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Botswana>A birder's dream

Bird Watcher's dream

Botswana's diverse habitats from the harsh wilderness of the Kalahari to the lush waterways of the Okavango produce over 530 different bird species. The country is a veritable bird watcher's dream with scope for the experienced ornithologist as well as the eager amateur. Rob Clifford reports.

Throughout the year, a range of dry grassland birds dominates the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, in the centre of the country. Among them larks, pipits, ostriches and korhaans are commonplace. Along with these come the exotic birds of prey such as greater kestrels and pale chanting goshawks.

When the rains come, from November to March, hundreds of flamingos descend on the pans. Here they stay for a number of months whilst the water and their food supplies last. Lucky visitors might spot white backed pelicans as they work the pan systems for food.

The Central Kalahari and Nxai Pans have their own set of dynamics and birds to go with it. During the wet season many of the summer migrants take up residence in the Central Kalahari and Nxai Pans. Rufus napped larks, yellow-billed kites and cuckoos arrive in their droves. Grassvelt pipits, crimson breasted shrikes and rattling cisticolas are commonplace. Kori bustards, the heaviest birds to fly in this area, can often be seen strutting around the open grassy plains foraging for food. Botswana's national bird, the colourful lilac breasted roller, perches like a sentry on branches of dead trees, waiting for unsuspecting insects.

Vibrant Okavango
The Okavango Delta has to be one of the most vibrant examples of nature on earth. Environmental changes over thousands of years have created the rush lined waterways and flood plains which attract another range of bird species such as coppery tailed coucals, swamp boubous and greater swamp warblers. Migrating birds such as the sandpipers, cuckoos and pratincoles arrive in early summer and do not leave until March or April. In October the call of the woodland kingfisher echoes through the riparian woodland signifying the beginning of summer. This sets a mood of excitement for the warm wet months ahead. Unusual visitors to the Okavango Delta such as the cuckoo hawks, bar-tailed godwits and lesser jacanas can also be expected throughout the year. Excitement mounts as the chance comes to spot the rare Pel's fishing owl, pink throated long-claw or African skimmer. Unusually the Carmine bee-eaters — summer visitors — nest on the ground in soft sandy beaches on isolated islands in the middle of the permanent delta.

Birds of the riverfront
The Chobe River front is dominated by large mammals, which have a big influence on the range of bird life. The animals continually graze the vegetation, keeping the waterways open and the riverbanks almost devoid of cover. This has meant that a range of open-grassland species which are prevalent here. Some of the more unusual species include long toed and white crown plovers, saddle-billed storks, red-billed hornbills, pied kingfishers and a range of darters.

The riverfront also is dominated by the territorial fish eagles sitting like statues on high branches ever vigilant for intruding competitors. Flocks of up to a million quelea birds are seen during the later summer months and Cape turtledoves, francolin and guinea fowl are commonplace.

Topographically and logistically, Botswana is a bird-watchers paradise. An incredible diversity of birds coupled in with fantastic game viewing has made Botswana one of the best bird watching and safari venues in the world. The best time to visit Botswana for bird life is probably during the summer months of November through to March, when the migrants are in residence.
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