12 NOVEMBER – 5 DECEMBER 2015
By Dylan Vasapolli
Broken up into three distinct legs; this diverse ‘off the beaten track’ tour passed through three countries, targeting some of the highly prized species of the southern African subregion:
- Firstly, a quick 24-hour Dullstroom excursion targeting a few prized specials,
- Secondly, a 7-night northern SA/Zimbabwe ‘clean-up’ tour and
- Lastly, a 14-night Zimbabwe/Mozambique comprehensive tour,
Covering a grand total of three countries, a vast array of different habitats and ecological regions were visited, resulting in not only good, varied birding, but also in very exciting birding. The first leg was a short trip to the Dullstroom region for one of the participants to target a few species that would be difficult/impossible elsewhere on the rest of the trip. The second leg was very much a ‘clean-up’ tour targeting the difficult species not seen on the typical tours of South Africa. Beginning in Johannesburg we would work our way northwards taking in the incredibly diverse regions north of Pretoria, along with the forests of Magoebaskloof and the scenic Mapungubwe National Park, before venturing into neighboring Zimbabwe and ending in the capital, Harare. The final leg was our ‘standard’ Zimbabwe/central Mozambique tour that takes in the key species of these avian-rich countries.
Although Zimbabwe has no true endemics, it offers one access into a key habitat zone, miombo woodland. This fragmented and patchily distributed habitat zone harbors many key species, and Zimbabwe offers the best sites for many of these species. Mozambique has only come to the party fairly recently, opening up after its devastating civil war in the late 90s. The central Mozambique region, like Zimbabwe, lacks any true endemics, but plays host to many species very difficult elsewhere in their range, along with being the prime area for African Pitta. This tour is specifically timed to coincide with the best time of year for this enigmatic and highly-prized bird.
The weather during the period of the tour was mostly good, with heat and humidity being the only problem in a few places. The rains were late in coming, resulting in the entire area being rather dry and the floodplain regions almost desert-like. Fortunately, this did not hamper the birding too much, and we still enjoyed a good assemblage of species – the entire trip list exceeding 500 species being a testament to this!
Custom tour Dullstroom
Day 1, November 12. Johannesburg to Dullstroom
Around midday I met up with Bruce, who was to join me for the first leg of this trip – to Dullstroom. After having completed the check-in process we quickly explored the grounds of the estate where we were staying, finding among others Reed Cormorant, African Darter, Yellow-billed Duck, White-throated Swallow, Alpine Swift, and a lovely group of Cape clawless otters moving around on the opposite bank of a dam. We soon headed off to some nearby grasslands, where we managed to track down a group of Black-winged Lapwings, but otherwise it was rather quiet. We quickly headed off to our Cape Eagle-Owl stakeout and proceeded to wait. After watching Cape Weaver, Malachite Sunbird, Long-billed Pipit, and Buff-streaked Chat for a time, we eventually picked up on the owl just as the sun was setting. Unfortunately, the bird quickly disappeared, and we only succeeded in getting rather poor flight views. Feeling unsatisfied, we called it a day and decided to try again early the next morning.
Day 2, November 13. Dullstroom to Johannesburg
We were up very early to get in position before it got light for another shot at the Cape Eagle-Owl, and as we were getting the car packed, I heard the distinct hooting of the owl coming from within the estate. We headed towards the call and found it perched in a tree just above some of the houses. The bird then flew over our heads towards its roosting site. Well, that was a good start to the morning.
After a leisurely coffee we then headed onward and birded the ‘De Berg’ road just outside of town. It was a fine morning, filled with many Yellow-breasted Pipits, along with Eastern Long-billed Larks, a small grouping of Denham’s Bustards complete with displaying male and his entourage of females, a covey of Red-winged Francolins, Rock Kestrel, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Mountain Wheatear, Yellow Bishop, and Bokmakierie.
After breakfast back in town we headed to the Groblersdal area, where we targeted White-backed Night Heron. We began to work the area, finding Fiery-necked Nightjar, Hamerkop, Half-collared and African Pygmy Kingfishers in the process, before eventually getting the night heron. Raptors were also well represented with Ovambo Sparrowhawk, African Cuckoo-Hawk, and African Harrier-Hawk showing well, with a supporting cast of Brubru, Red-headed Weaver, African Paradise Flycatcher, and White-fronted Bee-eater. We began our trip back to Johannesburg, arriving in the afternoon, after a successful 24-hour or so trip.
North-eastern South Africa
Day 3, November 14. Johannesburg to Zaagkuilsdrift
Today was the start of the second leg of this trip, and after having collected everyone we proceeded onward to the Alberton area for some wetland birding. After quite a bit of effort, we eventually got onto a Red-chested Flufftail – but we had to be content with views through reeds, as the bird just refused to come completely into the open. There were a number of other species around, and they included both White-faced and Fulvous Whistling Ducks, Cape Teal, African Snipe, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Little Rush Warbler, Orange-breasted Waxbill, and Fan-tailed Widowbird. African Rail remained a heard only.
We then headed into the surrounding grasslands and managed to track down Orange River Francolin along with Northern Black Korhaan, Spike-heeled and Red-capped Larks, Cloud Cisticola, and a surprise in form of Jacobin Cuckoo. A quick stop for Melodious Lark was surprisingly unsuccessful, as the birds had been out in full force a few days ago.
We continued to Pretoria for lunch and then proceeded into the Seringveld Conservancy for our afternoon birding. We just missed a storm that had moved through the area, and the hoped-for boost in birding activity was sadly not to be. Regardless, we still managed to worm out Lizard Buzzard, Brown Snake Eagle, Striped Kingfisher, Black-crowned Tchagra, Red-breasted Swallow, Groundscraper Thrush, and Pale Flycatcher. We undertook a short walk to track down Green-capped Eremomela, and almost instantaneously we tracked down a single bird. We observed it for a little while, before watching it bound away into the distant trees alone, with no signs of the rest of its group. A short while later the distinct buzzing of Flappet Lark started, and we ended up having good views of it displaying directly above us.
Before long the day was coming to a close quickly, and we made our way to the Zaagkuilsdrift area via the Dinokeng back roads after a successful day’s birding.
