Starlings and Swallows in South Africa

At the end of February, I was lucky enough to travel to South Africa on one of Lawson’s Safaris’ birdwatching trips.

After flying to Nelspruit from Johannesburg, we birded our way through Blyde River Canyon, spent two days in the Kruger National Park, then flew down to Durban before heading north along the KwaZulu Natal coast, with stops at Eshowe, Mtunzini and St Lucia.

As you’d imagine, we encountered an extraordinary variety of birds and mammals, from the smallest sunbird right up to elephants and giraffes. I’ll be writing about it in detail in Bird Watching in the summer, but in the meantime, a mention for some of the less glamorous avian inhabitants of South Africa.

Firstly, although we saw plenty of other representatives of their families – hirundinidae and apodidae respectively – the familiar (Eurasian) Swift and (Barn) Swallow were both present in good numbers. Both would be among my favourite UK birds anyway, but there’s something genuinely moving about the thought that the birds we were seeing skimming over the bush might, in a matter of weeks, be searching for their insect food above rather more prosaic UK habitats, like playing fields and sewage works.

The day in late April (in fact, it’s been early May the last couple of years) when the first screams of Swifts outside rouse me from my sofa-bound stupor is already one of my most eagerly awaited birding experiences of the year – this year, it will take on a little extra frisson of excitement.

Swifts and Swallows do at least get the credit they deserve. Artists, photographers and poets queue up to pay tribute to these most aerial of birds, but the same can’t be said of Starlings. True, their astonishing ‘murmurations’ draw gasps of admiration every time a national newspaper’s picture editor enlists their help to cope with a slow news day, but individually, they’re routinely denigrated as the bullies of the bird-table, despite the worrying declines they’ve suffered in recent years.

In South Africa, we came across starlings of all shapes and sizes. Wattled Starlings, with their ornate face-furniture. Red-winged Starlings, with…well, you guessed it. The various species of glossy starling, every one of them a mass of shimmering, iridescent blue-purple-green plumage. Or the Violet-backed Starling, with the gloriously coloured male contrasted dramatically with his dowdy, streaky mate.

Every one of them was worth looking very carefully at – I wonder if, living in South Africa, you’d ever take such gorgeous birds for granted?

When I got home, the first thing I saw as I waited in the Heathrow bus station was a strutting, fearless Starling, snatching food scraps from among the luggage trolleys and heedless, hurrying feet. In the normal course of events, I realised, I’d probably have given it no more than a brief glance.

Sometimes, though, lack of sleep or the energy to do anything other than sit and wait the long half-hour for your bus is a genuine blessing. And however familiar or seemingly mundane we’ve let them become, our own (European) Starlings can hold their heads up high next to their more exotic counterparts. This one did, quite literally, showing off that bright yellow bill and a plumage that, in a more poetic moment, I might have described as countless stars reflected in a puddle of petrol and water (I’ll settle for a wonderful sheen of purples, blues and greens, covered with white spots).

Even in their duller but spottier winter plumage, Starlings are truly striking birds, but at this time of year, they really deserve a second glance, and a third, and a fourth. They’re a taste of the tropics, anything but a Little Brown Job.

Remember that, next time you hear one launch into its extraordinary mash-up of a song. Find out more about Lawson’s Safaris at www.lawsons-africa.co.za