Monday, April 3, 2023

Botswana Birding Safari

The winding Okavango River as it enters Botswana. 

Botswana’s Okavango Delta needs no introduction. This remarkable wetland, the biggest inland delta in the world attract wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world. Yet, despite its popularity, few venture to its upper reaches. This area called the panhandle aptly describes the handle of the river before branching off into the myriad of channels making up the delta basin. While I have been there in a personal capacity many years earlier, this was the first time visiting the region with guests. While animals such as bushbuck, duiker, impala, and the rare aquatic Sitatunga antelope make this region home, it's not known for its wildlife abundance but rather for some of the best birding opportunities in Southern Africa and great fishing. We were there for the former. 

Xaro lodge on the bank of the Okavango.

After a scenic flight over the delta of just over an hour from Maun, our first stop was Xaro lodge in the panhandle. Here one explores the waterways by boat and on foot.  Shortly after arrival, we went on the first birding boat cruise in search of birds. The region is home to a variety of species occupying the southern limit of their distribution such as Hartlaub’s Babbler, Brown-throated weaver, Chirping cisticola, Swamp boubou, White-backed Night Heron, Slaty Egret, and both Coppery-tailed and Senegal Coucal, all of which were target species. Then there were the superstars, such as Pell’s fishing owl, Western Banded Snake-eagle, lesser Jacana, and Wattled Cranes, all of which were very high on our wish list. 

Heading back as the sun goes down. 

Setting off on the first boat ride we encountered, rather excitedly, a Broad-billed Roller perched high above the bar at Xaro. Other species such as Hartlaubs Babbler, White-winged Tern, Brown-throated Weaver, Pygmy Geese, and the fist Coppery-tailed Coucal soon followed as we meandered along the winding channel of the Okavango. On return, the aforementioned Broad-billed Rolled was reduced to trash bird as dozens of its kind hawked insects over the water in front of the lodge before settling down to roost for the night. 

Western-banded Snake-eagle.

A leisurely walk in the lodge gardens before breakfast the next day revealed Africa Golden Oriole, Brown Firefinch, Wood owl, and the first Swamp Boubous, all except the Wood owl soon becoming part of the general and frequently encountered bird community.   The target species for the walk after breakfast was Pell’s Fishing Owl. This charismatic bird eluded us on a previous safari in the Pafuri region of Kruger. So when our guide said that he had heard some close to camp we set off with great expectations. The great start to the day held momentum as we soon discovered one in the thickets of a Leadwood tree. Without getting the greatest views it flushed from its hideout, only to perch out in the open atop a Leadwoon tree offering exhaustive views. A Wonderfull bird to add to our list. The walk back to camp delivered many other interesting finds, most noteworthy a group of three Wattles Cranes flying overhead. The afternoon boat cruise took us further than the previous day to a distant floodplain. En route we encountered at least two individual White-backed Night Herons, skulking in a nearby tree while the floodplain revealed the first Slaty Egret, African Openbills and my first lifer and a bird that has eluded me for years, a lesser Jacana,  

The very elusive White-backed Night-heron.

And thus the rhythm of the panhandle safari was set. Exploring the waterways by boat and interspersed with occasional walks. Thomas, our knowledgeable and local guide proved invaluable in finding local and cryptic species such as Greater Swamp Warbler and Chirping Cisticola. A great safari companion and highly recommended. 

Another great end of the day.

I cannot finish off my notes to the Panhandle without mentioning the last evening, After returning from our last boat cruize, (where we found a pair of Western Banded Sanke Eagles soaring at a distance) as I headed to my chalet the silhouette of what I thought was a Western Banded Sanke Eagle glided overhear. Being strong dusk I couldn’t clinch the ID and left it at that. That night, as I crept into bed, the resident pair of Pell’s fishing Owls serenaded us to sleep and if that wasn’t surreal enough the Snake Eagle of the night before sounded the alarm at first light, necessitating a rather early and enthusiastic pre-dawn search for it. At least it was worthwhile as it perched out in the open on a dead tree within the lodge gardens.  Next stop…Linyanti. 


Duma Tau Camp. 

Taking off from the Shakawe, one gets a wonderful bird’s-eye view of the winding Okavango river and its adjacent and expansive papyrus wetland habitats. Some villages are scattered along its banks but soon any sign of human presence disappears as one heads east over vast wilderness tracts toward the Linyanti region. Shortly before touchdown the Selinda spillway, an eastern branch of the Okavango comes into view offering some context to the absolute vastness of northern Botswana. While still searching for the region's avian inhabitants, Linyanti held the promise of extraordinary wildlife as well. Delivering on this promise we encountered a small herd of rare Road antelope on the way to Duma Tau lodge, where we would be spending the next two days. 

The perfect end to one's day. 

