Klaserie River Sands

Photographing the lilac-breasted roller

Written and photographed by: Delta Willis

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 enough worms to feed all the glorious birds that knew to show up at tea time: African crowned cranes, love birds, superb starlings, and the exquisite roller. Some birds caught their meal midair, others ventured close to the verandah. The roller was shy, but enticed to perch by mealworms in my hand.


©Delta Willis

Since that day, as I travelled from the Maasai Mara to Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, I tried to photograph this brilliant bird, flashing even more colour in flight.

The roller name comes from a playful high dive that is part of its courtship display. Flying up for 10 metres, it seems intent on a suicide dive bomb, falling towards the earth with wings closed. At the last minute, it flaps, gaining speed. Now flying very fast, it rolls to right and left four or five times in a couple of seconds, like a pilot saying farewell with a dip of the wing. Swooping up, it repeats the show. This species actually breeds “on the wing.”


©Delta Willis

Alone or in pairs, they perch high on the limbs of dead trees or termite mounds, but often seem too busy to pose. I have one or two nice shots, but I have always wanted to get a photo of what I call its ‘whiskers’, an elegant subtle necklace of feathers.

In Botswana, I got a dozen chances while on safari with Pulse Africa. The first photo opportunity was near Ngoma Safari Lodge in Chobe National Park, where a roller patiently sat within a few metres of our vehicle. The driver guides at Ngoma Safari Lodge are very astute about framing photographs, positioning us to get the right shot, but something was wrong with my camera; my auto focus failed me. I could tell my images were blurred, but kept shooting because I knew the bird would fly before I could fix the problem. Nothing made sense because we had previously seen giraffe, elephant, a beautiful sable, all captured in crisp focus.

Back at the lodge, drowning my failure in a South African chardonnay while relishing a view of floodplains stretching to the Caprivi Strip, I saw that my camera setting for auto-focus was slightly off the mark, perhaps jarred by bumpy roads or fumbling fingers during the last part of our drive when the roller appeared. I nearly wept; I feared I would never see a roller pose like that again.

But it was early in my safari, and throughout the next week, rollers were everywhere and they were not in a hurry. One caught a moth, then posed. Another issued its call, a raspy ‘rak rak rak’.


©Delta Willis


©Delta Willis

Sometimes, birders talk about “lifers,” meaning seeing a certain bird species for the first time in their life. My photo safari to Botswana was the trip of a lifetime for me, at last being able to capture the exquisite lilac-breasted roller in focus.

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