I spent the morning in a mokoro with Seteng Motalaote, AquaRAP's authority on aquatic birds. As Academy Director of the School for International Training at World Learning, Botswana Branch, he teaches conservation biology and research methods to university students.
And he has a passion for birds – the perfect person for an aspiring birder like myself to team up with. I got to play ornithologist by recording the species and number of birds as Seteng called them out. I also managed to spot a few myself and add them to the list.
|Reed cormorants and great white egrets. |
One of the highlights of our morning was a flock of 80 Openbilled Storks flying high in the sky.
I later found out that the Invertebrates Team had discovered a mess of cracked Apple Snail shells (Lonistes ovum) on open platforms of grass. They had probably been opened by these same storks, which use their nutcracker-shaped bills to crack them open.
Here are a few of the other abundant bird species we counted:
These birds were easy to spot, and we counted almost 75 of them. African jacanas have a bright blue frontal shield (area above the bill) and long blueish legs and nails, which they use to walk easily across floating vegetation.
Due to its small size, elusive habits and booming call (which nearly started me out of my skin my first day in Africa – I thought it must be a huge carnivore) this bird is more often seen than heard. However, here Southeast of Chief's Island, we got a good glimpse of more than 10 of these dark, yellow-billed birds.
We saw many of these dark, streamlined birds racing by overhead. It's prime breeding time for these birds, so I suspect they were hurrying to bring fish to hungry nestlings hidden in dense aquatic grasses.
Each time we spotted a fish eagle, we jotted down the GPS coordinates. This is a huge bird – at least as big as the American bald eagle – with a white head and neck. We frequently heard them calling on the waters outside camp, where they have a nest. Seteng wants to keep track of the number of fish eagles that are here: because they're at the top of the food chain, they're an important indicator of the health of the ecosystem.
We didn't see this bird today, though we know it lives here. It's an endangered species and another that Seteng was eager to record. He mentioned that, if he has a favorite bird, this is it: as Seteng put it, they are "faithful, romantic and gracious" in their habits. The birds mate for life and perform an elaborate dance ritual each mating season.
We had a lot of fun, but this was serious work for Seteng. What was he trying to find out by counting aquatic birds? "I'm trying to establish data that shows trends for particular species," he told me. "These trends can be used to measure the health of the Delta, because birds are sensitive to environmental changes. We can look at data collected by other AquaRAP groups – such as water quality and plants – and gain insight into why problems may exist." Seteng will compare the species and abundance of birds he's noted with the data collected in 1996-97 by the Department of Wildlife.