… where a vegetable patch is a definite no-no
Text and photos by Pompie Burger – Main photo: Thick-billed weaver.
Imagine staying in a town halfway between two of the most exquisite birding hotspots in Namibia – Impalila Island and Bwabwata Game Park. Imagine a place where you can do your birding from your patio at nine in the morning while having your early-morning G&T or, depending on your persuasion, brandy & coke, watching Schalow’s Turacos do their rounds in the wild fig tree, followed by a group of loud and talkative Trumpeter Hornbills.
The rest of the day can be spent in a leisurely fashion watching various other birds taking turns successively to deplete your fig tree, such as Wattled and Violet-backed Starlings and Crested and Black-collared Barbets. I think if I were a resident of Katima, I’d never leave my patio. I would certainly become a birder of no mean stature, if not an alcoholic.
While some people build feeders and some put out special food to attract birds, in Katima you have to take precautions not to attract birds. In fact you have to try and keep them out of your garden, lest you end up having to compete with a several species of kingfishers to keep the fish numbers in your fish pond higher than the bird count in your garden. A vegetable garden is a definite no-no if you’re planning to grow fresh produce for your dinner table, because the vegetarian birds will be your main opposition. Rather plan to do the poultry thing.
The weavers in Katima are far more varied than the ones found in most standard gardens in Namibia. Thick-billed, Red-headed and the short-sighted Spectacle Weavers decorate your trees and at night you can pick and choose between a possible nine different owl species. In spring, when the first Erythrinas start flowering, and later on when the albizias display their summer finery, you can bet on a display of sunbirds very difficult to match anywhere else in Namibia. My personal favourites are Collared Sunbirds, which found the windscreen of our car dotted with various little goggas far more interesting than the flowers on the trees.
Other welcome visitors to the flower factories are White-bellied, Scarlet-chested and Amethyst Sunbirds. My only concern is that if their somewhat short sorties to the different flowers are sufficient to fill their tiny bellies, it leaves very little time to take good photographs of them.
At a recent congress on the status of raptors in Namibia there were concerns about their dwindling numbers. In Katima, however, there is still an abundance, especially when it comes to a Windhoek novice wanting to see specials such as Long-crested Eagles, Lizard Buzzards and Western Banded Snake-Eagles flying around as if the snake concentration were their only concern in the world. African Fish-Eagles are rather common – the sound of their calls can be compared to the blast of car hooters in Windhoek, an all-too-familiar sound to city dwellers.
Coucals tend to become rather tame, and having a White-browed Coucal breeding in your garden is no real claim to fame in Katima. Others often seen in town are Senegal and Coppery-tailed Coucals. I would say it’s not impossible to wake up in the morning to find a Black Coucal hanging around in your garden, although this may be just a little far-fetched, even for Katima!
If, by any chance, you have a boat in your garage to do the odd trip on the Zambezi, you have a good chance of seeing an African Finfoot along the riverbank under the overhanging water-pear trees, or White-backed and Black-crowned Night-Herons in the reeds. In summertime Rock Pratincoles occupy the rocks protruding from the dwindling level of the Zambezi, while African Skimmers arrive quite early in spring to breed on the sand banks, skimming the river should any fish be foolish enough to come too close to the surface.
Having a house on the banks of the Zambezi is probably as much a status symbol as having a garden gnome in your garden in Windhoek. You’ll also have the novelty of watching hippos playing in the river and you can even do some fishing from your lawn, although this is really for those who have nothing better to do with their drinking time. To have a fishpond in Katima is a bit risky if you’re not a bird-watcher. On the other hand, if you want a fishpond without fish then you’d be like the title character of Fiddler on the Roof with his staircase going nowhere. For my part, I would gladly replace the fish on a daily basis just for the privilege of having a Giant, Pied or Brown-hooded Kingfisher, or even a Rufous-bellied Heron, entertaining me. If you’re getting the impression that I don’t like fish, you’re wrong. I love them, especially when they’re being devoured by these long-billed fishermen.
For those who live in a flat in the middle of town (I’m not even sure that there are flats in the middle of Katima) you can always drive out on the Linyanti road. About 10 kilometres out of town on the road to Rundu you’ll find a mopane woodland, where, with a bit of luck, you’ll see Racket-tailed Rollers, and various other woodland species such as babblers, hornbills, tits, Woodland Kingfishers, Meyers’ Parrots and White-crested and Retz’s Helmet-Shrikes. When planning such a trip, try to start early in the morning. If uncertain about how to reach the area, ask a resident, but be prepared to become lost in the process. Their directions are very much in the mode of “….drive for a few kilometres until you see a guy standing next to the road; just after that you turn right and when you see a go-away bird, you turn left.”
For you unfortunate souls who happen to stay next to the sewerage works, remind yourself that the birding in your backyard is excellent. For the rest of you, since this prospect doesn’t sound too romantic, visit the area only if you’ve not seen all the specials Katima can offer in normal surroundings.
Visiting Katima used to be a problem for me because there’s no game park close by. Nowadays, however, Katima is a must on all my trips because the town is a game park in its own right. Although going to Keetmanshoop via Katima is a bit of a detour, if you’re as serious a birder as I am, it’s worth it. Did I mention that there’s a good chance of having a pair of African Paradise-Flycatchers nesting in your garden, or even a Narina Trogon. But then again, Africa is a tough country!
Contact Katy Sharpe at Tutwa Tourism & Travel for details of birding options in the region.
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.
This article was originally published in the February 2008 Flamingo magazine.
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