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Albert and Marietjie Froneman with Pete Hancock

Birds of the

Okavango


Birds of the

Okavango

Albert & Marietjie Froneman with Pete Hancock Published in the United States by Great Circle Publishing Company, LLC

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The following friends are thanked for making their photographs freely available, as follows: Kane Motswana – double spread on pages 46 and 47. Hayden Oake – double spread on pages 82 and 83. The map of the Okavango Delta was kindly produced by Masego Dhliwayo. Helpful comments and suggestions were made by Ken Oake, Richard Randall and Johan van Jaarsveld who reviewed a draft of the book. Their input is gratefully acknowledged.

ISBN 978-0-620-56110-5


Foreword

Dr Kabelo Senyatso Director: BirdLife Botswana

The Okavango Delta is one of the world’s great places, regardless of the measuring stick used. It is currently one of the largest RAMSAR sites (wetlands of international importance) in the world, and although ‘big’ does not necessarily always equate with ‘better’, nobody would deny that this watery oasis in the heartland of the Kalahari Desert is unique. It is a site of outstanding universal value, and this is recognized by people throughout the world, many of whom visit the area as tourists every year. In the BirdLife partnership, we measure the importance of areas such as the Okavango in terms of the birdlife they support, using three internationally accepted, objective criteria, as follows: ‘An area is recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA) if: 1) it supports significant populations of globally threatened species; or 2) it provides critical habitat for range- and biome-restricted species (birds with small distributions, confined to specific vegetation types); or 3) it supports large numbers of congregatory birds (usually waterbirds) exceeding 0,5% of the global or regional population.’ As you will see from this book, the Okavango Delta meets - and even exceeds - all three criteria. It is the stronghold for 22 globally threatened bird species, and hosts several range- and biome-restricted species as well as spectacular numbers of at least 25 congregatory waterbirds! Birds are everywhere, from the Panhandle where the Okavango River enters Botswana, through the permanent swamps to the seasonal floodplains and grasslands with their associated woodlands and gallery forests. They bring life and colour to the landscape and form part of our culture and heritage. Importantly, they are good indicators of the health of the ecosystem, and BirdLife Botswana is committed to monitoring key bird species as a proxy for general biodiversity in this relatively pristine wetland. In this book, husband and wife team Albert and Marietjie Froneman have captured the beauty and variety of the Okavango’s birds, and their breathtaking images are complemented by Pete Hancock’s readable and authoritative text. The result is an informative and evocative publication which portrays birds as a vital part of the Okavango. It is my fervent hope that this book will inspire people to continue conserving this truly remarkable area for future generations.


INTRODUCTION


I

n the pre-dawn darkness, I lie awake and listen to the distant booming of Pel’s Fishing Owl, a haunting, ventriloquial sound that echoes across the water. A hippo grunts and splashes lazily, and is answered by another. The clear yelping call of a solitary African

Skimmer creates a mental image of the elegant, long-winged bird with its buoyant flight following the river’s course by moonlight. The last thing I remember is the clear, bubbling whistle of a Swamp Nightjar as it flits by on soft wings, and then I am enveloped in sleep once more. The soft murmuring of a family of Terrestrial Brownbuls in the undergrowth gradually permeates my consciousness, and I realize that I must have dropped off to sleep in the comfort and warmth of my sleeping-bag. The soothing, watery-outpouring call of a Coppery-tailed Coucal does nothing to disturb my reverie. The dawn chorus of awakening birds gradually increases in volume and tempo as others join in. Suddenly, the frenzied duet of a pair of White-browed Robin-Chats, rising to a crescendo, startles me, and looking up, I see a tinge of colour in the east. As the huge pastel-pink orb emerges and breaks free of the horizon, an African Fish Eagle greets the sunrise with its wild, ringing call. Morning has broken in the Okavango Delta … Birds are a major part of the Okavango’s fauna and, indeed, their unique diversity defines and characterizes this wetland. The particular combination of birds found in the Delta is as distinct as a signature, and in this way they have come to epitomize the place. Okavango ‘specials’ such as the near-endemic Slaty Egret, which has an estimated 85% of its global population centred on the Okavango Delta, are obvious contributors to the Okavango’s distinctive identity. Similarly with the globally threatened Wattled Crane – despite the fact that the species occurs in wetlands in 11 African countries, it has become a symbol of the Okavango due to the area supporting the largest, single population in the world (some 1,300 individuals).

There are

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a further 20 species of ‘red-listed’ birds which find refuge in the Okavango – some like the African Skimmer and Hooded Vulture are relatively widespread, but have nevertheless become closely associated with the distinctive habitats found in the Delta. For

many of these globally threatened species, the near-pristine Okavango is one of their global strongholds. There are also 17 range- and biome-restricted species found in the Okavango – birds such as Arnot’s Chat that, in Botswana, occurs in mature Mopane woodlands, the best examples of which are found on the fringes of the wetland. The Delta is a critical site for the long-term survival of such birds, with their specific habitat requirements and limited distribution ranges. The Delta is also renowned for the spectacular numbers of congregatory waterbirds that it supports. Systematic bird counts conducted over the past 20 years, under the aegis of BirdLife Botswana, have shown that for 18 waterbird species, the Delta at times supports more than 1% of their regional (or in some cases global) populations. Notably abundant species include Saddle-billed and Marabou storks, Goliath and Rufous-bellied herons, White-backed Duck and African Pygmy Goose, and African Openbill. To see 3,000 Marabou Storks gathering on an open pan during summer, or a thermalling flock of 2,500 African Openbills cruising over the Delta searching for receding floodplains, is to marvel at the fecundity and sheer abundance of the Okavango’s avifauna. A further nine species of waterbirds exceed the 0,5% threshold level, again highlighting the Delta’s vital importance for bird conservation. This book highlights some of the interesting birds in the Okavango, and showcases their beauty and behaviour. Birds are found everywhere throughout the Delta, but it is helpful to arrange them according to the major regions, even if this is somewhat arbitrary: uw The Panhandle is the area from where the Okavango River enters Botswana, then meanders south-eastwards between two geological fault-lines, until it reaches the top of the alluvial fan; uw The permanent swamp is the heart of the alluvial fan, the area that never dries either seasonally or during longer climatic cycles. It is characterised by papyrus-lined channels, small Phoenix palm islands and lily-covered lagoons; uw The seasonal swamp includes the regularly inundated floodplains and grasslands fringing the permanent swamp. These areas are highly productive and dynamic and alternate between wet and dry every year, thus preventing the establishment of woody vegetation except on islands; uw A variety of woodlands are found throughout the area, lining channels and lagoons, and on islands. They are essentially dryland habitats, and become drier the further one moves from the wetland proper; uw Lake Ngami is an important appendage to the Delta, attached to it by a narrow umbilicus - the ‘Lake River’ - which irregularly feeds it with water, thereby creating a highly productive waterbody which rates as an Important Bird Area in its own right.


