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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Botswana & South Africa,
Introduction , Namibia , Part two, Mozambique
9th December 2002 - 27th February 2003
Detailed Itinerary / Daily Bird Account
Supplementing the earlier tour, this trip covered not only Botswana, but also those parts of South Africa not visited on the first journey, i.e. Kruger National Park, all sites in Kwazulu-Natal and short excursions into Swaziland and Lesotho. In addition, a few sites were also visited in Cape Province, including some not visited before (Addo, Karoo National Park, Pakhuis Pass, Augrabies and the South African part of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) and others well worthy of second visits (the Cape Peninsula and the West Coast). Not only summarizing the sites visited and routes taken, this travel log also draws attention to all major birds at each locality and additionally tries to convey a feel for the exciting travels that can be experienced in the region. The itinerary is designed to be used in conjunction with the full systematic list that follows and, as such, should help in locating all the endemics and special birds that occur in Botswana and the eastern half of South Africa.
Beginning a trip to northern Botswana in the south of South Africa, some 2000 km from the desired spot, might not seem the most logical thing to do, but that's exactly what I did! So it was, after a long overnight flight from the cold of northern Europe, that I stepped out of the plane in Cape Town to a welcome of pleasant sun, nice temperatures and a House Crow poking around the car park! On into Cape Town I travelled to seek a sleep long overdue, but not before spotting a couple more House Crows whilst passing through the Cape Flats and all the raucous Hartlaub's Gulls and Cape Gulls on the Waterfront.
Refreshed with sleep, and with a couple of days to kill before heading north, it was time for a day of action - Table Mountain, up and over! In temperatures hovering at about 30°C, I walked up the lower slopes, took the cable car up to the top, crossed the plateau, then dropped down the precipitous Skeleton Gorge into Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. A excellent first day's birding throughout - 20 Cape Sugarbirds and nine White-necked Ravens on the lower slopes; numerous Orange-breasted Sunbirds, several Grassbirds, four Ground Woodpeckers and a Verreaux's Eagle on the summit; and at Kirstenbosch, at least 25 more Cape Sugarbirds, a singing Knysna Warbler (in Skeleton Gorge) and the eternal Spotted Eagle Owl sitting in the same tree as the year previous, though now joined by a straggly chick!
On tour on the Cape Peninsula. Started the day with a train journey out to Simon's Town to enjoy the crowded beaches, the penguin beaches that is .and the crowds were purely the African Penguins, all 2000 or so of them! Then hitch-hiked onwards to the Cape of Good Hope for a good photo shot of confiding Orange-breasted Sunbirds and not so good photo chances of a pair of flighty Cape Siskins, while all the time watching out for the thieving Red-winged Starlings. Hitching back, I jumped out of a car just at the right point to be confronted by a nice gang of Baboons who tried to outstare me and gave poses for more photos. Back in Cape Town, I then booked a seat on the night bus up to Clanwilliam, which after a delay, finally rolled into the stop close on midnight - not so bad for me, but poor luck on Steph Tyler, the fellow birder I was up there to meet. Home for the next days was to be her farm at Pakhuis Pass, so into the darkness we drove, winding up through the hills and, by luck, encountering a Red Rock Rabbit in the headlights!
12th - 14th December
At the northern end of the Cederberg Mountains, Pakhuis Pass is a contortion of rugged weather-sculptured rock outcrops rising high to cut between the coastal expanses to the west and the endless Karoo to the east. Just over the lip of the pass lies Klein Pakhuis, the valley that I would be staying in - at its heart, an old farm now being allowed to revert back to an indigenous state, complete with small marsh, little stream and various grades of vegetation. Not an environment for armchair-birding, each and every species, bar the many Cape Weavers and Cape Sparrows coming for grain, generally required a good deal of footwork - but cover those kilometres and the rewards were there to be had. On the first day, scouting round the valley floor, amongst the many Cape Bulbuls, Common Fiscals and Cape Buntings, the highlights were Black Duck on the stream, a breeding colony of European Bee-eaters in a sandbank, African Snipe and Grassbirds on the marsh and seven Cape Siskins on the hillside. The first of many snakes on the trip, a big fat Puff Adder slouched across a track mid-afternoon, allowing a very careful photo approach to within centimetres! That evening, as with each evening to follow, a most obliging Freckled Nightjar came, sat on the track outside the farmhouse and gave its little rendition of 'kow-kow'. On the marsh behind, out ventured three small Grysbok antelopes. Day two saw further exploration of the valley, adding a Giant Kingfisher, a couple of Layard's Tit-Babblers and several calling Ground Woodpeckers, while a short trip out to the east in the afternoon was amply rewarded with typical Karoo birds such as Namaqua Sandgrouse, Acacia Pied Barbet and at least a hundred Larklike Buntings. Best of all, however, hurrying across a road and not hanging around to second views, was a golden yellow Cape Cobra measuring in at about 1.2 metres! A smaller Karoo Sand Snake was also found nearby. Back at Klein Pakhuis, the marsh continued to provide the entertainment - as well as Blacksmith Lapwings that paraded as lords and masters, attempting to case off everything that moved, a total of five Black Crakes nervously emerged and, elusive as ever, one or two Red-chested Flufftails exercised their vocal cords.
The initial aim of the third day was to search for Cape Rock Thrush at the summit of the pass. However, before even getting there, a fine male presented himself on a rock! Also saw a pair of Peregrines here. Thereafter decided to hitch the 90 km down to Lambert's Bay for a day trip to the vlei north of town .but in total contrast to the year previous, it was almost entirely dry. Consequently, the rafts of Black-necked Grebes and assorted waterfowl were much of the past, but still waders abounded, particularly Little Stints, Curlew Sandpipers, White-fronted Plovers and Avocets. Left high and dry, the hide was of little use, but a quick look was not such a bad idea - both a Barn Owl roosted alongside and two Spotted Thick-knees in front! An hour wandering the strandveld was productive, adding five Cape Penduline Tits, a couple of Long-billed Crombecs and numerous Karoo Prinias, Grey-backed Cisticolas and Bokmakieries to the day's tally.
Looping eastward from the Cederberg, the day was spent in open treeless expanses of the Tanqua Karoo. After a quick stop at Doringbos, where a couple of Namaqua Warblers were quickly notched up in riverside reeds, it was then out into open plains for a treat of small passerines: Karoo Larks, Spike-heeled Larks, Tractrac Chats, Karoo Chats, Mountain Wheatears, Karoo Scrub-Robins, scuttling Rufous-eared Warblers and many hundred Larklike Buntings. Raptors were also much in evidence, with Pale Chanting Goshawks, Black-shouldered Kites and Jackal Buzzards the most common and Lanner Falcon, Greater Kestrel, Black-chested Snake Eagle and Booted Eagles the most notable. After getting lost and driving through endless gates and along kilometres of featureless nothingness, we finally got to the almost oasis-like River Doring, it was time was a relaxing break .but not from the birds - alive with activity, a half dozen Fairy Flycatchers headed the cast, but other nice birds included a Black Stork, five African Spoonbills, a couple of Southern Grey Tits and plenty of Southern Double-collared Sunbirds. A strange sight, remembering it was the middle of a semi-desert, was the many Freshwater Crabs trundling up and down the river bank! Finally, heading back towards the Cederberg Mountains, spotted a nice pair of low-altitude Verreaux's Eagles and a few mammals such as a troop of Baboons, a Steenbok and a couple of Little Grey Mongooses.
Part of the Wetlands International waterbird censuses, today was turn of Clanwilliam Dam - a full count of the long narrow reservoir. Admittedly not a prime site, other than for almost 450 Egyptian Geese, but nevertheless a total just over 1000 waterbirds were noted, including 27 species other than the Egyptian Geese! The best of the birding was for sure at the southern end where the Olifants River flowed in forming shallow channels and vegetated overhangs - here, a small roost of Night Herons erupted from bushes, a pair of Fish Eagles shouted at their juvenile (or probably me), Giant and Malachite Kingfishers joined the more common Pied Kingfishers and two Water Thick-knees lazed on a sandbank. Whilst the focus of the day was water, land birds also performed - a pair of Verreaux's Eagles and a flock of Alpine Swifts overhead and nine Fairy Flycatchers in scrub. A quick visit to Kransvlei Poort failed to produce Protea Seed-eaters (seen the year before), but did manage Streaky-headed Seed-eater, Cape Batis and Cape White-eye.
17th - 18th December
A two-day circuit of the West Coast, beginning at Lambert's Bay, then onward to Eland's Bay, overnight at Veldriff, before a winding drive back to Clanwilliam and ultimately Pakhuis Pass.
Rather than take the direct route to the coast, we opted to instead veer north and take gravel roads. Though more circuital, it was a good move - light overnight rain had prompted Angulate Tortoises into action and , almost like a regimental march, an absolute minimum of 40 were seen crossing the tracks! Another Cape Cobra also enlivened the route, as did two Southern Black Korhaans, a pair of Karoo Larks and a couple of Pale Chanting Goshawks. At Lambert's Bay itself, as well as the vlei north of town, the main attraction was the ever-thronging Cape Gannet colony on Bird Island - 30,000 birds, plus or minus, along with about 60 African Penguins and hordes of mixed cormorants, gulls and terns (including at least 800 Swift Terns).
Just a short hop south, via a stunning coastline, and you reach the bird-rich vlei at Eland's Bay. An hour or so of birding at the deep reed-fringed pool, interspersed with lunch, was suitably rewarded with a couple of Purple Herons, a raft of White Pelicans and a sizeable flock of Glossy Ibises. Around the rocky knoll, both Alpine and Black Swifts swirled, whilst nearby quartered a couple of African Marsh Harriers and, over the fynbos back on the Lambert's Bay road, an immature Black Harrier. With lunch finished and another Booted Eagle logged, we continued our drive south, seeing en route about 15 Black-shouldered Kites, as well as a couple of Tractrac Chats and Capped Wheatears. By evening, we arrived at Veldriff and set up camp, seeing two Spotted Thick-knees in the scrub behind the campsite. A stroll to the river mouth, a rather blustery place and none too warm, is most remembered for the thousands of roosting Cape Cormorants and hundreds of Swift Terns, plus perhaps 50 Sandwich Terns and two Caspian Terns. After what was my only chilly night of the whole trip, I spent the morning walking the excellent saltpans, seeing a multitude of birds - a Red-necked Phalarope and five Chestnut-banded Plovers the best, but also huge numbers of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos, flocks of Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and other waders, plus Banded Martins in the riverbank. Though the saltpans could have easily occupied the whole morning, there was one final target bird to seek, an inhabitant of the strandveld on the seaward side of the pans. On the fynbos and pasture. I quickly located three Large-billed Larks, then a Cape Longclaw and an African Pipit, plus a Hoopoe, then finally my goal was there - supporting truly a very long bill, a single Cape Long-billed Lark gave good views and rounded off nicely this little tour to the West Coast. The drive back to Pakhuis Pass was relatively uneventful, just a Mole Snake on the road and three Steenbok.
19th - 20th December
With two more days at Pakhuis Pass before we began the long trek northwards, I decided upon a dawn walk along the old jeep track that runs the length of Pakhuis Pass. A good idea, other than that the day turned into the hottest day of the trip so far (high 30s) and the route back involved a scramble down the boulder-strewn Fortynse Kloof and along a stream - in reality an impenetrable tangle of leg-scratching scrub-bush! The high temperature and heavy terrain turned the gentle stroll into an eight-hour hike, a knackering experience! That aside, however, birding was excellent throughout: Cape Sugarbirds, Orange-breasted Sunbirds, Cape Siskins and Grassbirds along the jeep track (plus Klipspringer antelopes); Cape Batises, Cape White-eyes and a pair of Cape Rock Thrushes in Fortynse Kloof (the latter feeding young in the nest); and Fiscal Flycatchers and a pair of Protea Seed-eaters in the stream valley. Almost back at the farmhouse, boasting a nice collection of cuts and scratches and in no fit state to keep watching birds, spirits were kept high by the appearance of both a Verreaux's Eagle and a Black Harrier. Adventures of the day were to continue at the farmhouse - a tap-tap-tap at a window brought all to see, there, trying to get in the house, was a most beautiful Boomslang, a highly poisonous snake, but certainly an elegant one! Next day, all was indisputably easier, it was very much a 'take-it-easy' day in advance of our planned departure early next morning. A shopping trip down into Clanwilliam gave excuse for a detour into the Karoo side of the pass, where Chestnut-backed Sparrowlarks and Ant-eating Chats, plus a male Southern Black Korhaan, were the main attractions, but otherwise unfortunately the most notables of the day were all dead on the road - a Bat-eared Fox, a Mole Snake and a Spotted Thick-knee.
Began the long journey north, covering 575 km through the searing heat (almost 40°C) of the arid Bushmanland. A couple of stops in the Brandvlei area for Red Larks were not productive, hindered by a hot wind and burning sun. Two larks, undoubtedly Red Larks, were flushed, but no good views were obtained. (but about ten Spike-heeled Larks, eight Grey-backed Sparrowlarks and six Yellow-bellied Eremomelas were seen). Otherwise the journey was marked by about ten Pale Chanting Goshawks scattered along the route and a Secretarybird and Blue Crane north of Calvinia. In the evening, we got to the impressive Augrabies Falls, a dramatic gorge into which the Orange River plunges. Many good birds, including Goliath Heron, Black Stork, Peregrine and at least 200 Alpine Swifts.
The day started with a walk of about 5 km in the area of Augrabies Falls (following the Dassie Trail), adding Verreaux's Eagles, Orange River White-eyes, Ashy Tits and Long-billed Pipits to the previous day's tally of birds. Throughout the area, common birds also included Red-eyed Bulbuls, Dusky Sunbirds, Black-chested Prinias, Pale-winged Starlings and Larklike Buntings. Also dozens of Rock Hyrax, four very approachable Klipspringers, several Ground Squirrels and a troop of 12 Baboons. Leaving Augrabies, we then endured the long hot tedious drive up to the gates of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park: 22nd - 26th December
Totalling 40,000 km2 and straddling South Africa and Botswana, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park protects the essence of the Kalahari Desert - dry riverbeds, rolling duneveld and extensive pans. Our five days, each marked by a scorching sun and temperatures rocketing to over 40°C, began in the Nossob Valley before journeying across the Botswana portion, a wilder, more remote, almost timeless part of Africa.
Day One. Arriving on the evening of the 22nd and camping just inside the national park, the first night was a peaceful hint of the wildlife to come - three or four Yellow Mongooses scavenged around the camp, carting off spare lamb chops, fly-by Barn Owls and, just nearby, two Double-banded Coursers, a calling Northern Black Korhaan and a Cape Fox.
