Namibia, Botswana and Zambia Aug 10—26, 2013

Posted by Geoff Lockwood

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Geoff Lockwood

Geoff Lockwood's interest and involvement with birds dates back to his early years at school and forms part of a wider interest in the biodiversity of the Southern Afri...

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Our tour began with a spectacular low flight over the Namib Desert and Skeleton Coast into the Huab Conservancy, sighting two Lappet-faced Vultures from our plane en route. Conditions at Huab reflected the extremely poor rainy season that Namibia had experienced earlier, and last year’s grass-covered flats were now only bare, dusty plains. In spite of these conditions, however, we managed great, ultra-close views of a group of five Rueppell’s Parrots followed by unbelievable views of a magnificent Monteiro’s Hornbill that perched up only yards from our vehicle—our best sighting ever of this restricted range endemic, and on our drive from the airstrip to the lodge! Great views of a confiding party of Bare-cheeked Babblers and three Hartlaub’s Francolins, as well as Verreaux’s Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, and Black-breasted Snake-Eagle made for a great start to our birding.

Our bookings for Etosha had been “lost” by the authorities, necessitating a radical change from our usual itinerary. There was also a major bush fire raging in the middle of the park around Halali, which made accessing Goas—one of our most productive waterholes on previous tours—impossible. In spite of these setbacks we managed to add a selection of bustard, lark, warbler, shrike, and raptor sightings to our growing list. Pride of place, however, has to be the views of a male Red-necked Falcon plucking and feeding on a male Gray-backed Sparrowlark only yards from our vehicle on the road to Okondeka. This was without doubt our best view ever of this stunningly beautiful raptor! Other birding highlights included the sudden, unexpected appearance of a small flock of Black(-faced) lored Babblers which suddenly appeared out of the bush next to our vehicle at Kalkheuwel waterhole, and two Violet Woodhoopoes that arrived to drink from a leaking tap—right next to where we were enjoying breakfast in Halali. Halali Camp is usually great for a variety of owls, but we failed to locate a single species in the camp on this tour, possibly because there were pairs of Little Sparrowhawks and Gabar Goshawks actively nesting.

Mammal sightings were also good, including White and Black rhinoceros, African Elephant, Giraffe, Spotted Hyaenas, and a variety of antelope species. Our enforced shift to Andersson’s Camp outside Etosha for our second night gave us wonderful close views of a herd of Eland coming to drink at the waterhole on the edge of camp. Three young Lion cubs close to the road outside of Halali were the only sighting of any of the large cats however.

Our trip through Mohango Game Reserve was shorter than on previous tours, but produced no less than six Wattled Cranes as well as several new starlings, swallows, bee-eaters, hornbills, coucals, and babblers. It also gave us sightings of several new mammals. Highlights were sightings of a spectacular Sable Antelope bull at the start of our drive, and an equally impressive Roan Antelope bull close to the road as we were rushing for the border post! Both of these species are rare in Moremi and it was great to get them in this fantastic gem of a reserve. Other sightings included African Buffalo, Red Lechwe, Common Reedbuck, and Hippopotamus, as well as our first Nile Crocodile of the tour.

Our game drives at Xakanaxa again did not disappoint, with brilliant, full-field scope views of an adult Pel’s Fishing-Owl peering down at us from a large Jackalberry tree, followed by three adult male Lions moving close past our vehicle. Next came the breathtaking sighting of a beautiful female Leopard draped over a branch and searching for possible prey. She sighted an impala close behind our vehicle and came flowing effortlessly down the tree and into the grass. An African Fish-Eagle swooped low over her, giving a strange barking alarm call that I had not heard before as she crept closer, passing less than 30 yards away from us. The wind was against her, however, and her target was already alert and poised for flight. When an explosion of alarm calls from Red-billed Spurfowl, Gray Go-away-birds, and Burchell’s Starlings filled the air, the impala snorted and spun around, disappearing in a series of graceful leaps. Further spectacular sightings of more Lions, a large herd of over 400 buffalo and, on the bird side, of yet more Wattled Cranes, Great White and Pink-backed pelicans, Saddle-billed and Yellow-billed storks, African Skimmers, both Red and Yellow-billed oxpeckers, and a striking Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl all ensured that everyone on the tour would remember their stay in this special area.

Our stay at Nxamaseri produced spectacular views of some of the smaller herons, as well as bee-eaters, coucals, kingfishers, and warblers, including amazing views of a completely unconcerned Lesser Jacana feeding less than three yards from our boat and our best-ever views of a Rufous-bellied Heron which allowed a similarly close approach. Our stay also provided several sightings of Spotted-necked Otters busily hunting for prey in front of the camp, as well as a rare sighting of a Sititunga—a shy, swamp-dwelling antelope that we startled into flight after we landed to scope a perched-up Slaty Egret.

The lodge offered an optional trip to the nearby Tsodilo Hills World Heritage site, home to over 4,000 individual bushman paintings of animals, birds, and people, and after some discussion the group decided to visit the site. The drive to Tsodilo gave distant views of Western Banded Snake-Eagle, as well as yet another Black-breasted Snake-Eagle, while at Tsodilo we had great views of Meyer’s Parrots, White (-crested) Helmetshrikes, Gray-backed Camaroptera, and Greater Honeyguide coming to drink at a leaking water pipe. We barely managed to scratch the surface of this vast collection of rock art in the time available, but the images of what appeared to be a whale and a penguin—over a thousand miles from the nearest coastline, raised intriguing questions about these long-dead artists. Back at Nxamaseri, a late afternoon drive along one of the lagoons brought close fly-bys of several Collared Pratincoles, as well as sightings of African Open-billed Storks and large numbers of African Pygmy-Geese.

Our early morning boat trips on the Zambezi River above the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls have always been a highlight of these tours and, although water levels in the river were the lowest I have ever seen, this year’s cruise was no exception. As we climbed off the bus at the launching station, the calls of Collared Palm-Thrush had the group peering excitedly at a pair of these attractive birds in the crown of a tall palm tree. Once out on the water, our luck continued with unbelievable extended views of a male African Finfoot as he systematically worked his way through the overhanging vegetation along the shore of a large island in the river. The light was absolutely perfect and the group watched as this amazing bird moved slowly past only yards away…at times leaving the water to clamber over a large root or horizontal tree trunk, in the process showing its characteristic fluorescent scarlet legs and feet. The bird was so close that every detail was clearly visible! We eventually left him still slowly searching the shore for food and moved off in search of further excitement. Superb views of White-crowned Lapwings—one of the world’s most striking shorebirds—followed, along with great, close views of numerous Water Thick-knees and various kingfishers, bee-eaters, weavers, and sunbirds. Scope views of a solitary Rock Pratincole offered some excitement during our stop on one of the islands for tea and coffee. The afternoon game drive in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park gave us our first Purple (or Rufous-crowned) Roller, as well as the opportunity for a close approach on foot to two White Rhino with well-grown calves—a magical and totally different experience of these lumbering beasts compared to watching them from a vehicle!

A brisk walk to the Victoria Falls on our last morning gave wonderful views of a group of comical Trumpeter Hornbills feeding on wild figs in the hotel grounds—a wonderful way to wrap up a great tour!