CONTENTS


14

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30

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46

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64

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82

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Okavango Panhandle

Permanent Swamp

Seasonal Swamp

Woodlands

Lake Ngami


Okavango

Panhandle

14

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO


A

bout 350 species of birds have been recorded in the Okavango Panhandle, but the area is renowned not for this diversity, but for the number of Okavango ‘specials’ that can be seen here. The Panhandle is easily accessible

to birders, and quality accommodation at affordable rates is available at Drotsky’s Cabins, Shakawe Lodge, Lawdon’s or Xaro Lodge (all of which provide boats for birdwatching along the river). The Panhandle is perhaps best-known among birders for the healthy population of Pel’s Fishing Owl, first documented during the 1970s in a pioneering study by Tim Liversedge. Today, good sightings can almost be guaranteed in the upper Panhandle;

OKAVANGO PANHANDLE

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15


Southern Carmine Bee-eater


a walk in the right area (undisturbed riparian forest) will invariably flush one of uw the ginger giants from its shady diurnal roost, but the species can also be seen from a boat, particularly at night when it perch-hunts from trees overhanging quiet backwaters. Despite its larger-than-life reputation as an elusive, shy species, it can sometimes even be seen right in any of the camps! While on the subject of owls, the Panhandle is the best place in Botswana to see the African Wood Owl; the African Barred Owlet is also regularly seen and heard, since it nests in the area. From July onwards, the African Skimmer draws birdwatchers to the Panhandle; the first arrivals patrol the river looking for emerging sandbanks on which to breed as the water level recedes. Their breeding cycle lasts until early December, and until this time, the Phillipo Channel is probably the best place to see them. However, almost every sandbank from Mohembo to Sepopa will have a nesting pair. It is important not to alight on sandbanks during this period, particularly during September and October when extreme daytime temperatures can kill exposed chicks in a short space of time; similarly, when boating along the river, it is compulsory to slow down when passing sandbanks to avoid the boat from creating a wake that will inundate the sandbank and the Skimmer’s simple scrape nest. For waterbirds, September is the best time to visit the Panhandle; this is when the water is at its lowest level, and the huge expanse of floodplain on the eastern side of the river upstream of Shakawe Village is host to almost every species of southern African heron and egret, from the Goliath (largest heron in the world) to the smaller Squacco, Black and Rufous-bellied herons. A boat trip to this area is always rewarding. Along the way, check all Searsia quartiniana thickets for roosting White-backed Night-Herons, you may even be lucky enough to find a nest (during April and May though). The papyrus-lined sections are home to Greater Swamp Warbler and Coppery-tailed Coucal. The shallowly inundated floodplain is prime habitat for the globally Vulnerable Slaty Egret, a near-endemic species which has its very restricted range centred on the Okavango – this is a species not to be missed! Wattled Cranes are also floodplain specialists and can be seen in low numbers on this particular floodplain. Huge flocks of African Openbills visit this area as the floodplain is drying, to feed on the exposed snails. Other waterfowl species found here include large numbers of White-faced Duck and Spur-winged Geese. Look out also for the Long-toed Lapwing, Chirping Cisticola and African Marsh Harriers quartering over the floodplain.

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OKAVANGO PANHANDLE

17


African Skimmer

My favourite part of the Panhandle

sandy substrate. There is another well-

is the Ngarange Channel, down-

used site where the river passes Shakawe

stream of Xaro Lodge. This quiet

Village, but due to human disturbance, it

backwater is covered with water-lilies,

is sometimes deserted, and the colony

and attracts large numbers of beautiful

at Red Cliffs is becoming more important

African Pygmy Geese and African Jacanas;

for bee-eaters. When breeding is in full

the Lesser Jacana is regularly seen too,

swing, this spectacle will overload your

although it is not as abundant as its larger

senses - the flashing colours and me-

relative. White-backed Ducks are easily

lodious, bell-like calls of large numbers

overlooked among the lilies, but are quite

of these flying jewels creates a vibrant

common. And best of all, this is the place

scene that could easily divert you from

to get good sightings and photographs of

your quest for the Okavango ‘specials’!

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Allen’s Gallinule (the Nxamaseri Channel is a close second in this regard).

The remaining ‘specials’ are to be found mainly in the riparian forest and the

Just downstream of the Ngarange

lodges are the best place to start a walk

Channel is Red Cliffs, a high embank-

in search of these birds. You will not have

ment

Bee-

to go far to see Swamp Boubou, Hart-

eaters breed in holes tunnelled into the

laub’s Babbler, Southern Brown-throated

18

where

Southern

Carmine

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO


Giant Kingfisher

Weaver, Bradfield’s Hornbill or Brown

The Bat Hawk, of course, is crepuscu-

Firefinch, but you will have to work a bit

lar and so the timing is more important

for Black-faced Babbler, Narina Trogon,

than the location for ensuring good

Western Banded Snake Eagle, Bat Hawk

sightings; they are regularly seen at

and African Cuckoo-Hawk. The babbler

dusk at both Shakawe Lodge and Xaro

occurs in dry thornveld away from the

Lodge (Xaro generally is a good choice

river, but responds well to playback of

for birders, since the owner, Donovan

its call, and is sometimes seen along the

Drotsky, is a keen birder and photog-

entrance road to Drotsky’s Cabins. The

rapher and many of the birds around

trogon and cuckoo-hawk are most eas-

the lodge are remarkably tame). While

ily seen around Drotsky’s Cabins, but

looking for these ‘specials’ you may

only during summer; both are suspect-

chance a sighting of a Western Osprey

ed to breed in the vicinity of the lodge,

(in summer) or Long-crested Eagle,

so this is a challenge worth taking up!

but above all, look out for Ross’s Tu-

The Western Banded Snake Eagle, with

raco – a single specimen was collected

its distinctive staccato call, can be

in this area some years ago and there

seen between Drotsky’s and Shakawe

is no reason why it should not be occa-

Lodge where it might also be breeding.

sionally seen in the right habitat.

OKAVANGO PANHANDLE 19


African

Fish Eagle

Practice makes perfect! The African Fish Eagle Haliaeetus vocifer is a master fisherman, and makes catching fish look easy! It has exceptionally keen eyesight and from a vantage point overlooking a quiet lagoon, is able to see a fish swimming near the surface. It launches its attack on broad, strong wings, swooping down on the unsuspecting

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victim. As it nears its quarry, it is the epitome of focused concentration; the huge, scaly talons are thrust forward and, with split-second timing, the fish is impaled ‌ Powerful wing-beats propel the bird skyward once more, back to its favourite perch. The series of photos on this spread were taken in less than one second!


Pied

Kingfisher

A pair of Pied Kingfishers Ceryle rudis hovers

energetically

over

a

shallow

backwater where the crystal-clear Okavango water makes fish-spotting easy. This species hover-hunts more than any other kingfisher and is widespread throughout the Delta. The male (on the left) is readily distinguishable from the female by his double breast band. Once a small fish has been sighted, the kingfisher folds its wings and plummets like a stone, hitting the water with a resounding splash. If the dive has been successful, the fish will be taken to a favourite perch where it will be unceremoniously beaten to kill and soften it prior to swallowing it whole head first!

OKAVANGO PANHANDLE

23


Reed

Cormorant

The Reed Cormorant Microcarbo africanus catches its prey of relatively small fish by underwater pursuit. To facilitate this, its feathers become easily waterlogged so that it has a neutral buoyancy and can dive efficiently to depths of two metres and more. The downside of this however, is that it needs to dry the wings and body plumage regularly; as a result, cormorants are often seen in characteristic repose with wings spread to absorb the sun’s warmth or catch a drying breeze. The Okavango Delta is a stronghold for this species, with many ’cormoranteries’ where large numbers breed communally in reedbeds, flooded acacias or riverine trees.

