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14 Day Zambia trip: In search of the Shoebill, 10 May 2007 to 24 May 2007, Chris Lotz

Birding Ecotours

Participants: Jay Lamb, Marilyn Milek, Roger Dodds and Ken Harris, Guide: Errol de Beer
The group traveled with Birding Ecotours

Day 1:

This was the first day of our Zambian (Shoebill) trip. The morning started out with Jay and Marilyn, two clients from the US, that chose to drive up through Botswana with me and therefore had a trip on the Chobe River before meeting up with the rest of the party at Livingstone. Birding on the river was fairly quiet due to the very high water levels but we managed some good sightings of Long-toed- and White-crowned Lapwings. A Red-billed Francolin made it’s appearance barely meters away from a Lioness which lay in ambush, waiting for a herd of Buffalo coming down to drink. Huge flocks of Collared Pratincole came in to land and a stunning Malachite Kingfisher sat sunning itself meters away. Back at the lodge we went for a quick walk around the grounds where we ticked White-browed Robin-Chat, Yellow-bellied Greenbul and an African Goshawk. An Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike was busy feeding a recently fledged chick in a small Acacia bush, where a Grey-headed Bush-Shrike kept an eye on proceedings. We departed from Kasane and crossed the border into Zambia where we would meet up with Ken and Roger two birders from the UK. On the way to the airport we came across a number of Marabou Storks. After collecting Ken and Roger at the airport we decided not to waste any time and headed straight for the lodge. Good birds on the way included, Purple Roller, Common Scimitarbill and Namaqua Dove. On a short afternoon walk in the lodge grounds we ticked Green Wood-Hoopoe and White-crested Helmet-Shrike.

Day 2:

Birding around Taita Falcon lodge was very quiet and we were wondering if the prevailing drought conditions had anything to do with it, the dry woodland stood in stark contrast to the Zambezi River that was flowing at record capacity due to abnormally good rainfall in the catchment area in Angola. After birding a small gorge that delivered very little, we headed into some more promising looking woodland were we found Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Violet-eared Waxbill and Scarlet-chested Sunbird. After breakfast Roger and Ken saw Verreauxs’ Eagle and a little later Black Stork and Peregrine Falcon also put in an appearance. A pair of very tame Mocking Cliff-Chat’s entertained everyone around the dinning area. On the road back to Livingstone we found Brubru, Southern Black Tit and the ever-present White-browed Sparrow-Weavers. Although we didn’t expect to see overly much from the boat trip up the Zambezi we found Rufous-bellied Heron and good numbers of Elephant. We had crippling views of a male and female African Finfoot. Unfortunately Marilyn, who was at the back of the boat at the time, missed out on this sighting. White-crowned Lapwing and Water Thick-Knee was common on the sandy banks and then last but not least we were treated to awesome views of two Bat Hawk’s doing some spectacular aerial maneuvers.

Day 3:

After breakfast we decided to head straight for the spectacular Victoria Falls. On the drive out of Taita Falcon Lodge we encountered a noisy group of Trumpeter Hornbills, lots of Crowned Hornbills and a lone Bradfield’s Hornbill. Once at the falls Ken and I opted to brave it without any rain-gear, needless to say we ended up soaked from head to toe. At the entrance we saw Terrestrial Brownbul and White-browed Robin-Chat, closer to the falls we found African Black Swift and Rock Martin. After everyone got rid of their raincoats we walked down towards the bridge separating Zambia and Zimbabwe allowing me and Ken to dry out, very dry conditions prevailed and the birding was equally dry other than for a group of White-crested Helmet-Shrike’s that seemed to follow our every move. From Livingstone we set off to our next destination near the town of Choma. A stop along the way produced Wire-tailed Swallow and Croaking Cisticola. Raptors along the route included Bateleur and Shikra. A small detour to a farm dam that usually proves productive in terms of waterfowl turned out to be very disappointing, delivering only a single Reed Cormorant and a Pied Kingfisher, it was made up for though by some spectacular views of a Gabar Goshawk being mobbed by a group of Forktailed Drongo’s. Our Lunch Stop proved a winner: while waiting for our food we decided to bird the grounds, in a flowering Granadilla bush we found a stunning male Shelley’s Sunbird. On the way to the lodge we managed to tick Mosque Swallow and Grey-penduline Tit. At the lodge we decided on a night drive and we were well rewarded with sightings of Three-banded Courser and Fiery-necked Nightjar, a large Bushpig surprised us when it ran across the road. Over dinner we decided that our first target for the following day would be Zambia’s only endemic, Chaplin’s Barbet.