Day Two. An outstanding day. Leaving camp before 6.00 a.m., we slowly drove up the dry Nossob Valley, stopping on numerous occasions for the bountiful wildlife. Moments into our journey, a Cape Fox came trotting past, shortly followed by splendid views of an African Wild Cat sunning itself in the valley (the first of three that morning). Scattered Springbok, Gemsbok and Wildebeest, though not in great abundance, were noted all the way up the 160 km of the riverbed, along with a few Hartebeest, a Slender Mongoose and, mid-morning, a fine family of Lions sleeping under a tree (a male and two females). The valley, though, was most remarkable for the impressive numbers and varieties of raptors - 163 individuals of 14 species, including a staggering 22 Secretarybirds, 48 Pale Chanting Goshawks, 29 Lanner Falcons and, on the rarer front, three Martial Eagles and four Pygmy Falcons! Adding variety to the steady stream of raptors, a total of 32 grandiose Kori Bustards also walked the catwalk, no less than two pairs of Verreaux's Eagle Owls were found at roost and four Burchell's Sandgrouses occurred amongst the more abundant Namaqua Sandgrouse. In the evening, just short of our camp at Polentswa Pan, we encountered our second Lions of the day - again sleeping under a tree, the pride consisted of a resplendent male, two females and three cubs .and it was they who provided the 'fun' for the night!
Setting up tent about 200 metres from the Lions was, I suppose, an invitation for adventure, so it is little surprise as to what came next! Early evening spotlighting picked up a couple of Black-backed Jackals, plus an African Wild Cat, but no sooner had I ventured into my tent than did the noises of the night start - first a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar, then the Jackals knocking over our kettle, then the Lions! Distant at first, each successive throaty roar grew ever closer and louder, soon it was clear the pride were virtually at the tents .a quick peep out of the tent, no sign, then I thought it a good idea to abandon camp and flee to the land rover! From my new secure position, under an almost full moon, the comings and goings of the night were clear to see - the Lions wandered off, but not the Jackals! Running like the clappers into the darkness with their booty off, first they stole the kettle, then the lid, then a shoe!
Day Three. After a none too comfortable night sitting in the car, I vowed to take my chances with the Lions on all subsequent nights! Morning started with a search for all our stolen belongings - amazingly all were found, the kettle not far away, the shoe a couple of hundred metres down onto the pan! A slow drive 50 km back down the Nossob produced a most peculiar sight. Right on the edge of the track, a 1.6 metre Cape Cobra and a Puff Adder in battle - the cobra clearly having already bitten the adder, was now warily circling the stricken snake, biting once more, though rapidly retreating at signs of defence on the part of the adder. After a half hour of watching this struggle, we continued down the valley, encountering three Ludwig's Bustards to add to the numerous Kori Bustards of the day before.
Thereafter, turned eastward and began the long drive across the Kalahari duneveld - hours of rolling sandveld: vegetated dunes, open woodland and scrubby grassland. Mostly covered in the heat of the day, relatively little was seen, though both Red-crested and Northern Black Korhaans were noted, along with the last Sociable Weavers (they had been numerous in the Nossob Valley), the first Yellow-billed Hornbills and, as everywhere in the Kgalagadi, countless Fawn-coloured Larks, Kalahari Robins and Scaly-feathered Finches. I also managed to photograph another big Cape Cobra.
In the evening, we reached Mabuasehube and found a wonderful open pan (Bosobogola Pan) to camp above. After setting up tent, it was time for an evening of entertainment, watching a family of Bat-eared Foxes, a few Kori Bustards and a small herd of Springbok. Later, climbing into my tent to the calls of Spotted Eagle Owls and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars, I hoped for a Lion-free night!
Day Four. Christmas Day! Temperature 42°C, blazing sun and not a hint of Santa anywhere! Having firmly zipped up my tent against Lions, I guess Santa couldn't get in .but rising at 5.30 a.m., I soon found my present - wandering in across the pan, my first ever Brown Hyena! A quick view through the scope and then it ventured off into the bushes and out of sight .but a few minutes later, while we were making morning tea, there it was, walking right into our camp! Sporting a shaggy mane and sullen look, he paused just ten metres away, seemed none too fussed by us and continued his amble up the hillside! On the pan below, four families of Bat-eared Foxes, all with tiny cubs, played in the sun, so too a family of Black-backed Jackals, about five Meerkats and, stately as ever, eight Kori Bustards. Perched atop a bush, a Red-necked Falcon gave only the most tantalising of views, stubbornly slightly out of views, then in a flash, simply disappearing!
As the day's heat began its relentless climb, we decamped and moved about 12 km to the adjacent Mpaathutiwa Pan to relax the day away and watch a steady build up of vultures dropping in to the waterhole - by midday, an impressive 170 vultures had gathered (144 White-backed, 24 Lappet-faced and two White-headed). A quick pop over to Mabuasehube Pan, another 10 km further on, produced another 42 vultures (28 White-backed, 12 Lappet-faced and two White-headed).
And so passed Christmas Day, lazing under a Kalahari sun, occasionally glancing up to watch a Martial Eagle overhead or a Chat Flycatcher flitting nearby. But mostly, it was just a day of enduring the heat, throwing scraps to the Ground Squirrels and waiting for the cool of sundown! Once again, as the day wore on, the refreshing air of evening brought life back to the pan - yet more Kori Bustards wandered in, another family of Bat-eared Foxes emerged and, as twilight fell, Spotted Eagle Owls and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars headed led the night chorus, backed up by noisy cicadas and Barking Geckos.
Day Five. Lions again! 5.30 a.m. and up start the roars! Quickly I jumped from the tent and had a look around, they were close but chose to stay unseen. Later, we found the tracks leading up from the waterhole to within about 50 metres of our camp, then off into the bushes. Our last morning in the Kgalagadi added Kudu to the last of mammals seen and lots of birds, including Montagu's Harrier, about 16 Northern Black Korhaans, a pair of Burchell's Starlings, plus smaller species such as Pririt Batis, Crimson-breasted Shrike, several flocks of Pied Babblers and a single Eastern Clapper Lark. However, best sighting of the day, picking its way through a patch of desert flowers, was yet another stunning African Wild Cat.
It was then eastward on a long drive to Gaborone, a journey only enlivened by a Common Duiker, several Montagu's Harriers and a host of commoner birds such as Yellow-billed Kites and Pale Chanting Goshawks.
Gaborone: 27th December - 2nd January
Urban birding! All under the auspices of conducting waterbird counts, Steph Tyler and I spent a week touring the 'delights' of Gaborone - three sewage farms, half a dozen dams, a run-down game park and even the city dump! Not perhaps the most popular of destinations on the international tourist market, but the sewage farms in particular, along with Bokaa Dam, were fantastic for birds and are an invaluable habitat in this otherwise dry semi-desert part of the country. Before even venturing to these sites, however, many species can be seen throughout the city - in the sprawling suburban fringe, the acacia thornveld is alive with birds. Prominent amongst these were dozens of Diderick Cuckoos, a few Jacobin Cuckoos, Rufous-naped Larks, White-browed Scrub-Robins, the odd Crested Barbet and Red-billed Oxpecker and, not to forget, three species of whydah, three canaries and various weavers, bishops and widowbirds. The nicest bird for me, however, was a stunning White-throated Robin-Chat was most 'pishable' in someone's garden - a quick pish and it would immediately pop up to see what was going on!
We visited Ngotwane Dam (at the southern edge of Gaborone) on two occasions and here the main fun was getting there - opting to borrow canoes and paddle down the Ngotwane River. Though water levels were low and we didn't encounter any of the crocodiles that inhabit the river, this was a most pleasant way to travel, though perhaps not for an American lady who chose to join us and then promptly capsized her canoe, falling into the murky waters and having to swim ashore!!! This amusement aside, there was plenty more for entertainment along the river, including a Bushbuck, both Baboons and Vervet Monkeys and, on the bird front, a few Green-backed Herons, a roost of 16 Night Herons, several Black Crakes, a Black Duck, plus a couple of Brown-hooded Kingfishers and a pair of Burchell's Coucals. At the dam itself, with the water level low, the main attractions were herons (including five Black Herons and seven Squaccos), 18 African Spoonbills, rallids (including eight Purple Swamphens) and waders (ten species, including Marsh Sandpipers, Avocets and the more common Ruffs and Little Stints). An evening visit to count roosting birds below the dam wall was also very good, notching up 27 Darters and almost 200 assorted herons, as well as a small colony of Village Weavers (apparently the only ones in the Gaborone area), a flock of about 100 over-flying Lesser Flamingos and a few northern migrants, including House Martin and Great Reed Warbler.
Next on our hit list of sites was Mogobane Dam, a fairly small dam a few kilometres outside Gaborone. Water levels here were very low and the site didn't really live up to expectation, though a Fulvous Duck was found amongst the few White-faced Ducks and a Yellow-billed Stork plodded about the banks. Otherwise, in total, wildfowl numbers added up to just 143 and waders to 83.
Next came the sewage farms! The first, Tsholofelo, was a system of about 12 pools, supporting very respectable numbers of wildfowl, herons and other waterbirds. One pool in particular was excellent - semi-drained, more than 800 flamingos, 1000 waders and a hundred or so ducks all congregated. In more detail, this spectacle broke down into 603 Greater Flamingos and 209 Lesser Flamingos, whilst the most notable waders included 316 Ruffs, 287 Little Stints, 128 Black-winged Stilts, 35 Marsh Sandpipers and counts of about 50 for each Curlew Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper and Avocet. Adjacent pools also had their attractions - a total of 261 Little Grebes, about 40 White-winged Terns, a Maccoa Duck (the only one seen in all our trip to Botswana), a Fish Eagle and, overhead, both European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. From Tsholofelo, we also made a visit to Gaborone Game Park, a small city 'show reserve', supporting a few Zebras, Wildebeest, Impala and Warthogs, etc. The best area seemed to be a small wetland, where a Fish Eagle was seen, along with a Black Heron, a few Sacred Ibis and a handful of waders. Also popped into the nearby city dump, hoping to find large numbers of Yellow-billed Kites - saw none, but scored on two Buffy Pipits, five Little Bee-eaters and a pair of Chinspot Batises.
Just down the road, our next destination was Phakalane, another water treatment plant, though this more natural in appearance, essentially consisting of three well-reeded pool. Most notable here was a breeding colony of Darters and White-breasted Cormorants, plus a large roost of 1335 Cattle Egrets in the evening. Other attractions, however, included a Lanner Falcon, a couple of Purple Swamphens, about 145 White-winged Terns and an Abdim's Stork. A sewage farm, can you think of a better place to spend the night? So, yes, although comfy beds sat vacant just a few kilometres into the city, we camped on an embankment between two pools! This was not some strange desire to commune with urban nature, but rather due to the fact that Phakalane is also a first-class ringing site and the best catching is ideally done at dusk and dawn, with the nets furled during the night. So it was, after a night disturbed only by cattle wandering by (each sporting a nice loud bell!), we woke at 5.00 a.m. to unfurl the mist nets. Ringing was productive - in the four hours before the sun got too hot, the ringing total reached 97 birds, including three European Reed Warblers (a bird with an illogical status of almost myth in Southern Africa), 40 European Sedge Warbler, one Little Rush Warbler and treats such as Black Crake, Malachite Kingfisher and Diderick Cuckoo.
Though the largest and most central of the dams in Gaborone, we didn't pay much attention to Gaborone Dam and on our one visit didn't see a great deal beyond17 Grey-headed Gulls (not common in the Gaborone area) and a roost of over 300 Reed Cormorants. It was, however, very windy and only a small part of the site was covered - and, as the grass is always greener on the other side, the opposite bank looked better!
Twelve hours on the road, but an excellent way to end the year, the 31st December saw us heading to the south of the country. The targets were two key localities for special birds - first, Kgoro Pan (near the town of Good Hope), a site well known for Short-clawed Lark; and second, Otse, a cliff face home to one of Botswana's only two Cape Vulture colonies. In addition, however, we also nipped into Lobatse sewage farm and made a long detour to Molopo Dam at Leporung on the South African border.
First stop was the sewage farm at Lobatse, another site crawling with birds. Although we didn't do a full counts, there were throngs of ducks and waders, each of the dozen or so pools seeing flights of birds rise as we appeared. Among the many birds, we found a couple of Comb Ducks, a single White-backed Duck and two White Storks. Also seen were large numbers of hirundines, mostly Barn Swallows, but also House Martins, Sand Martins and two Red-breasted Swallows. At the nearby golf course, we added Natal Francolin, Red-chested Cuckoo, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and Red-billed Firefinch to the day's tally.
Onward then to our main destination, that of Kgoro Pan - though arid perhaps, a picturesque locality all the same. Clearly the main objective was Short-clawed Lark and fortunately it did not fail to oblige. Amongst the scattered bushes in the grasslands, it was only a matter of minutes before I was looking at my first splendid bird. Vaguely pipit-like, it was not long before another five or so had been seen, along with about 30 Red-capped Larks, a single Sabota Lark and a single Rufous-naped Lark! With success so early on, it left plenty of time to enjoy the avian delights of the area. And delights they were - Rufous-eared Warblers, Quailfinches, Ant-eating Chats, Capped Wheatears and, on the pan itself, Lesser Flamingos, African Spoonbills and, best of all, flopping down out of the sky, wave after wave of Abdim's Storks. For over an hour, and continuing as we left, yet more storks would drift in, then spiral earthward to join the gathering roost .the tally standing at an impressive 379 birds as we departed.
Full of good intent to count its wildfowl, we then made the long dusty drive to Molopo Dam, but as things turned out, we were met by little more than a muddy puddle - drought had reduced this one-time excellent site to a fraction of its size with now more dead cows than birds! A slight exaggeration perhaps, but the few Spoonbills, ducks and waders certainly didn't justify the distance travelled! Still, en route we had seen a magnificent male Amur Falcon and a Long-tailed Widowbird, so not all was lost.
Heading back to Gaborone, there was just time to fit in a visit to Otse, a wonderful site not far south of the city. The centrepiece was the cliff-face complete with at least 100 Cape Vultures, a pair of Verreaux's Eagles and a dozen or so Red-winged Starlings, but the acacia woodlands were also prolific, producing not only three species of cuckoo (Jacobin, Red-chested and Klaas's), but also Neddicky, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird and both Black-collared and Acacia Pied Barbet.
New Year's Day - no hang over, no thumping head! Instead, in temperatures rising to 40°C, I decided to climb Kgale Hill, a granite outcrop on the southern edge of the city. Missed out on the two reasons I undertook the climb (Mocking Cliff-Chat and Lazy Cisticola) and, all in all, it turned very much into a three-hour slog with comparatively little to reward, but that is not to belittle the Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Black-backed Puffback, Cape White-eyes and two Verreaux's Eagles that I did see.
