Africa
29 Feb 2016

January Waterbird counts on the Kafue Flats

Very high diversity 3km into the Chunga Lagoon ©Bird Watch Zambia
Very high diversity 3km into the Chunga Lagoon ©Bird Watch Zambia
By Chaona Phiri, Griffin Shanungu and Diilwe Syamuntu

Waterbird counts on the Kafue Flats in Zambia have been conducted bi-annually for nearly 15 years: the numbers and diversity of species on the flats are always a marvel.

This January offered a very different experience; the Kafue Flats were no exception to the little rains being received in most parts of the country. This time around, we had a very small but effective team of only four: two Bird Watch Zambia (BWZ, BIrdLIfe Partner) staff and two from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW (formerly know as Zambia Wildlife Authority/International Crane Foundation [ZAWA)/ICF]). This made moving around the flats easy, but we would take an occasional armed scout to move with us.

Bird count in progress ©Bird Watch Zambia

The Chunga Lagoon had receded by well over 2 km towards the Kalonga-Kampande confluence. The conditions were very far from suitable for boat use, so we resorted to using DNPW quadbikes. These gave us an opportunity to go further into the mud flats of what is supposed to be the Chunga Lagoon.  At 3.6km inwards the numbers of the birds were extraordinary, rising to a whole new level. Almost 20,000 Red-billed Teal Anas erythrorhyncha were sighted. In total we recorded 66 species and a total of almost 63,000 birds. The numbers include several spectacular sightings of 3000 African Skimmer Rynchops flavirostris, 45 Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor and 10 species of Palearctic migrant waders including the Great Snipe Gallinago media.

Though not as muddy as Lochinvar, Blue Lagoon had some good numbers. We recorded a total of 38 species and 16,500 birds. The count here was hampered due to accessibility challenges and lack of quad bikes as the DPNW-Blue Lagoon office staff had not yet collected their allocated vehicles. We did, however, manage to go beyond the two large fishing villages and had a good count there. We observed almost 4000 Fulvous Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna bicolor, among other species. The Wattled Cranes Bugeranus carunculatus were also in good numbers in the Blue Lagoon compared to Lochinvar. In contrast, we observed more Grey Crowned Cranes Balearica regulorum in Lochinvar than Blue Lagoon; this appears to be a typical trend for the cranes in January, although for Grey Crowned-cranes in July the situation is reversed. This indicates that cranes are likely moving between these two parks seasonally, the movement probably being triggered by seasonal changes in the water levels on the Kafue Flats. However, this assumption could only be confirmed by banding and following the cranes over time to confirm their seasonal movement and habitat utilisation on the Kafue Flats.

Abdim's Stork on the Chunga lagoon ©Bird Watch Zambia

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In total we counted 69 species and 80,200 individual birds in Blue Lagoon and Lochinvar this January. Of the 69 species, 10 were Palearctic migrants and five were Intra-African migrants including the Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus and Lesser Flamingos, Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia episcopus and Abdim’s Stork Ciconia abdimii.

This is the highest counts ever recorded during the January waterbird count in the last 15 years. The species diversity and abundance of waterbirds are comparable to what is observed in the cool-dry season. We will continue to monitor the Kafue Flats and show over time how rainfall, habitat types and water levels are influencing such diversity and abundance