As we slide along the delta’s winding waterways, birds erupt like brightly coloured missiles into the blue sky; others cruise into the cover of the green reeds; while more still dive bomb insects and silvery fish. It’s an ornithophobe’s worst nightmare and enough to send a true Twitcher into a proper spin. But, with over 400 species recorded, Botswana’s Okavango Delta is the ultimate bird lover’s nirvana.
Don’t be fooled by the beautiful vibrant blue of this seemingly benign-looking bird. Woodland kingfishers are fearsome warriors. Unlike the rest of the pescatarian kingfisher group, they predominantly hunt insects and small vertebrates such as frogs, snakes – and even other small birds. Once it has made its mark from its lookout, it dive bombs its prey and flies back up to its perch. Here, it beats its poor victim to death before devouring it.
Classified as endangered in many African countries, these large birds are slow and sporadic breeders and won’t breed if they are under any stress caused by human activity. Because of their size, beauty and rarity, they are considered one of the Big Six in birding and we were lucky enough to see several breeding pairs on our trip to the delta. The female has a yellow eye, while the male has a dark eye and two yellow wattles under its beak – both of which can be seen in this photo. My German companion referred to them as the “German birds” for obvious reasons.
African fish eagle
One of the most iconic birds of the African continent, the fish eagle is the national bird of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Southern Sudan. The majestic-looking birds are a symbol of strength, but they are born with a grizzly competitiveness, too. They can lay up to three eggs during the breeding season – but not all the eaglets will survive. The strongest sibling in the nest will peck their weaker bothers and sisters to death to eliminate the competition for food.
During the rainy season, you may be mistaken for thinking that these large, glossy wading birds have gone quite spare. That’s because it’s breeding season for the African openbill, with the males of the species performing complex mating rituals to attract a mate. While weird dancing techniques are a ‘no-go’ for most humans, openbills clatter their clumsy beaks and bob unashamedly from leg to leg with their heads held between the legs. Well, we’d also hang our heads in shame with those dance techniques.
True to their names, these multi-coloured birds have a preference for dining on bees, wasps and other flying insects. Despite the act of ‘bee rubbing’ to dislodge their stings, ornithologists tagging the birds for research purposes frequently discover stings stuck in their palates. These clever opportunists follow vehicles, making spectacular dives to snatch up any insects flushed out of the grass. They’re also attracted to fires, wheeling through the smoke to catch insect escapees like seasoned aerial acrobats.
We were as lucky to spot this kill as this little bird pinned to the branch was unlucky. One of the most efficient and lethal raptors in Africa, Gabar goshawks mainly feed on birds, stalking out their unsuspecting prey from a concealed perch. Their exceptional eyesight enables them to spot their victim from a distance and their lightening fast swoop allows them to ambush either aerially or on ground. Baby birds are a regular on the menu – they rip open nests with their sharp beaks and help themselves to the helpless chicks.
Despite its soft pink tinge, this swamp-loving species is not the most cultured of birds. Its home consists of a large heap of sticks arranged clumsily in trees, reeds and low bushes along waterways. Nests are used again every year until the supporting trees collapse. If that wasn’t enough embarrassment, the chicks that are born here plunge their heads deep into their parent’s pouch to feed on partially digested and regurgitated fish.
Brown snake eagle
Yes, you guessed it. These fearless birds of prey prefer to snack on snakes – even venomous species such as cobras. With their thick-skinned legs and natural anti-venom, poison is not a problem. They also prefer to lay their eggs in nests made by other birds, often repairing partially made or deserted nests. Then again, I wouldn’t argue with a bird that eats venomous snakes for breakfast either.
Abundant in sub-Saharan Africa, these brightly coloured birds prefer savannah and open woodland. Because of their beautiful colours and their highly sociable nature, they are often poached and traded. Fortunately, their numbers still remain stable. The female lays two to four eggs a season and both parents defend the nest with an aggression that is unaligned with its beauty – even chasing off predatory birds such as raptors.
This little fellow is just 13cm in length and when threatened, it raises the tiny crest of iridescent blue and black feathers on its head in an attempt to make itself marginally larger. As it hovers, seeking out its prey, its short, round wings move so quickly that they appear as a blur. Then, in a blink of an eye, it drops into the water and returns with a captive fish or insect, which it proceeds to beat to death on its perch in a manner similar to its woodland relative.