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14-day Northern Namibia, Okavango and Victoria Falls Birding Adventure, 15-28 October 2006

Birding Ecotours

Participants: Stephen and Barbara Revard: Guided by Chris Lotz for Birding Ecotours

This is a typical example of one of our most popular trips, which involves birding a fantastic transect across a rather large chunk of the southern African subcontinent. We begin at Walvis Bay on the Namib coast of Namibia, and end two weeks later far to the northeast, at Victoria Falls in Zambia. This birding adventure, involving three different countries, generates big bird (around 350-425 species) and mammal (40-55 species) lists, and stunning, diverse scenery. We do variations of this trip – for example, sometimes we do a 3-week version, but this trip report serves as a good example of our trips. In 2006, we conducted six big Namibia/Botswana/Zambia trips similar to this one.

We started this birding adventure on the Namib Desert coast, where we found tons of shorebirds plus some highly localized terrestrial species endemic to Namibia and southern Angola. We then headed inland and birded the Namib Escarpment for a plethora of other localized endemics, before driving further east to Etosha – one of Africa’s greatest game parks and hosting not only big (and small) mammals but also a fantastic diversity of birds (including a host of Kalahari specials). Eventually, we headed to the Caprivi Strip, the Panhandle of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and the stunning Victoria Falls (or “The Smoke that Thunders”), where there is a phenomenal diversity of bird species, although fewer localized endemics than in the Namib areas. After Stephen and Barbara finally flew back to the United States from the Victoria Falls area, we had seen 358 bird species including 71 southern African endemics, 41 mammal species, hugely diverse scenery and we had had a great deal of fun!

Day 1, Oct 15: I fetched Stephen and Barbara from Walvis Bay airport in the afternoon, and we went straight to Rooibank, where within 45 minutes we got close-up views of Namibia’s only true endemic, Dune Lark. We found Cape Sparrow and several other more widespread species, together with bizarre plants, beetles, etc., while searching the dunes. We also started our shorebird exploits, which would continue in a rather big way the following day. We spent this and the next night at the comfortable Lagoon Lodge, where one can see flamingos and tons of other water-associated birds from one’s bedroom! We ate supper at “The Raft”, which is built on stilts out onto the lagoon, and from where one can see huge numbers of the endemic Hartlaub’s Gull, flamingos, and other birds in the lights while one eats.

Day 2, Oct 16: Today we embarked on a morning boat trip both around the lagoon and also into the open ocean. Unlike during our March 2006 boat trip out of Walvis Bay, this time pelagic birds were few, but we did encounter White-chinned Petrel, Pomarine Jaeger (common off the Namibian coast) and Subantarctic Skua. We found some good non-pelagic birds though, such as Cape Gannet, Crowned Cormorant, African Black Oystercatcher, Great White Pelican and others, together with the localized south-west African endemic HEAVISIDE’S DOLPHIN and Cape Fur Seal (a couple of which came right up onto the boat, and we also went close to a seal colony). We did not locate the lone African Penguin that had been lurking around near the mouth of the lagoon this year and which we saw in March for example – this is a much more common (but endangered, declining) bird further south in Namibia and into South Africa. In March, we also saw a pair of Killer Whales (Orcas), but not surprisingly we did not find these again – they are rare off the Namibian coast.

Birding around the lagoon as well as at the nearby Swakopmund Salt Works with Mark Boorman (a very well-known local birder who joined us just for fun and very kindly shared his remarkable knowledge with us), generated large numbers of birds, such as the diminutive, endangered, highly localized Damara Tern, Black-necked Grebe, Common Redshank (which is a rare straggler to southern Africa, but we located not one, but three individuals, thanks to Mark!), Great White Pelican, thousands of Cape Cormorant, Cape Teal, Common Ringed Plover, White-fronted Plover, Chestnut-banded Plover, Kittlittz’s Plover, Three-banded Plover, Greater sand Plover (rare in southern Africa), Grey (Black-bellied) Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Sanderling, Ruff, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Common Whimbrel, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt and many others.

This was one of the few times we could not find Lesser Flamingo, probably because they were breeding inland in Etosha or Botswana, but as usual there were loads of Greater Flamingos.

Orange River White-eye was a terrestrial endemic we found with a little searching around the parks and gardens of Walvis Bay, but one of the real highlights was heading a little way into the Namib sand desert where we found not only loads of Gray’s Larks, but also Stark’s Lark and several other species usually found further inland where there is a little more vegetation. Some areas near Swakopmund which are usually virtually devoid of vegetation actually had grass this time, a product of Namibia’s floods earlier in the year (see our March 2006 trip report).

