Letaba is a largish rest camp in the North central part of the park. It is near a river, attracting some birds that like to eat wet food.

As the national bird of Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, the African Fish Eagle is usually very busy whenever it stays in these countries, giving speeches, opening shopping centers, etc. So, it sometimes comes to South Africa to relax and enjoy relative anonymity.

Colorful bills and heads seem quite popular among Letaba’s bird species – see the African Jacana (blue and black) …

… the Striated Heron (yellow and blue) …

… and the Yellow-billed Stork (yellow and red).

Reportedly, the Water Thick-knee sometimes locates its nest close to the nest of Nile crocodiles as this offers some protection. A bit like renting an apartment next to a mass murderer in the hope that this will deter other criminals, but as they say, nature knows best.

The Latin species name vermiculatus (worm-like) refers to the markings on the upperparts.

The name of the bird is either because the Water Thick-knee usually stays close to water, or because about 60% of its weight is water (source). Of course, the second explanation makes a lot more sense.

The African Hoopoe looks very much like the Eurasian one but is now considered a separate species by most authorities.

While hoopoes are in their own family, DNA studies suggest that the hoopoe diverged from hornbills, and the wood-hoopoes and scimitarbills from the hoopoe.

The birds I asked about this pretended not to be related to anyone though.

Bad luck for the Southern Ground Hornbill – apparently, it is perceived as an evil omen in many African countries, “as being a bringer or signifier of death/destruction/loss/ deprivation, with the bird commonly being regarded as a bad omen of evil spirits and announcer of calamities” (source).

This can lead to birds being poisoned. Others are being killed for use in traditional medicine.

If that sounds stupid, that is because it is.

If any government ever intends to place a camera in my apartment, I will probably react like this Southern Ground Hornbill.

While this is a very charismatic bird, the Southern Grey-headed Sparrow emphatically is not.

On Quora, one question asked (presumably not by a sparrow) is “What does he mean by I have a beautiful soul?”

The (unfortunately probably terribly misleading) answer given there is “When I hear, ‘beautiful soul’ I would associate it with someone who is purely genuine. I believe it is a very lovely compliment and a deep one at that. If a guy says it to a girl, he is looking deeper than the surface and is truly trying to understand you and what he understands of you, makes you simply beautiful to him.”

This sparrow does not want to hear it has a beautiful soul. It would love to be called beautiful, sexy and glamorous though.

(Apologies – I have not taken my anti-cynicism medication for a while now, and it starts to show).

The Ashy Flycatcher similarly appeals mostly to those birders looking for inner values rather than a glamorous exterior.

However, the Ashy Flycatcher objects to being put in the same category as the sparrow – it would like to point out that eBird calls it a “slim, cool-gray flycatcher”. Which is indeed marginally better than “A sparrow with a uniform gray head and underparts”.

The Tawny-flanked Prinia is another fairly dull-looking bird. However, it is kind of sophisticated in that the females lay very individualized eggs in order to be able to detect the added eggs of parasite cuckoo finches.

As Claire Spottiswood explains, “These variations seem to act like the complicated markings on a banknote: complex colors and patterns act to make host eggs more difficult to forge by the parasite, just as watermarks act to make banknotes more difficult to forge by counterfeiters.”

Terpsiphone viridis is the full Latin species name for the African Paradise Flycatcher. The first part seems sensible – Terpsichore is the Greek muse of the dance – while the second part (viridis means green) leaves me puzzled.

Interestingly, the HBW gives different contact calls depending on the country in which the flycatcher lives: “Contact call a simple ‘zeet, zwayt’ (South Africa), ‘ti-twit tee-twit’ (Gabon), ‘zi’zk’zk’ (Tanzania).” That is why cross-country pairings among this species are almost never successful.

Let’s hope it can find some relatively unfragmented habitat for breeding – studies show that the failure rate of nests is much higher in fragmented habitats.

The eyes make the Arrow-marked Babbler look a bit like a serial killer.

Or at least an “angry-looking bird” (source).

“Arrow-Marked Babblers move around in gangs of a dozen or so, like troops of monkeys or wild dogs, constantly chattering among themselves.  If you come across a group on the ground foraging for food, look around and you will find one bird sitting in a vantage point, ready to give the alarm call in case of any danger.  It’s a sentry, a watchman, keeping guard; they take it in turns to do this duty.” (source

The Chinspot Batis gets a better review – rather than being described as angry-looking, eBird calls it “a cute, dumpy, colorful flycatcher-like bird” (though most girls I know would probably prefer not to be called dumpy). The photo shows a male – the female has some chestnut parts as well.

