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Introduction, Namibia, Botswana, Part three
28th February - 21st March 2003
Detailed Itinerary / Daily Bird Account
With a coastline of 2700 km, Mozambique is a huge country. Ornithologically, however, the River Zambezi effectively divides the country into two, marking the boundary between the avifaunas of Eastern and Southern Africa. With this trip being the concluding stage of a seven-month birding extravaganza of Southern Africa, the goal was to cover as many of the key sites south of the Zambezi, thereby adding to the impressive totals already recorded on the sub-continent. In the event, despite a cyclone and flooding that effectively prevented a visit to arguably the best ecosystem in the country (the Zambezi lowland forests), the great majority of target species were seen (including 30 that were not seen elsewhere in Southern Africa and thus brought the trip list to 715 species).
Arrival day in Mozambique. Took a morning flight from Jo'burg into Maputo and then a taxi into town to Fatima's Backpackers. Hot and humid in the city, I spent the afternoon pottering around the city - no birding, but two Brown-headed Parrots in a small park.
Up early for the 450 km bus northward from Maputo to Inhambane. Birdwise, the journey was uneventful, the only notables being alongside the Limpopo River - an African Marsh Harrier, several Black-headed Herons, a few Brown-throated Martins and numerous Fan-tailed Widowbirds. Elsewhere, in deteriorating weather, the only birds were several Yellow-billed Kites, Black-shouldered Kites and Pied Crows. Along the whole route, however, the scars of the country's 30 year civil war still stood bare - little 'skulls and crossbones' marking off minefields, burnt out shells of buildings and walls pockmarked by long-past battles.
On arrival in Inhambane, a threatened tropical cyclone was sitting offshore, hammering the town with torrential rain and gusting winds. Both wind and rain got ever heavier, lasting into and throughout the night, the first branches and trees crashing down across the town.
No change in the weather - cyclonic rain and wind non-stop. Venturing out ensured a good soaking, but nevertheless managed to find a couple of 'sheltered' spots overlooking the mudflats both north and west of Inhambane. Good numbers of waders were noted, the best being at least 35 Terek Sandpipers, 18 Greater Sand Plovers and eight White-fronted Plovers, though more numerous were Curlew Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Whimbrels, Bar-tailed Godwits and Turnstones. Terns and gulls were also in abundance, including at least 25 Lesser Crested Terns and about 20 Little Terns.
In the late afternoon, with no sign of abatement in the weather, I decided to head over to Tofo Beach on the exposed Indian Ocean coastline. With the eye of the cyclone only a few kilometres offshore, windblown seabirds were a distinct possibility .but, with the driving rain (not to mention flying palm fronds!), visibility was down to little more than 50 metres and, consequently, nothing was seen! Soaked to the skin, I thought I'd seek cover in Fatima's Nest, a popular backpackers, but their door had been ripped off by the wind and it was no oasis of shelter! Then came the stroke of luck .battling against the wind, flying along the beach itself, three fabulous Greater Frigatebirds! Then, a few moments later, in the shelter of some palms, a flock of some of the only passerines of the day included about 15 Bronze Mannikins, a similar number of House Sparrows and, the best of the lot, a fine male Lemon-breasted Canary. All in all, for such a day of foul weather, not a bad selection of birds! Back in Inhambane, the cyclone continued to take its toll - power lines were down!
The new morning brought a clearing of the storm - wind down, no more rain. Left Inhambane and headed off to camp at Tofo Beach - on arrival, calm seas, but plenty of evidence of the cyclone with an impressive flock of 12 Greater Frigatebirds circling over the headland and another three out to sea. Better still, as they drifted directly overhead, the flock also included a male Lesser Frigatebird! There were also numerous terns in the area, mostly Lesser Crested and Little, but also a few Swift and Common.
Inland, bush birding also notched up a few more nice birds, including a pair of Crested Francolins, a couple of Burchell's Coucals, a Black Cuckooshrike, a few Scarlet-breasted Sunbirds and others such as Emerald-spotted Wood-Doves, Brimstone Canaries and Jameson's Firefinch.