The larger-than-life Pel’s Fishing Owl Scotopelia peli has become the most sought-after bird sighting in the Okavango – and with due reason. It is a

Pel’s

Fishing Owl

spectacular, ginger giant of an owl with an unbelievable life-style (catching fish in the dark), but undoubtedly part of its attraction lies in the pristine wetland wilderness areas where it occurs. Pel’s Fishing Owl is not your everyday backyard species. By day it roosts among the thick foliage of lush riparian trees and is difficult to spot, unless flushed accidentally. Watch it as it flies across the open to a new perch – its size is accentuated by its broad wings, and the powerful feet and fish-grasping talons will be obvious. By night, its haunting, booming call resonating across lagoons and waterways is one of the evocative sounds of the Okavango.

OKAVANGO PANHANDLE

25


One of the highlights of a visit to the Okavango Panhandle during summer is the sight of large numbers of Southern Carmine Bee-eaters Merops nubicoides breeding colonially in nest-tunnels in the high banks of the river. The colonies near Shakawe and Red Cliffs are hives of activity as the beeeaters hawk insects – especially stinging ones such as bees and wasps! The flashing colours and melodious, bell-like calls of large numbers of these flying jewels create a vibrant scene unrivalled elsewhere by the Okavango’s rich avifauna.


Southern Carmine

Bee-eater


Malachite

Kingfisher

A Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata sits poised overlooking the water. Spotting a tiddler below, it plunges beak-first into the water, its eyes protected from the impact by a translucent nictitating membrane which slips into place in the blink of an eye. Subconsciously adjusting for parallax and the movement of the fish, the Malachite grasps its prize, turns about and bursts free of the surface tension to return to its diving-board. It can catch a fish and return to its lookout in less than three seconds!


White-backed

Night-Heron

The Okavango Panhandle is the very best place in southern Africa to see the shy and retiring White-backed Night-Heron Gorsachius leuconotus. Finding it is made more challenging by virtue of it being strictly nocturnal; however, during the day it roosts in the Bicoloured Karee Searsia quartiniana fringing the river, and guides from Drotsky’s, Lawdon’s and Xaro Lodge generally know where to find it. First prize is to find the nest – they are well hidden in thick foliage, usually on a lateral branch a metre or two above water.


Permanent Swamp

30

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO


A

glimpse at a map of the Okavango Delta shows its heartland to be the permanent swamps at the base of the Panhandle. For this reason, many people think that this must be the best place to see the Delta’s waterbirds. However, the reality

is that the crystal-clear waters are nutrient-poor and create a rather sterile – though beautiful – environment. However, this is not the whole story as far as birding in this habitat is concerned. The permanent swamps provide the setting for some of the largest heronries in southern Africa (or storkeries, darteries, cormoranteries or whatever you prefer to call them, since they are not the exclusive domain of herons alone!). Best-known

PERMANENT SWAMP

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31


Little Egret


the Water-fig islands in the large lagoons of Xakanaxa, uw are Gadikwe and Gcobega where birds have been recorded breeding consistently for the past few decades – from these inaccessible islands, the birds commute to more productive waters to get food for themselves and their hungry chicks. These three heronries together have traditionally constituted the largest and most important breeding site for Marabou and Yellow-billed storks in southern Africa. Unfortunately the number of these species breeding here has steadily dwindled over the years due to human disturbance, although conditions vary from year to year. It appears as though many of the birds have simply relocated to JereJere Lediba and Lediba la dinonyane (Lagoon of the birds) where the breeding colonies have correspondingly increased – these sites are in the permanent swamps further to the south-west. Lediba la dinonyane is now the only place in the Okavango where Pink-backed Pelicans breed, in steadily increasing numbers. The heronries are not just about numbers of birds, of course. A Yellow-billed Stork in breeding finery, with a pink hue to its plumage; the courtship displays of herons and egrets with their long feathery breeding plumes; the patience and devotedness of a Marabou Stork shading its chicks from the hot sun; the growing chicks competing for food or learning to fly – all this activity and energetic behaviour makes these colonies vibrant and interesting places, well worth visiting. The best birding in the permanent swamps is probably at Xakanaxa, where a boat trip on the lagoon (especially between August and October) combined with woodland birding on the mainland will produce a large number of the 400-odd species recorded here, and interesting sightings of some of the breeding birds. Xakanaxa Lagoon is one of the first-known breeding sites for Slaty Egrets, with a few nests originally being seen here in June 1975; this site, low down in a Water-fig island is rather

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PERMANENT SWAMP

33


Goliath Heron

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atypical for the species, and is

fringing the lagoon, as do Coppery-tailed

now irregularly used. Marabou

Coucals, Black Crakes and Fan-tailed Wid-

Storks however use this island

owbirds. Quiet backwaters in the northern

every year, building their platform-nests

part of the lagoon should be checked for

on the canopies of the Water-figs; they

African Pygmy Geese, Lesser Jacanas and

are loosely colonial breeders and also use

the simplicissima race of the Cape Wagtail

other sites around the periphery of the

which has the gorget reduced to a single

lagoon. African Darters use these Gomo-

breast-spot. Sightings of Spotted-necked

ti Water-figs too. The main heronry is in

Otters frolicking in the clear waters pro-

the south-western part of the lagoon, and

vide a welcome diversion for even the

here Yellow-billed Storks breed together

most fanatical birder!

with Purple Herons, Western Great and

The woodland areas onto which the

Cattle egrets, Rufous-bellied Herons and

lagoon abuts have a good variety of

Reed Cormorants – breeding activity here

Okavango bush-birds. There is a dis-

peaks during September, but since this

tinct, moist ecotone where Black Coucal,

site is used as a roost year-round, a visit at

Swamp Boubou, White-browed Robin-

any time is worthwhile. Chirping and Lua-

Chat, Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Hart-

pula cisticolas abound in the Miscanthus

laub’s Babbler are to be found. Look out

34

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO


Spur-winged Goose

also for the Rosy-throated Longclaw and

which are very common and conspicu-

the rare vagrant Locust Finch in short

ous. It’s also worth searching the un-

moist grasslands adjacent to marshy

dergrowth for Brown Firefinch (and its

areas. At night, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Ver-

brood parasite, the Village Indigobird),

reaux’s Eagle-Owl, African Barred and

Green-capped

Pearl-spotted owlets, and African Scops

ling’s Wren-Warbler. Summer specials

Owl will be heard if not seen in this

include nesting Golden Weavers, Broad-

habitat; similarly with the Fiery-necked

billed Roller, Grey-headed Kingfisher and

and Swamp nightjars. The calls of the

hordes of Southern Carmine Bee-eaters

Mourning Collared and Red-eyed doves,

(opposite the lodges is a site where they

and Black-collared Barbet duets domi-

often breed in large numbers, in flat

nate during the day.

ground). If you’re lucky, you may see a

Further away from the water’s edge,

Eremomela

and

Stier-

Thick-billed Cuckoo or Angola Swallow!

there is a bewildering variety of birds, and

The juxtaposition of permanent water

it is not possible to enumerate them all.

with permanently dry mainland areas cre-

A few highlights include Bradfield’s and

ates unique habitats which make this a

other hornbills, and Burchell’s, Meves’s

special part of the Okavango Delta for birds

and Greater Blue-eared starlings, all of

and birders alike.