Day 4:

After a steaming cup of coffee we set off to go and look for Chaplin’s Barbet, on the way we crossed a small stream where we saw a couple of African Black Ducks fly by. As we entered the game paddock we immediately found a pair of Bronze-winged Coursers. We drove down to the far end of the paddock without a single Chaplin’s in sight, we did see an African Harrier-Hawk and a Brown Snake-Eagle though. Spurfowl/Francolin was well represented and we soon ticked Natal-, Red-necked- and Swainson’s Spurfowl, Shelley’s Francolin was calling all over the place. African Green-Pigeon’s and Meyer’s Parrot were common in the fig trees where we were searching for Chaplin’s Barbet. A Senegal Coucal was also a welcome addition to our list. Lilac-breasted Roller’s were all over and was soon to become on of the most commonly seen birds of the tour. A shout from Ken and Marilyn brought the vehicle to a screeching halt and way off on a distant fig tree was a small group of Chaplin’s Barbet, we moved in closer and eventually got good scope views of this incredible bird. Back at the lodge we decided to bird the lodge and the immediate area around it, a termite eruption later in the day proved a hit with all present, Crowned Hornbills did the weirdest aerial maneuvers to catch their prey and both Lizard Buzzard and Little Sparrowhawk’s were in attendance. Other good birds of the day included Swallow-tailed Bee-Eater, Bennet’s Woodpecker, Black Cuckooshrike, Miombo Tit, White-winged Black Tit, Spotted Creeper and lots of Miombo Blue-eared Starling. Before heading off to bed we managed to call in a pair of Wood Owls.

Day 5:

We decided to head back to the game paddock after breakfast to have another shot at finding Shelley’s Francolin. On the way there we saw Three-banded Plover and had excellent scope views of a Great Spotted Cuckoo. Once in the paddock we once again heard Shelly’s Francolin calling but failed to see it. Grey Hornbills were common and we also had good views of Common Scimitarbill. In a small patch of woodland we found African Golden Oriole, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Grey Tit-Flycatcher, there was also a group of very agitated Chacma Baboons, we still don’t know what exactly got them so vocal, a Leopard perhaps? A small dam in the paddock looked very promising, unfortunately I took the wrong turn and we ended up getting the van slightly stuck. We eventually had Marilyn behind the wheel and all of the men pushing and putting branches under the wheels, Marilyn did exceptionally well and we got out of trouble without wasting too much time. At the dam we managed to tick African Pygmy-Goose, African Jacana and a Black-chested Snake-Eagle, on the way out we ticked Sooty Chat. Back at the lodge we enjoyed a quick lunch and also managed good views of Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Arnott’s Chat, Ashy Flycatcher and Olive Sunbird. On the way to our next destination just outside Lusaka we stopped at the bridge spanning the Kafue River, here we quickly found Allen’s Gallinule, another target bird. We arrived at the lodge after sunset so we booked in and after a lovely dinner opted for an early night.

