Tag Archives: Caprivi

Bird of the Week – Week 131 – African skimmer

One of the more unusual looking avian inhabitants of the Caprivi region of northern Namibia, and rare enough to be considered “endangered” in the southern African region, is the African skimmer. The most striking feature about the bird is its bill – red with a yellow tip and with the lower mandible about three centimetres longer than the upper mandible.

1-african-skimmer

With a length of approximately 39 cm, the sexes are alike in plumage colouration and the males are larger than the females. Dark, almost black upper parts and white forehead, throat and under parts are quite distinctive. Eyes are brown; legs and feet, with partially webbed toes, are red.

African skimmer

Inhabiting large open stretches of water with bare sandbanks and sandy islands, the African skimmer is usually found in small groups. Their method of feeding is unusual, and provides the reason for the oddly proportioned bill. The birds feed mainly at night, flying low over the water with body tilted forward, bill open and the lower mandible skimming through the water. Although flying very low, their long wings do not touch the water. On encountering a fish, the bill snaps shut and the fish is caught. What an amazing adaptation!

African skimmer

The call of the African skimmer is a loud “kik-kik-kik”.

The African skimmer is monogamous and their nest is an unlined hollow in the sand, usually on a sandbar. The placement of these nests has contributed to the decline in bird numbers in the recent past as the wake of boats using the waterways washes eggs and chicks from the nests. The female lays a clutch of 2 to 4 pale buff-coloured eggs, which hatch after an incubation period of approximately three weeks.

African skimmer

The scientific binomial for the African skimmer is Rynchops flavirostris; Rynchops from the Greek words for “face” and “bill”, and flavirostris from the Latin for a “yellow bill”. The name thus focuses on the extraordinary bill with which this bird is equipped, which is not surprising at all.

African skimmer

The Hippopotamus or River Horse

Picture this … Two tourists climb into a boat with a guide and as they glide upstream the guide tells them that if they are confronted by an aggressive hippopotamus they mustn’t even think of abandoning the boat and jumping overboard into the water.  Yeah right!  We’ve heard lots of scare stories that tour guides dish out to wide-eyed tourists visiting Africa for the first time.  As seasoned South African travelers, we figured this was a good line to use with foreigners – gets them a bit edgy and expecting some adventure where there is none.  Well, how wrong we were …

A bit too close for comfort

We took a tour on the Kwando River in the Caprivi with a birding guide.  Expecting to see some great birds and perhaps the odd buck or elephant at the water’s edge, we really sniggered when our guide gave us the line about the aggressive hippos.  About two kilometers upstream, in water that was less than a meter deep, we came across a pod of about seventeen hippos wallowing in the shallow river (see the photo below).  The guide stopped a fair way off and dramatically whispered to us that we should be quiet so as not to upset them.  Whilst we were taking photos, one rose halfway out of the water and started to charge towards our boat!  It was a heart-stopping moment seeing this enormous hippo running effortlessly along the bottom of the river and rapidly gaining ground on us.  Our guide quickly put the boat into reverse and took us out of harm’s way.  Okay, so we won’t be such cynics in future.

About to charge at us

Never mind all the stories you’ve read or heard about dangerous animals and the Big Five – hippos are considered amongst the most dangerous animals on the continent.  Whilst they are not meat eaters and so won’t eat a human, they are extremely aggressive and if they catch anyone between them and the water, the human has little chance of surviving an attack.  If the victim is not trampled to death, the hippo’s powerful jaws and gigantic teeth will make short work of them.

A great specimen

Male hippos are only territorial in water, where they lay claim to certain stretches of rivers or lakes and protect up to twenty-five females.  They are agile both in the water and on land.  Being herbivores, they are solitary feeders, eating short grass found alongside rivers – mainly at night after dusk.  They do all their socializing in the water and mud, which is where they prefer to remain during the day in order to keep cool.  They can also be found sleeping on riverbanks during the day.  Hippos don’t have sweat glands, but are said to sweat blood because they secrete a red fluid which is thought to help keep them cool.  No-one is quite certain what the purpose of this fluid is, but it also flows in large amounts when they are excited.

