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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk
Malawi, October 14th - November 2nd 2005,
For birders who have already visited parts of Southern and Eastern Africa, Malawi is a worthy destination offering the chance to find many species which are relatively difficult to access elsewhere in their ranges. Situated in southern-central Africa, it is a relatively small land-locked country that nonetheless boasts a bird list of over 600 species due to the diversity of its habitats.
This report covers a holiday of just over two weeks taken by my wife and Barbara and I at the end of October 2005. This was not a hard-core birding trip as I had a strong emphasis on videoing the birds seen and we also spent some time horse riding on the Nyika Plateau. Despite this a respectable 332 species were seen. Personal highlights included White-backed Night Heron, Wattled Crane, Senegal Lapwing, Lillian’s Lovebird, Rwenzori Nightjar, Bar-tailed and Narina Trogons, Half-collared and African Pygmy Kingfishers, Bohm’s Bee-eater, Brown-breasted Barbet, Blue Swallow, Mountain Wagtail, White-starred Robin, Arnott’s Chat, Mocking Cliff-Chat, Evergreen Forest and Mountain Yellow Warblers, Brown Parisoma, Black-headed Apalis, Southern Hyliota, Livingstone’s Flycatchers, Fulleborne’s Boubou, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Purple-banded Sunbirds, Montane Widowbird, and Red-throated Twinspot. In addition birds which were heard only included White-chested Alethe, Olive-flanked Robin-Chat, and the enigmatic White-winged Apalis making for a total of 338 species recorded in total.
Over 400 species are certainly possible following a similar itinerary to ours and could include quality birds we missed such as Bat Hawk, Bronze-winged Courser, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Pennant-winged Nightjar, Pale-billed Hornbill, Stierling’s Woodpecker, African Broadbill, Souza’s Shrike, Bohm’s Flycatcher, Pale Batis, Thyolo Alethe, White-winged Babbling Starling, Sharpe’s and East Coast Akalats, Chapin’s Apalis, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Mountain Illadopsis, African Hill Babbler, Red-faced Crimsonwing, Chestnut-mantled Sparrow-Weaver, Anchieta’s Sunbird and Cabanis’s Bunting, plus more northern migrants once the rains commence.
Habitats and climate
One fifth of the country is taken up by the lake of the same name, lying in a valley of the Great Rift System of East Africa which extends down to the plains bordering the Shire River. This flood plain forms part of Liwonde National Park where there are also large expanses of mopane woodland. To the west escarpments reach up to the Central African Plateau and attain heights of nearly 3000 metres with extensive grasslands and montane forests at reserves such as the Nyika National Park. One of the main habitats to explore in Malawi is the deciduous woodland dominated by brachystegia trees and more generally known as miombo. We didn’t really spend enough time in this habitat, but large tracts are readily accessible at sites such as the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, the south-west of Nyika National Park, the north-west of Vwaza Marsh and the escarpments leading up to the Zomba Plateau.
Most if not all of Malawi’s main birding habitats are located in national parks or reserves. Elsewhere the land is intensively cultivated by subsistence farmers and trees are being cut down at an alarming rate. It is rather depressing to fly over the country and see this obvious delineation and the effect of the national obsession with burning the land. Tree-felling and poaching are also a problem within the reserves. The latter is somewhat understandable given the enormity of the country’s food crisis but less so when it relates to the contemptible trade in bushmeat.
Malawi has three seasons: relatively cool and dry from May to August, hot and dry from September to mid-November and then hot and wet until April. Our visited coincided with the end of the hot and dry season, and a distinct change in the weather was obvious towards the end of the trip. At Nyika and Vwaza the skies were more overcast and it was very windy, whilst it had rained extensively just south of Makuzi Beach a day or so before we arrived there.
Birding in the cool dry season is probably the most comfortable, but there are fewer migrants around and many breeding species will be absent. Later in the hot wet season the birding can be excellent but many roads are closed and access to the key reserves is limited. October and November provide a balance with both a good range of species and good accessibility. It is worth noting that it was chilly at night and early in the morning at Nyika.
Health and safety
Malaria is a genuine risk in Malawi and relevant precautions should be taken. Malarone is probably the best option, but is only available on private prescription. Yellow fever immunisation is only required if arriving in Malawi from a “Yellow Fever Zone” country such as Zambia or Kenya. The fact that we connected to Malawi via Nairobi was not considered a problem however.
Mosquitos were not really a significant problem throughout the trip and were absent in the highlands. Nets are nonetheless advisable and were available at all our accommodations. Tsetse flies were a different issue however at Vwaza Marsh and they can also apparently be a problem at Liwonde. These vicious insects ignore repellent and bite through clothing so the usual precautions are futile. They are attracted to dark clothing, particularly blue colours, so wearing anything pale provides some protection. Luckily only a tiny minority carry the sleeping sickness virus, for which there is no immunisation.
The presence of Bilharzia in Lake Malawi is much debated, but the safest approach is to assume it is there but generally only away from the main resort areas.
Despite the poverty and deprivation obvious wherever we travelled in Malawi there was never any concern over our personal safety. The people are as friendly and hospitable as all the guide books suggest. You will be approached by locals whenever you walk around alone, but they are usually just keen to try out their English and conversations can be guaranteed to contain the phrases “what is your name?” and “how are you?” Many of course will eventually get round to trying to sell you something or even asking for your address back in the UK (not advisable). Children and adults alike will openly say “give me money”, but this is never done in a threatening manner.
It is not advisable to drive yourself in Malawi, particularly at night, as the road conditions are poor and the driving styles somewhat carefree.
