Great Crested Grebe

Podiceps cristatus infuscatus

The Great Crested Grebe is a relatively big (up to 1.5kg, 45-56cm long, with a wingspan of up to 73cm) waterbird inhabiting large bodies of open water (mostly dams, lakes and pans, and rarely rivermouths and protected bays) where they feed on fish, crustaceans, amphibians and aquatic insects pursued underwater.

Locally, breeding seems to occur at any time of the year, on platforms of floating plant material anchored to emergent plants such as reeds or in flooded thickets. These birds are well known for their elaborate mating display. Clutches usually contain only two eggs, and the chicks are often carried on the parents’ backs.

Great Crested Grebes have a wide distribution across Europe, Asia and Australasia, with a limited occurrence in Southern and East Africa. The IUCN estimates their population at as many as 1.4-million and considers the species of Least Concern. In years past this grebe suffered greatly due to hunting for the plume trade, but today gill-netting is a more serious threat to their survival, especially so in East Africa where they are now rare. Great Crested Grebes are locally common residents in South Africa and occur mostly on the central Highveld (Gauteng, Northwest, Mpumalanga and Free State Provinces) and the Eastern and Western Cape.

African Darter

Anhinga rufa

African Darters have a wingspan of up to 1.3m and weigh in at as much as 1.7kg.

Darters are common residents at most wetlands, lakes, dams and slow flowing rivers, and occasionally lagoons and estuaries. They swim low in the water, usually with only their neck and head above the water, and can stay underwater for up to a minute when pursuing prey. African Darters feed mostly on fish, and occasionally frogs, water snakes and crustaceans, which are swallowed whole and head first.

Breeding occurs in colonies (often mixed with other species) in trees and reedbeds, mostly during the summer months. Nests are platforms built of sticks, on which both parents incubate the 3-6 eggs with their feet. Darter feathers are not waterproof, explaining why they are often seen sunning themselves on rocks and dead tree branches with wings outstretched. Some birds loose all their feathers when they moult after the breeding season, and then are flightless for a short period.

African Darters occur over most of Africa south of the Sahara, and can be seen almost all over South Africa, even occurring in the arid west of the country along the course of the Orange River. Despite a declining population (estimated at between 25,000  and 127,000) in many range states, the IUCN considers the African Darter of “least concern”.

Little Egret

Egretta garzetta

The Little Egret is a relatively small, white heron weighing about 500g with a wingspan of around a metre and characteristic yellow toes, believed to aid in attracting prey to within striking range.

Little Egrets forage singly or in small groups in shallow, open wetlands, on the margins of rivers, dams, lakes, lagoons and waterlogged pastures and agricultural fields, and in the intertidal belt along the coast. They feed mostly on small fish, amphibians, crustaceans, molluscs, insects and other invertebrates

Breeding in this species coincides with the rainy season (in South Africa mostly the summer months), usually nesting in colonies numbering dozens up to thousands of pairs and often in association with other species of egret, heron, ibis and cormorant. They build their nests of sticks on cliffs, in reedbeds or trees, usually over the water, or on the ground on safe islands. Clutches of up to 5 eggs are incubated by both parents for a little over 3 weeks, and the chicks fledge at about 6 weeks old.

The IUCN estimates that there may be over 3-million (and the population is growing) Little Egrets distributed over Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. Vagrants have become established in the Caribbean and now appear to be spreading into North and South America. In South Africa the Little Egret is a common resident (subject to local movements to the coast during winter) all over the country, with the exception of the arid Northern Cape where it is mostly seen only along the course of the Orange River.

Cattle Egret

Bubulcus ibis

The well-known Cattle Egret is a small (280-450g) white heron (egret) with a wingspan of less than a metre.

Cattle Egrets usually forage in small groups numbering 10 – 20, but can at times be found in flocks of thousands where food is abundant. These birds inhabit open grasslands, savannas, pastures and meadows, swamps and marshes. They’re a familiar sight wherever large wild or domestic herbivores are grazing, catching insects and small vertebrates disturbed by their big neighbours’ movements. They will also peck ticks and other parasites from these bigger animals.

As with most other egrets, Cattle Egrets breed colonially in groups numbering from a dozen to several thousand pairs, often in mixed species congregations. Nests are built of sticks in trees and reedbeds, often over or surrounded by water. In South Africa breeding reaches a peak in the summer months. Clutches of one to five eggs are incubated by both parent birds for about three weeks, while chicks become independent at about 45 days old.