Last, but certainly not least, Bokaa Dam was a final major locality visited in the Gaborone area. This dam, lying 30 km to the north of the city, is probably the best waterbird site in the south-east of the country. Measuring approximately 2 km by 500 metres, staggering numbers of birds were seen - in total, almost 3700 and other wildfowl and over 1000 waders. The most numerous birds were White-faced Ducks (1705), Red-knobbed Coots (690), Red-billed Teals (401) and Southern Pochards (210), whilst amongst the waders, three species also occurred in particularly high concentrations - Little Stints (383), Curlew Sandpipers (302) and Kittlitz's Plovers (107). For the visiting birder, however, perhaps more interesting would have been the Black-winged Pratincole, 41 African Spoonbills, 14 Yellow-billed Storks, Bateleur and Peregrine (the latter not a common bird in Botswana). Also some nice bush birds, including Common Scimitarbill, many Diderick Cuckoos and single Jacobin and Black Cuckoos.
After the count at Bokaa Dam, we left Gaborone behind and headed north for our next segment of the trip. Through the heat of the day, we covered 435 km, stopping only three times: first, at about 60 km north of Gaborone, we detoured to the small, almost dried-up Thalgale Dam (waste of time, almost no birds); second, totally unscheduled, for a tyre blow-out; and third, at the extremely stinky and none too pleasant, Francestown rubbish dump - glorious absolutely not for its smell, but perhaps yes for its 200 gathered Marabou Storks, dozen or so Yellow-billed Storks and odd Yellow-billed Kite. Recovering from the stench, we drove the last few kilometres into Francestown.
Having camped alongside the Tati River in the Marang campsite (Francestown), I was yet again woken at 5.00 a.m., though this time by the cries and wails of a pair of Grey-headed Bush-Shrikes dueting above my tent! Though I'm not renowned for such early starts, once having seen these so-called Ghost Birds, as stunning in sight as sound, their early morning alarm call was soon forgiven!!! Wandering around the campsite, a number of other choice species were also noted, including Natal Francolins, Green Wood-Hoopoes, Brown-hooded and Woodland Kingfishers and Tropical Boubous, but regrettably scrub clearance seems to have put paid to the Thrush Nightingales that once inhabited the fringes of the camp.
Just 62 km north of Francestown, a most opportune set of roadside koppies makes an agreeable coffee stop, but more than that, undeniably the most convenient stake-out for Boulder Chats. Straddling the road, the koppies both to the left and right can host the birds, but choosing the right-hand koppie, we explored in vain (if 'in vain' can describe the excellent array of birds including Pearl-spotted Owlets, Klaas's Cuckoo and Scarlet-breasted Sunbird). Crossing the road, however, luck was in - the Boulder Chats were there, little flocks of three birds on both the two nearest koppies, giving wonderful views as they hopped about the rocks. Also another Grey-headed Bush-Shrike calling, plus sightings of Brown-crowned Tchagra, Golden-breasted Bunting and a pair of Double-banded Sandgrouses. Close by, a carcass of a Black-backed Jackal wasn't going to waste - 30 White-backed Vultures and about 20 Yellow-billed Kites were having breakfast, with a Tawny Eagle loitering nearby.
Onward our trudge northwards continued, covering another 120 km we got to one of Botswana's premier birding localities - the famous Makgadikgadi Pans. Early January .the height of the rainy season, pans 130 km in each direction, huge wetlands home to up to one million flamingos, countless pelicans, herons and waders. Not a bit of it!!! The rains had failed to materialize and not a drop of water was to be seen - the salt-encrusted pans were the mere breeding grounds of just spiralling dust devils! Under a relentless sun, still over 40°C, we traversed the grasslands bordering the pan, now withered and parched, but still we managed a few good birds - Pink-billed Larks, Grey-backed Sparrowlarks, ten-a-penny Capped Wheatears and a couple of Quailfinches. Finally, at the Nata Delta, we found a trickle of water (if water is the right word for lurid green pools) and, low and behold, waterbirds! Not the innumerable thousands that occur in a good year, but six Cape Teals and a few dozen waders. Back out on the grasslands, though, the strangest thing of the day was when we spotted a 'Moorhen' - strange because it didn't seem plausible that a Moorhen would be in such a dry desolate spot, so closer we went .and somehow the Moorhen was now doing an impersonation of a francolin, admittedly a more likely bird in this habitat! Closer still, and this francolin seemed to be something else! Eventually, when only a few metres from the master of masquerade, it suddenly became clear what it was - a male Yellow-throated Sandgrouse!!! Obviously a case of sun-induced delirium, so with no further a do, we headed off to the shady retreats of Nata Lodge to watch birds come to their feeding station, nice selection with the added bonus of an overhead African Harrier-Hawk. Last treat of the day, still at Nata Lodge, the evening spectacle was feeding time for the Lesser Bushbabies - at 8.00 p.m. sharp (give or take half an hour!), out comes freshly chopped fruit, served upon a platter. A quick couple of whistles and a few bangs on the plate and down they come, jumping from branch to branch at lightning speed, three of the miniscule Bushbabies tuck into a cordon bleu feast just an arm's length from my happy camera.
Waking at the customary first light, the grasslands of Makgadikgadi looked a touch more alive in the cool of dawn, the illusion no doubt helped by the herd of grazing Springboks, the eight or so Northern Black Korhaans calling across the plains, plus the half dozen passing Montagu's Harriers and flock of Carmine Bee-eaters. Packing up camp, a host of small birds bade us farewell, including Red-headed Weavers, Cut-throat Finches and Violet-eared Waxbills, then it was time to hit the road again. It was a hot dusty drive of 300 km up to Maun, the 'capital' of the Okavango Delta, but the route was enlivened by a Brown Snake Eagle, a single flock of 42 Pied Crows, four Lanner Falcons and two dead donkeys, the first attracting 63 White-backed Vultures and the second six White-backed and six Lappet-faced Vultures. A Giraffe was also seen and, after curiosity was stirred by ingenious signs, a stop made at 'Planet Baobab', a rather nice camp midway on the journey with a waterhole attracting masses of birds, including hundreds of Shaft-tailed and Paradise Whydahs, at least 40 Cinnamon-breasted Buntings and, in turn, a Gabar Goshawk. A Pearl-spotted Owlet also sat in a tree. Arriving at Maun, we headed down to the Boteti River to bush camp, savouring the first delights of the Okavango - Lesser Moorhens and African Harrier-Hawk.
5th - 10th January
Treading the untrodden path! Lying to the south of the protected areas and in effect separated by the town of Maun, the Thamalakane and Boteti Rivers are, to a certain extent, the forgotten parts of the Okavango Delta. But these rivers, the final last struggle of the waters to surge southward, are in fact amongst the most productive in the entire region. Shallow, nutrient-rich and extensive, the rivers are teeming in birds and many of the Okavango's 'specials' occur here in concentrations many times greater than anywhere else in the Delta (plus you don't have to pay the astronomical park fees to see them!). Counting these all-important rivers, and the associated roosts, is however no easy task - too shallow and discontinuous for a boat, it really only leaves the option of placing your best foot forward! So it was, for the next few days, in temperatures that broke the 40°C level, we walked the entire lengths of the two rivers - no small task, for each is about 40 km from start to where they dry up! Plus, not to forget, we also counted the several roosts on the two rivers.
The first leg of the Boteti River walk, undertaken in a single day, was the 22 km stretch from its confluence with the Thamalakane to near Samedupi Bridge, a fantastic section through pools, small marshes and drying river channel. The extraordinary diversity was evident was the outset of the walk - immediately, we encountered Long-toed Lapwings, Painted Snipes, Pygmy Geese and endless flocks of White-backed Ducks, plus a continuum of African Jacanas, Darters, Reed Cormorants, Red-billed Teals and Hottentots. Throughout, herons and egrets were ever present, Cattle Egrets the most numerous, but also liberal doses of Squacco Herons and Little Egrets, as well as Great White Egrets and Yellow-billed Egrets. Also, very nice, a single Dwarf Bittern was found, along with three Little Bitterns, two Rufous-bellied Herons and nine Green-backed Herons. If hotspots could be identified along the river, the first had to be Xobe, about midway down the river segment - not only was it the locality that we found a vagrant Spotted Crake and the first Hippos of the trip, but it also supported a couple of Lesser Moorhens, an impressive density of Lesser Jacanas, three Goliath Herons, a couple of Wattled Cranes and many of the birds mentioned above. Undoubtedly, however, the best spot on the walk was about 2 km upriver of Samedupi Bridge - this was a truly amazing spectacle: among the diversity of birds, the most memorable were a mixed flock of almost 360 Whiskered and White-winged Terns, 560 Collared Pratincoles (plus about 25 Black-winged also), a pleasant collection of Common Moorhen, Lesser Moorhen and Allen's Gallinule, plus just for good measure, a flock of Black Herons and a Little Bittern. By the end of the day, with 22 km under the belt, some 5100 waterbirds had been logged, including no less than 486 African Jacanas and 28 Lesser Jacanas. Not so far mentioned, 890 Blacksmith Lapwings were also counted, 103 Pied Kingfishers and, on the non-waterbird front, three Wahlberg's Eagles, an African Harrier-Hawk and three species of both hornbills and bee-eaters.
The second sector of the river, the 20 km from Samedupi downriver to its finale, took a further two days. Though parts of the river were dry on this walk, the end section at Chanago was unbelievable - a long drying pool, mud-fringed and absolutely crawling with birds. Waders alone amounted to over 6000 birds, while there were also about 1300 ducks and a similar number of other waterbirds! Thus, with close on 9000 birds, it soon becomes clear why it took two days to count! Of the 6000 waders in that individual stretch of river, four species accounted for almost 90% of all individuals - Ruff (3573 birds), Blacksmith Lapwings (748), Little Stints (595) and Black-winged Stilts (307), but it was amongst the other 13% that the 'unusuals' were sought. With such high wader totals, it was inevitable that vagrants or rare birds would be found .and indeed they were - a Black-tailed Godwit being the star, but 21 Chestnut-banded Plovers were also noteworthy for this river, as were two Caspian Plovers, about 20 White-fronted Plovers and, to a lesser extent, a Grey Plover and six Avocets. Aside the waders, an amazing 135 African Skimmers were also on the pool (or possibly even 168), as were 192 White Pelicans and two Pink-backed Pelicans, 272 Whiskered Terns, 124 White-winged Terns, 76 African Spoonbills and 64 Abdim's Storks. Elsewhere on the river, another little pool gave cause for surprise - amongst the assorted Hottentot and Red-billed Teals, we found the fifth ever Garganey for Botswana (yet again appreciated by local birders!). Though waterbirds took the limelight along the entire length of the river, it was also hard not to appreciate the flocks of up to 50 Carmine Bee-eaters, as it was to not be impressed by the sudden arrival of at least 1800 Common Swifts overhead!
Next was the turn of the Thamalakane River, another 38 km to walk! As with the Boteti, we broke the river into manageable chunks to survey on subsequent days, though with the temperature on our chosen days hellish hot, we did the bulk of the distance in the so-called 'cool' of morning and evening.
Our first day saw us hike from the river's confluence with the Boteti right back up to the bridge at Maun town, a distance totalling about 21km. Though overall numbers were somewhat lower than on the Boteti, there were a number of species that seemed to show a marked preference for the Thamalakane, being seen both more frequently and in bigger numbers. These included some of the wildfowl species (most notably Pygmy Geese, Comb Ducks and Fulvous Ducks), Lesser Jacanas and, occurring in especially large numbers, Open-billed Storks. The highlights of this first leg of the Thamalakane were, however, not any of these birds, but the first Slaty Egret of the trip, a total of 16 Rufous-bellied Herons and some of the species less associated with water - including a family of lumbering Ground Hornbills, two Broad-billed Rollers, a Little Sparrowhawk and an African Pied Wagtail.
The section above Maun town was split, the part below Island Safari covered by Steph and Roger (a local Maun birder), the part above by myself. This latter stretch was excellent - full of lilies and rushes and consequently many small herons (24 Squaccos, 10 Green-backed Herons and three little Bitterns), along with another 30 Pygmy Geese, 160 African Jacanas, 13 Lesser Jacanas and numerous waders, including ten Painted Snipes and three African Snipes. Also of note were two Coppery-tailed Coucals, more flocks of Carmine Bee-eaters and other such nice birds as a flock of Green Wood-Hoopoes and two Levaillant's Cuckoos.
Completing the river counts was, however, only half the picture! We also wanted to get an idea of numbers at all the known roosts; so many a dusk, not to mention the occasional dawn, we were back on the banks of the river counting the birds as they flew in for their nightly snooze (or out again in the morning).
Ready and eager, the first we attempted was Samedupi roost. Arriving early, we chose a well-positioned vantage point opposite the reedbed that served as roost and got comfortable .no point slumming it, so out came the comfy chairs and even a beer to while away the wait. Then suddenly, the beautiful blue sky turned a murderous shade of black and then, like from nowhere, an incredible wind whipped up every sand particle from the entire river basin and dumped it either in our land rover or our eyes! As if not enough, there then followed a most torrential downpour battering both birds and us alike! The poor Pied Kingfishers trying to land in the reeds were repeatedly dashed into the water and as for anything flying higher, it probably ended up in Angola! Needless to say, the roost count was abandoned! But much as the proverb says 'If at first you don't succeed .', so out we staggered at the unearthly hour of 5.30 a.m. and counted everything as it left the roost - over 1200 Cattle Egrets, 120 Reed Cormorants and, adding variety, 26 Black Herons, 24 Squaccos, ten Glossy Ibises and a single Little Bittern. Plus 16 Black-crowned Night Herons heading home!
Next stop the Sitatunga roost. Located in the Crocodile Farm at the bottom end of the Sitatunga campsite, there were no weather hassles to worry about here .just the Crocodiles! Maybe the birds felt secure with the Crocodiles at their feet, for this was a big roost - the two predominant species, Cattle Egrets and Reed Cormorants, numbered in at 1579 and 414 respectively. Amongst the other treats at this roost were 45 Glossy Ibises, 27 Squacco Herons, five Rufous-bellied Herons and a single Slaty Egret, plus a few Green-backed Herons and both Great White and Yellow-billed Egret.
With the two major roosts counted, the final two were comparatively easy. Xobe roost was essentially just African Darters in a tree, but nevertheless it was quite spectacular to see the 227 of them circling around for some ten minutes waiting to settle! Though, as said, it was primarily a Darter roost, adjacent trees also supported a significant number of roosting Great White Egrets. At the Sedia Hotel roost, it was a roost count without a roost! Each evening, we watched as huge numbers of Open-billed Storks drifted over heading for a roost in one direction, while kronking flocks of Black-crowned Night Herons emerged from a roost in the other. With much of the area private gardens, we speculated as to where the roosts might be, but settled ourselves for the counts we achieved overhead - the best evening saw 274 Open-billed Storks and 75 Night Herons pass over (plus a wandering flock of 45 Abdim's Storks).
