15/08/2002
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Birding Namibia

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In mid-November 2001 I decided to return to Namibia having previously visited in March 1995. At that time it was the end of the summer (wet season), many large mammals had attendant young and the European migrant birds were moulting in preparation for their journeys back to northern breeding grounds. On this occasion I again travelled with Chris Hines, Namibia's best bird and wildlife guide. This time we had teamed up to lead a tour to the best sites that we had previously visited and a couple of new ones.

Arriving at the capital, Windhoek, we made for a local hotel where most of the group caught up with a little sleep during the heat of the day before we headed off to see what glories the local sewage farm (settling ponds for the squeamish) had to offer. No bird trip would be complete without such a visit and we managed to see some excellent birds, several of which we would not see again during our the two-week trip. Didric's Cuckoo, Marico Sunbird and nest-building Masked Weavers were colourful favourites. Black-headed Herons have increased in this corner of Africa, and we found one in the company of Long-tailed Cormorants, African Darters and a Hammerkop. Although this strange hammer-headed heron indulges in courtship display at the sound of approaching rain, giving it the local name of Lightning Bird, we would have to wait until moving north to see the spectacular dark skies produced by the African spring.

The next morning we headed south into the Namib Desert, past a Black Eagle recently fledged from its nest near Chris's farm and troops of Chacma Baboons. Birding en route, we found more wetland birds at Guisis Dam, including Red-billed and Cape Teal, as well as Egyptian Goose and African Shelduck. Black Drongos and Pale Chanting Goshawks soon became the commonest roadside birds, easily spotted on telephone wires, and large Buffalo Weaver nests crowned many of the poles.

Eating outdoors in the evening at Namib Naukluft was a pleasant change for the Brits among us, and allowed us to see a Spotted Eagle Owl. We would later find the bird roosting in a small rocky crevice the next morning. Our lodge also provided water for many birds including hundreds of Pale-winged Starlings, Great Sparrows and Social Weavers. The latter build massive colonial nests that fill the canopy of acacias, eventually breaking large branches and falling to the ground under their own weight. Diminutive Pygmy Falcons are usually in attendance and even nest among the the Weavers. At Namib Naukluft, a female regularly watched the waterhole and made short rapid sallies at low level in attempts to snatch a weaver. She was unconcerned at our approach and allowed us to see what a tiny raptor she really was – only thrush sized.

Rüppell's Korhaans
Rüppell's Korhaans

In the late afternoon, a pair of Rüppell's Korhaans came to drink and readily accepted small pieces of cake. These birds had been here since the lodge was built and had developed a routine that allowed an excellent photographic opportunity. In the desert, the larger Ludwig's Bustards had arrived. These nomadic birds follow rain showers in search of food, often for hundreds of miles, and in the morning we came across a loose flock of 25 strutting around the flatlands that led into the famous red dunes at Sossusvlei. Enormous Lappet-faced Vultures sat in dead trees waiting for a thermal on which to rise, and Lanner Falcons watched for sandgrouse.

Reaching the base of the dunes we saw the tiny specks of German tourists on the peaks, over 300m high. A Black-breasted Snake Eagle also added scale as it glided over an oryx (gemsbok) walking up the sand mountain. Among tussocks at the base we found four Dune Larks, a localised endemic, and thousands of Grey-backed Finch Larks and Stark's Larks. We had searched for Burchell's Coursers without success but would find a flock of thirteen when departing the dunes, and a pair of Double-banded Coursers to complement them. Before leaving Sossusvlei, we enjoyed a beer, Red-necked Falcon, and sunset over dunes: a perfect cocktail.

Our journey from the Namib Desert to the coast at Walvis Bay took us through one of the most inhospitable landscapes on earth. The dramatic Quiver Tree or Kokerboom grows in a few rocky cracks here, and several grow at a popular lay-by stop. Unfortunately, these drought-resistant trees are regularly watered by beer-drinking tourists, and so look even starker, as they have started to die in this harsh animal-free environment. The geology of this area is fascinating, with shining folded rock formations holding almost no other plants. Birds were absent, but a few lizards scurried under foot. The baking heat at midday ensures that few people remain longer than the time taken to grab a photograph or reduce the lifespan of the trees.

The coastal landscape is no more inviting, just a little cooler. Here the cold Benguela current from the Antarctic meets the hot-baked Namib Desert. The air becomes laden with moisture bringing mist and fog that drift in and out. Wind direction dominates the weather on the coast, and we arrived as the strong wind had pushed thousands of terns - Common, Sandwich, Crested and Black - into Walvis Bay. Attendant Arctic and Pomarine Skuas (Jaegers) harassed them for food. The tide had pushed the thousands of shorebirds onto shallow lagoons and saltpans. These were checked the next day for rarities. Among the masses of Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, we enjoyed White-fronted, Kittlitz's and Chestnut-banded Plovers. A pair of Terek Sandpipers were the rare birds of the day, and Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Caspian Tern, Kelp and Hartlaub's Gulls all roosted on the beach, while hundreds of Flamingo, both Lesser and Greater, fed close inshore.

