Birding on the Chobe River

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Text: Pompie Burger

“All great adventures have moments that are really crap” -Ellen Potter

 

To begin an adventure by expecting such moments sounds cynical. Without going into too much detail one needs to understand the essence of bad moments. Although this piece of poetry needs to get past Elzanne, it will suffice to say that everything in life has a good and a bad side (yin and yang). Sometimes the bad is so overwhelming that the good becomes invisible. At the Chobe River, the good is so prodigious that you do not realise that there are indeed moments so bad they are in fact not forgettable.

An African Skimmer, White-winged Terns and a Reed Cormorant join forces on a beach, Pompie Burger.
A Red-billed Oxpecker inspecting the back of a hippo, Pompie Burger.
A Western Cattle Egret ready to be trampled by an elephant, Pompie Burger.

Birding on the Chobe floodplains is like falling into a big bowl of ice-cream, without the negative side effects of eating too much of it. Being a boatman for a bird watcher or bird photographer must be exhausting. Stopping every few metres for yet another bird. Imagine how tiring it must be for the photographer!

When talking Chobe, most people think Botswana, but the Chobe River, in fact, forms part of the border between Namibia and Botswana (remember the Kasikili Island dispute?). There are three lodges on the Namibian side of the Chobe River from where you can do your expedition to the floodplains of milk and honey. Unfortunately, when the water level of the river is too low for boats, it becomes a problem to reach the floodplains from some of the lodges.

Your first stop must certainly be at the rapids because on the rocks you will see Rock Pratincoles and the White-winged Tern (look for the earphones on their heads). Water Thick-knees, Reed Cormorants and Whiskered Terns are common on the rocks, while Yellow-billed Storks like to settle in the surrounding trees.

As far as floodplains are concerned, it won’t get much better than this. Even if you are not into birding, wildlife like elephant, buffalo, hippo, crocodile and a large variety of antelope will keep you busy. There are few places in the world where one can get so close to wild animals that you can even smell them. The added advantage is of course that you can also get just as close to birds like the Red and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers feeding on the hippos and buffalo, and Western Cattle Egrets walking under and around elephants’ feet. If you look carefully you can even spot a dung beetle on the dung. In fact, if all else fails – which is highly unlikely – well, just enjoy a regular sundowner trip!

A very special and endangered species the Longtoed Plover, Pompie Burger.
The good, bad and the ugly. (Dead fish, African Fish Eagle and Marabou Stork), Pompie Burger.
A very special and endangered species: the Longtoed Plover. Te good, bad and the ugly. (Dead fish, African Fish Eagle and Marabou Stork).One of the specials of the Chobe: a Slaty Egret fishing in the shallow waters, Pompie Burger.
An African Darter taking a breather on a dead tree in the food plain, Pompie Burger.

The banks of the main river in Chobe National Park are a good place to get close to where African Fish Eagles and Giant, Woodland and Pied Kingfishers can often (read: always) be seen. You will even see a few passing speedboats and, under extreme conditions, lions. Massive tourist boats with ‘thousands’ of people looking for the Big Five are in abundance (I think you can even smell them – the Big Five, not the tourists).

Because the area consists mainly of floodplains there are not many trees, but the odd dead tree provides a place for birds to take a breather. Darters, terns, cormorants and kingfishers like to do their fishing from these vantage points.

The grass plains and floodplains are the most common habitat of various egrets and herons. They are so common you might get bored at some stage. Fortunately, there are the specials such as the Rufous-bellied Herons and Slaty Egrets to prevent that from happening. Collared and Black-winged Pratincoles are another very special breeding migrant seen on the grass plains. During summer large flocks of African Openbill either feed in the marshes or fly overhead in their hundreds.

A male and female Pied Kingfsher, Pompie Burger.
A Collared Pratincole showing of its flying skills, Pompie Burger.
Rock Pratincole on the rocks, Pompie Burger.

Raptors are not as common as one would expect but if you want to see a Bateleur or a Western Osprey, this is the place to be. Depending on how successful the crocodiles have done their hunting and eating, you may see a bouquet of vultures finishing the job for them. The most common and prized raptor sighting is the African Marsh Harrier, a near endangered species. They can often be seen where dead fish and leftovers are lying around. Here they compete with Marabou Stork, African Fish Eagle and other scavengers. Interestingly enough, lapwings are usually in the vicinity to give the raptors some much-needed company. If you find a Rosy-throated Longclaw on the grass plains, you can just as well go home and phone me. You have won the big prize.

The “beaches” are always worth a stop: breeding African Skimmers (endangered species) are an exciting novelty. From here they also do their fishing (without getting their lines wet). The White-faced Whistling Duck usually occurs in bigger groups, sometimes up to a hundred or more, or less. It is a spectacular sighting when they take off in large numbers when disturbed. If you run (drift) into one of the Nikon Bird Photography Boats (you cannot miss them), just keep calm and smile when one of those canon-size lenses points in your direction, it may get you onto Nat Geo Wild.

The reeds and grass along the river are good places to look for bee-eaters and swallows. Be on the lookout for Blue-cheeked, Little, White-fronted and Southern Carmine Bee-eaters. The Carmines breed along the Zambezi River during summer. If you start a small fire (braai) in the grass you may attract Carmines hunting for insects. Purple Heron can often be seen along the river, with Fan-tailed Widowbird and Stone Chat decorating the tips of the reeds.

The channels provide an entirely different habitat for the African Purple Swamphen, Allen’s Gallinule, Squacco Heron and Dwarf Bittern. This is also an ideal area to find the Malachite Kingfisher and, if you are lucky, the Half-collared Kingfisher. African and Lesser Jacana prefer the backwaters where African Pygmy Geese are also not to be missed.

On Impalila Island you may find the odd Pel’s Fishing Owl, but only if you have an extremely brilliant guide. During spring, when a lot of the acacia and albizia trees are in bloom, the Sunbirds are in full force and dressed to kill. Amethyst, Collared, Copper, Scarlet-chested, White-bellied and Marico Sunbirds are then in abundance. If you happen to see Shelley’s Sunbird you are allowed to be thrilled.

 

FOOTNOTE (THE REAL MCCOY / WARE JAKOB):

The only bad, sad issue is the number of boats with tourists on the river. As the authorities try to limit vehicles on the river bank of Chobe National Park, we hope they will consider limiting the number of boats on the river. One can only imagine what the long-term ecological effect will be if this overcrowding continues, not to mention my personal psychological deterioration.

Two White-fronted Bee-eaters sitting in front of their nest on a sand bank, Pompie Burger.
A Juvenile Bateleur sitting on crap, Pompie Burger.
African Marsh Harrier: one of the specials of the food plains, Pompie Burger.
The Lesser Jacana is a much sought after bird in the back waters, Pompie Burger.
An albizia feeding a Collared Sunbird, Pompie Burger.
This article was published in the Autumn 2018 issue of Travel News Namibia.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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