The pure wealth of waterbirds that occur on the Boteti and Thamalakane Rivers is handsomely illustrated by a glance at the impressive results from our week of fieldwork (below). Not including the roost data, but just on the combined 80 km of rivers walked, a grand total of 86 species and 21044 individuals were logged!
|Little Grebe||264||62||Greater Flamingo||5||-||Collared Pratincole||607||144|
|White Pelican||192||-||Lesser Flamingo||70||-||Bk-wing Pratincole||25||6|
|Pink-back Pelican||3||-||Wattled Crane||13||-||Long-toed Lapwing||14||-|
|Wh-br Cormorant||1||-||Fulvous Duck||-||24||Bksmith Lapwing||1638||1204|
|Reed Cormorant||281||298||White-faced Duck||102||53||Crowned Lapwing||3||7|
|African Darter||189||42||White-back Duck||195||61||Grey Plover||1||-|
|Grey Heron||31||1||Spur-wing Goose||6||16||Ringed Plover||28||-|
|Goliath Heron||3||-||Comb Duck||24||179||Kittlitz's Plover||160||25|
|Purple Heron||2||-||Egyptian Goose||52||-||Three-banded Plov.||51||2|
|Great White Egret||26||24||Pygmy Goose||63||122||White-fronted Plov.||20||-|
|Yellow-bill Egret||21||12||Cape Teal||9||-||Chestnut-band Plov.||21||-|
|Little Egret||129||48||Yellow-bill Duck||6||18||Caspian Plover||2||-|
|Cattle Egret||1146||1366||Red-billed Teal||943||365||Black-tailed Godwit||1||-|
|Slaty Egret||-||1||Hottentot Teal||595||79||Marsh Sandpiper||98||-|
|Black Heron||35||1||Cape Shoveler||3||-||Greenshank||167||15|
|Squacco Heron||106||51||Southern Pochard||17||-||Wood Sandpiper||360||339|
|Ruf-bellied Heron||2||16||Garganey||1||-||Common Sandpiper||42||27|
|Green-back Heron||14||34||Black Crake||12||-||Little Stint||598||1|
|Bk-cr Night Heron||1||75||Spotted Crake||1||-||Curlew Sandpiper||34||1|
|Little Bittern||5||3||Common Moorhen||4||-||Ruff||3918||367|
|Dwarf Bittern||1||-||Lesser Moorhen||17||3||Grey-headed Gull||3||-|
|Yellow-bill Stork||2||-||Allen's Gallinule||5||-||Whiskered Tern||441||3|
|Open-billed Stork||1||515||Red-knobbed Coot||126||-||White-winged Tern||315||-|
|Abdim's Stork||65||1||Lesser Jacana||30||52||African Skimmer||135||-|
|Saddle-bill Stork||1||-||African Jacana||595||479||Pied Kingfisher||142||92|
|Marabou Stork||17||-||Painted Snipe||6||18||Fish Eagle||13||12|
|Sacred Ibis||12||3||African Snipe||5||3|
|Glossy Ibis||27||24||Black-winged Stilt||318||-||Total (No. of species)||14736 (84)||6308 (49)|
Throughout our stay in the Maun area, we either bush-camped on the banks of the Boteti River (Xobe being a particularly nice spot) or used the local campsites. For connoisseurs of owls, the campsites are fantastic: we stayed in three different camps and all had their resident owls! First was the Sitatunga Campsite - very noisy and best avoided, but popular with Barred Owlets (three calling, one watched by spotlight). Next, the most pleasant of the campsites and the best for owls, was Island Safari Lodge - here, within seconds of playing a very short burst of a tape lure, we had an African Scops Owl sitting a couple of metres above us, giving excellent views (it then proceeded to call all night long each and every night we stayed there!). Same story with White-faced Scops Owl, arguably the most beautiful of Africa's owls - with deep orange eyes and white face, this was an absolute stunner as it sat and peered down at us. Not to be outdone, a Barn Owl also joined in the medley, screeching through the night, as did a Barred Owlet, though on a much quieter, more pleasant note! The final campsite was at the Sedia Hotel where, in addition to being a fine spot to observe storks and herons on their way to roost, it was another chance to catch up with an African Scops Owl.
Taking a break from waterbirds, I spent the morning walking the Mopane woodlands north-east of Maun town. Many good birds were found, the best being a flock of six Dusky Larks - this uncommon bird looking very reminiscent of a Groundscraper Thrush! Also Meyer's Parrots were seen, Common Scimitarbills, Green Wood-Hoopoes, both Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbills, lots of Woodland Kingfishers, a pair of Grey-headed Kingfishers and lots more. On the passerine front, in addition to the Dusky Larks, the best of the bunch included a flock of 18 White-crowned Shrikes, four Yellow-breasted Apalises, three Neddickies, a few Southern Black Tits and heaps of Spotted Flycatchers! Eventually, however, the heat pushed me back to civilization and, after a short respite in town, I spent much of the afternoon lounging in the campsite. Soon, though, it was time to be birding again. First stop was the garden of a local birder to see the intrigue of his feeding station - Village Indigobirds with bills of different colours. Whereas this species usually has a red bill, the Okavango race is supposed to have a white bill (and thus looks exactly like a Dusky Indigobird from further east), but the truth is that both bill colours occur and, indeed the garden flock contained three white-billed birds and one red-billed! Maybe the status of Indigobirds in the Delta needs a bit more investigation!
As the evening drew close, along with some Maun birders, we headed out to the amazing Moshu wetlands, a collection of four small lakes about 30 km west of Maun. If for nothing else, the pools were memorable for Lesser Jacanas - a staggering 279 birds, the vast majority all squeezing onto a single lake! Add 133 African Jacanas to this congregation, plus 84 Pygmy Geese, a few dozen African Spoonbills, two Saddle-billed Storks and a Lesser Moorhen, then the extraordinary richness soon becomes apparent. It was very much a case of birds everywhere .and six Hippos!
Birding by air! All in the name of counting Wattled Cranes, I fluked a seat on a flight over the Okavango Delta. So, dawn saw four of us pile into a single-engine Cessna and hit the sky for three hours of airborne adventure .a somewhat noisy, stuffy adventure and, as the plane bumped and jolted along, even a touch nauseating! No sooner in the air and the first Zebras were seen spotted below, shortly after by Giraffes and the first antelopes. Flying at just 100 metres, both game and the larger birds were easy to see, especially raptors and storks. A little into the flight, a lolloping Spotted Hyena wandered underneath, then a herd of Elephants. As the flight continued, we passed first from dry woodland into mixed grassland and pan, then finally into the permanent swamp, home of many Hippos and Crocs. The richest area, in the ephemeral wetlands along the River Boro, supported impressive game concentrations - herds of Impala in drier areas and Lechwe in damper, plus scattered Giraffes and Zebras, occasional Elephant herds and one huge herd of several hundred Buffalo. Birds were harder to pick up, but both Marabou and Saddle-billed Storks were noted in good numbers, along with two Woolly-necked Storks and various raptors. Best of all, though, was a lone female Lion strolling across an open grassland, giving our plane only the most cursory of sideways glances! As for the Wattled Cranes, the whole reasoning of the flight, about 60 were spotted in the three hours. Three hours is, however, a long time to bounce around the sky and it sure felt time to land when we finally did!!!
In the evening, we went back to the Boteti (Xobe) to bush camp by the river - again a few Hippos, plus two Wattled Cranes, six Water Thick-knees and a number of Lesser Jacanas and Cape Shovelers.
A dawn rise on the Boteti River was rewarded by 'regular' treats such as two Little Bitterns, two Painted Snipes and (for Steph) a timely reappearance of the Spotted Crake. On the way back from Xobe, about half way between the river and Maun rubbish tip, the thicker areas of acacia scrub hold good numbers of Olive Tree Warblers. Olive Tree Warblers, however, are not great fans of the limelight and, in fact, seem to have a positive aversion to being seen! The easiest way is to locate them by song at dawn or, easier still, by selective use of a tape lure. In one small area of bush, this approach provoked four into song, two of which eventually gave good views (after much peering into the depths of the thickets from which song was emanating!).
The next leg of our Okavango survey was to count the heron and cormorant roosts in the heart of the Delta, i.e. Moremi and along the Boro, and for this, reinforcements were in hand - so today was a day for meeting up with our comrades in arms, our fellow counters: quite a team in all, but including Jim and Christine (from the U.K.), Benni, Symen and Andrea (the Netherlands), Kenosi (Botswana) and others. So, with our newly formed roost team, we headed out to stay at a community campsite just near South Gate of Moremi, ready for an early morning assault on the National Park next day. A rather over-priced campsite I might add, but nice enough, with Elephants wandering nearby, a Hobby overhead and, at night, calling African Scops Owl and Barred Owlet, the latter also seen under spotlight.
Moremi: 14th - 18th January
The heartland of the Okavango, Moremi National Park encompasses a vast swathe of the western Delta, a multitude of habitats from grassland, acacia savannah to the all-important rivers, reedbeds and lagoons. It was into these that our next five days would be spent, primarily on the rivers and lagoons, more often than not at dusk, all with the ultimate goal of gathering qualitative data regarding waterbird abundance, density, and distribution. But Moremi is much more than a place just to count - it is an experience, a chance to see and feel a true wilderness, but moreover it is an adventure! In five days, we saw over 200 bird species without really trying, counted almost 2500 birds at roost and saw countless mammals from Lions to Sitatunga, but what remains the most memorable? Yes it was the 'adventures' - the late-night escapade with a bunch of angry Hippos on a river, the deep throaty purrs of Lions somewhere outside the tent and the pulling of a python's tail just to see if it really was a python!
Day One. After a night of Elephant noise and a dawn of Lion roars, we packed up camp and headed up the few kilometres up to Moremi, finding en route another Spotted Crake! Bureaucracy of Botswana leaves a lot to be desired and it took an hour to get through the gate, but the tedium was somewhat relieved by a family of Dwarf Mongooses nearby, along with Retz's Helmet-Shrikes and nesting Yellow-billed Hornbills! We then slowly wound northward through the reserve, counting each and every waterbird on each and every pan, a task made somewhat easier by the drought that had left most pans dry! By far, the best pan was Mqweshlana, a fairly large waterbody sporting a good population of Crocodiles, plus three African Skimmers, a pair of Wattled Cranes, a few African Spoonbills and Yellow-billed Storks and a whole host of waders, including nine Water Thick-knees, dozens of Kittlitz's Plovers, three Caspian Plovers and a couple of White-fronted Plovers. Other attractions of the drive included a Little Bittern at Third Bridge, both Yellow-billed and Red-billed Oxpeckers, good numbers of Lilac-breasted Rollers and Broad-billed Rollers, plus five species of bee-eater (Carmine Bee-eaters the most plentiful, followed in abundance by Blue-cheeked, European, Swallow-tailed, then Little). And, of course, there were the raptors - an additional part of our brief was to also count these, once of course having identified them! In our five days in Moremi, we logged a total of 335 raptors and the greatest proportion of them were on this initial transect across the reserve. As an idea of the diversity, the following list records all those identified during our stay:
Hooded Vulture - 8
White-backed Vulture - 60
Lappet-faced Vulture - 1
White-headed Vulture - 1
Yellow-billed Kite - 98
Black-shouldered Kite - 2
Tawny Eagle - 17
Steppe Eagle - 1
Lesser Spotted Eagle - 10 (most Kwai River)
Wahlberg's Eagle - 1
African Hawk Eagle - 5
Long-crested Eagle - 3 (Maunachira & Mboma)
Martial Eagle - 1 (Kwai River)
Brown Snake Eagle - 5
Black-chested Snake Eagle - 5
Bateleur - 61
African Fish Eagle - 16 (rivers)
Steppe Buzzard - 9
Shikra - 1
African Marsh Harrier - 6 (rivers)
Montagu's Harrier - 3 (Gadikwe Island)
European Hobby - 1 (Gadikwe Island)
Red-footed Falcon - 19 (Gadikwe Island)
Greater Kestrel - 1
After many a stop and a good few reverses, and a large flock of mixed Collared and Black-winged Pratincoles, we finally got to Xakanaxa Island, our base for the night. Campsite birds included Burchell's and Meve's Starlings, tame Crested Barbets, Mourning Doves and, in adjacent reeds, Coppery-tailed Coucals, Swamp Boubous, Hartlaub's Babblers and both Chirping and Luapula Cisticolas. In the evening, it was tempting to count a nearby roost, but we decided to leave that for a couple of nights, so instead drove to Dead Tree Island to check out a reported roost there .totally dry and not a sign of a roosting bird (bar a few Great White Egrets flighting down somewhere to the north). Not totally birdless though, for we did see two Mosque Swallows, a few Red-breasted Swallows and a flock of 18 Yellow Wagtails. Driving back through the darkness, got totally lost and went round and round in circles, passing the same little patch of swamp several times! Eventually got back to find Hippos in the camp and African Scops Owls calling.
Day Two. An excellent day, starting with an African Rail in the campsite, then a slow five-hour boat journey up the Maunachira River, winding through alternating lagoons and narrow reed or papyrus channels. The first section, a fair open broad channel with islands, was particularly rich with a good mix of herons and storks, including nesting Marabous, a roost of Black-crowned Night Herons and several Squaccos. A little further, after numerous Lechwe, a pair of little tufty ears poking up out of the grass betrayed an unexpected treat for the day - pulling into the bank, sitting not so far from us were three Lionesses watching us! For one of our party especially, it was a jubilant moment, her first ever Lion! As the journey wound on, so too did the bird list rise - amongst the stars, three Goliath Herons, a Slaty Egret, three Saddle-billed Storks, 17 Pygmy Geese and seven Long-toed Lapwings. Overhead, a couple of Grey-rumped Swallows added a distraction to the waterbird counts, as did two Black Coucals, two Coppery-tailed Coucals and a single Senegal Coucal! And if they were not distracting enough, we also encountered several herds of Elephants, a few Hippos and Crocodiles, plus got brief views of Spot-breasted Otters. Just after midday, we reached Gadikwe Island, home for the next day - a small wooded island surrounded by swamp and lagoon. Despite high humidity and temperatures of 38°C, afternoon birding was most productive with White-browed Robin-Chats, Terrestrial Brownbuls and Greater Honeyguides taking the centre stage and a good supporting cast including 30 Green Pigeons, about 35 Wattled Starlings, at least 20 Greater Blue-eared Starlings and a couple of Southern Black Tits. As evening drew near, it was roost time! Objective was to count all the multitude of herons, storks and cormorants flying in to spent the night on the small island in the centre of the lagoon - one boatload of observers stationed on the other side of the island and myself and the Dutch on terra firma looking across, we all waited .and waited! Nice to see 14 Red-footed Falcons, a European Hobby and a couple of Brown-throated Weavers, but where were the expected masses of waterbirds? Dribs and drabs filtered in, then suddenly as we began to contemplate a no-show, in they suddenly flocked - admittedly not in the thousands, but almost 500 birds nevertheless, including a rather nice 29 Slaty Egrets.