Mammals are nowhere near as prolific as they can be in South Africa or in the East African nations. There are only a few Lions whilst Rhinoceros are slowly being re-introduced into a few specially protected areas. Leopard and Hyena were occasionally being seen on night drives at Nyika during our stay but unfortunately not by us. Elephants and Hippos are however easily seen in the main game parks, and we also saw Buffalo, Chacma and Yellow Baboons, Vervet Monkey, Side-striped Jackal, Serval, Civet, Large-spotted Genet, Banded and Slender Mongooses, Eland, Kudu, Bushbuck, Roan and Sable Antelopes, Waterbuck, Reedbuck, Puku, Impala, Klipspringer, Sharpe’s Grysbok, Red and Common Duikers, Burchell’s Zebra, Warthop, Bushpig, Porcupine, Scrub Hare, Tree Hyrax, Lesser and Greater Bush-Babies, Four-toed Elephant Shrew and Red Bush Squirrel. Where they are available night-drives are particularly recommended.
Nile Crocodiles frequented the Shire River at Liwonde, but otherwise reptiles were relatively few and far between. We did see a Mole Snake on the Nyika Plateau and various small skinks, lizards and geckos could be found around the lodges.
Accommodation and transport
Our accommodation, air and road transport was booked through Roxton Bailey Robinson travel agents (www.rbrww.com) in the UK. They were extremely efficient and responsive given that we had less than three weeks to organise the trip. I informed them of the basic itinerary we wished to follow and they did the rest. They used Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com) as local ground agents.
The lodges and hotels we used were all of a good to high standard and the food was excellent. At nearly all the locations we visited there was a range of accommodation available from camping, to mid-range self-catering chalets to more luxurious lodges or hotels. Only the Ku Chawe Inn at Zomba accepted credit cards and all struggled to accept traveller’s cheques. Luckily most of our accommodation was on a full board basis. The only option is to take cash and US dollars are widely accepted. It also worth noting that many of the lodges do not have complete electrical power, either relying on solar energy or generators (Kazuni Safari Camp at Vwaza has neither) and therefore recharging camera or camcorder batteries can be time limited.
The international flights via Nairobi and Johannesburg worked out fine. The Nairobi connection was best for arrival but Johannesburg was better for getting back to the UK. Service and efficiency were comparable, but as usual travelling British Airways economy (on the return trip) remains an entirely uncomfortable experience. The internal light aircraft flights were an efficient way of travelling, though there is a certain amount of flexibility involved as schedules are not fixed. Timings are generally dependent on where the aircraft needs to be next rather than when you need to be somewhere. Travelling by light aircraft also means you have a very limited baggage allowance, although the key criteria appeared to be soft bags for easy loading rather than weight.
Our itinerary was based on a 17 night stay, trying to visit as many key locations as possible without unduly rushing from site to site. We focused on the south of the country first, using road transport and then moved north relying on chartered light aircraft to reduce travelling time. In hindsight it would have been better to have travelled between Nyika and Vwaza Marsh by road, enabling time to be spent in the miombo habitat at Nyika’s Thazima Gate and around Vwaza’s Kawiya Camp entrance. This would have added considerably to journey time, but given that we arrived at Vwaza mid-morning just as things quietened down it would have been worth it. We also chose to visit the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve as a day trip from Lilongwe, but our driver arrived late and we were limited to between 10.15 and 16.00 missing the best chance to see many of the reserve specialities. The basic Forest Lodge there would have served us perfectly well for a one night stay, even if it meant bringing our own food and drink for the resident cook to prepare.
The full itinerary was as follows: (Note: dawn was around 5 am and sunset at 5.45 pm)
Oct 14th: Afternoon flight from Manchester connecting with Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi from Heathrow.
Oct 15th: Arrive in Nairobi and connect with Air Malawi flight to Lilongwe. Transfer to Heuglin’s Lodge for 2 nights. Afternoon at Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary.
Oct 16th: Day trip to Dzalanyama Forest Reserve returning to Heuglin’s Lodge early evening.
Oct 17th: Early morning birding at Heuglin’s Lodge before a road transfer to the Zomba Plateau for 2 nights at Ku Chawe Inn. Early pm birding at Dr John Wilson’s garden.
Oct 18th: Birding on the Zomba Plateau.
Oct 19th: Early am birding on Zomba Plateau before road transfer to Mvuu Lodge at Liwonde National Park for 3 nights, calling in at Dr Wilson’s again en route. Afternoon and early evening boat trip on Shire River.
Oct 20th: Early am bush walk around Mvuu followed by mid-morning boat trip on Shire River. Late afternoon and evening drive through mopane woodland east of Mvuu.
Oct 21st: Early am bush walk around Mvuu followed my boat trip on Shire River. Afternoon drive into mopane woodland with vigil at Mpthapalala Waterhole and return night drive.
Oct 22nd: Early am bush drive south of Mvuu returning by boat on Shire River. Transfer by light aircraft early pm to Nyika National Park for 5 night stay at Chelinda Lodge. Night drive at Chelinda.
Oct 23rd: Morning birding around Chelinda. Afternoon horse riding on Nyika Plateau.
Oct 24th: Morning birding at Zovo Chipolo Forest. Afternoon horse riding around Chelinda followed by night drive.
Oct 25th: Full day horse riding on Nyika Plateau.
Oct 26th: Early am birding at Chelinda followed by birding at Zovo Chipolo and Chowo Forests and across Nyika Plateau. Night drive at Chelinda.
Oct 27th: Early am birding at Chelinda followed by light aircraft transfer to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve for 3 nights at Kazuni Safari Camp. Late am and early pm birding around camp and Lake Kazuni. Late pm and night drive around South Rukuru River.
Oct 28th: Early am bush walk around west shore of Lake Kazuni followed by game drive. Early pm visit to local village market. Late pm and night game drive into bush north of Lake Kazuni.
Oct 29th: Early am bush walk around east shore of Lake Kazuni. Rest of day birding around Safari and self-catering camps followed by late pm and night drive around South Rukuru River.
Oct 30th: Morning game drive north and west of Lake Kazuni. Early pm light aircraft transfer to Makuzi Beach on Lake Malawi for 2 nights.
