Namibia, Botswana and Zambia Aug 11—27, 2007
Posted by Geoff Lockwood
This year's tour showed many striking contrasts from that of last year—rainfall in the region had been very low and patchy in its distribution, and, in general, the numbers of both insectivorous and seed-eating bird species were considerably down on those recorded last year. A glaring exception to this were the vast flocks of the near-endemic Lark-like Buntings that were everywhere in Etosha. This winter has seen a major irruption of this species across Southern Africa and we certainly saw more of these cryptic birds than on any previous tour.
Spring appeared very late in starting and many birds were either not recorded, or were present in much smaller numbers than we expect to see on this itinerary. As a result, the total number of species recorded was down, but, as if to compensate for this, we were treated to numerous "best-ever" sightings—many of these of unusual or sought after species!
Perhaps because of the drought conditions experienced, game-viewing was also some of the best we have ever experienced. Etosha, Mahango Game Reserve, and also the Moremi at Xakanaxa delivered a stunning array of mammals, and here again, the quality of the sightings was unbelievable.
Walvis Bay Pre-trip
This was the second time that VENT has offered this pre-trip and it again showed its worth by producing exceptional sightings of a number of endemic, near-endemic, and breeding endemic bird species.
Our visit to the enormous salt works just south of Walvis Bay on our second morning on the coast started with large numbers of the attractive Chestnut-banded and White-fronted plovers feeding on the exposed mudflats. Thousands of feeding Greater Flamingoes dotted the deeper pans where patches of deeper pink indicated the presence of the first flocks of returning Lesser Flamingoes from their breeding grounds in Etosha and Botswana's Makgadigadi salt pans. Flocks of flamingoes of both species were commuting between the different pans—painting the silvery sky in exquisite graphics of pink, black, and white.
As we drove along the berm wall, a strong breeze was blowing and several diminutive Damara Terns were using the headwind to hover yards above the water before plunging into the shallows after small fish and crustaceans. Feeding was good and the birds ignored us completely, allowing stunning views of these distinctive little seabirds.
A small, all-black tern approached—its plumage features and characteristically buoyant "up-and-down" feeding flight as it swooped to snatch insects off the water's surface confirming its identity as a breeding plumage Black Tern, and our first record of this species on these tours.
Deeper water to the left of the berm offered groups of feeding Cape Teal, as well as large numbers of Eared (or Black-necked) Grebes. Shorebirds were scarcer than last year, but by the time we reached the coast we had added great scope views of Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, and Ruff—many still displaying traces of their attractive breeding plumages. A small shorebird with a vivid, rust-colored head caused excitement, particularly when extended viewing through the scope showed it to be a regional rarity—a Red-necked Stint. The bird was still in full breeding plumage and the rust-colored throat and scale-like patterned upperparts ruled out any possible confusion with the much more common Little Stints. Another dark, small tern approached, but this time the black underwings and back, combined with a white rump and tail, indicated an early-arriving White-winged Black Tern—another first record.
The drive back along the berm brought stunning views of yet another regional rarity—this time a group of three Red-necked Phalaropes spinning busily only yards away. Two of the birds were females in almost complete breeding plumage, and these colorful birds marked a great end to our visit.
Etosha's waterholes are always spectacularly productive and, in the dry season, are a constantly changing kaleidoscope of activity, with both birds and animals constantly moving in and out. Predators know to stake out these spots, and the drama of the chase (and often the kill) is always a possibility. We always try to spend some time just waiting and watching at a number of these spots.
This year we timed our arrival at the Rietfonten (lit. Reed fountain) waterhole perfectly; as we enjoyed the spectacle of the first red hartebeest seen on the tour, along with several majestic greater kudu moving in to drink, a group of elephant appeared in the far tree line. They were obviously thirsty and we watched entranced as a large breeding herd of 27 animals including young calves—some less than a year old and still suckling—headed straight for the water. Elephants spread out along the shoreline, each making for where he (or she) felt the least turbid water could be found. A slightly older calf seemed to be still struggling with the intricacies of coordinating the thousands of individual muscles that operated its trunk, and its efforts at siphoning water and transferring it to its mouth were ludicrously inept.