Day Three. After a couple of hours birding on Gadikwe Island, adding a pair of Black Coucals, two Golden Weavers and a Pearl-spotted Owlet to the list of birds seen, we then headed back down the Maunachira River to Xakanaxa. Covering the trip in just three hours, the greater speed generally produced the same species, but much lower numbers - but, better than on the inward journey, an impressive total of nine Black Coucals were seen, along with a real special in the form of two Long-crested Eagles. Also one enforced stop for swimming Elephants! Back at Xakanaxa, we then travelled eastward to Dombo and the Kwai River - a game-rich area of flood plain and scattered lagoons. One of the best areas in Moremi, large herds of Elephants were seen (over 80 in all), along with pods of Hippos and a lot of Lechwe, Impala and Warthogs, plus a Spotted Hyena en route. Two families of Wattled Cranes were also seen, along with a Dwarf Bittern, both Slaty Egrets and Black Herons and a flock of 155 Woolly-necked Storks. In the hide overlooking the Hippos at Dombo, we had a guest - a Striped Skaapsteker, a relatively small non-poisonous snake, but otherwise attention was on the pool, where now a total of five Slaty Egrets could be seen, along with Green-backed and Rufous-bellied Herons and a variety of other waterbirds. Also a raptor hotspot, amongst the more common Bateleurs and Yellow-billed Kites, a magnificent Martial Eagle, a Wahlberg's Eagle and a flock of migrant Lesser Spotted Eagles were all noted. En route back to camp, passing through the Mopane woodland, yet more surprises included a pair of Arnott's Chats feeding young, a mixed flock of White-crested and Retz's Helmet-Shrikes, plus a Rock Monitor scrambling up a tree. Come the evening, we attempted to count the Xakanaxa roost by boat - despite a threatening storm, whipping up winds and pushing our boat into the reeds, the count was a success with a high diversity of species, including 188 Squacco Herons, 162 Yellow-billed Egrets, 118 Great White Egrets and 31 Slaty Egrets, plus smaller numbers of Darters, Black Herons and Rufous-bellied Herons amongst the variety of other species. Just to make the whole process of counting more difficult, a total of 69 Black-crowned Night Herons were going in the opposite direction, i.e. leaving the roost for a night of hunting. Not part of the roost, but a Purple Swamphen was also noted, as was a most obliging male Sitatunga antelope. Back on dry land, we had the fun of chasing away a rather bold Spotted Hyena who tried to sneak in and raid camp .and throughout the night, again Lions calling, though this time a big noise for many hours!
Day Four. An African Python greeted the day - just after leaving camp for a dawn game drive, we spotted a tail poking out of the bushes and, despite attempts to pull it out, no tugging on its tail would move it and thus full beauty of this snake was to remain a hidden secret! The rest of the game drive, a gradual meander across Mboma Island, was enlivened by Waterbucks, Bushbucks, a good variety of other animals, plus of course many birds - another Long-crested Eagle, a male Black-bellied Bustard, a couple more African Rails and, near the camp, a Black Coucal and five Grey-rumped Swallows, not to forget more common species such as Pin-tailed and Paradise Whydahs, Fan-tailed Widowbirds and Red-billed Queleas. In the early afternoon, we headed out on the boats again: destination, Xhobega - a journey of about three hours on narrow winding papyrus channels. Not many birds seen en route, the best being a Lesser Jacana, three Long-toed Lapwings and a single Wattled Lapwing, but a good few Hippos and bathing Elephants! At Xhobega, there was a couple of hours to relax before the evening's roost count, so plenty of time to explore the riverine forest on the island - again good numbers of Green Pigeons (about 25), along with a single Yellow White-eye, a roosting Barn Owl and, both initially flushed, two Swamp Nightjars. The closer it got to roost time, however, the broodier the skies got and, for the second successive evening, squally winds did their best to hinder our counts - eventually we rammed our boat into the reeds and thereby secured our position, happy then to witness a most impressive arrival of Slaty Egrets (88 in all), along with large numbers of Great White and Yellow-billed Egrets, reasonable numbers of Purple Herons and Squaccos and a smattering of Rufous-bellied Herons and Black Herons. The journey back was enjoyable (for some on board!), but total madness: virtually a case of high speed racing through pitch darkness in Hippo and Crocodile filled channels! One near goof with Hippos - rounded a corner straight into three not so happy Hippos. Swerved to miss them, then stalled the boat and spent several minutes trying to restart the engine whilst surrounded by snorting Hippos blowing water. In the expectation of an imminent attack, a quick look round the boat revealed one or two worried looking faces!
Day Five. After a quiet night, with just one distant Lion roaring, today was exit time from Moremi .and goodbye time for about ₤2000 of optics as one land rover was carefully reversed over a nice collection of binoculars and cameras!!! Zigzagging back across Mboma Island and the 50 km to South Gate, several herds of Elephants were encountered, along with another Long-crested Eagle, a pair of Burnt-necked Eremomelas, a Yellow-throated Petronia and a few common birds such as Magpie Shrikes and Pied Babblers. As a last treat, passing through the exit, both Lappet-faced and White-headed Vultures were appeared overhead. Back to Maun and another night on the banks of the Boteti River.
No rest for the eager, today saw another dawn rise, a quick spell of birding along the Boteti River (a couple of Square-tailed Nightjars, two Little Bitterns and two Lesser Moorhens), and then it was off on a long bumpy drive up the River Boro. This area, lying to the immediate west of Moremi, is one of the many 'concession areas', privately run safari concerns, offering a very exclusive wilderness experience .at a very exclusive price! In the interests of survey counts, were kindly granted free entry - a most fortunate step, for the Boro concession is one of the best areas in the whole Okavango. On our route up, though the area was suffering from drought, we passed several herds of Elephants, two Buffalos, a few Kudu and plenty of Zebras, Giraffes, Impala, Lechwe, Vervet Monkeys and Baboons. Best of the birds were Swainson's Spurfowls, both Amur and Red-footed Falcons and lots of Carmine, Blue-cheeked and Little Bee-eaters. Smaller birds also included Plain-backed Pipits, Flappet Larks and good numbers of Red-breasted Swallows and Red-billed Buffalo Weavers. Arriving at our first base, Xaxaba, we put up tents in a wooded grove, then enjoyed the local birdlife (including Coppery-tailed Coucals and Scarlet-breasted Sunbirds) and checked out the reedbed that holds the roost we would count that evening. After an afternoon that added a pair of Wattled Cranes, several Saddle-billed Storks and both Black-chested and Brown Snake Eagles, we then readied ourselves for the evening roost. Yet again, however, the skies darkened and torrential rain and buffeting winds tried to dampen the counts - luckily though, the rains slackened off just in time to reveal a most magnificent of roosts .in almost unbelievable numbers, a grand total of 233 Black Herons and 153 Slaty Egrets flocked in! Accompanying this mass arrival, an equally unexpected 298 Squacco Herons and 38 Rufous-bellied Herons also came in, along with a couple of hundred Great White and Yellow-billed Egrets and smaller numbers of many other species. As dusk began to fall and still birds poured in (including a further 20 'dark herons' not identifiable to Slaty Egret or Black Heron), our counters were then kept twice as busy by a total of 78 Black-crowned Night Herons getting up and flying in the opposite direction! Flush with success, we returned to camp to find one tent wrecked by the wind and rain .but not mine, so I enjoyed another night of Lion roars and a Bushbuck wandering through the campsite.
After finding a family of four Ground Hornbills on the little airstrip just outside camp, we then spent over six hours driving round and round in circles trying to find Nxaraga Ledibe, a small lagoon just 16 km from where we camped - we eventually found it after 75 km of bush tracks! En route, however, we did find a whole host of good birds, including two Black Coucals, a European Roller, eight Wattled Cranes, a Dickinson's Kestrel hiding in a palm tree and two Small Buttonquails (one giving close views on a track, the other just flushed). The real surprise, however, was waiting at Nxaraga Ledibe - in the trees, a fantastic pair of Pel's Fishing Owls! Though initially only seen in flight, but even then dramatic, we eventually managed to find one sitting high on a branch eyeing up the 'intruders' to its patch of woodland .this was absolutely one of the best birds in the whole Okavango Delta! All other birds rather shadowed into insignificance in comparison, but an African Harrier-Hawk, several Black-collared Barbets and a Greater Honeyguide were also nice. In the evening, the roost was rather less spectacular than the previous night, but again Squacco Herons appeared in huge numbers - in wave after wave, the final total of birds steadily climbed until it reached an impressive 290 by dusk. Also good were 27 fly-by Wattled Cranes.
Heading back to Maun, adding a Secretary Bird and a Black-bellied Bustard en route, we then had a day to restock in town, say goodbye to most of our team, then prepare to head to the Pan Handle of the Okavango.
First stop, outside the Okavango Delta proper, was about 80 km west of Maun at Lake Ngami. Lake by name only, Ngami has now been largely dry for 20 years and is, in essence, a dustbowl. That said, however, it was a very nice dustbowl and absolutely crammed with larks and grassland waders - most numerous were the larks, with approximate counts being 500 Chestnut-backed Sparrowlarks and 300 Red-capped Larks. Of the other birds, the highlights were about 150 Caspian Plovers, 45 Temminck's Coursers and a Spotted Thick-knee, not to forget at least 30 Yellow-throated Sandgrouse and good numbers of Capped Wheatears! For raptors too, the lightly-grassed lakebed held great allure - in addition to six Montagu's Harriers (all but one males), there was also a sub-adult male Pallid Harrier, a flock of seven Lesser Kestrels, a Lanner Falcon and a very smart Red-necked Falcon. An ideal bush-camp, our last birds of the day were four Ostriches wandering across the pan, joined by five Kori Bustards. As for the night, it was finally free of Hippo and Lion noises, but any hoped-for silence was shattered by the mightiest of thunder claps on and off throughout the night, along with all-illuminating lightning!
The first critter of the day was a Honey Badger busying himself on the open expanse of Ngami, digging holes and shuffling about. After a few scans of the lakebed, again seeing Montagu's Harriers, Lesser Kestrels, as well three Black-backed Jackals, we then headed up to Shakawe on the Pan Handle of the Delta ...a journey of 280 km, though punctuated by many stops for good birds. With 75 individuals seen of 12 species, raptors were the big attraction of the day - Tawny Eagles and Yellow-billed Kites the most common, but also two Martial Eagles, two Brown Snake Eagles, a single Black-chested Snake Eagle and both Pale and Dark Chanting Goshawks. Even more abundant, and literally on almost every roadside wire, were members of the Roller family - 51 Lilac-breasted, 30 Purple, nine European and one Broad-billed! We also made one very sudden stop for a pair of almost suicidal Swainson's Spurfowls, plus a more leisurely pause to attempt to find Black-faced Babblers (which we didn't find, but it was a good excuse for coffee!).
At Shakawe, we relaxed the afternoon away in the shady riverside campsite, enjoying a whole assortment of colourful birds, including White-fronted Bee-eaters, White-browed Robin-Chats, Terrestrial Brownbuls and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls. Should our attention be distracted to the river, another hotchpotch of birds was waiting to vie for place in our notebook - Coppery-tailed Coucals, African Pied Wagtails and Fan-tailed Widowbirds, not to forget any of the six species of hirundines (including Grey-rumped Swallow, Wire-tailed Swallow and Banded Martin) and five species of weaver (including Brown-throated and Thick-billed).
It is always most important to put your tent in the right place .and I certainly did! The real bonus of the day came in the evening when both a Giant Kingfisher and a Pel's Fishing Owl landed on the same branch of the same tree right outside my tent!!! Nighttime noises were confined to the hooting of Wood Owls and the grunting of Hippos.
With our team now reduced to just Steph, the Dutch contingent and myself, we today spent the whole day chugging up and down a 50 km stretch of the Okavango River either side of Shakawe. Plenty of birds, plus a Sitatunga, quite a few Hippos and heaps of big Crocodiles! Broad and mostly papyrus lined, the main river channel was not the richest habitat for birds, but nevertheless a few Water Thick-knees 17 Long-toed Lapwings and nine Wattled Lapwings were noted on the infrequent sand banks, good numbers of Purple Herons and occasional Goliath Herons seen in the papyrus and, the best of the lot, three African Skimmers came flying by (when the river is lower, good numbers of Skimmers breed in this area). Far better for birds, however, were both the flood meadows about 25 km north of Shakawe and any quiet backwaters. The meadows supported all the species you might expect, including a handful of Rufous-bellied Herons, a few Slaty Egrets, about 100 Collared Pratincoles, a couple of hundred Ruffs and a few dozen other waders. Of the backwaters, the best was a small channel about 10 km south of Shakawe - shallow and full of lilies, there were birds galore. Not only were there about 30 Pygmy Geese (almost half the day's total) and many Malachite Kingfishers, but also six Allen's Gallinules and eight Lesser Jacanas. Up the next channel, we ran out of petrol .miles from camp and just before dusk! Not much we could do about it, so in the fading light we watched a few Black Herons and a couple more Goliath Herons, then drifted downchannel in the dark for two hours, running into a couple of angry Hippos and eventually arriving back at the main river to sit and await rescue!
A dawn start in the riverine forest at Shakawe turned up trumps with the discovery of a most resplendent male Narina's Trogon and, shortly after, a Western Banded Snake Eagle (both these species are highly localised in Botswana and Shakawe is undoubtedly the best locality for them). Also seen in this first hour of the day were a European Hobby, a Lesser Honeyguide and, attracted to fruiting figs, a huge mixed flock of at least 100 Violet-backed Starlings and 80 Greater Blue-eared Starlings.