Oct 31st: Day birding and relaxing at Makuzi Beach.
Nov 1st: Early am birding around Makuzi Beach followed by light aircraft transfer to Lilongwe to connect with South African Airways flight to Johannesburg and then BA flight to Hearthrow.
Nov 2nd: Arrive Heathrow early am and connect with flight to Manchester arriving home at 09.30.
Nomenclature and field guides
The nomenclature used in this report follows that in Sinclair and Ryan’s field guide “Birds of Africa South of the Sahara”. Whilst it may contain a few dubious splits this guide nonetheless attempts to provide commonality of names across the region, though this may be somewhat confusing for those used to South African bird classification. It is easily the best field guide for Malawi, although it is heavy to carry around in the field. Ber van Perlo’s “Collins Illustrated Checklist for Birds of Southern Africa” also covers all the birds to be seen in Malawi and is much more lightweight, though it lacks detail and some of the plates and maps are confusing.
The classic South African field guides by Newman, Roberts and Sinclair, Hockey and Tarboton are useful but don’t cover the 70 or so species found in Malawi and not in Southern Africa. The Newman’s guide does have a Birds of Malawi supplement but it is now out of print.
This section provides a summary of the sites visited and the birds observed, as well as providing information on other species which may also be expected at each locality. There are some species which are relatively easy to find throughout Malawi in the right habitat and these have not been included within this summary unless there was a specific record of interest. They are namely: Cattle Egret, Helmeted Guineafowl, Yellow-billed Kite, Common Sandpiper, Cape Turtle Dove, Red-eyed Dove, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, African Palm Swift, Tropical Boubou, Barn Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, Fork-tailed Drongo, Dark-capped Bulbul, White-browed Robin-Chat, Pied Crow, Black-backed Puffback, African Yellow White-eye, Blue Waxbill and Common Waxbill.
Heuglin’s Lodge is a regular base for bird tour groups visiting Malawi being just outside Lilongwe and handy for the airport. The lodge is apparently named after the White-browed Robin-Chats which frequent the gardens and alternatively go by the name of Heuglin’s Robin. The gardens offer some good introductory birding and are best just after dawn, becoming quiet by around 7 am. As well as the aforementioned robin-chats there was a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers, breeding Speckled Mousebirds, a party of Arrow-marked Babblers, African Hoopoe, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Northern Grey-headed Sparrows, Red-billed Firefinches, and Village, Lesser Masked and Spectacled Weavers. Schalow’s Turaco and Black-collared Barbet could be heard calling nearby but didn’t venture into the garden. Flowering trees, particularly the spectacular jacaranda, attracted Variable, Collared and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds and a single Olive Sunbird passed through. Overhead was a Lesser Striped Swallow amongst a passage of Barn Swallows, a trio of European Bee-eaters, plus the only Shikra seen on the holiday. A Laughing Dove flushed from the leaf litter was surprisingly another species not to be seen again.
The Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary is only a ten minute drive from Heuglin’s Lodge and is definitely worthy of a morning or afternoon visit. The animal pens are poorly maintained but the habitat down to and around the Lingadzi River hosts a surprisingly diverse range of birds. Red-throated Twinspot was the first bird we saw and up to a dozen were seen later feeding on the paths. Green-winged Pytilia and Jameson’s Firefinch were also seen feeding with the twinspots. Village and Spectacled Weavers were nesting along the riverbank, where we also saw Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Fiscal Shrikes, a couple of European Bee-eaters overhead, and up to 9 obtrusive Schalow’s Turacos. A spurfowl species (probably Hildebrandt’s) was glimpsed but quickly disappeared into the dense undergrowth. A Mountain Wagtail showed extremely well along the river, but the best sighting was of a Half-collared Kingfisher which flew downstream to a hidden bend from where it could be heard calling but didn’t reappear. A couple of Black-crowned Night Herons were flushed from their roost, but there was no sign of the White-backed Night Herons which are also sometimes seen here. Other birds which eluded us included African Finfoot (which is found here very occasionally) and African Broadbill of which a pair is resident, generally around the butterfly display board. We also missed Magpie Mannikin which is best looked for feeding on stands of flowering bamboo. Back towards the main buildings we found a male Chinspot Batis, Tawny-flanked Prinias, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Green-capped Eremomela, Black-crowned Tchagra and the first of many migrant Willow Warblers to be seen throughout the trip.
Dzalanyama Forest Reserve
Situated about 60km south-west of Lilongwe, this excellent reserve on Malawi’s western border with Zambia deserves much more attention than our rather restricted day trip. The miombo forest here is amongst the best in the country and of the 300 plus species recorded many are difficult to see elsewhere in their ranges. Miombo birding is much like any other forest birding – feast and famine involving roving mixed flocks. As the wet season progresses these flocks tend to break up as breeding commences and this was already occurring during our visit with Kurrichane Thrush and African Paradise Flycatcher seen at their nest sites.
The Forest Lodge is now run by Land and Lake Safaris (www.landlake.net) and has four double bedrooms available on a self-catering basis with shared bathroom facilities. There is a resident cook available who will prepare your meals. As previously mentioned our time here was limited due to the late arrival of our driver to collect us from Heuglin’s Lodge. Not only were his excuses for being late implausible but he also informed us that he had never been to Dzalanyama before – so much for our experienced guide. We were left to fend for ourselves on arrival at the lodge but after getting our bearings we explored the surrounding tracks without too much problem. The best areas appeared to be upstream of the Makata Stream and away from the nearby village.
