Of all the birding experiences you can have, the water-based ones seem to be the most memorable. I had been looking for an opportunity to do a boat trip on the Chobe River in northern Botswana for a year or more and in July this year I decided to make it happen.
There are a few boat rental companies in Kasane and I chose Kalahari Tours based on a colleague’s recommendation – they were able to accommodate me early on the Friday of my monthly visit and I arrived at the reception on the stroke of 7 am, armed with my binos, camera, snacks and a warm jacket to ward off the cool wind that was coming up.
The boat was of aluminium construction, sturdy looking, hopefully Hippo-proof and fitted with 2 rows of three comfy seats with a fold-down canopy over. I took up position in the middle seat of the front row, being the only guest that morning, doing my best to look as if this was my customary position in all boats I travelled in, and spread my gear on the adjoining seats.
The boatman, Richard, took us out smoothly, initially downstream and around a wide bend in the majestic river, to the Seboba rapids where the river runs faster over unseen obstacles below the water. As we approached the rapids hundreds of Cormorants, Gulls and other large water birds were heading out from their roosts to feeding areas upstream.
There were still many birds roosting in the trees at the rapids, on the banks and on small islands in the middle of the river and Richard carefully approached as close as possible to allow intimate views of the birds and their youngsters.
Most visible were many Yellow-billed Storks with their fluffy grey and white youngsters crowded into one part of a tree. White-breasted Cormorants were numerous, some tending to nests in the tops of trees. My neck was already feeling the effects of trying to keep up with the action and the constant movement of the birds in and out of the trees, and up, down and across the river. We were literally surrounded by birds, in numbers second only to the masses that gather at trawlers on pelagic trips.
Amongst the massed Storks and Cormorants were many other species such as Purple Heron, African Spoonbill, Great Egret and Green-backed Heron.
Once I was sated with the spectacular bird life at the rapids, I indicated to Richard that we could proceed and he headed upstream, staying close enough to the banks to spot birds in the overhanging reeds, bushes and trees. His eyes proved sharper than mine as he spotted and pointed out everything from the tiny Malachite Kingfishers to their larger cousin the Giant Kingfisher, not to mention Brown-hooded Kingfishers.
Water Thick-knees skulking in the shade of the riverside bush are particularly difficult to spot but Richard’s sharp eyes found them easily. On our way upstream we passed by some of the well-known lodges with their decks overlooking the great river.
Wire-tailed Swallows swooped over our boat continuously and a pair even decided that our boat would be a good vantage point as we glided along the smooth waters.
Further upstream we entered the Chobe National Park and Richard docked briefly at a small hut to sign us in. From there we made our way slowly along the side channels with the Park on our left and the large mass of Impalila Island on our right.
With the water having subsided from its post-summer highs, the island was now occupied by many Buffalos – a safe haven for them away from the big cats.
Here and there we saw Hippos and a couple appeared in the river just ahead of us, causing Richard to give them a wide berth – Hippos are one animal you do not mess with in the river, or on land for that matter.
A mid-sized Crocodile on the bank drew us nearer to have a look and we literally peered down its throat as the bow of the boat bumped up against the bank just in front of it. While admiring its rows of teeth and taking photos I was looking for any signs of movement as, by my calculations, one lunge would have seen it land in our boat, but fortunately crocs are content to just lie there (most of the time) and regulate their body temperature by opening their jaws wide. Must remember to take dental floss next time.
The island was home to many bird species – Lapwings (White-crowned and Long-toed), Squacco Herons, Geese in large numbers (Spur-winged and Egyptian) African Openbills, all the “White” Egrets except Cattle Egret (Great, Yellow-billed and Little), Ibis’s galore (Glossy, Sacred), many White-faced Ducks and larger waders such as African Jacana and Black-winged Stilt. A veritable feast of birding.
A smallish sandbar pretending to be an island was home to the bird highlight of the day – 50 or so African Skimmers using it as a roost in between sorties over the river, allowing a close approach to view these unique birds with their vivid colours. Their black and white plumage contrasts with their bright red bills, which look out of proportion but are perfectly designed for their function of skimming the surface of the water in search of small prey.
Pied Kingfishers are common throughout Southern Africa but never in numbers as we came across them along the river. I would guess we saw more than 100 during the trip and there were signs of them nesting in the sandy banks, where they occurred at a rate of one every 5m or so.
The return trip was along the main channel, by now rippled by the fresh wind which had come up, but not enough to cause any discomfort. Along the way we added Red-billed Teal and Knob-billed Ducks to our sightings as well as a lone Red Lechwe in long grass on a waterlogged plain.
Amazingly, three hours had passed without me noticing and we returned to the jetty where we had started – what an outing!