21 Things to Look and Listen for on a Waterside Safari Vigil
By Philip Briggs | Updated March 25, 2023
Every experienced safarigoer will approach a waterside lookout point with a sense of anticipation. Be it a forest-fringed river, a small muddy waterhole, a lush green swamp, or a vast open lake, a stop at one of the various aquatic habitats that punctuate Africa’s national will almost invariably throw up some interesting wildlife viewing. In the dry season, permanent water is a magnet for thirsty wildlife. In the wet season, flooded wetlands attract flocks of colorful breeding birds and Palaearctic migrants. And at any time of year, an hour or two parked quietly alongside a river, lake or waterhole is likely to reward you with a succession of worthwhile sightings. Here are some of the things to look out for on a waterside safari vigil.
Intelligent, sociable and reliably entertaining, African elephants drink at least once daily, consuming up to 50 gallons in one sitting. On a hot day, they’ll often cool down by sucking water up their trunk and showering it over their back. If you’re lucky, a few overheated individuals might enter the water to swim, mock fight and splash around like playful children.
Fish Eagles Duetting
Water-associated raptors include the osprey, palmnut vulture and African marsh harrier, but none is so charismatic as the African fish eagle, pairs of which are often seen perched in waterside trees, throwing back their heads to emit an unforgettable shrill wail that has been described as the voice of Africa.
Dagga Boys Wallowing
Dagga boys is a term used to describe groups of elderly male buffalos that have been booted out of the main herd. These irascible old gents are partial to idling the day away in muddy shallows.
Bee-eaters are multicolored insectivores that frequently hawk close to water. Several species breed communally in riverbank burrows; look out for white-fronted bee-eater in Kruger National Park, red-throated bee-eater along the Nile below Uganda’s Murchison Falls, and southern carmine bee-eater along Zambia’s Luangwa River.
The freshwater equivalent of turtles, terrapins mostly have rather round, flattened shells, and are often seen basking on rocks or dead branches that protrude from waterholes.
Giraffes are long-necked oddballs that tower above every other denizen of the African bush and forage on leaves the other browsers can’t reach. One of the most extraordinary things you’ll see on safari is a giraffe drinking, a gravity-defying phenomenon that involves the animal kneeling with its legs splayed wide open, then lowering its head to pump water up a 6ft-long neck.
The margins of Africa’s rivers and lakes support a wide variety of sandpipers, plovers, wagtails and other shorebirds. Many are quite nondescript; trying to identify similar species is a surefire way to keep birders out of mischief.
No other mammal is so closely associated with Africa’s aquatic habitats as the hippo, an unmistakable creature with a cavernous mouth that frequently yawns opens to reveal a fearsome set of monstrous canines. The sound of hippos grunting, like harrumphing politicians, is characteristic of Africa’s waterside habitats.
Africa’s kingfishers range from the tiny jewel-colored malachite kingfisher to the spectacular giant kingfisher. The pied kingfisher is less colorful than most, but compensates with its giddying hunting technique, which involves hovering hummingbird-like high above the water, then diving down headfirst to swoop up a fish.
Waterside woodland is a favored habitat of many tropical monkeys. Most spectacular is the black-and-white colobus, an acrobatic leaf-eater that’s associated with several Rift Valley lakes, as well as rivers in the likes of the Serengeti and Masai Mara.
Herons and egrets are represented in Africa by around 20 species, most of which hunt in shallow water or reedbeds. The aptly named Goliath heron can stand 5ft tall, while the black egret is nicknamed the umbrella bird on account of its unique habit of billowing up its wings to shade the water while it hunts.
Sycamore figs are among the most common trees in Africa’s waterside forests. When in fruit, they’re a magnet for colorful frugivorous birds such as turacos, barbets, tinkerbirds, hornbills and green pigeons.
Is any living creature more menacing in appearance than a Nile crocodile? A throwback to the age of dinosaurs, Africa’s largest and most ferocious predator is often seen basking on riverbanks and lakeshores, all armored scales, deathly green eyes, and rapacious mouth agape with fearsome teeth.
It’s testament to the regularity with which predators pick off drinking grazers that ungulates tend to be at their most nervous near water. Antelope usually approach the edge tentatively, and start at the slightest disturbance. Larger herds of buffalo, zebra and wildebeest might adopt the opposite approach, stampeding towards the water en masse to intimidate any waiting predator. Either way, watching the comings and goings of ungulates is a fascinating part of any African waterside vigil.
Rivers and waterholes can provide rich pickings for mammalian carnivores. Stealth hunters like the leopard use the dense riverside vegetation as cover to creep close to their prey before pouncing, while opportunistic lions snooze close to waterholes, waiting to pick off any antelope that inadvertently strays close enough to catch.
Closely related to sparrows, but a lot more colorful, weavers are named for their ability to construct cocoon-like nests from grass and twigs. The ‘masked’ weavers are bright yellow communal nesters associated with waterside trees, while red and golden bishops prefer dense reedbeds. Most distinctive and elegant is the neat basket-like nest constructed between twin reeds by the grosbeak weaver.
The most strictly aquatic of mammalian carnivores, Cape clawless and yellow-spotted otters are both quite numerous and widespread in Africa, but shy and seldom observed. This makes the occasional sighting of a swimming otter all the more special when it does happen.
Eagerly sought by birdwatchers, the African skimmer is a hefty black-and-white tern named for its unique habit of flying low above the water and skimming the surface for insects and other prey with its distinctive long red bill.
Known to attain a length of 8ft, the Nile monitor is Africa’s largest lizard. Seen from a distance, it will bask quietly next to the water, or cruise along slowly with a characteristic sidewinding gait, flickering forked tongue, and pugnacious demeanor. When surprised, Nile monitors tend to return the favor by crashing loudly through the riverside vegetation, to startling, heartbeat-skipping effect.
Associated mainly with the Rift Valley lakes of East Africa and seasonal saltpans in the dry west of southern Africa, flamingos might gather in their hundreds of thousands at a suitable site, then be absent a week later when conditions change. If you’re lucky enough to catch a large flock shimmering pink in the shallows, it’s an unforgettable sight.
Towards dusk, the dams and rivers of Africa often come alive with a frog chorus that might include the ethereal plinking of the bubbling kassina, drawn-out trill of the banded rubber frog and reverberating snoring of the guttural toad – a magical aural backdrop to waterside sundowners.