PERMANENT SWAMP

35


Saddle-billed

Stork

The Okavango Delta is a stronghold for the Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, although the population numbers only approximately 1,000 individuals (250 breeding pairs, and about 500 unpaired, immature birds). This is an indication of the scarcity of the species throughout its African range – nowhere is it abundant. Due to their large size and conspicuous colouration, Saddle-billed Storks are easy to count from a low-flying aircraft; such surveys have been conducted by BirdLife Botswana as part of their monitoring of the avifauna of the Okavango. The huge platform nests, many of which have been in use for decades, are also clearly visible from the air, and BirdLife Botswana maintains a database of all known nests in the Okavango. This species is currently a protected bird in Botswana.

PERMANENT SWAMP

37


African

Darter

In flight, the African Darter Anhinga rufa appears rather ungainly – this is because it is primarily adapted to a life in water. Accordingly, it has webbed feet, a streamlined shape, sharp pointed bill, and a distinct ‘kink’ in the neck – all of which equip it to hunt fish by underwater pursuit. The role of the kink about halfway down the neck may not be obvious – the neck vertebrae and muscles in this region form a trigger mechanism that shoots (or ‘darts’) the bill swiftly at the prey. The fish is harpooned on the spear-like bill, and is then brought to the surface, tossed into the air and swallowed head-first.

The Okavango heronries at Xakanaxa, Gadikwe and Gcobega lagoons in Moremi have collec-

Marabou

Stork

tively been recognized as the largest breeding site for the Marabou Stork Leptoptilos crumeniferus in southern Africa. These sites, and the one at Lediba la dinonyane (Lagoon of the birds) are well-worth visiting during the peak breeding season (September) providing care is taken not to disturb the birds; adults in breeding finery undertake bizarre, ritualised courtship displays prior to constructing their platform nests. Incubation and nestling development are protracted but also interesting to observe. From these breeding sites, it is speculated that the young disperse throughout southern Africa and beyond, underscoring once again, the importance of the Okavango for birds.

PERMANENT SWAMP 39


African Pygmy

Goose

What would the Okavango be like without waterlilies and African Pygmy Geese Nettapus auritus? These two beautiful species are invariably found together and ‘decorate’ every lagoon and quiet backwater. The Pygmy Goose actually feeds on the seeds and flowers of the waterlily, and the colourful male can sometimes be seen diving to get an unopened bud as a ‘gift’ for the female. Like most geese, they pair for life, but courtship feeding at the onset of breeding helps reinforce the pair-bond. Perhaps surprisingly, these diminutive geese nest in tree cavities, and the female lines the nest with her own down and undertakes the incubation alone; the sight of a single male perched in a tree during the breeding season (October to March) invariably means that the female is in the nest nearby. On hatching, the tiny, downy goslings jump from the nest to the ground below, unharmed, and are led to water by the parents.

PERMANENT SWAMP

41


Western Great

At Xigera Lagoon, a Western

Egret

Great Egret Ardea alba unwittingly approaches an African Skimmer nest on the sandbank, and is soon under serious aerial attack! The long-winged, noisy skimmer comes dangerously close to the rapier-sharp bill of the egret (yellow in this case as it is a non-breeding bird – not to be confused with the smaller, yellow-billed Intermediate Egret), but eventually the egret gets the message and moves away to fish elsewhere. This interaction between the two species is quite unusual since they occupy different niches and do not compete with one another. The egret is a ‘stand-and-wait’ fisherman targeting relatively large fish. It breeds in reedbeds. The African Skimmer feeds on small fish in open water and nests on sandbanks.

PERMANENT SWAMP

43


Long-toed

Lapwing

The best place to see the Long-toed Lapwing Vanellus crassirostris in southern Africa is the Okavango Delta, where it occurs in permanent and seasonal swamps. The long toes, which enable the bird to walk on floating vegetation, are not a very useful field identification criterion – rather the white wings, tipped with black primaries, and the white face, throat and foreneck are diagnostic.


Pink-backed

When in nuptial finery (as shown here), the Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens is singularly attractive. This species nests in trees at Lediba la Dinonyane (Lagoon of the birds) in the permanently flooded swamplands of the Okavango, one of the relatively few sites in southern Africa where it breeds regularly.


Seasonal

Swamp

46

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO


T

he floodplains and channels at the distal end of the Delta, that dry out seasonally, are without doubt the most productive habitat in the Okavango. When dry, they support a high biomass of antelopes and other herbivores

which recycle nutrients in the form of dung back into the system, fuelling food chains and complex food webs. When the floodplains are wet, the nutrient-rich, tepid waters are fertile breeding grounds for frogs and fish and other aquatic organisms, and these of course attract a whole host of bird species to exploit every available niche. As these floodplains dry out again, fish are trapped, and birds of many species congregate to take advantage of the ‘free-fish-for-all’!

SEASONAL SWAMP

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African Spoonbill


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There are at least two great birding areas in this zone, both of which are easily accessible. The first is the Khwai River which forms the northern boundary of Moremi Game Reserve, and the second is the Boteti River which carries the last outflow of the Delta waters southwards from Maun toward the Makgadikgadi. The areas differ significantly and are best presented separately. The Khwai River is a narrow ribbon of water snaking eastwards through a vast waterless area towards the Mababe Depression. It has significant, though narrow, floodplains that are home to several floodplain specialists. Wattled Cranes are always seen here, even though their numbers are not high. Several pairs have breeding territories along the river, between Dombo Hippo Pools and Machaba, and are tied closely to their chosen areas year round. Nests are extremely difficult to find (which is just as well since breeding birds are very susceptible to disturbance), but the sight of a single adult probing the soft mud for rhizomes and tubers by itself, invariably means that its mate is on the nest nearby. Slaty Egrets and Rufous-bellied Herons are also guaranteed sightings here, along the shallowly-flooded margins where vegetation is sparse; despite the fact that their numbers too are low. Almost every other southern African egret and heron species can be seen here as well – Western Great, Intermediate, Little, and Cattle egrets abound, as do Goliath, Grey, Black, Purple, Green-backed and Squacco herons, and Blackcrowned Night-Heron and Little Bittern too. The egrets and herons reach spectacular numbers as floodplains dry out and fish are trapped in shrinking pools – here they are joined by large numbers of Great White Pelicans and Marabou, Yellow-billed and Saddle-billed storks. Along the river, Copperytailed and Senegal coucals can be seen; the latter can also be found slightly further away from the river. One of the best things about birding at Khwai is that the woodlands are also very productive; the area is especially renowned for its healthy raptor populations. During the late dry season, it is possible to see over 25 different Bateleurs in a day (they come down to drink and bathe in the middle of the day), as well as nesting African Fish Eagles, Tawny Eagles, White-backed and Hooded vultures; Bat Hawks certainly also breed in the area although no nest sites are known. Dickinson’s Kestrel and the Red-necked Falcon are among the more interesting smaller raptors to be

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SEASONAL SWAMP 49


Allen’s Gullinule

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seen. Khwai is also famous for

and are much more productive than fur-

its burgeoning Southern Ground

ther upstream. Also, when the channel is

Hornbill

family

dry, it is fertilized with the droppings of a

groups are regularly seen patrolling the

large number of domestic animals – just

woodlands adjacent to the river.

like the floodplains at Khwai - and with

population;

There is a choice of accommodation

the same result. Waterfowl converge on

available to birders at Khwai, ranging

quiet areas along the river (and there

from luxury lodges to camping, either in

are many secluded places despite it not

Moremi or the adjacent community area,

being formally protected), and common,

further adding to the popularity of the

easily-seen species include White-faced

area for birding.

