45. Not owls.

I woke up this morning in the mood to write about Lowveld owls. Actually, to tell the truth, I woke up this morning in the mood to not be awake. The cold has finally moved in, and I would like to take to my bed and stay there ‘til spring.

But life goes on, so Lowveld owls it is. Or rather owls it isn’t. Most places have one or two species of owls. The Lowveld has about seven. That involves quite a lot of research, and cannot be whipped off on a whim. And besides, 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.

It may look intense, but it's the worlds laziest bird.

It may look intense, but it’s the worlds laziest bird.

Let’s start in the now traditional 23thorns fashion 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.


Move along. Nothing to see here.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

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;

Look at me! Look! Look! Look!

Look at me! Look! Look! Look!

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.

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.

The Bronze Winged Courser, wiliest of Africa's big game. Dangerous when cornered.

The Bronze Winged Courser, wiliest of Africa’s big game. Dangerous when cornered.

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 of 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”?

GOOD GOD! Look at the size of those knees!

GOOD GOD! Look at the size of those knees!

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.

Night Herons

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.

I'm no expert, but I think this might be lurking.

I’m no expert, but I think this might be lurking.

You can tell all you need to know about them from the word’s 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”.

Skulking. Definitely skulking.

Skulking. Definitely skulking.

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. Next time I wake up feeling like I want to write about owls, nothing will stand in my way. Except for that fact that there are seven of them. And they are all interesting. And we know a great deal about them. So maybe not anytime soon then.

32 thoughts on “45. Not owls.

  1. I’m catching up on my reading and it’s wonderful that I read this post today as we had what the kids described as “something strange and purple with long yellow legs” that had them worried. I’m thinking strange insect or perhaps a twisted description of a wasp but no, it was a bird. I’m not sure but I think it’s a heron. More research needed. But lovely to come across its cousins across the other side of the southern hemisphere.
    The nightjar call sent shivers down my spine. Beautiful.
    And I too thought immediately of our so-called owl (it’s not) the Tawny Frogmouth.

    • 23thorns says:

      I think your tawny frogmouth is a nightjar too. Are you sure your kids didn’t see their purple and yellow bird on Sesame Street? A bird in those colours would drive my little girl to distraction!

      • We don’t have a tv here so my kids haven’t seen sesame street in over 6 months. I don’t know if they’d know who big bird was. The bird was grey with yellow albeit a dove grey which at a stretch MIGHT be possibly be able to be in poor light considered purple. Same coloring as your heron.

  2. Joanna says:

    Love herons, and have only seen a night heron once down on the Somerset Levels, you are so lucky 🙂

  3. Your writing voice is thoroughly enjoyable. It somewhat resembles Nicholson Baker, but with more humor. If you ever do write a book, I’d love to read it.

  4. mariekeates says:

    I like the bittern photo, my village is named after them.

  5. Interesting birds. Night herons also eat goslings! I have a pic I took of a Black crowned one eating a gosling. It is in its own folder and I don’t look at it because it upsets me. 🙂 But I keep it just in case Nat. Geographic comes calling!

  6. Thanks for liking my poem “Eyesight.” I have given your blog a medium-quick perusal and have enjoyed both your bird photos & info (fascinating species!) and your sense of humor. It’s not often I get to chuckle while reading blogs. I particularly like the way you introduce your family & their wardrobe choices. It brought back memories. This is how fashion starts…

  7. “I woke up this morning in the mood to not be awake.” that is me almost every morning.
    I have a Common Nighthawk (a type of nightjar) that has decided to nest in the tree outside my window, about 5 feet from my bed. Thankfully it isn’t as loud as your “Good lord” bird but between them and the robins sharing the tree I’m about done.

    I want to hear about your owls, research man! Research!

  8. Ian says:

    Is the first nightjar pic not a European Nightjar. They are the only one of the 7 in SA that sit parallel lengthways on a branch I think?

  9. narf77 says:

    First off I would like to say that I think I got one of your spam comments by accident and would like to give it back to you. The comment came from one “cheap monkeys for sale”. Not having any monkeys (let alone “cheap” monkeys) here in Australia I figured (using my logic) that this might be one of your comments gone astray. I read the comment and lo and behold, it bears a striking resemblence to your new best blog! Here’s what it had to say…
    “I have been exploring for a bit for any high-quality articles or blog posts in
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    I am just glad that I can return it to it’s rightful owner. Crepuscular sounds like something that teenagers get affected with that needs picking on a regular basis Mr 23Thorns. I think my daughters might be “crepuscular”. They rise up out of their beds like phoenixes at about lunch time. They walk around in a state of half sleep until just on dusk when the need to feed overtakes them and they spend the next 30 minutes hurriedly preparing their own version of “bats” before settling down for the evening to a semi comatose state in front of whichever computer they are actively using at the time. The cycle goes on…

    • 23thorns says:

      I know things get vastly more complicated, but right now I’m looking forward to the crepuscular years. Right now the smallest one is, for all intents and purposes, nocturnal. I am single-handedly supporting the Brazilian coffee industry.

  10. The only one we we seem to have in common where I am is the occasional night heron.We do have night birds. It is late Spring here and last week I woke up to hear an incredible repertoire from a local Mockingbird, so named because they imitate other birds…and noises.I must have heard at least three dozen different calls, some short and some songs, but the fellow also did a grand imitation of bugs chirping,(like cicadas or locusts)and also the sound of a man whistling for a dog:”Fweet,feewt, fweet!”
    Tell us about the owls.We like them.

    • 23thorns says:

      I’ll get round to them eventually.
      My parents used to have some sort of mimic in their garden when I was small. I forget what it was, but it learned to imitate the telephone. Every now and then one of my folks would come thundering down the garden to answer a non-existent phonecall.
      By the way, if you’re in the states and have a bird called a Whip Poor Will in your area, that’s the same as our nightjars.

      • Yes! We have Whip-poor-wills,I have seen them rarely but hear them often.I THINK I hear them often, although some of it may be a mockingbird! Love the tale of the telephone-‘calls’.

  11. syrbal says:

    Love the nightjars…used to hear, but not see them, in Mexico. Now, thanks to your close up pic, I can see they have ‘eye’lashes round their MOUTH…how fantastic!

    • 23thorns says:

      Yep. They sometimes look more like sci fi frogs than birds.

      • That’s a very apt description of Nightjars, especially since our most well-known Nightjar in Australia is called the Tawny Frogmouth! I too would love to hear about these promised owls being quite the owl fangirl – perhaps you could dedicate a post to each of the 7 kinds, ensuring a whole week of ideas for your challenge and prolonging our owl experience at the same time. Killing two birds (or not-killing) with one stone (a stone of knowledge).

  12. “I woke up this morning in the mood to not be awake” – that’s quotable stuff right there!

  13. Jocelyn Hers says:

    We called the Fiery Necked Nightjar “the Good Lord deliver us” because, while driving peacefully on a dirt road on the dark, there would suddenly be a mad kerfuffle & this screech & we would be totally convinced we’d killed something about to go extinct. Meanwhile, not very far from the car’s wheels, Just far enough to have escaped, would be a very alive & agitated nightjar. We never actually hit one, but they were bad for the nervous system.

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