A 5-day twitch to Namibia

By March 9, 2016 Trip Report

By Chris Lotz

Burchell’s Sandgrouse-merrill

Burchell’s Sandgrouse (photo by Ian Merrill)


2 MarchWindhoek to Waterberg PlateauWaterberg Plateau National Park
3 MarchWaterberg Plateau to Katima MuliloCaprivi Houseboat Safaris Lodge
4 MarchKatima Mulilo to Western CapriviShankara Rest Camp
5 MarchWestern Caprivi to OkonjimaOkonjima (AfriCat Foundation)
6 MarchOkonjima to Windhoek(on flight)

Not only was the first ever Yellow-throated Leaflove discovered just inside the southern
African listing region this year, but it was actually not just one individual but a pair of them,
building a nest and raising two youngsters! This means that a great many birders had to visit
the Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge in Namibia’s eastern Caprivi Strip (near where Namibia
meets Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe), to get this bird onto their regional lists! This is an
extension of the known range of this species but a couple of hundred kilometers.

Yellow-throated Leaflove-Sagell

The first Namibian record of Yellow-throated Leaflove (photo by lodge owner Curt-Ingo

In addition, a female Garganey (an extremely rare vagrant to our listing region) also
managed to find its way to Namibia. While many birders had already twitched the leafloves
before they heard news of the Garganey, the fact that we were slow actually paid off this time
(not that I’m advising this as a twitching strategy – usually it’s better to be fast!). A lot of
birders had to take a second flight to Windhoek to “get” the Garganey, and at least one birder
I know of who arrived a day after us missed it. Luck was very much on our side, as it seems
we may have only just been in time for both species. Judging from our success (also with other

tough species we were targeting as per the below), I think that my travel companion for
this trip, John Neville, must surely bring luck along with him, and I’ll certainly try my best to
travel with him again!
John also had a short-list of other target birds, and I personally wanted to try and get better
acquainted with some old friends in the form of tough-to-find species, especially Sharptailed
Starling (perhaps Namibia’s most elusive special) and flooded-grassland-loving
Striped Crake, both of which we found. The additional target birds we located for John were
Chestnut Weaver (sadly no breeding males, though), the stunning and usually tough-to-find
Burchell’s Sandgrouse, and the ornate-crested Schalow’s Turaco. Other good birds were
Sousa’s Shrike, Rufous-bellied Tit, and stacks of spectacular-looking seed-eating birds such
as Violet-eared Waxbill, Shaft-tailed Whydah, and Long-tailed Paradise Whydah. We
also saw quite a number of good mammals, and a huge black mamba was crossing the road in
front of us at Okonjima on the last morning of the trip.
I’d like to thank Dayne Braine, Niall Perrins, and Nick Buys for some useful gen that helped
“get” us a couple of the tougher targets.

Day 1, 2 March 2016
We took an early-morning flight from Johannesburg to Windhoek, collected our rental
vehicle, and immediately headed northward, stopping at a large colony of Chestnut Weaver
en route. A noisy Ashy Tit tried to steal the show. Red-headed Finches were also around,
lazily using old Chestnut Weaver nests instead of building their own.
Sadly none of the Chestnut Weavers were in breeding plumage, so John ticked the species
without the satisfaction he would have liked. This, however, was arguably compensated for
the fact that we were looking at the female Garganey (and several other duck species,
including all three southern African teals, and quite good numbers of shorebirds) by midafternoon
as we drove around the Otjiwarongo settling ponds. A female Greater Paintedsnipe
(this is one of the few species in which the female is more spectacular-looking than the
male) and various other nice birds were also around.
We had plenty of time to then leisurely drive to the scenic Waterberg Plateau National Park
(https://www.nwrnamibia.com/waterberg.htm) and spend some time relaxing before trying in
vain to get visuals of Freckled Nightjar, which called, dog-like (with their “bow-wow”
territorial calls), high up on the cliffs. We also heard four owl species. The Waterberg Plateau
is one of the best places for Hartlaub’s Spurfowl, Rockrunner, Rosy-faced Lovebird,
Rüppell’s Parrot, Monteiro’s Hornbill, and other classic Namibian specials, but we did not try
for these, only hearing some of them.
We saw six bee-eater species during the trip, many of them putting in a first appearance
today. Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Southern Carmine Bee-eater and Swallow-tailed Beeeater
are always particularly nice to see.

Day 2, 3 March 2016

We left early as we had a long – 1100 km (670 mile) – drive. First we had to get to the
western edge of the Caprivi Strip, and then we had to drive almost 500 more kilometers
through this long finger of land wedged first between Angola and Botswana and then
between Zambia and Botswana. In 1890 the then German chancellor Leo von Caprivi made a
deal with the British to make this strip of land part of “German West Africa” to get access to
the mighty Zambezi River and thus (supposedly) to the east coast and thus the Indian Ocean

(the only problem, of course, was Victoria Falls, which lay just to the east of the Caprivi
Strip, bordering on Zambia and Zimbabwe).
Thanks to the brilliant Namibian roads and paucity of traffic (Namibia is refreshingly
sparsely populated), we got to Katima Mulilo in time not only to see Yellow-throated
Leaflove very well, but also to embark on a very pleasant and relaxing sunset boat trip
(adding a lot of good birds to our list), and also seeing the truly spectacular-looking
Schalow’s Turaco in the lodge gardens that very same afternoon. A highlight during the boat
trip was close-up views of a pair of Senegal Coucal, disputing where the territorial boundary
should really lie with a pair of White-browed Coucal. Another highlight were all the closeup
bee-eaters of various species. Brightly-colored Allen’s Gallinules showed very well, and
Olive Woodpecker was good to see in the riverine forest. Various bishops, weavers
(including the very bright Southern Brown-throated Weaver), and a lot of others also
entertained us.