Whistling

and

Fulvous

ducks,

White-

The Boteti River is close to Maun,

backed Ducks, Red-billed and Hottentot

and birding localities such as Xobe and

teal, Knob-billed Ducks, and African Pyg-

Samedupe are eminently suitable for

my, Spur-winged and Egyptian geese.

day trips. By the time the waters of the

African Openbills and Long-toed Lap-

Okavango have passed right through the

wings are found along the water’s edge,

Delta to reach these sites, they have

the former in large numbers, probing for

gathered considerable dissolved nutrients

snails and bivalves. A variety of waders,

50

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO


Great White Pelican

including rarities such as Ruddy Turn-

every night, commuting during the day

stone and Eurasian Curlew, can also be

to the Nata River delta in the Makgadik-

found along the muddy shoreline. Many

gadi (over 300 kilometres distant) to

of the Garganey sightings in Botswana

feed their chicks, a marathon feat, and

are from the Boteti River, so look out for

one which demonstrates the mobility,

this species among the countless local

adaptability and stamina of these great

teal. During summer, Allen’s Gallinule,

birds. Large numbers of Yellow-billed

the African Swamphen and the Lesser Ja-

Storks and Black Herons also target the

cana are relatively common and breed in

fish traps, and the interactions between

suitable habitat along the river.

the multitude of birds is always a source

The Boteti River is ephemeral and af-

of interest.

ter the annual floodwaters subside in the

Birding along the Boteti is best done

late dry season, there are always drying

from a boat, and several of the lodges

pools with trapped fish somewhere along

on the outskirts of Maun do offer boat-

its length, and these attract spectacular

trips along the river. Good birding lo-

numbers of waterbirds. When Chanoga

calities such as Xobe, Samedupe and

Lagoon dried up a few years ago, several

Chanoga can however be easily reached

hundred Great White Pelicans fed there

by vehicle.

SEASONAL SWAMP

51


African

Jacana


The Okavango’s countless lily-covered lagoons and quiet backwaters provide ideal habitat for the lilytrotter – the African Jacana Actophilornis africanus. Its elongate toes spread its weight over the aquatic vegetation enabling it to stroll around with impunity in search of its food of invertebrates and plant material. It is completely at home in this habitat and even lays its eggs on a flimsy floating nest made of waterweed; the chicks when they hatch are miniatures of the adults, complete with long legs and toes, and are equally at home on the water. Interestingly,

the

species

is polyandrous, with the female laying, in succession, a clutch of eggs for each of her male suitors. The males are devoted fathers and undertake all incubation and chick-rearing duties – including carrying the chicks under his wings when danger threatens!


African

Openbill The beak of the African Openbill Anastomus lamelligerus looks like a nutcracker, and knowing that the bird feeds exclusively on snails and mussels, one would expect that it is used in this way. Instead it is used rather like a precision surgical forceps, with the lower mandible being inserted carefully into the snail shell and the upper used to snip the snail’s columnar attachment so that the juicy morsel can be removed and swallowed. These snails are an abundant and nutritious supply of food, and as a result of this, the African Openbill is the most numerous stork in Botswana. Huge flocks (numbering thousands of birds) can be seen thermalling over the Delta, searching for drying seasonal floodplains where the molluscs

will be exposed. The birds also forage in shallow water, where they locate the snails by touch – a hit-and-miss arrangement which nevertheless works due to the sheer abundance of the snails.


Wattled

Crane

The Okavango Delta supports the largest, single population of the globally threatened Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus in the world – some 1,300 birds (out of a total world population of about 7,500 individuals). The abundant seasonal floodplains, in near

pristine condition, provide ideal habitat for this wetland species. It feeds in shallow water on the roots, bulbs and tubers of grasses and sedges, and also nests on the floodplains, constructing a mound of vegetation as a repository for the single egg (occasionally two are laid, but only one chick is ever raised per breeding attempt). The cranes are monogamous and pair for life.

Black

Heron

The actual function of ‘canopying’ with the wings in the Black Heron Egretta ardesiaca is not certain, but the shelter provided by the shaded area does attract small fish that are stirred up by the heron’s bright yellow feet, and which are seeking a safe refuge. Unbeknown to them, the heron is waiting under this mantle with rapier-sharp beak! This unique behaviour has been aptly described as a ‘cloak-anddagger’ fishing technique! Black Herons often fish communally, with the flock moving progressively through the shallow floodplains by virtue of the birds at the back continually ‘leap-frogging’ to the front and quickly mantling their wings to attract the small fish moving ahead of the party. They may be accompanied by other egrets and storks, which benefit from the activity.

SEASONAL SWAMP

57


Great White

Pelican

Although often portrayed as a dumpy caricature with exaggerated beak, the Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus is an admirable bird with a spectacular lifestyle. Flocks travel extensively throughout the southern African region, searching for the best fishing - this is often to be found on the Okavango’s seasonal floodplains where fish become trapped in large numbers by receding waters. The pelicans fish in concert, the flock driving their prey in front of them and then dipping their heads in unison to trawl as they move forward. The distensible gular pouches are used as nets - the two halves of the lower jaw are flexible and allow the pouch to expand into a large bowl-shaped bag which fills with water and fish. The head is then raised, the water expelled as the bag contracts, and the fish are swallowed. This is repeated until the birds are sated or the fish depleted.


Rufous-bellied

Heron

The Rufous-bellied Heron Ardeola rufiventris is an ‘Okavango special’. It is common and easily seen throughout the Delta, whereas elsewhere in southern Africa it is uncommon, or in most cases, a rare vagrant. This species has been recorded nesting in reedbeds together with other small herons, and the juveniles are exceptionally ugly until they attain their immature plumage, as shown above.


Slaty

Egret

The globally threatened Slaty Egret Egretta vinaceigula is a mega-tick for birders. Apart from its rarity, the floodplains of the Okavango Delta are almost the only place to see this species - it is a near-endemic, with over 85% of the world population confined to this pristine wetland.


Lesser

Jacana The Lesser Jacana Microparra capensis is a fascinating species which has its southern African stronghold in the Okavango. The female lays its beautiful, finely-scrolled eggs on a flimsy floating nest of waterweeds. The precocial chicks leave the nest within hours of hatching. When danger threatens, they dive under water, leaving only the tips of their beaks protruding as tiny snorkels. Alternatively the father will pick them up under his wings and carry them to safety, running from one lily-pad to the next! The Lesser Jacana, although well studied, still has unrevealed secrets – if there is a disturbance at the nest, it moves its eggs to a new site – but nobody knows how!