At the end of the Inhambane Peninsula, fringed by mangroves on the one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, Barra plays host to a number of notables, including Crab Plover, Mangrove Kingfisher, Collared Palm Thrush and Black-throated Wattle-eye. After hitching in along the sandy track, I spent the first hours walking the extensive palm savannah between Barra Lodge and the tip of the peninsula - no sign of the desired Collared Palm Thrush, but I did flush a Swamp Nightjar and see three Plain-backed Sunbirds, as well as several Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, about ten Green Wood-Hoopoes, both Black and Pale Flycatchers, two Yellow-breasted Apalises and numerous Long-billed Crombecs. Also rather nice, not only were three Lesser Honeyguides seen, but also a single Scaly-throated Honeyguide. Then, on a receding tide, headed out onto the mudflats beyond the mangroves - excellent: 26 Crab Plovers, both Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, about 25 Terek Sandpipers and numerous other waders, including many Curlew Sandpipers and Bar-tailed Godwits already in summer plumage. Returned thereafter to the palm savannah, three more Lesser Frigatebirds overhead, but still no Palm Thrush. By midday, in need of refreshment, I went to Barra Lodge and ran into a most fortunate event - a termite emergence in their front garden. Attracting masses of birds, all flocking into a feeding frenzy, Lilac-breasted Rollers, Dark-capped Bulbuls, Southern Boubous and Red-backed Mannikins were the first to be seen, then up popped my target bird, a fine Collared Palm Thrush! Soon after, a pair of Black-throated Wattle-eyes flitted in, plus a Golden-tailed Woodpecker and more common birds such as Black-backed Puffbacks, Grey-headed Sparrows and a pair of Spectacled Weavers. As the flurry of activity died down, I then returned to the mangroves - this time in a kayak courtesy of Barra Lodge. No additional species, bar a few Pied Kingfishers, but excellent close views of the waders, including the Crab Plovers and summer-plumage Lesser Sand Plovers. Then, as the tide came in, I got lost in the mangrove channels and paddled not the shortest way back to the lodge .quite knackering under a hot sun!
Much a lazy day on the beach front, the only birding limited to early morning exploration of the reedbed behind Tofo Beach and a mid-morning look at a small wetland adjacent to Inhambane town. At the former, the best were the abundant Rufous-winged Cisticolas, backed by a Jacobin Cuckoo and plenty of Fan-tailed Widowbirds and Red-backed Mannikins, while the wetland near Inhambane produced just a handful of Little Egrets and Three-banded Plovers, a few other common waders and a couple of Wire-tailed Swallows. Three more lingering Greater Frigatebirds were seen off the beach in the morning, but not after.
A travel day. Leaving Tofo early morning, headed up to Inhambane and caught the rickety old ferry across to Maxixe (another Greater Frigatebird on the crossing). Then got lucky with lifts, hitching an air-conditioned car all the way to the Vilankulo junction. The only records of note en route were two White-crested Helmet-Shrikes and a dead Spotted Eagle Owl on the road. In Vilankulo, I chartered a dhow to take me out to the Bazaruto Archipelago. Though only about 25 km offshore, dhows are not exactly the fastest form of transport and the crossing took almost four hours, arriving at camp after dark. Surprisingly few birds on the passage, just small numbers of Lesser Crested and Little Terns and three fly-by Lesser Flamingos.
The Bazaruto Archipelago is most noted for its populations of migrant waders attracted to the extensive inter-tidal sandbanks - and it was these that proved to be the highlight of the day. Gabriel's Camp, at the northern end of Benguera Island, proved to be a good base and was within walking distance of a large tidal flat to the north - supporting great numbers of Greater Flamingos and numerous waders, many moulting into summer plumage. Most common were Whimbrels, Bar-tailed Godwits, Sanderlings and Turnstones, followed by Curlew Sandpipers, White-fronted Plovers, Ringed Plovers and Grey Plovers, with small numbers also of Terek Sandpipers and Lesser Sand Plovers. Also of interest here, large numbers of both Lesser Crested and Swift Terns, an Osprey and, harrying the terns, eight Greater Frigatebirds. A walk over to the Indian Ocean also produced a Lesser Frigatebird, but otherwise the only notable birds were on a small freshwater lagoon, where a selection of waterbirds included Great White Egrets, Purple Heron and Malachite Kingfisher, plus a mixed roost of White-breasted and Reed Cormorants.
Back around Gabriel's Camp, bush birding also knocked up a few good birds - top of the list were the Madagascar Bee-eaters, fairly common in the scrub along the beachfront. Also seen were a Red-necked Falcon, a Black-chested Snake Eagle, three Brown-headed Parrots, a Broad-billed Roller and a horde of smaller birds, including both Black-crowned and Brown-crowned Tchagras, Little Bee-eaters, several Brimstone Canaries and a dozen Purple-banded Sunbirds.
More exploration of Benguera Island. In addition to many birds as of the day before, such as Lesser Masked Weavers and Spectacled Weavers, also added a few species to the tally - several Alpine Swifts moving north, five Village Weavers and, on a wetland adjacent to the small airstrip, a variety of ducks, egrets and waders, including particularly good numbers of Little Egrets, White-faced Ducks, Greenshanks and Black-winged Stilts, along with a few Marsh Sandpipers.
My afternoon dhow failed to show up, but I managed to organise another with local fishermen and then crossed back to Vilankulo - a choppy journey, soaked by the many waves, bailing out the boat all the way! Two more Greater Frigatebirds were seen near the islands. A Barn Owl was heard at night in Vilankulo.
