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Namibia & South Africa Birding Report, October - December 2001,
This report is based on a ten-week trip to Namibia
and the Cape Province of South Africa from 10th October to
In order to maximise the value of this report, it is divided into the following chapters, allowing the reader to quickly locate and cross reference all possible information required in the planning of a successful trip.
Detailed Itinerary/Daily Bird Account
List of All Birds Seen (Very big)
Lists of Mammals & Reptiles Seen
Timing of Trip
The timing of the trip, the southern spring, couldn't have been better - not only are many of the birds in breeding plumage and actively displaying, but also the sub-continent is swamped by numerous migrants, both intra-African and those from Eurasia. To this end, my visit to the Caprivi Strip (the best area for northern migrants) was left as late as possible to coincide with the rains and the peak arrivals of these migrants.
Additionally, October is the best month at Etosha, both for birds and the mammals too - as the long dry season reaches its climax, huge concentrations of game are forced to congregate at the waterholes, thus giving unparalleled viewing and almost guaranteed Black Rhinos and big cats. On the southern coast, from Cape Town eastward to De Hoop, the months September through to November are also the calving times of Southern Right Whales, during which period these great sea mammals can be seen very close inshore.
A final added benefit is the fantastic weather during this period, with only limited possibilities of rain along the Cape coast and, in the latter part of the year, in the far north. Otherwise, it's all hot and sunny .but beware, often very hot in the Namib Desert and other parts of inland Namibia (over 40º C is common!).
An ideal trip to Namibia, after a couple of days rounding up on the many specialities in the Windhoek area, should include several days at Etosha, a loop to the west encompassing Sossusvlei, Walvis Bay (including the Dune Lark site), Spitskoppe and possibly Twyfelfontain. Thereafter, adding an almost entirely new avifauna and a great number of spectacular species, an extended trip throughout the Caprivi Strip would be very well rewarded indeed, as would a trip to Ruacana Falls. In fact, of the 433 species I saw in Namibia, an impressive 35% were noted only in Ruacana or, moreover, the Caprivi Strip. Leaving the north, those with time could also make a trip to the far south, incorporating Luderitz and its seabirds, the Barlow's Lark site and then possibly the Orange River for a number of species more typical of South Africa.
For South Africa itself, all the localities visited are detailed in the excellent site guide 'Essential Birding' by Callan Cohen and Claire Spottiswoode, a copy of which I suggest is well worth purchasing. At an absolute minimum, however, I would advise several days in the Cape Town area, a loop out to the Overburg and up to the Karoo, along with trips up the West Coast and into Bushmanland. For those with sea legs, I would also recommend a pelagic trip - these, for any birder from the Northern Hemisphere, are an amazing spectacle - sitting out on the continental shelf in a small boat, barely above the waves, surrounded by countless albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, all just metres away.
As regards transport, a hire car is essential for Etosha and would be desirable for many of the remoter sites, such as the Namib, Overburg and Karoo. The majority of sites are, however, easily accessible by public transport or hitching. In my ten weeks, I hitched throughout and hired a car only twice - for nine days to cover central Namibia and Etosha, then four days for the Overburg and Karoo.
Note. In the Cape Town area, there are numerous birding spots within a few kilometres of the city, they include Table Mountain, the Constantia greenbelts, Kirstenbosch botanical gardens and the entire Cape Peninsula.
Detailed Itinerary / Daily Bird Account
In addition to outlining the sites visited and routes taken, this travel journal is designed to highlight all key birds at each site and also to give a flavour of the trip in general. If planning a trip, a combination of this itinerary and the detailed systematic list that follows it should point you in the right direction to all the endemics and special birds of the region, particularly in Namibia.
Following an overnight flight from London to Johannesburg and a connector to Windhoek, the wildlife adventures began even before touch down - spotted from the plane window, a couple of Springboks sheltering under a tree.
time, 30º C and blazing sun, welcome to Namibia. Around the airport, first birds
seen included Palm Swifts in the palms and South African Cliff Swallows nesting
around the terminal, gathering mud from the sprinkler-fed
A quick and easy hitch the 40 km into town, checking into the Cardboard Box hostel, then despite a weariness borne of lack of sleep, a hike up to the arid thornveld of the Hoffmeyr Walk, a rocky ridge a short distance to the east of town. A lot of re-acquainting with typical Namibian birds, plus a few niceties such White-tailed Shrikes, Rockrunner and dozens of overhead Bradfield's Swifts.
Refreshed after a good night's sleep, first port of call was Avis Dam, a few kilometres east of the city. Good rains in the early part of the year ensured water levels were still high, clearly favourable to the large flocks of Egyptian Geese and South African Shelducks, as well as the many Three-banded Plovers and other waders. Avis was moreover though my first real chance to get to grips with the many birds of the parched bushland. Exploring the hillsides and dry river valleys, a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar was flushed, followed by nice views of Chestnut-vented Titbabblers, Monteiro's Hornbills, a Rockrunner and an assortment of waxbills and finches, including a flock of very obliging Quail Finch. As the heat of the day pushed 35º C, I returned to the comfort of the city to await the 'cooler' afternoon.
Not exactly on the standard tourist itinerary, but an oasis anyhow, my afternoon excursion was out to the Gammons Water Care Works, the city's sewage farm! Walking past the rather smelly settling tanks, with nose held firmly in check, I was soon at the heart of a series of natural reeded filtration pools, providing a wetland habitat rare indeed in Namibia. The bird spectacular was impressive: flocks of over 1800 Wattled Starlings and numerous herons, ducks and other waterbirds everywhere, including both Dwarf Bittern and Maccoa Duck, as well as a nice roost of about 35 Night Herons.
13th - 16th October
In what should have been a fairly easy two-day hitchhike, the 1400 km from Windhoek to Cape Town turned into an almost four-day endurance, though punctuated by two particularly pleasant birding stops.
Day One. Relatively easy-going, with a single lift the 785 km from Windhoek to the South African border. Atop an open bakkie, the terrain became ever more barren and the temperature ever hotter as the kilometres passed. The only significant birds were a couple of Pale Chanting Goshawks and a female Pygmy Falcon, though two Springboks were also seen. Camped overnight on the banks of the Orange River under towering cliffs, a kilometre short of the border post.
Day Two. Though already oppressively hot by 8.00 a.m., a few hours birding around the Orange River produced a pair of Black Eagles and a number of species not so easy further north in Namibia, including Olive Thrush, Cape Robin and Lesser Double-collared Sunbird. I then walked across the border into South Africa and promptly got stuck for most of the day! Temperature 45º C, no shade, no cars. Only in the late afternoon did I get a lift - all of 170 km down to the dusty town of Springbok where I got stuck again! Gave up the hitching and camped at the local caravan park, set amongst boulder strewn hillocks and Quiver trees.
Day Three. Excellent start to the day with exploration of the hills above Springbok caravan park. Layard's Titbabblers, Southern Grey Tits, Acacia Barbets and, best of all, a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler headed the cast, the latter scurrying around the rocks like a mouse. Numerous Karoo Robins and Bokmakieries made up the best of the rest. Disastrous rest of day! No lift, eventually returned to Springbok town.
Day Four. Not prepared for another day sitting by the roadside, I took the Intercape bus to Cape Town. Pure luck, a small flock of the often elusive Burchell's Coursers flew up from the roadside near Bitterfontain, whilst other birds on route included Ostriches and flocks of mixed Wattled and Pied Starlings around Vanrhynsdorp. Later, in agricultural areas north of Cape Town, Cattle Egrets, Spur-winged Geese and Egyptian Geese were all numerous.
On arrival in Cape Town, low cloud shrouded the famous Table Mountain, obliterating the city's spectacular backdrop. Nevertheless, a short walk in the fynbos vegetation at the mountain's base quickly turned up the trumps, with both the endemic Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds, not to forget hordes of Red-winged Starlings and a pair of Black Eagles. At the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, in deteriorating weather, numerous Hartlaub's Gulls and the familiar European Starlings hardly taxed the identification skills!
What happened to the African sun? Table Mountain remained in its cloak of cloud and the Cape Peninsula alternated from sun through to rain, back to sun again. Weather aside, an excellent day, starting with a train to Simon's Town, then a hitch round the Cape of Good Hope, all lifts going like clockwise. The goal at Simon's Town was the Jackass Penguin colony at Boulder's Beach - though even before getting there, the day had started well with two Southern Right Whales seen from the train at Fish Hoek! At the colony, only founded in 1986 and now already numbering 2000 penguins, the birds are absurdly tame and totally ignore you as they waddle up the beach to their burrows in the scrub and bushes.
Onward then to the Cape of Good Hope, a world of bliss. In glorious sunshine, atop cliffs of 200 metres, I watched Southern Right Whales as they swam beneath in waters that mark the end of Africa, a meeting of warm currents from the Indian Ocean and a cold Bengula Current of the Atlantic. In these frequently turbulent seas, the whales seemed content, seven graceful giants cruising and 'tailing' just off the rocky shore. Overhead, a Peregrine vied for attention, while Red-winged Starlings scavenged for scraps and, though often flighty, a pair of Cape Siskins gave excellent views as they fed their three young.
Tracking back up the peninsula, a stop for a tortoise also produced the chocolate and white Bontebok antelope, an endemic to the southern Cape Province and once on the verge of extinction, though now again fairly common.
My last stop of the day was Kommetjie, a small fishing village on the west of the peninsula well known for its seabird roost on its rocky promontory. The 'special', Antarctic tern, failed to show, probably too late in the year, but there was no shortage of birds with four species of cormorant, including the three Bengula endemics, as well as four tern species, including a surprise group of Roseate Terns. A successful day completed, a quick hitch back to Cape Town.
An adventurous day, culminating with a mountain rescue
from the top of Table Mountain! All started pleasant enough with a morning in
the fine Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Tucked in under the eastern flanks
of Table Mountain, the extensive
Then it was time for a 'good idea'! Hike over 1000m up the precipitous Skeleton Gorge to the top of Table Mountain, cross the plateau, then drop down the opposite side back into Cape Town. All was well with the climb, even if somewhat hard going, compensation came with Rameron Pigeon and Sombre Bulbul. All was equally pleasant crossing the summit - Orange-breasted Sunbirds flitting around, a Black Swift cruised overhead. Then, however, my luck changed - the ominous banks of thick cloud and fog that had been threatening, suddenly came rolling in, obliterating visibility and quickly resulting in a total loss of direction. All too soon, all paths taken seemed to lead either to a vertical drop or into some wild part of the summit. As darkness approached, having wandered countless a trail with not the slightest sign of a possible route to descend, I found myself aside a lake I knew to be nowhere near where I wanted to be, the prospects of a very cold night didn't appeal. Luck have it, I had my mobile and had the emergency number plugged in - two very cold hours later, after numerous calls relaying my position, headlights appeared in the darkness and two most jolly of rescuers arrived. Down a torturous track in their 4x4, transferred into an ambulance for the next leg, then another car for door-to-door service back to my hostel. Tea and hot shower, what an end!
Time to head back north, the long road to Namibia again. With the creature comforts of regular coffees, reasonable videos and a surety of not having to sit hours by the roadside, the trip was by Intercape bus, departing Cape Town at 10.00 a.m., arriving Windhoek 6.30 a.m. next morning. Climbing through the hills near Citrusdal, a pair of White-necked Ravens livened the early hours of the journey, as did a small flock of Blue Cranes nearby and a splendid Secretary Bird in an arid area north of Garies. As dusk approached, passing through the far northern parts of South Africa, some of the few birds included a Black Harrier and, in a golden haze of a setting sun, an impressive Ludwig's Bustard flying alongside the road. At the border, South African officials did a total check of the bus and thorough search of everything mine, even to the extent of having to empty my pockets.
