Thursday, September 29, 2011

With water comes life . . .

It is a well-known fact that the 2011 Okavango flood is one of the highest on record - water has surged past Maun (especially when the bridge over the Xotego River broke!), down the Nhabe towards Lake Ngami, and down the Boteti for over 250 kilometres to Lake Xau. While this has had its downside (such as the escape of numerous crocodiles from flooded enclosures at the Sitatunga Crocodile farm!), the news for birds has been overwhelmingly good. BirdLife Botswana has long realised that Lake Xau is likely to become a birding hotspot as it fills, although this did not really materialise last year when the water barely reached the lake-bed. We have been monitoring the situation closely, and BirdLife members Pat Nurse and Ray and Val Lovett recently conducted a partial count of the now extensive lake.Marabou Storks are among the first birds to find new areas such as Lake Xau

Highlights of their count are as follows:
Little Grebe 6
Grey Heron 12
Goliath Heron 1
Great Egret 2
Yellow-billed Egret 9
Little Egret 20
Cattle Egret 20
Squacco Heron 3
Marabou Stork 15
Glossy Ibis 163
White-faced Duck 1
Red-billed Teal 65
Southern Pochard 19
Spur-winged Goose 2
Wood Sandpiper 2
Black Crake 1
Common Moorhen 2
African Jacana 1
Kittlitz's Plover 3
Crowned Lapwing 30
Blacksmith Lapwing 76
Wattled Lapwing 1
Common Greenshank 6
Black-winged Stilt 11
Collared Pratincole 18

The lake is still filling, and it is early days yet. The lake-bed is very uneven with ridges and channels so the water is spreading out into a system of fingers of water. Migrant waders are only just now returning, so it is going to be very interesting to keep an eye on this exciting new birding destination.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dinner with Phil Liggett

Phil is the internationally acclaimed commentator of the annual Tour de France cycle race. He has agreed to address us on his other two loves, namely birding and cycling. His first love is obviously his dear wife who will accompany him. He is an outstanding raconteur and we can guarantee an exceptional evening. Please join us at the GICC on Friday night 28th October at 19:30. Better still, please consider reserving a table for ten. Tickets cost P375.00 per person, which is almost a giveaway considering the menu on offer. Tickets can be obtained from our Gaborone office at Kgale Siding, or phone 3190540 and ask for Dikabelo. In all seriousness, we are open to receive bids from those who would like to have Phil and his wife sit at their table for the evening. Please help us advertise this dinner among all birders and the cycling fraternity. The diner will also be of interest to those who like to travel. Come and join us for an evening of fun. Contact Harold Hester on 3190541 for more information.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tip of the iceberg

Today it became apparent to me that the poisoning of vultures that we are currently seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. I contacted the Wildlife Department Veterinarian in Maun to find out if there was any information on the type of poison used to kill the vultures recently in the Makgadikgadi area (see blog of 12 August below - One step away from a catastrophe) and he mentioned that even the results from the vulture samples from Sepako had not yet been processed. Sepako? Vultures poisoned at Sepako? This was news to me! Yes, some vultures had been poisoned at Sepako a few months ago. Phone Martin Marumo at the Wildlife Department in Gaborone, he knows about the incident.

Yes, I was on a trip in the area during April when I heard about the incident, but I didn't get an opportunity to investigate it, but why don't you try the Wildlife Office in Sepako?

Good afternoon, Pete Hancock from BirdLife Botswana here, does anybody know anything about some vultures poisoned near Sepako a few months ago?

To cut a long story short, I was fortunate to get hold of Wildlife Officer Kgongwana at Sepako who actually investigated the incident. Five White-backed Vultures were killed on 3/4/11 after feeding on a poisoned skin that had been put out for hyaenas and jackals, although none of these species was killed. Once again, vultures were the innocent victims of poison directed at so-called 'problem' animals.

The five vultures died right next to the poisoned skin, so the poison used muust have been pretty toxic. Near to the carcase was a plastic container with the label METHOMEX. This was new to me, so I read up on METHOMEX, which "is a carbamate insecticide administered as a foliar spray or as a soil treatment for a variety of crops". It is VERY TOXIC, and is even dangerous by contact or inhalation. "A small quantity may be fatal (to a person) if swallowed". It is toxic to fish, bees and wildlife including, as we now know, vultures.

W/O Kgongwana did a thorough job of the investigation and collected some samples from the dead vultures despite the overwhelming evidence from the empty METHOMEX container. A docket has been opened and this incident is under investigation . . .

And so the story goes - we are currently not getting any closer to curtailing the problem, even though it is apparent that it is a much bigger threat than we ever could have envisaged. At this rate, it looks as though we may still be gathering statistics while our magnificent vultures slip into oblivion.
A live White-backed Vulture drying its wings after bathing (Photo P Hancock)

Monday, September 5, 2011


Recently BirdLife Botswana member, Mike Soroczynski from Francistown contacted me to report significant numbers of hornbills being killed on the road between Dukwi and Kutamagore - he travels this stretch regularly on his way between Francistown and Mowana Copper Mine were he works. He writes "Its quite distressing to see the numbers killed. They seem to congregate at the roadside gravel verges only in the dry season - and coincidentally pror to the breeding season. I wonder what could be attracting them to such precarious areas? Seeds? Termites? Other insects? The gravel itself for egg production? Has anyone else reported such behaviour and fatalities?"
My wife, who is a long-distance cyclist, has reported the same high bird mortalities over a much wider area - she has cycled between Maun and Shakawe, Maun and Kasane, the Trans-Kalahari Highway and other routes and readily notices dead birds due to the (relatively) slow speed at which she cycles. In addition to hornbills, she has seen many Lilac-breasted Rollers, and various owls and nightjars, and a few years ago, large numbers of Barn Swallows following an early cold spell at the end of summer. She has also reported numerous snakes being killed, notably Puff Adders, and often Porcupines, Brown Hyaenas, Aardwolf and Bat-eared Foxes.

This Lappet-faced Vulture was killed during the breeding season, and probably had a chick on the nest which would also have died.

It is not known whether the effect of these mortalities on wildlife is sustainable, or whether it is depressing some populations. The latter is likely to be the case with globally threatened birds such as the Bateleur, and White-backed and Lappet-faced vultures, where numbers may already be low and/or declining due to a variety of threats. These birds sometimes scavenge along national roads and are susceptible to collisions with vehicles.
A beautiful chestnut-backed male Bateleur killed near Nata.

All sensible drivers in Botswana avoid driving at night due to the high probability of hitting a cow or donkey; we also need to take special care when driving during the day. Apart from the impact of roadkill on globally threatened birds and other animals, the impact of a 6kg vulture smashing through your windscreen will not do your vehicle much good either.It's in everybody'y interest to drive carefully . . .