Time out
African Birdlife|November/December 2021
VIEW FROM A HIDE
MITCH REARDON

Early in October 2020, shortly after quarantine restrictions on interprovincial travel were lifted following the harrowing first wave of Covid-19 lockdowns, I drove north to the Kalahari. After months of hiding out at home, I felt an urgent need to reconnect with deep nature and the Kalahari is one of the planet’s ever-diminishing number of naturally quiet places. Natural quiet doesn’t mean total silence; rather, it’s the sounds of nature without any mechanical noise. Science has empirically verified that quiet places are a balm with the power to heal, but there’s a trick to crossing the divide between human and wild environments: nothing must impede direct access to nature’s soothing sights and euphonies.

My destination was Marrick Safaris, 10 kilometres south-west of Kimberley, the Northern Cape’s raffish provincial capital. In 1994 the Datnow family converted Marrick’s 3000 hectares from domestic farming to ecotourism and it’s where I go when I seek to immerse myself in wild country without being plagued by onerous rules and regulations. Though Marrick is not far from the iconic mining town’s bustle, the marks of civilization’s violent collision with earth’s ecosystems are surprisingly inconspicuous here and, unlike some once-wild places, it’s not overrun by hordes of tourists.

On this visit I had decided to spend my time hunkered inside a wooden box with a view onto a waterhole where unseen, I could observe at close quarters the comings and goings of avian lives. Like most permanent bird hides, this one resembled a garden shed with small openings in the sides to enable observation, plus a bench and several folding chairs. Of course, I recognised the irony of substituting one form of confinement for another, although one was enforced and the other by choice, which somehow makes a big difference.

On my first morning, I was in place before sunrise. Like birds, every hide has its own character and Doringboom Pump is no exception. It looks out onto a borehole-fed pond that was occupied at that early hour by a single Three-banded Plover perfectly mirrored in the glassy surface as it foraged for insects. A pair of Egyptian Geese passed overhead, honking irascibly. Beyond the waterhole and beneath a radiant blue sky patched with puffs of white cloud lay a broad dry pan carpeted with tough but palatable desert grasses. The ruggedly minimalist landscape still retained its pottery-toned winter hues, ranging from ochre-colored clay to pale yellow grass. Scattered across the pan were distant herds of red hartebeest, springbok, black wildebeest and a lone giraffe ‘pacing along’, to paraphrase Karen Blixen’s evocative words, ‘as if he had an appointment at the end of the world’.

As the sun got up a little higher, dozens of Cape Turtle Doves arrived on singing wings, drank quickly and departed just as precipitously. As favored prey for a host of aerial, terrestrial, and aquatic predators, natural selection pressures have transformed doves into speedy getaway specialists; they are among only a few birds that do not drink by bill-dipping and head-tilting, but instead by hastily sucking water directly into their throats. Behind me, a Yellow Canary warbled a happy song from the grove of thorn trees that shade the hide. Moments later the soulful vocalist hopped into view on a bare branch and surveyed the surroundings, his vibrant yellow plumage glowing in the clean hard light. Satisfied, he flew to the water’s edge to join the other birds that by now were crowding in to drink.

An interesting 2018 study at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve that examined drinking dependence in a desert-adapted bird community found that more than 50 per cent of the birds (mainly carnivores, insectivores and fruit-eaters) did not drink freestanding water. Most (53 per cent) of the 36 bird species observed drinking were seed-eaters. On hot days they drank more, which tallied with climate-warming studies that predict that in the future more species will rely on surface water, especially artificial sources.

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