The Secretarybird is literally in a class of its own - it has its own taxonomic family, Sagittariidae. This bird’s name has an interesting linguistic history: its distinctive black crest-feathers are said to resemble erstwhile secretaries, who stuck quill-pens behind their ears. The name may also stem from the Arabic word for both hunter and hawk, saqr-et-tair. It is a privilege to see one of these singular birds moving through the veld, especially because they are on the IUCN list of vulnerable animals.
This mongoose looks set to make a quick dash. These creatures are so fast that they sometimes get the better of snakes, which are one of their major food sources. They are carnivorous and also eat beetles, scorpions, lizards and eggs. They can occasionally become the prey of snakes rather the predator, and are also hunted by raptors and jackals.
The rich, tawny colours and long black plume and eye-stripes of the Purple Heron are particularly beautiful when this bird is in flight. This heron has a wide range, with subspecies breeding in Africa and parts of Asia and Europe. However, it prefers to remain out of sight in its wetland habitats, and thus is a little more difficult to see than other heron species.
A Greater Striped Swallow perches on a dried aloe flower in the rain. These swallows breed in southern Africa in summer, and migrate to Angola, DRC, Zambia and Tanzania in winter. They are very gregarious, nesting colonially under overhangs or bridges. Their nests are hollow balls made of mud pellets which are collected from puddles and carried in their beaks. These nests are sometimes taken over by other birds after the swallows vacate them, or used again by a pair of swallows returning after migration.
Yellow mongooses are one of southern Africa’s most well-known creatures. They are also known as red meerkats. There is still much public interest in meerkats, and affection for them, after a family of Kalahari meerkats gained celebrity in the BBC production Meerkat Manor. Their familial interplay and frisky movements are very entertaining.
The names of the Lesser and Greater Striped Swallows are initially confusing, because Lesser Striped Swallows have greater stripes - they are both bolder and more numerous than the Greater Striped Swallow’s markings! It comes down to size before beauty: Lesser Striped Swallows may have more intense colouring, with brighter orange heads than their larger cousins, but they are around a centimetre smaller than the Greater Striped Swallow, which is a lot in ornithological terms. Southern Africa has populations of resident and migrant Lesser Striped swallows, mostly in the eastern half of the region.
A Blue Crane raises its wings, showing its elegant plumage to best effect. Blue Cranes are well-known to perform mating dances, spreading their wings like this and capering around each other while throwing objects they’ve picked up from the ground. They are thought to mate for life and are extremely protective parents, aggressively defending their young from animals and humans who venture too close to them.
The Striped Kingfisher is slightly smaller than the more common Brown-hooded Kingfisher, but it can be easy to confuse the two birds as both have similar habitats and ranges. This photograph shows the strong black eye-stripe that the Striped Kingfisher is named for. This kingfisher also has a clear white collar on the back of its neck, while the brown hood of its larger cousin extends all the way down to its wings. Finally, the Striped Kingfisher has a grey upper bill and a red lower bill, whereas the Brown-hooded Kingfisher’s entire bill is a bright pillar-box red.
A giraffe splays its legs to nibble food from the ground while another keeps watch. Giraffes’ long necks and tongues are specially adapted to eating high-up acacia leaves that other animals can’t reach, but at the end of a long, dry winter the trees are quite bare. The young Dombeya tree flowering behind the giraffes is one of the first plants to flower in Spring, so these two don’t have long to wait before the acacias burst with delicious green shoots and they can return to their lofty eating habits.
A Grey Crowned Crane forages for fallen grain in a wheatfield. Farmlands are amongst this crane’s favourite habitats. They also frequent wetlands, where they prefer to roost at night, and grasslands. Their favoured food sources include frogs, reptiles, and insects. This bird is currently listed as endangered - there are estimated to be only 6000 in southern Africa.
The quirky, cartoonish Pied Starling is endemic to South Africa and Lesotho. They are common residents in grassland, Karoo Scrub and agricultural areas, and over the last few years they seem to have increased their presence in cities. Like other starling species, they are resourceful and adaptable - sometimes eating ticks from livestock - and are known to consume a wide range of foods from insects and lizards, to seeds, fruit and aloe nectar.
A steenbok peers between thorn branches, keeping shaded from the mid-morning heat. Steenbok are low-level browsers which survive entirely independent of water. They are found in arid and temperate regions, vleis, open bush and woodland. This steenbok has particularly lovely, shaggy, rufous fur. Its large ears are distinctive of this species, and this animal’s ears have especially well-defined ‘finger-mark’ patterns. Steenbok are mostly solitary, except during the breeding season.
The Long-crested Eagle is always an easy and exciting bird to identify, because of its funky crest. Although it is one of the smaller southern African eagles, it still has a healthy wingspan of up to 1.3 metres, and its long plumes often whip around in the breeze as it scans for prey, giving this eagle a fierce, warrior-like appearance. The Long-crested Eagle is most often seen perched on a tall dead tree or pole, and it is known to eat rodents, reptiles, frogs, insects and occasionally other birds.
The male Cape Weaver’s ruddy face and staring yellow eyes always makes them appear a bit hot-tempered, even deranged, and their angry calls deepen this amusing impression. This species is polygynous, so male Cape Weavers have their talons full tending to their harems during breeding season. Nesting is a raucous business for Cape Weavers, as they live in large, noisy colonies that buzz with hysterical ‘swizzling’ and ‘chacking’ sounds. You will usually hear a Cape Weaver colony before you see it - a special southern African treat since these birds are endemic to this region.
An alert female greater kudu with a maturing calf. Calves are often born around the rainy season when the grazing is good. Kudus usually bear one calf. Calves remain out of sight for the first two weeks after they are born, safe from predators because of their lack of scent. Their mothers return periodically to feed them until they are strong enough to permanently join the herd. Young male kudus become independent of their mothers more quickly than young females.
Nobody knows for sure why the zebra has stripes, but it has been argued in a recent study that black and white stripes are unattractive to horse flies. It is also thought that the stripes of the zebra merge together in a herd, making it difficult for predators to distinguish and pursue a single animal. Zebra-like patterns, called Dazzle Camouflage, were used by the British and US Navies during both World Wars. The hope was that painting dazzling patterns on warships would prevent artillery rangefinders from accurately calculating the movements of a ship.