Rare rallids of Harare in Zimbabwe

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Megan and I just returned from a 2-day birding trip to Harare, to make the most of the brief January to March window of opportunity (….but only in years of very good rainfall!) when the high altitude wetlands of this amazingly bird-rich city fill with Streaky-breasted Flufftails, Striped Crakes, Corncrakes, Black Coucals and a plethora of other sought-after birds.

During the course of two early morning and one late afternoon birding session, we saw 4-5 Corn Crakes and 15-20 African Crakes. And at times we were literally surrounded by calling Streaky-breasted Flufftails (sometimes almost at our feet). This is a remarkably common bird here in years of good rainfall, within its very specific habitat. We worked hard to get visuals on the flufftail but when our friend Jono phoned us saying he had “an easy one” in shorter vegetation at a different wetland, we raced across town to be rewarded with excellent views of this tiny “pygmy crake”.

Stacks of displaying Black Coucals and Yellow-mantled Widowbirds entertained us while we looked for the flufftails, as did constantly overflying Abdim’s Storks and a beautiful Dwarf Bittern.

The surrounding suburbs were teaming with good birds, too – including Copper, Variable and Eastern Miombo Sunbirds. And another amazing thing about Harare (apart from the wetlands and garden birds), is the Miombo woodland surrounding the city – stuff like Spotted Creeper, Wood Pipit, Miombo Rock-thrush and even Boulder Chat can be seen on the outskirts of this spectacularly bird-rich city.

Do yourself a favour and get to Harare before the end of March THIS YEAR (which has seen exceptional rains) – before the wetlands start drying up into autumn and the rare rallids starts disappearing. While Megan and I focused mainly on the flufftail, given a couple of morning sessions of birding at the correct sites, there is a very high probability right now of seeing Blue Quail (within 2-3 hours of Harare), Streaky-breasted Flufftail, Corn Crake, Striped Crake, Lesser Moorhen, African Grass Owl, Rosy-throated Longclaw, Locust Finch and tons more. If you have at least two additional nights available, the beautiful Eastern Highlands are just four hours’ drive from Harare. This must be the world’s best site for Swynnerton’s Robin, plus Chirinda Apalis, Robert’s Warbler and other localized specials are rather easy to find in the mountain forests here. Blue Swallow is still common here (unlike in South Africa) and Striped Flufftail can be common when conditions are right (and many a birder also gets their first Buff-spotted Flufftail at the Vumba). One of the easiest sites for Zambezi (Green) Indigobird is also in this area and, importantly, this is another Jan-Mar bird (just like the rare rallids) so I strongly urge birders to be strategic and not to miss this one if you do go to Zimbabwe for the rallid spectacle…

Once in the Eastern Highlands, you’re right next to the vast Mozambican coastal plain so most birders would surely struggle to resist the temptation to cross the border at Mutare to seek things like Livingstone’s Flycatcher, Tiny Greenbul, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, White-chested Alethe, Green-headed Oriole and so many others. African Pitta is present but is very tough to find at this time of the year…

Of course, also look at our birding tours to Zimbabwe, such as our African Pitta, Miombo Woodlands and Eastern Highlands tour which is specifically right for African Pitta, as well as a host of other specials.

A final note: Harare is full of high-altitude wetlands that are part of the whole region’s water catchment. These spectacularly biodiverse vleis (e.g. various orchids in addition to the breeding rallids and other birds) are under severe threat from informal agriculture, development, etc. Dorothy Wakeling and other Harare birders (who, incidentally, were wonderfully hospitable to us during our brief stay) are managing to protect some of the wetlands so that we can continue to enjoy their birds for years to come. Please do consider donating to Monavale vlei – even if its just a small amount of extra cash you take along on your next trip to Harare.

Black Coucal breeds in good numbers in the Harare wetlands during years of good rainfall.

Blog posted by Chris Lotz

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