Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Birding Trip to Botswana: Part 3

Guest column by Alan & Albert Adler
Read Part 1
and Part 2


The Khwai Area

Forty-five percent of all the land in Botswana has been set aside for wildlife; there will be no further development in reserved areas and in some cases villages have been moved. This was the case with the villagers of Khwai. They are Babukahkwe or river bushmen and speak their own language, though Setswana and English are also commonly spoken. Sango camp is adjacent to this small village with a population of less than 400 people. The camp provides employment and income for the community members who still live in huts built out of blocks cut from termite mounds (some mounds were 12 feet tall).

At the Sango camp, we were greeted by its friendly staff and whisked to our cabins. On our first evening at Sango, the three of us ate a candlelight dinner on the front porch of our cabin overlooking the Khwai River. The musical accompaniment was the loud grunts and groans of hippopotami patrolling the water in the Khwai River and streamside 50 yards from our door.



We spent three days in the Khwai area. The schedule for the rest of the trip: arising at 5 a.m., eating a light breakfast and beginning to bird from 6 to around 11 a.m. We then had a full lunch at the lodge and enjoyed a siesta until teatime at 4p.m., then we birded until 6:30 or 7 p.m., before having a delicious dinner. We ate all our meals with Richard by choice and didn’t socialize very much with other guests, who were mostly English and Germans interested in wildlife photography and looking for what is commonly known as “The Big 5”: lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and cape buffalo.



The Big 5 is a term left over from the days of hunting. Of note, Botswana has banned all game hunting since January 2014, though there had been a moratorium on hunting certain species for more than 13 years before. While the ban has generated a lot of mostly negative press, Richard felt that it made his job a lot easier, as animals were not as afraid or potentially as dangerous. With the overall steep decline of wildlife throughout the world, a place where a people have said “enough,” seems an oasis in a world gone mad for trophies and meat. We were more philosophically inclined towards the “Little 5”: the antlion, the leopard tortoise (we saw many of them), the elephant shrew; the rhinoceros beetle, and the buffalo weaver.

During our first morning in and around the Khwai village, we enjoyed watching the Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, but were sorry to see that their nests had already been abandoned before our arrival. And we saw both the Red-billed Firefinch (not so easily distinguished from the Jameson’s Firefinch, which we saw the next day) and the Red-billed Quelea, known to be the most numerous bird on the planet but in numbers far less than we expected (in the tens rather than in the hundreds or hundred thousands). However, the starlings (Cape, Meve’s, Greater Blue, and Burchell’s Starling) proved to be beyond our expectations, with a very different in appearance from the European Starlings found in North America in that they were a beautifully iridescent blue and did not flock together in large numbers. We felt right at home: identifying the ubiquitous Southern Grey-headed Sparrow; finding the Bennett’s Woodpecker on a tree in front of a house; and pursuing warbler-like birds, the Grey-backed Camaroptera and the Tawny-flanked Prinia in bushy areas far outside the village . We had to admit that the call of the ubiquitous Grey Go-away-bird indeed sounded like “Go away,” though our brief glimpse of the Broad-billed Roller didn’t convince us that it was as beautiful as the Lilac-breasted Roller. We were captivated by the lovely and confiding Levaillant’s Cuckoo and the Great-spotted Cuckoo. Our glimpses of the elusive Swamp Boubou with its haunting whistles reminded us in coloration of a very dark Loggerhead Shrike, while the glowing green back of the equally elusive Green-winged Pytilia against its vermilion head seemed in a class all its own. It was also here that Alan and Richard got a glimpse of what proved to be the most challenging bird for the two of us to see on the trip: the African Hoopoe.

Great-spotted Cuckoo

Bennett’s Woodpecker

Some of the most unusually shaped shore birds that we saw in Botswana were first seen during the trips that we took to explore the Khwai River riverbanks: the Marabou Stork (with what appears to be a huge goiter but is in reality a very large yellow gular sac hanging from its throat), the African Openbill (with a bill specially evolved to crush snails, somewhat like a nutcracker), and the Hamerkop (a wader that has a massive head with a crest and bill that appears more formidable than that of a Pileated Woodpecker). Of course, one must mention the Knob-billed Duck. An unusually shaped land bird which we observed was the Common Scimitarbill, a member of the Hoopoe family, all of which are known for their relatively long decurved bills; this dark blue bird with white patches on its wings, and its aptly named scimitar bill.

African Openbill

Knob-billed Duck

There were also beautiful small birds to enjoy: White-bellied Sunbirds kept the scimitarbill company, and the call of the Orange-breasted Bushshrike drew us from our post-prandial torpor to watch a pair cavorting in a tree a few steps from the door of our tent-cabin.

At Khwai three species of lapwings also caught our attention: the Blacksmith (with a black chest and white crown), the Long-toed Lapwing (with a white head and upper breast, red-orange legs, and not significantly long toes) and the Crowned Lapwing (with a black line through the eye, a white super cilium, and a black crown; red-orange legs, and a light grey back). A pair of latter birds was guarding a pair well-camouflaged eggs laid on the bare ground. We observed two species of jacana (the African Jacana - 9-inches with chestnut and black wings, a pale blue frontal shield, and a golden upper breast) and the (Lesser Jacana – 6-inches with dark grey and light grey wings, chestnut crown, and a completely white chest). And we spotted a Spotted Thick-knee, a wader, which reminded us of a 17-inch Cactus Wren with yellow legs, but with spots on the back not on the breast and stripes on the breast not on the back!

