Colours of Wildlife: Black-fronted Bush Shrike

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Black-fronted Bush Shrike

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!"

Blackfronted Bush Shrike by Willem.

You're getting a treat this week! This is a Black-Fronted Bush Shrike, Telephorus nigrifrons. This painting was done from a reference photo by Geoff Goetsch. I was there on the occasion and I was looking at the bird through my binoculars as he was taking the photo! But I changed the bird slightly in the painting, turning it from female into male! The male has slightly brighter plumage than the female, but both are quite stunning birds!

Shrikes of Many Colours

Bush shrikes of many kinds occur here in Africa. They're very similar in form and lifestyle, most living in forests and woodlands where they methodically move through the foliage seeking out invertebrates and other small critters to catch. Bush shrikes are not actually true shrikes, members of the family Laniidae, which are typically hunters from prominent, open perches, and which occur in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. The bush shrikes constitute the family Malaconotidae, which is exclusively African. The black-fronted bush shrike is the most restricted species in South Africa, occurring only in a few forests in the northeast of the country, including the forests of the Magoebaskloof region, where this photo was taken. They exclusively inhabit moist, tall forests, and are hard to spot, most of the time being high up in a tree, as this one was. This was only the third occasion on which I've spotted one. The first time was in 1988, when I was participating in the Birding Big Day, a countrywide contest between bird-watching teams to see who could spot the most bird species in one day. Our team spotted over 200 birds for which I got a badge! The bush shrike was, for me, the special of the entire day!

The black-fronted bush shrike is one of the prettiest species, perhaps only the aptly-named Gorgeous Bush Shrike, Telephorus quadricolor, being more striking. But what is amazing about it, is that it occurs in several different colour schemes! The one you see here, is the typical one of Southern Africa, the orange-red form. There's also a form with a bright red chest, another with an apricot-buff chest, and another with a black chest. The belly and flanks can be yellow, green, or buff. Indeed, the birds of different colour schemes can look entirely different, yet they're all the same species! Birds of different forms can even occur in the same forest, intermingling with each other. It is much like the case with humans, some of which have blue eyes, some having brown or green eyes. But this case of differing plumages is not a common situation with birds; however, another (and closely-related) kind of bush-shrike, the Many-Coloured Bush Shrike, has a similar system of variation.

In South Africa, this species can only be confused with the Olive Bush Shrike, which occurs in the same forests, but which has much duller plumage, and in which the black eye-patch of the male does not extend to the forehead as in the black-fronted. The easiest way to find and identify the black-fronted bush shrike is by its call, a flutey 'who-poo' sound uttered from high in the canopy. It tends to remain high up, amidst dense leaves and tangles of mossy creepers. It is definitely one of the biggest challenges to South African bird watchers, but unquestionably worth the trouble!

Although restricted in its distribution and very hard to find and see, this is not a very rare species. In the forests of the Magoebaskloof region, their population is small but stable. They breed in the summer months, their nests shallow bowls hidden amidst leaves, vines or creepers; they can be situated as much as 30 m/100 ft above ground level. The female lays two eggs, most of the time, and together with the male feed the chicks. Not much more than this is known about this species' reproduction. Black-fronted Bush Shrikes occur further north in central and eastern Africa, as far north as Kenya.

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