Day 4, November 15. Zaagkuilsdrift and surrounds
We began the morning on the Zaagkuilsdrift Road and were greeted with an absolute hive of activity! The birds were coming from all corners, and we didn’t cover any ground fast at all, regularly being held up with parties of birds. We enjoyed the likes of noisy groups of Southern Pied Babblers, along with sightings from the scarce Great Sparrow through to the petite Cape Penduline Tit and everything in between. Burnt-necked Eremomela, Green-winged Pytilia, Namaqua Dove, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Levaillant’s and Black Cuckoos, Crested Francolin, Chinspot Batis, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Acacia Pied Barbet, Magpie Shrike, Desert Cisticola, Kalahari and White-browed Scrub Robins, White-throated Robin-Chat, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Marico Sunbird, Marico Flycatcher, Red-headed Finch, and White-browed Sparrow-Weaver all featured greatly as well.
Our lunch was interrupted by Black Stork and Cape Vulture fly-bys before we set off to the nearby Borakalalo Game Reserve. Almost immediately we managed to track down some Quailfinches perched on the ground in the shade of some bushes. After some careful maneuvering we managed to get good views of this difficult-to-see bird. We made a stop en route at the dry Kgomo-Kgomo floodplains. Here we managed to find a large group of Grey-backed Sparrow-Larks, a rare visitor to this part of the world, along with the likes of Scaly-feathered Weaver and Yellow Canary. Some of the group managed to get onto a Western Yellow Wagtail, but we were unable to relocate it.
Before long we were within the reserve, enjoying the likes of Red-headed Weaver, Black Cuckooshrike, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Purple Roller, and waterbirds such as Great Crested Grebe, White-breasted Cormorant, Kittlitz’s Plover, Black-crowned Night Heron, Giant and Pied Kingfishers, and both Whiskered and White-winged Terns. Our main target however, was African Finfoot, and after a bit of searching we struck gold and found a female quietly moving along the river. We quickly made some ground to get ahead of her and after a short wait were rewarded with great views of this skulker. Nice! Our last noteworthy sighting was finding a pair of Double-banded Sandgrouse sitting quietly next to the road.
We made our way back to our lodge, and just before arriving there we ran into a Marsh Owl moving rapidly over and away from the road.
We enjoyed a great outdoor dinner before setting off on a night drive. The night drive was rather successful with us finding Southern White-faced Owl, Western Barn Owl, and Spotted Eagle-Owl with minimal difficulty and enjoying brilliant scope views of them. Black-backed jackal and scrub hare were seen as well.
Day 5, November 16. Zaagkuilsdrift to Magoebaskloof
We began the morning with a walk around the grounds of the lodge, and while the birding was not nearly as productive as yesterday morning, we enjoyed the likes of Great Spotted Cuckoo, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Lesser Honeyguide, Red-billed Oxpecker, Wattled Starling, and a few raptors including Wahlberg’s Eagle and Yellow-billed Kite.
After breakfast we set off northward to Polokwane and immediately started a search for Short-clawed Lark. Unfortunately, the heavens had opened up – not with rain however, but with wind. The wind was unbearable, and it was only after some effort that we were even able to open the door of the van. It was truly looking very bleak, and after a 40+-minute walk through the dry scrub, seeking shelter from the wind wherever we could, we returned to the car only to finally stumble into our target. Despite the wind the birds were actively calling, and although we were unable to hold our binos and the scope completely steady, we enjoyed good views of this localized bird.
We didn’t stay too much longer and, seeking respite from the wind, we set off onward to the Magoebaskloof area. Fortunately here the wind had died down, but the area was enveloped in thick fog. Birds were few and far between, but we were able to get Yellow Bishop, Cape Canary, and African Dusky Flycatcher. Just before the Magoebaskloof Hotel I heard the shrieks of a group of Cape Parrots, and we pulled off and began searching for them. It wasn’t easy with the thick fog, but after some patience we enjoyed good views of the birds perched not far at all from us. We decided to call it a day, having some down time for the dying bit of the day.
Day 6, November 17. Magoebaskloof and surrounds
We had an early start this morning as Striped Flufftail was our main target for the day. Being a notorious skulker, the feat of actually laying eyes on this bird requires a great deal of luck and a great deal more patience. We had a seemingly good morning with fog still enveloping the area. We made slow progress to the stakeout as the morning forest birding en route was pretty good. We notched up views of Orange Ground Thrush, White-starred Robin, Barratt’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, and a few flushed Lemon Doves as they exploded from the road.
We arrived at the site and immediately set off trying to find the bird. It took a while to track down where they currently were, and a little while longer to actually lay eyes on the bird. We sat listening to a Striped Flufftail call for brief periods from right under our feet for almost an hour, with us trying a few different positions, and, as these things happen, just as we were about to give up the bird scuttled across the open pathway. Target achieved!
While waiting for the bird to reveal itself, a Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk made a few rounds over the clearing we were standing in, and while heading back for a late breakfast we ran into more Cape Parrots along with White-necked Raven and a brief Mountain Wagtail.
After we had stocked up on some food we set off towards Tzaneen for some more ‘subtropical’ birding. The birding was really good, and our first site delivered all of our main targets for the area. These included chiefly Purple-crested Turaco, Holub’s Golden Weaver, and Magpie Mannikin. The turacos were easy to find, as were the weavers still using the same nesting site as previously. The mannikins took a bit of work, and we eventually picked up on one individual that came down in a flock of Bronze Mannikins. After this sighting the birds seemed to come down in a wave, with a big group hanging around and showing well to all. While birding around the area we also stumbled onto Long-crested Eagle, Black Sparrowhawk, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, White-browed Robin-Chat, Cape Grassbird, and Red-faced Cisticola. A quick dash up to Agatha Forest Reserve produced the resident Bat Hawk.
We then returned to a now-clear Magoebaskloof for some afternoon forest birding, but not before running into a soaring group of birds made up of Black and Woolly-necked Storks and a White-backed Vulture. While it was deathly quiet, we did find an area with a bit of activity, and after working it for a little while we were rewarded with Black-fronted Bushshrike, Olive Woodpecker, Narina Trogon, Cape Batis, Grey Cuckooshrike, Knysna Turaco, Square-tailed Drongo, and a group of Forest Canaries. We again flushed a few Lemon Doves off the road while in transit back to the hotel.
