Surrounded by elephants

Our next step of our Botswana tour was Elephant Sands [1], a place located over fifty km North of Nata, on the way to Kasane so, we needed to return to Nata and take the road North. Based on our previous experience with the arrangements for this trip, we had some misgivings on how the place would be as we suspected that this was another one-night stopover for the heavy tourist traffic that moves to and from Chobe National Park, Victoria Falls and Namibia. We agreed to give it a try as the travel agency again insisted that it was worthwhile and that we should spend two nights.

The entry sign says “Elephant Sands. Where elephants rule”. I confirm that this is true. The tented camp is built around a water hole that seems to be on an elephant highway between Botswana and Zimbabwe with little available water. We stayed in one of the tents that are built on stilts. It was very roomy and comfortable, offering an unobstructed view of the elephants at the hole.

Our tent.
The elephant highway passing between the tents.

It is in the main lodge area, next to the water hole, that people congregate to watch the elephants at close quarters. The latter are a few metres away, only stopped from moving into the camp by an electric fence. There we had our meals. Unfortunately, the place was very crowded for our taste. On the positive side, to have elephants very near and great weaver birds’ activity (mostly ignored by the tourists) offered a compensation, somehow.

The main lodge from our tent.

Water is the essence here. It is pumped to the water hole until 2200hs when it is closed so all water-related activities must be done before that time or the following morning. During the first night we had heavy elephant traffic and the available water was clearly not sufficient, so tempers became hot and there was quite a lot of pachyderm pushing and shoving to get to the trough where the clean drinking water was pumped to.

A close-up of the ellies.

After dinner we sat to watch the elephants, and both enjoyed their presence while, unavoidably, breathing and eating a lot of dust! Our Covid face masks helped but we remember them too late! After a while we decided to retire to our tent. Although during the day we walked to and from our tent, at night we brought our car to the main lodge to be safer.

There were elephants all around the tents, so we were pleased to be in the car. As it is natural, before sleeping we needed to get on with our natural needs. It was Mabel´s turn to use the toilet while I was getting dry after a shower. Suddenly, I heard some noise that I can only compare to the noise pipes make when you apply a plunger to clear an obstruction. It was almost instantly followed by a very loud “uuugh!” accompanied by some strong language coming from the toilet! Then I heard Mabel saying “This is disgusting, the toilet splashed me!”.

Unsure of what she meant I went to investigate and confirmed that the residual water in the toilet was not there and that she had already rushed to the shower, still abusing the culprit! Still puzzled by such a rare event, and trying not to laugh loud, I lowered the cover of the flush toilet and we agreed to leave it alone unless we had a truly urgent need later!

The noise coming from the pipes continued intermittently until I went to sleep, only to be woken up well after midnight by Mabel shaking me to tell me that there was an elephant rubbing against the car and that she had heard some loud noise! She had already chased it away earlier, but it had returned. She was worried that it had broken something in the car so she decided to call me. Half sleep, I offered to go out and chase it away but then, remembering where I was, I quickly withdrew my offer!

We decided that all we could do was to shout at the large beast and, funnily, every time we did, it stood still like a naughty child having been discovered doing something forbidden only to start again after a couple of minutes! Eventually, the large bull left us in peace. It had smelled something tasty inside our car or perhaps our water container and it wanted it badly!

The following day we checked the car and we were happy to see that it had survived. It showed signs of having undergone an elephant “inspection” and resisted its (I am sure, polite) attempts at getting at its contents. They, however, left behind not just dirt on the windows but also a small dent!

Our car showing signs of the elephant inspection.

That morning we had the lodge to ourselves for the whole morning and it was nice to leisurely watch elephants and the fascinating activity that weaver birds do when building their nests.

Watching the elephants we realized that the night before the pumped water had not been enough for all the elephants and the old ones resorted to syphon out the tents´ sewage system, causing Mabel´s unpleasant moment the night before! Reading some of the background books found at the lodge and talking to the people there, we learnt that it does not matter what they do to protect their pipes, the elephants will find a way to get to any available water, regardless of its origin!

Elephant sucking from the pipes. Note the anti-elephant measures (spikes and electric fence).

Late in the morning it started to rain, providing elephants with much needed water and us with some respite against the intense heat. Unfortunately, three busloads of loud tourists also arrived! We decided that we were going to stay away from the main lodge and walk around. The two somehow tame banded mongooses followed us during our walk, searching for food and showing a high level of activity. We were warned that one of them was naughty and it could bite so we were careful. Despite this, the “bad mongoose” picked on Mabel (usually is me they pick!) and gave her some trouble!

