Namibia, Okavango and Victoria Falls Trip Report, November 2016

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02 – 18 NOVEMBER 2016

By Jason Boyce

OVERVIEW

Traversing the great country of Namibia, experiencing its brilliant diversity, and enjoying the contrasting habitats make for an enjoyable birding adventure. The open gravel plains of the west gradually become dry but well-wooded plains to the north, while the Caprivi Strip offers mature woodland and exciting wetlands. The Okavango Delta in Botswana is surely a highlight for many a naturalist, not to mention the high density of birds to be encountered on our tour. Stunning, lush, mature mixed miombo woodland in Zambia provides some excellent birding opportunities. I also will not forget to mention the wonder that is Victoria Falls. A trip total of 421 species, including eight birds that were heard only, made for a truly cracking bird list and left the group more than satisfied.

 

Day 1, 2 November – Walvis Bay Lagoon

With most of the group having arrived the day before, we set out to kick the trip off with a serious session of coastal birding. We birded the Walvis Bay Lagoon area, which is one of the great coastal lagoon birding spots in Africa. Hundreds and thousands of migratory shorebirds call it home during the northern hemisphere winter; they escape the cold, fatten up, and fly back in time to breed again in the north. The species that make up most of these numbers are both Greater and Lesser Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit, Little Stint, Ruddy Turnstone, and Common Ringed and Grey Plovers, as well as Common Greenshank. Pied Avocets are also around in good numbers and are really spectacular in flight, whereas the likes of Marsh Sandpiper, Whimbrel, and Eurasian Curlew are far fewer in numbers but are also encountered. We traveled slowly toward the salt pans to the south of town in search of the likes of Chestnut-banded Plover, Red-necked Phalarope, and Damara Tern. Chestnut-banded Plover showed well along the salt pan road together with the resident White-fronted Plover. We also found a small group of Red-necked Phalarope that took a bit of work picking them out between the hundreds of Ruff. Lastly, the terns and gulls along the lagoon and coastline were constant. Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls were ever present, while tern species included the large Caspian Tern, Common Tern, and Greater Crested Tern, as well as the diminutive and special Damara Tern. Overall the lagoon is phenomenal, and the shear numbers of birds make any visit a spectacular one. Our trip to Rooibank for the localized, endemic Dune Lark was very successful. Before arriving at the site we stopped to search the gravel plains for Gray’s Lark, which we duly found in a family group of five or more birds. Dune Lark didn’t take too much time to locate either, and once we found one we were able to get extended looks and some nice pictures. Other species that we recorded that afternoon included Namaqua Dove, Common Scimitarbill, African Red-eyed Bulbul, and Rock Kestrel.

Day 2, 3 November – Walvis Bay Lagoon and lagoon boat trip

Those that have spent time in Walvis Bay will know that the temperatures tend to stay pleasantly low and that overcast conditions tend to be a perpetual thing. This morning we made our way to the waterfront to join one of the local lagoon boat trips, not truly a pelagic trip, but we would enjoy looking for a few mammals as well as any pelagic or coastal bird species that we could pick up. Great White Pelicans and Cape fur seals, contrary to popular belief, do make their way onto the boat and enjoy some fresh fish given to them by the skipper; this makes for some pretty special photographic opportunities and is a pretty unique experience. On the way out we were lucky enough to encounter an African Penguin swimming along near the boat. In addition to good numbers of Cape Cormorants and Common and Sandwich Terns we did encounter several Sooty Shearwaters as well as a few African Oystercatchers toward the end of the sand spit that encloses the lagoon. Crowned Cormorant was encountered along the coast on our way northward, but the declining Bank Cormorant was sadly not present at one of the large breeding colonies. The Swakopmund Sewage Works were worth visiting and gave us opportunity to spend time observing some waterfowl. Maccoa Duck was one of the highlights of the afternoon; Cape Shoveler and Hottentot and Cape Teals were also enjoyable.  African Swamphen was a slightly unexpected addition in these parts.