Happy birthday to me! Half-tired from a night on the bus, much of the day was spent doing next to nothing, enjoying the 34º C sun. For an afternoon treat, where better to spend a birthday than back at the city sewage farm! Still, as the week before, birds were in abundance - Wattled Starlings to roost, a Dwarf Bittern flushed from a stream, cumbersome Purple Gallinules chasing in the reeds, as well as yet more ducks and a good variety of hirundines, including both Pearl-breasted and White-throated Swallows.
A VW Golf was to be transport for the next nine days, a tour of the deserts of western Namibia and Etosha Pan. Though the cheapest of rental cars, it hacked the over 2000 km of road without complaint, most of which was on gravel, a lot on very rough gravel!
Leaving the capital, I headed south before cutting west down through the Naukluft Mountains, extremely hot and barren. Of the few birds, a pair of Tawny Eagles and a handful of Spike-heeled Larks were the best, though a couple of Anteater Chats and two Chat Flycatchers were good added extras.
After a dusty 360 km, the magnificent dunes of Sossusvlei lay before me. Towering to 300 metres, a rich mosaic of deep reds and oranges create a most enchanting of spots to engage in birding. As the temperature of 40º C began to subside, birding around the campsite and especially in vegetated areas between the dunes was spectacular - Stark's Larks in particular appeared very abundant with single flocks totalling several hundred birds. Grey-backed Finchlarks, Red-billed Queleas and Scaly-feathered Finches were also numerous. Areas of withered grassland, in addition to the above species, were always worth a stop, most scans producing an Ostrich at least and more often than not a Rüppell's Korhaan or Ludwig's Bustard. Just like in the guidebook, herds of antelope, mostly Springbok, but also Oryx, wandered the gravel plains, the huge dunes rising up behind them. Completing the mammal list, a family of Dark-backed Jackals popped out of their burrow, a couple of Cape Hares bounded along and a good number of Ground Squirrels sat on their hunches. A wonderful night, the desert's darkness exaggerating the sky and its myriad of stars.
Up an hour before dawn to travel the 20 km down to 'Dune 45', a particularly beautiful spot to watch the sun rise, cascading its early rays across a transforming spectrum of colours. The climb to the top of this dune was surprisingly difficult, the strenuous activity and cold pre-dawn air leaving me gasping for breath, but the view was fantastic. Back at camp, breakfast was shared with a whole host of small birds - Southern Masked Weavers, Sociable Weavers, White-backed Mousebirds and Cape Sparrows to mention a few.
Before departing the area, there was time for a bit of
fun up on the Naukluft escarpment - "Go to a ranch called Camp Gecko, see
their tame leopard" I had been told. And sure enough, minutes after arriving,
there I was, face to face with a two-year old female leopard living happily
As the day's heat began to soar, it was then time for the long drive across the Namib Desert to reach the coast. Birds early on the route, before crossing the moonscape near Gamsburg, included a Black-breasted Snake Eagle on a telegraph pole, both Lanner and Pygmy Falcons, a few more Rüppell's Korhaans and a fine flock of 12 Burchell's Coursers (near Solitaire). The latter parts of the journey, passing through countless kilometres of flat, featureless gravel plains, were essentially hours of seeing very little, punctuated by the sudden appearance of Ostriches.
Just before the coast, a slight detour took me to Rooikop, an area of dunes and long tufty grass adjacent to a dry riverbed and, most important, home to the endemic Dune Lark. One of my main 'target species' in Namibia, this was a 'must see'. Things didn't start too well, getting the car stuck in soft sand, but the dunes were just a short walk away - so I left the car and continued on foot. White-backed Mousebird, Ashy Tit and Hoopoe were all found fairly easily, but the larks remained elusive. After an hour of searching, and on the point of giving up, I started back for the car only to walk straight into a pair feeding not a hundred metres from where I had started! Good views as they ran and flitted between the dune hollows, then back to dig out the car and drive the last few kilometres to Walvis Bay.
Essentially spent the whole day in the Walvis Bay area, leaving only in the evening to go up to Swakopmund and then a drive through the dark to Spitskoppe.
The Bay is one of the most important bird sites on the entire western coast of Africa. Its massive tidal lagoon supports tens of thousands of birds, including huge populations of both Greater and Lesser Flamingoes, as well as numerous White Pelicans and globally significant numbers of European waders avoiding the northern winter. Adjacent to the lagoon, extensive salt lagoons add a valuable additional habitat, supporting countless more birds such as Chestnut-banded Plovers, African Black Oystercatchers and the world threatened Damara Terns. Offshore, sea watching adds further species, most usually a variety of skuas, terns and White-chinned Petrel.
My visit to the bay began with an early morning stroll along the town promenade. Timed to coincide with the rising tide, I quickly notched up all the common waders, including many thousand Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers and, tucked in with Turnstones, two Terek Sandpipers. Moving further up the bay, rafts of up to 800 Black-necked Grebes became a feature of the waters. In addition, Flamingoes of both species became ever more abundant and sand banks produced vast roosts of Cape Cormorants and occasional flocks of mixed gulls and terns, including nice side-by-side comparisons of Caspian, Swift and Sandwich Terns. At the salt lagoons, the undoubted highlights were the Chestnut-banded Plovers, not common on all the lagoons, but in their hundreds on selected pools. Alongside, more numerous White-fronted Plovers and a few Kittlitz's Plovers could also be seen, and the dainty Damara Terns flitted overhead.
Final port of call in the Walvis area was the beachfront - a long shingle spit jutting southward and protecting the bay from the South Atlantic. Hard going under foot, several hours of walking produced relatively few species, though was certainly pleasant enough. Highlights included flocks of Common Terns, thousands strong, roosting on the beach, as well as several hundred Black Terns offshore and a steady stream of Arctic Skuas heading south. On a non-bird front, providing constant entertainment, were both occasional Heaviside's Dolphins and the more common Cape Fur Seal, the latter lounging on the foreshore or playing in the surf.
Before finally leaving the area, there was time for one last stop. Just a few kilometres north of Walvis Bay and about fifty metres offshore, a huge guano platform has been constructed. With the aim of harvesting the guano for the explosives and fertiliser industries, seabirds have been encouraged to breed on this artificial island for almost a century. The result of this economic need being fantastic numbers of Cape Cormorants and White Pelicans, along with smaller numbers of other species. On my visit, I also quickly picked up the smaller Crowned Cormorant and a few Black Oystercatchers.
It was then time for quick stopover in the very German-style town of Swakopmund, before departing for a night drive to Spitskoppe.
Under the towering peaks of Spitskoppe Mountain, today's target was the endemic Herero Chat, a very localised and sometimes difficult bird to find. Having bush camped, my search began even before the sun rose, checking out every bush in their favoured habitat, that of dry thornveld at the boulder-strewn base of the rock pinnacles. However, despite seeing Klipspringer antelopes and a host of good birds, including Rosy-faced Lovebirds, White-tailed Shrikes and Ashy Tits, it seemed my quest for the Herero Chats was going to fail. After four hours, with the temperature rapidly rising, I was about to give up when I decided to give one last gully a look (incidentally almost exactly where I had camped). Quickly I found both Common and Layard's Titbabblers and then, suddenly, success at last - in a low acacia tucked up against the cliff face, a pair of Herero Chats, not in the least bit shy or retiring and giving nice views to compensate for the long search.
Content, I began the drive up country to the world famous rock paintings at Twyfelfontain, a long dusty and bumpy route on some of the poorest gravel roads in all Namibia. Several roadside stops, using characterised by great clouds of dust, were also well worthwhile with the first Tractrac Chats of the trip, as well as both Sabota and Sclater's Larks.
At Twyfelfontain, I stopped for drinks at the community campsite just short of the rock paintings and, over the course of tea, heard news that Desert Elephants had recently passed through. So, although the 40º C might have suggested common sense to think otherwise, I set out on foot, following the dry river course for several kilometres. I never caught up with the elephants, but did manage a surprisingly good variety of birds - Rüppell's Parrots, Carp's Tits, Black-faced Babblers, as well as Brubru Shrikes, a Pearl-spotted Owlet and both Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbills.
Night was spent bush camping amongst the ancient Welwitchia plants beneath Burnt Mountain.
The day began with a pre-dawn rise to view the rock paintings at Twyfelfontain, an amazing boulder-strewn arid hillside literally peppered with well-preserved Bushman art, much of it dating back 5000 years, and most of it depicting stylistic animals (suggesting the area was clearly far less arid at that time). By , with the familiar heat of day again beating down, I retired for an hour or so to the cool of a few trees surrounding curio stands at the entrance to the rock paintings trail. Thoughtfully provided, a small drinking pool attracted numerous small birds, allowing close photography of such birds as White-throated Canary, Cape Sparrow, Mountain Chat and Pale-winged Starlings.
It was then off for the long bumpy drive to Etosha, with a stop-over at the Petrified Forest (fossilised remains of massive trees, looking every bit as though they fell just a few years back, but in fact over a million years old!). Roadside birds included several Namaqua Sandgrouses, three Bengula Long-billed Larks and increasing numbers of Purple Rollers as Etosha neared.
Etosha 25th - 29th October
Etosha, 20,000 km2 of animal paradise, home to numerous species of mammal, hundreds of types of birds, many different snakes and countless reptiles. In the long weeks preceding the November or December rains, vast congregations of herbivores, most numerous Springboks, Zebras and Oryx, gather around the many waterholes that fringe the massive salt pan that is the centre of the reserve. In their turn, the herbivores attract carnivores, lions and hyenas commonplace.
My five days of wandering were a constant experience of rarely a minute without crowds of animals, be it day or night. The campsites are full of birds, plus jackals, mongooses and warthogs, while game drives offer everything from sets of lion ears poking out of the grass to the sudden arrival of another elephant herd, not to forget a huge array of raptors, bustards, hornbills and other large and colourful birds. Little quietens down during the night; floodlit waterholes allow an insight into the wilds of the darkness, ghostly shadows of a Black Rhino, flocks of Rufous-cheeked Nightjars swirling in the lights. Then there are the sounds ... the haunting rasp of a distant lion, penetrating howls of hyenas, shuffling of animals unseen, a crescendo of insects, a never-ending symphony.
Entering the park from the west, my first two nights were at Okaukuejo, home of the most impressive night waterhole. I then drove eastward along the margins of the 140 km salt pan, staying single nights at both Halali and Namutoni.
Seconds after entering the park at , I was immediately gazing up at a Giraffe, soon followed by Kudu and abundant Springboks. While I set up camp at Okaukuejo, Sociable Weavers, in a colony several hundred strong, busied themselves in their huge communal nest, overshadowing other birds such as Glossy Starlings and Hoopoes, as well as distracting me long enough for thieving Ground Squirrels to steal much of my food. Having seen Lions at the Okondeka waterhole six years previous, I set off up the western side of the salt pan, passing through open grassy plains, full of grazing herds of Zebra and Wildebeest. Frequent stops and scans added Steenboks, Hartebeest and numerous birds, including about 15 Kori's Bustards, up to 25 Northern Black Korhaans and scattered Red-crested Korhaans. With eight species noted, larks were particularly abundant in this open part of Etosha, with Chestnut-backed and Grey-backed Finch-Larks being the most common, and a few Pink-billed Larks the most notable.