We then popped over the border into Namibia to visit one of the few spots missed on my previous trips to that country, namely the excellent Mahango National Park. Abnormally dry, very little game was seen, bar the plentiful Lechwe on the floodplain, a few Impala, a couple of Buffalos and one Elephant. Birds, however, were abundant - the rich floodplain supported many of the species typical of further south in the Okavango Delta, including several Rufous-bellied Herons and Goliath Herons, four Long-toed Lapwings, three Pygmy Geese and a pair of Wattled Cranes with their juvenile. Whilst these birds were in fairly small numbers, others were seen in much greater concentrations, including Squacco Herons (a minimum of 40), White-faced Ducks (about 50) and Collared Pratincoles (a flock of about 250). Also seen on the edge of the floodplain were Senegal and White-browed Coucals, African Marsh Harriers and Plain-backed Pipits, whilst adjacent open woodland was also rewarding with sightings of Brown Snake Eagle, Wahlberg's Eagle, Bradfield's Hornbill and a total of five species of bee-eater - Carmine Bee-eaters were the most common and gave good photo opportunities as they gobbled up termites on a rotting log, while four White-fronted Bee-eaters were also seen by the river, plus occasional Little, Blue-cheeked and European elsewhere.
We then headed back over the border and returned to Shakawe for a fantastic evening on the river - first we saw the Western Banded Snake Eagle again, then found the highly enigmatic White-backed Night Heron skulking in a roost (this is another species for which Shakawe is famed). Next came two Red-necked Falcons and, later, when counting a huge Great White Egret and Open-billed Stork roost, yet another surprise when three more White-backed Night Herons flew down the river (two adults and a juvenile). If not enough, the climax of the evening came on route back - spotlighting riverside trees, we found a Pel's Fishing Owl devouring a recently caught fish!!!
Took down tents to the accompaniment of an unusually large flock of about 40 Grey Go-away Birds, then moved about 30 km south to Sepupa Swamp, seeing en route one Dark Chanting Goshawk and a stack of roadside vultures on a dead donkey. At Sepupa, we had another jaunt on the Okavango River, motoring out about 15 km, past an African Pied Wagtail, a Thick-billed Weaver and a nice colony of 11 Rufous-bellied Herons and 21 Black-crowned Night Herons .and then we hit a storm! With rain splashing down and lightning flickering about, an exposed metal boat didn't seem to be the best place to be, so we made a dash the many kilometres back to camp through the pouring rain - got soaked and cold!
After having dried off, we then continued further south to Guma Lagoon - arrived to hear Orange-breasted Bush-Shrikes calling and, after about an hour, finally managed to get excellent views of the pair (ending a week of chasing their calls). In the course of the afternoon, a few more good species were added to the day's tally of birds, including an overhead African Harrier-Hawk, at least ten White-fronted Bee-eaters, a Lesser Honeyguide, a couple of Yellow-fronted Tinkerbirds and a Garden Warbler. Evening chorus included another Barred Owlet and a Barn Owl.
Another day of exploring the backwaters and riverine vegetation of the Okavango Pan Handle - from Guma, we travelled several kilometres up the Taokhe River, not the most productive for birds (other than for numerous Green-backed Herons), but ending in a nice wooded island where both Long-crested Eagle and Purple-banded Sunbird were seen, along with Green Pigeons, White-browed Robin-Chats and a few Paradise Flycatchers. The papyrus swamp, though relatively poor in species, did support good numbers of Fan-tailed Widowbirds, along with a small colony of Village Weavers, a few Brown-throated Weavers, occasional Golden Weavers and a single Spectacled Weaver. Back on dry land, around Guma Lagoon, birds included a Black Flycatcher, several Collared Sunbirds and a flushed Square-tailed Nightjar.
In the evening, after manoeuvring yet more Hippos, we got into position for another roost count - a fairly good affair with 180 Little Egrets, 98 Great White Egrets and 79 Darters all packing into a single tree, along with 56 Sacred Ibises, 40 Open-billed Storks and smaller numbers of Reed Cormorants, Yellow-billed Egrets and Purple Herons. On the way back, in growing dusk, both a Swamp Nightjar and a Marsh Owl quartered over the papyrus swamp and approximately 120 Grey-rumped Swallows gathered, presumably birds massing en route to roosting nearby.
A last day exploring the channels in the Guma area, this time following the Taokhe River downstream through narrow, and sometimes chocked, channels towards Makwena. As befits a last day, a real treat lay in store - midway, a small wooded island held not only a Little Bittern, Rufous-bellied Heron and two Water Thick-knees, but also a stunning pair of White-backed Night Herons, courteous enough to give fantastic close-range views. Having barely recovered from this unexpected bonus and we rounded a bend to encounter yet more good birds - first, a Giant Kingfisher, then a flock of about 25 Grey-rumped Swallows and finally a magnificent total of 93 Fulvous Ducks. Triumphant, we headed back to Guma, decamped and began the slow journey back to Maun. Not following a road, but rather meandering sand tracks, our route took us southward down the floodplain through extensive grasslands - slow-going, but productive in terms of birds, with a female Black-bellied Bustard seen, plus a couple of Wattled Lapwings and two Plain-backed Pipits.
We bush-camped alongside a small wetland in grass just south-west of Makwena - a pleasant place, made all the more appealing by the birds we found! Not only did the pool hold 14 Pygmy Geese and nine Rufous-bellied Herons, but also a Giant Kingfisher sat in an overhanging tree and both Painted Snipe and Coppery-tailed Coucals were found in the marshy edges. At about this time, we heard a strange call, reminiscent of a crake, but not corresponding to any of the species we could realistically expect. The conversation followed as such "Well, if I heard that in Europe, I'd call it a Corncrake, but they're not supposed to call in Africa". With that the bird shut up and our thoughts went elsewhere. About 30 minutes later, in the opposite direction to the mystery call, I flushed a Corncrake! With only a handful ever seen in Botswana, this was not only extreme luck, but also very noteworthy, all the more so as it would seem two birds were present (the calling bird probably another individual). Interestingly, although there are less than ten records in the country, one was at the same spot several years earlier, suggesting this may be a regular site for this migrant. So ended another successful day in northern Botswana! At night, a Leopard was calling somewhere near the tents.
Woke to the uncharacteristic sound of rain pattering upon my tent - the first time in the seven weeks of travelling to date. Soon, however, the sun was braking through and a deep hoo hoo hoo took me to my first good bird of the day - a Verreaux's Eagle Owl being mobbed by Grey Hornbills. Onward through the grassland we travelled, flushing a couple of Quailfinch, seeing a few Grey-rumped Swallows and puzzling over a number of pipits (which all ended up as ten African Pipits!).
Reaching the asphalt, Maun was not too far away, but first a couple more stops - first for a dead donkey, complete with 56 White-backed Vultures and eight Marabous, then for a longer pause at Tali Pan. Not far from Lake Ngami, Tali likewise might hold water in a wetter year, but not this. Plenty of dust, a slight hint of water in a couple of damp patches and a number of good birds, including one Pallid Harrier, a Lanner, a Black-chested Snake Eagle and three Temminck's Coursers, plus a scattering of passerines, not least Ant-eating Chat, Capped Wheatear, Sabota Lark and both Chestnut-backed and Grey-backed Sparrowlarks.
29th - 30th January
A couple of days relaxing in Maun, not really birding, but managing a quick visit to Maun sewage farm on the 28th, seeing impressive numbers of Hottentot Teals (about 470) and Cape Teals (84), plus four White-fronted Plovers and three Water Thick-knees. Camping at the Sedia Hotel, the nightly roost movements proved most impressive - 274 Open-billed Storks heading in, 75 Night Herons heading out, plus 24 Yellow-billed Kites dropping in! Also around the campsite, one Levaillant's Cuckoo and a circling flock of 45 Abdim's Storks. Also got the land rover broken into on the 28th. Said my goodbyes to Steph and to Botswana on the 29th, taking an evening flight to Johannesburg to prepare for the next leg of my journey.
Kruger: 31st January - 5th February
South Africa's premier wildlife showcase, Kruger National Park is as excellent as it is famous - stretching almost 400 km from north to south, it's jammed packed with all the critters you need to tick off the full 'big five', plus much more aside. Six days of wandering from north to south took us from a landscape of scattered baobabs along the Limpopo River, down through the grassland savannahs of Satara and finally onto the lightly wooded banks of the Crocodile River, during which time Lions were encountered no less than five times and White Rhinos an equal number of occasions. Avoiding the more touristy Skukuza to Lower Sabie areas, and by sticking to the gravel roads, Kruger exceeded all expectations - nigh on never-ending excellent game viewing, prolific birdlife and untamed bush. Though comfortable camps await you at the dusk of each day (themselves full of birds and sometimes more), Kruger is, in essence, still a wild magical part of Africa.
Day One. This initial day was largely a case of driving - after having met Ausra, in Africa for her first trip, we picked up a hire car at Jo'burg International Airport and then began the 600 km slog up through South Africa to Punda Maria, the northernmost camp in Kruger. Arriving an hour before dusk, there was just enough time to get in a bit of game driving, logging up an initial herd of about 20 Elephant, a couple of Buffalos and a few Zebra and Kudu. Punda Maria camp itself is one of the smallest and quietest in the national park and walks through its scenic setting notched up a wide range of birds - to name just a selection, Terrestrial Brownbuls, Lesser Honeyguide, African and European Golden Orioles, Tropical Boubous, Paradise Flycatchers, Chinspot Batises, plenty of Greater Blue-eared and Violet-backed Starlings and both Cinnamon-breasted and Golden-breasted Buntings. Not to forget, a whole bunch of Vervet Monkeys that spent their life playing on the lawn! At night, a Barred Owlet called outside the chalets.
Day Two. Up and out of camp at 5.30 a.m. to slowly meander up to Pafuri and the Limpopo River on the junction of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The first hour passed with not a mammal to be seen, but birds a plenty, including a flock of about 35 Amur Falcons, a Tawny Eagle, a Brown Snake Eagle, a Harlequin Quail and a European Roller, as well as several Red-billed Buffalo Weavers at nests and both Village and Dusky Indigobirds. The blank on mammals came to a sudden end at the first waterhole when, rounding a corner, almost drove into two Elephants! There on, plenty of Impala and three Giraffes. Reaching the Pafuri area, the riverine forests along the Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers held plenty of game, including at least 20 Nyala, scores more Impala, a few Buffalos and gangs of Baboons and Vervet Monkeys. On the rivers themselves, as well as grunting Hippos and dozens of Crocodiles, the main bird attractions of the day were also found - a couple of White-crowned Lapwings, a Giant Kingfisher, about 15 White-fronted Bee-eaters, a few Wire-tailed Swallows and African Pied Wagtails and, most importantly, the two 'specials' in the form of one Böhm's Spinetail and two Mottled Spinetails. On route back, the open grasslands near Elandskuil were home to large concentrations of Zebra and Tsessebe, plus about ten Elephants, whilst bird delights included a Black-chested Snake Eagle, a pair of African Hawk Eagles and three species of Roller (European, Lilac-breasted and Purple). Back at Punda Maria, we decided to end the day with a drive around the Mahonie Loop - the main 'attraction' of which was being forced to reverse close on a kilometre by a most determined Elephant who was absolutely sure he had right of way on the track! Adding avian enjoyment, Brown-headed Parrots went zooming through the lush vegetation, Yellow-billed Hornbills showed off their banana beaks, a Broad-billed Roller sat exposed and a Brown Snake Eagle perched atop a dead tree. Very nice too, slithering across the track, a Mozambique Spitting Cobra measured in at about a metre and a half and as certainly top reptile of the day!
Day Three. A real scorcher of a day in Kruger, the mercury topping 40°C again! Making the best of the cool, we set off at 5.30 a.m. from Punda Maria, winding southward to Letaba. Very quickly found a Pearl-spotted Owlet sitting in the middle of the road and the first of the day's Elephants almost doing likewise! Thereafter, large numbers of Buffalo marked the route, including two sizeable herds of up to 80 apiece (both attended by both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers). Virtually turning the car into a sauna, a lunchtime stop on a causeway over the picturesque Shingwedzi River notched up various storks and herons, including particularly photogenic Green-backed Herons, Hamerkop, Open-billed Stork .and big Crocodile! To the left and right, seeking relief from the relentless heat, Elephant families wallowed in the pools. Next stop for us, refreshment stop in the nearby Shingwedzi Camp!
Still in the heat of the day, after hours passing through parched, drought-hit mopane woodland, enlivened by stops for Red-crested Korhaans, we finally arrived under a sweltering sun at Letaba Camp, a shady spot overlooking the Letaba River. Evening highlights on the broad floodplain included great lumbering Hippos out of water before sundown, riverside Saddle-billed Storks and Yellow-billed Storks, a roost of about 20 Marabous and, found again thanks to its hoo hoo hoo, a nice Verreaux's Eagle Owl in a bush. Within the camp itself, dozens of Bushbucks wandered the lawns, whilst bushland birds included Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, Bearded Scrub-Robins, Kurrichane and Olive Thrushes, Black-crowned Tchagras and both Grey-headed and Orange-breasted Bush-Shrikes. From the comfort of the restaurant terrace, sipping a beer and watching the sun disappear, more pleasures well worthy of a mention were a most obliging Square-tailed Nightjar hawking amongst the benches, two White-fronted Bee-eaters just adjacent and ever-present Elephants below. Having camped at the far margin of the camp, the darkness hours brought a small Mozambique Spitting Cobra to a neighbours tent, a Spotted Hyena to peer at our tent, just a metre distant, and yet again a Barred Owlet calling the night away.
Day Four. Day of the cats! First hit, just minutes after leaving Letaba at dawn, was a most beautiful Leopard casually prowling along the river. Mid-morning, just over the Olifants River, two Lionesses were found gazing out of a bush, intent on a small group of Wildebeest grazing just adjacent. Then, just to complete the day, yet more Lions - a female and six assorted age youngsters, all flagged out under a trackside bush near Satara! Other mammalian interest, two Klipspringers were noted near Olifants, plus impressive game concentrations in the parched Satara landscapes (Wildebeest, Impala, Zebra, Giraffe and Steenbok). Birdwise, the day was not so notable, but four species of vulture were seen (35 White-backed, ten Hooded, two White-headed and one Lappet-faced) and a few other nice birds, including two Red-crested Korhaans, a Wahlberg's Eagle, another Brown Snake Eagle, another Giant Kingfisher and both Black-crowned and Brown-crowned Tchagras. Spent the night at the rather large, busy Satara camp, but nonetheless quite pleasant, with night-time entertainment again provided by Spotted Hyenas, two of which saw it their duty to patrol the camp boundary! Far in the distance, the call of a Lion ended the day much as it had started, in the company of cats.
