Oxpeckers on a weekend at Satara, Kruger National Park

On Saturday morning (Dec 4), I crawled out of bed at 3:30 to be early to Orpen Gate into the Kruger National Park to spend the night at Satara Camp. One of my goals was to get photos of birds that nest in tree cavities (hole nesting) because I want to write an article and put together a webinar on the impact of elephant overpopulation and how it affects them. One target was oxpeckers, and in that one I was successful even though I did not manage to find any nests.

During the morning along Sweni Road heading to Satara from Orpen, I was lucky enough to find some buffalo bulls having mud baths very close to the road. They had quit a few yellow-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus africanus) with them. In South Africa, yellow-billed oxpeckers are only found in the northeast part of the country, mainly in northern Kruger Park.

Cape buffalo with yellow-billed oxpeckers

There are only two species of oxpecker, the other one being the red-billed oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorynchus) that is more widespread in South Africa. Red-billed oxpeckers are much more common, although both species have much reduced populations outside conservation areas due to the treatment of cattle for ticks. There are projects to restore oxpeckers in cattle areas. The red-billed oxpecker shown here on an impala from Sunday morning when I was heading back to Orpen Gate. Based on genetic evidence they are placed in the family Buphagidae which contains only these species, previously having been considered part of the starling family.

Impala with a red-billed oxpecker

Both species of oxpeckers nest in tree-holes that they line with hair plucked from their animal hosts. Given the loss of trees in the Kruger due to a combination of excessive elephant numbers and perhaps drought, it seems likely that the availability of nest sites for such cavity nesters is reduced.

Despite the trip being just overnight, and leaving the park at mid-day on Sunday, the opportunity to interact closely with both species of oxpecker and their hosts made the day and a half visit worthwhile. Kruger National park is a wonderful place for birding, and Sweni Road is one of my favourite places for doing so.


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