Bird of the Week: Little Bee-Eater

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Another bird in Zambia that is both beautiful and common is the Little Bee-Eater.  We have seen them on most of our safaris and also our bird walks just outside the city.  Today was the first day that we saw one in our yard.  Jonathan saw one but it did not stick around for a picture.  Often when you see them they will be on a favorite perch. Like most bee-eaters, they hunt for insects from the perch, fly off to catch them and return to the same perch to eat them.  Thus they can be very easy to photograph.  As their name implies, they often eat bees and wasps which they de-sting before swallowing by rubbing them against the perch.  They also eat other flying insects, like butterflies, moths or dragonflies.

With the combination of their striking appearance and their insect catching antics, they are fun to watch which makes them popular with birders and non-birders alike.  Jonathan does not like to consider himself a birder and he does not care for lbj’s (little brown jobs) but he likes bee-eaters.  In his book they qualify as a bcb (big or colorful birds) which are the kind he likes.  I have to admit that I especially like their gorgeous turquoise eyebrow (supercilium for my fellow-birders).  (Photos by Jonathan)

 

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Bird of the Week: Lilac-breasted Roller

After my last post, I decided to make the Lilac-breasted Roller my bird of the week – one of the birds that I was very eager to see when I moved to Zambia.  I saw a glimpse of one from a vehicle within a few weeks or perhaps a couple months of arriving  but did not get a really good view until a few months after that.

Rollers get their name from their territorial and courtship display flights which involve a rocking motion from side to side as they pull themselves up from a sharp dive. They hunt from a perch and eat mostly insects taken from the ground or sometimes in flight.  (Beat about the Bush: Birds by Trevor Carnaby)

Lilac-breasted Rollers are so colorful that they almost look unreal, that is, they look “made-up” or fake.  I liked the description that one of my co-workers used that they “look like you might expect a coloring book picture would look like when colored in by a three-year-old.”  They have a green nape, brown back, blue wings and belly, orange ear coverts and, of course, a lilac breast.

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When they are perched they are beautiful to look at, but it is when they take off that you truly see how amazing they are.  It is hard to capture in a photograph, but they have two vivid tones of blue on both sides of their wings. Their brown back becomes obscured and they become a flash of blue lightning.

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Photos by Jonathan Moeller

Birding by the Numbers

Often when I go out with a new group of birders for a morning outing, I get the question, “Are you a serious birder?”  or perhaps if they are from the U.K., “Are you a keen birder?”  I never know quite how to answer that question.  In the beginning the question sounded to me a lot like, “Are you a big nerd, or just a little nerdy?” I wasn’t about to admit anything to anyone!  I have also gotten the comment, “Oh, you keep a list, you must be serious!”  That one just made me laugh.  I didn’t really think that keeping a list made me serious. It just meant I was interested.

In the States, my birding was strictly relegated to backyard birding.  I enjoyed my birdfeeders and especially enjoyed them when we moved into a house with a wooded yard.  There were lots of new birds to see and identify. My favorites of these would be the Indigo Buntings and the Pileated Woodpeckers.  I didn’t go around searching for birds because I didn’t have time.  I had three little kids to feed, bathe, clothe and eventually teach.  When we went on vacation we often went looking for wildlife but I was more keyed in to the beavers than the birds I might have been seeing. 

When we went to Costa Rica we were looking for birds but I was too cheap to buy a bird book since I would only be there for one week.  When I came across a bird I didn’t have on our I.D. card, I would go look him up in the field guide in the book store.  (I know, I am really cheap).

It was only when I came to Africa that I became any kind of lister whatsoever.  Before we arrived we were given a book of Southern African species which included trees, plants, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mammals and yes, birds, called The Wildlife of Southern Africa.  This book just whetted my appetite to see some birds when we eventually moved. I was especially keen to see a Lilac-breasted Roller or a Paradise Flycatcher.

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These are birds that even non-birders could appreciate.   For some reason I assumed that the most beautiful birds in the book would also be the hardest ones to find (maybe based on the difficulty of seeing a Quetzal in Costa Rica) so I looked at the book and wished but then put it away assuming I would never see most of these beautiful birds. 

And then we arrived in Zambia.  I was fortunate to have landed in a house, even in Lusaka, with lots of birds.  Since I had no say in the matter of where I lived, I was doubly fortunate.  Within a few weeks of arriving, I caught a flash of red in my front yard.  What was that?  Could it be?  Yes!  A Paradise Flycatcher! Paradise Flycatcher In my front yard!  I was beyond excited.  And that was when I went out and bought the gigantic bird-bible, Birds of Africa: South of the Sahara.  I downloaded a list of the birds in Zambia and decided I would keep track, just to see how many birds I could end up seeing. 

So as to the question of whether or not I or anyone is a “serious” birder, my own opinion about what makes you serious is how much money you spend on your obsession, I mean,  hobby – how expensive are your binoculars, or how much time or money are you willing to spend to see new birds.  I am not one to go chasing after rarities or vagrants at the drop of a hat (even if I knew where there were some) but I do sometimes plan my safaris and vacations around the possibilities of seeing new birds.  My boss often asks me what number am I on for my bird list, and usually I don’t know. It is currently somewhere around 342 for Zambia specifically, give or take a few.

I found it interesting that on this blog here: 10,000 Birds, it was implied that you are not a serious birder if you don’t keep a list, but more often in the circles that I bird with, it is generally frowned upon if you are too much of a lister or worse, a twitcher!  This was also subtly implied in the movie The Big Year when Jack Black’s character admires his love interest for not doing a big year.  It was implied that she was enjoying the birds in a “purer” way. 

For my own part, I have to agree with that sentiment up to a point.  I want to enjoy the birds for themselves and not for what number they are, but it is a little hard to not get excited about seeing one you have never seen before (and adding that tick to your list).  I also have to admit that I am not as pure a birder as some who manage to get excited about each and every bird equally.  I have a tough time getting excited about those lbj’s (little brown jobs).  If you can’t tell them apart and they are so dull in plumage . . .  well, you get the idea.  Meanwhile, I get excited about other birds no matter how many times I see them.  The little hawks in my yard are a good example of that, much less the bigger hawks, eagles, owls, and there are plenty more. And of course, always the Paradise Flycatchers and the Lilac-breasted Rollers!

Bird of the Week: African Skimmer

One of my most memorable encounters with a bird was on a river cruise on the Kafue River.  We came across an island in the river and there were two African Skimmers there.

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African Skimmers are one of only three species of the Skimmer family in the world and are considered near-threatened as it is believed their numbers are declining.  Skimmers have a unique bill shape.  Their lower mandible is much longer than their top which allows them to skim the surface of the water as they fly low over the river.  Then they grasp whatever small fish they manage to run into.

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As we pulled up to the island for a bit of a stop, the two adults took off and started flying around, but as it turns out, they were nesting.  So we very briefly took a look at their nest.  Trying to disturb both the adults and the nest as little as possible, we did not touch the nest, but we did take some photos.  The nest was just an indention in the sand really with one chick and one egg that had not yet hatched.  While we stood close to the nest, the chick never moved a muscle and with their excellent camouflage chick and egg would hopefully have been safe from any nearby predators. The way the chick stayed so still was uncanny and quite an amazing instinct.

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If I remember correctly, by the time we were back in the boat, we saw the chick up and running around, now that the island was all clear. I don’t think I will ever forget my close encounter with the African Skimmer chick.

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Here is another view of the adult.  Quite a handsome bird also.