American Birding Podcast



Open Mic: Wader Quest Tours the Shorebirds of Botswana

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, in South America, and Africa.


As the Wader Quest crew, together with Wader Quest South Africa, headed back towards Johannesburg we stopped at Botswana’s famous Okavango delta at a lodge called Lawndon’s Lodge. Part of the famous Drotsky’s Cabins group, this lodge is situated in the pan handle of the delta and is very comfortable and set in lovely grounds overlooking the Okavango River. We had booked a boat ride the next morning.

I can’t begin to tell you how many square miles of suitable African Snipe habitat we had looked at and bashed through in the hope of flushing one. Gliding along the Okavango just added more to the frustration. There were miles of suitable habitat on both banks, but no snipe.

Our boat driver was called Salvation. Salvation by name and salvation by nature. He was aware of the birds we still sought and gently pulled the boat up alongside a swampy area at the margins of the river. Suddenly a snipe took flight. We identified it as a Gallinago, and when it did a flyby in honor of Wader Quest (or so I like to believe), performing its winnowing display as it did so, we were happy that we had our bird even if it was just flight views.

African Snipe, photo by Elis Simpson

African Snipe, photo by Elis Simpson

That just left us one possibility for the area, Lesser Jacana. We searched every suitable bywater but even Salvation couldn’t find one on this little trip. We were not without some rather special moments, however, like the roosting Pel’s Fishing Owl and White-backed Night-Herons, or the (albeit baited) African Fish Eagle swooping down and taking a fish (fillet) right beside the boat. He said that he knew a spot we could try for our missing jacana, and we arranged an afternoon outing with him to try for it.

Late afternoon saw us pootling along the smooth Okavango again, this time in the direction of the flood plain. We turned off up a narrow creek. Then into another, narrower still, eventually coming out into a large open area with lilies and flooded grasses. As we chugged slowly through this paradise Salvation had to stop several times to clear weeds from the propeller, but he was not one to give up. He could so easily have told us he could go no further, but to his great credit, he did not. Good man!

Suddenly a movement caught my eye,

“There!” I cried, “Lesser Jacana!”. We saw many of them at this spot, and though they were not very approachable, enjoyed watching them go about their business. Eventually we had to leave and Salvation cleared the propeller one last time. There was an ominous ‘plop’ – more of a ‘glug’ really – followed by some words in a tongue I didn’t understand that suggested all was not well. Fearing the worst and imagining I’d have to swim back to the lodge dodging crocodiles and hippos along the way, I asked what was amiss. It turned out that Salvation’s cell phone had slipped from his pocket and into the river, never to be seen again. We were so grateful to Salvation for his hard work and persistence on our behalf that the good folk of Wader Quest South Africa generously decided to help him replace it, an action that so typified these generous people’s character.

Lesser Jacana, photo by Elis Simpson

Lesser Jacana, photo by Elis Simpson

The next day we drove further south and ended up at a bush camp called Thakudu in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. Our stay here was all too short as the owners, Chris and Jeanette Woolcott, were fine hosts. Chris, with a young friend of the family called Sean Hughes, took Elis and I out for a night stroll through the bush to look for thick-knees. We found just one, but that was enough and a pleasant evening in their company along with some displaced Zimbabwean farmers followed by way of a celebration.

Spotted Thick-knee, photo by Elis Simpson

Spotted Thick-knee, photo by Elis Simpson

As an aside here, Chris later told us that two Impala were killed close to one of our tents that night by wild dogs, hyenas or lions. Glad I didn’t know that at the time we were strolling merrily around in the dark out there!

Our grand tour was over and we headed back to Johannesburg with 124 species on the Wader Quest list.