Day 3, 4 November – Walvis Bay via Spitzkoppe to Huab Lodge

A long day’s travel was on the cards, Walvis Bay to Huab Lodge (which is situated between Khorixas and Kamanjab within the Namibia Great Escarpment) via the famous Spitzkoppe. The birding before we arrived at the Spitzkoppe was productive, and the first species to greet us was a majestic Martial Eagle perched on a telephone pole. We also managed to pick up Sabota, Spike-heeled, and Karoo Long-billed Larks along the road. The endemic Rüppell’s Korhaan didn’t disappoint us and allowed for some good looks, as did both Tractrac and Karoo Chats. The Spitzkoppe was a real highlight; the incredible granite extrusions are an amazing backdrop to some brilliant birding. Herero Chat was to be one of our main targets and did require some effort from the group, but we located it and had brilliant looks at this difficult-to-locate near-endemic. The screech of Rosy-faced Lovebirds was unmistakable as they cruised overhead; later a few were seen well in a nearby acacia tree. Chestnut-vented Warbler, Pale-winged Starling, White-throated Canary, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, and the very smart-looking White-tailed Shrike were common. Bokmakierie and Grey-backed Cisticola were only glimpsed and couldn’t be relocated. After lunch we made our way north to continue what we knew would be a full day’s birding. We constantly kept adding new species; these included Cape Starling, Cape Bunting, Mountain Wheatear, and the near-endemic Benguela Long-billed Lark on some rocky slopes near Uis. We picked up Rüppell’s Parrot, Cape Penduline Tit, Short-toed Rock Thrush, and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill on the lodge’s entrance road before enjoying settling into our rooms that evening. A fantastic dinner was the icing on the cake after a proper day’s birding.

Day 4, 5 November – Birding the Huab Lodge are and the Namibia Great Escarpment

An early start was in order to attempt to pick up Hartlaub’s Spurfowl and to locate the spot from where the resident Rockrunner was singing. We had good success with the spurfowl that morning before breakfast, locating a family group calling from an outcrop in the valley. After breakfast we picked up the likes of Helmeted Guineafowl, Lark-like Bunting, Monteiro’s Hornbill, Bare-cheeked Babbler, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, African Hawk-Eagle, and eventually Rockrunner with its lovely bubbling song, which was a real treat. We spent the whole day doing small trips and walks from the lodge grounds. Other species recorded that day were Black Stork, Damara Red-billed Hornbill, African Hoopoe, Carp’s Tit, Red-headed Finch, Black-throated Canary, and the stunning Olive Bee-eater. Lunch and dinner were both at a very high standard, and the spacious rooms allowed for some much needed rest for some of the group. That evening the nightlife was good, and the likes of Freckled Nightjar and Pearl-spotted Owlet were both out and about near the lodge, posing for a few photos. African Scops Owl calling nearby managed to evade our eyes and cameras.

Day 5, 6 November – Huab Lodge to Kunene River Lodge

After a quick look around the lodge grounds and a lovely breakfast we packed the vehicle and begun the long drive to the Kunene region. One or two stops en route yielded several small passerines, including both Red-headed and Cut-throat Finches, Namaqua Dove, and Black-throated Canary. There were decent numbers of swifts, swallows, and martins around as we headed north; some of these were Red-breasted Swallow, Common, Alpine and Little Swifts, and Banded Martin, and closer to the lodge we also encountered a few Sand Martins. The lodge grounds are fantastic for birding, and we managed to pick up Meves’s Starling and Red-necked Spurfowl (subspecies afer) on arrival. Settling into our rooms that afternoon we could already hear the calls of Swamp Boubou, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, and the range restricted Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush, all of which were to be encountered over the next couple of days.

Day 6, 7 November – The Angola Cave Chat expedition

Some of the group took part in an expedition to the Zebra Mountains of northern Namibia to find, among others, Angola Cave Chat. Success was the order of the day among the “Cave-Chatters”; they returned having had brilliant looks at both Angola Cave Chat and the sought-after Cinderella Waxbill. Those that did not join the expedition took a morning walk around Kunene River Lodge, where we were also highly successful with the likes of Bat Hawk, Swamp Boubou, Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, White-browed Coucal, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, and Ashy Flycatcher. Before lunch we continued scouring the area nearby and picked up Grey Kestrel (which is a pretty tricky Southern African bird nowadays), Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Fork-tailed Drongo, Shikra, and Olive Bee-eater. The whole group joined an afternoon boat cruise on the Kunene River, where we were treated to large flocks of Chestnut Weaver, Goliath and Purple Herons, and a pair of White-backed Night Herons that were breeding on a small island of vegetation in the middle of the river. Other notable species were African Darter, African Pied Wagtail, Water Thick-knee, and the uncommon Grey-rumped Swallow.

