Namibia, Botswana & Zambia Aug 15—31, 2015

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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The coastal pre-tour gave us the usual spectacular sightings of thousands of Greater and Lesser flamingos, as well as a number of endemic and near-endemic cormorants, oystercatchers, larks, and chats. For the first time on these pre-tours, we visited the spectacular coastal wetlands at Sandwich Harbour, involving a drive along the shoreline followed by a breathtaking drive back over the dunes. The trip provided the first record of an Augur Buzzard for the Kuiseb Delta, and also great views of displaying Dune Larks, but it will be the drive back along the beach ahead of the rising tide and the roller-coaster ride over the dunes that will be the highlight for most of the group.

Our flight to Huab Lodge for the start of the main tour took us over the extensive deserts of the Skeleton Coast past the Brandberg, the highest peak in Namibia. Passing low through a gap in the hills, our home for the next few days was laid out before us. An afternoon drive up-river brought views of a number of bird species, including thrushes, hornbills, and spectacular views of a surprisingly confiding Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl. These views of the region’s largest owl species were followed by great flashlight views of the smallest—an African Scops-Owl—on the way back to camp. The following days at Huab added a range of special sightings, including spectacular views of a pair of Hartlaub’s Francolins and a range of endemic and near-endemic birds, mammals, and reptiles.

Wattled Crane

Wattled Crane— Photo: Geoff Lockwood

Our decision to push through as fast as possible on our trip by road to Etosha paid off really well as we were able to enjoy a late lunch overlooking the Ombika waterhole just inside the park. Continuing, we came across a lioness sleeping in the bush next to the road, and then had the amazing experience of two massive bull elephants cross the road only yards from our vehicle on their way to a sundowner drink at the waterhole next to Okaukeujo Camp. After a few hours at the waterhole, we headed for an early dinner. On our return, the first of seven Black Rhinoceros were busy drinking and, over the next few hours, we watched the behavior of the different species coming in to drink—a breeding herd of elephant made straight for the inflow into the waterhole where they drank and cooled off; a cautious group of 3 giraffe waited on the edge of the lit area until they were sure it was safe to slake their thirst; and two Spotted Hyenas slunk into view, drank, and then wandered off into the darkness.

The next four days brought a succession of special encounters, with large numbers of elephants at the different waterholes; herds of Southern Oryx (or Gemsbok), Springbok, and Blue Wildebeest feeding along the southern edge of the pan; and a plethora of larks, sandgrouse, brightly-colored seedeaters and raptors kept excitement levels high. In Halali Camp we were treated to the sight of a young Honey Badger (or Ratel) happily digging up scorpions right outside our rooms at sunset. It was very relaxed and totally ignored the growing group of human observers—until an overly ambitious young Italian woman tried to get too close, and then a snarling charge had her dashing for her vehicle! This was only our second-ever sighting of this fearsome wolverine-like predator in Etosha, and by far our best on these tours! An early walk around camp the next morning gave great views of a comical group of Violet Woodhoopoes, superb views of a roosting African Scops-Owl, and a flock of Bare-cheeked Babblers busily searching the camp for insects.

Namutoni—on the eastern side of the Pan—brought a change in the vegetation, and with it a host of new birds and mammals. An evening drive to the Klein Namutoni waterhole brought a sighting of a pride of 5 lions dozing in the shade of a small isolated bush, and then several great views of the tiny Damara (or Kirk’s Long-snouted) Dikdik—Namibia’s smallest antelope species. The next morning we headed for Klein Okevi waterhole where we spent a wonderful two hours watching flocks of Namaqua and Burchell’s sandgrouse coming in to drink only yards from the vehicle. They were joined by 3 Ostrich; a spectacular group of 17 Greater Kudu bulls with their massive spiraled horns; and also a single comical Warthog. We were also treated to the sight of numbers of small, brightly-colored seedeaters massing in a small bush before dashing down to the water’s edge to snatch a few sips of water. Tens of Violet-eared and Black-faced waxbills, Southern Cordonbleu’s, and the odd Green-winged Pytilia created an exquisite ever-changing natural “Christmas Tree.” Tsumcor waterhole brought an amazing scene—a breeding herd of elephant; 9 massive Eland bulls; and a group of Greater Kudu and several Giraffe milling around waiting to drink—while a pair of lion dozed on the edge of the clearing. A wonderful evening watching the sunset at Klein Namutoni wrapped up a wonderful visit to this amazing national park.