Day 3, Oct 17: Today we headed inland to the impressive Spitzkoppe, or “Matterhorn of Namibia”, not only beautiful but also one of the greatest hotspots for finding tantalizing Namib endemics. We made quite a number of stops en route, finding some excellent birds, such as Karoo Eremomela and Rufous-eared Warbler near the northern limits of their range. We sadly missed Burchell’s Courser, which we quite often find along this route. Eventually, we reached the stunning Spitzkoppe batholith that rises straight out of the flat gravel desert plain. Here, we found Herero Chat, Monteiro’s Hornbill, Karoo Long-billed Lark, Rosy-faced Lovebird, Ruppell’s Korhaan, Layard’s Tit-babbler and a host of other near-endemics. The Monotonous Larks and Chestnut Weavers that were so abundant in March were absent now – but this was not too surprising since these are late summer migrants (and in fact only present in years of good rainfall).

A reptile highlight here at Spitzkoppe was Puffadder, and mammal highlights were Dassie Rat and Rock Hyrax.

We spent the night at the rather rustic Spitzkoppe Community Campsite, and made our own food – a “braai”, which is the Namibian and South African form of a BBQ. Although rustic, this night was a true highlight of the trip, since we were virtually at the base of one of Namibia’s most gorgeous mountains. Barbara and Stephen did not want the day to end – they were just far too excited about being here.

Day 4, Oct 18: We continued to bird the Spitzkoppe area, before taking a long, scenic route to the comfortable Erongo Wilderness Lodge in the nearby Erongo Mountain Range, which forms part of the Namib Escarpment. During the drive, we easily found Benguela Long-billed Lark near Namibia’s highest peak, the Brandberg, and we stumbled across Southern Pied Babbler while looking for Bare-cheeked Babbler, an easy bird just a little further to the north – but we did not have time during this 2-week trip to visit sites where it is almost guaranteed. (Given 2.5 to 3 weeks, we could also have included the Kunene River for several hot specials). Our raptor list was growing, and included birds such as Pale Chanting Goshawk, Greater Kestrel and Black-chested Snake-eagle. This was a fascinating day along the Namib Escarpment, where we saw several different desert mountain ranges and extremely unusual, striking scenery. The day ended well with excellent views of Freckled Nightjar, with its “bow-wow” calls, all around the lodge, together with a good sighting of a Porcupine at the floodlit waterhole.

Day 5, Oct 19: The day started superbly with excellent views of one of Namibia’s most elusive specials, Hartlaub’s Francolin. A large group of birders arrived at the francolin site just a little too late, and we didn’t want to tell them they had only just missed the birds, especially since they had also dipped the previous morning. After much searching, we were eventually rewarded with stunning views of a fine rock-loving antelope, the Klipspringer (which translates from Afrikaans to “Stone-jumper”). The Erongo Wilderness Lodge is one of the best places to get close-up views of Monteiro’s Hornbill, Damara Hornbill, White-tailed Shrike (in its own genus and endemic to Namibia and southern Angola), Rosy-faced Lovebird, Rockrunner (also a near-endemic in its own genus), Carp’s Black Tit, Short-toed Rock-thrush and other Namibian specials, and we certainly weren’t disappointed this time. Black Mongoose was a mammal highlight – to me, this is the most beautiful mongoose and it is highly localized. We also saw several other mammals such as Damaraland Ground Squirrel. A well-deserved breakfast was enjoyed while watching Rosy-faced Lovebirds, several bunting species, Red-headed Finch, and a lot of other special birds coming to the bird baths and feeders right next to the restaurant. The hospitality of the lodge owners made our visit here even better.

We eventually left the Erongo Mountains and headed out of the Namib and through increasingly wooded terrain, finally arriving at Etosha National Park, which is one of Africa’s greatest game parks and teaming with big (and small) mammals, as well as many Kalahari bird specials.

Days 6-7, Oct 20-21: We spent our first Etosha night at Okaukaujo Rest Camp, and our second night was spent near the eastern boundary of the park, at Namutoni Rest Camp. The floodlit waterhole at Okaukaujo is one of the best places for finding African Elephant, Black Rhino, Giraffe and other mega-fauna, and once again, we were not disappointed, plus we also saw Rufous-cheeked Nightjar there. Lion and Caracal were the two cats we found while driving around in Etosha, but sadly this time we could not locate any Leopard. Bat-eared Foxes were an excellent find. Of course, we saw many other mammals in Etosha, from the small South African Ground Squirrel and Yellow Mongoose to rather large antelope, zebra, wildebeest and all the others.

