Not another GREY GO-AWAY

Not another GREY GO-AWAY

As our skipper slowly turns the boat toward the dock along the bank, a flutter of wings catches my attention in the canopy of the adjacent Ana tree. My brain-eye coordination is still set on “bird spotting mode”, even though our water adventure has come to an end for the day. There, in the lofty canopy, I see the characteristic mohawk-style wispy crest of a Turaco. And I get so very excited. The sun’s incessant glare means my feathered friend is silhouetted against the bright sky, but I know that silhouette, and in the Zambezi Region there is a bird with a similar outline that tries to outsmart me on each visit. The Schalow’s Turaco.

Text Elzanne McCullochPhotographs Elzanne McCulloch

From the Summer 2023/24 issue

O n Wednesday mornings our good friend and resident birding writer and photographer, Dr Pompie Burger, visits our office. Like clockwork, Pompie reminds me it is midweek when he saunters in with his sling bag flung over one shoulder and a delightful goeiemôre. We are not sure if he comes just for the coffee (ours is pretty great) or for the conversation (which is even better), but by hook or by crook, Pompie is there every Wednesday morning. The other days of the week he spends elbow deep in a surgical ward fixing old lady hips or other orthopaedic issues, but when he is not being a surgeon, or drinking coffee and keeping us from work at the office, he is an avid ornithological photographer. Pompie has become my birding spirit guide over the past 10 years, and I am his editor and the bane of his existence, because I keep insisting he cannot swear so much in his stories.

It was on a trip to this very part of the Zambezi River where Pompie first tried to introduce me to Schalow’s. This was the trip on which I would tick off this lifer. He had guaranteed my first spotting. Yet, despite hours of searching, and Pompie swearing by his Roberts that he heard the bird and I should just keep looking in the tree canopies overhead, there was no bright green Turaco to be found. With a sore neck (that the orthopedist didn’t even offer to help fix) and a broken heart, we headed back to Windhoek with a camera roll full of pink Carmine Bee-eaters, but no Schalow’s Turaco. How disappointing.

It was not until a few years later, when I was once again sitting on a deck overlooking the Zambezi, that the tides turned. On a trip completely unrelated to birding I was lazing on a couch with one of the lodge owner’s five dogs, a Great Dane, chilling with its head in my lap. Engrossed in a book, I didn’t notice the visitor until the Dane gave a soft ruff before going back to his doze. There, right in front of me on the deck bannister, sat Schalow’s. Staring at me. He had just appeared out of nowhere, and sat casually out in the open with a hey-what’s-up? facial expression as if I hadn’t been looking for him for years! The cheek.

It was one of those moments in life when serendipity intervened, reminding us that nature always has a way of surprising us when we least expect it. As the Turaco flitted off to the adjacent tree canopy, I jumped up and grabbed my camera – to the Dane’s great annoyance. I had just enough time with this most beautiful Turaco to capture a few shots that have definitely made it to my most-loved list, proving that delayed gratification is always the best. But the moment was over all too soon and with a flash of verdant feathers he was off again to elude another overexcited birder. And I have been looking for him again ever since.

It was one of those moments in life when serendipity intervened, reminding us that nature always has a way of surprising us when we least expect it

Pompie loves this story. Every time he comes for a coffee after one of my visits to the Zambezi he asks if I saw Schalow’s. The answer is usually no. We only met that once.

So, when on the aforementioned boat heading towards the dock, I see the outline in the Ana tree that looks very Schalow-eque, I get incredibly excited. I point it out to my guide and he peers up against the glare, looking none too impressed. And his lack of conviction rings true, and my excitement disappears, when our angle changes with the drifting of the boat and I see that the long-fringed feathered friend above is not bright green and glorious, but a dullest shade of grey… Kwê.

The call sounds from above and my heart sinks below. Just another Grey Go-away Bird. Probably the most aptly named bird of them all. Perhaps it is because they are a rather common species throughout southern Africa, or perhaps it’s their irritating squawk, but the Grey Go-away has never been very high on the list of birds to see while on safari.

With a sigh, I watch the Kwêvoël (in Afrikaans), as it continues to perch in the tree, its slate-grey plumage blending in with the surrounding branches. To be fair, it is a beautiful bird in its own right, with a unique charm. But it is no Schalow’s Turaco.

As another wonderful trip to the Zambezi Region comes to an end, I marvel at my list of avian friends that I encountered. It is that special time of year when thousands of Carmine Bee-eaters migrate to the banks of the Zambezi to breed and they can be seen flitting across the sky in flashes of bright pink and orange, with dazzling turquoise feathers in their wings. Along the riverbanks walk Yellow-billed Storks and Goliath Herons, their long legs reminiscent of a ballerina en pointe as they navigate the waters in search of a fresh meal. Overhead an African Fish Eagle calls from a jackalberry tree’s lofty branches, and on a single reed extended over the water perches the diminutive yet colourfully striking Little Bee-eater. A Purple Heron darts between the brush along the bank. Blink and you’ll miss it. The Zambezi is alive with winged marvels and certainly every birder’s wonderland. I hope you are lucky enough to tick off the lifers of your dreams.

So, with a sense of contentment and gratitude for the Zambezi and its avian residents, I left the dock that day, knowing that every bird, even the humble Grey Go-away Bird, had its own story to tell, and that the world of birdwatching was filled with moments of serendipity and wonder. Perhaps, one day, Schalow’s Turaco will choose to grace me with its presence again in the most unexpected of places. I know I will always be back for another trip. Another cruise on the river in search of new species. Just not another Grey Go-away, please. TNN

Schalow’s Turaco

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