Lilac-Breasted Rollers on a branch at Tarangire

Lilac-Breasted Rollers on a branch at Tarangire

There is a lovely species of East African bird that sometimes glides with a swinging, seesaw motion as it makes its final approach for a landing. That odd, fluttering movement has earned it the name “roller.” There are at least four regional sub-species in Kenya and Tanzania that I’m aware of … three of these I’ve photographed, and one I’ve never even seen.

The rufous-crowned, or purple roller, is uncommon and rarely seen on the African plain. It is a gorgeous bird, deep magenta in color with white eyebrows and chestnut colored wings. Its shape is classic roller … with its upright posture, slight forward lean and raised tail, it could easily be mistaken for one of its more common sister sub-species. I’ve laid eyes on the purple roller exactly twice … both instances were in the Maasai Mara and along the same stretch of road. The first sighting was in September of 2008. The bird was perched on a large bush very near my jeep … but it launched just an instant before my 500mm lens locked focus. The second opportunity was almost exactly one year later, and again the bird was perched on a large bush slightly west of the dirt road. It was profiled against a very bright mid-morning sky … and in my excitement, I neglected to adjust my camera’s exposure compensation. I captured several images, all identical, and all, at first glance, horribly underexposed. The bird was far too dark, virtually a silhouette against the powerful Mara sky. But Nikon technology and Adobe Photoshop combined to save me from my own rookie error. The telltale histogram indicated that the camera had indeed captured the requisite information to make an acceptable photo, and by sliding the exposure bar in Photoshop I managed to salvage a lovely picture of the purple roller.

Rufous-Crowned, or Purple Roller.  Almost hosed this photo but was saved by Nikon technology.

Rufous-Crowned, or Purple Roller. Almost hosed this photo but was saved by Nikon technology.

The Eurasian roller is much more common. I’ve now spotted it in the Serengeti, Amboseli and in the Maasai Mara. It is noticeably brighter than the purple roller, with gray and turquoise tinted wings and a blue-green and yellow underside. Like the purple roller, its tail is abbreviated, with the same general design as the average songbird. Like all rollers, it is an aggressive predator with a predilection for large insects. It is a photographer-friendly bird, often posing on a branch with a fresh grasshopper kill clutched in its beak. Its close cousin, the Abyssinian roller, is similar in color and temperament, but the tail design is distinctly different. The Abyssinian features magnificent, extended tail feathers that would seem to enhance its in-flight “rolling” capabilities. I’m still looking for the Abyssinian.

Eurasian Roller in the Serengeti.

Eurasian Roller in the Serengeti.

Female Eurasian with a kill in the Maasai Mara.

Female Eurasian with a kill in the Maasai Mara.

It’s unusual that the most beautiful of anything is also the most common, be it rare gem, flower, fish or bird. But a definite exception exists in the case of East Africa’s rollers. The lilac-breasted is common from Kenya to South Africa … and like the Eurasian, it is photographer friendly. The bird is indeed spectacular … and very nearly indescribable. It features every color of the rainbow … it is dazzling when perched on a branch and utterly breathtaking in flight. The lilac’s astounding beauty makes it a profoundly pleasant distraction for the wildlife photographer. It is nearly impossible to drive past a lilac without stopping to capture a few images. On many occasions I’ve foregone opportunities to photograph more popular animals – lions, giraffes, elephants, etc. – because of the near proximity of the lilac-breasted roller. Below are a few, probably too many, randomly selected images of this incomparable bird. Its colors are impressive in photos but majestic in person. The roller alone is well worth the expense of a trip to East Africa.

Lilac in the Mara ... completely glorious bird.

Lilac in the Mara ... completely glorious bird.

Yet another Mara lilac.

Yet another Mara lilac.

Lilacs sharing a kill ... Ndutu, Tanzania

Lilacs sharing a kill ... Ndutu, Tanzania

Lilac in flight ... must be physically seen to be believed

Lilac in flight ... must be physically seen to be believed

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