Arriving at Okondeka, a rather hostile looking waterhole set against the shimmering salt flats beyond, events were to carbon copy those of my trip many years before. A prevailing calm suggested nothing of the presence of big cats, a couple of Giraffe sauntered at the water's edge, Cape Teal dabbled in the shallows, a few Ostrich wandered in. Then, while watching Oryx drink, suddenly a cause to look round - down from the hillside behind, an entire pride of Lions came plodding into view. Lead by the cubs, six in all, with three females close on their heels and two fine males lagging at the rear, all passed within a metre of the car, heading directly for the water. Having quenched their thirst, and with the heat of the day yet to subside, all eleven Lions promptly went to sleep, only the cubs occasionally eyeing passing ducks. So passed the rest of the day, the lions sleeping at the waterhole, a steady stream of Giraffes, Wildebeest and Oryx standing off, wishing to use the water, not wishing to risk the Lions. As dusk approached, still no move from the pride, so it was time to head for camp, driving back through a sunset of silhouetted Giraffes and excitable zebra herds. As darkness fell, so began a spectacle not to be missed, the night waterhole. It's an eerie experience, shadows hovering in the gloom, animals appearing unseen, disappearing again into the darkness. The waterhole is on the edge of the camp, the animals coming within just metres of where you sit, a low stone wall separating you. The night watch began with a Lion, almost going unnoticed as it quietly crouched and drank, soon to run away as the first of many herds of elephants arrived. Noisy Blacksmith Plovers and Spotted Dikkops paraded the water's edge, while overhead clouds of Rufous-cheeked Nightjars hawked the floodlights for illuminated insects, joined on occasion by sleepless Fork-tailed Drongos. The stars amongst the birds though were the huge numbers of drinking Double-banded and Namaqua Sandgrouses and, moreover, the owls, first a pair of Marsh Owls flitting about, even running around on the rocks, later a Barn Owl doing a fly-by. After about an hour of watching, the main actors of the evening arrived, first a single, then a pair, then another single ... Black Rhinos. Never easy to see during the day, here it was almost too easy! Wary of the Elephants and distrustful of each other, the Rhinos spent most of their time either retreating back into twilight at the arrival of yet more Elephants or chasing another Rhino. Eventually, as yet another herd of elephants departed, allowing a nervous Giraffe in to drink, the midnight hour called me to my tent - after such a fantastic day, I drifted off to sleep to the yelping of Jackals.
My second day in the Okaukuejo area took me on a morning jaunt eastward to the waterholes of Gemsbokvlakle and Aus, eventually to Rietfontain, the latter particularly rich in game. Often stopping for birds of prey, species included Black-breasted Snake Eagle, Wahlberg's Eagle and Martial Eagle, as well a couple of Lanner Falcons and the rather common Greater Kestrels and Pale Chanting Goshawks. The waterholes were also excellent places to see smaller birds, in particular Red-headed Finches, Red-billed Queleas and both Great and Grey-headed Sparrows. As the temperature rose above 40º C, forcing animals into the shelter of bushland, it made sense to return to the shade of the camp. This didn't, however, mean an end to the birds - a pair of Violet Woodhoopoes settled in the trees above my tent, a female Pygmy Falcon appeared at the edge of the camp and Marico Flycatchers, Groundscraper Thrushes and Scaly-feathered Finches could all be easily found. Following the success of the previous evening, I again returned to Okondeka in the late afternoon, once more to find the lions sleeping out at their favoured watering hole! In addition to the animals of the day before, it was particularly pleasing to find a pair of Bat-eared Foxes on the savannah near Leeubron, as well as both Banded and Slender Mongooses and about ten Double-banded Coursers. Needless to say, as the sun set, I was yet again back at Okaukuejo for the night-time adventures, seeing the return of the Rhinos and perhaps even more Elephants.
From Okaukuejo, the 80 km drive to Halali was through progressively thicker bush and more wooded terrain, the new habitat attracting new species, particularly amongst the birds. En route to the camp, a stop at the excellent Goas waterhole was worthy of several hours - 40 trumpeting Elephants dominating, though a great variety of other mammals also seen, including large numbers of Black-faced Impalas and Zebras.
For birds, however, the best area was Halali Camp itself. On a rocky knoll, both the campsite and adjacent wooded hill were excellent, producing a whole range of good species, such as Bare-cheeked Babblers, Carp's Tits, Swainson's Francolin, both Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbills (also Grey Hornbill) and a Pearl-spotted Owlet. More familiar species included Long-billed Crombec, Three-streaked Tchagra and Yellow-bellied Eremomela. Wandering over to the waterhole, not a mammal was in sight, but again birds were notable, with both African Rock and Golden-breasted Buntings and a Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, while the thick bush all round the camp held good numbers of White Helmetshrikes and White-crowned Shrikes.
After an afternoon back at Goas, I returned to the camp to ready myself for another night of watching a floodlit waterhole. Generally, though certainly the most beautiful of the campsite waterholes, Halali doesn't have a reputation for producing many night-time surprises. My night, however, was wonderful with Elephants in and out, another Black Rhino (approaching within a couple of metres), several Jackals and a Spotted Hyena. As at Okaukuejo, flocks of mixed Double-banded and Namaqua Sandgrouses flocked in to drink shortly after dusk, while Rufous-cheeked Nightjars swarmed in the lights and a Marsh Owl hunted around the water's edge. Another memorable night!
A greater variety of birds were seen in the Namutoni area than anywhere else in Etosha. In addition, a number of excellent waterholes provided for first-class mammal watching, a new experience at every turn!
The adventures got off to a good start with a slow drive eastward from Halali, picking up African Hawk Eagles on the nest near Halali, two Spotted Hyenas near Goas, a pride of Lions hiding in the grass at Batia and another two Hyenas at Okerfontein, plus herds of Elands at Batia and Kalkheuwel. As had been the case in the west of the park, some of the best birding was to be had around the well-watered lawns and thickets of Namutoni itself. As well as a family of Warthogs that came nosing around the tents and a few Banded Mongooses, delights of this campsite included Southern Pied Babblers, several Crimson-breasted Shrikes, Burchell's Starlings and another Red-billed Buffalo Weaver. In addition to these 'specials', a whole host of small birds were seen, such as Blue Waxbills and Red-billed Queleas, the latter attracting a pair of Ovambo Sparrowhawks.
An afternoon drive up the eastern flank of the salt pan took me to the Andoni Plain, an expansive area of open grassland, supporting high densities of Wildebeest, Zebra, Oryx and other game. For me, however, the main goal was Blue Crane, the highlight being when I found eleven feeding together at a waterhole. A very nice sight - a mix of antelopes and Blue Cranes, with a backdrop of Kori's Bustards and Ostriches dotting the area and flocks of Fawn-coloured Larks flushing up in every direction. On route back, a loop around Fischer's Pan, primarily to see the sunset over Twee Palms, was again good for birds, most particularly for a very amiable pair of Secretary Birds stalking the grassland, but also for the many Kalahari Robins in the thickets.
Back at camp, events were unfolding that were to end with a totally haunting experience, the most memorable of my trip to Etosha. Earlier in the day, a lazy afternoon had been planned, to spend the hot hours relaxing in front of the waterhole, watching the comings and goings of the numerous Zebras, admiring a small flock of Blue Crane, perhaps even to write a few notes. And so was passing an undisturbed hour, when suddenly news filtered through that Lions had made a kill. Off I went and indeed they had - just 100 metres from where I sat, three Lions had brought down a Zebra less than two metres from the camp fence. Excellent enough, but given the heat, the Lions retreated to the thick of bushes to await the cool of night, rendering views to sandy ear tufts and the occasional wagging tail. Only one thing for it, to return at night!
So it was, an hour after sunset, armed with torch, camera and binoculars, I set off to see if the Lions had returned. Just short of the spot, I was met by a girl explaining she wanted to photograph the Lions ... but was a bit afraid, saying the Lions were jumping at the fence. Quietly approaching, it quickly became apparent it was no longer just three Lions, the noise was incredible, Lions growling and fighting over the carcass. As we neared, an amazing sight befell us, a whole pride of Lions devouring the Zebra - a whole pride of Lions not very happy to see us! Still we sneaked closer, eventually settling just two metres from the frenzy, torchlight illuminating the scene, reflecting their eyes, picking out all the big cats. Constant growls and snarls should have been warning enough, but still the event was amazing ... suddenly, a female was up, in a split second covering the short distance between us, jumping up at the flimsy fence that served as our only protection. Involuntarily I fell back, feeling the might of a full-grown Lion virtually on top of me, certainly enough to kick your heart into a faster beat! Though the fence was badly buckled, and the female made two more runs for us, we stayed on, slowly joined by a few more people, all entranced by the spectacle playing out in front of us. Eventually, I retired to my tent, only some tens of metres further back, and slowly fell to sleep to a lullaby of quarrelling Lion and the taunting arrival cries of Hyenas.
Next morning, all was calm and quiet, not a sign of the previous night's events remained (bar the damaged fence!), not a single trace of the Zebra, not a bone, not a scrap of skin, nothing. Birds sang, Guineafowl scuttled through the bush, the relentless procession of Zebras continued in their march to the waterhole, the loss of one of their members the calamity of a past moment!
My last morning at Etosha began at Kalkheuwel waterhole, where hundreds of Black-faced Impalas and Springboks gathered, along with about 25 Elands and many other animals. All, with the exception of the couple of dozen Elephants, were supremely cautious, for this waterhole is much favoured by big cats! Perhaps more numerous at this waterhole than any other, huge flocks of birds were also coming to drink - amongst the hundreds of Great and Grey-headed Sparrows, Red-headed Finches and Red-billed Queleas, occasional Green-spotted Doves and Meyer's Parrots were also flitting in and out, as well as Crimson-breasted Shrikes. About 120 Helmeted Guineafowl also vocally announced their arrival!
From here, I made a final loop up to the salt pan at Springbokfontain, where the remains of a kill attracted White-headed, White-backed and Lappet-faced Vultures, then headed back to camp to prepare for the long drive back to Windhoek.
After days of dawn til dusk and beyond, 2000 km of dust
and bumpy roads, today was 'feet up' and relax, a bit of shopping and a lot
of sitting poolside at the Cardboard Box hostel. No birding, other than watching
Grey Louries and White-backed Mousebirds in the
Another Windhoek day, weighing up the odds of whether to head north or south. A morning visit to Avis Dam was a little ill timed, not early enough to miss the heat. Thus, the three or four kilometre walk was not so productive birdwise, dipping out on species such as Rockrunner. Overall however, birds seen were fairly similar to those noted on previous visits, but with the addition of African Spoonbill and Crimson-breasted Shrike.
The turn of November saw me on the road again, plodding the long track south en route to Luderitz. Covering 500 km, most in a trailer wagon of a Jo'burg bound removals truck, birds were few and the day's highlights fell to troops of Baboons not far south of Windhoek. As night fell, having reached Keetmanshoop, the point where my road veered off to the west, I bush-camped in thickets near the roadside, ready for the last 300 km the next morning.