Our transfer to Bagani in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip was remarkable for the numbers of Bradfield’s Hornbills in the area this year, and we had recorded the first of over ten before we had even left the plane!  Mahango Game Reserve gave us our first taste of the magic that is the Okavango River and Delta. New birds came thick and fast—starlings, storks, cranes, ducks, and bee-eaters were added to our growing lists, along with a number of new mammals such as Red Lechwe, Common Reedbuck, and our first, somewhat distant views of our first hippo and Cape (African) Buffalo.

The drive and boat trip into Nxamaseri gave a tantalizing glimpse of the richness we would be exploring over the next two days, with new shrikes, lapwings, and herons all added by the time we reached camp. A tired but happy group fell asleep to the duet hooting of a pair of Pel’s Fishing-Owls on the edge of camp. During the following days we explored the mosaic of main river channels, shallow floodplains, drying lagoons, and dry woodland in the area, either by boat, mekoro (dug-out canoes), or by vehicle, adding steadily to our lists with a host of special birds. An after dinner boat trip down-river gave the best-ever spotlight views of a magnificent Pel’s Fishing-Owl—a freshly-caught African Pike in its talons. This massive rust-orange owl is an icon of the Okavango system, and to be able to watch this amazing bird from only yards away was one of the highlights of the tour! The next morning the group experienced the joy of gliding silently through the water in a mokoro, the traditional transport in the Okavango. Numbers of Lesser Jacana allowed a close aproach, a Chirping Cisticola anounced its presence with its buzzy chipping call, and then, as we entered a small deep lagoon, a pod of 7 Hippopotamus were all around us! Our guides regularly visit this group…but having these curious animals approach to within twenty yards made for adrenalin-filled viewing!

Xakanaxa also did not disappoint, and we were greeted by a lioness striding purposefully through the trees on our way to the camp from the airstrip. Our morning game drive the next day brought ultra-close views of a young female Leopard dozing on a large termite mound. When she moved off, we were surprised by the rasping snarling that indicated that she had just mated. After moving the vehicle, we had several brief views of the male before the two animals moved off into thick cover—WOW! The remainder of our stay produced two fascinating observations of animal behavior. The first was a rather disturbing sighting of a large male Chacma Baboon feeding on the carcass of a young Vervet Monkey. These primates regularly kill young antelope, but watching one feed on a related species left many feeling uncomfortable. The second sighting also involved young Vervet Monkeys—this time a group of at least 9 had discovered a roosting Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, and we watched as they became increasingly daring, sometimes almost touching the clearly-irritated bird. The drive back to camp brought yet another sighting of a Honey Badger—our second on the trip!

The Victoria Falls in Livingstone reflected the overall poor rainfall in the region during the past summer, with most of the fall-face being dry on the Zambian side. Birding was up to the normal high standards, however, and our early morning boat trip on the river produced spectacular sightings of White-crowned Lapwings, African Skimmers, Rock Pratincoles, and White-backed Night-Herons, as well as four different African Finfoots! An ultra-close male Saddle-billed Stork gave breathtaking views, and then it was a short dash through the rapids back to our hotel. The afternoon game drive through the Mosi oa Tunya National Park saw us watching a group of 4 White Rhinos from only yards away under the watchful gaze of a contingent of armed guards. A group of three Puku gave us a first-ever sighting of these range-restricted antelope and then, as a fitting finale to a great tour, we had more great views of a group of 3 Schalow’s Turacos on our early walk to the Falls.