Having grown up in a temperate rainforest on British Columbia’s coast, I probably take fresh water too much for granted. Here, after all, it pours from the skies half the time (literally, 192 days out of each 365). It rolls, surges, and trickles throughout the landscape as awe-inspiring rivers and tiny streams. It melts off the mountain snowpacks and rests in hundreds of lakes, ponds, and bogs ranging in colour from glacial turquoise to tannic brown. All my life, I’ve enjoyed a superabundance of water, drinking it, bathing, washing, and swimming in it, even using it to flush away my waste products. Such thoughtless luxury.
For the animals and birds that live in arid lands around the world, there can be no such extravagance. Their lives hinge on a continuous search for the scarce commodity and wherever they can find water, that’s where they’ll be. Harsh as it may be, that need can create rare opportunities for humans to get close views of otherwise shy wild creatures.
Namibia is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of it is a blast furnace desert that will suck the moisture right out of your skin. Its towering red sand dunes are some of the tallest in the world. Yet, in this bleak landscape we saw giraffe, zebra, oryx, rhinoceros, elephant, lion, springbok, impala, leopard, and many other mammals, the greatest congregations always near water sources. Fortunately for the wildlife and for wildlife lovers like us, Namibian parks establish and maintain waterholes and water tanks to support the animals. And, of course, to allow us to gawk at and photograph those beautiful creatures.
A day “on safari” in Namibia’s legendary Etosha Park will likely consist of driving from one waterhole to the next, never knowing what you’ll find when you get there. You can park beside a waterhole (if you can endure the heat) and simply wait to see what shows up. It might be a vast mixed herd of grazers or a solitary jackal.
In the evening, sit in the relative comfort and safety of a blind overlooking a waterhole and watch the nocturnal animals appear out of the gloom, their lamplight eyes flashing when they lift their gaze in your direction. Shoulder to shoulder, a pride of lions crouches along the shore to lap. Two hyenas hang back, yipping nervously, afraid to approach until the cats move on. A large owl drops soundlessly to dab her toes in the rocky shallows and drink, fluff, and preen.
From our window at a Namibian lodge, we were delighted to see families of peach-faced lovebirds and yellowed-shouldered Ruppell’s parrots gather at a dripping pipe a few metres away.
The clever birds had obviously figured out that here was a reliable source of fresh water. They shuffled along the pipe, chattering amiably with each other as they waited their turn to stand under the drip, stretching their beaks wide to receive the sacrament.
Other drylands in other countries created similar bird-watching magic. The merest splash of a puddle across a road in southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert provided bathing facilities and a welcome drink for a large flock of mountain bluebirds. From the concealment of our car, we were able to photograph the bustle and swirl of the celestial-winged creatures that made it seem like pieces of the blue sky had fallen to the earth before us. A campground sprinkling system installed to keep a small patch of grass alive in the parched environment of Australia’s Northern Territory brought in a rainbow parade of red-collared lorikeets to play in the cool spray.
As tourists, we can make it profitable for locals to maintain water sources for wildlife, whether it’s a constructed watering hole in a game reserve, a bird bath at a bed and breakfast, or a tiny trickle of a stream left undisturbed.
We can also help the animals that we come to see by acting respectfully around them, giving them their space, remaining quiet and still in our cars or blinds, so that they can drink in peace and return, refreshed and unruffled, to their daily routines.
Have you observed animals or birds making the most of water sources available to them? Tell us about it in a comment.