Woodlands

64

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO


W

hat birds could the Okavango woodlands offer serious birders that could not be seen elsewhere in southern Africa? Although the Okavango’s attraction undoubtedly lies in the fact that it is

a huge, near-pristine wetland, most of the 480 species of birds recorded in the area to date are not actually waterbirds. There is a respectable diversity of dryland bird species around the Okavango Delta which is influenced by a variety of factors. The first is the setting of the Delta in the sandy semi-arid Kalahari which brings Kalahari specials into close contact with their counterparts of moist woodland. The Kalahari Scrub Robin, Southern Pied Babbler and Crimson-breasted Shrike belong

WOODLANDS

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65


Lilac-breasted Roller


to this category, and are common on the fringes of the Delta; their

uw congenerics are respectively, the White-browed Scrub Robin, Hartlaub’s Babbler and Swamp Boubou. Note that the yellow-breasted form of the Crimson-breasted Shrike has been seen at different localities around the Okavango in recent years, and it is well worth keeping an eye out for it. Secondly, the northern part of the Delta, where rainfall is slightly higher, lies in a belt of broad-leaved woodland with its characteristic specials such as Rufous-bellied Tit, Sharp-tailed Starling, Shelley’s Sunbird and Souza’s Shrike. Here too may be seen the Green-capped Eremomela, Black-faced Babbler (which also occurs in acacia thornveld), Racket-tailed Roller and the capricorni race of Bennett’s Woodpecker with its washed out yellow underparts. The northern fringes of the Delta, and parts of the adjacent Caprivi Strip in Namibia, are the best places for southern African birders to see these species. Thirdly, the riparian woodlands fringing waterways are a unique and important habitat for frugivores such as African Green Pigeon, Mourning Collared Dove, Meyer’s Parrot, Burchell’s, Meves’s and Greater Blue-eared starlings and the African Yellow White-eye. Individual Jackalberry, Bird Plum and Strangler Fig trees, when loaded with fruit, are a magnet for birds – and insects, which in turn attract a range of insectivorous birds. Other bird species which favour this habitat include White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Ashy Flycatcher and, during summer, the cryptic and ventriloquial Narina Trogon. The Endangered Hooded Vulture builds its platform nest almost exclusively in Jackalberry trees in this habitat; Pel’s Fishing Owl nests here too, but in cavities in large riverine trees. And finally, northern Botswana is the meeting place of two major biomes, the Kalahari-Highveld and the Zambezian regions, with their associated avifauna. There are quite a few species which reach the southernmost or southwesternmost limit of their continental range in the woodlands of the Okavango, such as the Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird and Copper Sunbird. While birding in the Okavango woodlands, look out for other specials including Bradfield’s Hornbill (a range-restricted species found in northern Botswana and eastern Namibia), Southern Ground Hornbill which seems to be thriving in northern Botswana, Arnot’s

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67


Woodland Kingfisher

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Chat (a Mopane specialist) and

include the Bateleur, Martial Eagle and

Yellow-billed

Check

Red-footed Falcon (the latter seen dur-

thoroughly for Bohm’s Spinetail,

ing summer only). Resident raptors are

Oxpecker.

which occurs around Baobab trees. Raptors are particularly well represented in the woodlands around the Okavango. The five major vulture species

joined by large numbers of migratory Black and Yellow-billed kites, and Wahlberg’s, Steppe and Lesser Spotted eagles from September through to April.

White-

The best birding in this habitat is

backed and White-headed) are easily

undoubtedly during summer when oth-

seen, although the Cape Vulture is a va-

er migrants are also present. Indeed,

grant to the area and is often overlooked.

the migratory cuckoos – African, Red-

Eagles, hawks and falcons abound, but it

chested,

is worth singling out Ayre’s Hawk-Eagle,

obin, Levaillant’s, and Dideric

Long-crested Eagle, Bat Hawk and Dick-

to dominate all bird parties at this time

inson’s Kestrel as species to look out for.

as they are very vocal (even if not al-

The globally Vulnerable Secretarybird is

ways correspondingly visible). The only

plentiful in grasslands and acacia thorn-

bird capable of competing (noise-wise)

veld; other globally threatened raptors

with the monotonously mournful dirge

(Cape,

68

Hooded,

Lappet-faced,

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO

Black,

Great

Spotted,

Jac-

- seem


White-fronted Bee-eater

of the Black Cuckoo, and the clamorous

also abound at this time and their gen-

calls of Jacobin and Levaillant’s cuck-

erally melodious, bell-like calls can be

oos, is the Woodland Kingfisher which

heard overhead as they hawk insects on

calls incessantly from its time of arrival

the wing. Most of the migrants are not

in October! The Grey-headed Kingfisher,

tied to specific habitats, but move wide-

which is of greater interest to southern

ly across the Delta.

African birders, is by contrast much qui-

The woodland areas around the fring-

eter and more difficult to see. Incom-

es of the Delta are generally easily acces-

ing migratory warblers of special inter-

sible, with many bird-watching options

est include the River Warbler, Olive-tree

on offer. The accommodation establish-

Warbler, Icterine Warbler and Common

ments in Maun are suitable springboards

Whitethroat – these are found in aca-

for day trips to these outlying areas, and

cia thickets near water. A horde of swal-

there are guest-houses in most villages

lows, both Palaearctic and intra-African

further north. Moremi Game Reserve has

migrants, forms a conspicuous part of

extensive sandveld and mopane tongues

the Okavango’s avifauna in summer,

that are great areas for woodland birds,

with some, such as the Mosque Swallow, breeding (in tree cavities). Bee-eaters

and offers a range of accommodation types.

WOODLANDS 69


White-browed

Robin-Chat

No dawn chorus in the Okavango would be complete without the much-loved duet of the White-browed Robin-Chat Cossypha heuglini, undoubtedly the finest songster in the region. Its song starts off quietly, but rises to a vibrant crescendo, with both birds of the pair singing exuberantly; at the abrupt ending, the silence is deafening … Like other robin-chats, it is an accomplished mimic, and incorporates various notes and stanzas from other birds into its unique song. Of course, this beautiful bubbly song is not just for our pleasure – it is a territorial advertisement to other conspecifics that ‘this patch of tangled undergrowth is already occupied’.

WOODLANDS

71


Burchell’s

Starling

Burchell’s Starling Lamprotornis australis, named after the English naturalist-explorer William Burchell, is the typical starling of the Okavango’s savannas and broad-leaved woodlands. It is one of the bird species which qualifies the Delta as an Important Bird Area following BirdLife International’s criteria. It is nearly endemic to the southern African region, and has a relatively restricted range dictated by its habitat requirements. It occurs in pairs and small flocks, but enormous flights comprising thousands of individuals can be seen at dusk flying to roost communally in reedbeds. Pairs nest solitarily in natural tree cavities or holes excavated by large woodpeckers. This species is parasitized by the Great Spotted Cuckoo which however does not eject the starling’s eggs or chicks from the nest; consequently the starling chicks are often raised alongside a large and competitive cuckoo chick.

Burchell’s

Sandgrouse During the dry winter months when Burchell’s Sandgrouse are breeding, they fly daily to the fringes of the Okavango to drink, arriving almost invariably at 9 o’ clock! A round-trip of this nature could involve flying as much as 150 kilometres. After slaking their thirst, the males wade gingerly into the shallows, fluff up their belly feathers and by rocking back and forth soak up a few millilitres of water. Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, they explode into flight, heading back to the chicks in the dry hinterland. On the arrival of the devoted parent, the chicks instinctively immerse their short beaks into the spongy, wet breast feathers and ‘suck’ up the life-giving fluid - one of nature’s little miracles!

