Starting in September, countless visitors from the northern hemisphere arrive at the Namibian coast each year. Some of them cover more than 10,000 kilometres to swop freezing temperatures in the north for the southern summer. They are terns and other seabirds and waders. Common Terns show up in particularly large numbers. They make their way to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay from their breeding grounds in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. The salt pans at Swakopmund, the Walvis Bay Lagoon and Sandwich Harbour are internationally recognized wetlands which are very important for these bird species. Some of them fly even further, to South Africa.
Black Terns, Arctic Terns and Sandwich Terns also arrive from Europe and Scandinavia. Sanderlings and Little Stints cover the vast distance from Greenland or Siberia to the Namibian coast, where they join species that remain in the south throughout the year or, like the Damara Tern, only migrate intercontinentally. Hartlaub’s and Kelp Gulls spend the whole year on our coast, usually in the same area. Swift Terns breed in Lüderitzbucht, among other places, and move to Swakopmund for some of the time, whereas Flamingos fly inland once it has rained and pans have filled with water.
Other species breed on the coast during the summer months and have to deal with a lot of disturbance caused by the many holidaymakers. White-fronted Plovers breed around salt pans and on the gravel plains. Chestnut-banded Plovers also raise their young there. At certain times, 80 percent of the world’s population of this species is congregating on Namibia’s coast. Ninety percent of Damara Terns breed in Namibia between November and February.
Swakopmund citizen Mark Boorman, who has ringed most of the Terns in this country and regularly drives to the salt pans of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay to look for ringed and rare seabirds, recommends the salt pans for spotting a variety of species. These include Ruddy Turnstones, which also migrate here from the far north, as well as the local cormorant species. Among the rare guests are the Redshank and the Caspian Tern, which is the largest Tern worldwide. Red-necked Phalarope can sometimes be seen in the Walvis Bay Lagoon near the salt pans.
When identifying seabirds it helps to look at the eye colour of some of the species. In doing so, a Grey-headed Gull may occasionally be spotted among Hartlaub’s Gulls at the salt pans north of Swakopmund. The Grey-headed Gull looks similar to the Hartlaub’s Gull, especially outside the breeding season, but the former has light yellowish eyes while the latter has dark eyes.
Most people, however, are fascinated by the rosy colours of the Lesser Flamingo and its larger counterpart. The Greater Flamingo has pale yellow eyes, pink legs, a pink bill with a black tip and pink feathers on the wings. The Lesser Flamingo has a dark red bill with a black tip, a pinkish head as well as pinkish wings and legs.
Flamingos are specialized filter feeders that mainly eat tiny algae and crabs which contain carotenoids from the water and mud mixture. The carotene dye is stored in the feathers of the birds and turns them pink.
Author: Dirk Heinrich