This is the first of four posts from my recent trip to photograph wildlife on the Chobe river with CNP. At this time of the year the water level in the Chobe river is rising fed by the rains in Zambia and Angola. The river level keeps rising until around May, late autumn in southern Africa, before subsiding to its low point around September each year. This time of the year has been called Jacana season by CNP. The reason being that most of the Jacana eggs are laid and hatch at this time. That said, every time we go out onto the water we see something different – the kaleidoscope of colour, movement and diversity is constantly changing.
“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”
– Rachel Carson
The source of the Chobe River is in Angola and this youthful part of the river is called Kwando, its Hambukushu name. It becomes the Linyanti when it reaches Botswana and is renamed again as it flows passed the Ngoma border post to become the Chobe . This river forms part of the northern border of Botswana meeting the Zambesi at the tip of the Caprivi Strip at Impalila Island, some 10 kilometres upstream of the ‘smoke that thunders’, the mighty Victoria Falls.
The wildlife rhythms along the Chobe River are governed by the changing seasons and rising and falling water levels of the river.
Coetzer Nature Photography (CNP)
We spent five days photographing wildlife from CNP’s specialised photographic boats, of which there are two on the Chobe river. These boats are long enough to comfortably seat eight photographers each with their own customised photographic unit comprising swivel seat and camera support . The seats swivel 360 degrees and the camera supports have Wimberly heads and can be adjusted up and down. Usually large camera lens combinations are mounted on the camera supports, typically between 400mm and 800mm focal length lenses. There is no roof on the boat because there are many opportunities to photograph birds flying passed and overhead. The view is unobstructed. The next two images were taken of the other CNP boat carrying the experts from the Bloemfontein Camera Club, a great bunch of photographers.
These specialised boats are wide and with a small draft are enable access to shallow water areas. The boat drivers are skilled operators and guides. Neal Cooper was the CNP guide on our boat, an excellent wildlife photographer, knowledgeable birder and friend.
The boats are great fun and give us a very stable shooting platform. Normally, we went out for about four hours in the early morning and three hours in the late afternoon which gives us the best light of the day.
Two types of Jacana are found along the Chobe River. The first is the ubiquitous African Jacana with its resplendent chestnut coloured body and wing plumage with white neck and checks, black eye-strip, crown and nape of the neck. They also have a golden collar. The underparts in the adults is chestnut but white in juveniles with a chestnut belly patch. The blue bill extends up as a coot-like head shield, and the legs and long toes are grey-green. The second type of Jacana which is seldom seen is the Lesser Jacana.
The exact purpose of the frontal shield is not well understood, but it is believed to play a role in attracting a mate and may provide some protection to feeding birds, similar to rictal bristles. Frontal shields are relatively rare among birds, but many species of coots and gallinules also have prominent frontal shields.
The Jacana adults fly between pontoons of floating lily pads to feed and protect their territory. They can be very noisy when threatened or alarmed.
“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew i would never see it again?”
– Rachel Carson
It is always great fun trying to capture sharp images of flying birds on the river. The Fish Eagles are the easiest because they fly relatively slowly. The Jacanas are more difficult because they have wide wings which allow them to rocket up off the lily pads without warning. The Pygmy Geese are even faster and have been nicknamed ‘pocket rockets’ or ‘turbo geese’ by the photographers because they are difficult to photograph well. Once you have mastered the Pygmy Geese, the next step is to try and photograph flying bee-eaters and swallows – not easy!!
As a photographer, it is always a thrill to get images of flying Jacanas despite being the easier of the the reed oriented birds to photograph. Crakes and Gallinules are more difficult to photograph as they tend to stay close to the transition zone between the reeds and lily pads. The reeds provide the ideal cover when threats present themselves. The female Jacana is larger and more brightly coloured than the male, much like the Painted Snipe, exhibiting a reversal of sexual dimorphism, characteristic rarely seen in birds.
The African Jacana feeds on aquatic insects and larvae, worms, snails and insects, and may even forage on seeds.
The African Jacana is polyandrous, meaning that the male incubates the eggs soon after the female lays them and looks after the chicks once they hatch. The female has multiple partners, a strategy which ensures that at least some of the chicks survive in what is a precarious environment to raise chicks. This reversal of sex roles is very unusual in the bird world.
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
It is easy to see why Jacana chicks need to be precocial, meaning the chicks are well developed and their eyes are open when they hatch. They are covered in a down but are able to walk and feed themselves shortly after hatching. The next image shows the flimsy nest on a light bed of gathered fallen reeds. The nest and eggs are completely exposed. The eggs are pyriform or pear shaped where the one end of the egg is much narrower and more pointed than the other. This shape ensures that when the egg is moved it always rolls back into the centre of the nest, a necessary feature in such a makeshift nest.
The next three images are of African Jacana chicks, which are probably around a week old. They are already adept lily trotters. Their feet look way too big for them, physiology they will have to accommodate all of their lives.
The chicks come onto the water lily pads to feed when the coast is clear and run back into the reeds when they are alarmed. If they cannot get to the reeds in time, the chicks will also dive underwater with their beaks pointed up above the water surface acting as a snorkel.
The chicks are quite capable of swimming short distances, lying flat or hiding under a lily pad if there is an aerial threat.
When the wind blows too hard or the chicks feel threatened they run for cover or for comfort under Dad’s wings.
The male will also pick the chicks up once they are under his wings and run for cover across the lily pads to get the chicks out of harms way.
We were very fortunate to see a Lesser Jacana in the reed beds. This was thanks to the eagle eyes of Russell and Louis on our boat. These guys have amazing vision. We only saw one Lesser Jacana, the same one on two separate occasions. The Lesser Jacana is considerably smaller than the African Jacana, and at a quick glance could be mistaken for a juvenile African Jacana. The Lesser Jacana is much less brightly coloured than the African Jacana and is monogamous. It also rarely makes a sound unlike its noisy cousin.
The chicks of the Lesser Jacana are also known to dive underwater having only their beaks protruding out of the water as a snorkel for them to breath until the threat is gone. This species breeds in territorial solitary pairs. Outside the breeding season the Lesser Jacana is usually seen singly. We only saw one individual in the same location on separate evenings. Despite looking carefully for the Lesser Jacana in the area of the previous sightings, we could not see it during the morning and early afternoon. The only sightings we got were around 18h00 when the light was low.
I hope you found this post on Jacanas interesting. I will do the next post on hippos. We had some unusual sightings and interactions which I will share with you. The more we delve into the natural world the more we see that it is complex, interconnected and more deliberate than we could ever have imagined.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Seek to understand nature, marvel at its interconnectedness and then let it be.