Drinking buddies

Pamushana | January 2019

Sitting in Hwata blind (our sunken photographic hide) is an incredible way to wait for animals to come and drink, especially when the heat beats down on the earth and scorches the last bit of moisture out of almost everything. At this time of the year one can sit in the blind and always have something to watch, from the endless amount of doves that just seem to keep coming to drink, to the almost resident impalas around the open areas of the pan. It’s always great to see this action, but of course the action that we all hope for is the arrival of the bigger pachyderms.

There are a couple of signs that they may be on their way, but one in particular seems to catch the attention of us guides very much, and that is the sound of oxpeckers flying in from afar. Often this means the big guns are on their way to water and cool themselves down, (sometimes, however, one gets it wrong and the smaller guys come in, like kudu. As one peers out through the openings of the blind in the direction of where the oxpeckers have come in, we scan for signs of movement and, so often, almost like magic, these grey beasts appear from the treeline, materializing from the scrubby mopane forest right in front of you.

Slowly, as they make their way towards the water, the prehistoric creatures reveal their full size and shape, and the joy and excitement on everyone’s face in the blind is so energizing. It makes the guide know it was worth the wait! In typical rhino fashion their movement to the water involves a fair amount of dust that they kick up as they walk.

By this point the very oxpeckers that had flown in earlier have already had a drink of water and even a bath. Watching them at the water is, in itself, very entertaining. They are a small to medium-sized bird mostly brown in colour but their bright beaks are by far the most attractive part of the bird. Studying them through a pair of binoculars really shows up their stunning detail. As the rhinos near the water the oxpeckers get so excited and fly back to their mighty charges, where they inevitably hitch a ride back to the water.

Watching the oxpeckers on the rhinos is fascinating, especially being so close to them, it gives the observer a clear idea of what this interesting relationship is all about and how the oxpeckers go about their cleaning services. The thing that amazes me is how tolerant the rhinos are of the oxpeckers: an oxpecker will put its whole head into the ear of a rhino or peck inside the rhino’s nostril – and all the while these giants calmly drink water.

The coolest trick that the oxpeckers have is their ability to side-step down the body of the rhino, often by one of the rhino’s legs, where they make their way to the ground and then proceed to have a quick drink and a bath before they hop back and carry on their duties.

Image 2: A tiny delicate yellow-billed oxpecker drinks besides its huge battleship of a best friend, a white rhinoceros.

Did you know: The collective noun for oxpeckers is a ‘fling’ of oxpeckers.