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TThere are many attractions – and a surprising amount of wildlife – in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and other reserves in the Kalahari Desert, and the sandgrouse are among the more impressive, despite their speckled brown camouflage. Sandgrouse are desert birds so well adapted to life in this arid region of Northern Cape province that they’ve even solved the problem of carrying water long distances for their chicks.
Picture the scene: you’re close to a waterhole in the Kalahari. It is around 9am, and the day is warming fast. Suddenly the air fills with thousands of dove-sized birds, twittering the sweetest desert song.
These are sandgrouse, and at this time of day, it can only be Namaqua sandgrouse in their neat, cryptic colours, with their characteristic call of ‘kelkiewyn, kelkiewyn’ (‘cocktail wine, cocktail wine’).
Were it before dawn, these would be double-banded sandgrouse. After 10.30am, it would be Burchell’s sandgrouse. In the desert, there is no need for watches – you can tell the time by the birds and their habits.
There are few desert birds more finely attuned to living in arid zones than sandgrouse. They feed on air-dried seeds, which are in plentiful supply. It’s a very dry diet though, so they need to drink fresh water twice a day – and will fly up to 60km to get it.
They baffle scientists by being able to predict which days are going to be especially hot and adjusting their schedules.
Baby sandgrouse are precocious when they hatch. The day they come out of the egg, they are able to walk, run and forage for seeds like their parents. They instinctively respond to their parents’ alarm calls, staying motionless and almost undetectable in their carefully camouflaged fluff.
The only issue is water, since they can’t fly.
No problem. The male sandgrouse has specially adapted belly feathers with many more barbules than ordinary feathers. Weight for weight, they hold more water than a kitchen sponge. You’ll often see male sandgrouse wade into a waterhole with a dreamy look in midsummer, and rock vigorously while the moisture is absorbed – over 20ml at a time.
Once the male gets back to the nest, the chicks drink their fill from his wet feathers, a little like kittens nursing from their mother.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Make enquiries for accommodation in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park via SANParks:
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
How to get here
Your best chance of seeing sandgrouse is at a Kalahari waterhole in the morning or late evening. One of the best places would be the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but they can be seen at several reserves in Northern Cape province.
Best time to visit
If you want to see sandgrouse soaking up water with their belly feathers, come in summer – November to February. Be warned, though: it can be extremely hot at this time, with temperatures sometimes around 40⁰C.
You’re most likely to see sandgrouse while driving yourself around a reserve, or while in a game drive vehicle.
What to pack
Whenever birdwatching, your essential equipment will always include a good pair of binoculars and a local bird book. In the Kalahari, a hat and sunscreen is always a good idea, as is a bottle of water.
Where to stay
Stay in a Kalahari game reserve such as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and ask rangers where the sandgrouse like to come for water. Not all waterholes are liked by the birds – they prefer high-quality, fresh water.