A quick stroll around after dark produced a lovely pair of African Wood Owls, rounding off another good day.
Day 7, November 18. Magoebaskloof to Mapungubwe
We decided to bird around the hotel gardens, and this proved a good move. We managed to catch up with African Emerald Cuckoo along with a very showy Olive Bushshrike, both Yellow-streaked and Sombre Greenbuls, managed to compare both Greater and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, and found a mixed party of Red-backed Mannikins and Swee Waxbills. A noisy flock of Cape Parrots came flying in and disappeared into the trees just before a large rain cloud set in, abruptly ending our morning birding spell. We weren’t too disappointed as it had been a good morning.
After breakfast we set off towards the World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe National Park, located on the border of South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. After collecting some supplies in Polokwane; a lunch stop, and a few birding stops for both Dark and Pale Chanting Goshawks and Southern White-crowned Shrikes, we arrived at the gate and headed towards Leokwe Camp. Set in a stunning rocky valley, this scenic camp is always worth a visit.
We took a quick walk around, but the heat kept the bird activity down to a minimum. Our most interesting birds for the afternoon included White-crested Helmetshrike, Brubru, Mocking Cliff Chat, Red-headed Weaver, Bearded Woodpecker, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, and a vocal Striped Pipit that just refused to show itself.
A group of African elephants came into the camp area for the afternoon and evening, and we had a close encounter after dinner.
Day 8, November 19. Mapungubwe
During the previous evening we had a wonderful and heavy rain, giving some much-needed water to this very parched region. In the morning we set off toward the river boardwalk and enjoyed the birding, hoping the rain would keep at bay. Fortunately it did, but we did have to endure the rather cool conditions this morning. The boardwalk was good as usual and produced sightings of Meyer’s Parrot, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Ashy Flycatcher, Meves’s Starling, Broad-billed Roller, White-crowned Lapwing, Water Thick-knee, Mourning Collared Dove, and African Green Pigeon.
We headed back to the restaurant for breakfast only to find that they were without power and it would take a while to get breakfast ready. After some time we finally got some breakfast, and afterwards we set out on a little walk around the area. We managed to pick up Klaas’s and Levaillant’s Cuckoos, Brubru, Woodland Kingfisher, Familiar Chat, and some of the more regular bushveld species, but nothing of great interest.
After lunch we headed out toward the western section of the park. The afternoon was mighty productive and saw us birding around the Limpopo Forest Tented Camp and the Maloutswa Pan as well as along the river loops. Raptors were quite plentiful and included a fly-by Gabar Goshawk, Dark Chanting Goshawk, African Harrier-Hawk, Tawny Eagle, and both Cape and White-backed Vultures. A few Marabou Storks were also seen in flight. Waterbirds, however, weren’t in great demand with African Spoonbill and Striated Heron probably being the species of most interest. The thickets held Retz’s Helmetshrike, African Barred Owlet, Tropical Boubou, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, African Pygmy Kingfisher, and Eurasian Golden Oriole. The more open dry country produced Shaft-tailed Whydah, both Village and Purple Indigobirds, Pearl-spotted Owlet, and a large flock of Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lawks. A group of Double-banded Sandgrouse passed through the camp in the evening. On the mammalian front we enjoyed eland, gemsbok, klipspringer, common warthog, and springhare aside from the regulars.
Day 9, November 20. Mapungubwe to Masvingo
We started the morning at the confluence view point and birded around here for the first little bit, before eventually having to make our way back to camp to pack up. The birding was good, and highlights included Southern Black Tit, Common Scimitarbill, Barred Wren-Warbler, African Cuckoo, and a stunning Freckled Nightjar perched on the rocks at its day roost. Raptors were again well represented with Amur Falcon and both Black-chested Snake and Martial Eagles being seen. While in transit back to camp we ran into a stunning Kori Bustard – a bird we were really hoping to find here! Both rock elephant shrew and yellow-spotted hyrax were seen on the mammalian front.
We said goodbye to John and Janet, who would be driven back to Johannesburg to fly up to Harare the following day, while the rest of us set off toward the infamous Beitbridge border post. After a quick breakfast in Musina we were off. It took a little while to get through the border into Zimbabwe, but very soon we were having lunch at the Lion and Elephant Motel along the Bubi River. Although it was during the midday heat, we enjoyed the antics of a pair of Collared Sunbirds, together with Yellow-breasted Apalis and Ashy Flycatcher around the grounds. A noisy colony of both Village and Lesser MaskedWeavers was also in evidence.
En route to Masvingo we tried for Boulder Chat, but after unsuccessfully trying for over an hour we had to call it quits and head onward to Masvingo. We arrived just after dark and settled into our comfortable accommodation. We celebrated the end of this successful leg of the trip with a great dinner.
Day 10, November 21. Masvingo to Harare
We woke to a brilliant morning, and set off birding within the notoriously temperamental miombo woodland. We were to see just why miombo is so temperamental with probably one of the quietest mornings of my life in this habitat. Try as we might, birds were few and far between. In between bouts of stillness, we were able to pull out Purple-crested Turaco, African Yellow White-eye, and Miombo Double-collared Sunbird, amongst sadly only a few others.
Since we had a few hours to drive to Harare, we set off after breakfast with a few stops en route for Black-chested Snake Eagle (not everyone had seen yesterday’s bird) and a large flock of Abdim’s Storks.
We arrived in Harare just in time to collect John and Janet from the airport, from where we proceeded to our hotel and met up with Barbara and Neville, who would be joining us for the last leg of the trip.