The food-rich currents are in stark contrast to the lifeless dunes. Large spectacular gatherings of seabirds include thousands of cormorants of four species: White-breasted, Crowned, Bank and Cape Cormorant, the latter being commonest and breeding on large flat platforms created to make guano harvesting easier. The sea and air can be black with birds fishing around them. The birds go ashore to pick up seaweed for nest material, but otherwise the land looks barren. At Swakopmund, the cormorants have been fenced in to prevent jackal predation. Guano is a sustainable natural resource that is big business here; more productive than the adjacent saltworks whose pink algae-filled pools give a crystal coating to the water edge. We found African Black Oystercatchers here and pelicans glided along the shore on bowed wings.

With the smell of guano and stagnant water in the air, it was a pleasure to visit the local sewage farm, which has been designated as a nature reserve. Chris soon picked out a vagrant Franklin's Gull, possibly a bird that we first saw in 1995, unable to get back to the Americas. Macao Duck and Cape Shoveler showed well and some young Purple Herons dropped into the reeds. The assault on our senses did not come to an end as we headed north to Cape Cross where Cape Fur Seals were giving birth and mating. White-chinned Petrels, Cape Gannets and a couple of smart adult Sabine's Gulls passed. Jackals walked among the seals cleaning up the site among the unperturbed parents. The need to kill calves was negated by the abundance of available food.

Driving along the Skeleton Coast, we had seen fast-running Tractrac Chats crossing the road and the endemic Gray's Lark beside them. The latter had eluded me on my first visit, it was easy to see why. Their plumage matched the desert so well, that only movement betrayed the bird's presence. We headed north to the Erongo Mountains, where a wonderful lodge nestled in the rocks of a large koppe. The bird feeders allowed a relaxed look at the birds on offer: Monteiro's Hornbill, Pied Barbet and Red-eyed Bulbuls, while we sat on the veranda, drink in hand.

At night Freckled Nightjars flew around low overhead and the wheezing calls of Barn Owls echoed around the valley. Accommodation was in individual tented lodges, with a luxurious bathroom built into the hillside - probably the most innovative accommodation I have stayed in.

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Jack, a tame Guineafowl, was my alarm clock, and we all set off up the valley early in the morning in search of Rockrunner, Hartlaub's Francolin and Short-toed Rock Thrush. Cape Buntings and some very confiding White-tailed Shrikes checked us in and counted us back from our walk, which proved very successful. Rock Hyrax and Black Mongoose were the mammalian highlight, though they were more concerned about the approach of Verreaux's Eagles than about our troupe.

Greater Striped Swallows glided overhead while we searched for Dusky Sunbird, Three-streaked Tchagra, White-browed Robin and Black-chested Prinia, all equally at home in this charming place. By afternoon, we were on the move again to Etosha, Namibia's foremost national park. We had opted to spend a couple of days at each side of the park, in lodges at Okaukuejo and Namutoni. Both are similar in construction, being old Garrison forts, but each has a different but complementary range of local bird species. During this stage of the tour, we had teamed up with Ian and Petre, who are normally employed to cater for film crews. They produced some amazing home cooking, at times that suited wildlife watching.

Rising before dawn each day, we had coffee and a light snack before venturing out to see what the night had brought. It was important to be out at dawn, to catch the tail end of the night-time animal activities, as the cats in particular retired to hidden dens soon after sunrise. After seeing more springbok, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and oryx than could be counted, we would retire to the fort for a late breakfast prepared by Ian and Petre, overlooking a waterhole. By late afternoon, the heat had subsided a little and we again took to the road after tea and cakes. This rather civilised behaviour ensured that we were in 'the field' during peak activity periods, while others were tied to the camp's restaurant hours. We were also in the shade of the camp with the birds at midday when things calmed down. It worked extremely well, and after a hefty dinner and a roll call we still had energy to sit and enjoy a beer by the spotlit waterholes.

At night, flocks of thirsty Namaqua and Double-banded Sandgrouse came to drink, while Blacksmith's and Crowned Plovers kept watch. They would chase thirsty zebra and kudu when they dared to stray close to their eggs. A massive Milky Eagle Owl landed by the lake on the first evening and looked awesome through the scope. Mammal activity was reduced as we had arrived amid heavy showers; the rhino failed to come to drink for the first time in weeks, as there were obviously plenty of other pools now replenished out in the darkness. In the morning daylight, however, we did enjoy the sight of three massive elephants walking slowly past us with the distant backdrop of an amazing lightning storm. The weather and its effects were an integral part of the landscape here and enhanced the experience. The seemingly massive expanse of sky painted light onto the big game in a way that no TV show could ever portray, and they had become just as exciting as any bird, almost forgotten as the main objectives of the trip.

The rains had brought many ground-dwelling animals to the surface, and dawn the next day saw us watching the antics of a Honey Badger determined to flush a lizard out from a bush. He would dive into one side, dash around to the other, then return in the hope that the reptile had decided to make a bid for freedom. The lizard stood its ground and the badger gave up. A mile away three Cape Fox kits entertained us by playing tug-o-war with an Ostrich feather, and a couple of hyena evicted by the rains slinked into the bush.

