Africa World Wildlife Fund Travel Program

Earlier in the day we had watched – from a distance – a pair of adult Kruper’s taking insects to feed youngsters in a nesthole in a rotten pine; we didn’t expect to get to see them any closer than this. But hanging around the picnic site where we had parked our car paid off handsomely. A couple of adults soon appeared and made forays from the low branches of pines on to the ground to hoover up any morsels or crumbs left behind from previous picnics. Largely ignoring our presence, they hopped around, no more than 5 m from us, their slate-coloured backs, white eyestripe and chestnut breast patch now very much more obvious than the views at the nesthole had provided. We returned to the picnic site on several more occasions but never saw the tiny Kruper’s again. This wildlife watching stuff is nothing if not unpredictable!

With unpredictability in mind, who would ever guess that in extensive, often flat pasture with no trees and scrub to obscure the view, a bird larger than a goose can be virtually impossible to find. The plains of Extremadura in the west of Spain are known to hold one of the highest densities of Great Bustards in the world (see Chapter 15), but it can sometimes takes hours to spot one. The reasons? First, it’s not always guaranteed that they will be feeding on any one area of land. They move about. Second, if they sit down, their brown and cream plumage blends them into the surrounding often parched pasture. Third, even when they are walking about (which they spend most of their day doing) they seem to use tussocks of vegetation and slight slopes in the ground to their advantage and to the disadvantage of the observer!

Africa World Wildlife Fund Travel Program Photo Gallery

Finding their slightly smaller cousins, the Houbara of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and North Africa can be equally difficult. Coloured pale brown, black and white, they blend into their arid, often sandy, stone-strewn habitat. Crouching down in such places, they are almost impossible to spot. Yet, at other times, they seem to make themselves incredibly obvious, walking out in the open not more than 50 m away. One wet day in Lanzarote in an area well known for its good Houbara numbers (though most of the time I saw few or none), we pulled off the road to wait for the rain to pass; there was no point in searching for the bird in such conditions. As the rain catapulted down and formed rivulets down the car windows, I noticed a strange shape on the ground about 30 m away between some clumps of vegetation. The view was pretty murky but binoculars revealed a male Houbara standing bolt still and facing us, sitting out the heavy downpour and looking distinctly bedraggled. Standing about 60 cm high with his distinctive mane’ of black feathers down each side of his neck and chest, he simply stared in our direction, sometimes turning his head a little.

After an hour the rain had stopped; our bird gave an occasional shake to dislodge water drops and he started to feed. Surprisingly, he didn’t seek cover in the vegetation. We drove off. It was one of the closest views of an often timid bird I have ever experienced.

Large birds might be surprisingly difficult to spot; small ones can be almost impossible, especially if there are few of them and even if they are brightly coloured. The Mali Firefinch, a bird the size of a Blue Tit, is one. Firefinches, of which there are about ten species and all found in Africa, are colourful birds, mostly – and this is no surprise – a pinky or orange red, though many have brown upperparts. Some are abundant and have a widespread distribution over several countries; others are very confined. The Mali Firefinch is arguably the most restricted in range, confined to the Niger River zone of Mali (where it inhabits grassy areas on mostly rocky ground) and to a much smaller area of neighbouring Senegal.

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