Avian Conquests

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Marabou in flight. Picture: William Warby
Carla Lewis

We trespass, break the law, and we’re unpopular. Ask any non-twitcher on a game drive when the ranger stops for every LBJ

We confuse self-driving tourists too, by gazing at tit-babblers, bulbuls or barbets in the bush, when most only have eyes for the Big Five.

People think birding involves trips to distant, unspoiled locations. The truth is less glamorous. One of Bird Life SA’s directors visits sewerage farms to watch birds. “It’s lovely in the morning and nobody frightens the birds away.”

Another birdwatcher told me marabou storks and vultures hung out at Kasane’s garbage dumps. The rest of our tour group also didn’t look too enthusiastic about a detour to the rubbish dumps. In the end, one of the more adventurous women tourists volunteered to come with me.

First rule of birdwatching at the Kasane rubbish dumps: Fib and say you are disposing of your garbage. Keep a bin liner filled with old cans and rubbish on your back seat as an alibi. Do not mention birds.

A black stork. Picture: Peter Berg-Munch

When we said we had come to take photos of the storks we were shown the door by a glacial stony-faced municipal official.

“You need a letter of permission from Kasane’s municipality if you want to take photos at the dump,” said she. Okay …

“But it’s Saturday and they’re closed”.

We birdwatchers aren’t put off by bureaucratic red tape, unpleasant municipal officials or “trespassers will be prosecuted” signs.

I spotted a smaller dirt road behind the rubbish dumps. From there you we scaled a hill and approached the dumps from behind.

A flock of marabou storks sat on the hill, avian caricatures of undertakers with their dusty feathers and dangling pouches. A few top hats would have completed the picture.

I started scaling the hill until the bark of a territorial male baboon sent me scurrying back to the car, my pants covered in blackjacks.

Birding isn’t the most coveted hobby, either. We’re a bit like the high school chess club. The cool kids could never understand the appeal.

How can I explain the thrill of seeing an African skimmer or why an Angolan pitta is the avian equivalent of a unicorn? I can’t. Other than to say marabou storks on rubbish dumps beat a malt whiskey in a mountain stream any day!