Birding Adventure in Botswana

Experiencing the greatest concentration of species on earth in the Okavango Delta
By Bert du Plessis
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Put it in a bottle, label it 'Okavangeau' and you could make a fortune. It is crystal clear, cool and as natural as anything ever will be. And billions of gallons of the stuff annually pour into one of the world's largest inland deltas, where it transforms an age-old desert into a paradise of palms, papyrus and sparkling clear waterways.

The pure, almost chilled water of the Okavango Delta in Botswana invariably surprises first-time visitors, who expect warm and swampy conditions. The slow drift of the annual flood into the Delta, taking weeks to push in from Shakawe on its upper reaches to Maun, on its eastern edge, causes minimal turgidity. This, combined with the very effective filtration action of the dense reed beds and papyrus groves, results in water of almost startling clarity. A good place to observe this is at Xugana ('coo/ghana') Lodge, a secluded camp in the northern reaches of the Delta. Approaching the water's edge at the beautiful Xugana Lagoon, a large school of huge tilapia fish can often be observed lurking just meters away, hanging around in hope of a free hand-out. The fishing at Xugana can be excellent — I caught a couple of nice bream myself — but visitors are soon informed that the 'camp fish' are pets, not a potential meal.

From a birder's perspective, the most interesting feature of this lovely water is that it creates an ideal habitat for many water-loving birds. A recent visit to the area produced several highlights, including sightings of Pel's Fishing Owl, Lesser Gallinule, Lesser Jacana, African Crake, Painted Snipe, Longtoed Plover, Greater Swamp Warbler, Pygmy Goose, Wattled Crane, Slaty Egret, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Black Coucal, Brown Firefinch and Dwarf Bittern.

On my last day at Xugana, I had set out early — with local expert guide Thapi ('Mr Fish') Motokwaba to locate Pinkthroated Longclaw. According to Ken Newman's Birds of Botswana, this species of longclaw occurs sparsely from the Okavango Delta northwards. A likely spot was the ankle-high grass in a damp area on the perimeter of Xugana's small, flood-prone landing strip, where prudent local pilots always check out the runway for Red Lechwe (an antelope species) before landing. We were seeing various color morphs of Yellow Wagtail in abundance and plenty of Slaty Egret, but it took a while to locate a longclaw. When one of these birds finally flushed just ahead of us, rising in longclaw fashion with lots of apparently ineffectual fluttering of wings, resulting in its typical short, laboring flight, yours truly's face must have been a study in delight. "Mr Fish" was just as happy.

A bird that many north American birders know well, the Eastern Meadowlark, bears a striking resemblance to one of the other two longclaws found in southern Africa, namely the Yellowthroated Longclaw. In addition to similar coloration and behavior, the two birds also frequent the same habitat, being fairly moist, sometimes rank grassland and meadows, often along drainage lines. What makes this notable is the fact that the two birds are not related, the longclaws belonging to the wagtail and pipit family, while meadowlarks are related to New World blackbirds, cowbirds and orioles. Many of you will know that the way in which unrelated species acquire such marked superficial similarity is called convergent evolution' or simply convergence.Story and photos copyright by Bert du Plessis and Fish Eagle Safaris, Houston.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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