Heading north, the road deteriorated and both highways and bridges were damaged by flooding following the cyclone. Also ever less traffic and thus slow-going hitching .should have taken the bus! By the end of the day, I got to Chimoio, a pleasant cool town with striking distance of Gorongosa. Only birds of note on the route were Rattling Cisticolas at several stops, two Black-headed Orioles and a Grey-headed Kingfisher (the latter two near Inchope).
Nothing is easy in Mozambique! Got to Gorongosa Town with relative ease, collecting Black-winged Bishop en route, and from there it's just 36 km to Vanduzi village at the base of Gorongosa Mountain. However, heading out of town and turning right, it was immediately clear that no transport would be taking that route in the near future - a narrow rocky track, largely washed out by cyclonic rains and, due to a bridge destroyed, not even passable by 4x4. Full backpack, hot sun and a 36 km walk to face! At the 10km mark, when already beginning to regret my trek, I spotted a shiny new motorbike and, minutes later, after negotiations with the friendly owner, I was happily continuing my journey from the back of the bike! After 20 km, we came across a downed bridge, so for the last five kilometres it was back to footwork! Not all was bad, however, for along with the sweat and toil, there were fortunately also a lot of good birds to keep me company. In the first ten kilometres, a couple of Booted Eagles were seen overhead, Red Bishops and Red-collared Widowbirds were common, along with a scattering of Yellow Bishops and several Singing Cisticolas and Variable Sunbirds. In the last five kilometres, birds more hinting of the forest began to appear - several Blue-spotted Wood-Doves, a Lemon Dove, four Crowned Hornbills and, in rank grass, a very obliging Moustached Grass Warbler. Absolutely knackered, got into Vanduzi just before dusk, had to check in with the local commissioner and then rented a mud hut to serve as home for the next two nights!
Gorongosa Mountain - fantastic birding all the way up from the rank grasslands and maize fields near the village right up through the forest patches and into the more extensive forest cloaking the steeper upper slopes. Highlight of the mountain is clearly Green-headed Oriole, the only place the bird can be seen in the Southern African sub-continent, but an amazing selection of other species were seen too, including 12 species not seen in my seven prior months travelling in the region. In the lower areas, the highlights included an Ayres' Hawk Eagle, both Red-faced and Singing Cisticolas, Purple Indigobirds and Jameson's Firefinches. The best birding, however, came with the forests - a stunning Red-throated Twinspot, both Lesser and Pallid Honeyguides, a Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, a Black Cuckooshrike and several mixed bird flocks, including Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Black-throated Wattle-eyes, Pale Batises and Yellow White-eyes. Then, of course, there was the Green-headed Oriole - frustratingly brief, a single bird appeared in the canopy then went swooping off down into denser forest and never reappeared! Disappointment was brief, however, for more good birds soon materialized: a Red-winged Warbler in a woodland clearing, a Red-faced Crombec, a Western Olive Sunbird (to add to the Variable and Collared Sunbirds already seen), more Crowned Hornbills and several Dark-backed Weavers and Blue-spotted Wood-Doves.
Another tiring day under a hot sun, I then headed back to the village to relax the afternoon away .only to be met and interrogated for 'unauthorised entry' to the mountain by a contingent of police, forest guards and the local commissioner! With the inquisition finally over and failing to find anything whatsoever to eat in the village, I collapsed into my mud hut for an afternoon nap! A late afternoon stroll down to the river just north of the village added three White-necked Ravens, a Long-crested Eagle and about 15 Wire-tailed Swallows to the tallies of the day.
Not wishing the need to walk the 36 km back to town, I had arranged to meet my motorbike friend back at the washed-out bridge. Thus started the day with a fairly relaxing 5 km walk down to the river, birding all the way - a Lizard Buzzard, another Ayres' Hawk Eagle, three Ashy Flycatchers, a couple of Black-throated Wattle-eyes, an Eastern Nicator and a variety of commoner birds such as Terrestrial Brownbuls, Sombre Greenbuls, Brown-crowned Tchagras and Black-backed Puffbacks. From the back of the motorbike, bumping down the track, I added an African Golden Oriole and a flock of Trumpeter Hornbills, whilst down in Gorongosa Town, an emergence of termites attracted a swirling flock of about 15 Amur Falcons and over 35 European Bee-eaters. The last nice surprise in the area was a Mottled Swift that hurled itself along a ravine adjacent to the road just west of Inchope. With that, I travelled into Chimoio for a bite to eat and a cool night of relative luxury in a quite reasonable hotel!
