Chobe’s Jacana season

This is the first post from my trip with CNP to Chobe in mid-April 2017.

“If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.”

~ John Hemingway

The Chobe river begins its life as the Cuando river which rises in the central plateau of Angola on the slopes of Mount Tembo. It breaks up into channels some of which flow east to form the Linyati which then becomes the Chobe along the northern border of Botswana. The river was the highest I have ever seen it in mid-April. Usually the river level is building to its peak around June each year but the exceptional rains late in the summer season have brought a huge amount of water down the river. The rains usually begin in November in Angola and the Chobe river swells quickly usually reaching its highest level in the Kasane area around June each year. The river bottlenecks around the Kasane area which forces the river to spread over its floodplain. It is this time from December to April each year that many of the waders nest in these flooded waters, especially African Jacanas.

“Africa – You can see a sunset and believe you have witnessed the Hand of God. You watch the slope lope of a lioness and forget to breathe. You marvel at the tripod of a giraffe bent to water. In Africa, there are iridescent blues on the wings of birds that you do not see anywhere else in nature. In Africa, in the midday heart, you can see blisters in the atmosphere. When you are in Africa, you feel primordial, rocked in the cradle of the world.”

~ Jodi Picoult

Each morning we would gather at 6h15 for coffee and a rusk before setting out on the river, cameras in hand. The weather was still in a state of considerable flux, at times it was beautifully sunny and at other times upsurges in cumulonimbus clouds provided a dramatic backdrop and at other times it was raining. This next image was taken on the boat at around 6h45 on our way upstream to explore sections of the river towards Puku flats. The soft pastel colours, fresh morning air and stillness of the river early in the morning made it feel like heaven on earth.

With the river being so high there were vast rafts of water lilies, an ideal playground for jacanas, Squacco Herons and Pygmy geese.

Early in the morning the surface of the river was like a mirror providing wonderful backgrounds. The adult African Jacana has a chestnut belly back and wings. It has a black stripe from its beak to the back of its head. The black stripe extends from the top of its head down the back of its neck. Its face and neck feathers are white with a golden necklace across the bottom of its neck. The adults have a blue facial shield which extends from its bill to the top of its head. Its legs are a golden green-grey colour.

With good backgrounds it was then just a question of looking for isolated rafts of lilies floating away from the main area and waiting for an African Jacana to fly or wander onto the raft.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” 

~ Martin Buber

When  not competing for dominance of a lily patch the adult African Jacanas seemed to fly lazily between lily rafts dragging their long toes in the water, a perfect altitude measure, not a bad idea when your landing gear is that big.

The African Jacana has these long toes which spread its light load over the lily pad affording it time to feed on the lily pad before its slowly sinks.

The African Jacana seems to be undiscerning about its landing strip.

A lone water-lily flower provides a perfect landing spot.

“I am in love with this world . . . I have climbed its mountains, roamed its forests, sailed its waters, crossed its deserts, felt the sting of its frosts, the oppression of its heats, the drench of its rains, the fury of its winds, and always have beauty and joy waited upon my goings and comings”.

~John Burroughs

It is intriguing to see these adult African Jacanas stay just long enough on a lily pad and move off just as it starts to sink.

The Jacanas spends time foraging for snails and insects on the lily pads. They will even eat small fish if they can catch them. There is no sharing of food among adults or even between adults and chicks.

Every now and then they find something more substantial and try to swallow it after beating it to death. This particular frog was too big for the Jacana to swallow.

African Jacanas are polyandrous which means the females have multiple partners laying numerous clutches of eggs which each male then looks after. The nest is usually just a rough gathering of floating vegetation debris upon which a clutch of three to four eggs are laid. The only real protection the eggs have is their camouflage.

The male African Jacana incubates the normal clutch of three to four eggs and looks after the chicks once they are born, around 21 days after the eggs are laid. Once the chicks break their way out of the eggs they are precocial meaning they instinctively know how to feed and take care of themselves. They also instinctively know how to protect themselves. If their father is not close by and they feel threatened they dive under a water-lily pad with just their beak protruding above the surface of the water for air. Alternatively, they lie flat among the floating dead plant matter and remain dead still. Their camouflage is so good that if you did not see them move and crouch down into their stealth position the chances are you would never see them. Certainly overhead predators would never see them.