To want to see a Barlow's Lark, essentially another little brown thing, is either for the eager or perhaps slightly daft! For this recently described bird, whose range extends down a narrow belt from just Port Nolloth in the Northern Cape to Luderitz in Namibia, lives its whole life in some of the hottest, most barren and furthest flung parts of the two countries. With almost its entire range in the diamond areas, strictly off-limits, your possibilities to see it are limited to a handful of sites ... one of these being exactly 3 km west of the "Luderitz 50" sign post, out in the middle of the desert. Countless kilometres either side totally devoid of vegetation, the site is marked by low Euphorbia bushes north of the road. Hitching here hadn't been too difficult, though persuading the guy that I really wanted to get out in the middle of nowhere left him wondering to the sanity of tourists to his country! Minutes after arriving, however, birds could be seen: Grey-backed Finch-Larks flitting up, Tractrac Chats on the bushes, then, after about fifteen minutes, my prize - sandy peach above, unstreaked below, a fine Barlow's Larks foraging at the base of a bush. Triumphant, a stove was set up and tea made, tens of kilometres from the nearest person, I sat and drank tea, entertained by the appearance of another pair of Barlow's Larks.
Another roadside wait, accompanied by a family of Capped Wheatears, then onward I hitched to Luderitz, arriving in a town of howling winds and no space in any of the budget accommodation.
Luderitz peninsula, a harsh rocky sliver of land sandwiched between burning desert to the east and, flowing straight up from Antarctica, the cold Bengula Current on the west. Landward, precious little life stirs, seaward a bounty. My day in this land of contrasts was magical. Just offshore, like symbols to the worlds of hot and cold, Halifax Island supported a rather bazaar mix of shoulder-to-shoulder Jackass Penguins and Greater Flamingoes. The small island, once a whaling base, is now home to hundreds of the nesting penguins, even in the doorways of the old dilapidated buildings. The seas all around, and to the enigmatic Diaz Point beyond, are rich waters: Bengula endemics such as both Bank and Crowned Cormorants, Black Oystercatchers and Hartlaub's Gulls abounded, Heaviside's Dolphins were common and, at Diaz Point itself, a colony of Cape Fur Seals. Sheltered from the worst of the winds, lagoons landward side of the peninsula had yet more Flamingoes, to the accompaniment this time of White-fronted Plovers and northern waders, fresh down from Europe. Away from the coast, throughout my day of walking the lunar-like basalts and weather-shattered hillocks, not a single land bird was seen ... a mark of the extreme severity of this hostile land. The impression further reinforced by the discovery of graves of sailors from days gone by, lucky enough to have survived a shipwreck, unfortunate to have done so on the 'Skeleton Coast', a fate awaiting them to die from lack of water.
Trouble with Namibia is, with distances so great and cars so few, many a day's hitching is spent going nowhere fast! And so it was again today. Starting at in Luderitz, thirteen hours on the road got me only as far as Grunau, 500 km further on. In all those hours and kilometres, I managed to watch a football match at a roadside youth offenders prison, find a dead Cape Eagle Owl near Aus and see various nice birds, such as Sickle-winged Chat, Rüppell's Korhaan and Black Swifts. As darkness closed in, with thoughts turning to another night sleeping by the roadside, luck struck and I managed to get a single lift down over the South African border and right down to my destination, Clanwilliam, 610 km to the south.
Arriving at Clanwilliam dam at , bleary-eyed and not too sure of the safety of walking a South African town at that time, I headed out to the lakeside campsite. As dawn broke and fishermen set to water, I disappeared into my tent for a 'good night's sleep'! Four hours later I was up again, birding the luxuriant riverine vegetation below the dam (highlight being Fairy Flycatcher) and, moreover, Kransvlei Poort, a small mountain pass some 10 km south of the dam - primarily a site for the often elusive Protea Canary. An hour or so up this scenic valley produced Orange-throated Longclaw and Grassbird in the lower reaches and, in the Poort itself, a pair of the desired Protea Canaries, plus two of the unique burrow-nesting Ground Woodpeckers.
Then, with Clanwilliam not really appealing and not having even slept a night, I decamped and hitched to the cool breezes of the coast at Lambert's Bay. Though semi-exhaustion loomed, initial impressions hinted at fantastic birding. In need of good rest, I abandoned my tent and booked into a nice plush self-catering flatlet.
Lambert's Bay, a town for birds or people? Hard to say, a wonderful place with birds in all directions. The town's harbour, protected by Bird Island, is a frenzy of life, the island itself a haven to a black-and-white carpet of 23,000 pairs of Cape Gannets and 2500 pairs of assorted cormorants. Year on year, the colony continues to expand, to such an extent that many cormorants even nest on boats in the harbour. Amongst Kelp and Hartlaub's Gulls crowding the beach, a small colony of Jackass Penguins huddles in tight congregation, whilst offshore numerous Cape Fur Seals swim. A few minutes north of town is Jakkalsvlei, a large lake and wetland. Although I couldn't find a reported Franklin's Gull, birds abounded - hundreds of Black-necked Grebes, assorted wildfowl, Flamingoes and spoonbills, numerous waders and large roosts of terns and gulls. All around town, to the north, east and south, rich strandveld vegetation (low scrub and thickets) provided yet more bird attractions, abundant in species from Southern Black Korhaan to Bar-throated Apalis and Cape Penduline Tit.
Another morning of strandveld exploration at Lambert's Bay, picking up on typical species such as Long-billed Crombec and Fiscal Flycatcher, then gambled on hitching the almost unused gravel roads to Eland's Bay and then southward to Veldriff, in total only a little more than 100 km, but potentially unreachable.
Again luck was in, not only did I get a single lift to Veldriff, but also the driver made a stop-over in Eland's Bay. This fortuitous event enabling me a couple of hours at the bird-rich vlei to connect with numerous species, including White Pelicans, a few Purple Herons and Little Bittern, as well as African Fish Eagle, Blue Cranes, Alpine Swifts and Southern Grey Tits.
Arriving late afternoon in Veldriff, a small town on the banks of the Berg River, I checked into a small hotel, getting a room overlooking the estuary - both Greater and Lesser Flamingoes and White Pelicans just outside the window! As for a planned walk across the very blustery saltpans, all ended prematurely when I ran into the lady who had given me a lift earlier in the day - I was then invited to an evening barbecue after which I was shown a roosting Spotted Eagle Owl.
Long walks around the Veldriff salt pans and an hour up the tidal river took up most of the morning. The large variety of waterbirds included a mix of both migrant and local waders, African Marsh Harrier and numerous terns, whilst alongside dry areas supported both Thick-billed Lark and Capped Wheatear.
Hitching south, again got lucky - hooking up with a Dutch couple for a tour of the West Coast National Park. No sooner in the park than a fortunate stop for some antelope also produced some very fine Grey-winged Francolins. The rest of the park, though stunning in its beauty of flowering fynbos and turquoise bays, was rather less interesting for birds, probably largely due to a wind blowing near gale force! Best sightings were the numerous Ostriches and a Southern Black Korhaan. Then, still with the Dutch, travelled on to Cape Town, arriving to a full hostel and having to get up a tent in a howling wind!
Back to the mountains of Cape Town! Not wishing to repeat the exertions of mid-October (and the risk of another mountain rescue!), I decided against a return to Table Mountain, but opted instead for its neighbour, Lion's Head. A relatively easy, if be hot, hike of several hours and I was on the summit, stunning 360º views, plus good flocks of mixed swifts, as well as pairs of White-necked Ravens and Cape Siskins.
Then back down for an afternoon on the tourist trail, shopping in the Victoria & Albert waterfront complex.
About 50 km east of Cape Town, marking a dramatic end to the Cape Flats, a barrier of mountains cut across the land, providing spectacular views back towards to the Cape Peninsula and some of the best birding in the area. Having hitched out (perhaps not the best way of travelling, needing to pass alongside the absolutely not safe shanty towns of the Cape Flats), I spent several hours exploring the high slopes at Sir Lowry's Pass. A highly rewarding morning, with Cape Rockrunners the main prize - a pair of these stunners were quickly found on the boulder-strewn hillside not far from the road, with another male at the nearby Gantouw Pass. Climbing to the summit of Kanonkop paid further dividends with a male Sentinel Rock Thrush singing atop the radio mask, while a Cape Sugarbird fed amongst the fynbos and a Black Eagle drifted by. Descending into Gantouw Pass yet more good birds included Malachite Sunbird, a pair of Ground Woodpeckers, several Cape Siskins and, in the denser vegetation, Victorin's Warbler. Klipspringer antelope was also seen.
All target birds seen, I then wandered back towards the main road and hitched a lift back to Cape Town.
Hot and humid in Cape Town. Took a taxi out to the exclusive residential district of Constantia to bird the excellent 'greenbelts' - areas of semi-natural forest on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. The undoubted star was Knysna Warbler, an elusive skulker with a song very much like Wood Warbler of Europe. Several hours searching eventually located a pair, which finally resulted in the singing male giving short, but very good views. A whole host of other specials included Cinnamon Dove, Forest Canary, good numbers of Cape Batis and Sombre Bulbuls, plus both Dusky and Paradise Flycatchers, Red-chested Cuckoo, African Goshawk and introduced species such as European Starling and Chaffinch (not forgetting, also Grey Squirrels!).
Beyond Sir Lowry's Pass and the Hottentot Mountains, two distinct and highly contrasting regions can be found - to the north, the semi-deserts of the Karoo; to the south, the fertile Overburg, a region of undulating wheat fields and reserves of lowland fynbos. Both areas are crammed full of birding hotspots and numerous endemics and other special birds, so I hired a car for a four days to do a total round up of the two areas.
Driving eastward, my first stop was not for birds, but the famous whale site at Hermaness. This was truly an unforgettable experience with good numbers of Southern Right Whales cavorting in the bay, the giants on occasion coming as close as a metre or two from the rocky peninsula, their each appearance announced by the town's 'whale crier' and the oohs and ahs of the assembled crowds! Leaving Hermaness, I entered the vast monocultures of wheat that typify the Overburg, lands that are surprisingly rich in birds. Sticking to gravel roads and slowly winding towards De Hoop Nature Reserve, frequent stops picked up numerous birds, most notable a total of 72 Blue Cranes, great puffed-out Stanley's Bustards in display, several Orange-throated Longclaws and abundant Red Bishops and Pied Starlings. At De Hoop, my destination was Potburg Mountain, its cliffs holding the Western Cape's last breeding colony of Cape Vultures. When I arrived, not a single raptor was to be seen, but as the afternoon wore on, the vultures began to return to the colony, with eventually at least 12 circling above the hillside. Having seen this much desired species, I then drove into the heart of the national park and camped alongside the vlei, a large lake supporting African Spoonbills, herons, a variety of waders and wildfowl and localised specials such as Horus Swifts and Pearl-breasted Swallows. The whole park is rich in mammal life - in addition to the Bontebok antelopes for which the park is famous, Eland, Mountain Zebras and Baboon were easily seen, as well as Cape Hares and Yellow Mongooses.
Awaking at to find De Hoop in gloom and drizzle, it seemed a bad omen to start the day. My target birds of the morning, Knysna Woodpecker and Southern Tchagra, both skulkers in the best of weathers, would surely be ever more elusive in such inclement weather. Sure enough, in almost an hour, walking from one wet bush to another, I saw not the slightest sign ...until, as is so often the case, almost back at my camp, out on a exposed branch, looking as bedraggled as me, a fine male Knysna Woodpecker! Excellent stuff, a celebratory cup of tea back at base, then off to find the Tchagras. I quickly found a Spotted Eagle Owl on a cliff face, looking even wetter than the woodpecker, but still not a hint of my goal. Finally, after another hour, on the point of giving up and as the sun began to break through, a pair of Tchagras literally jumped out onto the path in front of me and gave prolonged excellent views. A quick drive down to the beach, Cape Mountain Zebras and countless Bontebok antelopes on the way, and then a bit of déjà vu began to set in as yet more Southern Right Whales appeared offshore. A quick scout through a bit more of the fynbos of De Hoop, picking up on some birds such as Bar-throated Apalis, another pair of Southern Tchagras and a fine displaying Stanley's Bustard, then it was on the road again for the next stage of an excellent day of birding.
