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Gondwana supports international bird counts in Namibia

Avatar of inke inke - 29. December 2017 - Discover Namibia, Environment

The abundance of water lilies at Horseshoe in the Kwando River provided food and shelter to numerous pygmy geese.

Dirk Heinrich

Waterbird counts are conducted twice a year at various wetland sites on Namibia’s coast and in the interior as part of the International Waterbird Census (IWC). Hobby ornithologists, lodge owners, nature lovers, tour guides and students help to collect the numbers of seabirds and waterbirds in Namibia, which are enormous in places. The Walvis Bay Lagoon and Sandwich Harbour are important coastal wetlands. Hundreds of thousands of waterbirds, including flamingos and plovers, gather there at certain times of the year. But rivers, i.e. the Okavango, the Kwando, the Zambezi and the Orange River also provide vital habitats for waterbirds, as do the numerous pans in former Bushmanland in the Otjozondjupa Region – and of course Etosha Pan, when it is filled with water. Some of these pans are huge and attract thousands of waterbirds when they fill up after generous rainfalls. The numbers gathered during a count ultimately end up on the desk of Holger Kolberg, a nature conservation official with the research department of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, who is also Namibia’s IWC coordinator. The IWC is based in the Netherlands and operates in more than 100 countries.  

The summer count in the southern hemisphere is conducted in January and February, the winter count in July and August. The purpose of the worldwide monitoring is not only to determine the number of seabirds, waders and waterbirds at specific sites. Rather, the aim is to collect numbers as exact as possible over many years and compare them in order to find out whether the populations and the diversity of species are decreasing or increasing, whether they remain stable or change with climatic conditions. In open wetlands like the Walvis Bay Lagoon it is ‘easier’ to see the birds and spot the various species. Unfortunately, however, due to their enormous numbers it is often impossible to record exact figures and estimates are the only option. Bird numbers are lower along the river sections and at the pans which allows for more precise counting, but because of the vegetation the birds are more difficult to spot. Therefore it is all about identifying a trend, drawing conclusions and reacting accordingly.   

If, for example, the vast expanse of Etosha Pan is filled with water, hardly any flamingos are seen at the coast of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. The pink and white birds are breeding in the pan when it offers sufficient water, food and protection. When the pan is dry they flock to the coastal wetlands in their hundreds of thousands. Intercontinental migrants reinforce the numbers and the variety of birds at all the wetlands in Namibia during summer. 

Some of the seabird and waterbird species have to travel considerable distances to find suitable breeding areas and food. In a dry country like Namibia it means that while some stay throughout the year, others migrate to the other side of the globe with the changing seasons. Since birds don’t know about international borders it is important that countries take appropriate measures to keep the various habitats healthy, prevent the destruction of habitats and know the alternative destinations when natural changes occur. For this reason it is important to conduct bird counts over many successive years. Apart from the numerous volunteers, the participation of companies like Gondwana is of great value to the bird counts in wetland areas. Corporate support ensures continuity, while avifauna diversity enhances the appeal of lodges. 

At a section of the Zambezi River, where Gondwana recently built a new lodge, 304 birds and 34 species were counted at the end of January this year. Due to the construction work the winter count in late July had to be cancelled there. Gondwana’s Zambezi Mubala Lodge opened its doors on 1 November 2017.

With the help of Dan Stephens from Mavunje Camp 103 waterbirds and 26 species were counted at the Kwando River in January, even though the water level was very low. The count was conducted by boat on the river’s main course but many sites could not be reached because of the low level of water. In July a boat could be used again for the route which six months earlier had been accessible by vehicle. The sites that had to be skipped in January were again included in the July count, which resulted in 203 birds and 26 species. Compared to the previous years a large number of jacana (59) and African pygmy geese (44) were spotted. It is likely that these two species were attracted by the amazing abundance of water lilies which at that time were found at Horseshoe, a well-known section of the Kwando River in Bwabwata National Park. Thanks to Namushasha River Lodge providing another boat plus guide the section starting at Mavunje could be extended downstream and 44 waterbirds and 15 species were counted there.  

Whereas 97 waterbirds and 10 species were counted at Dobe Pan in former Bushmanland, which is now part of the Naye-Naye Conservancy, in the end of January, the pan had dried up by late July. Naye-Naye Pan south of Tsumkwe on the other hand was inaccessible because the road was too muddy to get through. The count in January had yielded 2011 waterbirds and 23 species. 

The numbers of shearwaters, pelicans, cormorants, darters, egrets, herons, night herons, ibises, spoonbills, hamerkop, flamingos, cranes, geese, ducks, crakes, coots, jacanas, waders, purple gallinules, gulls, terns, skimmers and water-dependent raptors are captured during the worldwide bird counts. Perhaps surprisingly, Namibia, the most arid country south of the Sahara, is vital for waterbirds in the international context. 

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Phillip Schoeman

30. December 2017

I live next to a Ramsar wetlands site and would like to assist in a count. Any idea where I can sign up?

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