Lily trotting flooded Chobe waters

In April 2016, my daughter Lauren and I were fortunate enough to spend four days on photographic safari with CNP Safaris on the Chobe River. A big thank you to friend, guide and excellent photographer, Johan Greyling for a productive four days on the river..

“Wild rivers are earth’s renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the authority of humans, always chipping away, and eventually always winning.”

~ Richard Bangs & Christian Kallen, River Gods

The Chobe river flows along part of the northern border of Botswana. We were lodged at Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane and went out on the CNP photographic boat every morning and afternoon up the Chobe river between Kasane and Serondela. This part of the river stretches up to the Chobe Game Lodge  and further upstream for another six or seven kilometres, all of which is in the Chobe National Park. 

I have been on the Chobe river before in April but the river was much higher than usual. The high waters enabled us to access places which were normally only available to the road safari vehicles.  The special aspect about the boat is that it gives photographers a unique perspective and the animals allow the boat to come closer than they would a road vehicle.

“Sit by a river. Find peace and meaning in the rhythm of the lifeblood of the Earth.”

~ Anonymous

The high waters were at least two months early and the river’s water level was the highest I have ever seen it. This was a paradox considering southern Africa is in the grip of the worst drought in over 20 years. The headwaters of the Chobe form on the slopes of Mount Tembo  and build into the Cuando river which flows through the central plateau in Angola into Namibia’s Caprivi Strip and into the Linyanti Swamp on the northern border of Botswana. Down river, below the swamp the river is called the Linyanti which flows west and becomes the Chobe River, before it flows into the Zambezi River.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
~George Bernard Shaw

The high waters were a playground for not only Chobe’s massive Elephant herds, but also for the festival of water birds along the river. In this post, I have focused on one unusual water bird, the African Jacana. This is one of the two Jacanas found in southern Africa, the other is the Lesser Jacana. I was really hoping to get some decent images of the Lesser Jacana but they are seldom seen. All the conditions seemed right but we never saw one.

We found quite a few Jacana fathers with their chicks. The abundant Jacana chicks were unusual for this time of the year, as it was a later than usual. African Jacanas build a rough floating raft of water-lily stems and grass. The nest is not specially lined and the conical eggs are laid straight onto this rough floating raft. African Jacana females lay approximately four glossy eggs which are camouflaged with different markings. Once the eggs are laid, the female leaves the male to incubate them.

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Jacana chicks are born precocial. According to Stanford Education Group, a precocial bird is “capable of moving around on its own soon after hatching.” There are degrees of precociality. Level 1 means the chicks are totally independent of their parents immediately after hatching. Level 2 of precocial development is found in ducklings and the chicks of many waders. They follow their parents but find their own food, which is what jacanas chicks do. The precocial chicks hatch with their eyes open, they are covered with down, and are capable of leaving the nest soon after hatching (they can walk and often swim).

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The chicks would stay close to the river grass and reeds when their father was not close by, as they could quickly hide in the grass if threatened.

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These new-born jacana chicks were foraging for snails, flies and small insects which landed on the water lilies.

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These tiny waders must be a few grams in weight and are about two inches in size.

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Every five or ten minutes the father would make a sound (which I could not hear) and the chicks all gathered around him and one-by- one tucked themselves under each of his wings.

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At times the father would get up and walk with the chicks under his wings. In times of danger, the father is known to gather all the chicks under his wings and run across the water lilies to get his family into a safer area.

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The African Jacana has evolved a  polyandrous mating system. This means that one female mates with multiple males and the male alone cares for the chicks. Such a system has evolved due to a combination of factors. Firstly,  jacanas live in a resource-rich environment so the energy expended by the female in producing each egg is minimal relative to its access to food. Secondly, the jacana lays an egg which can be equally well incubated by either parent.

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The river is a dangerous place for new-born jacana chicks. There are raptors from above, water monitors in the grass and crocodiles and tigerfish in the water. When these chicks sense danger from above they either dash into the grass and reeds or alternatively dive under the water and float just below the surface with just their beaks protruding so they can breathe.

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It was quite cold early in the mornings so every ten or fifteen minutes the male would fly back to his chicks and gather them under his wings, possibly to warm them up. They would remain nestled under his wing, two chicks under each wing for about five minutes before they started to get fidgety.

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If an adult jacana stands on a flat round water-lily pad-like leaf too long it will slowly sink. The chicks do not have that problem.

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One of the amazing aspects of the Chobe river, and it is true on any bush experience, it is never the same twice. This time the water levels were particularly high and this gave us a unique opportunity to photograph adult jacanas on lily pads in more open water which improved the backgrounds. Some mornings the water was so still it looked like blue glass.