Next stop was Rio Savane, an excellent site on the Indian Ocean. Situated about 30 km north of Beira on palm-fringed beaches and mangrove-lined river, the locality is not only picturesque, but also outstanding for birds too, particularly the flooded grasslands that are crossed on the access track. Just driving in along this approach, the rich birdlife included six Wattled Cranes (a pair and flock of four), umpteen Great White Egrets, a Goliath Heron, both Pied and Malachite Kingfishers, a few African Marsh Harriers and Bateleurs and a few Rufous-winged Cisticolas. At Rio Savane itself, I crossed over the river to the campsite, then enjoyed some of the birds in the immediate vicinity - the most notably being waders (Terek Sandpipers and Greater Sand Plover), Osprey, Fish Eagle and a calling a Mangrove Kingfisher (not seen). Offshore, Common Terns massed, but no sign of any Frigatebirds or other seabirds. In the mangroves, Fiddler Crabs made for an entertaining way to pass some time, watching them waving and posturing to each other.
With sun-up, I took a dug-out canoe across the Savane River and was greeted by the first good bird of the day - a magnificent Mangrove Kingfisher giving stunning views as it sunned itself on an exposed branch just where the boat came in. A few minutes later, two Samango Monkeys came crashing through the mangroves! With these under the belt, I then headed out into the flooded grasslands, where a four-hour walk gradually produced most of the target birds - very early on, a pair of Senegal Lapwings in a drier area, then the first of four displaying Short-tailed Pipits, plus commoner birds such as Yellow-throated Longclaws, Zitting Cisticolas and migrant Red-backed Shrikes. Later into the walk, I flushed three Locust Finches, got good views of two Black-chested Snake Eagles and found one Woolly-necked Stork. Dotted across the grassland were occasional wooded islands and exploration of one of these was most fruitful, with an active bird flock including a Livingstone's Turaco, a Grey-headed Bush-Shrike, two Orange-breasted Bush-Shrikes, a couple of Black-throated Wattle-eyes and a supporting cast including Sombre Greenbuls and Yellow White-eyes. Amethyst Sunbirds and both Little and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were also seen (other possibles here include Tiny Greenbul, Eastern Saw-wing Swallow and East Coast Akalat). By mid-morning, the heat was becoming excessive and effectively ended productive birding, so I then headed back to the shady retreat of campsite for a couple of hours rest, before travelling back out along the access track and into the city of Beira. Again good birds on the way out - including Great White, Yellow-billed and Little Egrets, a Purple Heron, nine Wattled Cranes, a Saddle-billed Stork and three Open-billed Storks. Also saw one of those ominous red 'skull and crossbones' signs warning of minefields! Stayed overnight in Beira .not the most pleasant of places!
The intention was to head to the lowland forests of the Zambezi Valley, a move that would have produced many more first-class, mouth-watering birds. However, with water levels still rising from the flooding following the cyclone, any realistic chance of getting to the remote birding sites in the Zambezi was slipping to minimal. Furthermore, a number of rivers further south had also broken their banks and the only road back to Maputo was in the process of disintegration! Regrettably, therefore, with still a week free in the country, it seemed the only sensible option to retreat quickly southwards before too late!
So, leaving Beira at 4.00 a.m., I took the express bus south, arriving at Maxixe at 2.00 p.m., allowing plenty of time to catch the boat across to Inhambane and onward to Tofo. En route south, a number of good birds were seen, all in the stretch from Inchope to the Save River - the best being a single Wahlberg's Eagle, a Dark Chanting Goshawk, an African Goshawk and a Dickinson's Kestrel. Three Crowned Hornbills, a pair of African Pied Wagtails and a Carmine Bee-eater were also noted at the Save River.
16th - 18th March
With birding plans adrift, I decided to spend the last few days of my many months on the sub-continent relaxing on the Indian Ocean at Tofo Beach. With the cyclone now a distant memory, no sign of any more Frigatebirds .just an immature Cape Gannet one morning! Striped Kingfishers, Lilac-breasted Rollers, Arrow-marked Babblers and Red-backed Mannikins were all noted in the area around the campsite, but no real effort was made to go birding. Tofo was memorable, however, for its Whale Sharks - taking a boat out into the bay, we fairly quickly located several cruising through the waters. As the dark shapes emerge from the depths, it is an experience to be relished to jump in and snorkel alongside these three-metre giants of the shark world! Totally unconcerned by the presence of human intruders, the sharks make no attempt to move away and indeed can crash right into you if you don't take avoiding action! But it is their domain and swim as you might, all too soon it is just a tail disappearing into the murky depths that is left to become etched into your memory.
19th - 21st March
Travelled down to Maputo on the 19th for a last day of buying souvenirs in the capital, before flying to Jo'burg on the 21st and onward to London on an overnight flight.
Ten days later, surrounded by a country bedecked in snow in the cool climes of northern Europe, I fell ill to the delights of malaria! Quite ironic considering the temperature outside was below freezing and not a mosquito had been seen the best part of six months! Ah, how I remember that hot night at Tofo Beach when I decided to leave my tent open!!
· 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