Namibia, Botswana & Zambia Aug 13—30, 2016
Posted by Geoff Lockwood
Our pre-trip to the Namibian coast and Namib Desert gave amazing views of thousands of flamingos; a spectacular Great White Pelican—in full breeding plumage; several endemic larks and chats; Bank, Crowned, and Cape cormorants; and African Black Oystercatchers, as well as a variety of shorebirds and ducks. Raptors were well-represented, with great views of Peregrine Falcon and Rock Kestrel, with a way-out-of-range melanistic Black Sparrowhawk being the biggest birding surprise of the pre-trip. Mammal highlights were views of a pod of Haviside’s Dolphins feeding close in-shore. On our last evening, the group also observed the “green flash” of the sun setting over the Atlantic on our drive back to the hotel—a first for this tour.
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. The drive to the lodge brought the first of two near-endemic hornbill species, along with a number of other new bird sightings. Over the next two days we added a number of sightings of Monteiro’s Hornbills (our best year for this species), as well as great sightings of R?ppell’s Parrots and our best-ever sightings of Rosy-faced Lovebirds. The severe drought in southern Africa had resulted in a dearth of seedeaters, and birds that we usually record in their hundreds were either absent, or only present as singletons. Hartlaub’s Francolins also proved elusive—in spite of us trying to call out this species at every likely-looking rocky koppie on Huab. The Rockrunner—an endemic favoring the same rocky habitat—waited until we were en route to Etosha before finally showing well, but White-tailed Shrikes, Bare-cheeked Babblers, and Short-toed Rock-Thrushes gave us their customary great views. Mammal highlights were two sightings of Mountain Ground Squirrels; a pair of dainty Klipspringer antelope; and distant, but long-time scope views of a leopard closely studying us from the top of a rocky ridge. This was the first time we have seen this gorgeous cat at Huab, and it proved the start of a great trip for this often elusive feline. Huab is a great place for reptiles, and we added an endemic rock agama and day-gecko to our list before heading to Etosha.
The drive to Etosha brought some great birds, with our first sightings of the stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike (or Gonolek), Marico Flycatchers, Kalahari Scrub-Robins, and our only sighting of the near-endemic Yellow Canary. It also gave great views of diminutive Pygmy Falcons, as well as the striking Pale Chanting Goshawk and Black-chested Snake-Eagle. The trip also gave us our first sightings of both Kori and Red-crested bustards. Mammals, by contrast, were scarcer compared to previous years, but we did add our first views of the tiny Damara Dikdik—Namibia’s smallest antelope.
We had been unable to secure bookings for Okaukeujo Camp in Etosha, so we were based at Andersson’s Camp in the Ongava Reserve for the first two nights. The floodlit waterhole next to camp was rather quiet, but on our first evening provided great views of both leopard and a lioness coming in to slake their thirst, along with a distant view of a Brown Hyeana sloping past on the edge of the light. The early morning brought our only sighting of Common Duiker for the trip, as well as scope views of a pair of Southern White-faced Scops-Owls that had settled in to roost in a tree in the front of the dining area. Bare-cheeked Babblers, Short-toed Rock-Thrushes, Familiar Chats, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, and Great (Rufous) Sparrows all joined us at breakfast! We drove into Etosha, heading first for Okaukeujo for some birding in the camp. Highlights were spectacular views of a pair of Ashy Tits, an endemic which has eluded us on recent tours! The drive to Okondeka—a contact spring on the western edge of the Etosha pan—was desperately quiet, and we were almost halfway before we started to see birds in any numbers. Once the floodgates opened, however, we were able to get good views of Double-banded Coursers; Red-capped, Spike-heeled, Eastern Clapper, Pink-billed, Stark’s, and Gray-backed sparrow-larks, and amazing close views of Burchell’s Coursers. These gorgeous endemics are always a tough challenge to find, and these sightings were the first in several years (and also our best ever on these tours!). Okondeka itself provided the usual spectacle of hundreds of zebras, wildebeest, oryx, and springbok coming in to drink, along with a number of Ostriches and a solitary Ludwig’s Bustard—an uncommon sighting on these tours. Driving back to Andersson’s Camp, we came upon a young leopard sleeping in the shade of a large road maintenance vehicle. Eventually it stood up and moved past our vehicle and across the road, where it flopped down again in the shade of a small bush. Great views of this beautiful spotted cat!
Our stay in Etosha continued to provide new sightings: distant views of lions mating at Rietfontein waterhole; superb, flashlight views of a Honey Badger (or Ratel) trotting past us after raiding the camp site in Halali as we made our way to the floodlit waterhole; 3 Black Rhinos, including a well-grown calf drinking at the waterhole; and a solitary Spotted Hyeana moving ghost-like through the trees on the edge of the light. Birding highlights were our first Lilac-breasted and Purple (Rufous-crowned) rollers and a pair of Secretary-birds hunting the open grasslands on the way to Namutoni.
