Text and photos by Pompie Burger
Main photo: Lilac breasted roller. Photo ©Pompie Burger
The piano keys are black and white, but they sound like a million colours in your mind. – Katie Melua
Three kinds of tourists visit the Etosha National Park – the campers, the waterholers and the drivers. Each of these subspecies has its own personality, reflected in the ways they go about their business in and around the park.
This article is not directed at the drivers, because they are already converted. It targets the uninformed; the campers who tend to spend their entire Etosha holiday around the waterholes of the three different camps. The waterholers, on the other hand, are a little more adventurous, because they venture forth from the safety of the camp and drive to the nearest waterhole, where they spend the rest of the day waiting for the animals and birds to come to them and do their thing. The drivers are obviously the outrageously brave group of people who leave the camp at sunrise, often returning only at sunset, looking for their destiny all over the park and returning home well satisfied.
The larks in Etosha, and for that matter throughout Namibia, have been my Achilles heel for many years. Ever since I started looking past their black, white and grey colours and became receptive to the million colours of their beautiful calls, I realised that there is a vast world of bird-watching waiting to be explored out there on the plains. Apparently the larks’ calls are quite useful for identification purposes, but unfortunately that is something I have yet to master.
Driving around in the park will enable you to see three of the world’s largest birds in action. The biggest of these, the Ostrich, is a special for local Namibians, and even more so for the overseas tourists. Ostriches belong to a group of flightless birds called the ratites and are formidable foes, capable of running at high speeds. Their large-toed feet are used in defence or attack. With a powerful downward-racking kick, they can severely injure a fully-grown lion. The Kori Bustards are not to be outdone, being of the largest flying birds in the world. Next in line is Ludwig’s Bustard, a rather special bird, and not seen very often. So be on the lookout for these large fellows, especially in the western part of Etosha.
As far as elegance and style are concerned, the Lesser and Greater Flamingos on Fischer’s Pan and the Blue Cranes on the plains around Namutoni top the list. The Blue Cranes are a very special group of birds, not only because they are endemic to Southern Africa and are endangered, but also because the group in Etosha is an isolated occurrence in Namibia. The Crowned Cranes used to occur on the Andoni Plains after good rains, but I’ve not see one there yet.
To add a bit of colour to the, at times, rather drab-looking plains, the European Bee-eaters visit the park during the rainy season. The main concern of these overdressed and over-groomed visitors from Europe is to reduce the insect population in the park. I must confess that on many occasions I’ve done the waterhole thing with them, spending hours in their company from the comfort of my vehicle. Fortunately the Lilac-breasted Rollers and Crimson-breasted Shrikes fill the gap during the winter months, adding colour and splendour at this dry time of the year.
What the clamourers lack in colour and size, they add in noise, being a very important element of the plains of Etosha. The locals might call the Helmeted Guineafowls administration chickens because of their abundance, but the array of noises they produce is quite formidable. The Red-billed Francolins are good competition, especially early in the morning when they are rather talkative and very loud. The lapwings are an extremely loud bunch of birds, especially when disturbed. Apparently they’re not impressed by size. I’ve witnessed a group of elephants being on the receiving end of these ferocious and irritable little birds. The Northern Black Korhaan has a very impressive aerial display and with that, the very characteristic kraak-kraak call so typical of the plains.
I must confess that driving around the park in the middle of the day has its quiet and even boring moments, when even the most enthusiastic birds are apparently also taking a break from the ever-demanding tourists. These siesta hours are therefore quite a good time to do some bonding with your co-holidaymakers in the vehicle. In our vehicle, these times are usually spent fighting about various trivialities such as what music we should listen to or who is invading whose personal space.
For a more sedate and tranquil mood one should look no further on the plains, but rather settle at one of the waterholes and watch the Red-billed Teal, Comb Duck and Egyptian Goose paddling quietly on the water. Each year during the rainy season, I am once again impressed at how soon the new water birds arrive after the first rain has fallen. Some of the more interesting arrivals we’ve come across are the Great Snipe, Lesser Moorhen, Black-winged Stilt and Abdim’s Stork. Once we even saw a Green-backed Heron, but I suspect that he was lost.
The rainy season is by far the peak bird-watching time, for various reasons, which needless to say excludes the swimming-pool brigade. Migrant birds add a lot of colour to the menu. The behaviour of the male species (again not the swimming-pool variety) with their elaborate displays really does make a huge and lasting impression. Another interesting and important addition to the bird-watching possibilities during the rainy season is the various pools along the road, where many unlikely birds make their appearance for a drink or a bath. Wattled Starlings, Red-billed Queleas and Shaft-tailed Whydahs are but a few of the interesting visitors to these little pools.
The silent birds of the plains are the Spotted Thick-knee, Double-banded Courser and Temminck’s Courser, to mention a few. Somehow, I think God created the Thick-knees specifically for photographers such as myself, so that for a change we can take pictures of birds that don’t jump around or fly off as soon as they see the Nikon sign. The Double-banded Courser nests on bare open spaces, which gives them a good view of the surroundings and early signs of danger. These birds lay a single egg in the open, trusting that the cryptic markings on it will help it merge into the surroundings.
The Secretarybird is the schizophrenic inhabitant of the park, as it’s not sure whether to be mean and aggressive like a raptor or to behave in a ladylike manner like a crane, strolling along importantly with its black Capri, grey waistcoat and long eyelashes.
Dave Matthews once wrote a song called Gravedigger, with the plea: “When you dig my grave, could you make it shallow, so that I can feel the rain?” I wouldn’t mind being buried on the plains of Etosha, but please make my grave shallow, so that I can feel the rain and hear the million colours.
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 September 2007 magazine