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THE AFRICAN DARTER

18 September 2014

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The African darter Anhinga rufa rufa is a common visitor to open water bodies in Africa south of the Sahara. The different subspecies are based mainly on variations in colour and size. African darters, however, do nog occur in the Kalahari except when it is an extremely wet year. Other subspecies occur in Madagascar and southern Iran. The original scientific name  was Plotus rufus and it was first described scientifically by Daudin in 1802 based on a specimen from Senegal. The name rufa is Latin for red and refers to the dark red colour of the back.

African darters are up to 95 cm tall and weigh around 1.4 kg. They have a wingspan of up to 130 cm and a rapier-like beak which is used to spear food in the water. African darters usually occupy a specific waterhole that flows slowly or not at all, and where dead trees or rocks provide good perches to rest and dry out after searching for food. In the water, they swim almost beneath the surface and dive up to 6 m deep to spear fish or frogs with a rapid striking movement. To do so they have a special swivel between neck vertebrae eight and nine. The feathers, with the exception of the flight feathers, become waterlogged when they dive which necessitates drying them for op to 1.5 hours on a suitable perch. They do this by spreading the wings and turning the body towards the sun. The wet feathers limit the time that African darters can stay under the water because it cools them down rapidly. This is also the reason why African darters only occur in the warmer regions. They can reach weight neutrality when 2 to 4 m below the water and can then float for up to 108 seconds with extended wings in shallow water while searching for suitable prey. African darters dive with a flowing motion by sinking slowly into the water.

The nest is a rambling platform of sticks and reeds and is usually built in the fork of a tree or a thick reed bed. Its height increases over time in successive breeding seasons. They usually nest colonially with other waterbirds and there is little known of their breeding biology. Two to seven sub-elliptical and greenish-white eggs with a few brown marks are usually laid at any time of the year in north-eastern South Africa, but in spring to late summer in the south-eastern parts and from August to October in the Western Cape. Incubation lasts 21 to 27 days (mean: 22 days) and the hatchlings are naked at birth, leaving the nest after 5 to 6 weeks. Both parents feed the young in the nest by regurgitation.

Reference:

Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean and P G Ryan (eds) 2005. Roberts – birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: The John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, pp 570 – 571.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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