Day Five. Another day belonging to the mammals. Leaving Satara at the habitual hour of dawn, we soon spotted a Spotted Hyena napping in a field, then not long after, at Shimangwani Dam, three imposing White Rhinos. Rhinos being rhinos though, they didn't do anything and, for at least half an hour, barely did more than twitch an ear - with such gripping levels of excitement, it wasn't long before once again attention was focussing on birds! However, the only alongside birds were several Water Thick-knees and I think they were having lessons from the rhinos in the art of doing nothing! So, seeking a bit more action, we headed south and, at Lugmag Dam, found all we could desire. Stopping for breakfast at a small picnic site, so too was it apparent that vultures wanted breakfast - dropping down out of the sky, a total of 20 White-backed, four Hooded, three Lappet-faced and two White-headed Vultures all descended onto the scant remains of a kill. And, as for who was responsible for the kill, that too was soon apparent - about 100 metres further on, neatly sitting under a bush directly between a waterhole and a herd of thirsty Zebras, we spied yet more Lions! This time, it was three females who seemed not in the slightest bit fussed by the fact they were effectively blocking an entire waterhole and causing a traffic jam of animals! Not 50 metres more and we found our next surprise of the morning - caked in mud from head to toe and certainly more active than the previous three, another White Rhino! Also in this little hotspot of activity, there were birds galore - a Black-bellied Bustard, a Saddle-billed Stork, a couple of Carmine Bee-eaters, a colony of Red-billed Buffalo Weavers and both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers.
A few kilometres more and we reached the Sabie River, the only area in Kruger that really we encountered appreciable numbers of other tourists. Not a bad area though - as well as plenty of Hippos, Crocodiles and the first Nyalas since Pafuri, we also saw Saddle-billed Storks, a Giant Kingfisher, four Grey-rumped Swallows and an Olive Bush Shrike.
Lower Sabie camp is something else .good for Lesser Masked Weavers hopping about on the plates in the restaurant, but otherwise about as natural as a walk through your local shopping mall! Needless to say, didn't stay long! Instead, we drove down to the Crocodile River, an area both attractive and rich in game and birds. Many Waterbucks and Impalas seen, along with a herd of 20 Buffalos, a few Elephants and heaps of Vervet Monkeys. Best bird was unfortunately dead - a Pennant-winged Nightjar on the road, but also a Brown Snake Eagle and both Abdim's and Woolly-necked Storks. Camped at Crocodile Bridge, almost no other tourists and just an African Scops Owl as company.
Day Six. An excellent start to a last day in Kruger - in the first ten minutes, we stumbled upon a Spotted Hyena, a sleeping White Rhino and then an ambling Honey Badger. Next, all in short succession, another sleeping White Rhino, two male Lions, then a female Lion, followed a few minutes later by a mother and calf White Rhino and then finally yet another White Rhino, this time wallowing in a mud pool. Also, a couple of herds of Elephants, numerous Giraffes and, on the bird front, a Martial Eagle, a pair of African Hawk Eagles, a pair of Wahlberg's Eagles (one a pale phase bird) and a circling flock of over 45 vultures (all White-backed, bar one Lappet-faced). Not bad for just three hours in the bush! With that, we headed over the Crocodile River and bade farewell to Kruger, a pair of Brown-headed Parrots flying over the river as a last memory of the national park.
Leaving Kruger via the Malelane Gate, it was then just a short 40 km hop across to Swaziland where, completing border formalities (they had never heard of Lithuania!), we then drove up the forested slopes to Pigg's Peak and onward to Malalotja National Park. The cool mountain airs of this upland reserve were most appealing after the stifling heat of Kruger, all the more so for its small population of the enigmatic and highly endangered Blue Swallow. Shortly after arriving, I had a tantalisingly brief view of a male flying across the grasslands, but it had vanished before I was even out of the car! Clearly a better view was in order, so I headed off to the vleis to search out the bird - picked up plenty of good birds on the way (including a Gurney's Sugarbird, Wailing Cisticola, numerous Buff-streaked Chats and a good variety of bishops and widowbirds). At the vleis, Long-tailed, Red-collared and Fan-tailed Widowbirds were all common and as many as seven species of hirundines were present: abundant Greater Striped Swallows and Barn Swallows, occasional Lesser Striped Swallows, three House Martins, two White-throated Swallows, two Banded Martins .but still no further sign of the desired species! Returned back to base only to find three of the Blue Swallows hawking the grassland between our log cabin and the campsite! As if not enough, I then flushed a Black-rumped Buttonquail! Mammals also impressive with many Blesboks, a couple of Grey Rheboks, several Common Duikers and a few Zebras.
After several days of camping, the very ritzy log cabins at Malalotja were fantastic - comfortable, affordable, amazing views and with Blesboks grazing outside! What's more, there was a most incredible thunderstorm that evening, shaking the walls and raining like buckets - sure happy we weren't in tents that night!
All day birding the grasslands of Malalotja. A most productive early morning session - driving and stopping at regular intervals, the rewards were not only another three Blue Swallows (including a fine male with full streamers), but also no less than seven species of cisticola, a Red-chested Sparrowhawk, both Yellow-throated and Cape Longclaws, Mocking Cliff-Chat and, giving top-rate views as it sunned itself on a stalk above the wet grass, a Broad-tailed Warbler. Of the cisticolas, the commonest in the dry grassland were Zitting, Wing-snapping and Wailing, whilst damper areas supported Levaillant's and at least four Croaking. In addition, a steep wooded hillside added two more to the list Neddicky and Lazy Cisticola!
Later, took the steep arduous walk to Malalotja Falls, the breeding grounds of Southern Bald Ibises in winter - although none were seen, notched up Cape Rock Thrush, Malachite and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds and another Red-chested Sparrowhawk, as well as a Black Wildebeest, one Klipspringer and three Grey Rheboks. Spent much of the afternoon recovering from the hike back from the Falls (!), then headed out for a last few hours birding, adding Drakensburg Prinia, one more Blue Swallow and another Mocking Cliff-Chat. An unexpected find was an apparently out of range Brown-throated Weaver feeding fledged young in the valley below the Logwaja viewpoint.
Another morning at Malalotja, not adding any new species of note (except both Red-chested Cuckoo and Scaly-throated Honeyguide at the old Forbes Goldmine), but got fine views of Gurney's Sugarbird, several Malachite Sunbirds and three Amur Falcons. On the mammal front, found a herd of Red Hartebeest and two Black-backed Jackals, plus four Grey Rheboks and plenty of Blesboks and Zebras.
Thereafter drove down to the capital Mbabane to restock, then over to the Malkans for handicrafts and finally into Milwane Game Park to camp overnight. Though a small reserve, Milwane is again home to many Blesboks and Zebras, plus Black Wildebeest, a few Nyala and Hippos. Not much birding, but the selection included a Goliath Heron and Scaly-throated Honeyguide outside the restaurant, an Olive Woodpecker in the campsite and an impressive flock of about 45 White-fronted Bee-eaters along the river.
Awaking early at Milwane, a quick morning walk around the campsite and neighbouring valley was amply rewarded with a whole host of birds, including a pair of Burchell's Coucals, six Black Saw-wing Swallows, two White-browed Robin-Chats, a couple of Croaking Cisticolas and four Thick-billed Weavers. Then popped up to the top of the reserve's mountain for spectacular views and four Amur Falcons.
With that, we exited Swaziland, visited 'King Pie' in Piet Retief and then drove onward to the excellent Wakkerstroom, seeing numerous Amur Falcons, two Lesser Kestrels and a flock of 35 Southern Bald Ibises before even getting to town. Stayed at the Birdlife campsite a couple of kilometres on the Volkrust side of town and spent an initial afternoon becoming frustrated at my lack of success in finding the three main targets of the area (Rudd's and Botha's Lark, plus Yellow-breasted Pipit). By late afternoon, I had managed only the merest glimpse of a fleeting Yellow-breasted Pipit. In a last attempt to get the larks, I drove a great loop on the Amersfoort side of town - although no sign of the larks, turned up trumps with a flock of about 20 Southern Bald Ibises, six stunning Blue Korhaans, three Blue Cranes and, almost back at camp, five Crowned Cranes on the adjacent vlei.
An ominous start to the day when woken pre-dawn by heavy rain, but had to crawl out of my tent as I had arranged a 5.30 a.m. meeting with David Nkosi, an excellent local birdguide who could 'guarantee' all the Wakkerstroom specials. One by one, all the desired birds revealed themselves - first, on the Utrecht road, three Yellow-breasted Pipits in the famous 'pipit field' (and later, another four further along the same road, along with two pairs of Sentinel Rock Thrushes and an Eastern Long-billed Pipit). Then headed along the Amersfoort road to attempt the lark - here's where the birdguide's local knowledge proved invaluable: drove to exactly the right patch of grass and in short succession found a Rudd's Lark (and nest), then four Botha's Larks, plus another six Bald Ibises, a small flock of Spike-heeled Larks and a couple of Mountain Wheatears. Triumphant, we turned for home, but continued to stop and check each small cisticola encountered - quickly we added Pale-crowned Cisticola to the array of species already seen in the area (Levaillant's, Zitting, Cloud and Wing-snapping). Worthy of mention, a vagrant Long-legged Buzzard that had spent several weeks in the area was also relocated on the day of my visit. Though not seen very well, the large size, combined with longer wings, pale head and rufous tail augured well for the species. Didn't try for Yellow-tufted Pipit (hoping to get it at Sani Pass), so left town for the drive down to Mkuzi. Stopped en route on a gravel road just north of Dirkiesdorp to try to see Barrow's Korhaan - failed, but managed another two Blue Cranes and a pair of Secretary Birds.
Arrived at Mkuzi Game Reserve in the late afternoon in time for an initial scout round the reserve, notching up Martial and Wahlberg's Eagles, breeding Pink-backed Pelicans, a flock of eight Brown-headed Parrots and six Trumpeter Hornbills, plus four White Rhinos and plentiful other game (Nyala, Impala, Zebra, Giraffe). Got back to camp late and saw three Square-tailed Nightjars on the road.
Day to find the specialities of Mkuzi. Started the day with about three hours in the sand forests around Kubube and Kumasinga hides - after an initial slow start, an excellent assortment of species were seen, most notably Neergaard's Sunbird, Eastern Nicator, Bearded Scrub-Robin, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Black Cuckooshrike, Black-bellied Starling, Dark-backed Weaver and, after a long search, a stunning pair of the mega Pink-throated Twinspots. Later, occasional stops in the general area of the sand forest produced further birds, included another pair of Pink-throated Twinspots, a female Emerald Cuckoo and, the result of some productive pishing, a mixed flock headed by a male Gorgeous Bush-Shrike and supported by an Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, a couple of Black-backed Puffbacks and Chinspot Batises. In the afternoon, drove down to the far south of the reserve - drought-affected, the area was very dry and arid, but nevertheless a reasonable selection was noted, including an overhead Woolly-necked Stork, two European Rollers, three Burnt-necked Eremomelas, four Yellow-breasted Apalises and several Yellow-throated Petronias, as well as the uncommon Suni antelope. An evening return to the Kumasinga hide was less productive birdwise, adding only a flock of White-crested Helmet-Shrikes and a White-throated Robin-Chat, but highly enlivened by a White Rhino coming to the waterhole.
Later, went on one of the excellent night drive organised in the reserve - collected all of the three nightjars present (Fiery-necked, Square-tailed and Swamp), plus Spotted Thick-knee, but better still added several good mammals to the trip list, including a Black Rhino and calf, a solitary Bush Pig, several Large-spotted Genets and a pair of Thick-tailed Bushbabies. A wonderful end to the day!
On this last morning in Mkuzi, I went to the fantastic Fig Forest. Now only possible with armed guard, this is not so bad since the guards know their birds and locate many of the species by song .plus managed to entice several birds by an amazing ability to mimic calls! Fig Forest is amazing not only for the large numbers of Trumpeter Hornbills, whose haunting calls echo from the canopy, but was also memorable for the excellent views of a pair of Gorgeous Bush Shrikes (called up by the guard), a single Rudd's Apalis, about eight White-eared Barbets, six Black-bellied Starlings and two Red-capped Robin-Chats (again called up by the guards). Backing up all these good birds, more attractions included several Terrestrial Brownbuls, Red-fronted Tinkerbirds, Square-tailed Drongos and Collared Sunbirds, plus a roost of White-backed Vultures and a flock of Black Saw-wing Swallows. Additional good value, en route back from Fig Forest to camp, we passed a flock of Crested Guineafowls and another White Rhino.
Next, we left Mkuzi and drove to St Lucia on the Indian Ocean. As a prelude to birding for the next few days, we found accommodation in town then walked the Igwalagwala trail, a small woodland walk on the southern edge of town. For what was essentially a suburban enclave, this was an oasis of life - as well as two Red Duikers, a couple of Banded Mongooses and stacks of Vervet Monkeys, many good birds were seen: Livingstone's Turacos, Eastern Olive Sunbirds, Yellow Weavers, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds, Red-capped Robin-Chats and White-eared Barbets, plus several Sombre and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls and, overhead, Black Saw-wing Swallows. At night, an African Scops Owl called in the back garden of our accommodation.
Spent the early morning walking the iPhiva Trail, a meandering track first through open bushland and later through dune forest. In the open areas, Long-crested Eagle, several Crowned Hornbills, Yellow-throated Longclaws and Brown-throated Weavers rewarded the effort, but much better was to come was in the dune forest. On the latter parts of the trail, and moreover in the iPhiva campsite, the tally of birds included a Grey Waxbill, two Grey Sunbirds, several Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds and good numbers of both Trumpeter Hornbills and Livingstone's Turacos. From the campsite, an excellent trail works east through the dune forest to the sea - though short, it was particularly productive in terms of birds, the highlights of which were a dozen White-eared Barbets, numerous Dark-backed Weavers and Square-tailed Drongos, several Woodward's Batises, a few Black-bellied Starlings and, best of all, a fine view of a Brown Scrub-Robin.
As the day's heat began to build, we took a cruise on the 'Santa Lucia' up the river - pleasant enough, though not particularly productive in bird terms, logging only a few Woolly-necked Storks and Goliath Herons, an African Spoonbill, a couple of Water Thick-knees and several Fish Eagles. Excellent views, however, were obtained of the many Hippos and big Crocodiles!
The remainder of the day was divided between a walk along the beach to the mouth of the estuary (Pink-backed Pelicans and a large tern flock, including Lesser Crested, Swift and Caspian) and a more touristy trip to the Crocodile Centre.
An early morning return to the iPhiva campsite and trail down to the sea logged up many of the same birds as the day before, minus the Brown Scrub-Robin, but additionally a pair of Grey Waxbills, at least five Red-capped Robin-Chats, both Rudd's and Yellow-breasted Apalises and, rather nice, a pair of Purple-crested Turaco. Thereafter, drove down to Cape Vidal. Failed to see Southern Banded Snake Eagle en route, but notched up a Brown Snake Eagle, three Long-crested Eagles and five Fish Eagles, plus six Broad-billed Rollers. Hot and humid at Cape Vidal, so we relaxed the day away on the beach, the only good birds seen being around the campsite in the evening - a family of Crested Guineafowls, one Red-capped Robin-Chat, an Ashy Flycatcher and, singing next to my tent, a Brown Scrub-Robin. Samango Monkeys swung from trees all around and a couple of Red Tree Squirrels were also noted.
