Southern Ground Hornbill In Kruger National Park
Waking at Skukuza Rest Camp the first morning after our arrival, and having just coped with a bout of stomach and intestinal distress, I was in no shape for any physical activity requiring stamina. So Bob and I set out on a self-guided safari that spanned the course of several hours. Among the wildlife seen within Kruger National Park that day was this astounding Southern Ground Hornbill.
We began our drive heading east on Skukuza-Lower Sabie Road out of Skukuza Camp. Since it follows the Sabie River and occasionally provides views of the waterway, the drive was scenic, and the landscape provided ideal habitat for many species of animals. It was mesmerizing to observe a group of Giraffes that loped along nonchalantly, their long necks elegant as they floated above the tall rushes and low shrubs.
Bob and I were caught off guard when a pair of male Impalas erupted out of the brush onto the dirt road in front of us. Their sheer presence was a surprise, but what thrilled us was the power struggle that ensued between them. With their horns clashing, probably in a territorial dispute, they never even noticed our car as it crawled along towards them.
African Bush Elephants roam the savanna in family groups, and we were fortunate to come across this small herd as we continued our way south toward Lower Sabie Rest Camp.
Along one stretch of the dry, dusty road, a small traffic jam could be seen ahead of us. We knew that something of interest was in the vicinity. As we neared the stationary vehicles, a Southern Ground Hornbill could be seen perched on a large branch of a substantial broadleaved tree, a required component of this species’ habitat.
Like the other observers, and according to Park rules, we remained in our car with windows rolled down and did our best to snap photos of the Southern Ground Hornbill where it sat in the shade. We could see that it had something clutched between its upper and lower mandible, possibly a small reptile or frog.
Of the two species of Ground Hornbill in the world, the Southern Ground Hornbill is the largest measuring between 35-50 inches long. Bob and I were in awe of this magnificent creature that stood so tall against the brightly-coloured background.
Excitement filled the air when the Southern Ground Hornbill left its shady perch and dropped down to the edge of a sunlit opening providing better views. We couldn’t be sure, but it looked as if the bird was eating something on the forest floor…
but when it lifted is head, we could see that the Southern Ground Hornbill had collected a beakful of leaves. Our trip to South Africa was made in November, during the transitional period between winter and full-on summer. It is at this time of the year that Southern Ground Hornbills engage in mating practices so that a pair is ready to lay its eggs at the beginning of the summer’s rainy season.
It was so exciting to watch this Southern Ground Hornbill gather nesting material for a nest that most likely would have been built in a deep cavity of a very old tree. A pair will leave the entrance to the nest open and line the bottom of the hollow with dry grasses and leaves.
Southern Ground Hornbills live together in a cooperative breeding group of 2 to 11 birds with one dominant mating pair. Other adults and juveniles in the group assist with defending the nest and the territory, feeding the female as she sits on the eggs, and feeding and caring for the young. Even as we looked on, the female of this breeding pair would have been standing watch over their nest tree.
This Southern Ground Hornbill thrilled us even further when it strutted out onto the road. The unparalleled view, despite looking through the windshield, confirmed that the bird is a male since the bright red patches of bare skin on its face and neck were uninterrupted by a purple patch such as a female has at the throat and below the bill. The hump, called a casque, on its down-turned beak was also more obvious against the pale bumper of a car.
The range for Southern Ground Hornbills does not include South Africa except in rare instances, so we were exceptionally lucky to witness one member of the species. On top of that, a monogamous pair does not breed every year, so the fact that this male was gathering nesting material was all the more special. In fact, a pair may produce only one successful fledgling every nine years. The species is listed as Vulnerable on the verge of being declared Endangered, so we sure hoped that this male had a successful breeding season.
Rarely seen in flight, the Southern Ground Hornbill is named for the fact that it forages at length by walking on its stout, long legs. Unfortunately, this makes the birds vulnerable to predation by leopards and crocodiles. The only defense they have is to fill their inflatable throat sac with air and expel it quickly, thus creating a booming sound that might scare off a predator. Southern Ground Hornbills do fly to escape danger, which contributes to their longevity. These birds lives upwards of 40 years, and sometimes as much as 70 years. This sighting was the highlight of our day!
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