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In South Africa: Collared Sunbirds, Dark Chanting Goshawks, and Fork-tailed Drongos October 13, 2010

Posted by Jenny in nature, travel, wildlife.
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Dark Chanting Goshawk

For an introduction about my recent trip to South Africa, go here. All photos in this post are from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted.

I never would have been able to compile a bird list for Kruger National Park and its surroundings if it hadn’t been for Klaas van der Westhuizen, who seemed to know everything about birds, plants, and animals in the area. It was he, for instance, who alerted me to the danger of disturbing the nest of the Hamerkop. According to the myth of the Khoi San, he said, anyone doing so will be struck by lightning. This took such a hold in my imagination that I started pestering him with silly references to “the bird that causes people to be struck by lightning.”


Klaas was fond of the idea that people from other parts of the world think many forms of nature in Africa are frightening. He was endlessly amused by the notion of “Africanized killer bees,” and laughed when I brought along a hiking stick on our walk near Arnold’s place to fend off stray leopards. (One had indeed been spotted not far away—not recently, though.)  From Arnold’s ample selection of hiking sticks, I picked out a medium-sized one so that I could at least deal with a medium-sized leopard, I told him.

Klaas and Carol van der Westhuizen and I were guests of Arnold Van Dyk and Sonja Myburgh at their vacation house on the border of Kruger. During my visit and in writing this post, I leaned heavily on the expertise and helpfulness that each one of them offered me.

I fell in love with the names of the birds nearly as much as the sight of them. And I did get some good views through Sonja and Arnold’s high-powered binoculars, but I realized from the start that it was hopeless for me to try to photograph birds with my camera, which has an inadequate zoom.

The name “Dark Chanting Goshawk” is pure poetry, for instance. The name derives from its breeding season song, “which consists of chanted flutes and whistles,” according to Wikipedia. The article also makes the interesting observation that the bird’s flight is “stiff and mechanical.”

And who could not love the name of the Fork-tailed Drongo? It somehow put me in mind of another bird name that I love, the Elegant Trogon, a resident of the southwestern U.S. The common element is that we not only have a bird with a funny-sounding name (drongo or trogon), but we actually have a particular subvariety of it—there could even be other kinds of drongos or trogons.

Fork-tailed Drongo

Another bird with a wonderful name was the Southern Pied Babbler. Klaas told me that in Afrikaans, this bird is known as the Witkatlagter, or the “White cat-laugher.” He could not explain, however, whether the bird has a call that sounds like a cat or whether it simply likes to laugh at them.

Southern Pied Babbler, or "White cat-laugher"

We saw the beautiful Collared Sunbird…

the Saddle-billed Stork…

and another type of Babbler, the Arrow-marked one.

On the final morning of my stay, Klaas and Carol drove me through a southern section of Kruger using the unpaved Randspruit and Burne roads above the Crocodile Bridge checkpoint. Along the way we spotted vultures sitting on the carcass of a rhino.

Vultures on rhino carcass. My photo.

Sadly, we could see through the binoculars that the horn had been removed. There was no way of knowing whether the rhino had been killed for the horn, a pricey commodity on the black market, or whether the horn had been removed after the animal died from other causes. There could be no more diabolical means to kill off an animal species than to promote the idea that one of its body parts has medicinal value—a belief completely untrue.

We saw two species of vulture there:

Hooded Vulture


Cape Vulture

Thanks to Klaas, I can also list the following that I saw:

Blackheaded Oriole, Emerald-spotted Dove,  Oxpicker,  Egyptian Goose, Woolly-necked Stork, Blue Waxbill, Cormorant, Common Sandpiper, Greenbacked Heron, Great and Pied Kingfisher, and Fisher Eagle.

And Sonja pointed out to me the Lilac-breasted Roller sitting perched on the very top of a thorn tree, with its feathers of many colors that suddenly added a tiny rainbow to the drab palette of the savanna.

Lilac-breasted Roller




1. Thomas Stazyk - October 13, 2010

Thanks for the education! I hadn’t heard of most of those birds and I agree some of the names are great. The vultures look nasty!

2. Roon - October 14, 2010

Your notes on SA birds are wonderfully evocative. Reading about the exotic avian country-dwellers you spotted (drongo!!), I feel I must put in a word for the humble “mossie” or Cape Sparrow. Coloured grey, brown and chestnut with black and white markings on the male (see Wikipedia, which also shows good pix), it is found all over southern Africa and is especially familar to town-dwellers as a cheeky, streetwise urban inhabitant. It will take tidbits from your outstretched hand if you’re patient. They say Tante (Auntie) Gezina, Transvaal President Paul Kruger’s widow, made the sculptor of his huge bronze statue on church Square, Pretoria hollow out the top of the olld man’s top hat as birdbath for the mossies she loved. Droves of these sparrows flutter around the statue to this day. Pretorians also claim that the statue disturbs its mossie visitors by lifting its hat whenever a virgin walks past, but alas, it has never been seen to do so.

Jenny - October 14, 2010

I saw some bold little sparrows over there too, amidst the other “grander” birds. I do like certain kinds of sparrows, especially my old friend the White-Throated Sparrow that flew through my yard in Gloucester in the spring and fall on its way to or from the big boreal forests of northern New England. It had a beautiful, haunting song. But I’ve also been known to get aggravated when sparrows start to dominate the bird feeder!

3. brian - October 15, 2010

Those are great names. Somehow “elegant trogon” doesn’t sound like two words that should be together. Like “lyrical robot” or something. My dad is terrible about mangling words and kept telling me he had seen a “titted tufmouse” after I bought him a bird guide to use in his backyard. I told him he was talking about the female version of Mighty Mouse.

“Killer bees” got in through the port in Tampa eight years ago and have quickly replaced most of the wild honeybee population down here. A few weeks back we were bushwhacking through a dense thicket in the swamp and found a hollow old growth cypress with a big colony inside. You could walk right up to the swarm and they would continue about their business. But being immature we had to try stirring them up with a stick. This is okay with European bees, you just dash off quick. But these guys engulfed us, especially our heads despite the fact that we were running away and stayed on us stinging for hundreds of yards. We kept getting tangled up in the brush and screaming obscenities. Ouch! Score one for the frightening African wildlife. However I was still rubbing my stings when I turned on the TV later and there is Les Stroud with the San in Namibia pulling handfuls of honeycomb out of a baobab after smoking the hive. Kind of gives me an idea.

Jenny - October 15, 2010

I think it’s the word “Africanized” itself that seems a bit funny, as if the continent has a mysterious power of turning otherwise harmless creatures into rabid killers. I do know that those bees have caused a lot of problems in the southern U.S. Be careful going after that honey. You may get struck by lightning, or be victimized by some creature that laughs at you as it attacks. Not to mention maybe getting stung a few more times.

4. Roon - October 19, 2010

African mythology does not support the alleged viciousness of local honey bees, but folk tales abound about a bird called the honey guide. He flutters beckoningly around you until you follow him to a hidden hive, where he naturally expects you to leave him a share of the spoils. Woe betide the human collaborator who denies him his reward – the grîots claim he will lead you over a cliff or into the jaws of a waiting lion next time.

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