Zambezi River Sand-Bank Breeders
Migrating birds such as the African Skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris)
are arriving to breed on the freshly sculptured sand-banks which emerge from the
receding Zambezi river.
Despite the dangers of nesting on sand banks regularly trampled by hippo,
predated by monitor lizards, and even disturbed by humans, skimmers and other
birds such as lapwings and plovers return to successfully breed on the river
The characteristic skimmer is an inter-Africa migrant, spending July to November
on the Zambezi. A medium sized bird, long-winged and tern-like in flight, with
brownish-black upperparts, white underneath and deeply forked tail, has a
uniquely extended lower bill, which is noticeably longer than the upper
It has been estimated that nearly 1,500 skimmers breed along the river,
representing 10% of the continent-wide population, conservatively estimated at
just 15,000 birds. This highly significant percentage identifies the Zambezi as
a key area of conservation importance for this enigmatic species.
The birds disperse widely after the breeding season, which occurs in the dry
season when rivers are at their lowest and the sandbanks most exposed, migrating
up and down large river systems and to and from inland lakes. They occasionally
frequent coastal lagoons, salt-pans, open marshes and estuaries, although less
The skimmer feeds on fish, such as cichlids, as forages in a unique manner,
namely by skimming the water in flight with its mouth open and extending its
elongated lower mandible just below the water’s surface, leaving a wake as it
moves. The bill snaps closed as it encounters small fish.
There are currently no specific conservation measures being undertaken to
protect the species, although it is listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the
international conservation community and the population is thought to be
declining. Part of the problem is that the Skimmer’s breeding habitat is
stretched along a huge distance of the Zambezi river, and consequently through
many different countries, needing conservation action to be co-ordinated at
regional or continental level.
Human disturbance is thought to be largely responsible for the gradual but
steady decline in African Skimmer populations throughout its southern African
range. Its breeding areas have been much reduced by human management of river
systems, in particular dam-building, which causes flooding in upstream areas and
smaller flows downstream.
Other forms of disturbance, such as egg collecting, trapping of the adult birds
and indirect disturbance (such as increased boat traffic) have all impacted on
the species' breeding success. The wave action of motorboats flooding nests,
dislodging eggs and disturbing incubating adults is often been cited as a
contributing factor to declining numbers.
If you are on a boat trip on the Zambezi at this time of year, please pay
special attention for nesting birds. Whilst exposed sandy islands may be
inviting for a quick stroll or sundowner, disturbing breeding birds can result
in their failure to raise young. Watch out for skimmers and other ground nesting
birds, and insist to your guide that you do not land on islands with breeding
birds (a good tour guide will be well aware of this!). Always travel at a
Birding trips on the river, in a small manoeuvrable boat and with an experienced
guide, can be extremely rewarding at this time of year. There’s many species of
herons, egrets, storks and plovers to be found, as well as a variety of other
species. The islands offer a variety of habitats, and the receding river levels
expose new feeding areas. Morning is best (purely because of the volume of
traffic on the river in the evening with many larger boats operating ‘sunset
cruses’ in various forms).
Source & Contact
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