Although we might all be sitting here at Tanda Tula Safari Camp waiting for the first good summer rains to arrive and rejuvenate the bush, there are many visitors that are already on their way who are even more eager to see the rains than we are! And no, I am not talking about our guests that are getting excited about their upcoming holidays. Instead, I am talking about the many migratory species of birds that are en-route to the Greater Kruger Park region of South Africa to come and spend the warm summer months breeding and feeding on the abundant food resources that will erupt during this summer’s rainy season.

Our guests often ask what the attraction of a summer visit to the Timbavati is, and besides the lush-green landscapes that radiate with life, one of the most enjoyable aspects of summer is the number of birds that we are fortunate enough to see - many of which are seasonal migrants to the region. Whilst many intra-African migrants have arrived by now, the coming weeks will see the arrival of some of our most prominent African visitors, as well as the arrival of many of the Palearctic migratory birds from much further afield, including western Europe, Asia, and even Russia. It is also at this time of the year that I chuckle to myself when I think about how tired we get as air travellers. Sitting, sipping a glass of wine on a long haul flight as we settle into our seats to watch some in-flight entertainment. Compare that to the quite remarkable equidistant journeys that birds such as barn swallows have made. I guess their trips are quite similar to ours, except for the fact that they aren’t served any wine, don’t have any movies to watch and need to cover the same 9000km trip using their own two wings to get them from Europe to South Africa! This blog will shed some light on how these birds go about their migrations – those seasonal, predictable movements that species take from specific locations, and at specific times – and why they go to such extreme lengths.

For many bird species in the world, migration is a necessary survival mechanism that allows them to move out of areas where adverse winter conditions make finding sufficient energy supplies difficult. By embarking on long-distance migrations, they are able to make use of more abundant food resources in these new locations, not only for themselves, but also for their offspring. In addition, if such bird species did not emigrate from an area, competition for food within that region would remain so high that they would risk starving to death. Despite the high energy demands placed on the birds to make such a migratory trip, the overall energy balance remains positive due to the fact that the areas that they migrate to have such an abundance of food. There is enough to go around for resident and migratory species alike.

Understanding the why is a relatively simple undertaking, but knowing just how they do it is something else altogether, and an aspect that is still far from completely understood. There are two elements to the migration; the first is the physical preparation for the journey, and the second is the actual execution of the journey. An interesting phenomenon has been observed in migratory species a few weeks prior to the onset of the actual migration, and it has been termed the Zugunruhe, which is a restless state that precedes any migration. Accompanying this is a phase of fattening up for the journey, correctly called the hyperphagia, whereby birds spend more time eating, and spend increasingly less energy on other activities to try and grow their body mass in preparation for the long journey back north.

Whilst some species are able to double their body weight during this time, most increase their weight by around 50 percent – and give them the energy they need to make the long - sometimes continuous – flights back north. In addition to storing energy for the trip, the birds also undergo a complete moult of their feathers. This is to ensure that all their feathers are in tip-top shape prior to their departure to avoid any unnecessary wastage of vulnerable energy resources by flying around with less aerodynamic feathers.

One of the most perplexing aspects of the whole process relates to how the birds know where to go. Again, there are two separate elements to this equation – one involves how birds orientate themselves, and the other concerns the actual navigation; how to actually get where they are going. Orientation has been proven to be determined by a number of aspects, including the sun, the stars, magnetic stimuli (birds have an internal magnetic compass, believed to be from compounds in their bills that allow them to orientate themselves in relation to magnetic north), geographic mapping of the travelled routes, as well as olfactory cues and learned routes from following the more experienced adults. But knowing which direction you are heading is like giving a boy scout a compass without a map; and interestingly, navigation has been proven not to be learned from adults (despite older birds having shown that they are better migrations than younger ones). The ability to successfully perform long-distance migrations can probably only be fully explained with an accounting for the cognitive ability of the birds to recognise habitats and form mental maps.

Regardless of how they manage to do it, the more staggering facts of migration often concern the say-hear distances actually travelled by birds. Globally, the Arctic terns hold the record, with recent findings showing that individuals from Netherlands embark on annual pilgrimages of 90 000km per year! Most journeys are of much shorter distances, but some visitors to Tanda Tula such as the Amur falcon will migrate annual distances of 25 000km - including uninterrupted legs over the ocean in excess of 3 000km. Depending on the species, these journeys can be over in a few short weeks, or can indeed take a couple of months. The flying time is not always that great, and some species can cover 6 500km of travel in around 40 hours of flight time. In general, as birds fly between 40-80km/h, with ten hours of flying time per day most can cover several hundred kilometres on a daily basis. In general, larger birds fly faster than smaller birds and complete their journeys more rapidly.

Within the next few days, we can expect the arrival of our most vocal migrant, the beautiful Woodland kingfisher. Although not recorded yet, the stunningly coloured European rollers will not be too far behind, but we will have to wait until late December before the gorgeous carmine bee-eaters make their appearance. Although these species may draw much of the lime light, there are dozens of other migrants that will slowly filter into the Timbavati allowing both guides and guests alike to enjoy their activities over the coming summer months. So if you are planning a visit to Tanda Tula Safari Camp between now and April, be sure to ask your guide to point out some of these amazing birds, and remember that, no matter how tired you might be feeling after your flight here, things could indeed be far more tiring if you were a bird!



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