The area around Namutoni provided some of the best birding and wildlife experiences of the tour: never-to-be-forgotten memories of a group of 47 elephants moving peacefully past us only three yards from our parked vehicle—this after a tourist who had tried to push past the approaching herd had experienced the awesome power of an unhappy elephant’s “trumpet scream” from a few feet away. Did the vehicle’s abrupt and speedy departure have anything to do with an emergency laundry stop? The crunching of sand under 188 feet was the only sound as these gentle giants filed past! Birding was also great around Namutoni this year, although the influence of the serious drought prevailing in southern Africa had had an obvious effect. Highlights were views of a pair of Red-necked Falcons feeding on a Red-billed Quelea in the camp, and an amazing sighting of the male falcon later stooping on a sub-adult Bat Hawk that had intruded into the pair’s airspace. This was the first time we have recorded this species on the Namibian leg of the tour! Another indelible birding memory was watching the drinking behavior of hundreds of Burchell’s Sandgrouse coming in to Klein Okeivi waterhole. Seeing the antics of the males as they loaded up their specially-modified belly and breast feathers with water to take back to their chicks opened a special window into the lives of these striking endemics. Our last evening at Mokuti Lodge brought sightings of Black-faced Babblers, our first Shikra, and also another sighting of the Bat Hawk!
Our arrival at Bagani in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip usually means our first Bradfield’s Hornbill; last year we had recorded 10 before we left the airstrip! This year, however, we were well on the way to Shakawe before we finally connected with this species. Before that we spent an all-too-brief time driving through the amazing Mahango Game Reserve, adding a number of new mammals: Roan and Sable antelope; Tsessebe (Topi); Red Lechwe; Common Reedbuck; African Buffalo; and Hippo, as well as an array of brightly-colored bee-eaters, kingfishers, barbets, swallows, and starlings. Traveling to Nxamaseri, we drove through dry woodland and open floodplain grassland before reaching the water—the boat trip into camp bringing yet more birds. Over the next two days we explored the diverse habitats around Nxamaseri by motor boat, mekoro (dug-out canoe), and game drive vehicle, adding a host of bird species to our rapidly growing lists. Raptors, kingfishers, and seedeaters were plentiful, while we also managed to record most of the area’s heron species from Goliath Heron (the largest) to Little Bittern (one of the world’s smallest). Pride of place, however, goes to the superb sightings of Pel’s Fishing-Owl we managed on our mekoro trip on our second morning. We headed for an island where Adam, our guide, had seen the bird the previous afternoon. Drawing a blank at the first clump of densely-foliaged trees, we were heading cautiously towards the second when our target took flight. It perched at the top of a nearly leafless tree, giving us superb repeat scope views before flushing to another small island. Back to the mekoro, and we were seeing close, clear views of the bird peering down at us from a large Jackalberry tree. What a way to induct the group into “The order of the Flying Pumpkin” (anyone who has seen this incredible rusty-brown owl)!
Our flight to Xakanaxa in the Moremi Game Reserve gave everyone views of the vastness and amazing diversity that is the Okavango delta system, and the group was eagerly waiting to see what this “new face” of the delta would bring. Driving to the camp, it was clear that the area was drier than we have ever seen it on these tours, but we still managed to add a number of new birds including African Barred Owlet, Arnott’s (White-headed Black) Chat, and awesome, ultra-close fly-by views of Collared Pratincole.
We had asked if an overflight of the world-renowned Victoria Falls would be possible on our flight into Livingstone, and we were extremely fortunate to have this approved. Because of the drought, the Falls were a shadow of their normal glory, but the brilliant views allowed the group to appreciate the size, and also the history of this natural wonder. After a late lunch, we headed to the Falls where we were treated to awesome close views of two incredibly exotic and strikingly-colored Schalow’s Turacos, followed by distant views of our first Trumpeter Hornbills. A real surprise was a brief glimpse of a female Red-throated Twinspot—a bird we have not seen previously on these tours. We left our hotel early the next morning, heading for our boat trip on the mighty Zambezi. This is always a highlight of these tours, and we added superb, ultra-close views of a pair of Collared Palm-Thrushes before we reached the boat station! On the water our luck continued, with brief sightings of Half-collared Kingfisher, Rock Pratincole, and three different African Finfoots—the first of a female that gave spectacular views as she foraged along the shoreline of one of the islands. White-crowned and African Wattled lapwings, Water Thick-knees, African Skimmers, and a single African Harrier-Hawk were next, along with great views of now familiar friends like Hamerkop, Yellow-billed Stork, and Malachite and Giant kingfishers. An excited and happy group were dropped off back at our hotel. Our afternoon game drive in the Mosi oa Tunya National Park gave us two new raptor species for the tour—two lizard buzzards (en route), and an obliging Western Banded Snake-Eagle scanning a muddy side channel for movement. It also gave us much better views of groups of Hooded Vultures and our first Marabou Storks—looking like rather seedy undertakers as they stalked around the carcass of a dead elephant. An early morning walk back to the Falls on our last morning gave yet another unusual seedeater—this time a male Cutthroat Finch…and then it was time for our departure for the airport and our flights home.