Back in the Overburg farmland, I wound northwards, taking the gravel roads through Malgas and up to Swellendam. A fantastic route, with roadside birds all the way. Heading the cast, spectacular birds such as another 66 Blue Cranes and both Stanley's Bustard and Southern Black Korhaan were prominent. Stops to explore patches of fynbos and scrub, particularly in the latter parts of this route, were very fruitful - amongst the plentiful Red-capped and Thick-billed Larks, a few areas produced both displaying Clapper Larks and Agulhas Long-billed Larks, not to forget Cloud Cisticolas and a couple of Long-billed Pipits. Other common birds of the area included Hadeda and Sacred Ibises, Black Crows, a few passing White-necked Ravens and a handful of Capped Wheatears. The occasional Angulate Tortoise also livened up the route!
A little further north, the small but quaint Bontebok National Park finally revealed in all their glory two of my key species for this area - previously seen poorly, first an Agulhas Long-billed Lark gave fantastic views, shortly followed by two stunning Black Harriers, quartering the fynbos at very close range. As name of the park might suggest, Bontebok antelopes are the most conspicuous of the game, though Mountain Zebras and Red Hartebeests also abound, as did the only Grey Rheboks of my trip. Alongside the River Breede, the park's campsite offered a shady respite from the once again burning sun, the change of habitat also throwing in a few good birds. Though undoubtedly better in the early morning, a walking trail through acacia thicket nevertheless revealed Bokmakeries and both Paradise and Dusky Flycatchers, whilst Pearl-breasted Swallows, Sombre Bulbul and Red-chested Cuckoo were all found alongside the river.
From Bontebok, I then drove further eastward, arriving at Grootvadersbosch to pitch camp just before dusk.
After a night of listening to the calls of Wood Owls, I woke early for a full day's birding at Grootvadersbosch - the western Cape's largest area of indigenous Afromontane forest. With dense tangled forest, luxuriant streamside vegetation, the feel is every bit that of a true rainforest, even to the extent of having drizzle and rain throughout the day!
As with such habitat everywhere, birding is a highly frustrating experience, with birds heard left, right and centre, but rarely seen ...and when seen, most often a mere fleeting glimpse of a tail disappearing. You are left waiting in the vain hope that some strange unknown sound emanating from dense foliage might just pop out, but not always even totally sure if it's indeed a bird and not a frog or insect!
As the day progressed, however, the species tally steadily rose - amongst the numerous Cape White-eyes, Cape Batis, Sombre Bulbuls, Rameron Pigeons and Paradise Flycatchers, the specials of the forest slowly appeared. First, a Blue-mantled Flycatcher, then a Yellow-throated Warbler and a pair of Forest Canaries. Not long after, a whole host of good birds surfaced - in a mixed flock of birds, including Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, a pair of Olive Woodpeckers put on a good show. Overhead, Black Saw-wing Swallows cavorted and nearby, hooting an almost owl-like call, my main prize of the day came in the form of a beautiful male Narina Trogon, emerald green with scarlet chest. If only for this dazzling bird, my visit to Grootvadersbosch was one of my highlights in South Africa - and by the end of the day, I had seen another male and heard a third. Continuing my walks in the forest, not only did I see Cinnamon Dove and hear Knysna Warbler, but also startled a Bushbuck antelope which then went crashing off through the undergrowth. Heading back to the campsite, there was just time to see Streaky-headed Canary and Swee Waxbill, before beginning the long drive north through Langeberge Mountains to reach the Karoo area.
At Karoo Poort, I made a quick stop at a reeded stream for a classic species of the locality - in the phragmites, it took just a few minutes to see Namaqua Warbler. On neighbouring crags, both White-necked Raven and Pale-winged Starlings were also seen. I then drove north to Eierkop to camp in the bush.
An amazing night of stars under the clear desert skies of the Tanqua Karoo, then a dawn wake to the 'craak raak raak' of Karoo Korhaans, an excellent start with the three birds found within minutes. Both the birds and scenery around Eierkop were amazing - Eierkop itself is one of a pair of distinctive hillocks that rise out of the shimmering semi-arid desert plains. At the base of the rocky hillside, two specials of the Karoo gave stunning views - first a pair of Fairy Flycatchers feeding fledged young, then a pair of Karoo Eremomelas darting from bush to bush. In addition to these birds, the area was alive with numerous Rufous-eared Warblers and Karoo Chats, as well as several Malachite Sunbirds and both Karoo and Spike-heeled Larks. Climbing the hill, the succulent plant growth attracts attention, though foraging Southern Grey Tits and an immature Black Eagle were equally impressive.
Onward to my next birding stop, the 20 km drive up to Katbakkies involved several stops, first for Pale Chanting Goshawks and later, close to the junction for Katbakkies, Tractrac Chats. Katbakkies itself is primarily renowned for Cinnamon-breasted Warblers and, indeed, after a scramble up a rocky crag, one was duly seen. However, this locality is far more than just that one species - Karoo, Mountain and Familiar Chats all occurred, Alpine Swifts screamed overhead, a mix of Pririt Batis, Layard's Titbabbler and Fairy Flycatcher all busied themselves in the picnic site. A small oasis in an otherwise arid landscape, a small reeded pool held Levaillant's Cisticolas and breeding Southern Masked and Cape Weavers, as well as serving as a drinking pool for White-backed Mousebirds and White-necked Ravens.
From the Karoo, I then drove via the amazingly scenic Bain's Kloof to Paarl. Driving through Bain's Kloof, the narrow road twists and winds, all the time hugging a vertical cliff - so, for once, though I did manage both Black and Booted Eagles, eyes paid more attention to the hairpin bends and gaping chasms beyond than to birds overhead!
At Paarl, a perfect blend of conservation and practicality has seen the town's sewage farm turned into a bird sanctuary, boasting a variety of habitats, a large breeding colony of mixed herons and ibises, plus facilities such as several bird hides. In addition to a variety of waders and wildfowl (including Southern Pochard, Maccoa Duck and White-faced Duck), numerous Grey-headed Gulls and White-winged Terns flocked over the pools, though a reported Black-headed Gull failed to show. From the hides, as well as nest-building Southern Weavers, some of the entertainers included a couple of Malachite Kingfishers, several Anhingas and, amongst the more common Brown-throated Sand Martins, about eight White-throated Swallows. The piece de la resistance of the sanctuary, however, is the breeding colony at its northern end - packed onto a small wooded island, numerous Reed Cormorants, Cattle Egrets and Sacred Ibises all compete for space. Livening up the colony, the mass is intermingled by several pairs of African Spoonbills, White-breasted Cormorants and Anhingas, with also the occasional Black-headed Heron, Yellow-billed Egret, Little Egret and Black-crowned Night Heron. All in all, a noisy and somewhat smelly experience!
Leaving Paarl, it was then back to Cape Town to drop off the car and prepare for the next sector of my trip.
A rest day from birding, the whole day spent in Cape Town and at the city's Victoria & Albert Waterfront, a shopping and entertainment complex (though plenty of Hartlaub's Gulls to see).
With a day to kill whilst waiting the pelagic trip (prebooked for the 18th), what better way to kill it than a return to the Boulders Beach penguin colony, then a hike round to the Cape of Good Hope. At Boulders, much the same birds as the month previous - shoulder to shoulder Jackass Penguins, Cape White-eyes in the bushes, but this time with the addition of Crowned Cormorant on the sea and Southern Boubou in the undergrowth. At the Cape, it was gloriously hot and calm, birds again as on my first trip (Peregrine Falcons, Cape Siskins, White-necked Ravens), but audacious Red-winged Starlings ambushed and stole my dinner, a Bryde's Whale cruised beneath the Cape, Rock Hyraxes poised for photos and Baboons held up traffic.
The pelagic! Where the rich waters of the Bengula Current hit the continental shelf, some 50 km south of the Cape of Good Hope, a nutrient-rich upwelling of icy water creates a highly bountiful fishing ground. At the heart of the South African fishing industry, many trawlers are attracted, more importantly numerous seabirds too. The key to success on a pelagic trip is to locate one of the trawlers, a magnet to the birds as they seek the plentiful offal.
So it was, at dawn the trip began. Steaming south, all was calm and smooth til we hit the Cape of Good Hope, here as we passed the end of Africa, the notorious waters hinted at what powers they could possess. Clinging on not to be thrown overboard and water-soaked from head to toe, we sailed through heavy sea and drizzle for about an hour, several of the passengers succumbing to the violent ups and downs of the boat. Then miraculously we broke through into sunny seas and, on the radar, our hoped-for trawler. Another hour passed, with the first albatrosses and shearwaters already passing, and then we approached the fishing boat. In its wake, hundreds of seabirds from Giant Petrels down to the tiny Wilson's Petrels, but the stars were firstly the highly attractive Pintado Petrels and, moreover, the albatrosses. Shy Albatross were, by far, the most abundant, Black-browed the next, with at least three Yellow-nosed Albatrosses too, fortunately including an adult allowing identification to the Indian Ocean species. Then, suddenly, the true special of the day, sporting a massive three-metre wingspan, a Wandering Albatross, almost mystical, swooped in for several fly passes, dwarfing its commoner counterparts.
All too soon, with several hours needed back to land, it was time to leave. Journey home was one of contentment, calmer water and still a few nice birds, such as Pomarine Skua, and dolphins. Back on dry land, there was time to reflect on a rare day spent with the masters of the sea, out in the wilds on their true home. The below list tallies the approximate numbers of all those birds seen on the trip:
Jackass Penguin - common inshore, c.18 offshore
Wandering Albatross - 1
Shy Albatross - c.100
Black-browed Albatross - 20-30
Indian Ocean Yellow-nosed Albatross - 1 adult (and 2 imm. either chlororhynchus/bassi)
Southern Giant Petrel - c.20
Northern Giant Petrel - 1
Pintado Petrel - 15
Great-winged Petrel - 25
White-chinned Petrel - abundant
Great Shearwater - 10
Flesh-footed Shearwater - 1
Sooty Shearwater - 45+
Manx Shearwater - 5
Wilson's Storm Petrel - 15+
Cape Gannet - common, mostly inshore
Arctic Skua - common
Long-tailed Skua - 1
Pomarine Skua - 1
Subantarctic Skua - c.30
White-breasted Cormorant - several inshore
Cape Cormorant - numerous inshore
Bank Cormorant - 1 inshore
Kelp Gull - numerous inshore
Hartlaub's Gull - numerous inshore
Sabine's Gull - c.20 offshore
Swift Tern - common inshore
Sandwich Tern - common inshore
Common Tern - common inshore
Arctic Tern - common offshore
Day based at Simon's Town, a quick (and unproductive) birding hike into the mountains above the town. Otherwise just getting ready for the evening departure on the Intercape bus from Cape Town () to Brandvlei ().
