These iconic species are on the ‘wanted’ list of most birders visiting Kruger National Park. Five occur widely and are comparatively easy to spot, but a sighting of a Pel’s fishing owl will make you the envy of twitchers everywhere. Story by Albert Froneman, feature picture by Pierre Engelbrecht
The deep booming calls of a southern ground hornbill family can resonate as far as three kilometres across their huge territory as they call around dawn to advertise that this land is occupied. These conspicuous black turkey-sized birds are usually found in small family groups of three to five individuals foraging on foot through open savannah woodland. The facial skin of the young birds is yellow in contrast to the bright red of the adults. They nest in large cavities in trees, but are slow breeders and on average successfully raise only one youngster every few years.
Be on the lookout for them throughout the park, but as they naturally occur in low numbers don’t expect them around every corner. Quite often you are lucky and they allow for a really close approach when you will be able to see their fashionable long eyelashes.
The kori bustard is one of the world’s heaviest flying birds. They stand almost 1,5 metres tall and males can weigh as much as 12 kilograms. They are usually found alone or in small groups walking through the grass as they forage for large insects. Females lay one to two eggs in a scrape on the ground and are solely responsible for the incubation and raising of the young.
A few years ago during early spring I was fortunate enough to observe a few males performing their elaborate courtship display at a communal display area known as a lek. They were performing a slow upright march with raised crests and tails. Their necks appeared almost four times larger than normal with all the feathers ruffled out.
Kori bustards prefer fairly dry open savannah and the grassy plains along the main road north of Satara is a good place to be on the lookout for them. During the midday heat they will often seek shelter in the shade of a small tree.
The lappet-faced vulture is the largest and most dominant vulture occurring in Kruger National Park. It has a bare red head with conspicuous skin folds and a blue-grey base to its enormous yellowish bill.
They spend a large portion of the day soaring high above the open savannahs in search of food, often attracted by smaller scavengers or other vultures circling in the vicinity of a carcass. Once on the ground they literally stand head and shoulders above the other vultures and command a certain level of authority. I have watched them spread their wings, lower their head and without hesitation march their way into a carcass as the other vultures scatter in front of the boss!
These vultures favour semi-arid woodlands and in Kruger I have most often encountered them in the central and northern areas.
The imposing martial eagle is the largest eagle in Kruger. They have dark grey-brown upper-parts while their lower breast and belly is white with distinct, uneven brown spots. They are sometimes mistaken for black-chested snake eagles but these eagles are smaller and have a white belly. Prey consists of small mammals or game birds such as francolins, but they appear to have a preference for monitor lizards.
I have often encountered martials feeding on these formidable reptiles. Once I observed a young martial eagle along the Sabie River involved in a fierce battle with a monitor lizard in dense vegetation on the ground. The immature eagle had a firm grip on the lizard, which was trying to escape into the undergrowth. The battle lasted several minutes, eventually the eagle got the upper hand and managed to take off clenching a well-deserved meal in its talons.
They occur throughout Kruger at densities two to four times higher than in adjacent, unprotected areas.
Pel’s fishing owl
This ginger giant is most definitely the most difficult to see and is high on the priority list of many enthusiastic birdwatchers. Pel’s fishing owls were once more common and widespread, but their numbers have declined dramatically as a result of disturbance, river siltation and pollution.
I distinctly recall the first time I saw these elusive owls. Our guide led us along a narrow path through dense undergrowth, which all of a sudden opened up in a clearing underneath a giant fig tree overhanging the banks of the river. The two owls were perched high up in the tree almost hidden between the densest foliage.
In Kruger they are most frequently encountered along the dense riverine forests of the Luvuvhu River in the far north, although a few pairs also occur along the Olifants and Sabie rivers. Your best chance of seeing this special owl is on an organised walk such as the Nyalaland Wilderness Trail along the banks of the Luvuvhu.
It’s not easy to overlook this bird as its black and white plumage and a huge red beak make it stand out. Males and females look alike apart from the eye colour. Females have yellow eyes while the males have brownish eyes with yellow pendant wattles at the base of their beak. Saddle-bills are estimated to raise one chick a year, although they often do not breed every year, but biannually.
Because the saddle-billed stork is so striking, you may not realise how lucky you are to spot one. There are fewer than 150 breeding pairs left in South Africa. They are resident throughout the year and found along all the major rivers in the park. Typically, you will see them foraging in shallow water where they either wait for prey to come into range or prod their long beaks in and among water plants in search of food.
This article was first published in the Winter issue of Wild 2013.