After a good lunch we headed off to bird the Harare wetlands. Knowing that it was still well before the rains we were not expecting much water at all, but the extent of the barrenness was somewhat shocking. Capped Wheatears dotted the plains, and Swainson’s Spurfowls ran for the little grass cover that was around. We visited a few different sites and eventually found a little seepage area with some water and a bit of grass cover. We worked the area for a while and came up trumps with African Reed, Little Rush, and Lesser Swamp Warblers, Orange-breasted Waxbill, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Variable Sunbird, and Senegal Coucal. I suddenly noticed a strange bird doing a circular flight overhead, and on putting some binos onto it I quickly realized it was a Rosy-throated Longclaw. The bird fortunately came to ground and gave us some good views before disappearing into the grass. A perched Marsh Owl was also a good find, and the bird was very cooperative, giving us all good views on the ground. Our last significant sighting of the day came in form of a Black Sparrowhawk doing its evening rounds.
Zimbabwe and Central Mozambique
Day 11, November 22. Harare and surrounds
The morning started off nice and early in the miombo around Christon Bank. Our main target here was Boulder Chat, and the resident birds obliged within the first few minutes of our arrival and proceeded to put on quite a show for us. We spent the next few hours working the miombo, and although we didn’t get those parties that leave you breathless, we still enjoyed some good birding. Highlights included Little Sparrowhawk, Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Red-faced Crombec, Cabanis’s Bunting, and Little Bee-eater. We had also all but given up on Miombo Rock-Thrush, when, as we arrived back at the van, as these things go, we found a lovely male perched in the lower strata, affording great views.
After breakfast, and with a packed lunch in hand, we headed off toward Haka Game Park, where we’d spend the afternoon. We took a good drive around, and, although we didn’t get any great miombo birding, enjoyed the likes of Cape and Yellow-throated Longclaws, Senegal Coucal, Croaking Cisticola, Plain-backed Pipit, and Eurasian Hobby.
The clouds had been building up all morning, and the first bit of rain started to fall. We had our lunch under some cover and discussed our plans for the afternoon. It looked as though the rain had settled in, but the group decided to persist and continue around the park, looking for bird parties. I had my window open just enough to avoid being drenched in order to hear what birds would be calling during the rain, and it was with some surprise we rounded a corner and I heard a Black Cuckooshrike and some excited Green-capped Eremomelas – a classic sign of a bird party moving through! A few brave individuals joined me while we headed out in the rain to investigate the party. It proved quite interesting trying to keep track of the birds while constantly wiping water from our binos, but we did very well. Miombo Tit, Southern Hyliota, White-crested Helmetshrike, and a small group of African Spotted Creeper were the highlights. A bird that probably was a Garden Warbler didn’t hang around long enough to be confirmed.
After the excitement of our first good miombo birding, we called it a day and headed back for a lazy afternoon.
Day 12, November 23. Harare to Nyanga
First light found us back in the miombo woodland of Haka Game Park, and after yesterday’s rain the entire area was alive. We spent a few hours walking our way through the miombo and didn’t get very far. Vocal Green-capped Eremomelas gave away a party’s location, and we managed to pull out numerous African Spotted Creepers, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Miombo Tit, Grey Penduline Tit, African Golden Oriole, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Striped Kingfisher, and Southern Black Flycatcher, among others. I suddenly caught a flash of white as a bird zipped away. I was quite sure it was a honeybird, and with Green-backed a real possibility (and a super-difficult species), we tried to track it down. Not far into the pursuit I was called back to take a look at this strange bird. A Green-backed Honeybird it was – in all its glory! We also managed to find another one a bit later on. While watching a White-breasted Cuckooshrike and trying to get into a better position, a rather tame bird flew in and landed no more than four meters away from us at eye level.
All too soon the morning had expired, and we packed our things and headed onward to Nyanga. We stopped in at Gosho Park for a spell of birding, but it being a little before midday we weren’t too hopeful. We made good progress, though, with Common Whitethroat and a fly-by African Cuckoo-Hawk. The miombo was largely quiet, and we battled for any birds. Suddenly we ran into a Wood Pipit in the track and hopped out of the vehicle to get some views, only to hear the distinct noise of a party moving around. We spent a short while working the area and enjoyed some good birds. These included Miombo Rock Thrush, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Southern Hyliota, Black-eared Seedeater, Brown-backed Honeybird, and Pale Flycatcher. A quick jaunt down to a dam produced the hoped for Whyte’s Barbet, which posed beautifully for some scope views.
We arrived at our lodge near Nyanga in the late afternoon and met up for an afternoon walk after getting settled in. With a lot of wind there wasn’t a great deal of activity, but we managed to get African Yellow Warbler, Cape Grassbird, and two of the eastern highland specials, Robert’s Warbler and Yellow-bellied Waxbill.
We retired to a great dinner and a welcoming fire.
Day 13, November 24. Nyanga to Aberfoyle
We began the day with a pre-breakfast walk around the vast gardens. We initially spent some time trying to get views of the secretive Barratt’s Warbler, with only a few of us managing to get onto it. The birding was good, and we again managed to get a nice confiding group of Yellow-bellied Waxbills, together with both Lesser and Scaly-throated Honeyguide in the same tree offering some good comparative views, a vocal pair of White-tailed Crested Flycatchers, and a small of bit of miombo birds in the only two Brachystegia trees in the area – Southern Black and Miombo Tits, Brown-backed Honeybird, Golden-breasted Bunting, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, and Miombo Double-collared Sunbird. A Garden Warbler then started up and oddly enough showed quite well, moving about in a large cypress tree. Singing Cisticola was the last bird we added before breakfast.
We set off toward the Nyanga National Park, and in the first valley we searched we found our Blue Swallow. There were good numbers around, and after enjoying them for a while we decided to move on, making for the scenic Pungwe Falls. Unfortunately, the track was quite bad and made for slow progress. We eventually made it to the turnoff and headed down to the falls. The track deterioration continued, and we soon found ourselves wedged in some rocks. With some teamwork we managed to get ourselves out, but we now just had to turn around and return up the hill a short bit to the ‘driveable’ road. Some folks who were at the falls came to investigate the commotion, and with their help we managed to pull back up to the top. They gave us a lift down to the falls, and we relaxed for a little while. We thanked them and walked back up to the car. We managed a few birds on the walk, and the highlight was a showy Olive Bushshrike. We also delighted in Augur Buzzard, numerous Blue Swallows, Giant Kingfisher, African Black Duck, and Wailing Cisticola.
