Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Birding Trip to Northeast Botswana: Part I

Guest column by Alan & Albert Adler

Background and Preparation   
We decided to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary by taking a birding trip to Africa in the fall of 2016.  We are not avid birders - we do not have life lists nor do we typically “chase” rare birds when they come to the Tucson environs. Especially now that we are in our 60’s and 70’s, our eyes are not so quick to pick out field marks. Having a different pace, even in a small group, can easily lead to the frustration of not being able to spend as long as possible to get a really good view. Therefore, we decided to enjoy the luxury of traveling by ourselves. Though we have been in Jamaica and Costa Rica with a friend, who is an avid and knowledgeable birder, he was not native to those areas, and though there have always been birds that delight where we have traveled, we have never been to a place with large, wild mammals with claws resting by the roadside or walking right by our vehicle. We realized that we wanted a professional guide.




As expense and planning go, the idea of doing our own private safari was daunting. Alan had always had dreams of going to Tanzania and climbing Kilimanjaro, while Albert had the classic dream of a safari on the plains of the Serengeti in Kenya. We realized that there weren’t a lot of places in Africa where it is safe to go. Hmm, what to do?  Additionally, all of the on-line safari companies emphasize lions and big game, not the pleasures of leisurely watching birds. Fortunately, a couple of our friends had recently traveled to Africa and highly recommended one of their guides, a native Motswana, Richard Avilino. They had been impressed by his extensive knowledge of all wildlife and knew he had a particular interest in birds, even having had professional guide training in ornithology. The prospect of birds as well as large mammals excited us; e.g. a Hippopotamus with Red-billed Oxpeckers!




We contacted Richard in April to see whether he would be OK with taking just two people on the trip with a major emphasis on birds. He was enthusiastic and had space for us beginning at the end of November. November and December are prime birding times in Botswana, much like April and May here.  Within a few emails, we had settled on an itinerary and a price. It felt a little scary sending a large deposit by wire transfer to a bank we had never heard of, to the order of a travel company we had never heard of, run by a person we had never met, who lived in a country we only knew about from reading the “Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books. (Those emails from Nigeria promising millions of dollars if you only send them a few thousand came to mind). Nonetheless, we liked Richard on paper and we felt our friends were a good judge of character, so we did it. Lucky us.

Then there were the decisions about where to go. A few people know two things about Botswana besides Precious Ramotswe and JLB Maketoni – the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta. Our time frame was too early for the wildlife surge in the Kalahari salt pans and we only had less than three weeks so we couldn’t spend days in mokoros (flat bottomed canoes, paddled standing up) floating around the delta. Well, we could but it would be a pretty limited view. Richard laid out an itinerary that touched on the delta but also included a variety of other habitats to increase the diversity of birdlife – most were within a vast national park – Chobe – that stretches from the Delta northeastward along the Linyati and Chobe Rivers almost to the border with Zimbabwe. Chobe is about the size of the big island of Hawaii, which may not seem large to us in the U.S. but comprises almost 2% of the landmass of Botswana. Its 4,517 square miles contain over 450 bird species; clearly we would be busy. Given that all the driving would be on one-lane, dirt roads, we would need time to travel.




Another big decision we needed to make quickly was what type of lodging we wanted.  Even in the wilds of Africa there are many “camps”, ranging from self-drive (which we didn’t even know about and seems great for younger adventure travelers) where the tent is raised from a platform on top of the vehicle and you are on your own getting down to the bathroom at night (See why we say younger travelers!); to more accommodating tents with enclosed commodes and showers; to luxurious camps that the wealthy fly in and out of at their leisure. We considered actual camping for a day or two but then decided it was our anniversary and we deserved a little luxury that was provided by the mid-priced range, well-established camps, so we would be sleeping on beds not cots. Almost painlessly, we seemed to have arranged a safari. Richard was immensely helpful with good information and quick responses, and that made all the difference.




Per our instruction, Richard chose three camps (Sango, Savuti, and the Chobe Elephant Camp), though we never were involved in what is commonly known as “camping.” The tent cabins were built on platforms off the ground and consisted of large, thick tenting material that had solid floors, doors that locked, and windows with screens. They contained bathrooms with hot showers. Our room had king-sized beds with comfortable chairs and a writing table. (Insects were never a problem, though repellent and netting were available. And we never had a problem with big game, because we did as we were instructed: we never left our cabin at night.) There was a central dining area with a library, and throughout the day there was an open bar with an excellent selection of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The three meals each day were very well prepared. (Typically, the chef made a formal presentation of the dinner menu, which included wine or an aperitif.) Without exception, we found the food delicious. And perhaps because we were visiting during the Thanksgiving vacation, there were relatively few other guests – mostly Europeans.

An advantage of Botswana travel is no visa is needed for short travel (less than 6 months), so we didn’t have to apply and await clearance.  We wanted to add a trip to Victoria Falls at the end and the visa is cheaper and faster if you just do it at the border crossing rather than apply ahead. We reviewed the CDC website and ordered our malaria medications. And we worked on a neutral pallet for our wardrobe – one of the websites recommended no bright clothing that would attract predators - so Alan had to give up his favorite red running shoes. One thing we didn’t learn before we got there was to take duffel bags instead of suitcases – they pack a little better in a safari truck. We went back and forth about bringing our land telescope and finally opted to bring it. It afforded us great views of some of the smaller birds and distant perching raptors, so we very were glad to have it, even with the extra weight.




The final preparation we did was buy a birding guide to Botswana. We bought the newly published guide, Birds of Botswana, by Hancock and Weirsbye (Princeton Field Guides). We thought it would be lighter weight than the guides to Southern Africa and with more updated information. We were quite pleased with it, and we prepared for the trip by randomly opening pages and writing down names of birds we would like to see based on their loveliness or oddity – hoopoes, korhaans, and coucals. What really caught our eye as well as our imagination was the African Paradise Flycatcher (above). We stated above that we weren’t serious birders.  Nonetheless, we compiled a list of about 175 species we thought we would like to see. Richard reviewed it and added some more onto the list. Once we were on the ground and really trying to identify birds we realized that the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa is of greater use for the tricky identification; so if you are thinking of buying a guide, get that one.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story!

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Alan and Albert Adler have been residing in Tucson since 1998. Alan has been a lifelong birder, and from June 1999 through August 2002, he served as a writer and the volunteer editor of Tucson Audubon's Vermilion Flycatcher. In the spring of 2000, he was very pleased to report that the 32-page “newsletter”, as it was known then, was ranked 1st among those from 10 other “very large” chapters, beating Seattle, Greater Denver, and Fairfax, Virginia in the competition held by the National Audubon Society.  For the past seven years, Alan has volunteered with the Lend A Hand Senior Assistance, Inc., twice serving as its co-President. Albert began birding as an adult and has worked as a pediatrician with the Tohono O’odahm tribe since August 1998. The photos that accompany the article below were taken almost entirely by Albert.


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