Friday, 5 April 2013

Tick lists

There’s no mistaking a birdwatching enthusiast. Zechariah, wearing a dark green uniform complete with an ancient-looking rifle over his shoulder, was waiting at the safari office in Mole National Park when I arrived at 5.45am. ‘I was up at four, looking for fishing owls’ he explained. ‘Didn’t see them, just heard them.’ This was a man who took twitching seriously.

Mole National Park
Seriously enough to knock on the door of the two guests who had failed to show up. He came back, shaking his head disbelievingly: ‘They didn’t come, because of the storm’. The downpour just an hour earlier had been torrential; it seemed a viable excuse to me. But I opted to hold my tongue.

It was soon my turn anyway. ‘You’re too young to be a birdwatcher’, he said, looking me up and down. ‘Do you have a camera and notebook?’ I told him that I wasn’t too serious about birdwatching, and just enjoyed seeing tropical birds. The look he gave me in response left me wondering if I would make it past the crocodiles in the water hole.

But credit where it’s due: Zechariah Wareh knows his birds. As we made our way down the steep escarpment in front of the Mole Motel, he picked out various weavers and seed-crackers and the colourful red-cheeked cordon-bleu. He knew them not just by sight, but also by call; while I tried to find one species through my binoculars, he was already calling out the next one. Mole has over 300 species of bird, and he seemed keen to show me all of them.
A red-billed stork

As we walked through the scrubby savannah forest, he mentioned how lucky I was to have him for this walk. He had been booked on a course, but as the other birding guide had called in sick, he had stayed to take me out. ‘I am in the Bradt guide’, he said, not boastfully but rightfully proud of his reputation.

He also told me about two avid twitchers who had spent nearly a week in the National Park looking for the rare painted snipe. ‘They are wasting their time; it has gone for the year’, he said emphatically. ‘I have told them.’ I was surprised that anyone would doubt his word on avian matters. 

Keen to redeem myself a little, I mentioned the red-billed stork I had seen the previous day. He smiled and nodded; I was starting to make amends for my lack of years or tick-list.

For two hours, we wandered about, viewing gonoleks, starlings and vultures, among others. I lost count of the species we had seen, and was grateful I hadn’t had tried to keep a record. As we returned to the motel, we passed the crocodiles at the water hole. Zechariah stopped, admiring the creatures as they basked in the morning sun. It was warming that, after 25 years as a guide, he was still awed by a sight he must have seen nearly every day.

By this time I was hungry and, well, a little ‘birded out’. As I trotted quickly up the steps towards breakfast, Zechariah called me back. ‘Look, fruit pigeons – three different species’ he said, pointing to the colourful birds, which put their dour UK cousins to shame. I looked up, muttered something appreciative and then headed off for breakfast. Zechariah headed off to the office, and I was fairly sure he would be out there at 4.00am next day looking for his owls.

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