Long hours and many kilometres under a very hot sun, this was indeed a tiring day! Arriving in Brandvlei at , the small one-alley town was, needless to say, dark and shuttered. I kipped down behind the hotel til 6.30, then headed off for an initial explore. Barely outside town, Larklike Buntings were everywhere, most impressive being a massive flock of about 200. Other birds in this first hour included a Pale Chanting Goshawk, three Black-headed Canaries, a flock of White-backed Mousebirds and several Yellow-bellied Eremomelas. After returning for breakfast, I then set out for a marathon 20 km walk in the arid plains east of town. Though I failed in one of my main targets (Red Lark), the whole Brandvlei area was nevertheless a birding hotspot, particularly rich in larks and chats.
Of the larks, the most common were Spike-heeled and Karoo Long-billed, but special mention must go to Black-eared Finchlarks (a flock of about ten) and a pair of the highly nomadic Sclater's Larks, this latter species usually best found by waiting at a favoured waterhole. Following recent rains, however, waterholes were abundant and this approach didn't seem likely to succeed - fortunately, luck was in as I encountered my pair on an open stony plain. As regards the chats, in addition to the chunky Southern Anteating Chat, another four species - Familiar, Sickle-winged, Tractrac and Karoo - inhabited the area and all were seen during the day. Many of the species seen at Eierkop earlier in the week were once again seen at Brandvlei, these included Namaqua Sandgrouses, a Karoo Korhaan, Pririt Batis and Rufous-eared Warblers (the latter very common), though additional birds included a Double-banded Courser and about 15 Chat Flycatchers. Not a bird, but exciting enough, a hiss and rattle about midway through my walk brought me to an abrupt halt ... just a few centimetres from my foot, hunched in strike mode, a snake made it quite clear that I was an unwelcome intrusion! A couple of photos, then a careful retreat, another adventure in the African bush!
Arriving back at the hotel in the evening, the effects of one night on a bus and countless hours in the scorching sun ensued sleep was long and good!
Another massive travel day, attempting to hitchhike the almost 1300 km from Brandvlei back up to Windhoek in Namibia. Largely on deserted roads, I managed only half by nightfall, reaching the junction town of Grunau. Huge flocks of European Swallows and healthy numbers of Black-eared Finchlarks marked the route, as well as a couple of South African Cliff Swallows (Uppington) and single Ludwig's Bustards either side of the border.
No lift the whole night, then an early morning ride the 560 km to Rehoboth, then quickly onward to Windhoek. Though I slept most of the way, the early stages through the Karasburg Mountains were particularly interesting, with exciting birds such as a calling Karoo Korhaan, a couple of Martial Eagles, a Short-toed Rock Thrush and both Karoo and Anteating Chats. Also seen, in the last few kilometres before Windhoek, three troops of Baboons feeding alongside the road.
A rest day in Windhoek, only popping out to the sewage farm in the late afternoon. Species much as on the October visits - large numbers of Wattled Starlings, good counts of wildfowl (including Maccoa Duck) and various cormorants and herons, most prominent two Dwarf Bitterns. Wader numbers had increased, however, and included about 80 Ruff, ten Wood Sandpipers, four Avocets and an obliging male Painted Snipe. On the small bird front, both Long-billed Crombec and Pririt Batis were noted.
Yet another day on the road. In a series of easy hitches (British tourists, then Angolans), I managed the entire 900 km from Windhoek to the remote Ruacana Falls on the Cunene River, on the edge of Himba land. Punctuating the long kilometres, Tawny Eagles, a Gabar Goshawk, a Pygmy Falcon and a Striped Cuckoo, all near Otjiwarongo, and Red-breasted Swallows near Oshikati all helped enliven the journey, as did a big troop of Baboons near Tsumeb.
Ruacana Falls, a primitive, yet marvellous, campsite on the banks of the Cunene River, facing across to Angola on the opposite bank. A most peaceful setting, with traditional semi-clad Himba people wandering through, Hippos and Crocodiles in the river, plus Vervet Monkeys raiding the camp, not to forget Monitor Lizards and a dazzling array of birds, including a whole host of near endemics not easily seen elsewhere in southern Africa. Hot and humid, so most of the day spent relaxing outside my tent gazing down at the river, the many bird specialities appearing all around! Indeed, nearly all the key birds of the area were found in or around the campsite: Olive Bee-eaters breeding in the bank, Red-necked Francolins, Black-faced Babblers and Long-tailed Starlings throughout the camp, as well as a Golden-tailed Woodpecker and many Blue Waxbills and Red-billed Firefinches. The river supported numerous more species - not only about a handful of Green-backed Herons and a roost of Night Herons, but also Fish Eagles, Water Dikkops, both Giant and Pied Kingfishers, and, in riverine vegetation, Black Crakes, White-browed Coucals, Golden Weavers and, hawking from its cover, many Little Bee-eaters. Leaving the campsite, a walk into the arid thornveld south of the river notched up yet more birds. The most notable of these being several flocks of Chestnut Weavers, about 15 White-tailed Shrikes, a couple of Puffback Shrikes and a pair of Carp's Tits, plus both Monteiro's and Red-billed Hornbills among the more numerous Grey Hornbills.
By mid-afternoon, with just one trip out of the camp, most of my target birds had already been seen - the main exception being Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush. Preferring riverside palm thicket, I set off for a stroll downriver to seek the bird out ...after a couple of kilometres, having seen two Goliath Herons, two Pearl-spotted Owlets, a Barred Owl and a Red-billed Woodhoopoe, still my desired bird had failed to appear. A group of Himba tribesmen came by, a Crocodile surfaced in the river, then finally, flitting from low bush to the next, a fine Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush!
On route back to camp, I saw my first Red-billed Oxpeckers of the trip, plus a Green Pigeon and Scarlet-chested Sunbird. On arrival back at my tent, I found monkeys had stolen most of what little food I had, so I got to share a rice dinner with a couple of Swiss cyclists, whilst a hippo popped his head up to say hello!
Spent the early morning at Ruacana Falls, adding Yellow-bellied Bulbul and Bare-cheeked Babblers to the impressive bird tally, then spent the rest of the day travelling eastward to Tsumeb, on route to Caprivi. Few birds seen, the best being Augur Buzzards and several Yellow-billed Kites.
An all-round good day! Starting at Tsumeb, having seen two Jacobin Cuckoos, got a quick lift to Grootfontain, then a speedy 220 km/hr lift the 250 km to Rundu, zooming past about 20 Red-breasted Swallows, a couple of Green-spotted Doves and several Yellow-billed Kites.
Then an excellent start to birding at Rundu. Staying at the Sarasunga River Lodge on the banks of the Okavango River, civil war Angola over the water, I soon found myself engulfed in a bird paradise. The campsite itself abounded in birds, from Eastern Bearded Robins and Long-tailed Shrikes to breeding Paradise Flycatchers and Kurrichane Thrushes. The surrounding district was even richer. The river area supported both Senegal and Coppery-tailed Coucals, Hartlaub's Babblers and colonies of Spotted-backed Weavers, while nearby woodland produced Black Cuckoos, Red-billed Woodhoopoes and a couple of Swainson's Francolins. In the evening, the owners of the lodge took me to the marshes surrounding the sewage farm, where, amongst the numerous waterbirds, the best were Rufous-bellied Heron and Lesser Moorhen. From the sewage farm, I walked back via the river to the lodge - on route seeing, in addition to a Grey-hooded Kingfisher and three Meyer's Parrots, the very rare Sousa's Shrike (this latter bird associating with an influx of at least 30 Red-backed Shrikes).
During the night, a major termite flight brought thousands of the insects into the campsite, attracting massive bullfrogs!
Rainy season truly arrived! Rain all morning, followed by moderately hot sun, clouding again at dusk. Despite the weather curtailing the early part of the day, birding was no less than excellent in the afternoon. Most of the time was spent around the old golf course and sewage farm, both rich in their own distinctive avifaunas (and, in the case of the golf course, snakes). While the birds at the golf course were largely similar to those of the day before, with the notable extra of a Great Spotted Cuckoo (and three Jacobin and six Black Cuckoos), the sewage farm produced amazing numbers and varieties of new birds. As well as more Rufous-bellied Herons, additional birds included a Dwarf Bittern, a Little Bittern, a Painted Snipe, numerous African Jacanas and flocks of Spur-winged Geese and White-faced Ducks. Nearby scrub and thornveld also held Woodland Kingfishers, noisy flocks of Red-billed Woodhoopoes and mixed parties of waxbills (Red-billed Firefinch, Black-cheeked Waxbill, Common Waxbill, Blue Waxbill and Melba Finch).
In addition to all the African birds, it was clear that, in addition to yet more Red-backed Shrikes, a major influx of European migrants was also occurring. Prominent were aerial feeders such as European Swifts, House Martins and both Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters, plus other newcomers like Honey Buzzard, Lesser Grey Shrike, European Sedge Warblers and Spotted Flycatcher.
Back at the campsite, as an encore to the day, the first Red-headed Weaver of the trip appeared, along with a rather nice Crimson-breasted Shrike.
A travel day, but marked by excellent birds along the whole route. A quick bit of birding around the campsite notched up a fly-by Dickinson's Kestrel, a Black-headed Oriole and the first Black-eyed Bulbuls of the Caprivi. I then began the 560 km hitch across the Caprivi Strip to Katima Mamila. My first lift took me only 45 km, but left me in a fruitful area of mopane woodland, especially rich in raptors. In the 20 minutes whilst waiting another ride, the tally included a Bateleur, a Black-breasted Snake Eagle, the only Gymnogene of the whole trip, two Dark Chanting Goshawks, at least 30 Yellow-billed Kites, an Ovambo Sparrowhawk and a pair of African Hobbies - not bad for an unplanned stop!
My next lift took me to Bagani, the point where the road crosses the Okavango River. From Bagani onwards, however, thanks to repeated cross-border attacks by Angolan rebels, the route was by military convoy only. With the convoy not due for three hours, I had another forced wait. Not a problem, plenty of time to make a walk along the river and associated floodplain. An excellent decision, with many birds seen - Rock Pratincoles, Lesser Striped Swallows and an African Pied Wagtail on the river, Wattled Plovers and a vagrant Whinchat in the meadows. Overhead, wandering raptors included an impressive Lappet-faced Vulture, the second Black-breasted Snake Eagle of the day, a migrant Lesser Spotted Eagle, plus an Abdim's Stork. Cutting back to Bagani, I detoured into the woodland, picking up such nice birds as Bearded Woodpecker and Southern Black Tits, but at the same time getting myself detained by the army for straying into 'restricted' areas! A half hour of arguments, the copying of my passport, plus a threat to confiscate my film, then I was released in time to join the convoy.
The convoy was strictly no stopping, no overtaking, no photography, etc, thus birding stops were certainly out of the question. This said, however, the route bisects the Caprivi Game Park, thus offers plenty from the car window - on my crossing, a herd of Elephants, several Impalas, troops of Baboons, plus a wonderful pair of Saddle-billed Storks on a roadside pool, along with numerous Lilac-breasted and a single Broad-billed Roller. With the 200 km convoy safely completed, it was then another 100 km and I was in Katima Mamila, choosing the pleasant Zambezi Lodge campsite on the banks on the River Zambezi.
The essence of Africa, Katima Mamila has the real 'feel' of the continent, from the town's colourful and bustling market to the many birds typical of the Afrotropics. The whole day was spent in the area, highly productive in birding terms, but hard work in hot, humid conditions. Explored the riverine forest downstream from Zambezi Lodge in the morning, then the sewage farm on the Kongola road in the afternoon, before a short evening return to the Zambezi at the town's pump station.