Around the lodge itself we soon picked up a party of 6 Eastern Saw-wings at the road-bridge plus an overhead female Ovambo Sparrowhawk. Heading away from the lodge towards another bridge over a dry stream we found our first bird party which included a Pallid Honeyguide, Brubru, Green-capped Eremomela, Southern Hyliota and Reichard’s Seed-eaters. White-tailed Blue Flycatcher and Black-crowned Tchagra were at the bridge itself with a pair of Southern Black Flycatchers, African Dusky Flycatcher and Fiscal Shrike nearby and a female Bateleur overhead. A pair of eagles over a distant ridge went unidentified. Following another track back towards the lodge another bird party included frustratingly brief views of Miombo Rock-Thrush and Mocking Cliff Chat. Lunchtime birding at the lodge itself produced a Violet-backed Starling and the flowering shrubs in the lodge’s small garden attracted Miombo Double-collared, Scarlet-chested and Amethyst Sunbirds. An afternoon walk downstream and in the direction of the nearby village was less productive than the morning excursion, though new birds included Grey-headed Bush-Shrike, Black-headed Orioles, Chinspot Batis and Golden-breasted Buntings with a dark phase Wahlberg’s Eagle overhead.
Unfortunately many of Dzalanyama’s better birds were missed and sightings could potentially have included Pale-billed Hornbill, Whyte’s and Miombo Pied Barbets, Woodland and Striped Pipits, Stierling’s Woodpecker, Souza’s Shrike, Bohm’s Flycatcher, Miombo Scrub-Robin, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Red-capped Crombec, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Rufous-bellied and Miombo Tits, Olive-headed Weaver, Anchieta’s Sunbird and Cabanis’s Bunting. Next time …
Thankfully in contrast to the Dzalanyama trip our transfer to Zomba was with Jim, one of Wilderness Safari’s guides based at Mvuu Camp in Liwonde and who had just finished guiding a bird tour group. Jim was great company and extremely enthusiastic and en route arranged for us to call in at the house of John Wilson in the hope of seeing White-winged Apalis. The drive to Zomba took just over four hours and was relatively birdless apart from the only Black-shouldered Kite of the trip and a pair of Lizard Buzzards seen and a Greater Honeyguide calling at a lunch stop in the miombo clad hillsides north of the town. Others have seen Pale Batis and Pale Flycatcher here.
We arrived at John’s house in Zomba early afternoon, situated just above the old parliament buildings and near to the upper reaches of the botanic gardens. John is a keen naturalist and heavily involved in conservation within Malawi. He is used to birders visiting his property and was more than happy to show us around his “garden” – a fairly large area of forest backing onto his house. Two or three pairs of White-winged Apalis breed here and have recently been photographed for the first time. Although we could hear them on arrival and three more times thereafter only Jim briefly saw a female. They are notoriously elusive, keeping to the uppermost reaches of the very largest trees but are apparently easier to see once the rains start and they begin nesting. Although we failed to see the apalis good birds were still to be found and we saw Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Little and Grey-olive Greenbuls, Black Cuckoo-shrike, White-tailed Elminia, Yellow-throated Warbler, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Olive and Collared Sunbirds, Dark-backed Weavers and Red-throated Twinspots. We also heard Green Malkoha, Livingstone’s Turaco, Blue-spotted Wood-Dove, and Lesser Honeyguide
We arrived late afternoon at the Ku Chawe Inn on the Zomba Plateau. This is a flagship Meridien Hotel with stunning views down the escarpment. The manicured gardens attracted a range of birds during our stay, and provided close views of Livingstone’s Turaco, African Dusky Flycatcher, Forest Double-collared, Olive and Collared Sunbirds, a single Miombo Double-collared Sunbird and a small flock of Red-backed Mannikins.
A full day and early morning was spent birding the highland forest away from the hotel. There are managed pine plantations here to ease wood-cutting pressures and they would appear to be having some success in preserving the native forest. The pine plantations were however generally devoid of birds. Although the climb up to Ku Chawe is steep the plateau levels off at just under 2000 metres and the walking from here is easy. The best areas we explored were: 1) along the dirt road from the hotel past the Chawe Camp Site to the bridge just before the Trout Farm; 2) the ill-defined track forming part of the Mulunguzi Nature Trail that leads from the same bridge along the river to the Mandala Falls; 3) the road above the Trout Farm to Williams Falls; 4) the road down from Ku Chawe Inn to Mulunguzi Dam; and 5) the road alongside the dam itself.
A Gabar Goshawk perched obligingly on a telegraph pole by the road down to the camp site but generally raptors were scarce. The best area for them was the more open habitat around the dam where we saw perched Long-crested Eagle and Steppe Buzzard. A pair of Afrcan Olive-Pigeons were typically only seen in flight but Livingstone’s Turacos were numerous and more obliging.
Stripe-cheeked Greenbuls, here at the northernmost part of their range, were vociferous and relatively conspicuous early morning, along with noisy but much harder to see Placid Greenbuls. A fruiting tree near the camp site paid dividends with good views of a White-eared Barbet, and pairs of Malawi Batis and Black-headed Apalis. Both these latter species proved to be fairly common whilst a pair of the barbets were later found nesting at the northern end of the trout farm. Birding around the bridge and the nature trail revealed an excellent Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Grey-olive Greenbul, White-tailed Elminias, Southern Citril and a possible Brown-headed Apalis. Black Saw-wings were found in the valley south of the bridge and also more generally around Mulunguzi Dam, where a party seen late afternoon hosted a pair of Scarce Swifts.
Towards Williams Falls a cleared area produced Mottled Swifts overhead and a pair of Bar-throated Apalis with a family of Mountain Wagtails at the falls themselves. From the road alongside the dam we saw a splendid White-starred Robin, Dark-capped Yellow Warblers, White-necked Ravens, two pairs of Common Stonechats and a mixed flock of Red-backed and Bronze Mannikins. The road down from the hotel to the dam had some good patches of forest with more White-tailed Elminias, African Dusky Flycatcher and the only Ashy Flycatcher of the trip. A pair of African Pygmy-Kingfishers was found in a patch of woodland just before where the road reaches the dam. Kurrichane Thrushes were relatively common. Olive was the most numerous sunbird, but there were also regular sightings of Collared and Forest Double-collared Sunbirds.