After enjoying our lunch we navigated our way back through the maize of tracks onto the main road and onward into the Honde Valley toward Aberfoyle. A family of four Lanner Falcons hunting over the road provided some great views as we descended into this fertile valley. Stops were made for Mountain Wagtail and Red-capped Robin-Chat before arriving and checking in. We quickly headed for the feeders, where we enjoyed a pair of Red-throated Twinspots and heard a vocal Buff-spotted Flufftail. Try as we might, however, we just couldn’t lay eyes on the bird, and we had to call it quits eventually.
Day 14, November 25. Aberfoyle to the Bvumba Mountains
We met with Morgan, the area’s local guide, and headed out towards the Wamba Marsh. We stopped en route for a pair of Black-throated Wattle-eyes, which eventually showed well. We soon headed into the marsh, enjoying Fan-tailed Grassbird, Black-winged Red Bishop, and Magpie Mannikin, before finding a welcome pair of Marsh Tchagras, which showed very well.
We then popped into some nearby forest and found a wealth of birds. A small group of Green Twinspots moved off the pathway and into the surrounding scrub, while a vocal Green-backed Woodpecker called from the treetops, before moving onto an open branch for all to admire. African Broadbill soon started calling, and after a quick bit of searching we managed to locate it, and it gave some breathtaking views before disappearing back into the forest. Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon was seen in the forest canopy, while Blue-spotted Wood Dove and Tambourine Dove were seen in the lower reaches of the scrub. Grey Waxbill and African Pygmy Kingfisher were also found around the forest edge. A forested stream produced a stunning pair of Half-collared Kingfishers, before we returned back to the lodge.
After breakfast we were called to the feeders, which held three Red-faced Crimsonwings. A few Red-throated Twinspots fed with them, and it was brilliant to see these skulkers together! Just before leaving we enjoyed a group of Scarce Swifts overhead.
Our drive out of the valley was largely uneventful, save for a Long-crested Eagle and yet more Red-throated Twinspots. Our lunch stop also was relatively quiet but did produce Southern Hyliota, Lazy Cisticola, and Yellow-fronted Canary.
We headed onward to Seldomseen Cottages, where we’d be based for the next few nights. Although an afternoon walk around the premises was relatively quiet, we did manage to eek out Stripe-cheeked and Yellow-streaked Greenbuls, Olive and Collared Sunbirds, and White-starred Robin.
African Wood-Owl showed well after dinner, and we enjoyed the plethora of Swynnerton’s reed frogs around the pond as well.
Day 15, November 26. Birding the Bvumba
After a quick coffee and some light snacks we met for our morning birding walk with the resident guide, Bulawesi. Together with Peter they would be taking us on our morning walk around the grounds of Seldomseen. We entered into a relatively quiet forest and had to work for our birds. Over the course of the next few hours, however, we steadily got almost all of our targets. Livingstone’s Turacos were conspicuous in the canopy, while Chirinda Apalis were decidedly inconspicuous! But we did manage to get some good eye-level views of this localized species. White-eared Barbet, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Stripe-cheeked and Yellow-streaked Greenbuls, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, and Olive Bushshrike were regular features in the forest. We were also privileged to come across two different and active White-tailed Crested Flycatcher nests! While following up on a calling African Emerald Cuckoo we ran into one of those typical birding conundrums as a Buff-spotted Flufftail was briefly heard at the same time. We had a very quick discussion, and we agreed the flufftail was the priority here. The group got in position, and Bulawesi let loose a few brilliant hoots, while Peter and I pulled ourselves away to try and find the calling cuckoo. In no time at all, we got onto the cuckoo, as well as the thumbs up from Bulawesi as he roped in a male Buff-spotted Flufftail. Peter and I quickly pulled in and enjoyed the breathtaking views we had of this skulking species, while we casually mentioned that we had the cuckoo as well. After more than satisfactory views of the flufftail we tried to relocate the cuckoo, but without luck, unfortunately. We didn’t have time to feel disappointed as a Swynnerton’s Robin started up. We quickly got into position and gave a short burst of playback. No immediate response, and after waiting for over five minutes without a response, our African Emerald Cuckoo started again from just above us. As these things go, just as we were contemplating changing plans, our Swynnerton’s Robin let loose its whistle, and we refocused our attention to the undergrowth. We didn’t have much trouble picking the bird up and enjoyed some good, close views, although the bird wouldn’t sit still for any great length of time. With the robin out the way as well, we began looking for the cuckoo again, again without luck once more, unfortunately…
During the previous day we had also noticed that we no longer had a front number plate, and being a SA-registered vehicle, we wouldn’t be able to get a new one until the tour had ended. So during the midday period I headed into town to the police office to get some paperwork stating that we had lost our number plate somewhere in the eastern highlands. Fortunately, this was not a problem.
In the afternoon enjoyed some good birding at the Vumba Botanical Gardens. While the gardens are a shadow of their former glory, they still offer some good birding and virtually all of the typical forest species. The white-winged race of Black Saw-wing (known locally as Eastern Saw-wing) along with Robert’s Warbler and Bar-throated Apalis were conspicuous around the gardens. We found a recently-worked piece of land that pulled in considerable numbers of Lemon and Tambourine Doves and also finally managed to get onto Black-fronted Bushshrike. Bronzy Sunbird, another special of the eastern highlands, did not prove difficult to find, and we eventually enjoyed some good views of this spectacular species. We spent far too long on a pair of Orange Ground Thrushes that we simply could not get our eyes onto, and eventually, after giving up, we found a much showier individual that gave us some good views! A pair of Swynnerton’s Robins played with us and gave a few of us incredible views from virtually right next to us. But, sadly, the regular Tree Pipits were nowhere to be found.
In the evening we enjoyed a lovely home-cooked meal to round off the day.
