Sunday 8 December 2013

Stone-curlew, Thick-knee or just plain Dikkop?

The Burhinidae have a number of names. In the UK the only example, in my youth, was simply known as Stone-Curlew (as it still is in HBW I happily note), but that now usually has to be qualified with Eurasian, although BirdLife now call this Eurasian Thick-knee. This qualification comes about due to the form indicus being potentially split as a different species (the Wader Quest list shows it as a seperate species) which becomes Indian Stone-Curlew and the Australian birds also previously being called stone-curlews by some.
Stone-Curlew Burhinius oedicnemus in flight; Fiumicino, Rome, Italy.
Photo: Massimo Biondi.
Apparently the scientific name of the genus Burhinus comes from the words ox and nose, nothing to do with knees, so should they be Eurasian Ox-noses instead? Probably not, I mean I can understand thick-knee, but ox-nose? The resemblence of the these bird's bills to an ox's nose is not obvious to me. The name thick-knee actually comes from the specific name of this bird oedicnemus meaning just that, thick-knee so it seems strange that this name stuck across the world and they are not all called stone-curlews, oh well, whoever said naming birds was straightforward?

So what of the name Dikkop then? This is Afrikaans for thick-head, not sure if this refers the the structure of the head or that they are a bit dim, like dotterel. Either way it is a name that is falling from use recently, people preferring to lump them all as thick-knees, perhaps political correctness is creeping in and no-one wants to offend the poor birds.

Anyway, I have elected in this blog to call them what I have always known them as in each case but whatever you want to call them they are great looking birds made all the more intriguing by their semi nocturnal habits. They look superficially like bustards and have in the past been considered closely related to them.

We have not been able to get any decent photos of Stone-Curlews. The only place we have seen them is at Weeting in Norfolk and they were miles away.
Stone-Curlew Burhinus oedicnemus; Weeting Norfolk England.
So moving swiftly on to other continents, starting with Africa. There you can find three species, Senegal Thick-knee, Water Dikkop and Spotted Dikkop. Of these we saw the latter two on our trip in southern Africa. Our first experience was with the Water Dikkop which we saw on our boat trip on the River Chobe in Botswana.
Water Dikkop Burhinus vermiculatus; River Chobe, Kasani, Botswana.
The Spotted Dikkop we first saw in Botswana by torch light...
Spotted Dikkop Burhinus capensis by torchlight; Thakadu Camp, Ghanzi, Botswana.
but later got splendid views of them in South Africa while looking for some coursers. These Spotted Dikkops reputedly can be seen easily around town, but despite searching several of their usual haunts we didn't see any in Johannesburg.
Spotted Tick-knee Burhinus capensis; Parys, Free State, South Africa, they definitley look better in daylight!
In South America there are two species, the only one we saw was Peruvian Thick-knee, a rather delicate bird and very attractive with its striking head pattern.
Peruvian Thick-knee Burhinus superciliaris; Lurin, Lima, Peru
The other side of the world from where we are now there are two more examples of this family. One, the Bush Stone-Curlew is very similar to the others and is in the same genus. I came across the first of these on our travels while parking the car in Cairns one night and had to scurry off and fetch Elis; although we found that seeing them at night was fairly straightforward in the town after that. The long legs of this species give rise to the scientific species name grallarius which means stilt-walker
Bush Stone-Curlew Burhinus grallarius: Cairns, Queensland, Australia.
During the day was a different matter, however we were giving some gen about where to find a pair with chicks. They were so well camouflaged that we had stumbled on them long before we saw them. They had adopted these peculiar postures, presumably some form of defence and remained absolutely still. We took a couple of pictures and moved away rapidly so that they could relax. They were clearly used to having people around as this was in a public park, but not that close to their chicks thank you very much!
Bush Stone-Curlew Burhinus grallarius: Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

Bush Stone-Curlew chicks; Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

Bush Stone-Curlew parent and chicks; Cairns, Queensland, Australia.
The other member of the family in Australia is of the genus Esacus, one of only two bearing this name. This scientific name, it is mooted, comes from some Greek myth whereby some chap with this name or similar, killed himself for the love of a woman and was turned into a long-legged, long-necked bird, presumably not unlike a stone-curlew, but strangely neither of the birds in this genus occur even close to Greece!
Beach Stone-Curlew Esacus giganteus; Cairns, Queensland, Australia.
It is very different looking beast, really impressive. We came across them one evening on a sandy beach, again with local help and enjoyed them running up and down for some time. We returned the next evening but they were not to be found.
Beach Stone-Curlew Esacus giganteus eating a crab; Cairns, Queensland, Australia.
So what about the ones we haven't seen? Well, we still have hopes for three of them. Senegal Thick-knee in The Gambia and both Indian Stone-Curlew and Great Thick-knee in India in January.

The only one we definitely will not be seeing is the Double-striped Thick-knee Burhinus bistriatus of central America, we just can't get there within budget or in the time left to us. But one day we'll get them for sure.


  1. Amazing and very informative in understanding this species. ..keep up the great work and good luck in your quest.

    1. Thanks Seedy, lets hope we manage to get the Gambian member of this family when we visit in January, thanks for your help with the planning of that trip.