We spent the night at https://www.zambezisafaris.com/, which is now very much on the local
birding map as the place where the leafloves arrived from the north. It can also be a very
good site for night boat trips, where chances of Pel’s Fishing Owl and African Finfoot are
high, and White-backed Night Heron abounds. Since the Zambezi water levels were very
high when we arrived (unlike when many of the previous twitchers had visited), we did not
feel it was very likely we’d find these birds, so we did not do a spotlighting boat trip this time
(although on previous tours we’ve had good success doing so).

Day 3, 4 March 2016
After enjoying a nice breakfast on the banks of the Zambezi River (admiring pairs of pretty
African Pygmy Goose flying past and a pair of African Wood Owl roosting in the lodge
grounds), we went into the town center of Katima Mulilo to see Northern Grey-headed
Sparrow (extremely localized in our listing region), then stopped on some flooded grassland,
where we managed to get excellent views of a female Striped Crake! Our next stop was for
a Hobby, but we did not get good-enough views to know whether it was the sought-after
African or the more common Eurasian. We did get good views of the localized Bradfield’s
Hornbill, though. Eventually we made our way back all the way through to the Western
Caprivi, where we stayed at the pleasant (and, more importantly, perfectly located for our
next targets), Shankara Lodge (https://www.kwathabeng.co.za/go/ShankaraRestCamp.html)
virtually midway between the small Caprivi towns of Divundu and Rundu. This
accommodation is situated on the banks of the Okavango River (known as the Kavango River
in Namibia) in prime position for some extremely localized dry-woodland species in the form
of Rufous-bellied Tit, Sousa’s Shrike, and Sharp-tailed Starling, all of which put in an
appearance for us. We saw a flock of seven of the starlings, which we were pleased with, as
this is a truly enigmatic south-central African endemic. Indeed, it must be the most-oftenmissed
of the Namibian specials, as it’s missed more often than Cinderella Waxbill or Herero
Chat. We also saw other good birds today, like soaring Abdim’s Stork and a pair of Dusky
Lark (which can be very tricky to find, as it is nomadic, unpredictable, and scarce).
Day 4, 5 March 2016
We enjoyed birding the dry woodlands of the Western Caprivi (adding some nice birds such
as an adult as well as a puzzling (at first) juvenile African Cuckoo-Hawk, along with a
close-up Ovambo Sparrowhawk, a perched Lanner Falcon and several other raptors, along
with Mosque Swallow, African Golden Oriole, and other goodies), before heading to
Okonjima (https://okonjima.com/). This is the home of the AfriCat Foundation, which
promotes the conservation of big cats. But (importantly to us) is one of the easiest places to
see the usually elusive Burchell’s Sandgrouse (which we indeed got great views of, followed by fantastic views of a huge black mamba crossing the road). Southern Pied
Babbler, Crimson-breasted Shrike (Namibia’s national bird, a dazzlingly beautiful one at
that!), and truly spectacular seed-eating birds all added to the enjoyment.
Day 5, 6 March 2016
We spent over an hour trying to find a breeding male Chestnut Weaver, but without success.
We did see some other good birds today, however, such as Red-footed Falcon, Damara
Red-billed Hornbill, and various others. Eventually we headed back to the Windhoek airport
for our flight back to Johannesburg.
All in all, this was a splendid little trip to scenically spectacular Namibia! We are
purposefully not adding a bird list to this trip report as we were very self-disciplined and
deliberately focused only on a small handful of target species. It’s easy to get distracted by
the temptation to stop for example at Roy’s Camp (which was right on our route) to augment
the list with high quality species, in this case (Roy’s Camp) Black-faced Babbler. But we
resisted that temptation and thus were very successful with our actual targets.

I recorded almost 200 species including heard ones, and John counted 158 birds seen by him.
The mammal list was eleven species, including the very small, localized Damara dik-dik. But
we’re not including bird and mammal lists here, since for many of the species recorded we
did not have time to admire them very well anyway, apart from the ones mentioned in the text
above. It would thus be misleading to show a list here that includes a lot of birds seen only
briefly. However, we of course do have a good number of recent trip reports with full bird
and mammal lists, at https://birdingecotours.com/trip-reports/namibia – including several for
our comprehensive 18-day Namibia/Okavango/Victoria Falls birding tour, one of our most
popular trips (see https://birdingecotours.com/tours/destination/country/namibia). This trip
usually generates close to 400 bird species and one of the best mammal counts of any of the
tours we do in Africa and worldwide.

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