With the reintroduction of Elephants and the consequent closure of trails, birding has become more restricted at Cape Vidal. Decided to ignore the closure and walked the Mvubu Trail - needn't have bothered, my luck wasn't in: other than the ever-present Sombre and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls and Green-backed Camaropteras, the only birds of note that I saw in the dense vegetation were at least 15 Dark-backed Weavers, three Red-capped Robin-Chats, a few Black-bellied Starlings and a couple of Woodward's Batises (though the potential species make for mouth-watering reading - Green Malkoha, Green Twinspot, White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-Chat, etc). Returning to the camp, the family of Crested Guineafowls were still strutting along the road, whilst the Brown Scrub-Robin had actually moved about a metre and was hopping about at the entrance to my tent! Later, driving back along the St Lucia road, I again saw a Brown Snake Eagle, as well as a Martial Eagle, several Steppe Buzzards and a Jacobin Cuckoo. Two Buffalos, five Kudu, several Reedbucks, a Bushbuck and a Red Duiker were all also seen.
With Cape Vidal not living up to expectation, I made a brief scout round the campsite, seeing two Brown Scrub-Robins and a pack of 16 Banded Mongooses, then headed off to the greener pastures at Bonamanzi. Roadside stops on the way back to St Lucia were rewarded with Long-crested Eagle, African Goshawk, several Yellow-throated Longclaws, a Cuckoo Finch and two Rudd's Apalises .plus two Boomslangs!
The Bonamanzi Game Ranch is, in their own words, a birders' paradise. This is no mere boast - over 300 species have been recorded in the reserve, including 29 listed as endangered and virtually all the Kwazulu lowland specialities. Not only this, but birding is considerably enhanced by the fact that you are allowed to walk as you want - taking advantage of this, a couple of hours in the bush in the late afternoon began to produce the required birds, beginning with two White-throated Robin-Chats, a small flock of Crested Guineafowls and a pair of Crowned Hornbills, plus plenty of Impala and Nyala, along with a few Red Duiker. A Forest Cobra added to the excitement and, as dusk approached, two African Broadbills began their chirping from the depths of hidden vegetation. A further advantage to Bonamanzi is that night-driving is permitted - so, with spotlight in hand, a couple of hours exploring the reserve revealed at least five Fiery-necked Nightjars, both Spotted and Water Thick-knees and, calling across the entire reserve, Wood Owls. Nice mammals too, including Large-spotted Genet and Thick-tailed Bushbaby, plus night views of Giraffe and Zebra.
A first class morning at Bonamanzi. In several hours of bush walking, the tally of impressive species slowly rose and included such species as the African Broadbills again, an African Goshawk, more Crested Guineafowls, several Purple-crested Turacos, both Bearded and White-browed Robin-Chats (and Red-capped heard too), three Rudd's Apalises and a pair of Yellow Weavers. Better was to come, as just before 9.00 a.m., I got fabulous views of a pair of Crowned Eagles, both perched and in flight .but still no sign of my main target Green Malkoha! At 9.00 a.m., I took a Bonamanzi guide to search out this target bird - soon found a pair of Pink-throated Twinspots, then heard Gorgeous Bush-Shrikes and Blue-mantled Flycatchers, and then found a tree attracting many birds, including Black Cuckooshrike and Eastern Nicator .then suddenly, in my binocular view, the head of a Green Malkoha! Stunning, but all too brief, the bird turned, showed his nice long tail, and then flitted back into the depths of the bush. Though it continued to call for a while, it never reappeared and so it was that magical head in my bins that remain ever etched in my memory.
With barely 24 hours at Bonamanzi and so many species seen, it was with some regret that time dictated a move on to our next destination, so we up camped and drove down the coast towards Eshowe, stopping briefly at Raffia Palms - no sign of the Palm-nut Vulture, but another African Goshawk and two Long-crested Eagles. Got to Eshowe in the late afternoon and paid a quick visit to Dlinza Forest .which proved most memorable for the fact that I locked the keys in the car and spent the next two hours trying to delicately brake in without leaving damage that the hire company might notice!
Forest birding at its very best, I spent the morning wandering the trails through the lush tropical greenery in the Dlinza Forest at Eshowe. Although an aerial boardwalk takes you into the canopy of the forest, from where I saw several Trumpeter Hornbills, a Grey Cuckooshrike and a few Dark-backed Weavers, the best birding was along the trails into the depths of the woodland. Song resonates from all quarters, but long periods can go without actually seeing a single bird .once seen, however, the birds are of the highest quality and, by the morning's end, the impressive tally included three Spotted Ground Thrushes, three Narina Trogons, a Chorister Robin-Chat, a Tambourine Dove, an Olive Woodpecker and two Eastern Olive Sunbirds, not to forget more common species such as at least ten Purple-crested Turacos, quite a few Terrestrial Brownbuls and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls and a scattering of White-eared Barbets, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds and Black-bellied Starlings. Another attraction in the forest are the rare Blue Duikers - in all, I saw a total of eight of these tiny antelopes, including one very confiding animal that almost ran straight up to my feet! To finish off in the forest, I then spent an hour in a tiny hide baited with seed as a stake-out for Green Twinspot - heard them calling but they failed to show! Not all was lost, however, for the seed did attract four Red-backed Mannikins, a pair of African Firefinches and three Lemon Doves.
From Eshowe, we then decided to take the 'scenic' road to Sani Pass - although it passed through some spectacular scenery and produced Black Saw-wing Swallows and a Green Mamba in some forest not far from Eshowe, the route encompassed the worst roads I've ever encountered in South Africa and the journey took seven hours! If you fancy narrow gravel tracks with precipitous plunges alongside, occasional gradients so steep you spin your wheels even in first gear, then I recommend this route northward from Eshowe to Entumeni, then onward to Dlolwana and eventually to Kranskop!
Needless to say, we arrived at Sani Pass after dark, but quite quickly found a nice welcome at the friendly Sani Backpackers and spent the evening wondering what the majestic mountains surrounding us might look like in the morning!
A fantastic day in the mountains. Sani Pass gave one of the best days in South Africa, both in terms of stunning mountain scapes and quality of birds. We began the day at the foot of the pass, scoring on three very obliging Bush Blackcaps, an equally obliging Broad-tailed Warbler, several Dark-capped Yellow Warblers and many Cape White-eyes. Two Black Ducks were also found on the adjacent stream. Next, we slowly worked up the pass, though the protea belt, to the South African border post - this was an excellent section, the proteas providing feeding for very many Gurney's Sugarbirds and Malachite Sunbirds and the rock-strewn hillside home to Cape Rock Thrushes and Wailing Cisticolas (with Levaillant's and Pale-crowned also further down). At the South African border, only 4x4 vehicles are allowed to pass, so it was then on foot the 8 km up to the Lesotho border at 2865 metres - a hard slog, but well worth it. Most of the specials are right at the top and the last kilometre of the walk produced several Drakensburg Siskins, a Verreaux's Eagle, a couple of Sentinel Rock Thrushes and the highly desirable Drakensburg Rockjumpers.
Once into Lesotho, the land flattens out into a highland plateau and perched on the cliff top is Sani Top Lodge, the highest pub in Africa! Birding in this area was simply outstanding - numerous Drakensburg Siskins, several more Drakensburg Rockjumpers and Sentinel Rock Thrushes and, in the grassy meadows beyond the pass, a party of six Bald Ibises, along with at least ten Sickle-winged Chats, three Large-billed Larks and a pair of Mountain Pipits (but didn't find Yellow-tufted Pipit). Highlight of the day, however, had to be as I sat on the cliff top and a Lammergeier cruised past, passing close and at eye-level. Magic stuff .and a Lanner Falcon and several White-necked Ravens did the same! Back at Sani Top Lodge, three of the delightful Sloggart's Rats entertained, posing on a rock for photographs.
Mid-afternoon was time to head back down into South Africa (the border closes at 4.00 p.m.), but our luck continued to run strong - not only did we manage to hitch a lift (saving the 8 km walk), but the lift was with a birder, better still with a birder keen to tape lure Barrett's Warbler! First attempt evoked a song response, but no sighting, but the next stop, just above the South African border, was little short of spectacular - two of these supposedly skulkers popped up and sang for many minutes right on the top of the bushes! Whilst admiring these birds, two Bush Blackcaps also hopped up and gave more stunning views! Luck continued further down - after collecting our car, we slowly drove down the pass and found a group of six Ground Woodpeckers, then another three and, whilst watching the latter three, then noticed a covey of five Red-winged Francolins! In all in, a perfect day!
Another early morning jaunt back to the lower reaches of the pass, again seeing an impressive list of birds, including two more Bush Blackcaps, another Broad-tailed Warbler, a couple of Dusky Flycatchers, several Gurney's Sugarbirds and Cape Rock Thrushes. Best of all, however, were five overflying Bald Ibises and, sharing a single binocular view, a Red-throated Wryneck and Ground Woodpecker! A second Red-throated Wryneck popped up to sing nearby. More treats included a few Horus Swifts, a Giant Kingfisher and a couple of Cape Grassbirds.
We then undertook the mammoth 900km drive westward to Addo National Park, arriving just before dusk. The early stages of the drive, through rolling foothills of the Drakensburg, produced a number of birds, including an Ayres' Hawk Eagle near Underburg (unusually far south), about 30 Amur Falcons and many White Storks, including a flock of about 170. Pied Starlings were also common. The next section was through Transkei - a hole in the tar! Few birds were seen, other than three Cape Vultures, several Yellow-billed Kites and Pied Crows .but plenty of goats, cows and people wandering across the pot-holed roads, with equal numbers of maniac drivers to match. In order to get to Addo before it closed for the night, the last section was driven like one of those maniacs and consequently no birds were seen!
Initially visited simply as a convenient stopover en route to Cape Town, Addo National Park was a nice surprise - dominated by fynbos and occasional open grassy plains, this moderate-sized reserve is most famous for its Elephants, of which we saw 84 (including a couple of nice herds). On the mammal front, also managed four Black-banded Jackals, nine Red Hartebeest and a distant herd of about 15 Eland. Birding was also rather good, adding several new species to the trip list: Amethyst Sunbird and Greater Double-collared Sunbird (along with Malachite Sunbird), Denham's Bustard (and Southern Black Korhaan) and Southern Tchagra. Denham's Bustards in particular were impressive with a total of 11 seen on a single grassy plain, along with two Blue Cranes and two Secretary Birds. Also noteworthy, about 30 Ostriches, plentiful Streaky-headed Seed-eaters and Bokmakieries, plus calling Knysna Woodpecker and Olive Bush-Shrikes.
Then continued the drive westward, covering another 400 km or so, stopping at the open expanses and cliffscapes of the Karoo National Park. Arrived a couple of hours before dark and immediately headed up the Klipspringer Pass for a quick look round - two Verreaux's Eagles, several Sickle-winged Chats and a couple of Fairy Flycatchers the main rewards. A night drive here can possibly produce the almost mythical Aardvark or a Caracal, but on the mammal highlights on our excursion were a family of Bat-eared Foxes, a Black-backed Jackal, a few Cape Hares and denizens of the day such as the Mountain Zebras and Elands. The star of the night, however, was a fantastic Cape Eagle Owl on the rocky track, giving close and prolonged views as it more or less ran or strolled from boulder to boulder, rather reluctant to fly. The only other bird was a Freckled Nightjar. Back at the campsite, just to complete the night in style, a pair of Spotted Eagle Owls perched on the toilet block, quite a surprise when you emerged from the loo to see one staring at you from just a metre distant!
Concentrating my efforts on the area in and above Klipspringer Pass, it was a most fruitful morning in the Karoo National Park. Most rewarding was the plateau, where the best birds were an immature Black Harrier, a family of Ground Woodpeckers and a flock of eight Black-headed Canaries, plus six members of the chat family (Mountain Wheatear, Familiar Chat, Sickle-winged Chat, Karoo Chat, Ant-eating Chat and Stonechat) and at least 20 Larklike Buntings. Searched in vain for Yellow-tufted Pipit, finding only a pair of Long-billed Pipits. Mammals up here included several Red Hartebeest, two Klipspringers and a Little Grey Mongoose.
After about three hours of birding the plateau, I then decided to head down the pass .and immediately hit it lucky! Stopping to check a couple of birds, which turned out to be Layard's Tit-Babblers, I then noticed two more species at the very same spot - both giving excellent views as they toddled about on either side of the road, a single Yellow-tufted Pipit (my target species) and a Short-toed Rock Thrush were the big bonuses of the morning. Two more Verreaux's Eagles drifted overhead. Before leaving the national park, we also drove round the Lammertjiesleegte Trail - in the already rising heat, this was not so productive, but a couple of Chat Flycatchers were seen, along with good numbers of Karoo Chats.
We then continued our drive westward, finally arriving in Cape Town in the late evening. Detoured en route to include a drive through the spectacular Swartberg Pass, 25 km of hairpin bends through the most amazing of contorted rock formations. Though not really birding, the roadside collection of species included a couple of Jackal Buzzards, about 20 Cape Sugarbirds, 15 Orange-breasted Sunbirds, a few Malachite Sunbirds and four Pale-winged Starlings, plus a Ground Woodpecker and, at a stream crossing, both Cape Grassbirds and Namaqua Warblers. Also stopped in the very touristy town of Oudshoorn, surrounded by Ostrich farms in all directions and a centre housing a collection of big cats, fat pigs and ugly crocs!
22nd - 25th February
A few days essentially non-birding, doing the tourist trail round Cape Town and its stunning surrounds. Though I was supposed to have hung my binoculars up, needless to say a few birds were seen, the best being a couple of Cape Siskins, 15 Ostriches and two Southern Boubous at the Cape of Good Hope and at least 15 Cape Sugarbirds at Kirstenbosch. On the afternoon of the 25th, we handed in the hire car at Cape Town International Airport (having driven 6500 km in four weeks!) and then flew with Kulula Airlines to Jo'burg. It was farewell time for my friend - back to the cold and snow of northern Europe! Meanwhile, my trip was to continue for another month.
26th - 27th February
Had intended to travel to Mozambique, but got delayed in Johannesburg for two days. Given the city's crime and safety record, walking around was probably not a good idea (there are no particular species of note anyhow), so the days were spent sitting it out in the Airport Backpackers. Only birds noted were those visiting the garden - Crested Barbets, Karoo Thrushes, Common Mynas and Dark-capped Bulbuls.
· Part 1 - Namibia & Cape Province
· Part 2 - Botswana & eastern South Africa
· Part 3 - Mozambique
List of All Birds Seen (Very Big!)
List of Mammals and Reptiles Seen