Chobe Buffaloes and Skimmers

At first take Buffaloes and Skimmers might seem an unlikely combination for a post on African wildlife. Stay with me and I will explain why they can been seen together. We have just returned from a terrific five days on the Chobe River with Wenzel Kotze from Coetzer Nature Photography. Being early August, we did not expect to see migratory birds as it was too early, but the river level has fallen from its peak around May-June. Once the river level falls a number of different behavioural changes occur among the wildlife along the Chobe River.

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
 – Kahlil Gibran

Last week was characterised by river crossings. The main mammals crossing the river were Elephant and Buffaloes. I will post a separate set of images on the Elephants. In this post I want to focus on Buffaloes and Skimmers.

I saw more Buffaloes on this trip along the Chobe than ever before. I also saw an usually large number of Waterbuck and Spurwing Geese. The Spurwings tend to congregate along the Chobe during July and August in great numbers. This is probably because their breeding season starts around August and the river level has fallen enough for them to start feeding on the aquatic vegetation on the islands.

There were also large herds of Buffalo feeding along the side of the river and on its islands.

One morning, still reasonably early, a herd of about 100 Buffalo on Chobe island decided to cross the river to Skimmer island on route to the mainland. Once the lead Buffalo starts to cross the river and the rest follow. Unlike Wildebeest, Buffaloes have no hesitation when they reach the river. By the way there are no Wildebeest along the Chobe river, near Kasane.

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1282

The Buffalo seem to be acutely aware of the dangers lurking in the waters of the Chobe river, but it does not stop them.

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1302

There are very big Nile Crocodiles (” flat dogs” as we like to call them) in the Chobe river. On a previous occasion we saw one very large croc. waiting in the channel between Skimmer island and the mainland for individual animals to cross. Normally, the Buffalo cross the river as a herd giving them safety in numbers but stragglers are vulnerable, usually the old bulls, which we like to call “dagger boys” because they often dig there bosses into the mud leaving big clods of mud caked on their horns.

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1495

I was astounded how fast the Buffalo could swim. I did not think they were well adapted for fast swimming but I was wrong. They ‘doggy paddle” but are proficient fast swimmers.

Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3230

There are a lot of Nile Crocodiles in the Chobe river. This was one of the bigger ones. You can tell he is huge by the size of the muscles  at the base of his jaw. His body length, excluding tail, must have been well over two metres

Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3603

A croc would need to be a seriously big to attempt to take a Buffalo and I have never heard of an adult Buffalo being taken by a croc. Thankfully, we did not see the crocs taking any of the Buffalo that crossed the river that day.

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1337

The herd which crossed to Skimmer island did not waste time but moved across the island and quickly crossed the channel separating Skimmer island from the mainland.

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1352

Unfortunately, we could not get onto the other side of the herd to get better light on the Buffalo but you get a sense of the drama of the crossing. There are no ifs, buts or maybes – the herd moved headlong into the channel with purpose. I have been fortunate enough to get to the Chobe many times, but this was my first sighting of a Buffalo herd  crossing the river.

Skimmer island is so-called because the African Skimmers prefer to roost and nest on islands or sandbars such as this.

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1204

“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”

~Henri Cartier-Bresson

Chobe PM 8-Aug-14 0296

Skimmers are beautiful, lithe fliers. They have very long wings shaped for speed and manoeuvrability. Skimmers are intra-African migrants and come back to Chobe once the water levels subside exposing sandbars like Skimmer island.

Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3516

Their wings are long  and narrow allowing them to use their unique feeding technique.  They feed on fish which they catch by flying very low over the water surface with their lower mandible cutting through the water. They have a unique bill in the bird world where the bottom mandible is longer than the top one. They drag their lower mandible through the water effectively trawling for fish close to the surface, hence the name Skimmer.

Chobe PM 9-Aug-14 1013 Chobe PM 9-Aug-14 1014

Ideally, they need smooth water to skim over. As soon as they hit something their neck flexes. As you can imagine this seems to be a dangerous way to hunt for fish because it could hit a small floating piece of wood or croc but their necks are incredibly flexible and their bill recoils under their body. The lower mandible is perpetually growing because the abrasion wears down the lower mandible.

Chobe PM 9-Aug-14 1035

Chobe PM 9-Aug-14 1049

The evenings are an ideal time to see them skimming as the water is calm and in the setting sun illuminates their hunting ground in wonderful, soft golden colours. Skimmers do a lot of their fishing at night.

Skimmers also seem to love flying and often do incredible aerobatic manoeuvres when sparring together.

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1248Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1247

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1245

Skimmers are syndactyl meaning their toes are partially webbed and have a non functional back toe preventing them from easily perching on branches and so they stand on the ground rather than perch on trees when they roost. Skimmers nest on the ground and are therefore vulnerable to passing “river crossers”.

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1257

A few days after the first Buffalo river crossing a small coalition of  Buffalo bulls crossed from the mainland onto Skimmer island to get onto the main Chobe island.

Chobe AM 10-Aug-14 1386

Elephants also cross onto Skimmer island on route to the Chobe island or mainland. This intrusion causes much alarm to the Skimmers as their nests and eggs are very vulnerable. The Skimmers soon started attacking the Buffalo in much the same way that Lapwings attack intruders, regardless of their size.

Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3542   Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3540

Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution.
 – Ansel Adams

Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3570Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3574Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3585

After relentless mobbing by the Skimmers, the Buffalo bulls decided to move on and cross the channel to the main Chobe island.

Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3297 Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3313 Chobe AM 12-Aug-14 3367

The Buffalo are plagued by millions of midges constantly flying around them. To provide some skin protection from biting insects, the Buffalo roll in the mud ensuring a thick coating of mud. They never seem to get the mud in their eyes and even with a thick coating of mud the midges continue to buzz around them, but there must be some relief from bites and their associated skin irritations.

 Chobe PM 10-Aug-14 1936

Buffalo are tricky to photograph because they are usually so dark in contrast with their surroundings. In order to get full light in their eyes, early morning seems to be the ideal time to photograph them. More often than not they are in herds so you need to isolate your subject to simplify the composition. They can be very sedentary endlessly grazing or lying and chewing the cud, so wait for some interaction, the timing is everything.

Rivers have what man most respects and longs for in his own life

—a capacity for renewal and replenishment, continual energy, creativity, cleansing.

— John Kauffman

To Wenzel Kotze and CNP, thanks very much for a wonderful five days on the Chobe river. The opportunities were superb with the only photographic limitation being me!!

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun


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