Although we didn’t visit it, the nature trail around Chingwe’s Hole on the plateau is rumoured to have Thyolo Alethe amongst its inhabitants whilst Mulunguzi Marsh along the road to the Queen’s and Emperor’s Views may apparently have Black-rumped Buttonquail and Buff-spotted Flufftail.
On leaving Zomba we called in again at John Wilson’s house, hearing but again not seeing White-winged Apalis. We did however see a Crowned Hornbill near its nesting tree and got excellent views of a female Narina Trogon. A Square-tailed Drongo was also seen.
Liwonde National Park
It was only an hour and a half’s drive from Zomba to Liwonde National Park; relatively small but a haven for wildlife along the upper Shire River and its surrounding mopane forests. The best base for exploring the park is at Mvuu where there is basic camping plus serviced safari tents, chalets and a lodge. Game drives and boat trips are available for all-comers and there is not much difference between the better accommodation at the safari camp and at the lodge, however the lodge offers a much more exclusive and personalised experience – particularly helpful if you are travelling alone and have specialist interests. You cannot walk alone away from either the lodge or the camp due to the obvious dangers related to wandering hippos and elephants.
Both the lodge and the camp are situated close together on the east bank of the Shire River, with the lodge’s chalet tents overlooking a small inlet. Staying at the lodge we could hear the White-backed Night Herons which roost hidden away in the trees overhanging the inlet. On an evening boat ride we managed to get excellent views of an adult and briefly of an immature. Black-crowned Night Herons and a Burchell’s Coucal were also here. Southern Brown-throated Weavers were nesting along the inlet, including just below the balcony of our tented chalet, whilst there was a colony of Lesser Masked Weavers on a small island viewable from the lodge’s reception building. Also viewable from our balcony were a pair of Dickinson’s Kestrels nesting in an old palm tree, up to 4 Broad-billed Rollers, Grey-headed and Brown-headed Parrots, a female Giant Kingfisher and a variety of commoner waterbirds, whilst superb Bohm’s Bee-eaters would often perch only a few feet away during the heat of the day.
A pair of Livingstone’s Flycatchers was seen down to almost touching distance one day on the path between the restaurant and the tents. Other birds seen around the lodge included African Fish Eagles, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Little and Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Greater Honeyguide, Terrestrial Brownbul, Wire-tailed Swallow (nesting in the reception building), Collared Palm-Thrush, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Chinspot Batis, Black-crowned Tchagra, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green-backed Camaroptera and Pin-tailed Whydah, whilst African Wood-Owl called at dusk. Pel’s Fishing Owl had been seen two days prior to our arrival, but this seems destined to be a bird which for me at least will remain forever elusive.
The lodge’s reception building (which also serves as bar and restaurant) looks out over the Shire River and during the dry season a small marsh. Animals regularly come down to drink here whilst Hippopotamus and Nile Crocodiles favour the shallows around the weaver colony island. Shyer forest denizens also visit the inlet at night and sometimes at dawn and dusk whilst Elephants can turn up anytime. Vervet Monkeys are cute and entertaining but become a real nuisance if ever their visits coincide with food being served – especially cake!
Richard, the lodge manager, is a first rate guide and takes a special interest in finding target species – though he will baulk somewhat at African Pitta. We took boat trips, game drives (day and night) and bush walks out with Richard and on each occasion he would find something special.
The boat trips on the Shire River, both up and down river were particularly good. Relatively low water levels had created a number of mudbanks and shallows attractive to a variety of waterbirds. Grey Herons, Little and Great White Egrets and Hadeda Ibis were common, as more surprisingly were African Openbills. Less common but also seen regularly were Goliath Heron, Squacco Heron, Green-backed Heron, Glossy and Sacred Ibis and towards dusk Black-crowned Night Herons. We only had single records of Black Heron (performing its umbrella fishing technique), Little Bittern and Saddle-billed Stork and only a few sightings of Purple Heron, Yellow-billed Stork and Hamerkop. African Darters were not particularly common. White-necked Cormorants congregated at day time roost sites and Reed Cormorants were only seen occasionally other than when flying to their evening roost. Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese were fairly numerous, but we only found one flock of White-faced Ducks.
Cruising the river proved productive for raptors either directly overhead or over the adjacent woodlands and these included plenty of African Fish-Eagles, Osprey, Western Banded Snake Eagles, an African Hawk-Eagle, a pair of African Harrier-Hawks, a Palmnut Vulture (later tracked down to its palm tree roost), Honey Buzzard, Bateleur, Gabar Goshawk and a Red-necked Falcon which circled low over the boat.
Black Crakes and African Jacanas were abundant along the shoreline. We saw one crake being taken from the shore and swallowed whole by a crocodile. Blacksmith, Spur-winged and African Wattled Lapwings were reasonably common but we could find neither Long-toed nor White-headed Lapwings which seem to be regularly recorded here. Only a few Water Thick-Knees and Three-banded Plovers were seen. Migrant waders included plenty of Wood Sandpipers and Greenshanks plus flocks of Ruff and Little Stints and a Green Sandpiper.
Drifting along the river banks brought us close to lots of Malachite and Pied Kingfishers, plus a few Giant Kingfishers. Bohm’s and Little Bee-eaters were also sometimes here and parties of European Bee-eaters passed overhead. In the reeds we often caught glimpses of Little Rush Warblers and a couple of Burchell’s Coucals. Scanning the pods of hippos would sometimes reveal Red-billed Oxpeckers. Other birds seen from the boat included flocks of Red-billed Quelea, Village and Southern Masked Weavers and a splendid pair of Southern Ground Hornbills.
Exploring the bush by foot and land rover revealed a number of species to be common or relatively easy to see. These included Grey Go-Away-Bird, African Hoopoe, African Grey, Trumpeter and Southern Red-billed Hornbills, Little Bee-eater, Lilac-breasted and Broad-billed Rollers, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Chinspot Batis, Collared Palm Thrushes, Sombre and Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Black-headed Oriole, Southern Black Tit, Greater Blue-eared and Meve’s Starlings, Green-winged Pytilia, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-fronted Canary and abundant White-browed Sparrow-Weavers.