Day 16, November 27. Birding the Bvumba
Our early morning was focused on the miombo woodlands that cover these mountains. Miombo woodland can be quiet, and it regularly is, but this morning was really pretty bleak, and we had to work very hard for any birds. A lovely male Narina Trogon posed beautifully for all and started off the birding properly. A Whyte’s Barbet in the morning sun followed. Another patch of woodland gave up Bearded Scrub Robin, Miombo Tit, Striped Pipit, Cabanis’s Bunting, Red-throated Twinspot, and Black-eared Seedeater. We progressed further along, slowly adding Red-faced Crombec, Striped Kingfisher, Green-capped Eremomela, and Scaly-throated Honeyguide. A bird resembling a Cinnamon-breasted Tit almost perfectly flew over the road and we quickly followed up. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, as we could only draw Miombo Tit from the hills.
The hours had quickly passed, and when we made our way back from a late breakfast a quick stop at a nesting site for Swynnerton’s Robin gave everyone good views. Then we took it easy over lunch, waiting for the heat to pass.
In the late afternoon we headed over to the Leopard Rock Hotel in search of Silvery-cheeked Hornbill. It was still quite warm outside, and only a few of us brave enough headed out to take a walk around the golf course. Not unexpectedly, the afternoon was quiet, although we eked out Bronzy Sunbird, Grey Penduline Tit, and Dark-backed Weaver in a feeding party. A group of the monstrous Mottled Swifts came low overhead in a large aerial feeding flock, and just before returning to the clubhouse for a drink we were treated to a magnificent fly-by of an adult Crowned Eagle.
We met up with the rest of the group at the clubhouse, only to find that they had had a fly-by of a pair of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills. Enjoying some cold drinks we patiently waited for more hornbills to float over, but it wasn’t to be.
Day 17, November 28. Bvumba to Gorongosa
With today being mainly a travel day and us having to cross the border into neighboring Mozambique, we had limited birding time, and our morning miombo attempt was halted by rain. With rain present over the entire region, we rather decided to press onward, get into Mozambique, and try and make more of the afternoon.
After a bit of effort and ensuring we had the correct papers, we were through the border. The roads were in the process of being upgraded and made travel much smoother than normal. After a long stop for some food and money we were eventually on the road and had a ‘rustic’ lunch on the Gorongosa National Park access road.
After lunch we stepped into a birders paradise and enjoyed a constant stream of birds throughout the afternoon. Conspicuous species included Broad-billed Roller, African Golden Oriole, Bateleur, Crowned Hornbill, Purple-banded Sunbird, and White-crested Helmetshrike. While working our way through the various bird parties we came across Grey-headed Kingfisher, a few of the charismatic and prized Red-winged Warblers, Pale Batis, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, and Miombo Blue-eared Starling. An Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle drifted overhead and out of sight before anyone could get onto it, and the same happened with an Orange-winged Pytilia. We were slowly moving through the productive mixed woodland when we flushed a pile of seedeaters from the ground. The majority were mannikins and Blue Waxbills, but I got onto at least one male Orange-winged Pytilia. The birds settled in the bushes ahead, but, try as we might, we could not relocate the pytilia(s).
We settled into our camp for the evening and, in preparation for our assault on Mount Gorongosa the following morning, retired to bed early after dinner.
Day 18, November 29. Mount Gorongosa
Well before dawn had broke, we were up and en route to the famed Mount Gorongosa. We made good ground and were on the track up the mountain as it got light. We changed vehicles on the initial ascent, as the sections coming up would prove a bit too rough for the van. We made our way up to the ‘stop point’, from where we’d continue on foot into the afro-montane forest. Groups of Red-throated Twinspots and African and Jameson’s Firefinches exploded off the road into the surrounding cover on the way. But try as we might, we couldn’t turn any of these into the even more fabled Lesser Seedcracker.
After reaching our walking point we had a quick bite to eat before setting off. We hadn’t progressed too far when we found our first Moustached Grass Warbler. This prized and equally stunning species gave us some great views, before a Blue-spotted Wood Dove flew in and stole the show for a bit. We were walking through a recently-worked field that held a lot of Pin-tailed Whydahs and various other birds, and I was called back to take a look at something that didn’t quite look like something we’d seen before. It took a little while to find it, and I’m very glad that we persisted, as the bird turned out to be a Whinchat – a serious mega rarity for the area. Poor Ken was trying to describe the area where it was, and then what it looked like, but it just didn’t work and left us all a little more confused. We eventually decided to walk towards the area, and the bird soon showed in all its glory! On a bit of a high, we proceeded onward into the forest, being halted by African Yellow Warbler, African Goshawk, Singing Cisticola, Black-winged Red Bishop, and a truly stunning male Marsh Tchagra.
Then we set off into a gloomy forest, with the overcast weather keeping it quite dark inside. Our main target here was Green-headed Oriole, and while they were decidedly vocal, it took a bit of patience before we were eventually able to track them down. Initially we only had views of a young bird, but very soon we had a stunning adult in view, and we all managed to enjoy this localized species. Other species were bounding around and included Grey Cuckooshrike, Black-fronted Bushshrike, Chirinda Apalis, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, and Livingstone’s Turaco.
As we made our way out the forest we birded around the forest edge. Here we found Green Twinspot, Grey Waxbill, and Brimstone Canary. We headed back to the vehicle for some further food and a quick of a rest, but not before enjoying some more views of our recently-found rarity – the Whinchat. After stocking up on some food we found a Mountain Wagtail that didn’t hang around for long, along with Lesser Honeyguide and European Honey Buzzard. Our drive down the mountain was largely uneventful, with only Eurasian Hobby being noteworthy.
After arriving back at camp we took it easy for a while, before venturing on a late afternoon walk in some nearby woodland. We enjoyed a vocal Eastern Nicator along with our first Brown-headed Parrot and a showy Common Scimitarbill. Just before dinner we were treated to a Square-tailed Nightjar displaying around camp.
A night drive after dinner was pretty quiet, but we managed to eventually get a few Spotted Eagle-Owls, along with European Nightjar.
Day 19, November 30. Gorongosa and surrounds
Today was set aside for birding in the productive mixed woodlands that dominate throughout central Mozambique, but are particularly accessible around the Gorongosa area. We focused our efforts along the access road towards the national park.
