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Birds of a Feather

9 min read

Updated 01 May 2023

Picture of Chris McIntyre

By Chris McIntyre

Managing Director

When we talk to travellers who are planning their first safari, invariably – and understandably – their wish list is topped with a desire to see Africa’s most iconic wildlife species in their natural environment: majestic male lions, leopards lounging in trees, elephants at waterholes… The truth is that even after countless safaris, we never tire of seeing these incredible creatures either. It’s a privilege every time.

Few visitors contact us dreaming of seeing leopard tortoises, elephant shrews or antlions, but often our travellers return with equally joyful stories about sightings of smaller creatures like these. And so it is with birds. With the exception of dedicated birdwatchers, few of our travellers mention birds when planning their trip – and yet many return entranced by the colours, behaviour and diversity of Africa’s birdlife. Watching crimson flocks of carmine bee-eaters swooping along the Luangwa riverbank in September, sitting next to ground-nesting white-tailed tropic birds in the Seychelles or having breakfast surrounded by gorgeous Lilian’s lovebirds in the Serengeti are all spectacular experiences. And catching a glimpse of the audacious pink eyelids of a Verreaux’s Eagle-owl – instead of the leopard in a tree that you were looking for – leaves an unforgettable memory.

So in celebration of these moments, we’ve chosen to highlight three very different avian stories in this newsletter. From the challenges facing migratory birds to two current, scientific projects on stand-out bird species – one celebrated for its beautiful pink plumage and the other resembling a prehistoric curiosity – we hope you enjoy this in-flight issue.

Sometimes on safari, it’s the birds, bees and sunset G&Ts that stick in the memory longest…

Migration Matters!

Twice a year, in May and October, World Migratory Bird Day celebrates migratory birds and reminds us of the need for international cooperation to ensure their conservation. By raising awareness of their habits, ecological importance and the threats they face, it’s hoped that action will be taken across their major migration routes.

This year, the focus is on water, specifically the global threats to water quality and quantity.

Migratory birds rely on water and its associated habitats for refuelling, resting and breeding. Sadly, as human demand for water and encroachment on aquatic resources increases, there is an existential threat to many migratory species. Compounded by pollution and the effects of climate change, these resources are fast diminishing: an alarming 35% of the world’s wetlands have been lost in the last 50 years.

Such losses mean greater threats to many migratory birds, making the protection of rivers, lakes and wetlands an urgent imperative. Fortunately, there is some great work being done across Africa to help protect these critical natural resources. Some of Africa’s most spectacular rivers and wetlands – from Botswana’s Okavango Delta to the vast Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia, the mighty Zambezi and the great lakes of the Rift Valley – have increasing protection and feature in our safaris. They teem with wildlife, helping to conserve many species of water birds, flamingos, eagles, cranes and storks to name a few. We have always believed that the revenue generated by responsible, sustainable tourism is a force for good in helping to protect vulnerable areas. We work hard to ensure that our partners on the ground have the same values and we support them wholeheartedly in their efforts on the front-line of conservation.

When we know in advance, we can usually arrange guides with expert birding knowledge who can focus a safari on our feathered friends. Of course, some trips are also better suited to a birding focus than others – check out the bird-watching list here for a start. From the watery wonderland of the Okavango Delta on our Pangolin Safari to the rare endemics and huge colonies of seabirds on the Seychelles, we can ensure you have the time and space to appreciate and photograph a host of bird species across the continent, as well as enjoying every other aspect of being on safari.

Flamingo Friendships: Opposites do not attract!

Black Rhino, Nomad Africa.

For nearly a decade, researchers from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour have been studying the Caribbean and Chilean flamingos at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge, UK.

Their latest study focused on flamingos’ personalities. Previous studies had confirmed that flamingos seek out particular ‘friends’ within a group, aside from their mating partner, and this research sought to establish if those friendships were driven by personality traits. In short, it turns out that they are. Flamingos make friends in much the same way as humans, by seeking out individuals with similar characteristics to their own. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together.

Flamingo flocks, which typically consist of hundreds or even thousands of individuals, provide plenty of opportunities for the birds to interact and bond with one another. Researchers believe that as they spend time together, they develop social connections akin to friendships.

Like many other social birds, flamingos have characteristic ways of forming and maintaining friendships within the flock. Communicating by honking, trumpeting, and head-flagging – in which they move their heads rapidly from side to side – they signal to attract and interact with potential friends. Buddies found, they then embark on coordinated walking or swimming, bonding over their synchronised behaviour, or preening and cleaning each other’s feathers, developing a sense of unity and cooperation.

But what makes them decide which birds to hang out with? Beyond their preference for interacting with familiar individuals over strangers, researchers observed and measured consistent behaviours to build a picture. Studying the birds’ various character attributes, from their willingness to explore to their degree of aggression, the scientists found conclusive results.

