The Skimmers Are Here, the Skimmers Are Here!

| Tamlin Wightman

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The skimmers are here, the skimmers are here!

Ah, how sweet those words are to hear. We wait all year for them. When we’re away from the river, dispatches announcing the news find us and onto the plane we climb. Because there’s no ignoring the call of the African Skimmer. Some of the finest mornings and evenings of our lives have unfolded in the presence of these birds.

It’s an anticipation that can be compared to that first snow fall of the year for those in the north, or the start of the great Aurora Borealis. Just as entrancing and magical a display.

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It’s not easy to predict the exact arrival and departure date of our African skimmers. The seasons and rains play their hand in the journey. But our bodies have started to set their clocks to the month they usually arrive or leave. We can feel it in our bones.

The birds start to fly into our dreams at night, those deep black wings and orange bills that seem too large for their small heads, their “kip-kip” song and that distinctive flight – in a line over a calm stretch of river, slicing the water with the lower mandible and then snapping closed once a snack has been caught – a Tilapia or a Barbus, for instance.

These are the things people who spend a lot of time on the Zambezi dream about. That and baobabs and parrot fish and mango and makishi. And always in colour, bright, bold colour.

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The African skimmers (Rynchops flavirostris) are dear to us for so many reasons – not just because of their unique features and dining habits. Habitat degradation and human disturbance have caused them to become a lot more uncommon – currently they are listed as near threatened globally. It’s a privilege to see them at all.

They’re particular about their homes (we don’t blame them) and only roost and nest on open sandbanks free from vegetation when rivers are low. This leaves them vulnerable to disturbances like dam building and fishing.

We know these winged migrants arrive in southern Africa when our river water levels start to drop, at the beginning of the dry season. We know they’ll leave to return northwards after breeding when the levels rise again, at the start of the rainy season.

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We listen for SK or Moses, Aggie or Hessah, to come running into the lodge to tell us the good news… Or we wait for the phone call.

And then to Zambia we go. To the Zambezi sandbanks we ride – to photograph, glimpse and marvel at the loose colonies of up to 50 pairs, from a respectful distance. Our mornings and evenings come to life with new scenes, as the birds fly all around our boat, at dawn and dusk, eyeing out the great fish life below.

This year, the Year of the Bird, the call of the African Skimmer has been even stronger.

And we are happy to tell you…

The skimmers are here, the skimmers are here!

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Why not join us in welcoming them…?


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