Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What's with birders and sewage?

The one activity that probably contributes more than any other to class the dedicated birder as a species somewhat bereft of the usual sensibilities that other human beings possess, is the proclivity to frequent spots which are generally avoided by the reasonable man (or woman). I’m not necessarily referring to areas that host life-threatening dangers such as malaria, aggressive animals or other inhabitants, but places found in or near most developed human settlements, the local town sewage works! The thought of visiting such a facility generally fills most people with a feeling of revulsion and it is not included on the itinerary of too many other leisure activities that I know off. That is, unless you are seriously looking for you know what…

However, the mention of a particular sewage plant to a birder will probably conjure up pleasant memories of time spent wandering between settling ponds looking at the array of birds that can be found there. I am often met with strange looks when arriving in an area and enquiring about the possibility of visiting the local sewage works. These facilities, by their very nature, does provide suitable habitat to a large variety of birds and, because they are generally avoided by people, present a fairly safe location at which birders can pursue their pastime. In fact, several regional rarities have over the years been recorded at just such facilities from the Cape to the Zambezi and beyond. Recent examples of such birds are the Elegant Tern that was discovered at the Strandfontein sewage works near Cape Town, the American Purple Gallinule found at Paarl as well as Lesser Jacana found near Pretoria in October 2007. It is for this very reason that I, just like most other birders, am familiar with the sewage works in a number of locations across the region. Apart from those mentioned above, I can think of at least 20 other facilities that I have regularly visited over the years.

The dam at the Kasane Sewage Works

One of these rank as one of my favourite birding spots in all of southern Africa, namely the Kasane Sewage works situated between the small towns of Kasane and Kazangula close to the Chobe River in northern Botswana. Although the Chobe-area is frequented by thousands of tourists from all over the world, the sewage works most certainly is not on any of the local lodges or outfitter’s lists of places not to be missed. I was introduced to the site quite a few years ago by a local lodge manager and keen birder, Rex Kelly, and have since spent many pleasurable hours there, constantly being rewarded with some very special sightings of birds and other wildlife.

The area is not fenced and the lower settlement dam which carries the purest water is frequented by good numbers of game. We have at times been surrounded by as many as 200 African elephant, a herd of buffalo and several antelope species including Sable coming to drink here in the late afternoon while a lone hippo bull has for the last few years taken up residence here. One often sees signs of predators such as leopard, lion and spotted hyaena that have visited the site, but it is the birds that make use of the area that certainly warrants the most attention.

Scenes like this are not uncommon at the Kasane Sewage Works Dam
On a recent visit to the site during December, we spent some time here whilst enjoying sundowners and seeing what interesting birds could be around. The first cause for excitement was a small flock of migratory Yellow Wagtails of at least three different races that were foraging in the short grass on an open area near the water. Apart from a range of the expected species of waterbirds and waders, we were initially entertained by the antics of an African Fish Eagle seemingly deriving a lot of pleasure out of taking off from a perch and sweeping low over the water to the consternation of all the shorebirds who would fly up and circle a few times before landing only to be chased up in the same manner a short while later. This game was cut short just before dark when the resident Osprey returned from its daily tour of the Chobe floodplain and, upon finding a potential fish-eating competitor on its home patch, summarily attacked the eagle by dive-bombing and harassing it in the air until it was forced to fly off towards the river. This bird has been using the dead trees in the lower dam as a roost for several years now and we have regularly encountered it on our visits here.

Our attention was soon drawn to a flock of more than a hundred Collared Pratincoles hunting insects on the wing over the water and the clearing among the trees. It is an awesome experience to have so many of these birds fly at great speed around you, at times within a few centimeters from your face. Whilst this was going on, they were joined by at least three Eurasian Hobby Falcons who were hunting swifts and other small birds over the woodland. These little falcons had arrived a week or two earlier on migration from their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia and seemed very keen on replenishing their resources after the strenuous journey south. This was followed up by the surprise appearance of a Bat Hawk that was far more adept at catching swifts as well as bats that started appearing in the growing darkness. The grand finale was provided by an adult male Pennant-winged Nightjar that started hawking insects over the water with its long streamers and largely white wing coverts creating the impression of a huge moth sweeping over the area. A few more of these very sought-after birds were seen on the drive back to camp through the Teak forest.

A drive along this same route by day often reveals species such as Racket-tailed Roller, Wood Pipit, Red-faced Crombec, Striped Kingfisher and quite a few Sunbird species, especially when the teak trees are in flower.

Racket-tailed Roller is fairly common in the woodlands surrounding the dam

A mere glance at the list of species above is enough to make any southern African birder’s mouth water. The fact that they would have to visit a place such as the Kasane sewerage works to get to see some of them will certainly not be a deterrent at all and probably adds weight to the saying that one has to tolerate a few caterpillars in order to see the butterflies.

I again visited the site in February 2009, but was saddened to see that development is starting to encroach on this magical place. Building of a large structure had commenced on the road leading to the site and it seems as if the dam is starting to show the effects of eutrophication with very little clear surface water remaining. The cantankerous hippo bull that was part of the scenery has also since abandoned the site, presumably to take up residence in the nearby Chobe River. I just hope that the development will not hve a negative impact and that carefull management will see the dam become the attracion to wildlife that it used to be.

1 comment:

  1. Cool post, and neat photos. Love the elephant and the Roller. The local birding clubs here seem to like visiting dumps and sewer yards. They must attract a variety of birds.