Many of Etosha’s birds are big and spectacular. We located several Blue Cranes (South Africa’s national bird and endemic to that country except for an isolated population in Etosha). Common birds we encountered were Ostrich, Kori Bustard, Northern Black Korhaan (with a couple of sightings of the more elusive Red-crested Korhaans), and a lot of others. We saw many raptors including several eagle and vulture species, Red-necked Falcon, Secretarybird and loads more. Two specials which are particularly easy to find in Etosha, but are often difficult elsewhere, were Double-banded Courser and Pink-billed Lark. We unfortunately failed to locate Caspian Plover this time, although we did find several near Okaukuejo earlier this year – the plains around here are a really good site for this difficult species. Crimson-breasted Shrike is common in Etosha, and we saw good numbers of them, as well as several multi-coloured waxbills, the stunning Shaft-tailed Whydah and, as always, so much more. Our sandgrouse count reached three species by the time we left Etosha, the highlight being Burchell’s Sandgrouse, although Double-banded and Namaqua are always excellent too. Our mousebird count had reached two species – both southern African endemics (Red-faced and White-backed) – and we started finding our first of several roller and many bee-eater species, plus we were adding new hornbills to our list. Eastern Clapper Lark, with its bizarre display flight, was quite entertaining. We saw loads of other larks as well – our count had reached 14 species, and many of these were southern African endemics! Southern Ant-eating Chat, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Barred Wren-warbler, Black-chested Prinia, Marico Flycather, Chat Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, Scaly-feathered Finch, Violet Woodhoopoe, Common Scimitarbill and Yellow Canary were just a few of the other attractive southern African endemics we located.

Highlights at Halali Rest Camp, where we had lunch, included Violet Wood-hoopoe nesting, and two owl species at their daytime roosts: Southern White-faced Scops Owl and African Scops Owlet.

As usual, we found hybrid or at least intermediate-looking Damara/Red-billed Hornbills here in Etosha - classic individuals of each were also seen.

Day 8, Oct 22: After final Etosha birding, we finally started our drive to Roy’s Camp near Grootfontein. Here, we were rewarded with views of nesting Black-faced Babblers (usually a very elusive, uncommon endemic), many seed-eating birds, some new mammals for the trip such as Africa’s largest antelope, Eland, fine palm savannah (with breeding Palm Swifts and Rosy-faced Lovebirds), and (as always!) – lots and lots more. Damara Dik-dik is a common little antelope here, and we found it without too much trouble.

Day 9, Oct 23: We departed for Rundu, which is the gateway to the Caprivi Strip, a tropical and bird-rich “finger” of Namibia wedged between Botswana, Angola and Zambia – a meeting point of four nations! We stayed at the Sarasungu Lodge, where a highlight (as usual) was an African Barred Owlet lurking around near the chalets, and calling during the day (these owls – in the same genus as the northern hemisphere pygmy owls, are, like their European and North American congeners, largely diurnal). Rundu lies on the Kavango River before this big river bends sharply to the south and flows into the middle of the Kalahari semi-desert of Botswana, fanning out and eventually sinking into deep sands to form a huge inland delta – the famed Okavango - which is one of the greatest wildlife havens on the planet. We started finding our first Okavango specials here at Rundu, including Swamp Boubou, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Coppery-tailed Coucal and others. We also located some super specials of the dry broad-leaved woodland away from the river, such as Tinkling Cisticola, but we could not find Rufous-bellied Tit this time. This attractive species is usually conspicuous in (but less often simply absent from) some of the woodlands near Rundu and into the western Caprivi (in these frustrating times when it is absent, it is usually replaced by the ever-present and widespread Southern Black Tit). Waterbirds near Rundu included a good range of species, including some that are generally difficult to find in southern Africa, like Hottentot Teal and Allen’s Gallinule.

Days 10-11, Oct 24-25: We left Sarasungu Lodge quite early, thus giving ourselves enough time at the Mahango Game Reserve further to the east and lying right on the Botswana border. Mahango is a tiny reserve, and yet hosts over 400 bird species and some very rare mammals! Rare mammals we found included Sable Antelope, Roan Antelope, plus we found our first hippos, African Buffalo (neither of which occur in Etosha, which is too dry), Red Lechwe (a localized floodplain antelope), crocodiles, and other animals. Wattled Crane was our star bird, but as always we also found a plethora of other superb specials here in this little reserve.

