World Migratory Bird Day
The mysteries and complexities of bird migration have fascinated many human civilizations and cultures for centuries, if not millennia. World Migratory Bird Day is a global awareness-raising campaign highlighting the need to protect migratory birds and their habitats.
On the local scale, such as here in the Selati Game Reserve within the Lowveld region, migration and the arrival of each migrant can be in some ways catalogued in a general pattern giving the months of early summer and spring a wonderful progressive character reminiscent of an orchestral composition building from minimalism to a full crescendo. The vast majority of migrants seen on the reserve are from Palearctic or intra-African heritage while altitudinal migrants are rarely recorded or are vagrants to the area.
August is where it all begins, where mid-month there is still chill in the air of some evenings, a remnant of winter, but a general warming tone to the days as time progresses sees the arrival of the first returning birds. These are usually intra-Africans with Lesser Striped and Red-breasted Swallows being part of the first vanguard back alongside Yellow-billed Kite, Levaillant’s Cuckoo and the impressive Wahlberg’s Eagle which takes up residence once again around traditional nest sites. In many cases, these species are also, in fact, the last to leave and really only spend a few months away from the region, nevertheless their arrival after the cold crisp mornings of the previous months is a welcome one.
As September begins to heat up, so does the chance of an early thunderstorm or two, more intra-African migrants continue to arrive such as White-rumped Swift in force, Klaas’s and Jacobin (or Pied) Cuckoos as well as the first Europeans stretching down from across the Mediterranean Sea arrive with European Bee-eater and Willow Warbler often being seen, or at least heard, within the first week of the month. By the end of the month midday temperatures are routinely in the mid 30’s, vegetation is beginning to show signs of growth and the arrivals are thick and fast with Black and the wonderfully plaintive Red-chested Cuckoos usually turning up as well as Marsh Warbler, Common Swift and the first waders like Little Stint, Ruff, Wood and Common Sandpipers and Common Greenshank. Another fantastic element of this period is the annual cycle of several local species from often rather drab winter attire to a vibrant or distinctive breeding plumage. A good example of this is the typical Weaver family which in several species have males that adorn bright yellow, black and green gear and begin to build their world famous nests in noisy colonies often close to water sources. A special of Selati, the Red-headed Weaver transforms from a drab yellowish brown bird to a scarlet-fronted champion often build lonely, singular, scrambling nests in open areas such as on power lines or dead trees. Other species which transform at this time of year include widowbirds, indigobirds and…
October is a turning point for summer migrants in the Lowveld, the changeover from winter to summer species is really in evidence over the weeks with dawn choruses throughout the reserve being bolstered by many fresh additions. The character of the seasons definitely takes a turn this month. African species include; African and the very localised Thick-billed Cuckoo begins to make its presence known. This species parasitizes the resident Retz’s Helmetshrike which favours areas that have dense Mopane groves, a common tree species here on Selati, and the reserve itself is truly one of the best places in Southern Africa to find this scarce brood parasite. A distinctive piercing call and a slow flapping display flight interspersed with glides make this species rather easy to identify and young birds have been known to overwinter both here and at the nearby Karongwe Game Reserve. The lines between late October and early November become blurred in terms of newly returning species, but as the temperature continues to remain warm and in good years, rain will have already arrived in some manner, the vegetation and arthropod communities begin to thrive in full swing. Both Lesser Spotted and Steppe Eagles arrive from eastern Europe by the end of the month giving the now “local” Wahlberg’s some competition but also take advantage of any early termite alate emergences particularly after rain. Other Europeans like Eurasian Golden Oriole, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrike, White Stork, European Roller, Olive Tree Warbler and the aforementioned Barn Swallow all pile into the area in good numbers within these few weeks
November is by far the busiest month with most, if not all summering species arriving back by the end of the month. The most anticipated arrival is that of the Woodland Kingfisher, one of the regions “sounds-of-summer” which usually turn up before the middle of the month and rather than drip through in small numbers they seem to arrive all together overnight. Other potential newcomers this month, as well as straggling individuals of species that have already been recorded, include Grey-hooded and African Pygmy Kingfisher, European Nightjar, Lesser Kestrel and Great Spotted Cuckoo. The last migrant to arrive is the globally threatened Amur Falcon from its Siberian breeding grounds and can arrive late in the month or even as late as mid-December.
All of these species enjoy the bounty of the subtropical summer of South Africa’s savannah biome while escaping less ideal or fatal conditions further north across the equator for several months. During this time, some, particularly intra-Africans take the opportunity to breed within the region while others like the Palearctics simply take advantage of the good feeding opportunities brought by the southward movement of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).