Early morning bush walks from the lodge concentrated on the area around and south of the Camp close to the river amongst the scattered baobab trees and acacia thickets. In the vicinity of the Camp Bohm’s and Little Bee-eaters were common, however we saw only one Swallow-tailed Bee-eater. This was also the best area for noisy flocks of beautiful Lilian’s Loverbirds. Both Brown-headed and Grey-headed Parrots also proved reasonably easy to see here. Purple-crested Turacos were also quite obliging and hornbills seen included a pair of Crowned. Speckle-throated Woodpeckers eventually revealed themselves, and both Greater and Lesser Honeyguides appeared. Stunning Red-headed Weavers proved easier to see than expected. There were small flocks of Red-faced Mousebirds in the thickets and roving parties of White Helmet-Shrikes crossed our tracks. A lone Red-capped Robin-Chat proved to be the only one of the trip as were a pair of Grey Tit-Flycatchers and a couple of White-bellied Sunbirds. Other birds seen here included a female and juvenile Tawny Eagle, Southern Ground Hornbills, Cardinal Woodpecker, Common Scimitarbill, Wire-tailed and Lesser Striped Swallows, Southern Black Flycatchers, Long-billed Crombec, Green-backed Camaroptera, another Livingstone’s Flycatcher, Violet-backed Starlings, Variable Sunbirds and a singing Willow Warbler. Finally we obtained distant but conclusive views of a perched Brown-breasted Barbet south of the Camp, one of Liwonde’s real target birds given its highly localised range.
Bush drives were taken into the extensive mopane woodlands, often looping back towards the river. We also spent one afternoon at a waterhole within a fenced-off section of the park where rhinoceros amongst others are being re-introduced. Raptors were regularly seen and included Cuckoo Hawk, Western Banded Snake-Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Bateleur and a pair of Dickinson’s Kestrels. In the open woodland habitat we saw Klaas’s Cuckoo, Striped Kingfisher, Crested Barbet, Speckle-throated Woodpecker, a wonderful Mosque Swallow, Brubru, the excellent Arnott’s Chat, Arrow-marked Babbler, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and Red-headed Weaver. This was also the best habitat to find Sable Antelope, though they were also seen from the boats.
Towards the river open grasslands produced a party of Red-necked Spurfowl plus Rattling, Winding and Croaking Cisticolas and Tawny-flanked Prinia. At dusk African Snipe dropped in to feed and a small flock of Grey-headed Gulls moved up-river.
Night drives were usually tagged on to the bush drives and as well as being excellent for small mammals revealed spotlighted Square-tailed Nightjars plus Brown-hooded Kingfisher and even a Martial Eagle but unfortunately no owls.
With luck, birds we may also have expected to see other than mentioned above during our stay at Liwonde included Fulvous Duck, Black-headed Heron (surprisingly not seen), Greater Flamingo, Woolly-necked and Marabou Storks, Bat Hawk, Marsh Sandpiper, Temminck’s and Bronze-winged Coursers, African Skimmer, Black Coucal, Mottled Spinetail, African Broadbill (rare), African Pitta (extremely rare), Grey-headed Kingfisher, Racket-tailed Roller, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, African Golden Oriole, Eastern Nicator, Cut-throat Finch and various widows, bishops and whydahs which are commoner in the wet season.
Nyika National Park
From Liwonde a flight of just over two hours brought us to Nyika National Park in the north-west of Malawi. This is the country’s largest park, covering over 3000 square kilometres of the Nyika Plateau which rises gently from 2100 metres in the east to 2500 metres in the west. The landscape is strangely un-African and more reminiscent of Europe with rolling grasslands, whale-back hills and granite outcrops. The herds of Eland and the beautiful Roan Antelope were however a reminder of our real location.
Lying at the heart of the park, Chelinda is the best base for exploring the park’s habitats. We stayed at the first class lodge consisting of two-storey wooden chalets set on a hillside with wonderful views over the plateau and down to the small wooded valley and dambo (overgrown watercourse) below. Various tracks lead down to the main dam situated in front of the Camp (self-catering chalets) and to the dambo that links this dam to Dam 2 which can be seen distantly from the lodge.
Early morning walks down to the dambo proved very fruitful. Black-lored and Churring Cisticolas were common and easy to see, unlike the Cinnamon Bracken Warblers whose calls were a constant backdrop but for who real patience was required to get just the briefest of views. Mountain Yellow Warblers were only slightly less elusive and were best seen in the thicker habitat around the main dam. The higher path leading down from the lodge through the forest to the dam regularly held a pair of White-starred Robins near the wooden footbridge. Other birds preferring the thickets and woodland included Southern Mountain Greenbuls, Bar-throated Apalis, Ludwig’s Double-collared, Malachite and a single Scarlet-tufted Sunbird, African Firefinch, and Yellow-browed Seedeaters. A single Baglafecht Weaver of the unique race nyikae was also seen here, as surprisingly were a pair of Fulleborne’s Boubous.
Delightful Blue Swallows were a regular sight around Chelinda and the surrounding grasslands but were few and far between elsewhere on the plateau. Montane Widowbirds were numerous and favoured more open areas. A few males were in breeding plumage and seemed out-numbered by females by about 50 to 1. Yellow-crowned Canaries were also common. Also seen in more open habitat were Wing-snapping Cisticolas, Common Stonechat and Common Fisal. Good numbers of African Pipits were seen around the lodge. The woodland between the dambo and the lodge was just about the only place to find Dusky Turtle Doves. African Olive-Pigeons were usually seen only in flight but there was often a small roost in the pines at Dam 2. The main dam itself hosted a regular Little Grebe and a family of Red-knobbed Coots, whilst a pair of Yellow-billed Ducks could be found on either dam early morning only. Striped and Red-chested Flufftails supposedly occur in the marshy areas by the dams but despite long vigils neither could be found.
