Chobe avian gems

This is the fourth post from our recent Chobe trip with Coetzer Nature Photography (CNP). The first post showed the Jacana’s, the second described some of the experiences we had with the  ‘river horses”. The third was a little calmer after the aggression shown (towards each other) by the hippos and showed the moods of the Chobe river at dawn and dusk.

This fourth post aims to show you a small selection of the beautifully coloured avian gems which you can see along the river. The river has a tremendous wealth of avian life. This post purposefully excludes raptors and waders which will be the focus of two further posts.

For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.

D. H Lawrence

One unexpected treasure was this sighting of a Brown-throated Weaver. It is uncommon and usually only found in the northern Botswana rivers, and in eastern Mozambique and Kwa-Zulu Natal. This is breeding season so the brown neck is vividly coloured. This is the only weaver I have seen along the Chobe even though most of the weavers are found in northern Botswana. Each weaver has a distinctive shaped nest. The Brown-throated tends to build its nest on reeds and papyrus leaves. The main chamber of the nest looks like that of a masked weaver but without the tunnel entrance. I have only seen individual Brown-headed Weavers but they are supposed to be sociable like so many of the weavers which build their nests in colonies.

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You will find three species of Coucal along the Chobe river, the White-browed, Senegal and Coppery-tailed. We saw a White-browed but it was fleeting and we could not get a worthwhile image of it. The next image is of a Coppery-tailed Coucal in flight. They have broad wings which enables them to lift themselves out of the thick reeds with relative ease. The long tail helps them to balance in the grass and reeds. Coucals have reversal dimorphism where the females are bigger and more brightly coloured with bigger beaks than the males. They are also thought to be polyandrous, meaning the male looks after the chicks.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

It is amazing to see how adept these Coucals are to skulking through the reeds forging for insects, small reptiles and even bird’s eggs and nestlings. Make no mistake these are serious predators.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

It is difficult to tell the difference between the Senegal and Coppery-tailed at a glance by colour alone. The Coppery-tailed is materially bigger than the Senegal Coucal. This Coppery-tailed Coucal was taking a meal for its almost fully fledged juvenile.

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Surprisingly, we did not see many Red Bishops in the reed beds along the river. I would have expected to see many more Bishops, red and yellow and yellow crowned.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

Another gem which can also be seen  along the river is the Pygmy goose. These are the smallest of the geese found in southern Africa. On the CNP boats they have become nicknamed the ‘pocket rockets’ or ‘turbo geese’. The reason being that they take-off from the water like rockets and its takes some skill to capture a pin-sharp image of them in flight, getting the head and tail pin sharp is possible after numerous attempts, but getting the wing tips pin sharp – now that is a step up on the difficulty scale.

I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.

Henry David Thoreau

The male Pygmy Goose has spectacular colouring with a black crown, emerald green neck/nape, white face, yellow bill and ochre breast and side feathers. The female is dimorphic and has a distinctive black eye sash. This time of the year has been coined the ‘Jacana season’, it could just as well have been called the ‘Pygmy geese’ season. Pygmy Geese are true geese in that they nest in holes in trees rather than on the ground like ducks. Geese differ from ducks in that they have a developed hind toe and claws which allows them to perch on branches in trees.

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This male’s body and head were pin sharp but even at 1/4000th of a second shutter speed the wing tips  were still not pin sharp.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

On our last morning down at Pygmy goose bend, we were waiting for the ‘pocket rockets’ to return to their resting place on a fallen tree trunk. While waiting we heard a small band of ‘cackling widows’ which flew into the tree next to us. These Green Wood-Hoopoes, cackle away sounding quite similar to Arrow-marked Babblers. These Wood-Hoopoes use their long red beaks to find grubs and insects under the bark. The male tends to have a more curved beak but there is no sexual dimorphism. They are though co-operative breeders and tend to move around in family groups.

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Chobe is known for its plethora of Bee-eaters. One Bee-eater of two which is not seasonal is the White-fronted, not White-throated as Russell correctly pointed out. The White-throated Bee-eater is found in west and central Africa. It is an exquisitely green, blue and orange coloured with a distinctive black and white striped  head. The Carmine and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters migrate north during the colder months as the insect activity dies down along the river during winter. Most Bee-eaters move north to warmer climes to improve their insect hunting success.

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I have a particular penchant for Carmine Bee-eaters as my life long ‘shamwari’ Mike Condy’s Dad John Condy took us youngsters out to Beatrice about 20 miles south of Salisbury (now Harare) in the Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to see a colony of Carmine Bee-eaters nesting in a sand bank on the side of the Hunyani River. I  have never forgotten that day. The colours, noise and vibrancy of that colony of Carmines have stayed with me for the last fifty years. I still get a thrill when I see these exquisitely beautiful Bee-eaters.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

A Carmine was following this Yellow-billed Egret because it had grasshopper in its beak and ever the opportunist was waiting for the Egret to drop it.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

When the boat is moving on the water, the swallows fly around  it and even land on it at times. Flying birds are always a challenge and there is no better practice ( I didn’t say success) is to try and photograph these swallows flying passed the boat. Les Penfold and I tried to capture Wire-tailed Swallows as they flew around and passed the boat while we were moving. I never got a decent pin sharp image. I don’t know whether Les got one. One trick I did learn is that these little beauties like to rest of the reed leaves. 

