Colours of Wildlife: Saddlebilled Stork

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Saddlebilled Stork

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Saddlebilled Stork by Willem.

Having brought you a really ugly stork last time, I think you deserve a very beautiful and elegant stork next, or I will have to re-word my mission statement! Here you have it: a Saddlebilled Stork, Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis. The most distinctive and weird feature of this stork is the yellow 'saddle' it has on top of its bill. Technically called a frontal shield, it doesn't seem to have any purpose other than display. The scientific genus name means 'what-is-on-top-of-a-horse beak', while the species name indicates that it was first encountered in Senegal. This is true of many African species, Senegal being fairly easy to reach by boat from Europe and being just south of the barren Sahara Desert. The saddlebilled stork indeed occurs not only in Senegal but over most of sub-Saharan Africa, wherever large expanses of water are found.

Huge and Handsome

The saddlebilled stork is comparable to the marabou in size. It stands even taller, often exceeding 1.5 m/5', and has a similarly enormous bill, but is more slender in build and somewhat lighter. It is very boldly coloured, indeed being one of the most impressive birds in all of Africa. It also must rank as one of Africa's most easily identifiable birds. Its body, neck and wings are starkly patterned in brilliant white and glossy black, the feathers being iridescent showing blues, purples and greens depending on the angle of the light. Its legs are dark grey except for reddish-pink feet and 'bands' around the ankles (which many people mistakenly call 'knees'). Its bill is banded in black and red, and slightly upturned. Its eye is encircled by a narrow red ring. Then there is the distinctive, bright yellow saddle on top of the bill. Interestingly, saddlebilled storks are sexually dimorphic, the males looking different from the females, but unlike most other sexually dimorphic birds, the male and female are equally impressive. The only differences between them are that the male has dark brown eyes (while the female's eyes are bright yellow), a little more black visible on his wings during flight, and a pair of small, yellow wattles hanging down from the base of his bill.

In South Africa, saddlebilled storks are not frequently seen. They are shy and wary of humans, and prefer large and secluded bodies of water. One of the best places to see them is the Kruger National Park. I've seen them there many times. One of the most remarkable sightings I've ever had, was of a saddlebilled stork catching an unusual prey item. It was a small aquatic turtle, but at least nine inches long and about five inches wide. The stork proceeded to swallow this turtle whole! It was much bigger than the stork's head and about three times wider than its neck. Incredibly, the stork did not choke. We saw the turtle slowly but surely moving down the stork's neck and into its gullet. I feel sorry for the poor turtle, it must not be a pleasant way to go. I wonder how long it took the stork to digest it and whether it would have had to pass the shell back out again by the same route.

Most of the time saddlebilled storks will seek out more easily-scoffable prey such as fish up to 0.5 kg/1 lb., frogs, reptiles, small mammals, crustaceans and water snails. Their regular haunts are the banks of rivers, pans, floodplain pools or lakes. With a slow and stately gait they patrol these margins, sometimes wading deep into the water, their long legs helping them keep their bodies dry. They sometimes stand still in one place and wait for their food to come to them. They hunt by sight but also by touch, especially in muddy water. Some large fishes have spines on their backs, which the saddlebilled storks will break off with their beaks. Like marabous, they sometimes wash their prey in clear water before swallowing it. They often throw the prey item up into the air to adjust its position, catching it in the beak and then swallowing it when it is just right. They are not social birds like the marabous, most of the time being seen alone or in pairs. The male sometimes displays for the female by running through the water while flapping his wings, which she presumably finds very impressive. Mates remain together for life, using the same nest year after year as well.

The breeding season starts in high summer for these storks. The nest is a large platform made of twigs and sticks, reeds and dry grass. It is placed right on top of a densely branched tree. Sometimes saddlebilled storks take over the similarly positioned nests of Secretary birds. They lay one to five eggs, which they incubate for just over a month. Chicks take about three months to fledge. Recently fledged chicks will accompany their parents for a short time. The youngsters look like duller versions of their parents.

The saddlebilled stork is unique in Africa, but has one close relative, the Black-necked Stork, which occurs in Asia and Australia. The saddlebilled stork is, today, infrequently encountered but very widespread, and not in danger of extinction.

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