We had a productive morning, enjoying a constant stream of birds throughout the morning. One of the highlights went to a male Speckle-throated Woodpecker that showed a few times. This rather poorly-known bird is a regularly-missed species and always creates some excitement when found. We also enjoyed the likes of Arnot’s Chat, Southern Hyliota, Greater Honeyguide, Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Ashy and Pale Flycatchers, Brown-necked Parrot, along with a similar suite of species to what we had on the drive in (such as Red-winged Warbler, Green-capped Eremomela, Black-eared Seedeater, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, and so many others).
We waited for the heat to subside before heading out in the afternoon. We visited the river and a rockier section of woodland, which was deadly quiet. We managed to eke out African Openbill, Marabou Stork, Common Sandpiper, Trumpeter Hornbill, Black-throated Wattle-eye, and African Cuckoo-Hawk. But too soon our time had run out, and we were off back to camp.
We again did a night drive, trying for Pennant-winged Nightjar, but it wasn’t to be. We saw, however, a few European Nightjars and Spotted Eagle-Owls.
Day 20, December 1. Gorongosa to Catapu
The early morning again saw us birding in the rich woodlands that surround the camp. We enjoyed a good spell of birding for a few hours, before having to head back for breakfast, and then proceeded onward to our next area. The morning saw us working for various species we hadn’t yet seen, and we again came across many of the birds we’d already set our eyes on. A small group of Miombo Blue-eared Starling was a highlight, feeding in a fruiting tree and allowing us to get real close to them. White-breasted Cuckooshrikes were a dime a dozen this time around, and we enjoyed playing with a few different Cuckoos. Black, Klaas’s, and African Emerald all taunted us from time to time and quite simply refused to play, while a Common was the only one to show well. We had Black Sparrowhawk move swiftly through the woods and regular sightings of other raptors, such as African Cuckoo-Hawk and Lizard Buzzard.
Before long we had hit the road towards M’Phingwe Camp, located on the Catapu concession. This area is located on the Zambezi delta and has been made famous for the reliability with which some of the central Mozambican specials can be found – most notable among them being the “Big 3” – African Pitta, White-chested Alethe, and East Coast Akalat. We had some good birding en route, finding Dickinson’s Kestrel, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, nesting Marabou Storks, and a lovely pair of Collared Palm Thrushes.
After checking in we were quite surprised to see just how dry the area was, and immediately our expectations lowered of finding African Pitta. This enigmatic species is generally only visible in a very small timeframe at this time of the year, when they are displaying and not too difficult to find. The birds need the first rains to have fallen before they begin displaying, and then breeding. While they can be found into January, they are very difficult at that time, as they usually have chicks then and are very secretive. That is why it was with some surprise on my part, when speaking to a fellow birder at the camp, to hear of some pittas he had found.
We waited for the heat to drop a bit, before heading out in search of them. En route to the area we ran into a stunning African Hobby perched on the road that was content to hang around for a little bit before eventually moving off. We began our search for the pitta, but try as we might, we were out of luck. There were tons of other birds around, though, to keep us distracted. We enjoyed a large flock of Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike (another of the area’s key targets), together with both Retz’s and White-crested Helmetshrikes, along with Narina Trogon, Eastern Nicator, and a vocal African Barred Owlet, among others.
Then suddenly African Broadbill started calling and was soon followed by the unmistakable ‘prrpt’ of African Pitta. We headed into the bush after the bird, and after some careful stalking found ourselves within striking distance. We could see it bouncing up and down on a branch, and after a bit of a wait we eventually got some views of the pitta while it sat on the branch, peering around. Unfortunately, not everyone managed to get views, and while we sought a better view, the bird disappeared from sight. Our light ran out, and we decided to return in the morning.
Day 21, December 2. Zambezi Delta
We had an early pre-dawn start, making our way back out towards the pitta area, where we would spend the morning. We arrived within a patch of forest alive with African Pittas – they were calling from all around us! Despite not having seen the birds just yet, this was a surreal experience! We set about tracking one bird down, but just as we closed in on it, it went silent. This happened a few times, until one bird started displaying from just behind us. We slowly turned and found the bird completely out in the open. Unfortunately, as it is in the forest, while most of us had spectacular views, a few didn’t. By the time we had moved Janet and John into position, the pitta had moved on. With everyone else satisfied, I lead the two of them after the bird. We didn’t get very far when a pitta came bounding along the forest track in front us! When I turned around I saw the rest of the group enjoying the bird as well. We spent some time watching this pitta hopping back and forth across the pathway and getting joined by a second individual!
With everyone having simply soaked up the sighting we continued birding, all running on a high. The forest was also brimming with other birds, and we enjoyed the likes of an inquisitive pair of Black-headed Apalis, along with Woodward’s Batis, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Narina Trogon, and a pair of Mangrove Kingfishers. Then we started looking for East Coast Akalat, and after a bit of a walk through the forest we eventually found a pair of these birds. Although we had to work for it, we were eventually rewarded with some close views in the lowest strata possible. Unfortunately, due to its position, a few folks did miss the bird, and we couldn’t lure it out again. Despite working the area for a while longer, we sadly failed to find any other akalats. But some stunning views of Livingstone’s Flycatcher, along with a showy Green Malkoha, acted as consolation prizes. Our way back to camp was halted by a few suni, together with a regal Southern Banded Snake Eagle and another Common Cuckoo.
The afternoon saw us birding around the Caia wetlands. We visited a few different areas and enjoyed some good birding, despite the overpowering heat. Moustached Grass Warbler summoned up the energy and called from a nearby stand of reeds, giving good views. Southern Brown-throated Weaver and Rufous-winged Cisticola were also present in the reed beds. The open water did not hold much apart from African Openbill, African Jacana, and Whiskered and White-winged Terns, while the reed verges held Black, Purple, and Squacco Herons, African Swamphen, Malachite Kingfisher, and a Lesser Jacana that did not hang around for views. The muddy area held Common Ringed and Kittlitz’s Plovers, along with Collared Pratincole and a few Marsh Sandpipers, among others. Blue-cheeked Bee-eater graced the skies, and Blue-spotted Wood Dove and Red-necked Spurfowl worked the open verges away from the water.
