We can make peace with a few chilly mornings during these fall and winter months – the change in season is a welcome departure from the previous period of high temperatures and regular rainfall. We learn how to embrace it all out here because we know it’s just a season in a year’s cycle – not a life-sentence. But there are a few invariables to the Delta and its seasons, whether we are in the dry, electrically-charged-before-the-rain months, the thick of the thunder showers or the throes of winter.
A fair few species of birds make their home here year-round. They come to define the season for some of us, especially close-attenders who are keen to witness seasonal behaviours and adaptations. Certain birds of prey keep to a steady annual Delta schedule as they can withstand the plummeting temperatures and variability of food sources. Martial eagles, bateleurs, fish eagles, African hawk-eagles all stick around during the winter months. The martial eagle, the largest African raptor, uses the season to breed; if you’re lucky, you may catch them performing their subtle mating display: the male orbits the female who only occasionally leaves her perch to participate, grasping talons with her suitor mid-air.
But winter birding out here is primarily about the water fowl. Once the seasonal inundation arrives we can make use of motor boats, traversing the main channels and accessing otherwise hard to reach lagoons. The African jacana uses the winter to nest. They capitalise on the high water levels to help protect their brood, nestling on carefully laid floating grasses. Jacana males are known for their paternal contribution, perching themselves on the eggs until they’re due to hatch. It’s not easy for these caretakers however – the eggs are still prone to dive-bombing birds of prey, water monitors and mounting hippo wakes.
Some birds, like coucals and black crakes, nest in the reedy marshes and can be difficult to come by outside of boating season. The coucal’s low, watery croon can be heard year-round but during the summer months seems to add to their elusive reputation. Crakes require dense and tangled vegetation to nest in and though less secretive than other rallidae, they are very protective of their home ranges – often we see them in retreat: dodging back into the thicket as we cruise past. But they can also be big-for-their-britches little birds, taking head-on larger fowl which trespass in their territory.
An exceptionally small and picturesque water bird, the African pygmy goose, is also best observed at this time of year. They prefer to make their home amongst plenty of vegetation, especially lily pads.
Crowning the winter birds, however, the petite but royal breed – the kingfishers – are the quintessential winter bird. Pied, malachite, striped – there is nothing like trying to keep pace while one skims the channel’s surface just ahead; watching as one hovers, beak poised downward like a dagger; letting one perch on the edge of your mokoro, momentarily catching a lift through this winter season.
Photos © Tim Gaunt