Namibia

Easy pickings

Last September, after a few early morning drives at the Kalahari Transfrontier Park, we took it easy for a couple of days, visiting the waterholes late in the mornings and afternoons. The day before our departure from our last camp, Twee Rivieren, I suggested to go for an early drive but my wife preferred to continue relaxing so I went on my own. It was a bad idea as, somehow, the whole camp shared this thought and the only road out of the camp was a dust cloud, despite the 50kph speed limit.

Aware that the morning had not started as I dreamt, I drove slowly until I found a waterhole to stay and wait for the travelers to quiet down as it usually happens. I stopped after about 20km at the Rooiputs waterhole. I was alone there and, as expected, soon the traffic died down and I could enjoy some dustless tranquility.

Apart from a few gemsbok staying a couple of hundred metres from the water and a lone jackal that was clearly mice-hunting in the dunes at the back, the waterhole had been completely taken over by birds. I spotted a good number of Namaqua sandgrouse on the ground and decided to take a few pictures of them.

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The trees around the water were laden with small birds, mainly red-billed queleas, sociable weavers and red headed finches among others.

There were also a great number of laughing doves and ring-necked doves. The latter were in such numbers that it was like a curtain of moving birds that often obscured the water source as they flew in and out.

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Hundreds of doves were “queuing” on the nearby trees to get to the water. Most of the time the available water was literally covered with birds and every now and then an explosion of birds flying in all directions followed a perceived threat. Often these were false alarms and the scared birds returned to drink immediately.

It was following one of these bird explosions that I saw a tawny eagle in the midst of the doves. When I spotted the eagle it had already caught a dove and it soon landed to eat it. “This is incredibly easy”, I thought and decided to stay there and wait for more action. When it finished eating it flew away but I was sure that it would come for more. It did.

Unexpectedly, the eagle did not return at great speed, just flew above the doves, lost altitude and then it entered the “dove cloud” and, almost effortlessly, grabbed another dove with its talons and landed to pluck it and eat it!

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It all happened too fast for me and I only managed to take pictures of the raptor feeding about twenty metres from me. After eating, the eagle flew away again and landed on top of a nearby tree followed by a large retinue of small birds busy mobbing it.

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I continued watching the birds’ drinking dynamics when, after about ten minutes, the eagle (or another one?) repeated the operation and, again, caught another dove! After its third dove, the eagle flew to the same tree and then I saw a second eagle. Further inspection revealed that the clever eagles were nesting about fifty metres away, taking advantage of the easy pickings that the waterhole offered them!

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As they only need to fly a few hundred metres a day to get a full crop and feed their fledglings, I started wondering -like with the Scottish pigeons of my earlier post-about eagle obesity!

Luckily, my fears were dispelled as the next time one came for another pigeon it looked really mean and I did not detect any accumulation of fat round its waist!

 

Help for a widower…?

At the end of the post “Toilet and Tortoises”[1] I expressed our disappointment with the setting and management of Camp Kwando and surrounding area. There was however an area by the jetty that yielded some interesting sightings and observations.

A large Common cluster fig tree (Ficus sycomorus) acted as a giant umbrella, providing good shade. Its fruits were intensively consumed by a number of birds among which we saw Grey go-away bird, Green pigeon, Black-collared barbet and a Squirrel among others. They offered some good photography that I present below, including a nice shot of a Brown-hooded kingfisher that was taking advantage of the insects attracted by the shade.

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Brown-hooded kingfisher.

In addition to the birds-fig tree interaction, we (rather my wife again!) spotted a male Paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis) sitting at a nest within easy photographic reach. I took advantage of the nest’s location and took several pictures at different times during the first day of our visit. During that time, while the male was absent, we noted that there was at least one egg.

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Adult Paradise flycatcher male.

In the evening, as usual, I checked the pictures to select only the best ones to save space in the camera’s memory card. It was while doing this that I noted that all my pictures were of a male bird and, although I re-checked all pictures I confirmed that there was no female! The male bird had the lovely pale blue beak, cere and peri-orbital markings although these were not visible in some of the pictures. I then realized that there were two male birds sharing the task of sitting on the nest: one adult (bright colours) and a sub-adult (duller).

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The immature Paradise flycatcher sitting on the nest.

As soon as I could I checked the available literature to find out more about what we saw. I confirmed that “cooperative breeding” or when sub-adults assist adults incubating the eggs. This behaviour is quite common among several species of birds[2].

In the case of the Paradise flycatcher, it is believed that the female does most of the night sitting on the eggs and cooperative breeding although “possible” it was still unconfirmed and not been seen![3] Things were getting really interesting now and at that point we decided that the observations were worth reporting to a wider audience.

After some enquiries with bird experts we found an on-line journal in South Africa known as Ornithological Observations where we submitted a short paper that they agreed to publish on 23 February 2016. [4]

Although this could be taken as an isolated observation and a rather anecdotic one, it unequivocally shows the involvement of a second male, showing unequivocally that cooperative breeding in the African Paradise Flycatcher takes place as suspected. It is possible that the young male was from the previous year and assisting the adult male.

No female was observed during the time the observations were carried out. Weather it was alive or not would remain a mystery. However, it cannot be excluded that it could have been at the nest during periods when we were not there or taking care of the incubating during the night.

 

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/toilets-and-tortoises/

[2] Stacey, P. B. and Koenig, W. D. (1990). Cooperative Breeding in Birds: Long Term

Studies of Ecology and Behaviour. Cambridge University Press. p.636.

[3] Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa iPad Edition, 2012-2013.

[4] http://bo.adu.org.za/content.php?id=202