Day 22, December 3. Zambezi Delta
With the trip’s main target, African Pitta, out the way, we had more time to focus on the region’s other specials. We set off this morning to target the last of our outstanding “Big 3”, White-chested Alethe. Affectionately known as the ghost bird, the reputation of this bird certainly precedes it, as it must surely be one of the most difficult species to lay eyes on.
Our first birding stop produced Mangrove Kingfisher, a calling African Broadbill, Green Malkoha, Lowland Tiny Greenbul, and the first sign of our main target, a calling alethe. We headed into the forest in pursuit. After positioned ourselves accordingly, we gave a quick burst of playback. The bird went quiet but resumed calling a short while later. Another burst of playback, and we had White-chested Alethe come over our heads, only to disappear into the depths of the forest again. Not ideal views, but the russet wings and ghostly white underparts were diagnostic as it moved overhead. We worked the general area for a while longer but were unable to get further views. Although we located a few different alethes, we were met with the same success as with the first bird. However, while we were waiting for an alethe to show at one point, a soft chattering revealed the presence of East Coast Akalat. This bird was incredibly confiding and practically landed on us after a quick burst of playback. The sublime views we had somewhat compensated for the poor views of the alethe that we’d had. A group of Crested Guineafowls that quickly moved off the road were seen on our way back to camp, with a Southern Carmine Bee-eater being the only noteworthy sighting.
Midday around the camp’s water baths was productive with Greater, Lesser, and Scaly-throated Honeyguides, Crowned Hornbill, various seedeaters, and a plethora of greenbuls/brownbuls. The resident African Wood Owl also perched conspicuously for all to admire during the day.
We again waited for the heat to abate slightly before setting off for our afternoon birding along the Zangue River. Although the area was horribly dry, we had a successful afternoon. The forests along the way were in the worst shape I had ever seen them, and only a lovely, little male Plain-backed Sunbird was of interest in them. At the floodplains we worked the areas around the little water that was present and came up trumps with Allen’s Gallinule and Lesser Jacana on the waterbird front. The gallinule flushed from the edge and disappeared into a grassy section. It took a while before it showed again, but show well it did! There were a number of Lesser Jacanas present this time and gave great views in comparison to the previous day’s bird. The dry, grassy edges held a pair of Common Buttonquail that were content to parade around openly on the ground, along with Yellow-throated Longclaw, a small group of Senegal Lapwings, and a number of Croaking Cisticolas. Grey-rumped Swallows worked the skies over the water.
Day 23, December 4. Catapu to Beira
With a long journey ahead of us today, we only birded around the lodge. We took a trail out to one of the pans for a few hours before returning back for breakfast and then setting off towards Beira.
The morning walk was very pleasant, with notable sightings of Purple-banded Sunbird, Black-bellied Starling, and quite a few Livingstone’s Flycatchers. A pair of Mosque Swallows flitted overhead, and on arriving at the pan we were greeted by a number of Lesser Jacanas among the more common African Jacanas. We also enjoyed a number of White-faced Whistling Ducks along with a few Squacco Herons around the pan. An Ovambo Sparrowhawk shot over the pan with an agenda, sending scores of drinking Tambourine Doves and Emerald-spotted Wood Doves back to cover. Some thickets around the back end of the lodge held a number of Red-throated Twinspots. And multiple Natal red duikers along with samango monkeys were seen on the mammalian side.
We soon began the long journey to Beira, which would take a few hours. But a number of birding stops en route produced, amongst others, White-crested and Retz’s Helmetshrikes, a lovely Shikra, a pair of the powerful Crowned Eagle, a great fly-by of a pale Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, and Grey-headed Kingfisher. Just before arriving in Beira we enjoyed a lovely pair of Bat Hawks at their nesting site.
After arrival in Beira we quickly shot off towards Rio Savane in order to get some afternoon birding in on the floodplains. Unfortunately, the area was bone dry with virtually no water anywhere. We were mainly after Blue Quail, and after walking around a slight depression for a while we were eventually rewarded with a flushed individual that flew up from between us. During this time we also flushed a number of Quailfinch along with a brief Black-rumped Buttonquail. A lone African Marsh Harrier quartered over the open areas.
With time rapidly running out, we then headed back toward Beira to squeeze in some coastal birding. While many of the waders and terns were very distant, we were able to find Pied Avocet, Common Greenshank, Whimbrel, Curlew Sandpiper, and Sanderling closer to our viewing point. A number of House Crows were also present around the town.
We had an excellent seafood dinner to wrap up the tour with a beautiful view over the Mozambican coastline.
Day 24, December 5. Departure
With this being our last morning, we gave it our all. We were up nice and early and headed back into the ‘floodplains. Although we drove in a bit further than the previous afternoon, we still battled to find any water. A Black-bellied Bustard flying over its turf kick-started our morning, and numbers of Fan-tailed Widowbirds and Yellow-throated Longclaws littered the roadside. A stand of shrubs held a group of four Copper Sunbirds. We walked our first field looking for Locust Finch, and although the closest we got was a large group of Quailfinches, we also had some good views of Black-rumped Buttonquail – far better than yesterday. A displaying Flappet Lark was present as well. As we began to search our second field we noticed a few Collared Pratincoles moving around and were quietly optimistic. In no time at all we had found a group of six Locust Finches, and after some patient stalking had great views of them on the ground. Certainly some of the better views I’ve had of this species! Shortly afterwards a Wattled Crane graced the skyline as it came flying by. Just before getting back to the vehicle we also found a Temminck’s Courser, which soon flushed and flew out of sight.
After a highly successful morning, with most of our targets found, we made our way back to our hotel to get ready for upcoming flights. After breakfast and a lovely cooling shower we gathered our things and headed to the airport for the group’s departure.
I would just like to thank everyone in the group for the good times we shared, the good fun we had, and the brilliant birding we enjoyed! The vast array of areas, habitats, and regions covered resulted in an impressive list of species seen, combined with some of the region’s and even Africa’s most prized species. Our incredible African Pitta experience must surely rank as one of the top highlights, but on a tour filled with so many great areas and wonderful birds one true highlight is difficult to choose. I look forward to the next one!
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.