Bird migration and movement patterns

Kruger National Park | January 2016

Based on their movement patterns we can discern five different groupings of birds in the savanna areas of
southern Africa. These groupings are as follows:

  • Residents (those birds that remain in the area throughout the year – both during summer and
    winter – and breed here)
  • Intra-African Migrants (birds that migrate, on a seasonal basis, from northern and central Africa to
    southern Africa during our summer and then head back north during our winter. Many of the intra-
    African migrants breed in southern Africa)
  • Palaearctic Migrants (birds that migrate from Eurasia to southern Africa during our summer months
    and then return to Europe and Asia for breeding during our winter months)
  • Nomads (birds that move in an irregular manner following sporadic outbreaks of food resources
    and/or the presence of open water sources)
  • Vagrants (birds that are very rarely seen and are probably lost i.e. they have probably overshot
    their normal migration movements or have been blown into an area by extreme storms).

In the above pictures the three bee-eaters represent three of the above-mentioned groups. The little beeeater is a resident and can be seen here at any time of the year. Another category that falls within the resident grouping is that of altitudinal migrants. Altitudinal migrants are birds that seasonally move up or down mountain ranges. During winter when it is colder at the top of the mountain ranges and when the lower temperatures reduce the numbers of food items available these birds move down-slope to the more sheltered and warmer areas. Since the Transvaal Drakensberg Mountain Range is quite far from our location and the Lebombo Range is too small to initiate local altitudinal movement we do not see many altitudinal migrants in our area.

The southern carmine bee-eater is an example of an Intra-African Migrant. During our winter months these birds are in equatorial Africa in the regions of Gabon, Tanzania and eastern DRC. During our early spring and summer months they move southwards to the region of Angola, northern Botswana and Mozambique to breed and then after nesting they head even further south into southern Africa, to take advantage of the surplus food resources in the form of insects – especially the winged termites that erupt after rains. Many of the southern carmine bee-eaters that we see here in South Africa are the juveniles that were hatched and fledged only a few weeks prior to them arriving here.

The European bee-eater is considered a Palaearctic migrant, although there is a small population that have become resident in the Western Cape region of South Africa and do not migrate anymore. These birds fly down from southern Europe (especially the grasslands in Spain) and visit us during our summer months, also taking advantage of the abundant food resources that occur here after the rains have arrived.

Nomadic birds in our area include the red-billed queleas that arrive in massive flocks during our summer months (these flocks can include thousands of individual birds and when they are flying in these large flocks they can resemble smoke drifting in the sky). In previous years we have had massive flocks of queleas arriving and breeding in our concession. In certain parts of the concession we can still see the thousands of nests in the knobthorn and sticky-thorn thickets. This year, due to the lack of rain (and therefore the lack of grass seeds), we have not seen the arrival of the massive flocks of queleas.