Blacksmith

Long-toed Lapwing
Crowned Lapwing

At Khwai we saw the striking world’s largest heron, hence named Goliath Heron (56 inches but only 11 pounds), the beautiful and surprisingly confiding Rufous-bellied Heron, the Squacco Heron (a very pale heron similar in color and posture to the Western Cattle Egret, which we also saw there), the African Darter (almost identical to the Anhinga of North America), the African Spoonbill (which is white and not as beautiful as the Roseate Spoonbill of North America), and the riveting Saddle-billed Stork (the world’s tallest stork with a red and black 14-inch bill that has a large yellow “saddle” at the junction of the bill with its black head. What appeared to be mates were perhaps the most confiding birds on the trip, posing for about a half an hour before taking off to soar majestically over our heads.) Small waterholes attracted a diversity of birds, herons, egrets, and specialties like Hadada Ibis, Egyptian Goose, and Woolly-necked Stork. We had no trouble finding the African Sacred Ibis (with its black head and white body), together with the Great Egret, but we really had to search for the Southern Ground Hornbill (the size of a turkey and almost as clumsy a flier.)

Goliath Heron
Rufous-bellied Heron
Squacco Heron
Saddle-billed Stork
African Sacred Ibis
Southern Ground Hornbill

We will always recall one early evening being up on a 15-foot high observation post in the Sango camp that overlooked the river, when we got fantastic looks at a Coppery-tailed Coucal (18-1/2 inches with an eerie call that echos for quite a distance) and a pair of African Paradise Flycatchers (the male is 14-3/4 inches with two 6-inch copper tail streamers. The next day we photographed the male with his enormous tail hanging out of a nest by a building in the camp.) From our post, as the light faded, we had a wonderful view with our Kowa land telescope of a young male elephant taking a bath in the river.

African Paradise Flycatcher

Eagles ruled in the Khwai area. We saw the Black-chested Snake Eagle whose name should be changed to the Black-headed Eagle as most of the chest is pure white, Brown Snake Eagle (no feathers on its legs), African Fish Eagle (very similar in appearance to the Bald Eagle), Lesser Spotted Eagle (very similar to the Tawny eagle but without heavily-feathered legs), and the Whalberg’s Eagle (with a slight crest. The Bateleur is an eagle with very short legs, some red facial skin, very white under the wings with black at the trailing edges, and an unmistakable rocking flight.

African Fish Eagle

One morning Richard arranged for us to be taken by a special guide Romeo who poled a boat called a mokoro the size of a large kayak on a lily-covered backwater in the Khwai area. We got good looks at and took photos of a tiny Malachite Kingfisher (blue, copper, white and malachite; 5-1/2 inches, with a bill that appears gigantic), the relatively huge Woodland Kingfisher, and a Black-headed Oriole.

Malachite Kingfisher

Woodland Kingfisher

Our stalwart guide was responsible for both finding and identifying more that 75% of the birds that we saw on the trip. He was “on it” 100% of the time, and we so much wanted to find a new species of bird for him. That happened in Sango when we found a Quailfinch (a small gray bird with a bright red bill, horizontal black and white barring on its chest, and a large white eye ring).

Richard is mostly well known for his ability to find large mammals (we didn’t know this until we googled him at home after the trip and found glowing reviews for him). During our trip we saw two reptiles: the Nile Monitor and the Leopard Tortoise and following mammals: serval, zebra, (many, many) impala (impossibly many), waterbuck, red lechwe, jackal, warthog, hyena, wildebeest, all 4 species of mongoose, baboon, tsesebe, kudu, cape buffalo, hippopotamus, giraffe, vervet monkeys, many elephants., and lots of lions. And Richard was quite conscientious about reminding us to stay near the vehicle when we were birding. He explained that although lions, for example, were capable of smelling our presence, they didn’t recognize humans when they were in the vehicle because they just perceived the vehicle, which to them was like a large rock

One morning we were watching hippopotami and noticed the symbiotic relationship they had with Red-billed Oxpeckers, who were gleaning insects around their eyes. Richard explained that hippos did not just stay in wet areas, but were capable of wandering around for long distances in the bush looking for waterholes. But we felt that big mammals were the sidelight of our trip, until one day when we were just outside the vehicle watching an African Stone Chat, a handsome bird that reminded us of a smaller version of a Spotted Towhee. Alan happened to look in the distance and saw that about 300 yards away a lion was walking toward us. Richard and Alan jumped into the cab of the vehicle while Albert remained sitting up in the back. We all watched it walking toward us, coming closer, and closer, and closer (within the shadow cast by our vehicle) until finally as it passed, it was so close that Alan could have easily reached out and stroked its mane! Albert took as many photos as she could before being immobilized by fear. The lion just marked its territory and moved on and we started to breathe again.

Red-billed Oxpeckers



Everyday at Khwai camp we were up around dawn and out until sunset and still felt there would have been much more to be seen. Birders less in need of a cup of coffee could have been out sooner and birders more inclined to lengthen the life list would have spent less time on each individual bird and added more variety. But when we had to leave, we were very, very pleased to have seen “tons of birds” after just three short days.




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 were taken almost entirely by Albert.