Sunset over fan palms in the Okavango Delta

Sunset over fan palms in the Okavango

“I don’t like birds!”

Siân was looking at me with a ‘there-I-said-it’ expression of annoyance.

“Ever since I was young and saw that Hitchcock movie, birds give me the creeps,” she continued.

Siân’s husband tried to laugh things off with a ‘That was fiction, dear’, but even he could not thaw the atmosphere. I was on a boat, in the middle of the Okavango Delta, and one of my companions had fired a small warning shot: we don’t care about your birds. We want to see –

“A buffalo!” Siân shouted at the top of her voice, as several African jacanas took flight from the surrounding bulrush, awkwardly carrying their overlong, gangly legs behind them.

On the left bank of the channel, a male African buffalo was fixing us with that inscrutable, powerful gaze that has unsettled many a ranger. But on his back stood…

“An oxpecker!” I exclaimed.

Masta, our tracker and guide, put me right: “A yellow-billed oxpecker”, he said. “It’s rarer than the red-billed one.”

And at its feet..

“Cattle egrets!” I exclaimed.

Siân sighed.

Leopard on a tree in the Okavango Delta

Leopard on a tree in the Okavango Delta. Yes you can see big mammals there, too.

Now, Siân was hardly untypical. As many a reserve guide will tell you, most guests are not interested in those ‘boring’ birds. They go on safari expecting to see the Big Five – lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino – plus an assortment of hyenas, giraffes, zebras and whatever antelope is roaming in the area.

Ideally they’d like to witness a chase, or even better a kill, right in front of their jeep, at a convenient angle for the obligatory handheld camcorder. Guests do not come to the pristine wilderness of the Okavango Delta – which is to safaris what the Seychelles are to beach holidays – in order to search for the reclusive Pel’s fishing owl or to marvel at a hamerkop’s nest (though it can bear a man’s weight and measure up to six feet across).

Yet, as the same reserve guide will also add rather wistfully, that is a big shame. For, if the mammal species you can tick off in a week will be fifteen, maybe twenty, the bird species you can catch sight of are easily five times as many.

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