With a growing population estimated at as many as 10-million, and an expanding distribution on every continent except Antarctica, the IUCN considers the Cattle Egret to be of Least Concern. Their rapid range expansion in the past 100 years is directly correlated with the expansion of cattle farming across the globe. In South Africa they occur in every province, although they’re not very common in the xeric northwest of the country. They’re also much more numerous during the warm summer months, with many birds migrating to central Africa to escape the harshest of winter in our southern climes.

Camping fest at Satara

At the end of April, we had the privilege of visiting the Kruger National Park with a wonderful group of friends; altogether 21 adults and children from 5 families and by far the biggest group we’ve ever accompanied to the Park! Our base for the four nights was the camping area at Satara Rest Camp, allowing us to introduce our friends to many of our favourite places in the central section of the Park.

A wonderful group of friends enjoying the scenery at Nwanedzi

Our previous visit to the Satara area was in the winter holidays of 2016, at the height of one of the worst droughts on record in South Africa. What a pleasure seeing the region transformed into a sea of lush green vegetation now at the end of the summer rainfall season, and experiencing a few of the final showers rolling over the Lowveld before winter sets in!

Of course the dense vegetation made game-viewing very tricky, and in stark contrast with our visit last year when there seemed to be predators resident at every one of the few remaining pools of water, we really had to work hard to find the meat-eaters for which Satara is so famous on this visit. We don’t consider ourselves “Big-5” chasers, but when you’re introducing a couple of newbies to Kruger’s wonders you do want her to put her best foot forward, and luckily Satara remained true to her reputation as one of the best game-viewing areas in the Park. Even if the predators kept us in suspense at their appearance, there were still a myriad of other species of game to be found in good numbers and keeping us enthralled on our drives, and even in camp! Of course, we expected to find high concentrations of plains zebra, blue wildebeest and giraffe roaming the central plains, but we were very surprised to find so many elephants around Satara!

For anyone looking for birds, Kruger could never disappoint, however on this visit the Park seemed to be bursting at the seems with feathered inhabitants even more than usually. We’ve shown you the enormous flocks (rather swarms!) of queleas in an earlier post, but notably we’ve also seen bigger flocks of marabou stork and wattled starling on this trip than ever before – no doubt in response to an eruption of food in the form of grass-seeds and the insects that feed on it.

At the end of our stay we had to contend with every camper’s worst nightmare – having to break up camp in pouring rain! They say that any friendship that survives going on holiday together will remain standing come what may, and happily it seems despite the hardships of dripping wet, muddy bodies and thoroughly soaked camping equipment, our friendship with the Bernards, Krugers, Nels and Therons have come through the tribulations with flying colours.

Camping at Satara, Kruger National Park, April 2017 – click the image for an enlarged view

(If you’d like to find out more about Satara and surrounds, have a look at the dedicated blog post we published about this popular part of the Kruger National Park)

Red-billed Quelea

Quelea quelea

Some of the most impressive sights of our recent visit to the Satara area of the Kruger National Park was the enormous flocks of Red-billed Quelea occupying the grasslands of the central plains. Following the good rains that bought respite from an awful drought, the savannas are heavy with a rich harvest of seeding grasses, and literally millions of the little birds are making the most of the abundant foodsource. When their population reaches a peak, as it currently has, there could be as many as 33-million Red-billed Queleas swirling in cloudy swarms over the Park!

The Red-billed Quelea is a small (20g) seed-eating sparrow-like nomad inhabiting grasslands and grainfields (causing enormous losses to farming communities). Swarms that could number in the millions descend on watering holes at least twice daily. While feeding they “roll” over the grasslands in a wave-like motion, most impressive to witness! While seeds make up the vast majority of their diet they do catch small insects as well, especially when raising chicks.

Nesting occurs communally in the rainy months and hundreds, even thousands, of nests are woven per tree (prefers thorn trees) by the males. Breeding colonies could consist of more than 2 million monogamous pairs, and is a magnet for every imaginable predatory bird, reptile and mammal that is large enough to take adults and chicks. Clutches normally number three eggs and the female incubates them for only 12 days, whereafter the chicks fledge within another two weeks!

The Red-billed Quelea may well be the most abundant bird on the planet, with an estimated population as large as ten billion, and as such is considered as being of least concern by the IUCN. It occurs widely in the savannas of Sub-Saharan Africa and can be found in every one of South Africa’s provinces, where it must number in the hundreds of millions.

(The photos in the following gallery were taken on previous visits to the Kruger Park and elsewhere)

de Wets Wild turns five!

We’re fresh back from a wonderful breakaway in the Kruger National Park, and of course have lots to share with you from our latest trip to the bush, so stay tuned!

Today also marks the fifth birthday of de Wets Wild – Thank you to everyone who has supported and encouraged us along the way!

Sunset at Satara