Swainson’s Spurfowl is a somewhat unlucky species for two reasons – one, it is considered a delicacy by outdoor and hunting enthusiasts in Zimbabwe (source), and the other, it is named after William Swainson, an English ornithologist with an ill-advised side activity in botany.

William Jackson Hooker wrote about these activities: “In my life I think I never read such a series of trash and nonsense. There is a man who left this country with the character of a first rate naturalist (though with many eccentricities) and of a very first-rate Natural History artist and he goes to Australia and takes up the subject of Botany, of which he is as ignorant as a goose.”

And Joseph Maiden added that Swainson’s botany efforts are “an exhibition of reckless species-making that, as far as I know stands unparalleled in the annals of botanical literature”.

Interesting, isn’t it? By the way, Swainson’s Spurfowl is just another bird.

The Natal Spurfowl is in the same genus Pternistis. Its vocalization is given a low rating (about two 1.5 stars by the HBW – “typically sounds harsh and rather uninteresting”).

Presumably, it is nice to have a hyperactive imagination (I would not know). But it is not necessarily the best qualification to be a writer for eBird. The call of the Double-banded Sandgrouse is given as a squeaky and bubbling: “oh NO, he’s gone and done it AGAIN!”.

Also, this species is a favorite to win a medal should synchronized drinking ever become an Olympic sport (source).

The Square-tailed Drongo just had its name lengthened to Common Square-tailed Drongo. At least there will no longer be any mail that is really meant for the Western Square-tailed Drongo mistakenly be delivered at its door.

The word “common” was added in honor of a fantastic Pulp song, “Common People” …

… while the Latin species name ludwigii honors Baron von Ludwig, a German pharmacist who started Cape Town’s first botanic garden (source).

You may believe I am making this up (well-justified based on past experience), but there is indeed a study titled “Socioeconomic and Cultural Importance of The Yellow-Fronted Canary (Serinus Mozambicus) in Northern Benin” examining the background of canary traders. It was published in the suspiciously broadly titled “European Scientific Journal” (impact factor: about 0.7).

Among the findings: “Canary traders, mostly with primary education level (63.25%) and Muslim (97.5%), were on average 44 years old and an average experience of 27 years. They exercised this activity in part-time (96.5%). … The activity was profitable for all of them (100%) with 128,624 FCFA (233.18 USD) net profit per month.”

And the abstract ends with the usual “why did we do this” statement: “This study was necessary to better assess the pressure on the species in order to anticipate its conservation.”

“Don’t stand so close to me” is an awful song by The Police, though that is a bit of a redundant statement. However, playing this song might have come in handy when meeting this Southern Red-billed Hornbill.

(the omission of a link to the song is intentional. Be grateful.)

There are three species of Uraeginthus waxbills including the Blue Waxbill (the other two are also basically blue but have some slight but clearly visible differences).

Interestingly, male waxbills do not really seem to care for the species distinction – they just prefer the bigger females (source).

To put it in the language of science: “Males did not prefer conspecific females whenever they were given a choice of a larger heterospecific female”.

Bigger is always better? Does not sound like a very sustainable approach in the long term.

According to this paper, Red-winged Starling populations in Cape Town consist of both resident pairs and roving flocks. The territory of the resident pairs is “successfully defended against strange pairs, but not against flocks, which ignore pairs except during copulation”.

Somehow, that leaves me with the mental picture of a flock of juvenile starlings grouped around a copulating pair, staring and maybe even applauding. Not a very appealing thought.

The nest of the Black-backed Puffback is built by the female alone (HBW), though the male sometimes brings materials, coffee, and sandwiches. The photos show a female.

According to eBird, while African Green Doves often remain well-hidden in the vegetation, they can often be “detected by their amusing song, which includes whinnies, clicks, whistles, cackles, and growls”. 

I guess these photos illustrate the first part of the eBird statement far better than the second part.

As usual at Kruger, there are a few animals that are irrelevant for birders. I do not quite understand why they do not get expelled from the park.


Written by Kai Pflug
Kai Pflug has been living in Shanghai for 20 years. He only became interested in birds in China – so he is much more familiar with birds in China than with those in Germany. While he will only ever be an average birder, he aims to be a good bird photographer and has created a website with bird photos as proof. He hopes not too many clients of his consulting company read this blog, as they will doubt his dedication to providing consulting services related to China`s chemical industry. Whenever he wants to shock other birders, he tells them his (indoor) cats can distinguish several warblers by taste.