With the first rains, migrant raptors arrived. We watched the season's first group of Red-footed Falcons fly south, but our attentions were on a superb Red-necked Falcon, possibly the most beautiful raptor in the world. Much larger was a Lanner that sat on a hill overlooking the Etosha Pan. Animals rarely crossed this barren and little-studied site, but a distant hazy pink line indicated that flamingos had already returned to breed. White-backed and White-headed Vultures soared overhead, occasionally joined by Marabou Storks, easily voted ugliest bird of the trip. Three Woolly-necked Storks pecked around one of the many springs that we stopped at, and an amazing variety of larks were found. Rufous-naped, Clapper, Fawn-coloured, Sabota, Spike-heeled, Red-capped, Pink-billed and Grey-backed Finch-Larks satisfied those in need of some difficult 'small brown jobs' after the senses had been torn apart by over-the-top Crimson-breasted Shrikes, Blue Cranes and Violet-eared Waxbills.

Swallows and swifts of several species were always in the air. White-rumped Swifts mixed with endemic Bradfield's, migrant Alpine and European, and breeding Little Swifts. They moved ahead of the showers and hawked prey in the cooler air at low level giving us a great fly-past.

Courting Lions

Travelling to our second camp at Namutoni, we found a courting pair of Lions. The female slapped the male, who appeared to tired to be bothered with her, but they paired every five minutes, each time walking closer to our bus. The other animals, including a magnificent pair of Blue Cranes, gave them a wide berth, and on the horizon a hazy procession of animals disappeared into the distance. Following them we paused at Halali camp for lunch. Ian and Petre had gone ahead to greet us with a drink and an African Scops Owl. This tiny bird was perched on a low branch oblivious to the admiring group stood a few feet below. We all tested the minimum focusing distance on our binoculars that day!

At Namutoni, warthogs snuffled across the lawns past Groundscraper Thrushes and Blue Waxbills. A Black-shouldered Kite kept watch as we checked the scrub for Striped and Black Cuckoos. Noisy Grey Louries and various hornbills had been seen everyday, with Yellow-billed Hornbills particularly fond of cheese, we discovered. Pied Barbet, Rattling Cisticola, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler and Marico Flycatcher were enjoyed here, along with Pirit Batis, Lesser Grey Shrike and a pair of African Hoopoe. Large groups of seedeaters, mostly Red-headed Finches, Scaly-feathered Finches, Grey-headed Sparrows, Sociable and Masked Weavers, came to bathe in puddles, and among them we found Yellow-breasted Bunting, Melba Finch, and Shaft-tailed and Paradise Whydhas.

Many birds had begun to display and turkey-like Black-bellied Korhaans were taking off, only to glide down with their neck feathers fluffed up. The massive Kori-Bustards, dwarfed only by the local Ostriches, boomed and inflated their throat feathers. Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters dug out nest holes, while plucking dragonflies from the air. One treat was to watch a group of Black-faced Babblers seeing off a slender mongoose. The family of Banded Mongoose in our camp visited us each day to beg for food. An egg was tossed to them, resulting in the most enjoyable football match I have ever watched. As each animal took it in its paws it would shoot rapidly backwards between its legs, resulting in eleven 'players' tearing-off after it. When the moment came for the egg to break, the final scrumage was hilarious with yolk on most faces.

Reluctantly leaving Etosha, we journeyed south towards Windhoek, stopping on route at Okonjima. The landscape was mostly flat with acacia scrub occupying the large ranches. Okonjima is the headquarters of the Africat Foundation, which rehabilitates injured or rogue large cats back into the wild. We were treated to a ride into a large compound that contained six Cheetahs. A couple soon jumped onto the bonnet of our vehicle, in anticipation of feeding time. Although not yet truly at liberty, it was a pleasure to see them at close range. Afterwards we were led to a hide that overlooked a stone bank. Each night, food is placed here for some Leopards that were released here seven years ago. The animals had been watching from a nearby hill and a male was soon tucking into a large piece of meat just feet from us. A guard kept watch at all times, ready to close the window flap if the animal chose to attack us.

Surprisingly, a Red-billed Francolin walked past and up the bank towards another piece of bait. The female leopard was watching but had been prevented from approaching by the jealous male. The francolin on the other hand was allowed to take a few morsels. For safety reasons, we were asked to leave the hide before darkness fell and it was only then that people began to breathe properly. The whole experience had been very tense, with the animals at such close range.

Birding was not over and we took a nocturnal drive after dinner, where we found European and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars, along with Red-crested Korhaans, on the trail. A pair of White-faced Scops Owls provided a wonderful end to the evening. The next day was the final countdown to our flight home, but not before picking up Ruppell's Parrot, African Spoonbill, Yellow Canary, Klaa's Cuckoo and African Cliff Swallow en route. The African experience is one that everyone should enjoy, and Namibia provides a safe, friendly, stable environment in which to absorb the primeval treasures this continent has to offer.

For more details about bird- and wildlife-watching tours led by Phil and Bird Holidays, visit Phil at the BirdGuides stand at the Birdfair, visit www.britishbirdguides.org.uk or email Phil at Phil@nightjar.connectfree.co.uk.
Written by: Phil Palmer