Along the shores of Kenya’s rivers and lakes, the Hamerkop rakes the muddy banks with its short, heavy bill, searching for frogs and fish. Occasionally, It also employs other tactics such as wiggling its feet in the mud to stir up the menu, and may even fly into the wind at low level and dip at the water’s surface to pick on unsuspecting fish.
Dull brown, with a pale chin and throat, the Hamerkop is named for its unusual shape – the word “Hamerkop” meaning “hammerhead” in German, and aptly describes the bird’s profile with a prominent heavy crest at the back of its head. It belongs to the heron family.
Although only about 30cm high, breeding pairs use twigs, mud, and grass to build the most remarkable permanent spherical nest out of sticks, up to 2m across —the largest roofed nest made by any bird. It’s multi-chambered, and so strong that it can support the weight of an adult man.
The nest is built in a fork between tree branches. First, a platform is made out of sticks, and then the sides are built up into a deep basin. Next, a domed roof of sticks and mud is added. The small entrance is usually located at the side near the base, as a precaution against predators. Both the entrance tunnel and the nest chamber are lined with mud.
The whole structure is decorated with unusual objects such as feathers, snakeskin, bones, and even man- made items. A pair of hamerkops may build several nests within their territory, but use only one. Other birds, such as eagle owls and Egyptian geese, often move into the spare nests.
A Hamerkop’s call, usually given in ight, is a high-pitched “chink-chink, chink”. This sounds like a hammer striking an anvil and is how the bird acquired its local name of ‘fundi chuma’, the blacksmith.
Kenya is one of the ‘must-do’ birdwatching destinations of the world. If it’s your first birding trip outside Europe or America, you’ll probably double your life list (for the uninitiated, a life list is the tally a birder keeps of all the bird species he or she has seen around the world).
A tally of 500 species is easily achievable in an average visit and some hardcore birders clock up 700 ‘ticks’ in a month-long trip to Kenya.
Birds are incredibly diverse and abundant, and groups familiar in other parts of the world take on a new significance – starlings occur in dazzling variety and iridescent colour; and the sparrow family is represented by dozens of species of weaver living in noisy colonies.
Uniquely African groups such as the hamerkop, turacos and mousebirds are common, and those in search of a challenge can wrestle with the identification of dozens of species of cisticolas, larks and pipits.
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