Day 6:

Up early as usual we birded the lodge gardens and the one bird that I knew we should find here proved to be as regular as clockwork: Collared Palm-Trush can prove to be a difficult bird in places but we have had constant success with it here. Jameson’s and Red-billed Firefinche’s were common in the gardens. A group of circling scavengers was made up of Marabou Stork, White-backed Vulture and Lappet-faced Vulture. Heading North from Lusaka we found a Dusky Lark not far from the town of Kapiri Mposhi, raptors en-route included Martial Eagle and a Steppe Buzzard that was a bit late for it’s journey North. We also added Red-faced Cisticola at a small farm dam we stopped at. We arrived at our overnight stop, Forest Inn, just in time for lunch. Forest Inn has some good areas of protected Miombo woodland. While enjoying lunch we ticked of some good birds including Rufous-bellied Tit, Dusky Flycatcher and Green-capped Eremomela. Later the afternoon a walk in the lodge grounds produced Lesser Honeyguide, Spectacled Weaver, a Purple-throated Cuckooshrike was also seen by some. This bird is normally more restricted to riverine forests and this was my first record of it here.

Day 7:

The mornings birding started off with a bang and our first bird was a spectacular Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Weaver. This particular Miombo special is not all that often recorded by birders to Zambia. Red-headed and Golden Weaver’s followed shortly afterwards. We now concentrated our efforts on the patch of Miombo to the west of the camp, here we found a mixed bird party foraging in the canopy, birds included Amethyst Sunbird, Variable Sunbird, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, and Pale Flycatcher. Further on we found a noisy group of Retz’s Helmet-Shrike and we soon found ourselves covered in all manner of grass seed that proved real difficult to remove from fleece jumpers. In the garden we found Bohm’s Flycatcher and Miombo Scrub-Robin before departing for Kasanka NP. Roadside birding was particularly quiet and we only managed to add White-necked Raven to our list. Once in Kasanka most of us, other than Roger, saw a flock of Pale-billed Hornbill’s flying past. We checked in at Wasa Camp from where we proceeded to our overnight spot at Luwombwa camp. The ferry crossing proved very interesting and we were told that our Mercedes Vito would have a hard time crossing. Fortunately the guys at the ferry were very skilled and got us across without too much fuss. The road surfaces were reasonably good but the overhanging vegetation made it very difficult to navigate the roads without adding a good number of scratches to the vehicle. It was already dark by the time we arrived at camp but we had awesome views of Serval and an Elephant Shrew on the way in. The staff at the camp was super and so was the food they prepared.

Day 8:

Waking up to the dawn chorus is what Africa is all about, our morning started off with an early morning boat trip on the Luwombwa River. Kingfishers were well represented and we quickly ticked Pied-, Giant-, Halfcollared-, Malachite- and Brownhooded Kingfishers. Bohm’s Bee-Eaters were everywhere and Little- as well as White-fronted Bee-Eaters also put in a showing. A couple of Black-backed Barbets sat sunning themselves in full view of our party. Further down the river a few members of our group were fortunate enough to see a Narina Trogon that only allowed a few brief glimpses. On the way back to camp we managed to get Marilyn on to an African Finfoot, which she missed earlier during our trip. Olive Woodpecker and Dark-backed Weaver completed our sightings before returning for breakfast. During breakfast Purple-throated Cuckooshrike put in another showing and some swallows turned out to be Grey-rumped Swallows. A short walk after breakfast produced Black Sparrowhawk and Green-backed Woodpecker. After lunch we decided to head back to the ferry and go by foot to Fibwe Hide. This turned out to be a longer walk than expected, en-route we had good scope views of Anchieta’s Tchagra and once at the hide we saw Saddlebilled Stork and a distant Rufous-bellied Heron. Our target bird for this walk was a nesting pair of Crowned Eagle’s, imagine our surprise when we reached the nest just to have a White-backed Vulture staring back at us. Our trip back to camp was rewarded with a stunning Verreauxs’ Eagle-Owl.

Day 9:

Our morning did not quite work out as planned. We planned to have another short journey on the Luwombwa River to look for Pel’s Fishing Owl, but it had to be abandoned though, due to the fact that our charter flight to Shoebill camp was leaving earlier than anticipated. We headed for Wasa camp from where we were to catch our flights, on the way a few Woodland Pipits flirted up into the trees. A short, twenty minute flight saw us safely to Shoebill camp. This camp is located in the Bangweula swamp, which is an absolute water-bird haven and home to the famous Shoebill. On landing at the airstrip we quickly ID’d Red-capped Lark and Banded Martin. From the airstrip we were taken to the camp in canoes, this was to be the end of our duck drought and we saw large flocks of Hottentot Teal, White-faced Duck, Spur-winged Goose and a pair of Fulvous Duck.