The morning walk through the forest was simply spectacular in bird terms, including many dramatic and easy to see species such as Trumpeter Hornbill, Crested Barbet and both African Golden and Black-headed Orioles. Many more species, though, were skulkers of the dense vegetation - Three-streaked Tchagras, the colourful but secretive Heuglin's Robins and both Terrestrial and Yellow-bellied Bulbuls. On the river, three kinds of kingfisher were seen, the most special being Half-collared Kingfisher. A slight opening in the forest revealed a pair of Blue Grey Flycatchers feeding young, plus Yellow-bellied Apalis and both White-bellied and Purple-banded Sunbirds. Should I have tired of birds, several Hippos were also on show, plus a Vervet Monkey!
A late breakfast back at camp added African Skimmer, Livingstone's Louries, Puffback Shrikes and a few Wire-tailed Swallows to the list of birds seen, while the walk into town notched up a pair of Broad-billed Rollers.
Under an exceptionally hot sun, the visit to the town's sewage farm was slightly frustrated by the dense reeds that hindered observation of many of the pools, but nevertheless fantastic numbers of birds abounded. Open-billed Storks, African Marsh Harrier, Coppery-tailed Coucal and both Arrow-marked and Hartlaub's Babblers were all easy. In the reeds, Thick-billed Weavers and Great Reed Warblers were the most common passerines, while other niceties involved Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Red-shouldered Bishop and a few Black Crakes. At the far end of the sewage farm, an area of flooded grassland was rich in waders (including Painted Snipe) and herons (Yellow-billed and Little Egrets, plus Grey, Squacco, Green-backed and Rufous-bellied Herons). In this grassland, I also flushed a Baillon's Crake, while overhead flocks of Blue-cheeked and Carmine Bee-eaters hawked the blue skies, with Little Bee-eaters also flitting out from nearby bushes.
On route back to my camp, I detoured to the town's pump station and was amply rewarded with 17 Marabou Storks, a Knob-billed Duck, 18 White-faced Ducks and two Long-tailed Plovers, all roosting together on a sandbank. One last treat awaited me before the day was to finish - sitting outside my tent as the sun began to set, watching Rock Pratincoles swoop over the river, the distinctive form of a Bat Hawk suddenly appeared in the growing twilight and went shooting off across the river. A fitting end to an amazing day! During the night, a Barn Owl flew through the campsite and a White-faced Owl was heard.
Katima Mamila is the meeting point of various subtly differing habitats, thus the woodlands to the north and south support rather different birds. For this reason, the morning of the 1st December saw me hitching about 20 km to mopane woodlands south of town.
With the woodland in this area very extensive, I randomly chose a 'good looking spot' and began to explore on foot - I was immediately rewarded with a good variety of raptors: White-backed Vultures, Bateleurs, Wahlberg's Eagles, African Hawk Eagle and, best of all, a pair of Lizard Buzzards. Entering the woodland, very open and thus easy for observation, the many birds included such lavish species as Woodland and Grey-hooded Kingfishers, Swallow-tailed and Little Bee-eaters and Lilac-breasted and Broad-billed Rollers, this group later joined by a flock of about 35 Red-billed Woodhoopoes and a very nice Racket-tailed Roller. A Red-billed Helmet Shrike added to the spice, as did a Black Cuckoo Shrike, a couple of African Golden Orioles and a Jameson's Firefinch. After a few hours of fruitful exploration, I then hitched back to town, seeing two Hooded Vultures waiting near a butcher's stall, and arrived back at camp just in time to avoid an incredibly heavy tropical downpour.
In the afternoon, with the sun out again, I hitched up to the Zambian border north of town, then walked back, winding through the mixed bush and grassland adjacent to the river. The most special point of the afternoon came as I pushed through an area of higher bushland - there, resting in a small clearing, a trio of Three-banded Coursers, quite approachable and a very nice surprise. Minutes later, I found a pair of Chinspot Batis with fledged young and not long after again, two female Coppery Sunbirds. Throughout the walk, in addition to all the African birds, there was a distinct European feel to the day - as well as large flocks European Swallows and Swifts, several Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and Willow Warblers were noted, plus a single Montagu's Harrier and European Hobby. Almost back at town, on a small marshy pool, a few more specialities found their way into my notebook - singing Black-backed and Red-faced Cisticolas, Bronze Mannikins, Painted Snipes and, circling overhead, a flock of about 70 Open-billed Storks.
Hoping to repeat the Bat Hawk of the previous day, I spent the last hour of the day in the campsite at the Zambezi Lodge - no luck with the raptor, but a couple of White-crowned Plovers on the river, two Trumpeter Hornbills overhead, and both a male Coppery Sunbird and 20 Bronze Mannikins in the camp.
After an early morning walk through the riverine forests, seeing Red-headed Weaver and Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, but adding only Tropical Boubou to the tally of the previous days, I decided to leave Katima Mamila and head back westward to the Okavango. Again, military convoy was necessary, so I hitched to Kongola to await its departure - as in the other direction, I had time to kill, so I headed off to the River Kwando for an hour's birding. Not as productive as it could have been, quite possibly due to the arrival of another tropical downpour, but in the space of an hour I managed a male Montagu's Harrier, a Fish Eagle, a mix of Blue-cheeked and Carmine Bee-eaters and the only Plain-backed Pipit of the trip.
Catching the convoy, the journey through Caprivi Game Park was, other than a Dickinson's Kestrel, rather uneventful. I arrived at the Okavango River in the late afternoon and headed down to Popa Falls, camping at a lodge just downriver of the falls themselves.
A foot day! Despite the high heat, I walked the 15 km from Popa Falls up to the gates of Mahango Game Park, birding all the way. The dirt road passed through mopane woodland for most of the route, thus a whole scope of good birds were seen, including the localised Sharp-tailed Starling, a couple of Little Banded Goshawks, a Southern Black Flycatcher and, on the edge of a farmed area, a single Orange River Francolin. Despite being told otherwise in Windhoek, the park rangers at Mahango were resolute that I would not be allowed entry on foot, reciting all the various animals that would surely eat me! Not wishing to retrace my dusty path, I instead cut across to the Okavango River, seeing Plum-coloured Starlings, Red-headed Weaver and both Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures on the way. At the river, a paradise awaited me - not so much the river itself (though the herds of Hippos would think otherwise), but the superb system of riverside meadows and seasonal pools that stretched all the way to Ngepi Camp and beyond. Lots of special birds here - Knob-billed Ducks, a male Pygmy Goose, Wattled Plovers, Black-backed and Chirping Cisticolas, Pink-throated Longclaw and many more. Following the pools as far as Ngepi Camp, I saw, as well as the above birds, Brown Firefinches, single Rufous-backed and Purple Herons, several Bateleurs, both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers and a flock of about 65 Open-billed Storks. At Ngepi Camp, I soon found I was camping at the wrong place - this was a campsite simply par excellence, a shady haven on the banks of the river, run by three easy-going ex-pats and full of birds too! Sitting in their outdoor bar, surrounded by Black-collared Barbets, Paradise Flycatchers and Hartlaub's Babblers, I quickly decided that I would move here the next day.
Returning to the Popa Falls area in the late afternoon, I made a visit to the falls themselves. In reality, there is no waterfall, but rather a series of rapids as the Okavango River cascades over a rocky ridge. It is, nonetheless, a very picturesque locality and offers easy access to many of the typical birds of the region. Highlights of my visit were a Woolly-necked Stork, several Rock Pratincoles and a Giant Kingfisher at the river, plus Eastern Bearded Robins and Jameson's Firefinches in the campsite.
Waking early, I packed and decamped, moving the 15 km down the Okavango River to Ngepi Camp. A wise action, the rest of the day a bliss of either relaxing by the river or exploring the riverside marshes and wet grasslands in adjacent oxbows. Birds common and rare abounded: in the wetlands, Black Egrets, Rufous-bellied Herons and Wattled Plovers; in drier meadows, Quail Finches, Harlequin Quails and Flappet Larks; in the skies, an incredible 220 Yellow-billed Kites and another flock of Open-billed Storks. Late in the afternoon, things got even better, when suddenly, out of the blue, an influx of migrants brought at least 45 Red-winged Pratincoles to the meadows, close examination also revealing about four Black-winged Pratincoles. In the midst of these, further Carmine and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters swooped and a Red-footed Falcon came scooting through.
In the evening, I joined a 'sun-downer', a relaxing beer on a mid-river island with the owners of the camp, watching a stunning sunset, surrounded by Hippos and a big Crocodile ...what a perfect way to end a day!
Up at dawn, I returned to the meadows and vleis north of Ngepi and immediately ran into one of the highlights of the trip - in full sunlight, a fantastic Bat Hawk flew low overhead and off into the dense vegetation of a tall tree, obviously its day roost. Not only is this species rare, but it is also crepuscular or nocturnal, so such views were welcome indeed.
The influx of migrants, that had begun the previous day, was obviously continuing - though the Red-winged Pratincoles had declined in number, a new wave of birds was headed by a nice flock of 28 Red-footed Falcons (initially roosting on a sand bank, then hawking over the river). Other nice birds, in addition to those of the day before, included two Long-toed Plovers, along with a Giant Kingfisher, a Rufous-naped Lark and increased numbers of Brown Firefinches. Leaving the meadows, I then made a long, hot walk through the dry mopane woodland west of Ngepi. This was an exhausting process, but rewarded with a handful of scarcities, most notably a couple of Tinkling Cisticolas and single Mouse-coloured Flycatchers and Yellow-eyed Canaries, backed up by Long-billed Crombecs, Red-headed Weavers and Golden-breasted Buntings.
By mid-morning, the sun was too severe, pushing me back to the cool welcoming retreat of Ngepi Camp. A lazy day thereafter followed, spending most of the time relaxing and watching the comings and goings of common birds. Melon seeds and scraps attracted Black-collared Barbets and Red-billed Francolins, while overhead an unusually large flock of about 25 Grey Hornbills flopped over.
After a noisy night with Hippos in the camp and Elephants by the river, the day started with a few dawn hours around Ngepi Camp, notching up a pair of Fish Eagles, a last Red-footed Falcon, plus Bradfield's Hornbill, six Green Pigeons, a few Red-billed Oxpeckers and a mix of Hartlaub's and Arrow-marked Babblers. I then got a lift up to Divundu to begin the mammoth 1000 km hitch back to Windhoek. Whilst waiting for my first lift, there was just time to pick up a last few good birds, most notable being two Black Kites (amongst the numerous Yellow-billed Kites), a Striped Kingfisher, a few Rattling Cisticolas and a flock of Yellow-billed Oxpeckers.
Luck was on my side this day - against my expectations, I managed to hitch all the way to Windhoek, covering the 1000 km before dark! The only bird of note was a Dark Chanting Goshawk, though Warthogs, Kudu and Baboons all enlivened the journey.
No birding. Hitched up to Okahandja to visit the craft markets, trading off surplus clothes for wooden carvings. Rest of the day in Windhoek.
