The best ornithologists identify birds by their call. In the Game Park yesterday morning, D correctly identified that the hissing sound was coming from her rear tyre. We pulled off the main track and D chose a level piece of ground to change the wheel.
My birthday present had come early. Two of the most knowledgeable birders in the Valley were treating me to a guided safari. Although I can claim to be able to recognise about 60 species of birds in South Luangwa, this is just a sixth of the total. And I am pretty rubbish at spotting them, too.
I see a flash of wings in front of the vehicle and D tells me what it is.
“How did you know that?” I ask.
“I could see a hint of red under the wing, it is the right size, it is behaving the way I’d expect it to behave. I would have missed that colour if I had been wearing sunglasses.”
We spent the first twenty minutes of the safari parked on the bridge over the Luangwa River. We spotted wire tailed swallows, a gymnogene (African Harrier Hawk), lesser striped swallows, sparrows with glorious chestnut-coloured plumage, Egyptian geese flying over in formation, and a dozen other species while safari vehicles drove past, on their relentless quest to show tourists some big game.
We had only moved a couple of hundred metres (black headed heron, great egret, pied kingfisher, etc) when the hissing of the back tyre brought us back to earth. Or nearer to the earth on that side of the vehicle. We efficiently jacked up the LandCruiser and took off the wheel, but there was a problem with the spare. And the second spare, too. A knight in shining pickup arrived and took D away to mend the tyre, borrow a spare and bring her foot pump. F and I stayed with the vehicle, desperately trying to improve our bird count.
It is good sense not to wander away from the vehicle. D had pointed out fresh lion tracks, made that very morning, in the dust of the trail, but she said that they were long gone. We trusted her, but she is as fearless as Leicester City FC. We spotted some vultures, but they didn’t stop to circle above us. D was back within the hour, we replaced the mended tyre and resumed the drive.
Sitting on the raised back seat behind the two birders gave me the theoretical advantage of a higher viewpoint. But they seemed to spot things together, their binoculars moving synchronously in the direction of a bird. I had to look where they were looking and hope that I was seeing the same bird. It is a bit like finding big cats by looking at where antelopes are staring.
“Did you see the juvenile Martial Eagle, Ian?” they asked me.
No, I was looking at a babblers in the undergrowth below the raptor.
We stopped for breakfast at the side of a lagoon and I looked intently around to see what birds were around. “Do you want to see the pair of Giant Eagle Owls over there, Ian?” asked D. I had completely missed them. And the puffbacks. And that tiny bird perched on a reed, which must have been a malachite kingfisher because they are the only birds that do that. Above our heads, D spotted a bee hive, with open honeycombs. I did spot a fish eagle, and D told me where its nest was, that it was a female being allowed off the eggs for a few minutes. D had already noticed that a nearby turtle dove’s call had altered subtly, indicating distress or danger – the fish eagle is an enemy. It’s the way what you see is put into context by an expert guide which makes it so fascinating. True bushcraft.
The shortbread biscuits were very tasty, but the vacuum flask containing my herbal tea was more suitable as a handwarmer. We had driven less than 5 kilometres in 5 hours. The most impressive sighting was a young bataleur eagle locking talons with a big African fish eagle in flight. “You’ll never see that again,” said D.
We were stumped by a nest in a palm tree with a fledgling in situ. We will have to wait to see the parents for the identification.
We spotted 67 different species during the course of the morning. Some were identified audibly, “I heard it, I don’t need to see it, I know it is there.”
I offered to buy lunch at a local lodge. While we were waiting for food, I thought about the similarities between being a superb guide and an excellent diagnostic clinician. Experience, encyclopaedic knowledge, being able to piece together a few bits of evidence to formulate an answer. Oh, good hearing and eyesight are important, too.
Unfortunately for me, my girls say I am going deaf and I have been known as “blindy batty” in the past.