WOODLANDS

73


Martial

Eagle

The Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus, is bellicose by name and by nature! As the largest eagle in Botswana, it is a formidable raptor and any creature up to 8 kilograms in weight – the size of a steenbok – could form part of its diet. It habitually feeds on mongooses, suricates, jackals, hares and monitor lizards, as well as the heaviest flying bird, the Kori Bustard. The Martial Eagle has massive talons and a vice-like grip which it uses to quickly subdue the prey. However, even the magnificent Martial has its Achilles heel. This species is now classified as Near Threatened on the Red Data List as it has disappeared from large parts of its former range. It is a species which requires large, undisturbed territories and an adequate prey base; these requirements are increasingly only met in protected areas. It is an uncommon breeding resident throughout the Okavango woodlands with huge, platform nests advertising its presence. It is a protected bird in Botswana.

WOODLANDS

75


Swamp

Boubou

The “whistle and ratchet-like cackle� duet of a pair of Swamp Boubous Laniarius bicolor is a characteristic sound of the Okavango, and a good way of locating this species. Its preferred habitat is dense thickets and tangled undergrowth of riparian vegetation on the fringes of waterways, but it occasionally ventures out into papyrus swamps as shown here.


Southern

Ground Hornbill

The Southern Ground Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri is a fascinating species; among other things, it is a co-operative breeder where all members of the group, in addition to the single breeding female, gather food in their pick-hammer bills and return to the nest-hole to feed the offspring. Despite these efforts, only one chick is ever raised per breeding attempt; the second-hatched dies from sibling competition.


Holub’s Golden

Weaver

All that glitters is not gold! A dazzling male Holub’s Golden Weaver Ploceus xanthops is worth his weight in gold as he skillfully constructs a finely-woven nest for his mate, a process that takes a mere seven days from start to finish. Since this species is monogamous, the male will weave three or four nests from which his mate will choose only one; the others will be used as snug overnight accommodation by Black-faced Waxbills!


Southern Brown-throated

Weaver

The Southern Brown-throated Weaver Ploceus xanthopterus is best seen in Shakawe, at the interface between the riparian woodland and adjacent papyrus swamps and reedbeds. However it is quite widespread throughout the Delta and can also be encountered at the distal end of the Okavango system, along the Boteti River. The specific name xanthopterus refers to the bright yellow flight feathers.


Verreaux’s

Eagle-Owl

Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl Bubo lacteus is an awesome giant – the largest owl in Africa. An idea of its sheer power and rapaciousness can be gauged from the fact that it routinely displaces large eagles from their nests and appropriates them as its own. It feeds mainly on large birds, but also habitually kills mongooses, hares and monkeys. There is a record of one killing and eating an African Fish-Eagle at Xudum in the Okavango Delta.


White-headed

Vulture

Scavenging is a highly successful lifestyle for vultures, such as this White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis. Once a carcass is located, after an effortless, gliding search, the vulture is able to fill its crop with meat in six minutes (though an average of 16 minutes is more usual). The bulging white crop on this immature bird contains about 1.5 kilograms of meat and will last it for several days.


Lake

Ngami

82

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO


L

ake Ngami is one of the best birding localities in southern Africa, let alone the Okavango Delta. Indeed it is recognized as a separate Important Bird Area (IBA) in its own right by BirdLife International, although it may correctly be

thought of as an integral part of the Okavango. It is fed irregularly by overflow of water from the Delta, and therefore during low-flow years in the past it remained dry; however since 2004 it has once again been filling annually, and continues to

grow in extent. Its attraction as a birding destination is threefold: Firstly, it supports a spectacular array of congregatory waterbirds. There are over 15 waterfowl species which occur regularly at the lake in numbers which exceed

LAKE NGAMI

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83


Black-crowned Night-Heron


of their regional or, in some cases, global popuw 0,5% ulations. These include, among others, Great White Pelican, Western Great Egret, Black-crowned NightHeron, African Spoonbill, Red-billed Teal, Hottentot Teal, Collared Pratincole and Whiskered Tern. Globally threatened birds such as the Wattled Crane, Slaty Egret, Black-winged Pratincole and Lesser Flamingo may also be seen here. The sky is often darkened when this multitude of birds takes to the wing! Secondly, the lake is vitally important as a breeding ground for waterbirds, the offspring of which disperse throughout Africa. Over 40 species of waterbirds have been recorded breeding here in significant numbers. As soon as the annual floodwaters arrive in June, rejuvenating the lake, birds start breeding in droves, contrary to popular wisdom which dictates that these species breed during summer. Little Grebe nests are a mere 10 metres apart in places; Common Moorhens nest in relays, as do Whiskered Terns and Black-winged Stilts, right through until the end of summer; Fulvous Ducks, Southern Pochard and Cape Shoveler all have nests on floating vegetation out in the middle of the lake. The Typha reedbeds provide nesting habitat for colonial species such as Glossy Ibis, Western Great and Intermediate egrets, Grey, Black-headed, Purple and Goliath herons. Flooded, dead acacias are used by breeding African Darters, Reed and White-breasted cormorants, African Sacred Ibis, African Spoonbill and Squacco Herons and Black-crowned NightHerons. For birders who have a special interest in the breeding behaviour of birds, Lake Ngami in full swing takes a lot of beating! Some recent highlights include Great White Pelicans nesting successfully on floating islands of trampled vegetation in the middle of the lake, and the first record of Marabou Storks nesting here, note-worthy in light of the very few southern African sites used by this species.

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85


Red-billed Teal

The third factor that makes the

when it filled for the first time in recent

lake attractive to birders is its

years (covering some 50 km2 in extent),

propensity to produce unexpect-

it was like a huge ephemeral pan with

ed rarities – mostly migrant and vagrant

open mudflats and shallows, but very lit-

waders looking for a summer stop-over.

tle emergent aquatic vegetation. At this

Black-tailed and Bar-tailed godwits, Eur-

time it supported a rich diversity of wad-

asian Curlew, Whimbrel, Common and

ers (with especially large numbers of

Spotted Redshank, Green, Pectoral and

Black-winged Stilts and Caspian Plovers),

Terek sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstone … the

and thousands of ducks, Little Grebes,

list goes on. A visit in spring when these

Common Moorhens and Little Egrets.

migrants are on the wing, is the best time

Flocks of Greater Flamingos were regu-

to see them. The Gull-billed Tern, a spe-

larly recorded, filtering the nutrient-rich

cies last recorded in Botswana by Smith-

‘soup’ in the shallows. Subsequent years

ers in the early 1960s, was seen again at

saw the gradual emergence of extensive

Lake Ngami by a group of dedicated bird-

beds of bulrushes, water lilies and other

ers in 2011!

floating aquatic plants, and with them

The lake is constantly changing and so

came large numbers of African Pygmy

too is the birdlife it supports. In 2004,

Goose, White-backed Duck and African

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86

BIRDS OF THE OKAVANGO


Fulvous Duck

and Lesser jacana. The African Swam-

Ngami is now a large green jewel in an

phen and Allen’s Gallinule also abound

otherwise dry, desiccated environment.

at the lake now that their habitat prefer-

Based on information from the Okavango

ences are met. During this time, the lake

Research Institute, it appears as though

continued to support a burgeoning fish

Lake Ngami will remain a ‘permanent’

population, and with it, increasing num-

wetland – at least for the time being!

bers of piscivorous birds. Five thousand

At present, there are no accommodation

Great White Pelicans, each with a daily

or other facilities at the lake. The best

maintenance diet of 1 kilogram of fish,

way to appreciate the birds is by boat, or

removed at least five tons of fish daily

traditional canoe (mokoro) – a motorised

over an extended period, an indication

boat can cover a large part of the lake,

of the vast productivity of the system.

but the mokoro has the advantage of be-

By 2011, the lake had expanded to over

ing able to penetrate into otherwise inac-

250 km2, pushing out into large areas of

cessible areas. The inaccessibility of the

Camelthorn Acacia erioloba woodland,

lake makes birding here a challenge, but

killing many trees and swamping areas

for those who are prepared to work at it,

that hitherto had been mudflats suitable

the rewards far outweigh any discomfort

for waders. When seen from the air, Lake

or inconvenience.

