Bordering Northern Botswana’s Chobe National Park, the Chobe River offers some of the best birdwatching opportunities in the whole of Southern Africa.
When the river rises during the rainy season, water flows onto the surrounding floodplains to create an ideal habitat for insects and other small animals. As a result, birds are attracted to the area for its rich food source of insects, frogs, snails, fish and more.
From late August through to the end of March, the summer migrant birds arrive, and the Chobe becomes home to a unique combination of riverine and bushveld bird species. If you visit the Chobe during this time and you’re an avid birdwatcher, you’re in for a treat. While in the area, here are 10 species you may be lucky enough to spot:
The Jesus Bird: This is the nickname given to the African Jacana Bird, as its huge feet and claws can grip on floating vegetation, making it appear as if it’s walking across water as Jesus was said to have done. The male Jacana does all the nesting duties, caring for the babies from eggs through to chicks, and hiding them under his wings if he senses danger.
Fish Eagle: Found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the unmistakeable ascending and descending call of the fish eagle is “the voice of Africa” that’s a familiar soundtrack to any Southern African safari. Because of the way they catch fish, these birds are a joy to photograph if you can catch them swooping into the water to nab their prey in one fluid movement.
Pied Kingfisher: These beautiful black and white birds are unique in their ability to hover and stay perfectly still in the air, something that not many other birds can do. Because of the huge amount of energy this consumes, pied kingfishers need to eat a lot of fish – so it’s a good thing they’re expert hunters. You can tell males from females by their distinctive black and white breast patterns: males have a “waistcoat and cummerband”, while females appear to be wearing a black bra!
Malachite Kingfisher: This small, beautiful bird is much smaller than the pied kingfisher, and has a red bill, bright red legs and plumage in shades of yellows and blues. You’ll spot it flying low over water with its wings moving so rapidly that they become a blur to watch.
Yellow-billed Oxpecker: Named after the fact that these birds eat ticks and parasites off cows, buffalo and other large beasts, oxpeckers have distinctive red and yellow bills. Within South Africa you’re more likely to see red-billed oxpeckers, but the further north up Africa you go, the more you’ll see the yellow-billed species.
Southern Carmine Bee-eater: With a vivid crimson-coloured body and electric blue crown and undertail, these birds are striking against the browns and greens of their riverine surroundings. They’re vocal, friendly and gregarious, hanging out in large numbers until November and December before they migrate further south.
African Openbill Stork: This bird is so named because of the unusual gap in its closed bill, which helps it pry open its favourite meal of aquatic snails.
An African Darter: Also known as the “snake bird”, the darter resembles a snake the way its long, S-shaped neck sticks out of the water when it swims. They’re often seen drying their wings on the bank, because although their primary flight feathers are waterproof, their secondary ones aren’t (but they allow for sleek underwater movement and maximum buoyancy).
Marabou Stork: Although it’s not the most attractive bird on this list, the Marabou stork is definitely one of the most distinctive species in the African bush. It’s often called “the undertaker bird”, because from behind it appears to be wearing an ominous black cloak and may even display a shock of white hair. These birds are highly adaptive, eating anything from fish, frogs and snails to carcasses of mammals on land.
Black-Winged Stilt: This upright, leggy wader has long orange-red legs and a straight black bill. It emits a high-pitched barking call and is quite a social bird, preferring to hang out in groups than alone.
One of the best ways to spot birds on the Chobe by staying on a houseboat such as those within the Zambezi Queen Collection. As a guest on the luxurious Zambezi Queen or one of the three Chobe Princesses, you’ll take special birdwatching trips out on the river by tender boat, accompanied by an experienced local guide.
Because these boats glide silently through the water, you’ll get really close to the birds that surround you without disturbing them. With the help of your guide on a three-day stay, it’s not unusual to spot around 200 species of birds. Whether you’re a novice to the bird world or a fanatical twitcher, the Chobe makes for one of the most memorable birding trips you’ll ever experience.