Early in my first safari, our itinerary took us to Lloyd's Camp in the Savuti region of Botswana. One afternoon between game drives, I was reading in the dining area of the camp while members of the staff were setting out crackers, cakes and other snacks for afternoon tea. As I sat there, a yellow-billed hornbill (the one pictured) took up a position off to one side. He watched patiently as the food was being laid out and waited until the staff person went back to the kitchen for another load. At this point, the hornbill swooped down to the table, took a few crackers or other items, then retreated to its perch before anyone was the wiser. I watched this sneak attack repeated several times and the bird had perfect timing. Not once did the staff catch him in the act. Finally, after several helpings, he looked squarely at me and cocked his head to one side as if to say: "Look, pal – I've got a good thing going here. Please don't ruin it for me." I didn't and for the rest of my time in Africa I had a special affinity for hornbills (though I never saw another one quite as talented as this one).
I have never been a serious bird watcher, though I do find them fascinating. After Lloyd's Camp, I decided to concentrate on hornbills, believing that there were only a few species and I could quickly become something of an expert. Wrong! It turns out there are at least 23 species in sub-Saharan Africa (and 50 species worldwide). Unless one has enough time to study the bird while consulting the guidebook (a rare moment with birds on the move), several of the species begin to look quite similar. In addition, as in many bird species, males and females have different markings that make identification all the more challenging. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the pursuit and was able to get a few good photographs, including one of a very rare albino red-billed hornbill. (My guide, who was a member of an ornithological society, had never seen one before. He told me that albinism is generally very rare in birds.) My interest in hornbills also became a running joke with others I met along the way, many of whom had just started their African safaris. While they were piling to one side of the vehicle to watch elephants or lions or some other member of the "Big 5," I was peering out the other side looking at a hornbill.
According to the guidebooks (and nature programs I have seen on television – I never saw it in action), when a female hornbill is ready to lay her eggs, she seals herself into the hollow of a tree (using her droppings as cement) and remains there for several months until the young are old enough to leave the nest. During this time, she and her young are totally dependent on the male. He makes frequent trips to find food – perhaps to afternoon teas at nearby camps – then returns to feed his family through a hole in the cement.
Hornbills vary in size from the red-billed hornbill (the smallest I saw) to the ground hornbills, which are the size of small turkeys. Although capable of flight, ground hornbills walk up to seven miles a day searching for food – rodents, snakes, lizards, toads and large insects. Ground hornbills will fly to grass fires in order to feed on creatures trying to escape the flames. In addition to the species pictured here, I also saw the crowned hornbill, African gray hornbills and a silvery-cheeked hornbill.