Namibia, Botswana and Zambia Aug 09—25, 2008

Posted by Geoff Lockwood

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Geoff Lockwood

Geoff Lockwood's interest and involvement with birds dates back to his early years at school and forms part of a wider interest in the biodiversity of the Southern Afri...

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Etosha's waterholes are justifiably world-famous for the incredible game viewing they offer. Every day is different and the scene changes constantly, with animals and birds arriving and departing in an endless procession throughout each 24-hour cycle.

The floodlit waterhole at Okaukeujo, Etosha's westernmost camp, is always a fantastic introduction to Africa's wildlife, and so it proved again this year. We arrived in camp late in the afternoon and, after settling everyone into their chalets, we headed for the viewing area on the edge of camp.

A solitary oryx was standing knee-deep, drinking from a surface which mirrored the spectacular sunset, while several springbok—striking, small endemic antelope—wandered off into the approaching dark. Three giraffe stood back from the water, silhouetted against the darkening sky. Water is life in these arid areas, but it can also mean death, as a variety of predators stake out these oases, lying in ambush for those coming to drink. The giraffe carefully scanned the area for danger before cautiously coming down. The first small flocks of Double-banded Sandgrouse began landing, kicking up puffs of dust around the waterhole, then scanning carefully for threats before heading down to the water in a series of dashing runs. Soon hundreds of these birds were arriving, and the air was full of their strange, almost robotic-sounding "too…dee…doo…doo" calls.

A black rhinoceros appeared on the far side of the waterhole and stood slaking his thirst, standing ankle-deep in the water, while the ripples caused by his drinking were reflected by the floodlights as strange moving patterns on his hide. A rhino cow with her calf arrived and, after a brief greeting, moved around the waterhole to a spot just in front of us. She and the calf drank side by side for a while before the calf lay down and began to suckle. In the breathless quiet you could hear the faint mewling sounds as the calf fed. Two more rhino arrived and also began drinking across the waterhole from us—five of these threatened animals in view at the same time! So much for their reputation as solitary and antisocial animals!

Just as we were thinking of turning in, a group of large shapes appeared in the distance, right on the limit of the light-spill—a breeding herd of elephant on the way in! They were almost running as they reached the water and rapidly fanned out around the shoreline in search of favorite drinking spots. Another breeding herd appeared and we were treated to the sight of 27 of these amazing animals—from ancient, scarred matriarchs to calves only months old—drinking and playing in the water. The peace had been shattered and the rhino reluctantly moved away, where they stood waiting for a chance to return.

A spotted hyena came loping in for a drink, only to be chased off by a young elephant bull who was not prepared to allow anyone (or anything) else to share the water. After being chased away several times, the hyena finally managed to slink in and snatch a few mouthfuls!

Our minds reeling from all the images, we headed for bed!

Okondeka, a contact spring on the western edge of Etosha Pan, has always been good to us on previous tours, and we have come to expect great birds and game here. The area is usually great for lion, as game is plentiful and the combination of good, permanent water in proximity to broken ground makes this an ideal ambush for these tawny cats. As we neared the lookout over the spring, we saw the shapes of two lionesses hidden in the grass. A careful search soon located another pair of lionesses hidden in the long grass further off. We then noticed a mixed herd of zebra and springbok crossing the road behind us, heading in to the spring. They were obviously very thirsty, and showed surprisingly little caution as they trotted towards the water…and right into the kill zone!

The two closest lionesses had melted into the grass and were almost invisible. The zebra and springbok moved closer and closer, totally oblivious of the danger. Meanwhile, tensions in our group kept building! Even closer now…and surely the leading animals were in the trap! In a surge of flowing power, the lionesses made their move, and animals erupted in all directions in a confusing maelstrom of dust and moving bodies as they tried to escape.

The zebra that the lionesses had targeted headed straight towards our vehicle, kicking out wildly as both cats tried to sink their talons into its quarters and pull it to the ground. The lions missed only by inches and the zebra managed to pull away, but with the image of these two powerful cats—totally focused and intent, and closing in on their prey—the power and ferocity of Africa in the raw was indelibly seared into our memories!

The mighty Zambezi River in Livingstone is a great place to wrap up our tour and, apart from the awesome spectacle of the Victoria Falls, it usually presents us with some brilliant birding. This year we birded the hotel grounds along the river on our second morning and had one of our best mornings ever on these tours. The good rains earlier in the year meant several large wild fig trees were fruiting, and the abundance of food had drawn flocks of Red-winged Starlings. They were joined by numbers of striking Trumpeter Hornbills that feasted happily, allowing us the best views ever of these comical birds. A pair resting in the sun after a good breakfast eyed us quizzically—as we enjoyed full-frame scope views—before flying off, giving their raucous, crying calls as they joined the rest of the flock in the fig trees.

We continued along the bank, recording a spectacular male Giant Kingfisher perched, quietly scanning a backwater of the river for prey, and then a pair of Pied Kingfishers calling noisily as they flew past heading upstream. A quiet "seek…seeek…" warned of an even more exciting find, and there—perched on a snag low over the water—was a gorgeous Half-collared Kingfisher. This is usually a tough bird on these tours, but this individual seemed intent on making up for poor- or no-shows on previous tours, and gave unbelievable scope views to everyone for several minutes before it was chased off by yet another kingfisher—this time a Brown-hooded Kingfisher. The new bird carried on where the Half-collared Kingfisher had left off, giving us great views of two new kingfishers in less than ten minutes!

It was getting towards breakfast but, as we turned back, Maggie picked up movement in a dense tree on an island across the channel. A scan confirmed the presence of a Schalow's Turaco, and I quickly played a snatch of their harsh, crowing "kok…kok…kok…" calls. Almost instantly, a bird flew towards us, landing just above our heads in a small tree from where it eyed us suspiciously. It was joined by another…and then another…and another…until there were eight of these spectacular birds bounding through the branches with surprising grace, all calling excitedly. The combination of iridescent emerald and peacock-blue plumage, spectacular white-tipped, spike-like crests, together with the most outrageous black, scarlet, and white eye "make-up" made these birds incredibly memorable, and one of the highlights of the trip. And then one flew to the next branch—flashing unbelievable, deep crimson remiges. WOW! Through the scope, the birds seemed close enough to touch, and the colors were even more stunning. They were in no rush to leave, and for the next five minutes we all enjoyed spectacular, best-ever viewing of these fantastic birds as they played above our heads!