Taking a daytime nap

These huge mammals can weigh between one and a half to three and a half thousand kilograms, with males being substantially heavier than females.  Like crocodiles, their eyes, ears and nostrils are situated on the top of their skulls, enabling them to remain mostly underwater and thereby preventing sunburn.  They aren’t able to stay completely submerged for longer than about six minutes without having to come up for air.  Youngsters can hold their breath for less than a minute.  Talking of youngsters, the gestation period for a hippo is two hundred and forty days.

A big pod of hippos

Hippos are preyed upon by lions and crocodiles, but their main predators are humans, who hunt them for the ivory from their teeth and for their meat.  Young hippos also have to be protected against their own kind, as male hippos are known to kill them in the water.  If you’d like to read some interesting facts about hippos, click here.

In the pink

And so I end this little blog off with a moral – do listen when a tour guide tells you a scare story – sometimes what he says really is genuine and not just a story to add a bit of adrenaline to the outing – you just have to be astute enough to sort the wheat from the chaff.

 

Namushasha – a little piece of paradise

When you live inland in a desert environment, surrounded by leafless thorn trees and no grass or waterways, you sometimes long for the vibrancy of growth and moisture.  Strangely enough, to me, gazing over a dam is not the same as watching a flowing river.  It’s as if the dam is stagnant, whereas a river echoes the flow of blood through my veins, making me feel alive.  I mention this, because when we arrived at Namushasha, our holiday destination in the Caprivi Region of Namibia, my soul immediately responded to the flowing river and the lush green environment, and my spirits lifted immensely.

The lodge's wooden deck

Namushasha is a country lodge on the banks of the Kwando River.  We were absolutely delighted with our luxurious suite that had a balcony under a canopy of indigenous trees, and a beautiful view of the river below us.  We couldn’t have imagined a more idyllic setting, with abundant birdlife and the sound of grunting hippos from the reeds on the riverbank opposite us.  We’d hardly settled in and poured ourselves a beer in readiness for a spectacular African sunset when a Barn owl hooted about two meters from where we were sitting.  Every night we were serenaded by a pair of these owls who obviously had no shortage of food in the immediate vicinity of our suite.

Rob on our balcony

We quickly learnt not to step out onto the balcony without a camera, because the birds presented themselves to us at every opportunity.  About four pairs of Paradise Flycatchers flitted around playfully – tantalizing us as they moved so quickly.  Other birds that came and went were Swamp Bou bou’s, White-fronted bee-eaters, White-browed robin-chats and a host of LBJ’s and  flycatchers.

White-fronted bee-eater

Throughout the day, and especially in the early evening, the river was a flight path for various herons, cormorants and darters.  A Yellow-billed Kite gave us a scare when it landed on a branch draped with fishing line and a lure with many hooks – we wondered if it had been snagged.  Fortunately after examining the lure and not finding any food, it flew off unharmed.  The Fish Eagle’s haunting cry was often to be heard.

Beautiful baobab flower

There are some excellent walking trails around the lodge and, in spite of the heat, we spent many happy hours wandering through the bush photographing birds and trees.  There were lots of baobab trees in the area and for the first time we saw baobab flowers.  These delicate blooms only last for about a day so we were very gratified to be able to see some at last.  In a wooded area we came across a pair of Grey-headed bush-shrikes that were obviously not too intimidated by our presence as we managed to get quite close to them for some photographs.  We couldn’t say the same about the Brown firefinches, as they were very definitely camera-shy!

Brown firefinch - a lifer for us

On our last evening at the lodge we treated ourselves to a game drive to the nearby Nambwa Game Reserve.  To get there we took a short boat trip across the river and then climbed into an enormous vehicle, aptly named “The Monster” to take us into the park.  A small colony of Carmine bee-eaters was breeding in the ground next to where The Monster was parked.

Carmine bee-eaters

The game drive was somewhat disappointing as we only saw buffalo and a few buck – not the elephants that we were hoping to see.  Nambwa apparently has the largest concentration of African elephants on the continent, which we have seen on a previous visit.  Although we sat at the waterhole for quite a while, they didn’t come down for a drink.  In spite of this, we enjoyed the tour and felt it was a fitting end to our stay at Namushasha.

For folks not wanting to stay in the lodge, Namushasha has a really nice shady campsite, although campers are warned of visits by hippos and elephants.  It’s definitely worth a visit if you are ever in the area and I must say too that the food at the lodge is fantastic.