Text and Photos by Pompie Burger | Main photograph: Long-toed Lapwing. Photo ©Pompie Burger
“Enjoy your stay on the one island in Africa where four countries meet,”…or, even better: “Enjoy your stay on the island where over 450 bird species meet.” Judging by the strange shape of the African Openbill (Anastomus lamelligerus), even this bird couldn’t believe that so many different bird species could fit into such a small area. The huge flocks seemed to have him agape!
This island on the eastern tip of the Caprivi, bordered in the north by Zambia, in the south by Botswana, and in the east by Zimbabwe, could just as well be called one of the ultimate birding spots in the world. If you think this is far-fetched, go and see for yourself! You may change your mind, and if not, you will in any case have had a most enjoyable stay.
Arriving at Impalila Lodge by boat, you are welcomed ceremoniously by a ‘rent-a-crowd’ group, that is if you exclude the African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus) strolling on the water-lily leaves at the entrance. The same ‘crowd’ (except for the Jacana) will bid you farewell on your departure with much the same enthusiasm, depending on your behaviour during your stay.
Trying to keep an article on birding at Impalila short and sweet is impossible – well, it is possible if you leave out all mention of the excellent cuisine, the impressive luxury accommodation, the beautiful setting under the massive baobab tree overlooking the Mambova Rapids, the abundant wildlife and the exceptional hospitality of your hosts and, of course, the rent-a-crowd contingent.
If by any chance you’re a keen angler, you can look forward to the exciting sport of catching tiger fish, (as long as you don’t disturb the bird-watchers).
The waterways in front of and to the north of the island are best explored in mekoro (dugout canoes), as the rapids make it rather difficult to do it any other way. A very special sighting in this area is the summer migrant, the Rock Pratincole (Glareola nuchalis). These birds nest on the rocks in the rapids, and if you’re as lucky as we were, with a poler who can manoeuvre the mukoro between these rocks while minding the rapids and the crocs and still get you into a favourable viewing spot, you should get some good pictures of these cute little birds.
I must refer to the Zambezi River as mighty, because to a Namibian like me, who always thought a river was a sandy track through which you can drive in your 4×4 vehicle, the Zambezi was a bit of a culture shock. On the sand banks along the Zambezi, you’ll have the opportunity of catching a glimpse of the endangered African Skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris). They usually share these sandy beaches with the odd Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida) and a lapwing or 60. A definite certainty on any trip on the Zambezi is a sight of the African Marsh-Harrier (Circus ranivorus), flying buoyantly over the marsh in search of small mammals and birds. The nesting suburbs of the beautiful Southern Carmine Bee-eaters (Merops nubicoides) are a must on this trip.
The grassland along the river also hosts some interesting birds, such as the African Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus) and the Fan-tailed Widowbird (Euplectes axillaris). Early in the morning, look out for the seldom seen but often heard Black Coucal (Centropus grillii) and the common Coppery-tailed Coucals (Centropus cupreicaudus) sunning themselves. If you look very closely, you might even catch a glimpse of the very rare sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei). On the short grassland plains, look out for the near-threatened Rosy-throated Longclaw (Macronyx ameliae). Unfortunately you’ll have to get out of your boat to look for this rarity.
The boat trip to the Chobe River is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for various reasons, but somehow it is a rather sad place, because of the over-utilisation of the surroundings. During late afternoon the area can look like rush hour in Windhoek’s Independence Avenue. The trip through the Kasai Channel will provide an opportunity for some excellent birding. Each time we pass through, I wonder how we managed to get past this channel without spending the whole day there – this is probably why they give you a ‘driver’ for your boat! African Pygmy-Geese (Nettapus auritus) love this area, gliding serenely between the water lilies, while the Lesser (Microparra capensis) and African (Actophilornis africanus) Jacana rather favour the surface of the lily leaves. The reeds along the channel provide refuge for the Green-backed Heron (Butorides striata), and the African Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis).
Reaching the Chobe River floodplain is like arriving in a bird-watchers’ paradise. Pablo Picasso said everything you can imagine is true. Well, I couldn’t ever imagine such abundance. The Long-toed Lapwings (Vanellus crassirostris), Yellow-billed Storks (Mycteria ibis) and Black-winged (Glareola nordmanni) and Collared (G. pratincola) Pratincoles also seem to love this place.
Forgive me if I sound a bit blasé about not mentioning the African Fish-Eagles (Haliaeetus vocifer) sitting on almost every second tree, or the African Darter (Anhinga rufa) that we had to push aside to slip past in our boat. The numerous Malachite (Alcedo cristata), Pied (Ceryle rudis) and Giant (Megaceryle maxima) Kingfishers (by the way, the catch-and-release rule doesn’t apply to these anglers) will let you know that this is big-time fishing country.
The slow-flowing streams with overhanging branches give perfect refuge to the highly secretive but much sought-after African Finfoot (Podica senegalensis). Fortunately I haven’t seen one yet, so I’ll have to go back. The floodplains usually teem with water birds, each doing their own thing. Various herons, storks and egrets, such as the Rufous-bellied Herons (Ardeola rufiventris), and the Slaty Egret (Egretta vinaceigula) can be seen fiddling around in the mud.
Raptors are well represented in the area, the Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalus), Western Banded Snake-Eagle (Circaetus cinerascens), Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), Black Kite (Milvus migrans) and Dickinson’s Kestrel (Falco dickinsoni) are but a few that you should look out for. At night the African Wood-Owl (Strix woodfordii) and African Barred Owlet (Glaucidium capense) are two of the not-so-common owls that can be found there.
Last but not least is the island itself, which can be explored on foot, or from the pool deck with a beer in hand. The Yellow-bellied Greenbul (Chlorocichla flaviventris) is by far the common species, while the Arrow-marked Babblers (Turdoides jardineii) are the most vocal of the lodge guests. The White-browed Robin-Chat (Cossypha heuglini) is known for its verbal diarrhoea early in the morning and late afternoon. Other regulars to look out for in and around the lodge are the Brown Firefinch (Lagonosticta nitidula), Swamp Boubou (Laniarius bicolor), Ashy Flycatcher (Muscicapa caerulescens) and Brown-crowned Tchagra (Tchagra australis), as well as a bouquet of at least seven different sunbirds.
The opportunity to see a Pel’s Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli) makes the walking trail on the island a must, and a visit to Impalila non-negotiable. I am one of the privileged few who have seen this enigmatic bird. If by now you’re gaping like an African Openbill, please close your mouth, a fly or mosquito might fly in, and you’ll probably not enjoy that as much as you would spotting the Ashy Flycatcher.
About the author:
Based in Windhoek, Pompie Burger is an orthopaedic surgeon whose part-time passion is photography, in particular wildlife, and specifically birds. This regularly takes him to the most remote corners of the country, resulting in riveting images and articles.
Pompie is the author and photographer of the coffee table book Birds of Namibia, which was published in 2008. The book contains articles and photographs which attest to the insight and knowledge of an accomplished observer.
Read more of his articles in our Birding Section.
Flamingo August 2008