Looking out across the valley from the lodge raptors were often in evidence from mid-morning and included Steppe and Augur Buzzards, with one dark phase bird of the latter present. A Lizard Buzzard was seen at Dam 2 and also near the riding stables. White-necked Ravens were a common sight at Chelinda and more generally around the plateau.
The night drives from Chelinda around the surrounding grasslands and forest edges were excellent and produced spotlighted views of Common Quail, Spotted Eagle Owls, Marsh Owl and Ruwenzori Nightjars. One of the nightjars was also seen from our chalet at dusk.
The open habitat around Chelinda and across the plateau is excellent for horse riding. The stables here are owned and run by David and Robin Foot, who also run the lodge and the Kazuni Safari Camp at Vwaza Marsh (www.nyika.com). They are great company and good guides and a riding excursion is definitely worthwhile, even for novices. On horseback we were able to get within less than ten metres of a pair of magnificent Wattled Cranes – our only other view of these birds was on a distant hillside. Riding was also the best means to get views of Red-winged Francolin and the nyikae race of Rufous-naped Lark and our only sighting of Denham’s Bustard was from horseback. Rides took us to areas impossible to reach by car, and on one full day’s ride we tracked a small party of elephants – an excellent experience. Our lunchtime stop also produced the only sighting of White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher. Flocks of swallows would follow us through swathes of bracken and often included Blue Swallows as well as a lone Sand Martin amongst a horde of Barn Swallows.
The montane forests of Nyika are a major attraction to birders and harbour some of Malawi’s most sought after species. We were able to take a couple of trips out to these forests with Abasi, the lodge manager and an excellent guide and birder. Abasi knows these forests well, but being the lodge manager his time was restricted and we were not able to visit early morning. He nonetheless found us some great birds.
The two main forest areas are known as Zovo Chipolo and Chowo, the latter being nearer the Zambian border. To call them forests is rather misleading, as on the Malawian side they are wooded valleys amongst the grasslands. As in most forests birding was hard work and entailed as much listening as watching. On our first visit to Zovo Chipolo we did get good views of Schalow’s Turaco, Southern Mountain Greenbuls, Mountain Thrushes, White-starred Robins, White-tailed Elminias, Malawi Batis, Waller’s Starlings and Forest Double-collared Sunbirds, with White-headed Saw-wings cruising along the forest edge, but had to be content with only hearing Moustached Tinkerbird, Fulleborne’s Boubou, Olive-flanked Robin-Chat and Evergreen Forest Warbler plus a Crowned Eagle calling overhead. On a subsequent visit Abasi managed to locate two Bar-tailed Trogons which showed exceptionally well and after a long wait we finally obtained views of the boubou and even the secretive forest warbler.
West from Zovo Chipolo and then south along the Zambian border we also visited a small patch of the Chowo Forest, which is more extensive on the Zambian side. More time here earlier in the day would undoubtedly paid dividends, but nonetheless Abasi soon located a Sharpe’s Greenbul and we also found Black-fronted Bush-Shrike and finally a Moustached Tinkerbird. A pair of White-chested Alethes were calling from the thick vegetation lining a stream but we had no inkling of a sighting.
The list of birds that we could potentially have seen at these forests other than those we heard only includes Orange Ground-Thrush, Sharpe’s Akalat, Chapin’s Apalis, Mountain Illadopsis, African Hill Babbler, Green-headed Sunbird, Oriole Finch and Red-faced Crimsonwing. Even Spot-Throat is rumoured to occur here.
The birding whilst driving to and from the forests and when walking between patches of woodland was equally good. Single White-backed Vulture and Martial Eagle were seen high overhead along with Augur and Steppe Buzzards, whilst in the lower airspace we saw a Mottled and a few Alpine and Scarce Swifts, an Angola Swallow, migrant House Martins and over-flying African Olive-Pigeons and a few European Bee-eaters. A Single Buffy Pipit was seen from the roadside along with commoner African Pipits. Wailing Cisticolas favoured thickets whilst Wing-snapping Cisticolas were seen around amongst the grasses. More dambos produced more Black-lored and Churring Cisticolas. Flocks of Red-collared Widowbirds, all females or males in non-breeding plumage, were regularly encountered. Yellow-crowned Canaries were frequently seen but we found only a single Brimstone Canary.
Near to the turn-off for the now disused Zambian Rest-House a short stop revealed a Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk carrying prey, a party of Hildebrandt’s Spurfowl crossing the road and nearby a Scaly-throated Honeyguide. At a rocky outcrop a party of 4 handsome Mocking Cliff-Chats were one of the highlights of the trip. Other birds seen en route included Red-winged Francolins, Speckled Mousebirds, Little Bee-eater, Southern Mountain Greenbul, Common Scimitarbill, Common Fiscals, Common Stonechats, and Kurrichane Thrush.
Further south of Chowo Forest we visited a roadside stand of acacias which quickly produced a new range of birds including Brown Parisoma which seems limited to this habitat. Also here was a pair of Spotted Creepers, a singing Singing Cisticola, a calling Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, a flock of Violet-backed Starlings and a pair of White-headed Saw-wings plus Spotted and African Dusky Flycatchers.
Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve
A short flight from Nyika brought us to Vwaza Marsh and more specifically the Kazuni Safari Camp in the south of the reserve and situated on the northern shore of the lake of the same name. The marsh is actually much further north and is potentially dry at this time of year, so most of the wildlife action is concentrated around the lake. The lake itself was also pretty dry but not such that pods of hippos could not easily be viewed from the Camp.
