Tag Archives: woodpecker

Crested Barbet or Silly Goose

On our travels we always keep our eyes open for unusual things, and we recently came across a rather sad or amusing (whichever way you looked at it) show.  We were camping at Kalizo Lodge on the banks of the great Zambezi River and our hosts had mounted a large wooden African mask on the outside wall of the ablution block as a decoration.  This mask had found favour with a Crested barbet that felt that it would be a good place to make a nest.

Crested barbet

Judging by the amount of work that the Barbet had put in to making a nest, we had to conclude that in spite of its misguided perseverance, it was actually a silly goose.  The mask shows the number of attempts made by the Crested barbet, all resulting in a hole with nowhere for a nest.

African mask that barbet fancied

Undeterred by his first few futile attempts, the barbet decided that perhaps he should make a more sideways excavation so that he could make a nest within the thickness of the mask.  While all his hard work was taking place his wife was sitting on a nearby wall watching the proceedings and probably wondering if they would ever get to make a nest!

Going in sideways

Unfortunately we left before he finished his current excavation, so we don’t know how successful it was.  No doubt, if it wasn’t, he would have tried somewhere else on the mask.  We wondered what the resort owners thought of the destruction of their mask.

Taking a breather

Crested barbets (Trachyphonus vaillantii) are related to the woodpecker family, hence their need to excavate holes in wood.


Bird of the Week – Week 130 – Olive woodpecker

The Olive woodpecker is the only woodpecker in the Southern African region that is not speckled, having plain olive green plumage with a bright red rump and a grey head and throat. Legs and feet are greyish-black; bill is black; eyes are dark red. The male has a bright red cap, while the female’s head is entirely grey. The males and females are approximately the same size, with a length of around 20 cm.

Olive woodpecker

Within the region, their distribution is limited to the eastern and south eastern areas, where they are found mainly in evergreen forests, woodlands and well wooded gardens.

The call of the Olive woodpecker, uttered by both sexes, is a loud “wee-rit, wee-rit, wee-rit”. They are usually found in pairs, although they may become widely separated while foraging.

Olive woodpecker

Olive woodpeckers feed mainly on insect larvae and pupae which they extract from under the bark of the trees in which they feed. Their strong beaks and long barbed tongues are well adapted to this task.

Olive woodpeckers are monogamous and nest in holes which they excavate in dead trees, usually well above the ground. The female lays a clutch of two or three white eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 15 days. The nest may be parasitized by the  Scaly-throated honeyguide (Indicator variegatus).

Olive woodpecker

The scientific binomial for the Olive woodpecker is Dendropicos griseocephalus; Dendropicos from the Greek for a “tree pecker”; and griseocephalus from the Latin for a “grey head”. Thus the name describes a grey headed bird that pecks away at trees, which is accurate if somewhat lacking in imagination.

Olive woodpecker tr


Bird of the Week – Week 118 – Bearded woodpecker

The Bearded woodpecker is the largest of the arboreal woodpeckers found in the southern African region, with a length of about 24 cm. In Africa it is found as far north as the Central African Republic, while within southern Africa its presence is largely limited to the northern half of the region. Its preferred habitats are woodlands of Miombo and Mopane trees.

Bearded woodpecker

Bearded woodpeckers have an overall yellowish appearance, the back and wings scalloped in buff. Under parts are grey, finely barred with white; cheeks and throat are white and they have a broad black malar stripe and black ear coverts. The sexes differ in their head markings, with the males having a red crown and the females a black crown, and males are slightly larger than the females. Their long bills are greyish-black; eyes are brownish-red; legs and feet are greyish-black.

Bearded woodpecker

They forage mainly by tapping and probing branches in their search for insects, using their long barbed tongue to extract them when they have been located.  They eat spiders, lizards, the larvae of moths and beetles and termites.

Bearded woodpeckers are not very sociable birds and they are usually found singly or in pairs. Their call is a loud “wik-wik-wik” which increases in tempo as the call progresses. They also drum loudly, probably as a means of maintaining contact with their partners, and this is often the first indication of their presence.

Bearded woodpecker

Bearded woodpeckers are monogamous and they excavate a nest-hole up to 500 mm deep in a large tree in which the female lays a clutch of between one and three glossy-white eggs, which hatch after an incubation period of about 13 days.

