American Birding Podcast



Open Mic: Wader Quest with Southern African Shorebirds

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 

He previously wrote about Wader Quest at the ABA Blog in Thailand, the UAEFlorida, Washington, California the UK, and in South America.


When Wader Quest landed in Johannesburg airport we had 109 waders on our quest list, by the time we had disembarked it was 110! Airports are often the place where you pick up your first ticks on a trip and this one provided us with the ubiquitous Blacksmith Lapwing.

Blacksmith Lapwing, photo by Ellis Simpson

Blacksmith Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

After meeting our friends from Wader Quest South Africa – Jenny Sharland and Sue Oertli who, with Jenny’s husband Peter, sponsored our trip to the continent – we headed south to the delightful Garingboom guest farm in Free State Province with Sue,  picking up the equally common Crowned Lapwing along the way. The reason for this mad 6 hour dash on our first day was to try to connect with a difficult courser species. In the morning, guided by guest house owner Riëtte Griesel we saw a group of seven Burchell’s Coursers at Gariep Dam, along with our first Kittlitz’s Plovers and Black-winged Stilt.

Burchell's Courser, photo by Ellis Simpson

Burchell’s Courser, photo by Elis Simpson

We returned to Johannesburg and the following day we started a ten day road trip with the Wader Quest South Africa crew with Megan Sharland and Kim Oertli as additional members of the team. We headed north along the N1 on our way to Botswana. Shortly before getting there we stopped on the bridge over the river Mogalakwena. Here we saw our first Three-banded Plover along with both Wood and Common Sandpipers. We had been led to believe that these plovers would be easy to find, they occur in every puddle in southern Africa, in our case this turned out not to be so. We really struggled to see these birds well, though we had some success in the end.

When we entered Botswana and headed towards the Elephant Sands Camp. Set up next to a watering hole, it is possible to get very close to elephants when they come to drink. Indeed they spend much of their time at night wandering between the flimsy accommodation huts, which I found a little disconcerting coming from tame old England. I was particularly alarmed to learn that earlier in the day an elephant had actually taken a chunk out of our reed roof! Sleep did not come easily that night.

The next morning we did some birding around the sandy tracks looking for thick-knees and coursers and of course the water hole for Three-banded Plovers. To no avail ultimately, although I had heard the thick-knees during the night as I lay trembling in my bed. So we then drove to the top right hand corner of Botswana where the mighty Zambesi and Chobe rivers meet as do the nations of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

A stroll along the banks of the Chobe to a point with many rocks produced our next, and much hoped for species, Rock Pratincole. I had hardly dared to hope to see this little beauty, and was not disappointed, the reality living up to the expectation. What a super little bird this is!

Rock Pratincole, photo by Ellis Simpson

Rock Pratincole, photo by Elis Simpson

Staying at Water Lily Lodge we organized a boat trip with Pangolin Photo Safaris the following morning along the Chobe River. In the space of four hours we picked up six, yes six, new species for the quest. We started with Water Thick-knee and African Jacana, at the same site where we returned to look at the pratincoles – from the water side this time. Heading up stream we came to a large flat grassy island in the middle of the river. Over it were many birds flying back and forth, one stood out as it had such brilliantly white wings. This was one of the attractive Vanellus lapwings that we had our sights on, Long-toed Lapwing, a real beauty. Other smaller, browner birds were whizzing about too, which turned out to be Collared Pratincoles, species number four.

Long-toed Lapwing, photo by Ellis Simpson

Long-toed Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

The next species quite took my breath away when we found it. Once we had spotted the White-crowned Lapwing on the bank we edged closer. This stunning bird seemed unperturbed by our presence and allowed close approach where its attractive coloration could be appreciated to the full. It had the most amazing, bright yellow wattles which really caught the eye, with grey, brown, black and white plumage that set this off really nicely. And to round it off the most subtly coloured lime-green legs. What a bird and a moment I will not soon forget!

White-crowned Lapwing, photo by Ellis Simpson

White-crowned Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

Running out of time and returning swiftly to the accommodation we stopped suddenly to add species number six, another stunning Vanellus, African Wattled Lapwing.

From here we drove across and into the thin arm of Namibia that separates Angola and Botswana called the Caprivi Strip reaching our destination in the late afternoon, Island View Lodge.

We went out and explored any piece of standing water or marshy area we could find, but try as we might we could not find any new species for the quest. We had one exciting moment when we flushed a snipe but were disappointed when it turned out to be Greater Painted Snipe, a species we had seen what seemed like years ago, in Thailand, at the beginning of the quest. We also failed to get any Three-banded Plovers except on the river where they stuck doggedly to the other side and therefore out of photographic range.

We traveled on deeper into Namibia to the Shankara Restcamp. From here that we headed to the Rundu Sewage ponds where we soon added a new bird for the trip, namely Ruff, and saw some old friends like African Jacana and Wood Sandpiper. We even came across some Three-banded Plovers, but they again somehow just stayed out of decent photo range.

African Jacana, photo by Ellis Simpson

African Jacana, photo by Elis Simpson

From here we had to head south again on our way back to South Africa, our quest total was now at 121.