Bolder, louder flamingos sought out similar noisy traits in their chums while submissive, quieter birds also bonded together. Adventurous birds consorted with other natural explorers and all individuals frequently stood up for their avian pals in flock fights. So while flamingos don’t have the same cognitive abilities as humans, they definitely display social behaviours that help them establish and maintain meaningful relationships within their flocks.

To observe flamingo friendships in action, in spectacular Rift Valley settings, Tanzania’s Lake Manyara and Lake Natron are the perfect spots. The shallow soda lakes are tinged pink with flamingo reflections and the surrounding landscape is home to a host of predators and some very special camps. The 7-day Avocet Safari, taking in Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti is a luxury trip costing between £7,410-11,720pp.

Mum? – Puppet-rearing Shoebills

Image Credit: Maggie Hirschauer

Zambia’s extraordinarily wild Bangweulu Wetlands are a fascinating water wilderness, which expand after the rains to match Botswana’s Okavango Delta in extent. In the local Bemba language, Bangweulu means ‘where the water meets the sky’, and its wide landscape spans lily-strewn water channels, lush floodplains teeming with thousands of endemic black lechwe, and papyrus reedbeds harbouring key breeding sites for one of Africa’s strangest and rarest birds, the aptly named shoebill (Balaeniceps rex).

Officially classified as ‘Vulnerable’ (on the scale of ‘Least Threatened’ to ‘Extinct’) on the IUCN Red List, the global shoebill population is estimated at less than 8,000 birds, with a few hundred individuals living in the Bangweulu Wetlands, their southernmost habitat. Found only in tropical, central-eastern Africa, between South Sudan and Zambia, shoebills do not migrate and are particularly sensitive to habitat disturbance. In Bangweulu, they breed in the papyrus between May and July. As a secretive species fond of seclusion and responsive to disruption at the nest, nest sites are off limits to visitors. However, the birds can still be observed, especially between May and September, as visitors are guided in canoes to watch them hunt for catfish, their favourite local delicacy.

The Conservation NGO African Parks manages the Bangweulu Wetlands Game Management Area in partnership with Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, and on behalf of six communities (chiefdoms) who own the land and reserve the right to sustainably use its resources. In 2012, African Parks implemented a Shoebill Nest Protection Programme (SNPP), offering local people a financial incentive if they reported shoebill nests and helped protect them until the birds fledged. Early in the program, the SNPP was implemented alongside researchers using camera traps to monitor the nests and chicks. In 2022, 26 community members were employed to monitor 13 nests around the clock between June and November. The scheme has been successful, producing several fledglings each year.

Shoebills are monogamous and typically lay two eggs, though three eggs have been documented. Usually only the first-hatched chick survives; chicks that hatch later usually die in their first few weeks as a result of parental neglect or ruthless siblicide.

Now, in a first for shoebill conservation, efforts have expanded with the inauguration of the Shoebill Captive Rearing & Rehabilitation Facility in the Bangweulu Wetlands. Programme staff carefully collect the second egg, incubate it at their specialist rearing facility and raise each chick to adolescence before releasing it into the wetlands.

From hand-turning the incubating eggs three times a day, to carefully constructing the chick-rearing rooms with papyrus mats to minimise human contact, every aspect of the project is carefully planned and painstakingly conducted. On emerging from the egg, young shoebills adopt the first living thing they see as their parent – and so the programme uses shoebill hand-puppets in place of their parents, which have been designed and made specially by Emmy award-winning puppeteer, Bill Diamond – one of the creators of the Muppets!

With only two instances previously recorded of shoebills being reared in captivity, this project could have an exceptionally positive impact on shoebill population numbers and scientific knowledge of the species if it proves successful. As of May 2023, five chicks raised in the 2022 season have been tagged with GPS trackers and released. For a rare and sensitive species with declining numbers, this is a ground-breaking project with high hopes of increasing the overall population.

If you’d like to visit this special region and see these fascinating birds close up, Shoebill Island Camp in Bangweulu Wetlands is now being run by a really super team whom we’ve known and worked with for more than 20 years. It offers a greatly enhanced experience and can easily be added as a two- or three-night side-trip from the wildlife spectacular of South Luangwa National Park.

Be an Expert. Work with us….

Meerkats in the morning sun near Camp Kalahari, in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans.

We’re currently looking to expand our brilliant team of Africa specialists.

From graduate trainees to experienced travel specialists, we’re on the lookout for talented people who share our enthusiasm for superlative safaris.

If you, or someone you know, is passionate about Africa, a great communicator and an efficient administrator with superb attention to detail, then check out the Expert Africa Careers page for details of the positions available and how to apply.

If you’ve been inspired and want to find out more, give us a call or enquire now to speak to an expert.

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