Lilac-breasted rollers have reigned as my favorite African bird since Joan Root handed me a few mealworms to hold in my hand decades ago. The setting was Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, where the naturalist maintained a long wooden box, resembling a coffin, on her verandah. Inside were worms to feed glorious birds that knew to show up at tea time: African crowned cranes, love birds, Superb starlings, and the exquisite roller. Some caught their meal midair. The roller was shy, but enticed for a photo op by worms inside my hand.
From the Maasai Mara to Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, I tried to photograph this brilliant bird, flashing even more color in flight. The roller name comes from a high dive that is part of its courtship display. Flying up for 10 meters, it then seems intent on a suicide dive bomb, falling towards the earth with closed wings. At the last minute, it flaps, gaining speed and altitude. Now flying very fast, it rolls to right and left 4 or 5 times in a couple of seconds, like a pilot saying farewell with a dip of the wing. Swooping up, it repeats the show. Hang around: this species actually breeds “on the wing.” Alone or in pairs, they perch high on the limbs of dead trees or termite mounds, but seemed too busy to pose. I got one or two nice shots, but I wanted to see distinctly what I call its whiskers, an elegant subtle necklace of contrasting feathers.
In Botswana, I got a dozen chances. The first photo op was near Ngoma Safari Lodge in Chobe National Park, where a roller patiently sat within a few meters of our vehicle. But something was wrong with my camera; my auto focus failed. I could tell my zoomed in images were blurred, but kept shooting because I knew the bird would fly before I figured out the problem. Nothing made sense because we had already encountered elephant, a beautiful sable, all in crisp focus, plus giraffe parading by a giant baobab tree.
Back at the lodge, enjoying a South African Chardonnay while sitting with a view of floodplains across to the Caprivi Strip, I saw that my camera setting for auto-focus was slightly off the mark. Easy thing to happen on bumpy roads. I nearly wept; it was my fault, not the Cannon’s, and I feared I would never see a roller pose like that again.
But it was early in my safari, and for the next week, rollers were everywhere. They were not in a hurry, and posed. One caught a moth, then posed (above.) Another serenaded me with its call, a raspy rak rak rak, which I got on video. Sometimes, birders talk about “lifers” meaning seeing a bird for the first time in their life. My photo safari to Botswana was a lifer for me, being able to capture the exquisite Lilac-breasted roller, in focus. Rollers are not really any larger in Botswana, but I got closer, and perception is everything.
The original Lilac-breasted roller encounter on Lake Naivasha, photo by Joan Root.