Day 7, 8 November – Kunene Region to Etosha National Park

We had a fairly early breakfast, once again on the deck overlooking the Kunene River and the banks of Angola. Our drive to Etosha would take some time, and therefore we didn’t hang around the Kunene region for too much longer. A picnic-style lunch stop en route was enjoyed alongside the quiet road heading south. As we traveled east toward Etosha Safari Lodge we started to encounter more acacia-loving species, including Black-faced and Violet-eared Waxbills, a pair of Barred Wren-Warblers, Red-crested Korhaan, and Scaly-feathered Finch. A very small family of Namaqua Sandgrouse was spotted on the side of the road and actually were rather confiding, allowing us to spend several minutes watching them feed. Other highlights on the way to our lodge were Kori Bustard, Pale Chanting Goshawk, and Southern Pied Babbler, not to mention the endemic Damara dik-dik seen along the roadside.

Day 8, 9 November – Etosha National Park

Finally, after great expectations, we were able to spend a full day’s birding and game viewing in the world-renowned Etosha National Park. An open safari vehicle gave a nice change and vantage point for all. Kori Bustard and Northern Black and Red-crested Korhaans were all quite easy to come across, while Double-banded Courser was slightly trickier to spot. The larks this morning were exceptional; no less than four different Stark’s Larks were encountered as well as the likes of Red-capped Lark, Pink-billed Lark, Spike-heeled Lark, and Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark. Pink-billed Lark might also be considered a tricky species to pick up due to its small size and low numbers. We were very lucky to get a lovely visual of Red-necked Falcon as well this morning at a nearby waterhole. Our afternoon was also enjoyable, as we encountered a few more Northern Black and Red-crested Korhaans on the way to Okaukuejo. The camp’s birding was good as usual, and the waterhole really gave us some fun birds, including Sociable Weaver, Acacia Pied Barbet, and Yellow Canary, as well as our only Greater Striped Swallow of the trip. The day’s birding ended with Buffy Pipit enjoying itself on the lawns of the lodge.

Day 9, 10 November – Etosha Safari Lodge to Halali Camp

Today we traveled from Etosha Safari Lodge to Halali Camp within Etosha National Park. A lovely morning through the park at our own pace was enjoyable as we headed in an easterly direction. Species encountered were plenty; many Kori Bustards, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Desert and Rattling Cisticolas, African Pipit, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Red-billed Quelea, Great Sparrow, and Brown Snake Eagle were seen. Burchell’s Courser was probably the highlight of the drive, as this is a nomadic species and one is never quite sure where to pick them up. Halali Camp held Southern White-crowned Shrike – adults with young – and Violet Wood Hoopoe as well as a lovely Purple Roller that afternoon. A drive in the afternoon was also productive, and roadside birding yielded Common Buttonquail as well as Quailfinch, both feeding in some scrub right alongside the road in the barren landscape. Eurasian Golden Oriole felt slightly out of place in the sparse mopane trees near Etosha Pan itself, while Swainson’s Spurfowl, I’m sure, felt more at home in the same habitat. That evening African Scops Owl was very vocal, and after some searching we picked one up in a mopane tree in camp. Etosha National Park is most certainly also a place to see some excellent mammals, and we did succeed in seeing a nice haul: lion, African elephant, black rhinoceros, giraffe, blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, gemsbok, greater kudu, black-faced impala, springbok, steenbok, bat-eared fox, black-backed jackal, South African ground squirrel, Smith’s bush squirrel, and yellow mongoose.

Day 10, 11 November – Etosha National Park to Roy’s Camp

Departing Halali Camp fairly early that morning was (in hindsight) a brilliant idea; we enjoyed both a honey badger as well as a cheetah strolling down the road in the morning light. Not one but two Secretarybirds finally showed well in a large open plain en route to the Andoni region. The Andoni Plains are about 40 kilometers north of Namutoni to the northeast of the pan. They consistently produce some stunning birdlife, and our visit to the plains and the Andoni waterhole was no different. It didn’t take very long to locate several Temminck’s Coursers that were actively feeding on the plains. The waterhole was particularly productive; Blue Crane (being a particularly good Namibian bird), Black-winged Pratincole, three Caspian Plovers, Chestnut-banded Plover, Common Greenshank, and Bateleur, as well as a few other waterfowl including both Red-billed and Cape Teals, were all hanging about in or around the waterhole. White-headed Vultures came cruising over the plains, and the calls of Eastern Clapper Lark were heard while we stopped at the waterhole. We subsequently had a brief look at the lark on the ground. On the drive out of the park we again recorded the very smart-looking Double-banded Courser as well as a single Saddle-billed Stork at a pond nearby. We exited the park at the northern gate and traveled to Roy’s Camp that afternoon, with enough time to locate the Black-faced Babbler that enjoys the camp grounds.

