In retrospect, Xigera was my introduction to the local avifauna; Little Vumbura was my immersion course; at Tubu Tree, with Johnny, I finally put my knowledge into practice.
“GO”, I heard a sound above me.
“The Go-away bird” said Johnny, my guide and birder extraordinaire. By then I knew it that this was a local name for the rather fetching grey lourie.
“Hm. It didn’t actually say ‘Go Away’” I said with my newly found expert’s scepticism.
“GO ’WAY” the bird repeated above me.
I shut up. Driving with Johnny sometimes felt like taking an exam.
“What’s that?” he asked me pointing at a small raptor perched on a tree.
“Ahem – a goshawk. No, a Dickinson’s kestrel.”
Johnny was unimpressed. “It’s a bateleur eagle. But juvenile. Page 180.”
And he pointed at a picture on page 180 of his well-thumbed Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa, or as we call it in hushed tones, the Bible.
I felt it was a trick question as the juvenile male looks nothing like the brightly plumed adult. “Ask me something else”.
He pointed at a large stork.
“A marabou” I said.
There it was, the ugliest bird alive, looking like a vulture after a failed facelift.
“Correct. And that one flying away?”
I couldn’t possibly confuse that kaleidoscopically coloured ambassador, Botswana’s national bird, with any other.
“Easy. A lilac-breasted roller.”
We drove on through seasonally flooded grassplains, dry woodland, open savannah and riverine forest: you name the terrain, Tubu Tree has got it. I had also been given my own personal guide specially for birding, so we circled waterholes, visited observation posts and stopped at our heart’s content to identify the tiniest of cisticolas and the faintest of warblers. Maybe it was the dedicated nature of the expedition, maybe it was my own sharpened senses or maybe it was the location of the camp that combined the features of both previous reserves; whatever, I ticked 59 bird species in Xigera, 45 in Little Vumbura but a dizzying 76 in Tubu Tree, reaching a total of 114 unique species in a week. That included some of a birder’s holy grails: a pair of graceful slaty egrets, endemic birds that can only be seen in this area, wading through a waterhole; the rare, endangered wattled crane, which actually breeds in the Okavango; and the curious, colourful, saddle-billed stork whose peculiar, long beak seems to have been designed by the Creator’s novelty department.
I tried my Laurence van der Post question on Johnny.
“Nine years a ranger,” I asked him. “What is the animal that has impressed you the most?”
He didn’t have to think much. “Mostly it’s birds that impress me,” he replied.
My feelings exactly.