Johan Esterhuizen
Kapama Souther Camp
A bit of bushveld comedy
A number of days ago while out on safari, my guests and I spent a few moments enjoying a sighting of a spectacular giraffe bull picking away the tiny tasty leaves from a very thorny Acacia-tree with his long and dexterous tongue. Beside him, swooping back and forth from perch to perch around him, a fork-tailed drongo quickly took center stage.
These little black birds have discovered that it is far easier and energy-efficient to follow larger animals than to actively search for food themselves, so they have evolved a symbiotic relationship with many herbivores, tagging along as they move through the bush and catching the insects they flush out.
This feisty fork-tailed drongo dipped and hovered from perch to perch, pausing between swoops to watch for his next treat. He was so intent on catching insects that he didn’t notice the giraffe’s big tail swishing to and fro, so as he took off towards his intended target he met the hard flick of a hairy tail coming the other way.
He didn’t seem to know what had hit him! Stunned, he floated very slowly to a nearby branch to gather himself. Unaware of the accident he had just caused, the giraffe carried on nonchalantly through the trees, munching leaves and disturbing more insects his poor sidekick was too dazed to notice.
Despite feeling a quite sorry for our little drongo, and even after all the sightings of much bigger, more charismatic animals, the comical moment with this mismatched pair was easily the highlight of my guests’ trip.
Written by: Garry Bruce
Kapama Southern Camp
Since many of our guests at Kapama are from outside South Africa and often first time visitors to our gorgeous country, most game drives start off by being about finding the big stuff, like elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, and big cats. Giraffes, zebras and other general game make the list too, so there’s seldom a dull moment, but sometimes you come across something you didn’t even think to hope for.
One morning, after a few very successful drives in which we spent a lot of time with most of the Big Five, we left a particularly good lion sighting and came across one such surprise sighting: three ground hornbills foraging in the road.
Anyone who’s ever come across a ground hornbill will tell you they’re fascinating birds, not just in appearance, but also in their habits. They’re large (nearly 4 kilograms heavy and up to a meter tall), black and heavy looking, with adult birds boasting bright faces and wattles. If you’re lucky enough to see them it’ll probably be when they’re ambling unhurriedly through the bush, rooting out goggas (bugs), rodents, lizards and just about anything that takes their fancy. Up close (they’re sometimes inquisitive enough to approach vehicles) they have large, intelligent yellow eyes, and long dark eyelashes that would give the Kardashian sisters a run for their money. Even if you haven’t seen them, it’s possible you’ve heard their deep, reverberating booming call early in the morning, like a distant lion roaring at the rising sun.
Ground hornbills are critically endangered, mainly because they’re so picky about where they nest – big, natural holes in old trees are hard enough to come by even in protected areas – but also because they have very specific requirements for successful breeding. Every pair mates for life and needs at least one other pair of helpers to help them keep a handle on things, even though only one chick from every brood survives. This chick is dependant on his/her team of caregivers for over two years, which means that even those who find a suitable tree and have responsible helpers can only raise one chick every three years. You might be justified in thinking it serves them right for being so difficult, but perhaps the fact that they’re the only bird species believed to play with their chicks might redeem them.
So every ground hornbill sighting is one to cherish, and whenever I get the chance to share those sightings with guests from home or abroad, I hope they’re if not more, then as memorable as all the big stuff.
Written by: Janri Olivier
While driving back to the lodge at the end of a great afternoon game drive we came across a spotted eagle owl sitting in the road. We stopped to enjoy the presence of this wise old owl.
We noticed that she was holding something in her talons and on closer inspection saw see that she had a dung beetle in her grasp. She held it down and did not seem very interested in her prize. All of a sudden she hopped into the air leaving the beetle behind and flew to the other side of the road where we could see some movement on the road.
As we continued watching her we saw that she was dancing around a large scorpion, trying to get the scorpion into a position that would suit her. The whole time the scorpion kept up its defence by lashing out with its tail, trying to sting the owl. This didn’t deter the owl as she pounced on the body of the scorpion and in a flash had bitten the sting off the tail of the scorpion, rendering it harmless.
How wise of the owl as now the spotted eagle owl could take her time and just stood on the scorpion for a few moments before picking it up in her beak and swallowing it alive.
She proceeded to spread her wings and fly off into the night.
As summer arrives, we have many new visitors in the form of feathers. With their beautiful colours and impressive flying skills, we have quite a few keen birders coming through the lodge. I enjoy watching all our summer migrants, but one of my favourite to photograph is the Lilac Breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus). I have sat for some time watching, and waiting for them to fly away to get the perfect action shot.
They usually prefer open woodland and savanna, sometimes alone or in pairs, it perches conspicuously at the tops of trees, poles or other high vantage points from where it can spot insects, lizards, scorpions, snails, small birds and rodents moving about at ground level.
They have quite a distinguishable lilac colour on their breast, and a unique set of tail feathers which separate out into two distinct ends, quite different (but often confused with) to the other roller in their family, the European Roller.
If you enjoy your birds, whether looking at to appreciate or to take photos of, summer is a good time for birds, especially all the colourful ones we don’t see during the winter months.
Story by Kevin (River Lodge)