The Big Six - Majestic Avians

Author: Ryan Johnston

We have all heard of the term “The Big 5 of Africa”, and this is something all tourists aim to see on their first trip to Africa. The original Big 5 were given to these animals (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo) as hunting a term. They were not the biggest of the mammals that we find here, but they were regarded as being the five most dangerous animals to hunt in Africa.

The tourism industry has come up with a few more “big” animal groups, and rightfully so, as there are some other special species of animals that should be highlighted as well. One of the first to pop up was the “Big 6 Birds of Southern Africa,” and this is what we’re going to have a look at. These birds are large, striking, and easy to identify, even by somebody who is just starting with their birding. The Martial Eagle, Southern Ground Hornbill, Kori Bustard, Saddle-billed Stork, Lappet-faced Vulture, and Pel’s Fishing Owl make up the list.

Martial Eagle (the bird in the picture is a juvenile)

The largest eagle in Africa, the Martial Eagle, is found throughout the continent, south of the Sahara. With a wingspan of as much as 2.6 metres (8.5 feet), this raptor prefers savanna and bushveld but can be found in many habitats, including semi-desert and woodland. They are quite shy birds and are generally seen alone or in pairs. Pairs can have massive territories of over 65 000 hectares (160 500 acres). Besides vultures and bateleurs, they are the most aerial of the large eagles, spending a lot of their time souring at great heights.

This eagle hunts mostly by soaring high above the ground, often spotting them from as far as 6km (almost 4 miles) away. It attacks in a long, shallow dive, often using trees or banks to conceal itself. With just three tons of crushing power in its talons, it is capable of killing medium-sized mammals like small antelope, jackals, monkeys, and young baboons. Monitor lizards are a favourite, and other large birds are taken as well. Part of the reason they have such strong talons is so that they can kill an animal on impact, not giving it a chance to do any damage to the eagle.

Southern Ground Hornbill

An endangered species, these birds have made a comeback in certain areas but are still under threat. They are easily identified by the jet black plumage and bright red bare facial skin. The males have bright red all over, while the females have a violet-blue patch on the throat.

As the name suggests, this, the largest of the hornbill species, spends most of its time on the ground. This does not mean they cannot fly, and if they are scared or flying into a tree to roost, the beautiful white primary feathers will be exposed as they take flight. Wingspans can reach 1.8m (6 feet), and it is quite something to see a family group take off together.

The reason they spend so much of their time on the floor is because this is where they forage for food. They are formidable adversaries, and they feed on a large number of small creatures. They will happily take snakes, scorpions, lizards, other birds and their eggs, hares, and tortoises. They will often run down their prey before using their strong beaks to overpower the animal, and they will use the curved beak to pull tortoises out of their shells.

Kori Bustard (the bird in the picture is a large male)

The national bird of Botswana, the Kori Bustard, is known to be one of the heaviest flying birds in the world. One of the largest specimens recorded weighed in at just over 19 kilograms (42 pounds), most birds weigh in at around 15 kilogrammes (33 pounds). The bird itself is omnivorous, and it feeds on a wide range of things. They’ll take anything from insects to small mammals and birds to seeds, fruits, and berries.

Males have a fantastic display they do during the breeding season, inflating their necks, raising their tails over their backs, and fanning the undertail coverts. They also have a special adaptation that helps with their reverberating, booming call. A sac connected to the oesophagus fills with air and is used as a chamber as part of their vocal display.

Saddle-billed Stork (the bird in the picture is an adult female)

Like most stork species, the saddle-billed stork is monogamous, so it is easy to tell the difference as the male has a dark brown eye whereas the female has a bright yellow eye. The male also has small red wattles at the base of the bill, but these are not always easy to see, especially at a distance. The species itself is unmistakable, with its black and white plumage, along with its red and black bill. A yellow “saddle” sits on top of the bill, and this is where they get their name from.

They wade through shallow water, grabbing at any aquatic life they may see. They’ll eat fish, frogs, and tadpoles, and they have even been recorded eating baby crocodiles and snakes. It is thought that the brightly coloured red joints on their legs help attract prey to the bird, but this is yet to be proven.

As with most of our large birds, eagles, vultures, and storks, they nest in the winter months. They do this because nests are built right at the tops of large trees, and it would simply be too hot for both adults, eggs, and chicks at this time. The amount of rain received before that will determine how many chicks they will have. Good years of rain will produce larger broods, as the parents know they can support the young through the drier periods. It takes a young bird three years to get full adult coloration. It is at this point that they will be sexually mature and seek out a partner.

Lappet-faced Vulture

This is not only the largest of the dark vulture species, but it is also the largest vulture species in Africa. With a wingspan of about 2.8 metres (9.2 feet) and towering over the other vultures, this bird often completely dominates carcasses. They are very aggressive at carcasses, and once a pair arrives, they take over completely.

Besides being incredibly large, they are easily distinguished from other vultures. They have a heavy, yellowish bill and a red head with heavy skin folds. The underparts are white but have bold brown streaks on them. Legs are bare and have a blue-grey tinge to them.

They roost in large trees at night and only get going well after sunrise as they wait for heat thermals to form. Being very heavy birds, they need the thermals to form, helping them reach the great heights they travel at. They are not only scavengers but will happily come down to feed on termites. They are also the only vultures known to kill their own food, as they have been killing young gazelles.

Pel’s Fishing Owl

The most difficult of the “Big 6” to see, this shy and illusive owl has managed to avoid even the most avid birder. Often described as a big orange teddy bear, this owl sticks to the very dense river canopies during the day. It only exposes itself to a lucky few at night when it comes down to the large, slow-flowing rivers or swamps to fish.

When fishing, they sit on a perch or riverbank about a meter or two above the water surface. Unlike other owl species, they do not use sound to locate their food but rather more on sight. They scoop fish out of the water, much like an African fish eagle does. The talons are elongated, and the soles of the feet have spines to help grip their slippery prey. They also do not have silent flight like other owls, as fish cannot hear under water.

For an opportunity to see all of these birds in one trip, the northern section of Kruger National Park, South Africa, or the Okavango Delta, Botswana, are definitely your best options and chances!

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