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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Pot's Spectacular Birding Trip Oct/Nov 2014 Part 5

And so the last leg of our Botswana/Zimbabwe trip began. We headed back into Botswana on the 22nd of October and drove all the way to the Kalahari town of Maun, which nestles up against the world famous Okavango Delta. For the uninitiated, large rivers from central Africa flow south-east through Angola and Namibia and into Botswana and Zimbabwe. The Zambezi, the most well known of these rivers, makes it all the way to the east coast of Africa, emptying out into the Indian Ocean on the coast of Mozambique. However, the Okavango River flows into the Kalahari Desert, producing a large delta region in the middle of the desert. Maun lies on one of the main tributaries of the delta and is in every way a frontier town on the edge of the wilderness. While there was every type of shop imaginable, including Nando's takeaway, you were also walking on sand in the desert five metres outside of the city limits! 

We stayed at the Maun Old Bridge Backpackers and were pleasantly surprised at both the ambience created and the quality of accommodation and food provided. It was clearly the local watering hole for many of the town's "characters", but this just added to the overall character of the place. It sat right on the water's edge and the birdlife was prolific. After a sumptuous meal, complete with excellent wines, and then a great night's sleep in "tents", we were ready for our boating safari. 

The next morning we loaded up our boat with our guide, while the cook and a general handyman headed off on a second boat with all of the camping gear and food. 

Heading out onto one of the main tributaries of the delta was rather surreal and it was hard to imagine that we were on a water body that covered an area of over 10,000 square kilometres. However, that was all soon forgotten as the first of the birds began to appear. Within a few minutes we had seen Swamp Boubou (Lifer 17), African Pygmy Goose (Lifer 18 and a long term target), White-faced Whistling Duck, Malachite Kingfisher, Striated (Green-backed Heron) as well as hundreds, and I mean hundreds of Jacana, Egrets, Squacco Herons and dozens of African Fish Eagles.

About an hour into the trip we came across our first elephants, literally only a few metres from the boat - what extraordinary animals they are and it was a new experience seeing them from the angle of a relatively small boat looking up at them from ankle level! 

We also spotted a smallish bird of prey about 200m from the boat but my trusty camera enabled us to get a decent view, confirming it as a Dickinson's Kestrel (Lifer 19 - YES!), but we then forgot birding as we negotiated a pod of very unhappy hippos - who put on a convincing act of trying to eat the boat. I keep telling my students that birding is an extreme sport, but they just won't believe me - poor, misguided things. The rest of the morning was spent quietly making our way further north-west towards the Moremi National Park which borders the northern edge of the delta. The sun was shining, the views were breath-taking in their expansiveness, birds and elephants were everywhere and the human company on the boat was delightful. Now this was the life! 

After a few hours of traversing the Okavango we pulled over to the shore and enjoyed a fantastic cold meat and salad lunch. There we sat, on comfy desk-chairs, on the edge of the Okavango Delta with not a another soul in sight, enjoying the sounds of Africa - talk about therapeutic! And as we sat there along came a party of Hartlaub's Babblers (Lifer 20) who proceeded to hang about in the branches of the trees above us, busily checking out everything in their path. A Chirping Cisticola called from the rushes and then made a brief but easily identifiable appearance (Lifer 21). I love this sort of birding!

The rest of the day was spent boating further into the delta, navigating the channels, dodging hippos, stalking crocodiles and marvelling at the myriad of birds we encountered. By late afternoon we had reached our home for the next three days - a rudimentary campsite under the canopies of huge trees and ancient palms on the shores of a lagoon. Everything was already set up when we arrived, including our tents and an outdoor loo and shower. Very "Out of Africa"!

Dinner was soon cooking over an open fire while we relaxed with a very pleasant wine breathing in the silence and tranquility. 