For the first time in a month, I returned to Avis Dam to once again enjoy many of the specialities of this locality. Highlights were a migrant Osprey and a good selection of dryland specialities, including a pair of Monteiro's Hornbills, at least five Rockrunners, three Acacia Pied Barbets, Greater Scimitarbills and incoming migrants such as both Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrike. At the top end of the dam, a favoured drinking spot for small birds was alive with activity, a few minutes watching notching up mixed flocks of Black-cheeked Waxbills and Melba Finches, plus pairs of Rock and Golden-breasted Buntings. All too soon, the oppressing heat of the sun began to push birds back into the shade and me back to the city. As always, massive flocks of Little Swifts circled over the city, joined by moderate numbers of Bradfield's Swifts.
Just 20 km to the west of Windhoek, the excellent Daan Viljoen National Park is rich in both game (including Hartmann's Mountain Zebras) and, needless to say, birds. Most of the specials of the arid hinterland are ensured, along with a whole throng of commoner birds. Getting to the park early, I was welcomed by Baboons everywhere, along with a good scattering of Wildebeest, but to see the park at its best I chose to take one of the many walking trails. These trails, varying in length, all begin at the park headquarters and wind up through the hills, before eventually looping back to return to the initial point. Having decided on the 8 km trail, I first walked eastwards along a dry river valley, first running into many Guineafowl, then a flock of Ashy Tits and next a pair of African Hawk Eagles. The path then climbed onto a long arid ridge, slowly rising all the way. It was on this ridge that many of the best birds were seen - a few Rockrunners, numerous Short-toed Rock Thrushes, several Larklike Buntings, many Sabota Larks, two Long-billed Pipits and, best of all, in a small wooded gully, a male Klaas's Cuckoo. Big game animals, including 13 Mountain Zebra, about 15 Gemsbok, eight Hartebeest and six Kudu, also favoured the lower slopes on this ridge. The path then turned and cut down to follow a deep river gully, the dry bed and rocky crags supporting yet more birds, the best being a pair of young Martial Eagles, more Rockrunners, an Icterine Warbler and a Plum-coloured Starling. Scrambling up the steep slopes, a herd of Eland were also nice! Eventually, and by now in a very hot sun, I got back to the park headquarters (located by a small dam) where I sat and drank tea, all the time watching Anhingas and both Southern and Lesser Masked Weavers.
Hitching out of the park, I ran into one last surprise - my first African Barred Warbler of the trip! It was then back to Windhoek for an afternoon in town.
One last day to kill before heading off on a coastal
loop, so though most of the day was spent chatting with other backpackers at
the Cardboard Box lodge or simply lazing about, I started the day with a pleasant
stroll along the Hoffmeyr Walk. In addition to the expected Rockrunners, White-tailed
Shrikes and Monteiro's Hornbills, the walk also kicked up a few surprises. Hot
on the heels of my first the previous day, I was very pleased to find another
African Barred Warbler, along with other niceties such as a couple of Cape Penduline
Tits, two Yellow-bellied Eremomelas, a Long-billed Crombec and, in
On the road again, hitching from Windhoek back across the Namib Desert to Swakopmund on the coast. Temperatures were steadily rising, peaking in excess of 40º C in the central Namib. Birds were few on route, though, presumably above a kill, a flock of 12 White-backed Vultures circled near Karibib, along with a single Lappet-faced Vulture and Marabou Stork. Later, a Pale Chanting Goshawk was also noted, as were a few Baboons and a couple of Warthogs earlier in the trip.
A wonderful day, starting with the 140 km hitch up to Cape Cross, a Cape Fur Seal colony of up to 20,000 animals. This colony is amazing - spanning two or three kilometres of the coast, the noise and smell confronts you before you even see the packed ranks of seals, the females slumped across every centimetre of the beach, the big bull males grunting and fighting at regular intervals. Not only were the beaches flipper to flipper with seals, but so too were many spilling over in the small parking area, even to the extent three seals were in the public toilet! Adding to the general bustle of the colony, many of the females were also pupping, the newborn pups congregating in groups to avoid being crushed.
Ever present on the edges of the colony, Black-backed Jackals lingered, hoping to scavenge dead pups or adults (as are, if you visit at dusk, Brown Hyenas). Though not primarily a bird locality, a few species were nonetheless seen - White-chinned Petrel and Cape Gannet offshore, Turnstones, Sanderlings and other waders on the beach (including nesting White-fronted Plover). Inland of the colony, the desert is stark and barren, absolutely living up to term 'Skeleton Coast' - very little was seen that even hinted of life, though a fleeting Tractrac Chat did dart off across the parched moonscape.
In the afternoon, I walked around the extensive Swakopmund saltworks, largely in search of a reported Common Redshank, a vagrant to southern Africa. Bird numbers on the pans were staggering - as well as almost 2000 Greater and Lesser Flamingoes and several thousand nesting Cape Cormorants (on the adjacent guano platforms), the really impressive counts were of about 2800 Black-necked Grebes and 1200 Cape Teals. Other plentiful species included Avocets (550), Black-winged Stilts (180) and, roosting on a dyke, Common Terns (at least 800). In these masses of birds, several Chestnut-banded Plovers were also found, as were at least 12 Damara Terns and finally, moments after flushing a flock of about 25 Marsh Sandpipers, I located the Common Redshank. With Flamingoes and pelicans flying into a setting sun, it was time to leave - up to the road and a quick hitch back to Swakopmund.
Uncharacteristically dull and cool, the blustery start to the day was a bit of a shock to the system! Following reports of a Franklin's Gull at the mouth of the Swakop River, I headed off there for a quick check ...no joy, but nevertheless the site looked good. With shallow water, muddy margins and reeds, the potential for vagrants seemed high, though the selection on my visit was rather more usual - a variety of ducks, waders, gulls and terns, along with a Purple Gallinule and a handful of Greater Flamingoes.
In the afternoon, I teamed up with a local birder, Mark Boorman, who kindly offered to show me a likely spot for Gray's Larks. Driving back out towards the saltworks, we then turned eastward into the gravel plains about 2 km inland of the pans - slowly driving and scanning, we first found the pale race Tractrac Chats (a real quaint little bird), then a few minutes later, three Gray's Larks (equally quaint as the Tractracs and totally unlarklike!). Having had such early success with these target birds, we then drove across to the saltpans for a couple of hours of excellent birding. Essentially, the assortment of birds was much the same as the day before, but a few extras included a nice Red-necked Phalarope swimming with the Avocets and, sitting on a rock on the ground, a Peregrine Falcon of the Siberian race. This latter bird was, according to Mark, an annual visitor to Swakopmund, arriving each year in tandem with the migrating northern waders. With a couple of hours of daylight left, I said goodbye to Mark and hitched up to Walvis Bay, to be ready for birding the next day.
A revisit to Walvis Bay, again its immense area totally packed with thousands of birds. Even working the whole day, barely a fraction of the bay's birds could be counted, but nonetheless numbers of many species were much higher than in my October visit. I spent the morning sifting the waders off the town's esplanade, again picking up a Terek Sandpiper among the many thousands of Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints and Sanderlings. Also abundant, Turnstones numbered in the low thousands, Bar-tailed Godwits about a thousand and, both in their hundreds, Knots and Grey Plovers. Spooking the waders and harassing the many terns, an Arctic Skua and two Pomarine Skuas were also noted in this lower part of the bay.
I then made a mammoth walk round to the eastern side of the sand spit, concentrating on the oyster farm and the huge salt pans that surround it. A truly amazing spectacle - not only had the rising tide pushed many of the bay's waders onto the pools, but also at least 800 Avocets and 250 Black-winged Stilts were present, along with thousands upon thousands of Greater and Lesser Flamingoes. Into this bird cocktail, a total of about 45 Greenshanks, at least 20 Marsh Sandpipers and, very nice, three Red-necked Phalaropes were also picked out. The oyster farm was a particularly rich area - large numbers of White Pelicans roosted on a dyke, an amazing 73 Black Oystercatchers were counted (with two more nearby) and, not far away, a shallow pool held more than 140 Chestnut-banded Plovers.
The only drawback to the oyster farm is how far you have to walk to get there ... and back again! Thus, by the end of the day, with numerous birds and a couple of Black-backed Jackals under my belt, I was one weary observer, quite ready to put my feet up!
From Walvis Bay, I had intended to return to the Swakopmund, but made a spur of the moment decision to return to Windhoek, so undertook the long hitch once again across the Namib Desert and reached the capital by mid-afternoon. On route, I saw very little, the best being a couple of Purple Rollers and a Pale Chanting Goshawk near Karibib. On arrival in Windhoek, I found the city sweltering in something of a heatwave, the temperature being about 40º C.
A Windhoek day, shopping, relaxing, sending e-mails, etc. Then an afternoon trip to the sewage farm, taking a Belgian backpacker with me. Birds much as on earlier visits, including Squacco Herons, Night Herons, Southern Pochards, Maccoa Ducks and large numbers of Wattled Plovers, but a greater scattering of European migrants, such as both Sedge and Willow Warblers. Also unrecorded on previous visits, about 20 Red Bishops seemed to be preparing to breed, as were the more common Southern and Lesser Masked Weavers.
All day in the city. With the temperature rising above
40º C, birding was left to another lethargic token gesture of ticking off the
White-backed Mousebirds and Grey Louries in the
Rising at dawn, it was another day to see Wildebeests and Mountain Zebras - I was returning to Daan Viljoen for another saunter along the 8 km trail through the arid hills. The much higher temperatures made the walk a much harder affair and, though the heat probably kept some birds low, quite a few birds not seen on the previous trip were noted - Black-breasted Snake Eagle, Augur Buzzard, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Greater Scimitarbills and Carp's Tit. No trip to Daan Viljoen would be complete, of course, without catching up on the Windhoek specialities and, to this end, White-tailed Shrikes, Rockrunners and Monteiro's Hornbills were all seen, along with a few Short-tailed Rock Thrushes and yet another African Barred Warbler. Having completed the trail, the big absentee had been the big mammals - bar two Springbok, four Elands and a few Wildebeest and Kudu, little had been seen. Despite the heat, I hoped to find more game, so decided to take the small loop around the roads in the south of the park - this struck lucky, I saw three Giraffes, six Mountain Zebras, a Steenbok, several Gemsboks and a few Hartebeest, plus lots of Baboons and a Slender Mongoose.
The rest of the day was another case of relaxing in the shade, enjoying the 40º C sun and a bit of souvenir hunting in the town.
The exceptionally hot and humid weather continued, all people in Windhoek becoming exhausted. Birding was limited to the early hours, when I made a last visit to Avis Dam. In addition to the traditional birds of the site, such as Rockrunner, Mountain Chat and a large mixed flock of Black-cheeked and Violet-eared Waxbills, the area also today attracted a selection of rather less common birds. Heading the cast, a Steppe Eagle cruised overhead, whilst a Pririt Batis foraged in the acacias, accompanied by my fourth African Barred Warbler in little over a week. Also nice to see, a small flock of Wattled Starlings flew over the dam and both Marico and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds were noted, as were four Baboons coming to drink!
My last morning in Africa! After packing up, I headed into town for a last bit of shopping and then, with a degree of reluctance, pushed on for the airport. Roadside Baboons and a Kudu, plus a Plum-coloured Starling and South African Cliff Swallow at the airport, all bid me farewell to Namibia, it was then a connector flight to Johannesburg to await my long overnight flight back to the cold climes of northern Europe! One last little surprise awaited me in Jo'burg - from the windows of the plane, whilst taxiing along the runway, four Wattled Plovers were seen, plus many displaying Paradise Whydahs, the latter resplendent in their over-sized tails (also the only ones of the whole trip!).
· 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