With the afternoon getting old, we went up Voortrekker Road driving at maximum allowed speed, 40Km/h. Yet, we spotted a number of animals and had to take our chances and stop to watch them for a while. This added to the excitement, ‘will we get to the camp gate in time?’ It was sincerely also part of the fun to have our hearts pumping faster as we drove the long and winding (Voortrekker) road.
We changed our approach to the animals back then. Usually we stopped during the Kruger trip for several minutes watching the animals, paying a lot of attention to their behaviors (as biologists cannot avoid doing, especially when they work with behavior). Up Voortrekker Road that afternoon we did faster stops, needless to say, for our desperation, since we did saw interesting animals. The road offered us that afternoon: 1 Red-Billed Hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus
), 1 group of Impalas, 1 Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta
), 1 Magpie (African Longtailed) Shrike (Corvinella melanoleuca
), 1 European Roller (Coracias garrulus
), 1 blue wildebeest, 1 african elephant, among other animals.
It was great to see a Hamerkop for the first time. Beautiful but a bit asymmetrical birds… Here are two pictures, whole body, and beak and eye detail.
Everybody should have noticed Hamerkop massive nests, which have on average 1.5m in depth and 1.5m in width. It weighs 100Kg! These are not just massive nests, they are very resistant and when completed can support the weight of a man. But these birds are still more industrious. They decorate the nests (with a developed preference for man-made objects) and build not one but a half a dozen nests in their territory! They use, however, only one of the nests. Many other birds benefit, then, from their constructions. Why do they do this? Here is my hypothesis: to divert predator from the real nest. But you know, hypotheses have to be tested and I didn’t test this.
On an evolutionary tone, I can say, however, that there are two hypotheses in the literature for the peculiar shape of the hamerkop beak: Liveridge (1963. The nesting of Hamerkop Scopus umbretta
, Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 34(2): 55-62) regarded it as “ideal” for manipulation of large twigs used to build the nests. Siegfried (1975. On the nest of the hamerkop, Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 46:267), in turn, explained them as specializations for feeding on tadpoles. None convinces me: these are adaptationist just-so-stories (assume it is an adaptation and explain it by natural selection). They are hypotheses that should be – just as mine – tested and many other evolutionary factors can come into play, leading to different hypotheses.
What we cannot put into question, however, is that hamerkops are amazing birds!
Finally, as its population trends are stable, Hamerkop are classified in the IUCN Red List as Least Concern.
In the picture below, we see a Magpie Shrike. It is an outstanding bird, with its beautiful long tail. It is likely that this bird was foraging at the end of the day, since it often perches in a prominent position to search for a food item, mainly insects. When it sees something that can be eaten, a variety of foraging techniques can be used, but typically the bird dives to the ground to catch the food item.
It is interesting that magpie shrikes can breed just as a pair or facultatively in a cooperative manner, with the breeding pair assisted by 1-3 helpers, usually juveniles from the previous brood. It shows, thus, facultative alloparental care. These birds are not threatened (Least Concern in the IUCN Red List), but the populations are decreasing in number.
The most outstanding event took place, however, in the last third of Voortrekker Road, when we saw this marvelous elephant quite close to our car. First close encounter with an ellie!
It was a male and had a strange rounded hole in his ears. We tried to explain it but had no clear ideas about what might have caused that hole. It was a solitary wandering male calmly eating below a tree. We stayed there for a while peacefully looking at him, and then hurried up to get to the gate in time, just a few minutes from the gate closing hour. To see that beautiful ellie was the perfect end of an incredible day travelling through the south park of KNP. We went to bed feeling so satisfied, so happy of being there! We were in the middle of one of the most remarkable experiences of our lives. For Pedro, that was just the second day in South Africa. And what a day! Me and my wife already lived two wonderful weeks in Capetown, visiting places like the Cape of Good Hope, where we saw baboons foraging sea animals and the raging waters around the cape while admiring rock hyrax. And now a day like that! And we still had 12 days to go!