Well-appointed and stylish Duma Tau is spread out within a croton forest hugging the wondrously scenic Linyanti river. Each well-spaced room with every creature comfort imaginable has private plunge pools with spacious verandahs overlooking the magnificent Linyanti River. This sense of wilderness is enhanced at night as not a single distant light can be seen flickering in the distance. 

Total luxury. 

Here we were going to explore on land from 4x4 vehicles. Within the first 30 minutes of our first game drive, we bumped into a pride of lions stalking Greater Kudu in a floodplain. In what seemed to be a well-orchestrated plan we witnessed a juvenile Kudu being channeled by members of the pride directly towards a lioness lying in ambush right in its flight path. Sadly for the lions but more fortunate for the Kudu, the antelope made its escape.  And so our first, quite eventful game drive at Linyanti ended at a scenic sundowner spot overlooking the wetlands.     

Duma Tau Lions.

The different habitat of Linyanti which consists of the main Linyanti river channel and adjacent scattered wetlands cutting through large tracts of dryland, houses a slightly different suite of birds, most notably Dickinson’s Kestrel, a prominent target species for this trip. Becoming more familiar and confident sifting through the less obvious species we managed to add the likes of Plain-backed Pipit and Square-tailed Nightjar to our list. We also managed great views of the smaller Senegal Coucal with its black, unbarred tail separating it from Coppery-tailed and Burchell’s Coucal (which supposedly doesn’t occur in the area). 

View from the barge.

Another super activity offered at Duma Tau is lunch that is served on the barge. After a short fresh-up after the morning game drive, one settles on the comfortable barge. Drifting past wading elephants and a myriad of waterbirds along the Linyanti shoreline while sipping a Rose is firmly etched into the memory bank as a safari highlight.

Lunch on the barge. 

It was on the second afternoon drive that the second last of our target birds made an appearance. “ Is that a dove or what ? ”. I just knew it was something interesting. Almost the size and similar in color, one can be forgiven for mistaking Dickenson’s Kestrel for a Cape Turtle Dove. Yet there it was, unperturbed in an arch of a tree glaring down at four pairs of binoculars admiring it from below. 

A Dickenson's Kestrel seemingly as interested in us as we were in it. 

Linyanti is known for its predators and at the very top of the pike sits Africa’s most endangered large carnivore. African Wilddog. With this in mind ?? Kept his ear on the ground as to the movements of local packs. A small splinter pack was seen in the area and although we aimed our drives toward places where they have been seen, the dogs eluded us. Yet on every safari there is magic. Stopping for an unplanned sundowner a nearby herd of Impala spooked and came dashing past within meters of us. The reason for their fear became evident as a single African Wild dog nonchalantly trotted past, also within a few meters of us. 

Surprise at sundowners. An African Wilddog trotting past nonchalantly. 

Now only to find the last bogey bird still evading us. Rufous Bellied Heron. And Kings Pool, about 30 km upstream was our hunting grounds. 

Coffee stop. 

Similar in habitat to Duma Tau, Kings Pool overlooks well… Kings Pool, a vegetated oxbow lake off the Linyanti River, rich in birdlife. While elephants frequently visit the pool to feed on aquatic vegetation during the dry season, they had no reason to do so during our stay which was slap bang in the middle of the rainy season. Nonetheless, there was no shortage of feathered inhabitants.  With. Much of the target birds already ‘in the bag’ only a few remained still elusive, most noteworthy of which being the Rufous-bellied Heron. Also, considering we only saw the single African Wilddog, without being greedy, we were still keen on catching up with a pack of these elusive carnivores. Interesting additional avian finds at Kings pool were another Dickinson’s Kestrel, African Barred Owlet,, and a seldom seen and crepuscular Bat-Hawk hunting over the river at dusk. I probably have to add that I mistook this bird for a Grey Kestrel, a bird that only occurs a few hundred kilometers to the west. And to add insult it was perched so very little chance to botch this identification. 
Crossing the Savute Channel.

Then, sadly, the inevitable last day broke. What we anticipated as a leisurely, gracious departure ended up being yet another action-filled morning. As we settled down for breakfast, our guide came storming in with the news that the resident pack of wild dogs have been spotted close to camp. Well, it didn’t take us long to get into the car to go and find them, which we did only a few hundred meters from camp. And how obliging of them to settle down right outside the camp kitchen, 

Wish you were here?

This all happened as the first rains of the trip started setting in. We bumped and followed the dogs again en route to the airstrip where we met the pilots for our last flight back to Maun which again held some adventure. The approaching rain necessitated a low flight at barely over 500 feet over the delta navigating the isolated showers. Again this bird's eye view offered great views over some of the most beautiful, wild, vast, and intact wilderness areas left in the world.  

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