At camp we were shown to our tents and introduced to the camp staff, shortly after which we were told that lunch was ready. After lunch we were poled around in the canoes to look for Lesser Jacana, the polers quickly found a number of our target birds and in the process we also flushed a Coppery-tailed Coucal. African Marsh-Harrier’s were quartering low over the reeds and African Snipe were displaying all over. Back at the camp I went for a walk with Jay, not hoping to see much in the heat of the day, we were soon surprised to flush a Fulleborn’s Longclaw and also found a small flock of Hartlaub’s Babbler and a Copper Sunbird. The resident Square-tailed Nightjar was also very obliging as was a pair of Barn Owls. That night we all went to bed hoping for success in finding the Shoebill.

Day 10:

We were off to a very early start, we headed straight for the canoes as the morning was dedicated to finding the Shoebill. On the way we saw Black Heron, a number of Wattled Crane’s, Long-toed Lapwing’s and a Goliath Heron. Soon we had our first distant sighting of a Shoebill on top of a tree, we tracked it but unfortunately lost sight of it and was unable to relocate it. This meant only one thing we would have to go wading to a nearby nesting site. We went as far as possible with the canoes, before getting out and getting our feet wet. The going was tough and the water deep in places but we finally arrived near the site, the last twenty odd meters was really tough but then suddenly there it was, sitting on it’s nest looking at us with huge eyes. We didn’t want to disturb the bird so we stayed only long enough to take a few photo’s and to allow everybody a good view before starting our journey back. On the way back to the canoe’s we had fabulous sightings of Western-banded Snake-Eagle, and two more swamp specials in the form of Swamp Flycatcher and Blue-breasted Bee-eater. It was a tired but happy group that arrived back at camp. After lunch we decided to head over to dry land and do some woodland birding, on the way some of the group saw Rosy-throated Longclaw. Back at the airstrip we got on to the four-wheel drive and made our way through huge herds of Black Lechwe. The first birds we encountered was a pair of Temmink’s Courser’s to be followed shortly thereafter by a group of Denham’s Bustard. Other birds included White-headed Vulture, Southern Ground Hornbill and Small (Kurrichane) Buttonquail.

Day 11:

Our last day at Shoebill camp, after a hearty breakfast we packed our bags into the canoe’s for our last trip on the waters of the Bangweulu swamps. Before we departed we did some quick birding around the camp and was soon rewarded with good sightings of African Rail, Diderick Cuckoo and African Paradise Flycatcher. A flock of Great White Pelican flew overhead, to be followed shortly thereafter by a group of Pink-backed Pelicans. Brown Firefinches were particularly tame in the camp. On the way to the airstrip we tried calling out a few of the LBJ’s from their cover, we succeeded with Little Rush Warbler, Greater Swamp Warbler, Lesser Swamp Warbler, African Reed Warbler and Chirping Cisticola. Back at the airstrip we had good views of Hooded Vulture. Our flight back to Kasanka was rather uneventful and on arrival back at Wasa camp we wasted no time in transferring our gear back to the mini-van. Kasanka had one more farewell present for us though in the form of three Racket-tailed Rollers. One bird posed beautifully for photo’s. Once out of Kasanka we headed straight for our next stop, Mutinondo Wilderness, a pristine stretch of untouched Miombo Woodland.