As thirsts were slaked, elephants began spraying water and mud over their bodies, back under their legs, behind their ears, and onto their flanks in an effort to counteract the afternoon heat. Some of the adults moved into deeper water and were soon lying down and almost totally submerged. More elephants joined them and before long most of the herd was snorting and playing in the water. Suddenly, as if to a signal that none of us had heard or seen, all of the animals left the water and headed back into the trees, leaving the waterhole to the stream of Ring-necked Doves, and at least 14 enormous Kori Bustards that had been waiting their turn to drink.
Klein Okeivi waterhole near Namutoni is also always worth a stop and this year was no exception. Klein Okeivi is a small contact spring where the overlying rock has been eroded away down to the water table and, as a result, the water is located in the bottom of a small depression. We usually try to be at the waterhole before nine a.m.—in time for the Burchell's Sandgrouse that come in to drink between nine and ten each morning.
As we arrived three warthogs were making their way down to the water and a party of ostriches was striding around anxiously in the bush beyond the water. Movement to our left heralded the arrival of a party of over 20 greater kudu, amongst them several majestic bulls whose spectacular spiraled horns glinted in the morning light. A number of oryx or gemsbok joined the throng at the water while the first Burchell's or plains zebra appeared.
Sudden explosive movement behind us had game fleeing in all directions, and all of us whipping round in startled surprise to see a young zebra furiously pursuing a young oryx calf. Young oryx look remarkably dog-like and possibly the zebra had mistaken it for a predator, but it chased the calf until both had disappeared in the thick bush surrounding the waterhole.
While all this was going on, a procession of brightly-colored Violet-eared and Black-cheeked waxbills, Red-headed Finches, Yellow Canaries, Rufous (or Great) and Cape sparrows, and Red-billed Queleas were gathering in a small bush just in front of our vehicle. This was the closest cover to the water, and the birds would carefully scan the surroundings for signs of danger before slipping down to snatch a hasty drink. The contrast between the dry, dusty vegetation and the jewel-like colors of the birds had us naming the bush the "Klein Okeivi Christmas Tree." Again there was panicked flight—this time by the birds—and when we looked again at our "Christmas tree" there was a striking melanistic Gabar Goshawk perched half-hidden in the foliage.
Xakanaxa Camp in Botswana's Moremi Game Reserve lies in the seasonal part of the famous Okavango Delta and has a spectacular range of habitats from tall woodland to grassy plains, pools, and wetlands. This in turn translates into fantastic game and bird-viewing opportunities. The floodwaters were very late in reaching the area this year and it was only on our last morning that the first trickles of revitalizing water began flowing into the cracked and dry temporary pools. Perhaps because of this however, game-viewing was spectacularly good.
On our last morning we left on a game drive in search of whatever the day might bring. After great views of both lion (with very young cubs) and leopard over the previous two days, some of the group were hoping for cheetah. When a radio call came in from another vehicle to the effect that a cheetah had been sighted near the road to the airstrip, we headed in that direction in search of the third big cat for the trip. Unfortunately the cheetah was a particularly shy individual and it managed to slip away without any of us even managing a glimpse of it. We carried on and were soon watching the antics of a hunting female leopard. When we first came upon her she was using a tree as a lookout, moving agilely and gracefully around on what appeared to be impossibly thin and flexible branches. She sighted a feeding herd of impala some 300 yards away and descended—flowing down the vertical trunk of the leadwood like amber-colored honey—and then started stalking through ankle-high grass towards the antelope. Suddenly we noticed her in another tree a hundred yards closer to the impala, although how she had managed to cross the intervening open ground unseen will always remain a mystery. The impala were slowly heading towards her, moving towards the water, and it was clear that she planned to try and ambush them on the way past. We waited as long as possible, but breakfast and our flight to Zambia were calling and we reluctantly headed for camp.
What a morning—and what a wrench to be leaving! Xakanaxa had not finished with us yet, however. After a hearty brunch and as we headed to the airstrip to make our charter flight pick-up time, excited shouts of "stop!" from Paul had us backing up for "last gasp" views of a cheetah—probably the same one we had missed earlier. We enjoyed great views of the rather haughty expression of this "Spotted Sphinx" from a distance so as not to disturb it unduly, and then headed for our plane.