Xigera's guide to the Okavango birds


Xigera's birdlife ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here are just a few of its avian characters.


21st February 2020

Xigera Safari Lodge

One of Xigera Safari Lodge’s many pleasures is its resident birdlife. Throughout the day, an uplifting symphony of birdsong emanates from the surrounding trees and bushes, while across the lodge, the bright and brilliant plumage of Africa’s ornate ornithological species can be spotted by the patient and attentive. Throughout the Moremi Game Reserve—where Xigera lies—and the Okavango Delta more generally, a staggering 495 species of bird reside or pass through on annual migrations. To put that extraordinary figure into perspective, the entirety of Canada, famed for its diverse birdwatching and some 500 times larger than the Okavango Delta, holds a roughly equal number of species. Here we profile just a handful of the Okavango birds on show.

Bee eaters on a riverbank

The good…

Radiant, rainbow plumage is a trait shared by a number of Okavango birds. Most recognisable of these is the playful lilac-breasted roller, whose feathers range from magenta to malachite and cobalt, in a shimmering display reminiscent of a peacock. In full view, the roller’s coat resembles the palette of Monet’s Water Lilies or the psychedelic sheen of mother of pearl.

Lilac-breasted roller atop a tree branch

Alongside, the Delta features five species of bee-eater, each boasting vibrant, vivid coats ranging from vermillion to viridian and verdigris. The little bee-eater is a smaller variety, draped in a lime-yellow coat, that can be seen atop many a bare tree branch keeping vigil for any vagrant insects. There’s also the southern carmine bee-eater, whose dramatic scarlet plumes waterfall into an elongated tail.

southern carmine bee-eater

Perhaps the cutest of all vibrant Okavango birds is the minute malachite kingfisher. Just over five inches tall, the stoic fisher sits proud on small riverside twigs, noticeable by its striking red beak and talons which contrast with the surrounding vegetation. All along its back, a galaxy of cerulean feathers stands out against an ultramarine coat. Using its massive beak, a kingfisher is able to scoop up minnows almost as large as itself, thwacking them upon a tree branch before gulping them down whole.

Malachite kingfisher in the water

…the bad…

The Okavango is an idyllic roost for raptors and birds of prey, which all thrive on the abundant wildlife. Verreaux’s eagle-owl is the most elusive: a colossal, nocturnal spirit that measures well over half a metre tall. The striking apex predator is a master of the opportunistic hunt, strafing small mammals from above, snatching smaller airborne creatures on the wing, or charging at aquatic prey on foot, using its massive wings to gain impetus. While sightings of a hunt are rare, they do occur—most usually in the evening—and they are a wonder to observe. More iconic in the Okavango Delta is Pel’s fishing owl, an auburn bird with obsidian opaque eyes. Perfectly adapted to the Delta’s aquatic environment, the owl hunts fish primarily, capable of carrying off large prey. Theseelusive creatures are resident most of the year on Xigera island.

Pel's Fishing Owl

Meanwhile, the secretarybird is one of the most peculiar predators in all the African bush: an eagle-like body stood upon crane-like legs. Entirely fantastical and utterly mesmerising to witness, the striking bird is so anomalous it is the only member of its classification family. When fully upright, a secretarybird stands over four feet tall, with a wingspan well over two metres. Its hunting technique is also a captivating oddity: the raptor’s long legs are used to stomp dense clumps of vegetation to root out prey, which then are beset by bill or talon or both. Evilly opportunistic, secretarybirds also congregate at the edge of wildfires to snatch at fleeing small mammals, reptiles and snakes.

Secretarybird on the wing

…and the ugly

The textbook villain of any African wild setting, vultures are an established part of the Okavango ecosystem, hunched, bare-headed, with a decrepit gait and menacing leer. That said, a number of their species are endangered, and the Okavango Delta is a crucial environment for their survival. Three Okavango vultures are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, but none quite captures the essence of the carrion-feeders like the lappet faced vulture. Hulking, these vultures have a wingspan of almost six feet, which they unfurl dramatically to warn off other opportunists from their chosen carcass. So strong is a lappet faced vulture that a pair are quite capable of driving off a hundred-strong flock of white backed vultures as they arrive at a kill.

Lappet faced vulture on the wing

And last but not least, the Okavango Delta is home to the uncanny hamerkop, a medium-sized tawny water bird with a hammerlike headdress. An unusual stork-like bill helps the hamerkop strike fleeting fish and toads in the shallows, which it does with staggering speed by uncouching its serpentine neck. In the Delta, hamerkops construct palatial nests, capable of supporting a fully-grown man’s weight and measuring, in extremes, over five feet across.

Hammerkop catching a fish

Red Carnation Hotels’ Xigera Safari Lodge opens in 2020, a luxury safari camp in the heart of the Moremi Game Reserve, surrounded by beautiful wildlife.

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