Naturalist Journeys, Botswana.
We first saw them at a great distance across a marsh that held a many-layered mix of vegetation. Scanning, we’d find that Lechwe, Hippos and herons of five or more species, simultaneously vied for our attentions. I was on a shorebird rip, sorting and seeking our rarities, when Mr. Fish exclaimed, “there!” In the distance were cranes, huge cranes. 6 ft tall, 14 pound cranes – largest of the six African species. He smiled and told us that they had come on schedule to this remote wetland realm to nest. Their numbers would build in subsequent weeks, but these were among the first arrivals. From this distance we sensed their athleticism, their dramatic presentation of courtship, and what can only be described as exuberance. It was later in the day, tipped off by a radio call from our other van that we would find them closer.
Their beauty is refined, elegant, something to behold, until – they lift their face. For mounted on their ballerina form is a ghoulish mask – a face with protuberances of various design, bumps and wattles, all a startling blood red color. One could not help react to those heads! These would disappear as they leaned down in thick vegetation to graze on sedges, a prime food in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Wattled Cranes are omnivores; at times we’d see them gulp – likely finding and ingesting prizes like large invertebrates or pieces of sugary-rich tubers. While their heads were down the bodies seemed independent of them, beautiful porcelain tubes that they moved in fluid patterns that took on shades of optical illusion. I clicked away with the camera, in hyper-focused attention I watched their plumes brighten with golden hues of reflected light – ephemeral as dusk descended. Sometimes the double sets of legs and necks would seem to fuse, forming shapes that could be vases, sculptures or oriental furniture legs.
Wattled Cranes are a signature species of a portion of east-central and Southern Africa, their range determined by wetlands and rivers, great rivers that swell seasonally on a scale difficult to imagine. More than half the world’s Wattled Cranes live in Zambia, while the single largest concentration live here, seasonally, in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. They are not routinely migratory, but they do move around in response to water levels. Watching this pair was a marvel of motion, symmetry, and coordination. Responsibility and diligence lay ahead for these birds, likely to raise just one chick, incubating their egg for over a month (approx. 36 days) and, if floods and predators did not prevail, they’d face a full four months of feeding and protecting next generation’s marvel. Tonight, as soft golden hues built in intensity, then fanned out to form a spectrum of red, they danced. We watched. Africa.
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