Day 11, 12 November – Roy’s Camp to Divundu

A quick walk this morning once again yielded the noisy Black-faced Babbler, and we also recorded Gabar Goshawk, White-browed Scrub Robin, Green-winged Pytilia, and huge numbers of Common Swifts (along with a few African Palm, White-rumped, and Little Swifts) overhead. We started the fairly long journey to Rundu with lunch packs on board and a few target species in mind. We encountered a pair of African Goshawks as we were nearing Rundu. The Rundu Sewage Works are a fantastic birding spot and delivered a good number of new species for our trip. We found the likes of Rufous-bellied Heron, African Swamphen, Intermediate Egret, Fan-tailed Widowbird, Wattled Starling, Zitting Cisticola, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Hottentot Teal, African Marsh Harrier, and African Rail, which finally showed briefly. We had a picnic lunch along the way and then spent the afternoon birding some of the woodland to the west of Divundu. The hot conditions made birding tricky, and we struggled to pick up some of the extralimital specials in the area. We did, however, manage to find Striped Kingfisher, Southern Black Flycatcher, White-crested Helmetshrike, African Yellow White-eye, Southern Black Tit, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, and Neddicky.

Day 12, 13 November – Mahango NP and the Okavango Panhandle, Botswana

We walked around the grounds in the morning before breakfast and recorded some really fantastic birds for the first time on the tour. Both White-browed Robin-Chats and Woodland Kingfishers that were shouting at us from the tops of large trees were group favorites. Coppery-tailed Coucal showed incredibly well, walking along the ground toward us, and Goliath Heron watched us from the far banks. Other species recorded this morning were Brown Firefinch, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Lesser Honeyguide, African Green Pigeon, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Black-collared Barbet, and Mourning Collared and Red-eyed Doves. The birding at Mahango National Park was a real treat. We kicked things off nicely at the first river loop; eight Wattled Cranes graced us with their presence and allowed some brilliant prolonged views. Red lechwe were around in good numbers as usual, while a couple of roan antelopes were a highlight on the mammal front. Other species at this stop were African Sacred Ibis, Spur-winged Goose, Black-winged Stilt, Broad-billed Roller, African Spoonbill, and both White-faced Whistling and Knob-billed Ducks. Mahango also produced enjoyable sightings of Lesser Striped Swallow, Brown-throated and Banded Martins, Arrow-marked Babbler, and Burnt-necked Eremomela, as well as migratory raptors in the form of Lesser Spotted and Wahlberg’s Eagles. Crossing into Botswana was a breeze, and Little Bee-eater greeted us at the border control. Magpie Shrike and a family of Retz’s Helmetshrike were encountered on the short drive to the beautiful Drotsky’s Cabins lodge. African Barred Owlet was a real highlight in the garden of the lodge late in the afternoon.

Day 13, 14 November – The Okavango Panhandle

Waking up in Botswana was a dream realized for some of us, and spending a full day on the Okavango Panhandle was a fantastic way to encounter a truly great number of species for one day. Before breakfast it was quiet, but we did add Ashy Flycatcher and Crested Francolin. The morning boat cruise started with both European Honey Buzzard and White-backed Night Heron, the latter being excellent at hiding away in the overhanging bushes. Giant, Pied, and Malachite Kingfishers were plentiful, while a host of bee-eaters included Little, White-fronted, Blue-cheeked, and the stunning Southern Carmine Bee-eaters. One of the highlights of the morning was watching good numbers of Burchell’s Sandgrouse flew in to drink on one of the nearby sand banks; up to one hundred sandgrouse came and went within a space of twenty minutes. The sandbank also had the likes of African Wattled and Blacksmith Lapwings, African Skimmer, and a few smaller shorebirds including Wood and Marsh Sandpipers. Further upstream the western banks of the panhandle have a few rather gigantic trees, where Pel’s Fishing-Owl likes to roost. We were delighted to locate one adult bird, but at the same time it was to be one of the more frustrating sightings that I personally have ever come across. The bird was up three-stories high in the tree and did not for one second turn his head to look at us. Such is birding, we concluded, and after twenty minutes had to bid farewell. We were, however, rewarded with a couple of great sightings further along, which included Slaty Egret, Collared Pratincole, Red-billed Oxpecker, and Black-chested Snake Eagle. Our afternoon cruise started around 3 p.m., and we focused our efforts on the eastern channels of the panhandle. It was a beautiful afternoon that saw us bag a big trip target, African Pygmy Goose. Several pairs were spotted between the lovely water lilies that naturally cover some parts of the channel. Little Bittern, Sand Martin, Chirping and Luapula Cisticolas and African Marsh Harrier did also show for the group.