We eventually left the Mahango Game Reserve, heading for Drotsky’s Cabins on the Panhandle of the Okavango Delta, just within the borders of Botswana. On exposed rocks along the Okavango River, we saw some Rock Pratincoles. In dry woodland, we saw Bradfield’s Hornbills. Eventually, we reached the excellent riverine forest at Drotsky’s Cabins, where many of the Okavango’s real specials abound. Here, we spent a lot of time birding by boat, getting close-up views of many amazing species. Brown Fire-finch, Southern Brown-throated Golden Weaver, White-browed Robin-chat with its marvellous song, Slaty Egret, Rufous-bellied Heron, White-backed Night-heron (and an amazing diversity of other heron species, both big and small – this is a heron paradise, to say the least), Long-toed Lapwing (and a lot of other fine lapwing species), African Skimmers on exposed sandbanks with their chicks, Pel’s Fishing Owl, African Wood Owl, African Barred Owlet, Long-crested Eagle (which must be one of the world’s most bizarre-looking eagles), an impressive diversity of kingfishers and bee-eaters (including mixed breeding colonies of Southern Carmine Bee-Eater and White-fronted Bee-eater), African Pygmy Goose, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Red-billed Oxpecker, Greater Swamp Warbler, Chirping Cisticola, Green Wood-hoopoe were just a few of the highlights. Storks and their allies included Hamerkop, Yellow-billed Stork, Saddle-billed Stork, Marabou Stork, African Openbill and ibises.

Very sadly, we missed Spotted-Necked Otter this time (we see this on more than half the boat trips we do from Drotsky’s). But, Sitatunga, one of the Okavango’s most elusive mammals, usually skulking deep within Papyrus swamps, graced the area right next to the lodge in the early mornings, late afternoons and at night. This is a superbly reliable place to see this antelope.

Day 12, Oct 26: We exited Botswana, returning to Namibia for one night, which we spent at the Kalizo Lodge in the eastern Caprivi Strip, just before crossing the border into our third country, Zambia, of four nations we visited during this trip. We found some good species again in the Mahango Game Reserve, with its Papyrus Swamps, open floodplains, giant baobabs and dry woodland. Some of the many great birds we found while traversing the eastern half of the Caprivi were Dark Chanting Goshawk, Southern Ground Hornbill, Old World Painted Snipe, Shelley’s Sunbird (plus numerous other sunbird species), to name but a handful. Kalizo Lodge, where we spent our last night in Namibia before hitting Zambia, is situated on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River. African Skimmers, which feed mainly at night, were very noisy, and Meyer’s Parrots also made a lot of noise as they flew overhead often. White-crowned Lapwings stalked around the lawns of the lodge, while Old World Painted Snipes stood inconspicuously next to the river (unluckily for them we had a scope so we were able to spy on them).

Days 13-14, Oct 27-28: After our final Caprivi Strip birding, we crossed the border into Zambia, over the mighty Zambezi River using the excellent new road bridge, and then we embarked on the 3-hour drive just north of the Zambezi along the recently re-surfaced and now very good road to Livingstone. Livingstone is an expensive, very distinctly African town: the roads are full of potholes, a rude awakening after doing the 3-hour drive along an excellent road through remote woodland – suddenly getting to a rather run-down (yet expensive) town, quite different from many of the Namibian towns. The unique thing about Livingstone, of course, is that it lies adjacent to one of the world’s most beautiful and massive waterfalls, the spray of which can be seen from miles away – here, the huge Zambezi crashes into a series of gorges along a fault line. Since Zambezi water levels were low (usual for this time of the year – spring - before the summer rains have begun), the Falls were not that spectacular from the Zambian side (but see the trip report from our March 2006 trip, when the Zambezi was in flood). So, Barbara and Stephen spent a few hours on the Zimbabwean side of the falls, and they said it was the best thing they could have done – the Falls were so incredibly spectacular from that side. Despite Mugabe’s shocking political regime in Zimbabwe, a lot of tourists still visit the Falls from “the other side”.

Birding is always great around Livingstone, and we found Collared Palm-Thrush, Trumpeter Hornbill (the loud calls of these exotic birds sound like babies crying), Stierling’s Wren-warbler, Rock Pratincole, and tons more, including many birds restricted to the eastern parts of southern Africa – thus expanding our bird list quite a lot since we had focussed on the dryer western parts of the subcontinent during this trip. Sadly we missed African Finfoot and Western Banded Snake Eagle, which we had seen in September along the Zambezi River just above Victoria Falls.

All in all, this was a truly superb trip! On some of our trips, we also include some endeavours which are not focused completely on birding, such as Sossusvlei where the highest sand dunes on earth are, and desert rhino and elephant tracking. Other trips of ours are even more focused on birding than the above one – Stephen and Barbara were interested in seeing birds as well as everything else.

The group traveled with Birding Ecotours


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