Luckily the rain provided enough water to the elephants that, at least that night, forgot about blowing the pipes and inspecting our car!

[1] For info on African Sands, see: and

Daring parents

It seems that the Three-banded plover (Charadrius tricollaris) has a knack for living dangerously or rather incubating dangerously.

I rarely find ground birds’ nests. In fact, I have only found two so far and both belong to this little plover!

The first nest I found was at the Maputo Special Reserve in 2011 near Milibangalala while driving through a stretch of road between the woodlands and one of the swampy areas. There, by the shore and almost on the road, we noted the nest as the bird stayed on its eggs up to the last minute until we almost drove upon it and only then it moved a couple of meters to wait for the danger to pass so that it could return.


The first nest in Mozambique.

We spotted two eggs (the normal number) rather large for the bird’s size that looked very much like round pebbles and melted very well with the ashy background.

We found our second nesting bird at Mana Pools this past August and I have already given an advance of it at an earlier post[1]. This time the nest was about one kilometre from the Zambezi River but probably nearer some of the pools. As with the nest in Mozambique, the bird would run off a couple of metres away when we drove past and return to the nest soon afterwards.

Again, there was no nest to speak of and the two dark grey eggs had been laid on the ground in a small area of about 7-8 cm across, among some stones at the very edge of the road. After watching the nest for a while we noted that there were two birds taking turns to sit on it. As soon as its shift was over, the relieved bird did not stay and flew off, probably to feed and drink although we did not see where it went.

Although the birds sat on the eggs, they were also seen standing over them as if shading them from the direct solar heat. At some stage we observed the absence of both birds for a few hours and became concerned that we or other cars passing had disturbed them. The following day we saw them back. In the absence of the birds the eggs are extremely difficult to spot among all the small stones.

It appears unlikely that such a seemingly unsafe choice of nesting site would be successful as the eggs were completely exposed in the absence of the birds. Further, the birds themselves do not seem to offer much protection to the many predators, scaly, feathered and hairy that roam around the area, not to mention the stones thrown by passing cars. Despite these apparently large odds against them, the strategy must work as they are fairly common!

As a note of interest, searching the web I found an account of this bird’s nesting habits in Eritrea written by Stephanie Tyler while she and her husband -Lindsay- were kidnapped by guerrillas in the north-east of the country [2]. Her interest on the birds and the observations she made while being held captive are remarkable. She also stresses the bird’s tolerance to the approach of humans, their failures with the incubation and rearing of the chicks as well as the first observation that the Three-banded plovers are multiple brooded or able to raise more than one brood of young in quick succession. We can say that Three-banded plovers are tough parents!

A video that shows the nesting behaviour of the birds and the “change over” their nesting duties.


[1] See:

[2] Tyler, S. (1978). Observations on the nesting of the three-banded plover Charadrius tricollaris. Scopus 2, 39-41. If interested on the details, the original communication is here: 


DIY Eagle

We spotted the large but simple nest at about 100m from the road between Main Camp and Nyamandlovu pan in Hwange National Park, (Zimbabwe) when we visited this park last July. We looked for its owner for a while and, a couple of hundred metres ahead, we found a suspect: an adult Martial Eagle perched on a large acacia tree at about four metres from the ground. To find the largest African eagle is always exciting as they are great hunters and able to kill rather large prey.

We stopped to take pictures and, as usual, we took the first one from a prudent distance and with the engine on, before getting a bit closer for better ones. We stayed put as we noticed that there was something odd. “Look!” one of us said, “it is entangled in a thorny branch” We all looked and, true to the observation, the eagle seemed to be hooked on thorns and making frantic movements with its head to release itself.

The only picture of the Martial eagle.

The only picture of the Martial eagle.

Awe-struck and concerned we forgot about pictures and started speculating on the sighting. Some of us maintained the entangling theory while others thought that it was catching or eating something. We all agreed, however, that something odd was taking place! We could only watch and wait…

After a few nervous minutes we noted that, apparently, the eagle did not have a prey. Immediately she also, somehow miraculously, stopped shaking its head and looked quite totally unconcerned. However, it was still holding a longish branch!

In fact, it had never been tangled or eating but in the process of cutting a thorny branch and it had just completed the task! Without more ado, the branch was placed in its talons and off it went, landing on the nest we had seen earlier!

A subsequent Internet search did not reveal a record of such behaviour. Although I believe it to be known to specialists in birds of prey, I reported it here just in case as it was an interesting, if anxious, observati