When I visit Zambia I am usually up along the Zambezi River staying in the Royal Zambezi Lodge which is just outside the Lower Zambezi National Park. It is a place you fly in to in a nice-sized small jet. There is a (track) road but it takes hours and hours longer. The lodge is right on the river and situated just below a scarp left from ancient rifting. The Lower Zambezi NP is relatively new and not well appointed – which is a good thing for us. It is rare that we see another vehicle and not at all rare to see lions and leopards. The lodge is very nice with good food, very nice bungalows, and great staff. The lodge is not fenced and to have elephants wander through is a daily occurrence; generally that isn’t a problem. The highlight in this area over the years has been the ease with which leopards can be found and observed. They are often on the ground and quite easy to see. Many, perhaps most, leopards are found in trees and can be difficult to observe.
But the Lower Zambezi NP and the lodge itself has more to offer that this spotted cat. I like the mix of animals found here; mongooses, cats, birds, ungulates, and reptiles all can be seen on most every game drive. One time I found a very uncommon bird which was a highlight for me and the driver/guides. The guides see lots of things every day and when we see something uncommon they get excited – and then the rest of the group gets the vibration and we all get deeper and deeper into the safari. This bird, the Angolan Pitta, got us going, but there was more. Here is a sampling….
The Grey Foam-nest Tree-Frog does just that – the female, or rather the attendant males, make a foam nest for the eggs. This is a rather common amphibian in southern Africa, often found in our rooms or bathrooms. It is a rather plain grayish arboreal frog of medium size with no markings of note. However, they can change color to help get along in a hot, often dry, countryside. They are darker in the cooler times and lighter in the hotter times. They also have something very unusual for an amphibian; a rather leathery waterproof skin which helps keep moisture inside. But the nest is really different – and the mating routine a bit bizarre. The female goes up into a low tree or shrub and starts to lay eggs on a branch. Then males arrive, lots of males, and they produce a sperm-fluid which they whip into a froth with their rear legs. This is a bit haphazard and seems more likely to knock the eggs off the branch than anything else. The tennis ball sized foam nests in which the tadpoles develop are then left to hang from the branch. As with much of nature; strange but true. If it is successful it persists.
Wherever there is water in sub-Saharan Africa there are crocodiles. No alligators or caiman but lots of crocs. These are reptiles with a four-chambered heart and a maternal instinct. They are ancient and successful. They are also predators of some significance. They probably kill hundreds of people each year and are known for taking zebra, large antelope, turtles, and fish. The females will lay 40-100 eggs and bury them in nest-pile of vegetation (like a compost heap). After three or so months the babies will peep from within the shell and the female will uncover them and take them to the water after they hatch. She will guard them when they are young but still most will never reach full size. Probably only 1% of there youngsters will live a life that can be measured in years – days, weeks, and months is more likely. Actually the Nile Crocodile can be found from parts of the Mediterranean coast down in to much of southern Africa.
The Hamerkop is related to the Shoebill (Google that one!) and the pelicans. You can assume that it has not been closely related to these birds for countless generations and is quite distinct from the other wading birds. It is a common African species and still one that birders look forward to seeing. There are several iconic African birds and the Hamerkop is one of them. The nest they build can be five feet long and will support a full grown human. It is a huge undertaking for a modestly-sized bird. Being a bird associated with wetlands it eats mostly amphibians, insects, fish, and small reptiles.
Another bird associated with water is the African Fish Eagle. In the USA we call our fish eagle the American Bald Eagle. These two species are in the same genus and look very much alike. The African Fish Eagle is quite common and will be seen daily.
The Lower Zambezi area has lots of leopards. They don’t always sit out like this one is doing, but they are rather common and visitors usually get to see a leopard or two. This is a cat much smaller than a lion but much bigger and stronger than a cheetah. If they were dogs a lion might be a Saint Bernard or Mastiff and a cheetah could be a Whippet or Greyhound. The leopard would be something like a Doberman Pinscher. They are muscular and graceful. In many habitats they are the top predator; but lions and hyenas can easily take their kills from them. Leopards are solitary; lions and hyenas are not.
Elephants need to eat a lot of vegetation every day. Perhaps 2-300 pounds for a biggish female and 400 pounds for a big male. Thus the like areas where there is rain of prominent water. As a matter of fact elephants move to wet habitats as they get old (45 years and older perhaps) and their teeth start to wear out. Wet, squishy plants may be less nutritious but they are easier to chew than clumps of dry dirt-coated grasses. This guy is standing and grazing on a sedimentary island in the Zambezi River. Elephants can cross very large bodies of water with ease. I was in a boat. You have to be careful where you walk in this part of the worlds as the wildlife is still quite wild and poaching keeps them on edge.
Well, this is the bird that got our blood coursing. It is the Angola Pitta and isn’t seen very often. It appears tailless and is seen low to the ground; either on the ground or in low bushes. We were working on a leopard sighting in this area and the bird was seen as we headed toward the leopard – can’t stop for a bird when people want to see their first leopard – so we did the leopard thing and then returned to this area to confirm the original, and brief, sighting. No good photo, but this is proof. Pretty cool – it was almost as nice as the leopard.