Wildlife | Jul 2020

Birding at Tswalu Kalahari

Dylan Smith

Tswalu Kalahari falls within the sweeping landscapes of the southern Kalahari. Embraced by the folded valleys of the Korannaberg hills to the east and flatlands covered in blankets of blackthorn to the west, the reserve conserves a wide diversity of habitats. In particular, the classic parallel dune fields are an iconic feature of this area of the Kalahari. The spin-off of such diverse physical features is that the biodiversity of the area is, in consequence, as varied.  To throw wood on the fire, Tswalu Kalahari currently has at least 78 recorded butterfly species – more than the whole of the British Isles.

When one views Tswalu from a birding perspective, there would be few places comparable in the region. With a total list running in the region of 260 species there is plenty to be gained from spending a few solid hours at least trying to find some of the more iconic Kalahari species.

The immense nests of sociable weavers (Philetairus socius) are definitely a highlight, and a focal point for many other species. As the largest structures of any social bird species on earth, these complex nests provide shelter for a range of other species including, among others, Red-headed finches (Amadina erythocephala), Acacia pied barbets (Tricholaema leucomelas) and Ashy tits (Parus cinerascens) that utilise the nesting chambers for roosting. Other birds, like Pygmy falcons (Polihierax semitorquatus), Verreaux’s eagle-owls (Bubo lacteus), Spotted eagle-owls (bubo africanus) and Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca), actually breed inside or on top of these weaver nests. Eggs and chicks lure predators, like Cape cobras and African wild cats, that frequently provide interesting viewing around the nest sites.

Images: 1 & 6. Pygmy Falcon, 2. Ashy Tit, 3. Red-headed Finch, 4. Spotted Owl, 5. Egyptian Geese. Images by Barry Peiser, Kyle Ansell, Aija Lehikoinen

The Kalahari is raptor country and, aside from the two owl species already mentioned, Pearl-spotted owlets (Glaucidium perlatum), Southern white-faced owls (Ptilopsis granti) and Barn owls (Tyto alba) are commonly encountered if one takes the time to search carefully. A cursory scan of nearby trees, while sitting patiently at one of the waterholes, is likely to reveal the ever-present threat of raptors like Lanner falcons (Falco biamicus) and Gabar goshawks (Micronisus gabar), which regularly prey on birds flying in to drink.

Barn Owl Image by Gus van Dyk

No Tswalu Kalahari birding trip would be complete without quality sightings of the three sandgrouse species occurring in the area. The Double-banded sandgrouse (Pterocles bicinctus) is unusual in that it nests amongst rocks in the hills of the reserve. Namaqua sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua) and Burchell’s sandgrouse (Pterocles burchelli) nest on the ground in the dune fields and have the incredible capacity to fly extremely long distances to get to water – instances of over 70 kilometres have been recorded. All species exhibit what is known as belly-wetting, a process where water is absorbed into the belly feathers and then transported back to the nest for the chicks to drink. Depending on the flight distance, up to 70 percent of the water can be lost on the return trip but what remains is enough to sustain the chicks until the following day – a truly remarkable survival strategy in these semi-arid savannas.

Images: 1. Double-banded Sandgrouse, 2 & 3. Burchell's Sandgrouse. Images by Kyle Ansell, Cameron Pearce

Other iconic species to be seen at Tswalu include Rufous-eared warblers (Malcorus pectoralis), Kori bustards (Ardeotis kori), Layard’s tit babblers (Sylvia layardi) and Orange river francolins (Scleroptila levaillantoides). Considering that Tswalu lies in one of the most challenging environments for survival in Southern Africa, the birdlife is a wonderful tribute to the tenacity of life to be found in the Kalahari and is certainly worth exploring if birding is a key objective of a safari.

Kori bustard Image by Kyle Ansell

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