Often, on game drives, large flocks of our dear feathered friends fly above us, swallows and swifts swoop down to water holes to drink, and the iconic hornbills, construct intricate nests with their banana-like beaks. I often think that these magnificent creatures with their distinctive characteristics are overlooked while searching for the bigger animals of the bush.
South Africa hosts 122 Important Birding Areas (IBA) which cover an astonishing 10.1 million hectares of land. Here at Motswari we are lucky enough to have varying ecosystems and a great variety of birds to be found and enjoyed. Some are strikingly beautiful with their stunning colours, while others are marveled for their bravery when tackling larger birds of prey without fear. Most, however, are music to a guide’s ear – the bush alarm clocks so to speak.
Songs, beauty and brawn set aside, there is one particular element of a bird’s life that is truly astonishing – migration.
There are roughly 200 species of bird that migrate to Southern Africa ever year. These birds migrate for a number of different reasons: adverse weather conditions in their country of origin; lack of food; and breeding. Southern Africa – the destination of choice for most – supports these birds with food, breeding grounds and great weather.
Palearctic migrants are the long distance travelers of the three different types of migratory birds here in South Africa. These birds can travel up to 11,000km to reach their final destination.
The Amur Falcon is one such bird that travels from regions in South East Asia, North Eastern Mongolia and Siberia to come and feed on Alaites (winged termites) that are released from termitariums (termite nests) after good rains during the summer season in Southern Africa. These birds travel an incredibly long distance and at one stop-over point, come together in a massive congregation of almost one million!
Most of the larger birds of prey that are Palearctic migrants make many stops on their journey to rest and refuel. These birds prefer to avoid crossing large bodies of open water such as oceans during migrations and instead, use land corridors to complete their journeys, often flying by day and resting at night.
Some of the smaller Palearctic migrants, however, will fatten up in in their country of origin and make the most direct flight using the wind to push them to up to 80 km/h. This allows them to cover thousands of kilometers in a matter of days. Flying by night also allows these smaller birds to travel during cooler conditions, escaping strong winds and flying when the air is dense which makes their trip that much easier.
Unfortunately, birds do not have the luxury of a GPS or a road map. So, how do they know where to go? Amazingly, birds that migrate long distances have been studied in depth and it has been found that birds use the stars, the Earth’s magnetic field and a detailed mind map of journeys past to find their way to their final destination.
The Intra-African migrants have it a bit easier and travel from destinations in Africa like Sudan, Somalia, and Angola. These birds make a shorter trip but it is no less strenuous than the Palearctic migrates.
The Wahlberg’s eagle is an intra-African migrant that comes to South Africa to breed every year. The monogamous pairs are separated for the majority of the year while they travel throughout upper Africa in countries such as the Sudan, Senegal and Somalia. Every year, however, they make the arduous trip to South Africa to mate and will arrive at the same nesting site year after year to wait patiently for the arrival of their mate. One such pair was recorded to use the same nest for 28 years running – talk about a love story.
The last migrants, but certainly not the least important, are the birds that move from the areas of high altitude to areas of low altitude during the summer months. You can think of it like Joburgers traveling down to Plettenberg Bay every summer for a beach vacation or the Snowbirds in North America going to Florida to enjoy more favourable weather.
One fact that is hard to avoid is that fact that less birds seem to be migrating every year. Urbanization of traditional resting sites and feeding grounds has left many birds stranded. Unable to refuel on their journey they die of starvation or even worse are poached for food or illegal pet trade.
None the less the migration continues.
The Timbavati and Umbabat Nature Reserve are home to an exquisite abundance of wildlife and truly remarkable birdlife. We invite you to come and witness this truly magical occurrence of nature at Motswari and give our feathered friends some of the attention they deserve – they’ve certainly worked for it!