LAKE NGAMI

87


Whiskered

Tern

As the annual floodwaters reach Lake Ngami, usually in mid-winter, Whiskered Terns Chlidonias hybrida arrive en masse and immediately start constructing their flimsy floating nests, often before attaining full breeding plumage! Breeding continues until the end of summer, but it is not clear to what extent the species is multiplebrooded, or whether pairs are breeding in relays. What is certain though, is that they breed prolifically at the Lake, and over 1,000 individuals have been counted there at times. Consequently the area supports more than 1% of the regional population of this species, thereby qualifying it as an Important Bird Area. The offspring disperse all over southern Africa, underscoring the vital importance of Lake Ngami to the avifauna of the whole region.

LAKE NGAMI 89


Knob-billed

Duck

Ranko (literally Mr Nose) is the Setswana name for the Knob-billed Duck Sarkidiornis melanotos which is sometimes also known as the Comb Duck – all three names make reference to the large fleshy protuberance on the beak of the male, shown opposite. During the breeding season (summer), this appendage becomes considerably enlarged and, you guessed it, the male with the largest knob gets the pick of the females. Despite the badge of rank which the knob symbolizes, the males still frequently resort to fighting, and protracted battles often take place. The resident population at Lake Ngami is augmented during summer by young hatched at the lake, and by intra-African migrants visiting from other countries to the north – at this time, numbers exceed 1% of the global population.

Goliath

Heron

Like a slain giant, a large, unblinking Goliath Heron Ardea goliath chick lies sprawled across its nest at Lake Ngami. This species, the largest heron in the world, normally builds a platform nest in a tall riparian tree or on a low bush over water, so this site is highly unusual. Indeed it is difficult to envisage how the adults could have constructed this nest in water three metres deep, without an existing foundation of some sort for them to alight on. Despite being born right among the crocodiles, or perhaps because of it, this particular individual fledged successfully! The adult Goliath Heron employs a stand-and-wait fishing technique which, although it seems almost pointless, is little different from a fisherman with rod and line waiting for a ‘bite’! Large fish are partly digested before being regurgitated for small chicks.

LAKE NGAMI 91


Black-winged

Stilt

The most noticeable feature of the Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus is of course it’s very long legs – relative to its body size, this species has the longest legs of any bird! These long legs enable it to feed in water of varying depths, where it picks aquatic invertebrates off the water surface. At night, it sleeps standing in shallow water, balancing on a single leg, with its beak tucked back into the wing. It is difficult to imagine how it actually incubates its eggs; the long legs in this case would seem to be an encumbrance. However, after considerable shuffling about on the nest, which is built in shallow water, the adult finally – and gracefully – folds the legs and sits down carefully on the eggs! Another of nature’s small miracles.

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Little

Grebe

When Lake Ngami started filling for the first time in recent years, in 2004, there was an immediate influx of thousands of Little Grebes Tachybaptus ruficollis. These dumpy small birds don’t impress one with their powers of flight, and they are never seen flying during the day; where they came from is a mystery. Even more incredible is how they knew Lake Ngami had water!


African

Swamphen

It took several years for the African Swamphen Porphyrio madagascariensis to colonise Lake Ngami after it started flooding again. This is because bulrushes – a key component of the swamphen’s habitat – were not present until more recently. The swamphen, although noisy, is skulking and secretive like all members of its family – making every sighting special.


African Sacred

Ibis

The ancient Egyptians regarded this ibis as sacred, believing it to be the incarnation of Thoth, their God of wisdom and learning. Despite this reverence, all that remains of the African Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus in North Africa are graphic representations in pyramids and antique ruins. Fortunately it is still widespread in wetland habitats throughout sub-Saharan Africa, including the Okavango Delta where it is common. A peculiar feature of the adult is its naked, black neck (the bird depicted here is an immature with a motley, feathered neck). This may be a secondary sexual characteristic which differentiates the age classes; certainly the neck plays a prominent role during courtship displays when it is inflated.

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Pete Hancock

Since an early age, Pete Hancock has been passionate about wildlife, including birds, and has spent his whole career working for conservation. By his own admission, he is a ‘Delta freak’ and spends most of his working time – and of course, all the rest of his time – in this world-famous wetland. Pete is also a keen bird photographer whose images have been published in regional birding magazines.

Birding Botswana Birding Botswana is a specialist birding operation based in the tourist capital of

Travel Advisory

Botswana – Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta and Lake Ngami. It was established to meet the needs of birders who want to be professionally informed about the birding possibilities in Botswana. General travel agencies and tour operators concentrate on ‘standard’ game-viewing tours and usually do not know what birders want and need, nor can they be expected to have an in-depth, first-hand knowledge of birds. They cater for the ‘generalist’ traveller; Birding Botswana caters specifically for BIRDERS. The birding safaris are run by Richard Randall, the top bird guide in the country. Richard is a passionate birder-naturalist with more than 40 years of birding experience in southern Africa. His first birding trip in Botswana was in 1977 and since then he has developed an intimate knowledge of all the prime birding destinations in the country. Having guided many birding groups, Richard knows birders’ needs. He has a thorough knowledge of Botswana, its birding possibilities, the best localities and where to stay and how to travel in the country. He will be pleased to tailor-make a birding itinerary for you.

To get the best out of birding in Botswana, contact Richard at richardrandall6152@yahoo.com or visit his website at

www.birdingbotswana.com


Albert and Marietjie Fronemen

A passion for photographing birds and nature has taken them to remote wildlife destinations across Southern Africa in search of that perfect image. Both are acclaimed nature photographers and they have received multiple local and international awards for their photography, and their photographs have been published widely in numerous books, magazines and calendars.

They use a

selection of professional Nikon digital cameras and lenses with the 500mm f/4 being their preferred choice for bird photography. Birds are their subjects of choice and this publication pays tribute to their favourite destination. They are based in Johannesburg, South Africa and lead photographic workshops and safaris throughout Southern Africa. Marietjie has a Ph.D. in Zoology and currently has a research fellowship at the University of Pretoria. Albert is an ornithologist by training and during 2006 he started his own business AFRIMAGE Photography specialising in wildlife photography and environmental consulting.

AFRIMAGE Photography AFRIMAGE Photography provides specialised bird and wildlife photographic safaris to prime destinations across Southern Africa. Join Albert and Marietjie on an instructional photo safari or workshop and learn from the experts how to improve your wildlife photography skills. Group sizes are small in order to provide an opportunity for personalised tuition at your own level of expertise. The events aim to assist enthusiastic photographers in capturing unique bird and wildlife images. Time will be spent with each participant both in the field and behind the computer to ensure that they get the most from their equipment and the images they have created. Destinations are handpicked to provide special photographic opportunities and comfortable accommodation. For more information, up to date schedules and to make a booking visit their website at

www.wildlifephotography.co.za


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