3 Oct 2022
THE BIRD THAT PLOUGHS THE WATER
WWF-Australia Member and wildlife observer, David Waterhouse, again brings his unique experiences in nature to you. This time he takes us to Southern Africa and shares his sightings of the unusual African Skimmer. His story begins on a still but noisy night on the banks of the Okavango River in Namibia.
I had long known of their existence. Even so, I was still struck by a sense of wonder when I first sighted one of those weird birds.
It was late at night on the banks of the Okavango River, where it cuts across the base of the Caprivi Strip in Namibia.
I was trying to get to sleep in my tent but could not due to the continual snorting and grunting noises made by a substantial pod of hippos in mid-stream. After an hour or more of tossing and turning, I got up in exasperation and quickly made a mug of Rooibos tea. I then ventured outside to sit on a wooden bench by the tent, under the glow of a full moon.
The bulky backs of the hippos appeared as a cluster of dark boulders protruding from the still surface of the water. They sounded like a large gathering of senior army officers, making guffawing comments over some humorous tale or other.
As I sipped my hot tea and breathed in the cool night air, a strange bird flew upriver, almost touching the water. It had a long forked tail and resembled an outsized tern. As it drew level the light of the moon revealed a long, scarlet bill actually scoring the still water, for all the world like the bird was trying to cleanse a bloodied dagger. I knew then that I was witnessing an African Skimmer, night fishing. To catch fish, this unusual waterbird trawls its lower mandible just below the river’s surface and when it touches a fish, both the lower and the much shorter upper mandibles clap shut, trapping the prey.
The Afrikaners call this river-scoring bird ‘Waterploeër,’ which is more apt than the English name as it does indeed appear to be ploughing the water when it hunts for prey.
After a few minutes spent listening to the sounds of the African night and watching the half-slumbering, half-grumbling hippos, I saw the strange bird again, this time re-tracing its course downriver.
Once more, I noted slim long wings as black as soot and the black cap over the head, covering the eyes like an executioner’s hood. The face thereby appeared quite expressionless, as befitted one who brings sudden death to unwary river fish.
The birds’ lower mandible, being somewhat longer than the upper one, acts like a mallee stump jump plough of old, springing up-wards as soon as fish is touched in trawling. The hapless prey is scooped up to be crushed in the asymmetrical red trap.
Within seconds, the mysterious skimmer became a fleeting shadow as it disappeared into the gloom.
The next morning, I boarded a canopied vessel with a group of people and we slowly moved downstream to see what we could close to the river. In the early mornings, elephant and waterbuck usually emerged from the bush to drink and we soon had excellent views of both.
It wasn’t long before we passed close to a long sandbank in mid-stream and saw several pairs of skimmers in the morning sunlight. As they perched near the water’s edge, their black upper parts could be seen in stark contrast with their white undersides.
The seemingly top heavy bills were clearly seen to be balanced by their long tail feathers. In full sunlight too, their blood-red, short legs matched their bills in colour coordination.
Some of the birds were huddled in slight depressions in the sand on what passed for nests in skimmer society. Being early October, the brooding birds were still sitting on eggs as the breeding season had only just begin.
As the boat drew level with one bird brooding close to the water’s edge, its mate strutted up the sand and replaced the sitting bird quite without greeting or ceremony. I could easily have missed this change of duty as it occurred within seconds.
The relieved parent moved to the water’s edge and took a few sips from the river, using its bizarre bill as a scoop. It didn’t drink for long but kept on scooping water to clean its feathers before standing in the shallows to have a good wash.
The boat captain told me the birds usually patrol the river only in daylight but may do so on bright moonlit nights. So I had been fortunate to see one a few hours earlier in the gloom.
The exposure of the eggs and chicks always makes for a risky business and in some years, few young are successfully fledged. Apart from the risk of having the ‘nests’ trampled into the sand by hippo or elephant, there are also plenty of monitor lizards and perhaps kites, always on the lookout for edible morsel of protein. As if that were not enough, local people from a nearby fishing village will often rob the exposed eggs or chicks as a welcome change from their usual diet.
One hazard, common in some areas, is the wash from passing boats, but our captain was well aware of the risk and always passed nesting birds slowly by cutting the motor.
Skimmers have already disappeared from many parts of South Africa where they were once commonly seen. Here on the Okavango and where the river bleeds to death in the huge Okavango Marshes, the birds arrive about the beginning of October to ‘plough the waters’ and start breeding.
One can only hope that in this changing world, they will continue to do so.
David Waterhouse is committed to connecting people with the natural world and doing all he can to ensure it is protected for all to enjoy.
As well as sharing his experiences in nature with others, David regularly contributes to the work of WWF-Australia and other wildlife and environment protection groups. David has also chosen to make nature a part of his Legacy by including a gift in his Will to WWF-Australia.
If, like David, you value nature and wish to include its protection in your future Legacy, please contact us at in your Will., or find out more about including a
David Waterhouse has supported the WWF since 1961 © Courtesy of David Waterhouse