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In search of the Zambezi trio

In search of the Zambezi trio

Rock pratincole
Rock pratincole
TOM VARLEY

PETER STEYN

In October the Zambezi falls to its lowest level, exposing sandbanks and the rocks in the rapids. It is a season of expectation, when the intense heat presages the coming of the rainy season, but meanwhile it is a time of crackling devil winds spiralling dry leaves high into a shimmering sky.

The heat drains all one’s energy, but tophotograph what I termed my ‘Zambezi Trio’, this was the best time. The three species concerned were the white-crowned lapwing, rock pratincole and African skimmer. It took two low-water seasons to achieve my objective, but my persistence was rewarded.

In 1971 I found a white-crowned lapwing’s nest on a sandbank near the river and constructed my hide in careful stages to ensure that the parents were not distressed in any way. Once they had accepted the hide within photographic range, I set up my camera and awaited the return of a parent.

At close quarters this lapwing is a most attractive species with pendulous bright yellow wattles, and a white crown which contrasts with the grey of its head and nape. The parent soon settled to incubate, but it was obvious that it was uncomfortable in the heat and after a while it ran to the water’s edge, soaked its belly feathers, and returned to incubate and cool the eggs. I sat in the confines of my canvas hide just in shorts and the sweat poured off my body, so I could easily imagine the bird’s discomfort.

Not far from the lapwing’s nest there were some exposed rocks in the middle of a fast flowing rapid, and this was where several rock pratincoles were nesting in a loose colony. They lay their two eggs in a hollow on the bare rock. I was able to find one nest where there was enough room nearby to erect my hide, and the parents proved to be confiding.

Both parents took regular turns to incubate and, like the white-crowned lapwing, a parent would sometimes return to the nest with wet belly feathers to keep the eggs cool. I found that the parents were least attentive at the nest in the early morning when it was cool enough to leave the eggs and fly off to feed on aerial insects.

The next October, a year after my success with the lapwing and pratincole, Bob Thomson of National Parks and I reconnoitred the river in his boat in search of nesting African skimmers. Eventually we found several pairs breeding in a loose colony on a large sandbank island just within Zambian waters. Most of them had clutches of three eggs laid in deep damp scrapes near the water’s edge and such a position is presumably chosen to keep the eggs from overheating.

Next day we returned and I set up my hide at one of the nests, arranging with Bob to collect me in three hours. The birds proved confiding and soon returned to the nest, taking turns at incubating. Like the lapwing and the pratincole, they also soaked their belly feathers to wet the eggs, a strategy thus common to all three species to prevent the eggs from overheating.

Once I had obtained my pictures I waited anxiously for Bob’s return, trying not to contemplate the consequences of being found in Zambian waters in a hide with a camera. It was a time when the ‘bush war’ as it was known was at its height and I doubt if I could have convinced a Zambian river police patrol that I was merely photographing birds.

When Bob did return as arranged, I noticed that the incubating skimmer flattened itself into the deep hollow of the nest so that it was scarcely visible from a distance. African skimmers are considered endangered in southern Africa and one of the most serious threats is the flooding of nests from waves caused by inconsiderate speedboat drivers. Not only on the Zambezi, but also in the Okavango Delta, flooding caused by speedboats is one of the main causes of nest failures.

Those hours spent photographing my ‘Zambezi Trio’ all those years ago will remain one of my most cherished memories of my many experiences in the environs of the Victoria Falls.

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