Prepare yourselves for an avalanche of owls. The Lowveld has an unusual number of owls. It has seven of them, while most ecosystems have room for one or two. And I like owls, so instead of picking one or two, I’ve gone and written about all of them. But you won’t be reading about them yet. There’s something in the way that must be dealt with first. The not-owls.
At a glance, the night belongs to the bats. There are tens of millions of them, flitting unseen through the dark. They are hugely successful; about 20 per cent of all mammal species are bats. But bats have their limitations. There are some things evolution hasn’t had time to do to their basic design yet. They have left some room, out there in the cold and the dark, for those other denizens of the air; the birds.
And now you are thinking of owls. But there are other birds out there in the dark. Certainly there are down in the Lowveld. So let’s get those out of the way before we tackle the owls.
The Bat Hawk.
Let’s start as we wish to continue by cheating. Nature, the saying goes, abhors a vacuum. All that means, really, is that nature tends to take care of untapped resources. And all those bats are an untapped resource. This is the guy that taps them.
He’s called a Bat Hawk. Because he lives on bats. So why am I cheating by putting him in here? He is not, technically speaking, nocturnal. But he comes close. He is active in the murkier depths of twilight. He only does his thing at dusk and at dawn. He is, in other words, crepuscular.
Say it out loud. It will make you happy. Roll the “r” a little, like a child making a truck noise; “rrrrrr”. Pop the “p”. Practise for a while. Ask your partner to join you for a crrrrePuscular perambulation. It can only improve your day. But I digress. If I carry on on this track, we’ll be talking about “lozenges” and “chevrons”, and we’ll never get done.
Being crepuscular has some interesting consequences for a Bat Hawk. He has about twenty minutes within which to catch his prey. And he’s very good at it. He can catch, and eat on the fly, about a bat a minute. And then, when it gets too dark, he goes to bed. The same thing happens in the morning.
What this all boils down to is that the Bat Hawk does all the essential Bat Hawk things in about half an hour, and for the other twenty three and a half hours, it does bugger all. Nothing. It can’t even lounge around in the sun. It has to hide away in bushy trees, or it will be mobbed by smaller birds.
So an interesting, but not a very exciting bird. Unless you catch it during those twenty or so minutes. Then you’ve got a show on your hands.
There are several different types of nightjar down in the Lowveld. There are Mozambique Nightjars, Fiery Necked Nightjars, Freckled Nightjars, and more. And none of that matters. You don’t see them during the day, and at night, it’s dark. They all look the same. Except this one;
He’s a bit of a show-off. He’s called a Pennant Winged Nightjar. Nightjars all live in pretty similar ways, too. They fly through the night catching flying insects. With these;
They are essentially like tiny flying funnels. Their beaks are rather short, but they have a huge gape, made wider and more effective by the stiff, highly sensitive bristle-like feathers surrounding them.
Those huge gapes gave rise to their Latin name “Caprimulgus”, which means “goatsucker”, because people used to believe that they lived by drinking goats’ milk. Why anyone would look at a bird and think “Hmmm. I bet that thing spends its nights hanging underneath goats like some sort of biomechanical horror from a sci-fi movie” is beyond me, but this was in the days before television, when people needed to make their own entertainment, so it is best not to judge..
There is little value in having bright, flashy colours in the dark. So some of the nightjars use their calls to show off. My favourite of these, a sound which forms as much a part of the soundtrack of the bush as a lion’s roar or a hyena’s whoop, is the Fiery-necked Nightjar. Only we don’t call it that. We call it the “Good Lord Deliver Us” bird. See if you can see why;
We used to love trying to catch them when we were younger. They have reflective eyes, like a cat’s, and they often used to sit on the ground in the middle of the road. When, whilst out driving at night, we would spot one, we would stop the car, and one of us would hop out and try to stalk up to it. Distracted by the bright lights, it would just sit there. You could get right up close. But we never caught one. They were like flies. They seemed to be psychic. They would always know you were about to pounce, and would flit off into the dark.
The Bronze Winged Courser.
Unlike the Bronze Winged Courser. I can be smug about the Bronze Winged Courser, because I did actually catch one of those. And hardly anyone else has even seen one. They are uncommon but not rare, but because they are nocturnal, and hide away during the day, few people even spot them, let alone hold them.
And how does a seasoned old bush-hand like myself catch a Bronze Winged Courser? It’s not easy. I started early in the afternoon, just sitting alone out in the bush, meditating, for hours, becoming one with the ecosystem around me, until I, too, was part of Africa’s ancient rhythm, her energy ebbing and flowing in me like some mysterious tide.
Before we set out, I rubbed myself down with the aromatic leaves of a Potato Bush, to conceal the hated scent of man. I painted my face the colour of the night, a ghost, a shard of darkness itself made flesh.
Then we hopped into the car, drove off around the corner, and nearly drove over a Courser. It flew straight up into the air. Confused by the lights, it fluttered down again. Into my lap.
Why am I waffling on about this? Because there is little else to tell about the courser. The experts can guess, based on the shape of the body and beak, what they eat, but that’s about it. Clearly they need my help with their research.
There are two types of Dikkops down in the bush. The Water Dikkop and the Spotted Dikkop. Actually there aren’t any anymore. Some unmandated fool changed their name to Thick-knee, which is a really pretty name that rolls off the tongue like warm treacle. They have stuck with the water and the spots, which seems a pity. What about the “Found-around-wet-places Thick-knee” and the “Covered-in small-round-markings Thick-knee”?
But I digress. For me, they are still Dikkops, which means, incidentally, “thick-head”. Should you choose to adopt this as a term of endearment for your significant other, I will not judge you. I will, however, expect some sort of gratuity.
They are one of those unlikely birds, like Hadedas and Crows, which have moved into the suburbs. There’s something slightly otherworldly about them, with their huge eyes bulging as they seem to float above the ground in the twilight.
There are two types of night herons in the Lowveld. The Black-crowned and the White-backed. And they have a little cousin, the Dwarf Bittern. They hang around the water in overgrown reed-beds at night, eating frogs, snails and fish. Not that that matters.
You can tell all you need to know about them from the words that the guide books use to describe them. “Skulking” featured quite prominently. They were accused of “lurking”. The places that they “haunt” are both “dank” and “rank”, as well as being “tangled” and “impenetrable”.
Should you, then, ever spot a night-heron, it can only mean that you yourself are lurking and skulking in, and possibly even haunting, a dank, rank, impenetrable, and tangled swamp in the dead of night, and your needs are beyond the scope of this humble blog.
Right! I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way. Now we can move on to the proper night birds. Brace yourselves. The owls are coming.