One of the Big Six – the Saddle-Billed Stork
We've all heard of the Big Five wild animals which started out as the most desired species to hunt and are now firmly entrenched on the bucket-list of every safari-lover. Add the Southern right whale and the great white shark to the list and you have the Big Seven of the Eastern Cape, but did you know there is also a Big Six on the list of species to see in the bush?
The Big Six consists of the most sought-after bird species to spot while out on the range, usually in the Kruger National Park. One of these, the saddle-billed stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis), is particularly striking due to its pied markings and large downward curved bill.
This large wading bird is possibly the tallest of the storks, reaching a height of up to 1.5m, largely due to its extremely long legs, with wings that can span over 2m. It is an attractive bird with a glossy black head, neck, back, wings and tail on a white body with white primary feathers. A bare red patch of skin on the chest, and pink hocks on its black legs are further distinguishing features of this bird.
While flying, the saddle-billed stork stretches its neck out in front, with the large bill drooping downward, making them easy to distinguish from other storks and herons, even from a distance.
On the ground, these birds move in a deliberate and stately manner while they search for fish, frogs and crabs in their watery habitat. They are usually seen alone, or in pairs during the breeding season and are mostly silent, except for bill-clattering at the nest.
After a successful union, the saddle-billed stork typically builds a large, deep nest of sticks in a tree within a suitably forested wetland. The female then lays one or two large white eggs which are incubated for about 30 days, and the chicks normally leave the nest 70 to 100 days later.
Despite its larger than life appearance, the saddle-billed stalk is a delicate customer, and listed as an endangered species. There are an estimated 25-30 breeding pairs of Saddle-billed Storks in the greater Kruger area, less than that of wild dogs and cheetah.
Keep your eyes on the sky and any marshy areas you encounter on your next game drive, and perhaps you will get to tick this species off your Big Six list .