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When the wind blows its sometimes catches the underside of the water-lily pads lifting them up revealing a heavily textured underside with numerous veins. This also gives the jacanas an opportunity to search for snails and water insects which live under the lily pads. The flat round leaves have a waxy water-repellent upper side. The underside, however, seems to cling to the water by surface tension. Some water lily leaves are a purple brownish colour underneath. The pigments help concentrate the sunlight to maximise photosynthesis. The leaf stem is hollow and transports air from the surface to the underwater rhizomes which can grow to a massive size. Water Lilies grow best in calm freshwater.

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The African Jacana is unique among Chobe’s water birds. Its colouring is striking with a bright blue frontal shield. This shield consists of a hard fleshy plate of specialised skin extending from the base of the upper bill over the forehead. This shield is thought to protect the face while the jacana is feeding in, or moving through, dense vegetation, as well as to courtship display and territorial defence. This shield is found in rail and jacana families.

“When people ask me what equipment I use – I tell them my eyes.”
~ Anonymous

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The adult jacana has a  line of black feathers from its beak through its eye spreading out over its crown and neck. It has a golden necklace and its wings and body feathers are a rich chestnut-brown. Their most striking feature though, are their long legs and especially long toes which spread out over the water-lily pad enabling the jacana to distribute their light weight on the lily pad.

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If jacanas are not looking for insects inside the water-lily flowers they are pecking insects off the surface of the lily pad.

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The next few images show the African Jacana’s lily trotting ability.

“Taking pictures is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.”
~ Marc Riboud

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“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
~Nhat Hanh

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“We labour long and earnestly for peace, because war threatens the survival of man. It is time we labored with equal passion to defend our environment. A polluted stream can be as lethal as a bullet.”

~ Senator Alan Bible

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Jacanas are good fliers and usually fly low over the water from one flotilla of lily pads to the next. This inevitably takes them into other jacana’s territories and causes conflict accompanied by much noise.

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It is only once the African Jacana adult is flying that you get to see just how long its toes are.

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African Jacanas are the ballerinas of the Chobe. They are very light on their feet and very nibble.

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“Taking an image, freezing a moment, reveals how rich reality truly is.”
~ Anonymous

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Jacanas don’t seem to show much respect for the water-lily flowers and often walk right over them once they have inspected their stamen for insects.

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“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.”

~Martin Parr

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Although there are many jacanas along southern African water ways, it is seldom that you can get a clean shot of a jacana because they feed on insects on flotilla of water lilies and along river banks. We were lucky on this occasion finding a few relatively scattered waterlily pads in an open section of water which provided opportunities to shoot images of jacanas with clean backgrounds. This was in a section of water where we do not normally find water-lily pads but the flooded waters must have created this situation.

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Late one afternoon on our way back to the lodge, we were making our way through the flooding grass when we came across this adult jacana, which was swimming. It did not try to fly away. We followed it for about ten minutes. African Jacanas are capable swimmers despite not having webbed feet but their very long toes do get caught in the grass under the water. 

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At one point, we thought this might be a male which was carrying his chicks under its wings but the intervals between resting points were too long for the chicks to have survived. Another thought was that this bird was moulting but that was not obvious. We never got to find out why this Jacana was swimming and not flying.

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I will never grow tired of climbing onto a boat and travelling up the Chobe river. Every journey is different, it offers new insights and mysteries revealed. I gain a deeper appreciation for how interconnected everything is with the river. The sublime beauty painted with soft hues, the peace at dawn punctuated by a fish eagle’s cry is heaven.

“Rivers hardly ever run in a straight line.
Rivers are willing to take ten thousand meanders
and enjoy every one
and grow from every one.
When they leave a meander,
they are always more
than when they entered it.
When rivers meet an obstacle,
they do not try to run over it.
They merely go around
but they always get to the other side.
Rivers accept things as they are,
conform to the shape they find the world in,
yet nothing changes things more than rivers.
Rivers move even mountains into the sea.
Rivers hardly ever are in a hurry
yet is there anything more likely
to reach the point it sets out for
than a river?”
~James Dillet Freeman

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

5 thoughts on “Lily trotting flooded Chobe waters

  1. Howie – this is my favourite recent post. I just love Jacanas. It reminds me when I was a young boy – finding a Jacana nest was just the most exciting experience. Their eggs are the most beautiful of all the eggs I collected as a kid. I just love the way nature has “painted” them. I loved learning more about this beautiful water bird as well as some botany and not to mention the great literature which inspires me. Thanks for the effort you put into this blog – I for one applaud you and really appreciate the ever increasing Howie blog. Keep shooting and writing my buddy.
    Mick

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