A ring of six tented chalets look out over the margins of Lake Kazuni. Wildfowl on view included Spur-winged and Egyptian Geese, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal and a single sighting of Southern Pochard. A host of waders fed or roosted on the shoreline and included Black-winged Stilt, Collared Pratincole, Common Ringed and Kittlitz’s Plovers, African Wattled and Blacksmith Lapwings, Water Thick-Knee, Little Stint, Ruff, Greenshank and Wood Sandpipers. African Pipits also favoured the drier sections. Other regulars were African Spoonbills, Grey Herons and Hadeda Ibis whilst Yellow-billed and White Storks, Great White Pelican, Glossy Ibis, Comb Duck, African Fish-Eagle, African Harrier-Hawk, White-winged Tern, Common Swift, Brown-throated Martin and Grey-rumped Swallow were only seen on one or two occasions. A White-headed Vulture dropped in to drink from a small inlet one morning.
The open bush around the Safari Camp and the Camp (the self-catering accommodation) was good birding territory, though it is not advisable to walk too far alone as elephants wander through the camps on a regular basis. One of the highlights was a reasonably approachable pair of Barred Owlets which could be found roosting during the day around the Camp. Meyer’s Parrots also seemed to prefer the self-catering Camp. When they held water a couple of bird baths attracted Lesser Masked, Village Weavers and Golden Weavers, Northern Grey-headed Sparrows, a Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Arrow-marked Babblers and on a few occasions a Black-collared Barbet. A thicket overlooking the bird bath to the east of the dining area regularly held a large flock of Village Indigobirds and a single Pin-tailed Whydah. Other indigobirds and/or whydahs were possibly also present but they were all in non-breeding plumage and virtually impossible to identify.
The acacias in front of the Safari Camp hosted a procession of birds that included migrants such as Icterine and Willow Warblers and Spotted Flycatcher as well as residents such as Golden-tailed, Cardinal and Bearded Woodpeckers, Grey Go-Away-Bird, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, African Paradise Flycatcher, Chinspot Batis Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bush-Shrikes and Yellow-fronted Canary. In the open thickets were Brown-hooded and African Pygmy Kingfishers, Greater Honeyguide, White-browed Scrub-Robins, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Grey-backed Camaropteras, Long-billed Crombec, Brown-crowned Tchagras, Eurasian Golden and Black-headed Orioles, Miombo Blue-eared and Violet-backed Starlings, Yellow Bishops, Jameson’s Firefinch, Bronze Mannikins and a Rattling Cisticola that disconcertingly took to walking on the ground. A flock of 7 Retz’s Helmet Shrikes visited one afternoon. Also seen around the camps were Red-necked Spurfowl, Namaqua Dove, Broad-billed and Lilac-breasted Rollers, and numerous African Grey Hornbills.
Escorted walks with Vasco, the Safari Camp manager, around the periphery of the lake were the norm early morning. Raptors seen included an excellent Black-chested Snake-Eagle, Honey Buzzard and Bateleur, whilst a pair of Red-necked Falcons and a female African Goshawk were hunting the open lake margins. Also seen on the walks were Senegal Coucal, Black-collared Barbet, Little and European Bee-eaters, Singing Cisticola, Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, Green-winged Pytilia
A morning and late afternoon bush drives through the mainly miombo woodland and along a stretch of the South Rukuru River generally produced many of the birds seen around the Camps. Additional species seen however whilst swatting tsetse flies were a dark-phase Honey Buzzard, Dark-chanting Goshawk, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Swainson’s Spurfowl, Striped and Woodland Kingfishers, Crested Barbet, Southern Red-billed Hornbill, Black Cuckoo, Green-backed Honeybird, Green Wood-Hoopoe, Southern Black Tit and Yellow-throated Petronia. Red-billed Oxpeckers were often found on the hippos slumbering in the lake, but a large herd of Buffalo we found on our last morning were hosting 14 Yellow-billed Oxpeckers.
At dusk we would always stop at the west end of the lake for sun-downer drinks and on such occasions we came across two pairs of Senegal Plovers, a magnificent roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and a White-browed Coucal amongst others. Night drives returning to the camp produced more spotlighted eagle owls plus a Fiery-necked Nightjar, though we missed out on Pennant-winged Nightjar and Bronze-winged Courser which are both possibilities here.
From Vwaza it was another short flight to Chinteche and then a 15 minute transfer south to the idyllic Makuzi Beach lodge on the shore of Lake Malawi. Set in a secluded bay this is a real tropical paradise with white sands, the clear waters of the lake and excellent food and service. We spent our last two nights here simply relaxing and birding the lodge grounds and surrounding cultivations. Whilst it is logistically a relatively simple exercise to visit the coastal forests less than an hour away (where East Coast Akalat is a distinct possibility), we chose instead to do not very much at all.
Not that there weren’t birds to be found and videoed. Species were seen here that had not been recorded elsewhere on the trip. An immature African Marsh-Harrier floated over the hillside to the south, whilst Blue-spotted Wood-Dove, stunning Purple-banded Sunbirds and colonies of Yellow Weavers were found in the gardens. White-rumped, Horus and Little Swifts were part of an exceptional passage of swifts and hirundines, and an African Firefinch and Red-faced Cisticola were in the thickets behind the lodge.
White-breasted Cormorants roosted on a large rock just off the beach and were nesting on an islet further out. This islet also had regular African Fish-Eagles at rest and they were also seen over the lodge. Also seen from the beach were a couple of passing Black Herons, Little Egret, Green-backed Heron, Hamerkop, Pied Kingfishers and European Bee-eaters. In the gardens were Speckled Mousebirds, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Willow Warbler, African Paradise Flycatcher, Black-throated Wattle-eyes, Red-throated Twinspot, Variable Sunbirds and Yellow-fronted Canaries, with Honey Buzzard and Wire-tailed and Lesser Striped Swallows overhead.
Overgrown and cultivated land behind the lodge produced a family of Senegal Coucals, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Kurrichane Thrush, Jameson’s Firefinch, Bronze Mannikins and Pin-tailed Whydahs along with other species seen in the lodge grounds.