Bearded woodpecker

The scientific binomial for the Bearded woodpecker is Dendropicos namaquus; Dendropicos from the Greek for “a tree pecker”, and namaquus from the Latin for “from Namaqualand”. Thus a tree pecker from Namaqualand, which is quite accurate save for the fact that its range extends well beyond Namaqualand.

Bearded woodpecker

The majestic Baobab – a legend in its time

Africa is not called the ‘dark continent’ for nothing.  It is a continent of dark secrets and legends. The legends cover not only the people, but the animals, rivers and trees.  And the tree with more legends hanging on its branches than baubles on a Christmas tree has to be the enormous Baobab (Adansonia digitata), found in just about every country south of the equator.

On the road to Epupa Falls

I personally love Baobabs and feel so excited whenever we come across them on our travels.   They transport me back to my childhood in Zimbabwe where I had the utmost reverence for these giant gnarled, funny-looking ‘upside down’ trees.  To me they represent Africa and mystery, and I’m obviously not the only one from whom similar feelings are evoked.


Any number of legends abound about Baobabs, from their origins to their magical powers.  Every tribe has their own version of the good and bad things associated with Baobabs – which is why they are so venerated and feared.  Many believe that benevolent spirits and ancestors dwell in them, whilst others fear the more malevolent spirits of both the trees and their Gods.  Offerings of food and gifts are placed near the trees to pacify angry spirits or to show gratitude for bountiful harvests.  Rituals are held in hollowed out Baobab trunks, with drums being beaten and prayers offered up for protection, and communication is made with dead ancestors and spirits.  Animals seek shelter in them and up to forty people have been known to crowd into one hollow trunk.

In northern Namibia Baobabs are even responsible for keeping the environment clean, for legend has it that anyone who pollutes the area around a Baobab will be engulfed in its large trunk.  He or she can only be rescued by a hardworking woodpecker (and this is highly unlikely as woodpeckers apparently resent humans for tearing down trees without asking their permission first) or by a hornless mooing black cow, which is extremely hard to find.  The natives often say they hear victims crying in the trees.  This ties up with yet another urban legend that has the evil spirits lying in wait amongst the branches.  If one listens up close to the trunk one can hear the spirits laughing inside (a noise most likely caused by bees nesting in the hollow trunk).

Clinging tenaciously to the rocks

In Botswana the Bushmen believe that the flowers, which only bloom for one day, are inhabited by spirits and if  anyone has the audacity to pluck one  they are sure to be eaten by a lion!  Yet other Bushmen believe that one’s fate for such a crime is to be eaten by a tick.  If Bushmen are hunting an animal and it passes under a Baobab tree, the hunt is immediately stopped and another animal killed to preserve the life of the one that received the protection of the tree.

Magnificent specimen at Mahangu Park

There are many different versions of the origin of the tree,  like God being angry because when he planted the tree in the earth it kept on walking, so he uprooted it and threw it onto the ground upside down.  It didn’t die but continued to live with its roots in the air. Yet others believe that the God, Thora, flung the Baobab down from paradise (because it was always complaining) and it landed on earth upside down.  Its elephant-like appearance apparently came about because its maternal creator was startled by an elephant when she was making the tree and it assumed the grotesque shape and dimensions of this large animal.

The big one at Mahangu Park

Talking of dimensions, Baobabs can reach heights of twenty meters and have trunks with a diameter of twelve meters. Their trunks, which absorb vast amounts of water (up to 120 000 liters in an adult tree), vary considerably in size during the dry and rainy seasons.  Because of its watery properties, as well as the food that one can get from it (Cream of Tartar), the Baobab is also known as the ‘tree of life.’  Providing shelter, medicine, rope, cloth and protection it is no wonder that it is held in such high esteem by the people of Africa.  In addition, if one drinks the water that seeds have been soaked in, one is guaranteed not to be eaten by a crocodile!

When the South African army was present in Katimo Mulilo in the Caprivi region of Namibia during the Bush War, they held no reverence or fear of the mighty tree as they fitted a flush toilet into one, thereby defiantly showing the world what they thought the of the superstitions and legends.  The tree had the last laugh though, as its trunk grew over the door, making it difficult to open.

Toilet in the tree - Katimo Mulilo