Chobe river wildlife  photography

When the wind is blowing towards the reeds and into our faces, this is the perfect position as the swallows have to fly into the wind and so slow down and then have to steady themselves before they land upwind on a reed. That moment just before landing is the when us amateurs have an opportunity to capture images of these quick little gems.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters are highly sociable and are often found flocking with White-fronted Bee-eaters. After the Carmines I think these are the next most exquisitely coloured Bee-eaters. I have only ever seen them on the Chobe River. Bee-eaters never seem to taste their food and can swallow invertebrates. They have two stomachs, the first provides chemical digestion and the second mechanical digestion. Once the digestive process is complete the Bee-eater has powerful contractions to regurgitate the remains of the exoskeleton of the insects it eats. Birds do have a rudimentary tongue and ability to taste to avoid noxious elements to prevent them being poisoned.

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Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters have an extremely large range and are long-distance migrants; nesting colonially in sandy banks in the semi-deserts of northern Africa and subtropical Asia, whilst wintering in open woodland or grassland in sub-tropical Africa.

The larger the island of knowledge, the larger the shoreline of wonder.

Huston Smith

Little Bee-eaters are second species of Bee-eater to be a permanent resident along the Chobe. These exquisite midgets are found throughout Botswana, Zimbabwe and the northern part of SA and Mozambique. 

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It was late afternoon down at Elephant Ally and this Water Thick-knee was foraging along the water’s edge for insects. These are mainly nocturnal birds so only become active late in the afternoon. Thick-knees are nocturnal as are Owls and Nightjars. You might be interested to know many ducks and geese, coursers and night herons are also active at night, both feeding and moving to feeding grounds. Being active at night negates the need for bright colours, in fact they need camouflage during the day.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

The name Thick-knee is misleading as that so-called knee which is enlarged is in fact an ankle. Thick-knees also have no hind toe so cannot perch which is why you will find them standing on the side of the riverbank. Nocturnal birds tend to have loud and not melodious calls for territory and mating purposes.  Thick-knee’s have a haunting call heard most often at night.

“It is not required that we know all of the details about every stretch of the river. Were we to know, it would not be an adventure, and I wonder if there would be much point to the journey.”

Jeffrey T. Anderson

I have included this Allen’s Gallinule in this post rather than the waders because of their superb colouring. The Purple Gallinule is more common than the Allen’s Gallinule but we saw quite a few pairs of Allen’s Gallinules this last trip.

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This solitary juvenile Allen’s Gallinule was tucking into what apparently must have been a feast.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

This is an image and the first Cuckoo I have seen along there Chobe river. This looks like a African Cuckoo, mainly because of its yellow eye-ring and cere and does not have the  russet collar or orange eye ring and cere of the European Cuckoo.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

A new thing I learnt from Russell Warren was that Cuckoos tend to go silent after breeding and before migrating. So when you do not hear the Red-chested and Didericks Cuckoos from March, it does not necessarily mean they have already migrated they may still be around.

We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.

Laura Gilpin.

At this time of the year you will see localised flocks of Broad-bordered Grass Yellow and Monarch butterflies along the Chobe river bank. They make a very attractive setting for animals and birds. This White-crowned Lapwing was intent on trying to eat as many of these Grass Yellows as it could.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

This White-crowned Lapwing caught a Grass Yellow butterfly and was dunking it in the water presumably to swallow it more easily. This Lapwing let go of the Grass Yellow for a split second and it escaped.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

The White Crowned Lapwing is found along the Chobe  together with the Red billed Francolin which is also found in this area and no where else. This Red-billed Francolin came down to drink in Elephant Ally but all the baboon activity and the odd bombastic young Elephant made this Francolin very weary.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

The Broad-bordered Grass Yellows added an interesting and colourful addition to the scene around this Red-billed Francolin.

Chobe river wildlife  photography

Yes, you are seeing double. These two juvenile African Jacanas were perfectly in sync. 

Chobe river wildlife  photography

For birders, the Chobe river is a very rewarding destination. If you are a birder and photographer, you will keep returning – a paradise found.

”  I have not yet lost a feeling of wonder, and of delight,

that the delicate motion should reside in all the things around us,

revealing itself only to him who looks for it.”

Edmund Burke

Seek to understand nature, marvel at its interconnectedness and then let it be

Have fun


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