Topic : Land Birds
Article 45 14 June 2008
The shy and elusive Eastern Nicator is one of the most interesting sand forest birds in lowland forest in southern Africa. The status of the Nicator family has been the subject of much debate and has been placed in both the shrike and bulbul families in the past. Indeed, the name given to the southern African representative Nicator gularis in the 1940 edition of The Birds of South Africa by Austin Roberts was Yellow-spotted Shrike! It was subsequently moved from the shrike family to that of the bulbuls and given the name Yellow-spotted Nicator. With three different Nicator species in Africa, all with yellow spots, the current name Eastern Nicator is a far better one. The Nicators are probably best placed in a family of their own as they have morphological and behavioral similarities to both the shrike and bulbul families.
The call of Eastern Nicator is loud and explosive, unlike that of any of the shrikes or bulbuls in the region so is an easy bird to locate in dense lowland woodland, their preferred habitat. They regularly use call posts, and these are normally in large emergent woodland trees. Surprisingly, their nests are built down low, usually under one, or one and a half meters above the ground. They closely resemble the flimsy flat twig structures of Telophorus Bush-Shrikes, and are unlike the cup-shaped nests of bulbuls. On finding a nest, one would be forgiven for thinking it could be that of a either a Bush-Shrike or Wood-Dove, so frail is the structure that one is frightened the eggs or small chicks would slip through the thin twig platform.
Eastern Nicator is one of those frustrating shy birds that sticks to dense vegetation and is more easily heard than seen, eluding many an experienced birder. On the 10th January 2008, I (GU) was fascinated to witness a bird flapping on the ground like an injured butterfly. This species adapts this strategy when disturbed near a nest to distract and lure intruders away from any possible threat to their eggs or chicks. I was standing less than 2 m from the nest that had a young chick less than 4 days old. The nest was placed about half a meter above the ground on a lateral branch of a Jackal-coffee Tricalysia lanceolata shrub. The habitat was Sandforest, in Bonamanzi Game Reserve just south east of Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
We photographed and watched the bird for most of the day. It was overcast and quite cool so the bird spent most of the time brooding the naked chick and occasionally feeding for short spells. Food for the young chick consisted of mainly of invertebrates such as mantids and grasshoppers, but did also bring in caterpillars and an unidentified small skink.
Photographing at a nest like this has its challenges. Light, or rather the lack of light in the under canopy can either be an advantage or disadvantage. We used two large flashes to fill in shadows and light the bird, but also tried to use ambient light to get a natural looking background. Later the dark undercanopy had the advantage of little ambient light so that flight and action shots were possible with flash as the only light source. With an hour of photographing at the nest, the bird became extremely tame and allowed us to enter or exit our hides without being frightened off its nest.
Nicators often follow animals such as Warthog and Nyala to catch prey flushed by these moving animals. The Zulu name for the bird is an extremely apt one ‘Loosa’ which means one that keeps watch over animals, describing the habit very well.