Namibia, Botswana and Zambia Aug 13—28, 2006
Posted by Geoff Lockwood
Etosha's waterholes are always special places on this tour. The lure of water in the drying landscape of the park means that one only has to sit quietly and enjoy an endless procession of birds and animals coming in to drink. The scene changes from minute to minute and no two days are ever the same. Water is life, but it can also mean death as a variety of mammalian and avian predators stake out these waterholes, and are often seen.
This year we arrived at the Klein Okevi waterhole just as the first flocks of Burchell's Sandgrouse came in to drink. Namibia experienced its best rainy season in decades last summer and the sandgrouse had obviously done very well. We saw many more of these birds than on previous tours. Flocks of up to 30 birds would arrive, circle warily, and then land just short of the water's edge. They would then dash forward, snatch a few sips of water, and then explode into flight—keen to get away from a potentially dangerous place.
Several males obviously had chicks sheltering somewhere away from the waterhole as, after drinking, they would wade into the shallows and perform strange rocking or bobbing actions in order to thoroughly soak their uniquely adapted belly feathers so as to carry water back to their young. In the midst of this activity a pair of Ostrich arrived to drink, followed by a majestic party of four greater kudu bulls, their spectacular spiraled horns glinting in the early morning light. A solitary oryx and several springbok arrived, creating an iconic Etosha waterhole scene of different types of game drinking together. We were so absorbed in the scene and all the activity that it came as a shock when an elephant suddenly materialized in front of the vehicle and walked up to the water. None of us had heard it approach! It was joined by another, and the rest of the game moved away from the water to wait their turn.
The elephants did not deter the birds, however, and a succession of brightly-colored Violet-eared and Black-cheeked waxbills and Yellow Canaries painted the dry, gray bush with vivid splashes of color as they came to drink. Numbers of Rufous Sparrows together with big flocks of Red-billed Queleas (Africa's "feathered locust") added to the constant bustle.
The excellent rains in Namibia last season meant that there was still abundant grazing on the western side of Etosha. Perhaps because of this, our vigil at Okakeujo's famous floodlit waterhole was less productive than usual, but a bad night at Okakeujo usually beats a good night in most other places! As dusk fell, numbers of springbok, oryx, and blue wildebeest moved in and out of the waterhole, several black-backed jackals scurried around, and a solitary spotted hyena drank briefly before loping off.
At last the first black rhinoceros appeared and made its way down to the water, soon to be joined by a female with a well-grown calf. She made her way to where water was being piped to augment the natural spring, preferring the fresher water from the pipe to the decidedly "smelly" stuff in the waterhole itself. She drank deeply for a while before moving closer to where we were standing—eventually feeding only yards away, just on the other side of the fence. She then returned to the water and, while she was drinking, her calf took the opportunity to suckle, half lying on its side as it did so.
A familiar screech heralded the arrival of a Barn Owl, and a rustling just below us on the other side of the low wall drew our attention to a lesser spotted genet happily feasting on the insects attracted to the floodlights. An elephant appeared and, looking surprisingly tentative, moved towards the water pipe where the rhino cow was still drinking with her calf. After a lot of posturing and "huffing and puffing," the rhino backed down and slowly moved off, leaving the elephant to enjoy the fresher water from the pipe.
More rhino arrived, giving us a final count for the evening of nine, and it was strange to see these so-called "solitary and reclusive" animals greet each other on arrival. Eight giraffe slowly approached, all showing extreme caution before finally awkwardly settling, slay-legged, to drink. Several times they startled clumsily to their feet and looked around to check for predators, and then, once their thirst was quenched, finally strode off into the darkness.
Not for nothing are the spectacular Victoria Falls regarded as one of the world's natural wonders. Looking down along the 1,800 yards-long face of the falls and watching the sun set through the mists of Mosi oa Tunya—"the smoke that thunders"—is always a highlight on this tour, but our stay in Livingstone, Zambia usually offers great birding as well. This year's boat trip on the mighty Zambezi River above the falls proved even more exciting than usual. Shortly after launching, the first of two female African (Peter's) Finfoots was spotted quietly swimming along under the overhanging vegetation along the bank of one of the islands, but she left the water and disappeared amongst the luxurious growth before the group could get on to her. Fortunately, the next bird was a lot more accommodating and we all had great views of her picking her way along the shoreline. Next came superb, close views of a party of Water Thick-knees and our first good views of stunning White-headed Lapwings, close enough to clearly see their spectacular carpal spurs.
On a recently emerged sandbar we found a pair of African Skimmers which took to the air calling loudly at our approach. We zigzagged our way between the islands, coming close to several pods of hippos (which stared at us in curiosity before snorting and submerging), and also to some impressively large Nile crocodiles.
In a quiet backwater a flash of peacock-blue and a strident "seek—seek" call alerted us to a Half-collared Kingfisher, which settled long enough for all to get good looks. We carried on. A little farther Bill spotted a large raptor perched on one of the fronds of a palm. We circled back and enjoyed great close views of an adult Banded Snake-Eagle.
The next island brought us within yards of a group of three elephant feeding right on the water's edge. After an irritable toss of their heads and much flapping of ears, the elephants moved away onto the island and we went looking for our next target bird—the absolutely gorgeous Rock Pratincole. Surprisingly, there were only a few birds visible on the newly emerged rocks in the rapids, but with superb skill our boatman maneuvered our jet boat to within two yards of a roosting bird, and held station while the group enjoyed our best views ever of this attractive shorebird!
The next excitement came in the form of a Dickinson's Kestrel perched on the stump of a dead palm, and yet further good views of the Banded Snake-Eagle. After a comfort stop on one of the islands and a welcome cup of coffee, we raced downstream through the rapids to be dropped off in front of our hotel—a truly magical morning!
Walvis Bay Pre-trip: On our last morning on Namibia's arid coastline we visited the Walvis Bay Salt Works, one of the largest in the world. We had been granted special access to the oyster farm situated at the salt water intake of the works, and our quest was the African Black Oystercatcher—a bird that had thus far evaded us during our two-day search of the coast.
Driving along the berm wall we were treated to flocks of Cape Teal, Eared Grebes, and, on the exposed mudflats of the bay itself, large numbers of gorgeous Chestnut-banded Plovers. Several tiny Damara Terns, their ridiculously abbreviated tails making them look almost bat-like, hovered next to our vehicle before plunging to snatch small fish from the water. Ruff—some still bearing traces of their spectacular breeding plumage, Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, and Marsh Sandpipers had been added to the list by the time we reached the intake, and there they were—at least 30 oystercatchers sheltering from the strong breeze in the lee of the berm. Two Eurasian Curlews were hunkered down with them, and a solitary Terek Sandpiper dozed nonchalantly on one leg close to our group.
Several Great White Pelicans, along with Cape and Crowned cormorants perched next to the race where the water was entering the works, ready to snatch up any fish that were stunned or disoriented by the turbulent water. They were so close that one could study the texture of the bill-pouch skin and the breeding plumage of the pelicans, the latter delicately suffused with pink. Behind them, stretching as far as the eye could see, were thousands of Greater Flamingos—wading, feeding, flying—their delicate pastel colors caught and reflected in the pewter-colored water, creating a scene of indescribable beauty. Here and there splashes of brighter salmon-pink indicated the presence of Lesser Flamingos, the first arrivals from their breeding grounds on Botswana's Makadikadi Pans.
Honking, goose-like calls drowned out the noise of the in-rushing water, and even made talking difficult—a breathtaking way to take leave of the coast!