“Nature is man’s teacher.
She unfolds her treasure to his search,
unseals his eye, illumes his mind,
and purifies his heart;
an influence breathes from all the sights and sounds
of her existence”.

~Alfred Billings Street

If the chick needs to get from one water-lily raft to another a couple of metres away before its is able to fly, it just gets into the water and starts to paddle with those long toes. It is not an efficient swimmer, but gets the job done.

The chicks tend to feed close to their father who continues to look after  them for the first two weeks of their life.

I think that is remarkable that from the time this minute creature breaks its way into the world, it instinctively knows what to do. 

The chicks look quite peculiar with  long toes and small under developed wings.

The Jacana chicks instinctively look for insects and snails on the lily pads and under pieces of floating vegetation.

Despite looking like an exaggerated version of “scissor man” they seem to cope well with those exceptionally long toes.

“If there is any wisdom running through my life now, in my walking on this earth, it came from listening in the Great Silence to the stones, trees, space, the wild animals, to the pulse of all life as my heartbeat”.

~Vijali Hamilton

When the chicks are very small and less than two weeks old, their father only needs to give an alarm call and they will nestle under his wing.  If the threat is serious enough the adult male African Jacana will lift two chicks under each wing and run off across the lily pad away from the danger.

It is a very strange sight but the chicks know not to wriggle. They keep dead still under their father’s wing while being whisked away from danger. I have never seen a chick drop out from under their father’s wing.

What was quite surprising is that a pair of Blacksmith Lapwings on the river bank some 30 metres away would periodically fly across the open patch of water and attack the chicks while they were foraging. The chicks would just duck, lie flat on the floating vegetation and the lapwings would fly back to the river bank.

“Your deepest roots are in nature. No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation”.

~Charles Cook

The lapwings can be dangerous attackers because they have lethal spurs on their wings which can do real damage.

There seemed to be no apparent reason for this as the lapwings did not feed on the lily pads and they did not have a nest or chicks close by.

One morning we were fortunate enough to find a family of Jacana chicks on an isolated raft of lily pads in a shaft of direct sunlight with a back water background. These are ideal lighting conditions for a wildlife photographer. It is just a question of finding the right raft of lily pads and waiting for the Jacanas to move onto them which they do for just a few minutes.

The lapwings usually attacked the chicks when they were on an isolated raft of lily pads and were exposed.

Of the many families of Jacana chicks we saw,most had three to four chicks, indicating that it had been a successful breeding season.

This chick must be have been about three weeks old, but its wings were still under developed so it had to rely on wading and swimming to get around.

With all the flooded water we saw many birds feed on frogs. This frog was small enough for the adult African Jacana to swallow once its had beaten it into submission.

We were privileged to have had wonderful photographic opportunities of African Jacanas at all stages of their development. African Jacanas are always foraging on top of lily pad rafts or in grass along the river bank. To get reasonably clear backgrounds, one needs to identify isolated lily pads and wait patiently for the Jacanas to move onto them. The next step is to look for specific backgrounds, either dark or providing specific coloured backgrounds for the Jacana chicks. Knowing what you are trying to achieve and patience are the two key ingredients.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

~ Henry Miller

Despite desperately looking for the less common Lesser Jacana, we did not see any so I will just have to go back next year.

“…few can sojourn long within the unspoilt wilderness of a game sanctuary, surrounded on all sides by its confiding animals, without absorbing its atmosphere; the Spirit of the Wild is quick to assert supremacy, and no man of any sensibility can resist her.”

~ James Stevenson-Hamilton

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

Have fun,

Mike

One thought on “Chobe’s Jacana season

  1. A wonderful commentary on what must have been a fascinating experience. These photographs have taught me a lot about birds I have not seen from so close up .

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