At dusk we were alerted to the fact that we had a special visitor - to our amazement and my unbridled joy, a rare Pel's Fishing Owl (Lifer 22) had perched on a branch about five metres above our heads. Unperturbed, it sat there most accommodatingly while I took a ridiculous number of photos! What a magnificent, hauntingly beautiful animal. (Insert deep sigh of contentment). 

We all headed to bed early, worn out from doing nothing but boating along one of the natural wonders of the world! What a brilliant day!!!

Day Two and Three are a blur. We started early each morning, each day heading deeper into the delta by boat. We would then return to the campsite for a late breakfast - sumptuous food with that slight taste of open fire and smoke, and then we would be off again, usually having lunch deep in the delta, and then returning in the late evening to collapse into our tents or having a brief but refreshing shower in the African bush. The rookeries of egrets we saw during the day were prolific, and Fish Eagles swept by the boat on a continuous basis or called to us from the trees nearby. I stopped counting after we had seen a hundred pairs. Mind blowing! 

Squacco Herons, African Jacanas and Little Egrets seemed to appear as a group every 50 metres which we found particularly interesting - clearly some symbiotic relationship was going on there. Pied and Malachite Kingfishers happily continued hunting small insects and other edible water life as we floated past, allowing us to get incredibly close. 

Red Lechwe became more and more common and I was able to get some decent photos of these delightful, yet shy semi-aquatic antelopes. 

We also had spectacular views of Coppery-tailed (Lifer 23 - pictured below) and Senegal Coucals (Lifer 24) - brilliant!  On the third day we finally found Wattled Crane (Lifer 25), a scarce but beautiful bird that had long been on my list. We also picked up Slaty Egret (Lifer 26), with its attractive dark sheen and distinctive yellow feet. 

During one excursion we stopped by a sandbar where we were shown Skimmer nests complete with eggs. Quite something. The expectant parents flew past but seemed unperturbed by our presence and continued "skimming" the surface of the water in search of food. 

Other "highlight" birds seen on the water during these days included Saddlebilled and Yellow-billed Stork, Spurwing Goose, Collared Pratincole, African Darter, Great White Pelican, Martial Eagle, Hamerkop, Rufous-bellied Heron, Water Thick-knee, Striped Kingfisher and Greater Painted Snipe.

In the campsite we had many visitors, including African Green Pigeon, White-browed Robin Chat, African Paradise Flycatcher, Cape Glossy Starling, lots of Hartlaub's Babblers, a troop of pesky Chacma Baboons that woke us up every morning, a resident Tree Squirrel and a couple of Elephants who kept to the outskirts of the camp but otherwise seemed rather oblivious or indifferent to our presence. 

And of course there were the ever-present crocodiles! They stalked us when we were in camp, hoping that one of us would be silly enough to wander down to the edge of the water; they shuffled off sandbars as we went past; they basked on the shores; they tried to hide under the lily pads; in short they were everywhere! 

On our final day, we packed up and commenced the long journey back to Maun. Unfortunately, the boat we were in developed engine trouble soon after we had left camp and while our three guides worked on fixing it in the middle of the Okavango, they accidentally dropped a small but vital bolt into the water. Without a moment's hesitation, one of guides proceeded to strip down to his undies and climbed overboard despite our pleas for him to stay in the boat. The water was about two metres deep and he simply disappeared below the surface. With the memories of very large crocodiles in our minds we held our collective breaths. How on earth was he going to find a small bolt on the bed of the Okavango??? A few moments later, he appeared not only with all limbs attached, but the bolt tightly clenched between his fingers!!!!! He climbed back on board to rapturous applause and immediately went to the top of my all-time hero, hard-core, tough as nails, kahunas made of stone list!

The rest of the trip was completely uneventful and we eventually arrived back at The Old Bridge Backpackers. What an amazing trip - what an extraordinary place! Ten lifers, 104 species identified and memories that will last a life time. If you have never experienced the Okavango, whether you are a birder or not, it must go on your MUST DO list. One of the highlights of my life - as my sister in law Avril would say ..... it was "absolutely splendid"!