Day 14, 15 November – Okavango Panhandle to the Caprivi Strip

In the morning before breakfast we took a walk around the Drotsky’s Cabins property – we enjoyed visuals of a couple of species seen on previous days, including a nice visual of Black Cuckoo in flight, giving its territorial, winding call. Other species that morning included Blue and Violet-eared Waxbills, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Garden Warbler, Swamp Boubou, and Grey-headed Kingfisher. The time had come to travel back to Namibia, where we would traverse the Caprivi Strip to Katima Mulilo. A long drive across the Caprivi with a number of stops along the way was in store, but we did stop in the Popa Falls area for several species, including Rock Pratincole, Jameson’s Firefinch, and a very enjoyable sighting of African Cuckoo-Hawk. Bradfield’s Hornbill did eventually show for us after we’d had suboptimal views a couple of days before.

Day 15, 16 November – Eastern Caprivi Strip

A day’s birding in the Kalizo Lodge area as well as just east of Katima Mulilo was ahead of us, and we kicked off checking the area surrounding the nearby Southern Carmine Bee-eater colony (which in itself was a highlight). Unfortunately, things were not as wet as they could have been, so we missed a few species, but we did pick up some stunning birds, including Copper and Purple-banded Sunbirds, Bronze Mannikin, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, and Long-toed Lapwing. Caprivi Houseboat Safaris was our lunch stop, and we enjoyed birding the gardens there, which yielded nesting African Wood Owl, Tropical Boubou, Green Wood Hoopoe, and Schalow’s Turaco. Birding a wetland on the way back to the lodge was very productive; we finally managed to locate Lesser Jacana and had a bonus in Allen’s Gallinule at the same spot. We also picked up the likes of Village Indigobird, Pin-tailed Whydah, Thick-billed Weaver, and Red-billed Firefinch alongside the wetland. A boat cruise on the Zambezi really did end the day off nicely; we had lovely sightings of many species: African Skimmer, White-crowned Lapwing, Squacco and Purple Herons, Collared Pratincole, White-faced Whistling-Duck, Knob-billed Duck, and Black Crake.

Day 16, 17 November – Katima Mulilo to Livingstone, Zambia

One last morning’s birding in Namibia started the day before we departed to make our way across into southern Zambia and to Livingstone. Flappet Lark and Black-crowned Tchagra were our new additions this morning near the lodge, while a quick stop at Katima Mulilo yielded Greater Blue-eared Starling and Mosque Swallow. Today was mainly a travel day, as road conditions in Zambia leave much to be desired. Some incredible distractions were definitely on the cards, though, in the form of Southern Ground Hornbill and the stunning Long-crested Eagle. We arrived safely at Camp Nkwazi, ready to relax and enjoy some time getting ready for our last full day of the tour.

Day 17, 18 November – Zambia and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

A very early start to a number of local patches of miombo woodland topped off our woodland species list nicely with Green-capped Eremomela, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Grey Penduline Tit, Black Cuckooshrike, Pale Flycatcher, and Icterine Warbler. Miombo Pied Barbet is known to occur nearby – we located what we thought was one individual of this species, but as things turned out it seems that hybridization with Acacia Pied Barbet has occurred here, and our bird did seem to be a Miombo Pied Barbet x Acacia Pied Barbet hybrid. We spent some time scouring the grounds of the lodge for the likes of Collared Palm Thrush, Natal Spurfowl, and Bearded Scrub Robin. We added all of these as well as Red-faced Cisticola and White-browed Coucal. The magnificent Victoria Falls, 107 meters high, were absolutely spectacular even in the low-water season. The birding was just as great, even though “the Smoke that Thunders” eliminated any chance of hearing any birds call. Red-winged Starling, European Honey Buzzard, Crowned Hornbill, and African Paradise Flycatcher were showing well.

Day 18, 19 November – Livingstone, international flights home

The last morning still had one or two birds in store for us. A family of Orange-winged Pytilias was found in the grounds of Camp Nkwazi, while on the way to the airport we picked up a single Dark Chanting Goshawk. And with that the adventure had come to an end.

 

Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.