I am back in California and have spent the past couple of weeks exploring California’s deserts and Oak Woodlands as spring begins to show signs of emerging. Before I venture back out again, I want to spend a bit more time reflecting on my South African adventures. I’ve recently highlighted some of charismatic birds of South Africa, the cheerful and busy weaving weavers and the sometimes friend, sometimes foe Red-billed Oxpeckers. But, I left off my travel tales describing our Mkuze explorations.
We left our Hluhluwe lodge and made the drive to St. Lucia, a small coastal town with a humid, subtropical climate that supports the most lush vegetation that I’d yet to see in South Africa. St. Lucia is a hub to the impressively large and diverse iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The word isimangaliso means “a miracle” or “something wondrous” and I could think of no better description of this 332,000 hectare park that spans 280 km of coastline. In December 1999, this park was listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in recognition of its unique biodiversity, incomparable ecological value, and superlative natural beauty.
After checking in to the Kingfisher Lodge, we went for a stroll on the Igwala Gwala Forest Trail. We were lucky to quickly encounter some incredible birds along this lovely trail – the secretive but spectacularly colorful Narina Trogon, the uncommon cuckoo Green Malkoha, a fancy Livingstone’s Turaco, and some wailing Trumpeter Hornbills. The strikingly large hornbills are certainly not easy to miss, but its often their baby-like “whaaaaaa waa waa” wailing calls that give them away.
That large protuberance that sits on their bill is a casque – an enlargement on the beaks of certain species named for a helmet. Trumpeter Hornbills are primarily frugivores, preferring to feast on jackalberries, figs and ironwoods….so, what is the function of the hornbill’s casque? In fact, this is a topic of much debate! It likely provides reinforcement along the curve of the bony upper mandible, allowing maximum force to be applied at the tip, allowing for greater manipulation of food. The particularly large casque of Trumpeter Hornbills is associated with vocal enhancement, acting as a resonance chamber similar to the bout of a violin.
After a night drive through the park we woke up early for another early morning walk on the Igwala Gwala Trail. It was spectacular – Livingstone’s Turaco, Purple-crested Turaco, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, and Green-backed Twinspot. One of the most magical moments of the trip occurred when Gareth heard a low haunting “whooooo” coming from the forest – the call of the Buff-spotted Flufftail, one of South Africa’s most elusive skulking birds, referred to as “the ghost bird” by some locals. We made our way, as quietly as possible, into the forest. Gareth detected some movement under a nearby shrub, and walked ahead to clear a small path in the vegetation. Then, we waited. We held our breath and were rewarded as this tiny chicken-shaped rail-like bird with a red head and a buff-spotted back scurried across the trail. The excitement and amazement was palpable! These birds are locally common, but are almost never seen because of their skulking habits. Gareth assured us that a great many African birders have never seen a flufftail and reminded us, once again, how incredibly lucky we’ve been on this trip.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the park, including the Cape Vidal Nature Reserve. I’ll let some photos tell the rest of the story!
Last, but not certainly not least, the Crowned Eagle. I took this photo from quite a distance away, but its worth a blurry photo to share a bit about this bird. This large, crested, boldly marked eagle favors riverine forests where it EATS MONKEYS! That’s right, this powerful eagle has short, broad wings that give it excellent maneuverability in dense forests where it hunts mostly primates, especially Vervet Monkeys. They have been reported to stalk prey for days, sometimes wounding their prey and waiting for it to weaken before killing it.