Namibia, Botswana and Zambia Aug 11—27, 2012
Posted by Geoff Lockwood
This year's Walvis Bay Pre-trip to the gravel and sandy desert areas of the Namib Desert along Namibia's Atlantic coastline gave the customary good views of a number of endemic, near-endemic, and breeding endemic species including cormorants, larks, and warblers, as well as a newly-added species to Namibia's list in the form of a solitary Gull-billed Tern. Other surprises included a total of three Rufous-eared Warblers—all in considerably more arid habitat than where we normally expect to encounter this attractive species, and a Spotted Eagle-Owl flushed from a dry wash in the middle of the desert.
Our trips to the two large salt-works located along the coast gave us the spectacle of thousands of Greater Flamingos and numbers of recently-arrived shorebirds—many still showing traces of their breeding plumages. Elsewhere, sightings of the endemic African Black Oystercatcher and several Great White Pelicans in spectacular breeding finery made for a great lead-in to the main tour.
Our main tour began with a stay at Huab where we enjoyed great sightings of most of the region's endemic and near-endemic species, including shrikes, woodhoopoes, babblers, and a number of attractive seedeaters and waxbills. Birding highlights included extended scope views of a male Hartlaub's Francolin and low fly-overs by a pair of majestic Verreaux's Eagles. A basking South African python over five yards long was certainly one of the most exciting reptile sightings ever on these tours. After the unprecedented rains last year—which saw water in both Etosha's main pan as well as Fischer's Pan for the first time in over 50 years—conditions on this year's tour were more predictable. Grazing along the western edge of the pan was in spectacular condition and, as a result, the annual anti-clockwise movement of the herds of springbok, zebras, and wildebeest along the southern edge of the pan was less advanced than on some previous tours. Both game and bird sightings were good, with exceptional, close encounters with breeding herds of elephants moving quietly past—only yards from our vehicle—as they headed back into the bush after slaking their thirst at the Naumses waterhole. Being so close to over 50 of these gentle giants was both entrancing and awe-inspiring. Two daytime sightings, together with several nocturnal sightings of black rhinoceros confirmed that, here at least, this spectacular species is still doing well. Halali Camp gave us spectacular sightings of three roosting owl species: Barn, African Scops, and Southern White-faced Scops, as well as the sight of flocks of tens of thousands of Red-billed Queleas—Africa's "feathered locusts"—coming in to drink at the camp's waterhole.
Our flights to Bagani in the Caprivi Strip went well and we again enjoyed a spectacular drive through the Mahangu Game Reserve on our way to the border-crossing into Botswana. This tiny reserve always impresses, and this year's visit was no exception. A herd of 42 majestic sable antelope greeted us on entry, and soon added to these were our first sightings of red lechwe, common reedbuck, Cape buffalo, hippo, and also over 20 of the comical roan antelope. We also had a young lioness—a first on these visits to the reserve. The floodplains and tree-lined banks produced a variety of ducks, geese, herons, storks, and bee-eaters, as well as starlings, babblers, and robin-chats—the radical change in habitat after the dry bush of Etosha making for frenetic birding. Highlights of this section were ultra-close views of a female African Barred Owlet in a thicket close to our picnic stop.
We were based at a new camp in the "pan-handle" section of the Okavango Delta for our first stop in Botswana, this as Shakawe Lodge had been sold and was in the process of being totally refurbished. Nxamaseri proved to be a wonderful replacement, however, with the attractive open-fronted accommodations meaning that we were able to lie in bed listening to the gruff hooting of the Pel's Fishing-Owl on our second night. The situation of the lodge offered the chance to explore the shallow floodplains in traditional "dug-out" canoes (or Mekoro) and this gave us some of our best sightings of Lesser Jacana and African Pygmy Geese. A walk on one of the islands in search of Pel's Fishing-Owl produced one of the most hilarious moments of the entire tour when Susan—after giving detailed instruction of how to avoid stepping onto dry sticks and leaves, immediately proceeded to give a practical demonstration of how not to do it! First she managed to trip over a large log—to a mini explosion of noise, then blundered into a low branch (more noise), and finally left her hat hanging on yet another low branch! Hysterical laughter broke out…and we had to take some time to gather our composure. I mentioned that as long as the owl we had been stalking was blind and deaf, we still had a chance (more laughter), and after more careful stalking, we finally all had great flight views! Boat trips on the main channel, as well as a drive along the drying floodplain, gave wonderful views of some of the smaller herons including great views of a number of Slaty Egrets; two Rufous-bellied Herons perched up on the papyrus; and amazing views of a highly indignant Little Bittern that glared at us from only yards away!
Our visit to Xakanaxa Lodge in Botswana's Moremi Game Reserve will long be remembered for the amazing game-viewing on our evening drive on the day of our arrival. Our guide, Montsho, had located a lioness with three four-month-old cubs on an earlier drive and we headed in their direction. Soon we were enjoying the sight of the three active cubs stalking and attacking each other while the female indulged in a grooming session with a young male—this from less than 10 yards away! Heading for our "sundowners," we passed a pan where large numbers of Pink-backed and Great White pelicans had been fishing earlier in the day. The birds had unfortunately left, however, so we did not stay long. Almost immediately, terrified impala were exploding out of the bush in all directions and, scanning for the cause of the panic, we glimpsed several African wild dogs loping towards us through the long grass. Waiting expectantly for them to reappear, there was movement on the edge of our vision, and four of these "Painted Wolves" treed a young female leopard in a dead tree only 30 yards away. The dogs were yipping excitedly and leaping high into the air in an effort to reach the cat, but once she climbed higher they seemed to lose interest and eventually drifted off. The leopard slowly descended, flowing like honey down through the stark branches, allowing the group to take spectacular photos and video footage. As she reached the ground, however, the wild dogs were back…and after her. We held our breaths as they disappeared into the long grass…and heaved a sigh of relief when we saw her climbing to safety in another dead tree! Wow! After such a start, birding was almost a letdown, but views of several new woodpeckers, warblers, and cisticolas were soon eclipsed when we managed to call up a male Red-chested Flufftail right in front of Jeannie's tent. We were all on her deck and, after a few tense moments, the bird came out on the edge of the long grass, and walked up and down in a damp channel in full view. Brad even managed to get photos!
Our stay in Livingstone produced a new record for these tours of six African Finfoot sightings—the first on our walk to the Victoria Falls, and the remainder during our early morning boat trip on the river above the falls. Birding on the river was at its awesome best, with great sightings of African Skimmer, Collared Palm-Thrush, White-fronted Bee-eater, and Western Banded Snake-Eagle. A hippo surfacing within touching distance raised everyone's heart rate, and then it was on to views of Rock Pratincoles, Giant and Pied kingfishers, and an exciting dash through the rapids back to our hotel. The afternoon drive into the Mosi oa Tunya National Park gave us our first white rhinoceros—a spectacular bull along with a cow and her calf—of the trip. A quick walk back to the falls on our last morning finally produced a flock of six Schalow's Turacos, and their spectacular plumage, splendid crests, and exotic eye markings held us entranced as they bounded agilely through the branches in front of us. What a way to wrap up a tour!