Botswana - a Birding Bonanza
by James Currie
What this land-locked country lacks in endemic birds it more than makes up for in accessibility of tough species, sheer numbers of birds and the overall wildlife experience. Almost 40% of all land in Botswana is under conservation either as wilderness areas, game reserves or national parks. Few countries can boast the megafaunal diversity of the Okavango Delta and the birding is nothing short of spectacular. Our TV crew recently filmed a 4-part series on the Birds of Botswana for the Botswana Tourism Organization and visited three of the country's best birding regions - the Okavango Delta, The Chobe and the Makgadikgadi Pans.
Formed by a series of geological faults in the flat land of northern Botswana, the green fingers of the Okavango make up the largest inland delta in the world. This breathtaking part of the world is home to a dazzling array of bird species including many species that are easiest seen in the Okavango - birds like Pel's Fishing Owl, Slaty Egret and Wattled Crane.
The Pel's Fishing Owl roosts in a lofty position on many birders' "Holy Grail" lists. One of the most highly desirable birds in the world, it is a true phantom. Pel's Fishing Owls are the second-largest owl species in Africa (after the Giant Eagle-owl) and have stunning ginger coloration, haunting pitch-black eyes and a "rounded head" appearance due to their minimal ear tufts. Their call, like everything else about these birds, is very unique and has been likened to somebody vocalizing from the bottom of a well. These bone-chilling calls can be heard from up to 2 miles away and add mystery to an African night spent around the campfire. Found patchily in sub-Saharan Africa, this large, ginger-colored owl can never be guaranteed on a trip to the continent. The Okavango Delta of Botswana, however, provides one of the very best opportunities to catch a glimpse. Even still, there are believed to be only 100 pairs of Pel's Fishing Owls in the entire delta, an area roughly comparable in size to the US state of New Jersey. Certain parts of the delta have higher concentrations than others and well-known locations include Xigera Camp and Sandibe Safari Lodge.
Like the Pel's Fishing Owl, the Wattled Crane is a highly sought-after species that is relatively easy to find in certain areas of the Okavango. Of the fifteen species of cranes alive today eleven are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. The Wattled Crane unfortunately finds itself amongst the majority, with an estimated 7,000 birds remaining on the planet. Like many other species of cranes, the primary reason for its decline is the degradation, destruction and loss of wetland habitat. Wattled Cranes are the only African cranes with all-white necks, rendering them unmistakable in the field. In addition they are the only crane species to possess pairs of unique wattles that dangle like ornamental ear-rings. In fact, these unique wattles are one of the reasons why these birds are placed in their own genus - the rather disturbingly-named genus of Bugeranus. Wattled Cranes are the second-tallest flying birds in the world, after the Sarus Crane. They can reach heights of up to 5 ft 7 inches, taller than many adult humans.
A near-endemic of the Okavango is the elegant Slaty Egret. This bird is thinly distributed throughout the area and is distinguishable from the similar Black Egret by its yellow legs and rufous-orange throat patch. The Black Egret is well-known for its crazy feeding technique of umbrella fishing. The bird will run along, stop suddenly and open its wings like an umbrella, shading the area and reducing glare, and it will then wiggle its bright yellow feet in the mud to stir-up and attract unsuspecting prey. The Slaty Egret has also adopted its own fishing strategy. It uses its bill much in the manner of a spoon by slowly stirring the mud in concentric circles and then grabbing whatever is disturbed.
These are just a few of the stunning birds found in this magnificent part of the world. The birds of the Okavango represent a unique tapestry of color and diversity.
The Chobe region of Northern Botswana is a diverse mosaic of floodplains, rivers and mixed woodland. It is also home to the largest concentration of African Elephants on the planet and over 450 bird species. The variety of birds here is so staggering that 300 species have been recorded in a single day. Specials include birds like African Pygmy Geese, Racket-tailed Rollers and Western Banded Snake-eagles.
The Makgadikgadi Pans area is a vast landscape of over 6,000 square miles and is one of the world's largest salt pans, visible from space. The remnants of Africa's largest lake, these pans now witness the largest wildebeest and zebra migration in southern Africa, rivaled only by the great migration of East Africa. Along with delightful meerkats, lions, plentiful game and solitude, the Makgadikgadi hosts some great birds like White-quilled Korhaan, Secretarybird and various species of sandgrouse and desert birds like larks. This part of Botswana is a truly unforgettable birding location.
One of the signature species of the Makgadikgadi grasslands in the bizarre Secretarybird. There is no raptor quite so removed from the typical confines of what a bird of prey should look and behave like. Although they share some affinities with typical raptors (building eagle-like nests and possessing hooked bills) They are the most terrestrial bird of prey in the world, regularly covering over 20 miles a day in their relentless search for food. Secretarybirds seem more crane than raptor as their four-foot frames stride across the open plains of places like the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana. Their bizarre appearance is reflected by the name although much debate surrounds the actual origins of the nomenclature. One theory is that Secretarybirds are named for the 20 distinctive black crest feathers, resembling quill pens stuck behind their (invisible) ears, much in the manner of secretaries of a bygone era. Their two incredibly long central tail streamers resemble the tail-coats that many of the - mostly male - secretaries wore in those days. A more recent theory on the origins of the name, is that it is a corruption of the Arabic Saqu Ettair meaning "hunter-bird", which was incorrectly transcribed into French as secrétaire which was then re-translated into English as "secretary". They do have some remarkably long eye-lashes which, in addition to the elegant head-plumes, would be the envy of any secretary of the fairer sex!
Secretarybirds feed on small lizards, insects, rodents, birds eggs and, of course, snakes. It was erroneously believed that snakes were the predominant prey item and in fact, the scientific name of Sagittarius serpentarius translates as "archer of snakes". But recent studies have shown that snakes actually only make up a very small percentage of the diet - around 2%. Another erroneous myth is that Secretarybirds are immune to the venom of snakes. In reality this is not true and they can easily succumb to the venom of many of Africa's poisonous serpents. Secretarybirds counter this by being very careful when killing snakes and ensuring that the prey is dead before eating it. They typically dispatch a snake by stomping on it with their heavily armored legs and feet, accurately directing their rear talons at the skull to inflict a swift mortal wound to the head.
What a place. Botswana truly is one of the most incredible wilderness destinations on the planet and it holds many avian treasures. Here is a montage of birding footage from our trip:
And here is each of the four 22-minute episodes that we filmed: