Mkuze Moments

After some final early morning birding in Wakkerstroom, we made our way south to Mkuze, an area in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Mkuze is another birding hotspot, with its variety of savanna, forest, and wetland habitats. The Mkuze Game Reserve is 40,000 ha in extent and forms part of the tremendous iSimangaliso Wetland Park. We left the Umkhumbi Lodge in the dark and made our way into the reserve. At our first stop we ate breakfast and enjoyed a flurry of bird activity, a Hamerkop flying overhead, a Purple-crested Turaco, a Red-fronted Tinkerhead calling from above, a striking Scarlet-chested Sunbird, and a party attended by Cape Crombec, Chinspot Batis, Common Bulbul, Southern Black-tit and Pied Barbet. From there, we made our way to several fenced in areas where we could freely roam with protection from the local fauna. Most of these included bird blinds perched over wetland areas, where we saw countless African Jacana, Pink-backed Pelican, Sacred Ibis and a huge congregation of eagles – over 100 Martial Eagles, Steppe Eagles, Wahlberg’s Eagles, and Lesser Spotted Eagles, such an amazing sight!

One of my favorite roadside finds was this Little Bee-eater. Bee-eaters are an Old World family whose diversity is concentrated in Africa. Traveling from North America to South Africa, I was most excited about those families of birds that are completely novel to me, and bee-eaters were at the top of my list! They are just so colorful and charismatic, and easily observed as they spend some of their day perched and sunning. They are agile fliers that either hawk insects in the air or from a perch on which they’ll bludgeon their prey before swallowing. The Little Bee-eater is one of Africa’s most common and widespread species, a denizen of savannas and grasslands, and is easily recognized with its grass-green upper parts and canary-yellow throat. Over the course of our trip, European Bee-eaters were a far more common sighting. These large, strikingly colored bee-eaters breed in Europe and winter in South Africa.

Little Bee-eater
European Bee-eater

A highlight of the day for me was FINALLY seeing some dung beetles in action. Plum Dung Beetles construct “balls” that they determinedly roll away from competitors and predator, to be buried as a food supply or a substrate to lay eggs. In the latter case, the dung ball supplies the resulting larvae, who will pupate and develop within the dung ball. After seeing the tremendous amount of elephant poop in Kruger NP, I have a new found appreciation for these beetles! Dung beetles can detect a food source sent from quite a distance and will fly backwards and forwards across the wind until they pick up scent. Once located, the follow upwind to the source, plopping down on or near the target. They are quick to find any available fresh dung and so are a useful indicator of the proximity of large dung-producers, like buffalo or elephants.

Plum Dung Beetles (with hitchhikers!)

I was finally able to capture a decent photo of a Red-backed Shrike. “Oh, its just another Shrike”, is a sentence I thought I’d never hear, but was uttered by Gareth many times. I tried to explain that the sentiment does not apply to us Californians (can you imagine being bored at the sight of a shrike of any kind?!?) but was shamed, nonetheless, when I kept asking if we could pause for me to grab a photo. We saw Magpie Shrike, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Lesser Gray Shrike, Southern Fiscal, and Red-backed Shrike…..and, shockingly, each was greeted with mild indifference by my travel companions! I promise I will never tire of seeing a shrike, of any kind!

Red-backed Shrike
“Just another Shrike”, female Red-backed Shrike

A few other birds I was able to capture during our Mkuze explorations:

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