Birdwatching in the Okavango Delta, Botswana – Roxanne Reid

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By Roxanne Reid
‘There!’ His voice is a loud, intense whisper of excitement. We follow his pointed finger, peering carefully into the tree branches. Nothing. He starts to explain and we trace the trunk of the tree, the branch sticking out… and then suddenly there’s a flash of brown wings and off we go again. We’re birding in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, and it’s something special.

​Luckily, our guide followed the bird’s movement. He cajoles us until we find Pel’s fishing owl with our binoculars, a blur of feathers behind a branch. It is a secretive bird and therefore a tick much sought after by ornithologists. We consider ourselves lucky to have had even a glimpse; This is only the second time in our lives that we have seen one.

Birding in the Okavango Delta, Botswana: Pel's Fishing Owl

Pel’s secret fishing owl

We sit. We are waiting. We hope. Our patience is finally rewarded when the owl returns to its former perch. Then he appears in a hole in the tree trunk, just his eyes and beak visible, as an elephant passes by without a sound.

The ginger-brown Pel’s is rare, with fewer than 500 pairs in southern Africa. Here in the Okavango, however, they are found in large numbers, attracted by the crystal clear waters of the delta, its tranquil channels and lagoons. But it was still a coup; We then met a man who had given up all safaris for two days just to go looking for a Pel’s – without success.

As we set out on the water channels early the next morning, our guide suggested we look for the Pels again. He turned off the motorboat’s engine about 15 meters away and began to leisurely push it through the reeds with a long wooden pole, as if it were a mokoro.

Birdwatching in Botswana's Okavango Delta: Pel's Fishing Owl

Pel’s fishing owl

The best place to look for this secretive bird is near rivers or other water sources. Whenever you see a slow-moving river with tall overhanging trees, look closely and you might find one.

Pel’s is a nocturnal hunter of fish, frogs, crabs, and even baby crocodiles, but he usually spends the day roosting in a shady tree, keeping a low profile. That’s why it’s so easy to miss. Luckily our guide knew where and how to look, so we had a second chance. This time the owl posed for a few photos (hey, they might not be award-winning shots, but at least we saw it!). Then he flew to another tree and we decided to leave him in peace.

Of course, Pel’s was a highlight of our time in the Okavango Delta. But there were tons of other birds too, from jugglers, darters, green-backed herons and goliaths to little bee-eaters, pied kingfishers and a malachite kingfisher swinging on a reed in the breeze, its beak bright red so long that it seemed long. as if the bird could lose its balance and fall on its face.

Little Bee-eater, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Little bee-eater

Malachite kingfisher, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Malachite Kingfisher

​If you love the sight and sound of African fish eagles, you’ll be tickled pink here in the delta where they roost and call from every second bare-branched tree.

There were also plenty of African jacanas, surfing among the water lilies on the wave created by our boat. The mother jacana is unusually sneaky: she lays small brownish eggs covered with thin dark lines of “cracks”, then takes them out from there in search of another male to mate with.

African fish eagle, Okavango Delta, Botswana

African fish eagle

African Jacana, Okavango Delta, Botswana

African Jacana

Luckily, Dad steps in and takes care of the eggs and chicks. It may even hide a few chicks under its wings to protect them from danger – although the oversized chick feet dangling underneath rather give away the game.

If words like red-bellied heron, great swamp warbler, and copper-tailed coucal make you shiver with excitement, the Okavango will thrill you.

The Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta is a vast territory of some 16,000 square kilometers teeming with life, including more than 1,000 species of plants, nearly 500 species of birds and 130 species of mammals, not to mention numerous species of reptiles. , amphibians and fish. Each year, approximately 11 cubic kilometers of water extend over this vast territory. The aquatic landscapes and water lilies will also enchant you.

Lilac-breasted roller, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Lilac-breasted roll

In recognition of all this natural diversity, the Okavango Delta is a Unesco World Heritage. It is also the largest freshwater wetland in southern Africa and one of the largest inland deltas in the world. Its floodwaters travel more than 1,000 kilometers from the central African highlands to create pristine water channels, islands and floodplains that attract elephants, buffalo and antelopes, as well as the predators that feed them. follow.
View of reeds and water lilies from a mokoro, Okavango Delta, Botswana

The view from water level in a mokoro

One of the best ways to see it all is by taking a mokoro, with a guide who leads you slowly and silently. You’re part of nature, so it’s an immersive way to see animals, especially birds and small creatures like frogs and dragonflies. These crafts were traditionally made from wood, but Botswana’s efforts to prevent deforestation mean most of them are now made from fiberglass.

Mokoro perched along a water channel in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

A guide silently perches a mokoro along the water channels

Accommodation in the Okavango Delta
Botswana is not a budget destination, as the government has chosen to pursue a high value, low impact tourism model. Obviously, there are many high-end luxury camps in the Okavango Delta, such as those run by Wilderness, Great Plains Conservation, Desert & Delta Safaris and Sanctuary Retreats.

​But for those who can’t afford such luxuries – or the excellent guides they offer – the best way to enjoy the Okavango is to drive alone and camp in the Moremi Game Reserve or the Khwai concession. For the best affordable Okavango/Moremi self-drive experience, I would suggest two to three nights at each of the following: Third Bridge and Xakanaka in Moremi, and either Mbudi Campground or Hippo Pool Campsite in the Khwai Region.

It’s also worth venturing out on a mokoro trip, either from Mboma station near the Third Bridge, or from Mbudi or Hippo Pool in Khwai. Xakanaka instead offers motorized boat excursions. You can reserve them at the entrance to the reserve or at the camp.

Motorized boats in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

A motorboat covers more ground; the engine can be turned off to approach birds silently

When is the best time to visit Okavango?
Usually the dry season months, from June/July to October, are the best time to visit, although October can be very hot. These are the months when the rains have stopped but floodwaters have already arrived from the highlands. This gives you the best combination of land safaris and boat trips along the waterways.

That said, the Okavango can be considered a year-round destination if you don’t focus on water activities. Also keep in mind that July to October is peak season, when peak rates apply. If you’re looking to cut costs, going out outside of these months may be a more affordable option. Game viewing is still good in April/May and November/December, although November and December can be very hot. January to March are also hot and humid months where some areas of the delta become inaccessible.

Although the Delta is good for birding year-round, the summer rainy season, from November to April, is when summer migrants increase the number of bird species you might see. Keep in mind that the summer months from December to March are very hot and some areas become difficult to access, so April might be a good choice.

You can also enjoy
Botswana’s Best Game Reserves for a Wildlife Safari
Okavango, Botswana: where mokoro is king
8 Best Things to Do on a Botswana Safari

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