Chobe’s Jacana alley

Jacana alley is a small inlet just off the end of the north channel before it meets the southern channel. The two channels join a few hundred metres up river from the Chobe Safari Lodge before flowing for around four kilometres onto the rapids and down to joins the mighty Zambesi river at Kazungula.

Jacana alley is so-called because of its year round Jacana activity, the height of which is in the summer months. Our trip was in early winter, June in southern Africa. It was chilly first thing in the morning especially with a breeze. The next video shows a serene soft coloured morning gliding into the alley with the boat motor turned off – bliss!!

“Gliding into dawn with not a word spoken nor a ripple from the bow. The morning light bathed the alley in soft pastels pinks and blues. Not a time for reflection but for anticipation.” ~ Mike Haworth

Even though June was not the main Jacana breeding season, which is around March, we still saw plenty of Jacana activity. There were a few males looking after their offspring. Jacana’s are precocial, meaning they can fend for themselves from the time they hatch and are polyandrous meaning the male looks after the eggs and chicks. The new image is of a fledged sub-adult as it still had is juvenile plumage.

The chicks are easily identified by their small size and outsized legs and feet. The juveniles lack the black colouring on the crown and back of neck. They also still have to develop their distinctive blue beak and frontal shield.

African Jacana’s have long legs and exceptionally long toes. This feature enables them to spread their weight on a lily pad giving them just enough time to feed on the insects on the water lily flower and water lily’s floating leaves before it starts to sink.

Jacana chicks start feeding themselves from the time they hatch. We were fortunate to see a few males with their chicks on each occasion we ventured into Jacana alley. They dash across the lily pads picking midges off the lily pad surface and will happily take a bigger insect if they can find one.

The chicks are adept swimmers and will happily swim from one raft of lily pads to another until they are able to fly across the gap. When a chick senses a predator close by it will either run for cover of the reeds if they are close, alternatively, the chick will quickly dive underneath the lily pad to avoid detection.

Jacana fathers nurture and protect their young. If their father senses danger he will call out to the youngsters who quickly tuck under their father’s wings for protection. If need be the father will lift up the chicks under his wing and run across the lily pads to get away from danger. It was cold early in the morning in June so we often found one or more chicks tucked under their father’s wing for warmth.

The next image is of a juvenile Lesser moorhen. Its brown colouring and yellow beak are characteristic of the juvenile. The adult will have black plumage and a mostly yellow bill with a red stripe which reaches from the top of its frontal shield to the tip of its beak.

The Lesser moorhen is smaller than the Common moorhen. This is normally a shy species but these youngsters happily walked across the lily pads in front of us feeding on insects. The Lesser moorhen is not often seen mainly because it is so shy.

A female Southern brown-throated weaver. This was not breeding season so we did not see the male in his yellow plumage with a dark brown throat. We often see these weavers in the reeds in Jacana alley.

This female Brown-throated weaver was feeding on all the midges on the surface of the water while using the water lily flower as a support.

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” ~ Vincent van Gogh

An African darter sunning and drying itself on a frosty June morning. This darter is also colloquially called the “snakebird” because when it is swimming all you can see its its head and long snake-like neck above the water. The male is a glossy black with white belly streaking while the female is browner. Their primary and secondary wing feathers are a glossy brownish black and their tertial wing feathers are extra long and horizontally striped. Unlike many other waterbirds, the feathers of the African darter do contain oil but are not completely waterproof. This reduces its buoyancy and enhances its diving capabilities. The downside is that the darter has to dry its wings to warm up and be able to fly. While drying the darter preens its feathers which enables the darter to coat its feathers with an oily substance from the uropygial gland, or preen gland.

The shy and skittish Black crake. Normally as soon as a Black crake sees you it rushes back into the reeds out of sight. For some thankful and inexplicable reason a pair of Black crakes ventured onto the lily pads in Jacana alley and as long as we did not try to get too close they happily fed on insects on the lily pads for about 20 minutes.

“Nature has been for me, for as long as I remember, a source of solace, inspiration, adventure, and delight, a home, a teacher, and a companion.” ~ Lorraine Anderson

The Black crake has striking coloration. It is all black with a vivid yellow beak, red eyes and reddish-pink legs. The colour of the legs become a bright red during the breeding season. The relationship between eye colour and function, however, is still largely unknown by ornithologists.

You are likely to only find a Black crake next to freshwater or in wetlands. More often than not you can hear them duetting in the reeds, but they seldom present themselves. Although these Black crakes ventured onto the lily pads they did not have the long legs and long toes of a jacana so they had to keep moving quickly.

Little bee-eater is the smallest of the southern African bee-eaters. It was also the only bee-eater we saw in June. These Little bee-eaters look like green jewels in the winter colours. Like all bee-eaters it has a black stripe across it eye, but the Little bee-eater also has a turquoise stripe above each eye adding a touch more glamour to its already gorgeous colouring. The black malar stripe across the eye may serve the same purpose as the malar black stripe below each of the Cheetah’s eyes. It reduces the sun’s glare from obstructing their view.

The Little-bee-eater feeds on insects which it catches in flight. It tends to hunt from a perch. It sits on a reed stem waiting for an insect to fly by which it then hawks. This small bee-eater is endemic along the Chobe river but will move depending on insect activity.

“Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen — that stillness becomes a radiance.” ~ Morgan Freeman

We found quite few Squacco herons hunting in Jacana alley in the reeds along the side of the inlet. They usually stand on the fallen reeds and grass along the water’s edge and hunt from there. They are able to massively extend their necks so have a decent reach when hunting from the edge.

“Each day has a story to be told, because we are made of stories. I mean, scientists say that human beings are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are also made of stories.” ~ Eduardo Galeano

Two pairs of Pygmy geese near the entrance to Jacana alley. These are beautiful miniature geese. We saw many pairs all along the river in June. They are very skittish and will not let you get close. The female which was following the male in both of these pairs but is usually the first to flush. Pygmy geese have have short bills, rounded heads and short legs with a rufous-colored chest, white abdomen and face, glossy-green upper plumage, The male has light-green sides of the neck with a black border. The female is duller colouring and does not have the green markings with a black border on the side of their neck. The female’s beak is a dull brownish-yellow while the male’s beak is bright yellow with a black tip.

Wonderful warm colours in the early winter morning with a Purple heron perfectly blending into the colour of the reeds and grass. This heron was hunting from the fallen grass and reeds along the edge of Jacana alley.

There are many inlets along the Chobe river. Jacana alley just happened to be a particularly productive section and is frequented by many African jacana and their chicks, crakes, weavers, several heron species and the occasional marsh harrier which scours the reed beds from its aerial advantage.

“The more you look the more you see. The more you see the more you yearn to understand and the more questions take flight from the river like birds flushed.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

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