When a group of tourists checked in to their lodgings at Madikwe Game Reserve near the border of Botswana, they were certainly expecting to see some wildlife. They were not, however, expecting to see something quite like this.

According to David Fisher, one of the visiting tourists, when his group initially arrived the camp was fairly quiet. Although one of their guides had warned them that some red-billed quelea were nesting nearby and might cause a commotion, they didn’t think much of it. Then the birds arrived.

“Almost to the minute, swarms of quelea from all sides started arriving from all directions,” Fisher told News24. “The camp came alive, you could not walk anywhere. It was vibrant and the trees felt alive, we could hardly talk let alone sleep.”

A group of red-billed quelea gather in Tanzania near Mount Kilimanjaro. (Lip Kee Yap/Flickr)

They were about to witness a truly exceptional event. Red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea), though having an exceptionally wide range covering the majority of sub-Saharan Africa, are far from ordinary birds. Their colonies can often number in the tens of thousands, and have sometimes been known to include up to a million individuals. When they’ve been witnessed travelling, their massive flocks can take several hours to pass by. And an entire colony had chosen to congregate on this camp.

The tour guides for Fisher’s group understood the significance of the event. They offered to cancel the planned game drive the next morning so the group could have a chance to witness a mass flight of the quelea the following morning. According to Fisher, the group wisely and eagerly accepted.

Early the next morning, the group gathered at a nearby waterhole and settled in to wait for the show to begin. They didn’t have to wait long. After the quelea spent some time chirping among themselves in a way that Fisher described as akin to “a pilot prepping his squadron,” the birds took to the sky in unison.

“Instantaneously, every bird and swarm roosting within our camp took flight. Like a coordinated event, the swarms swooshed down on the waterhole taking over the entire area. It was a mass of darkness streaming in from all sides, the noise was intense and consuming.” Fisher told News24. “We did not know where to look or turn. Every direction had quelea in flight heading for the waterhole.”

Then, minutes later, it was over. But it was an event that Fisher and his group would remember for a long time to come.

“We just happened to be privileged enough to get our timing right to experience such an amazing site and capture it on camera,” Fisher said.

In case you haven't had your fill of queleas just yet, here's what they look like up close:

A photo posted by Mel Gray (@sultramel) on

Top image: Bernard Dupont/Wikimedia Commons