Day 12:

We started off with a walk down to the river to look for some of the Miombo specials that Mutinondo is renowned for. Yellow-throated Petronia’s were common as where Grey Penduline-Tits. As we cleared the woodland and walked out on to a granite outcrop we saw a pair of Orange-winged Pytilia’s feeding amongst the grass tufts growing from cracks in the rock, a Side-striped Jackal also put in an appearance. It was fairly quiet down at the river but we did manage to tick a Mountain Wagtail and dipped on a Greenbul of sorts that just wouldn’t allow us decent views. On the way back to the lodge for breakfast we encountered a mixed bird party consisting of Spotted Creeper, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Black-headed Oriole, Green-backed Woodpecker and one of the specials of this area, the elusive Bar-winged Weaver. Sunbirds were well represented and although the Protea spp. were not all in full flower we still managed to find Miombo Double-collared Sunbird, Green-headed Sunbird, Scarlet-chested Sunbird and Collared Sunbird. The one Sunbird high on everyone’s list of must see birds proved a little more elusive, but most of us managed to eventually tick Anchieta’s Sunbird later during the day. The quiet period in the heat of the day only produced one new species around the camp, a lone Reichard’s Seed-Eater sitting on a Protea bush. We decided to go to Charlie’s Rock in the hope of finding Freckled Nightjar and to enjoy sundowners, on arrival we decided to investigate the Mushitu (riverine forest). The most rewarding birds here were Barthroated Apalis and of course the glorious Ross’s Turaco, where after we enjoyed some sundowners looking out over a beautiful African sunset.

Day 13:

Our plan for the morning was to go and look for Souza’s Shrike, which was reportedly present at an area of Miombo woodland some distance from the lodge. En-route we encountered Greater Honeyguide, Bohm’s Flycatcher and Yellowbellied Hyliota. Fortunately there was a rather good track that we followed and this made the walk slightly more comfortable. We heard the calls of a flock of Pale-billed Hornbill’s but much to our frustration they never came into view, we decided to take a chance to try and call it in. This proved quite interesting as I did not have the call for the Hornbill, but being familiar with the call I knew that it is very similar to that of the Spotted Thick-Knee and that is exactly the call we tried. We barely started the playback before we had our first Hornbill coming to investigate much to the delight of Roger who dipped on it in Kasanka. Further down the road we decided that we must now be in striking range of the Souza’s Shrike, we managed to call it in fairly easily and it was Marilyn who spotted it first. On the way back to camp we ticked Stout Cisticola in a grassy dambo and Violet-backed Sunbird in a Protea bush. After lunch we added Black-throated Wattle-Eye to our list and that afternoon we tried our luck at finding Bocage’s Akalat. I managed to acquire the call and this we loaded onto the PDA, armed and ready we al settled down in the Mushitu and did some selective playback. After what seemed like an eternity, we heard the Akalat calling barely ten meters from us, we peered into the dense undergrowth but could not find it in the now fading light. At this point Jay started doing the rain dance, which was quite amusing, somehow he managed to make himself comfortable on a nest of red-ants, which found their way into his clothing. Needless to say this was the end of our Akalat expedition, after all the excitement we decided to join our hosts for sundowners, overlooking a large dambo.

Day 14:

Sadly this was our last morning at Mutinondo, we roused very early in anticipation of finding African Broadbill. After some criss-crossing through the woodland near the stables we heard it calling, our local guide quickly managed to pinpoint the bird and all of us at the most amazing views of this stunning bird. After another scrumptious breakfast we all agreed to have one last birding session around the lodge and just as well. We quickly found both Southern and Yellow-bellied Hyliota’s and a Pale Wren-Warbler that I nearly stepped on, it flew up into a bush where it sat and preened itself for several minutes. Red-capped Crombec is another of the birds we were hoping for and after some searching through mixed bird parties we eventually found it. Unfortunately it was time to say our goodbyes before heading off to our last overnight stop.

Day 15:

We got up in the early hours of the morning, packed the kombi and headed for the airport. We arrived in Lusaka just as the first rays of sunlight appeared. After taking a wrong turn-off we eventually reached the airport where we said our farewells to three members of the party. Ken’s flight was only later in the afternoon so we went looking for a place to have breakfast before doing some last minute birding. During the last few hours we managed to add four new species to our list, we found Black-headed Heron, White-backed Duck and Red-billed Teal at a small farm dam just outside Lusaka and Brimstone Canary on the way back. I bid my final farewell to Ken before heading off on my long journey back to Johannesburg.

The group traveled with Birding Ecotours


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