Southern Namibia: Birding, Sightseeing and History in the Namib Desert

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Written by Dominic Rollinson, posted on November 22, 2023

In March 2023 I did a family trip with my parents and partner, Jaime, to southern Namibia to explore a region of this vast country that I had yet to properly visit. On our (Birding Ecotours) Namibia birding tours, we concentrate our birding in the northcentral, north and northeast, visiting iconic and popular wildlife destinations such as Sossusvlei, Etosha National Park and the Zambezi region (formerly known as the Caprivi Strip). Birding Ecotours does not currently offer any set departure birding tours to southern Namibia, however, if you would like us to set up a private trip similar to the below, please do contact us. This meant that despite having led many bird watching tours to Namibia, I had only passed through southern Namibia. I thus looked forward to spending a week birding, sightseeing and taking in the area’s rich (and sometimes tragic) history. Further adding to the appeal of a southern Namibia birding trip was to target several bird species which have very restricted ranges in Namibia, as I have been working on building my Namibia bird list over the years.

The nomadic Sclater’s Lark was the birding highlight of our southern Namibia birding trip.

We left from Cape Town and drove the excellent and relatively quiet N7 highway northwards. A lot of people do not realize just how accessible Namibia is from Cape Town, with the Vioolsdrif border post only 420 miles (680 kilometers) away, which can be done in less than seven hours of driving. We arrived at Springbok’s Goegap Nature Reserve for a late lunch which quickly yielded Karoo Eremomela, Fairy Flycatcher, Pale-winged Starling, Dusky Sunbird and a single Verreaux’s Eagle being mobbed by White-necked Ravens. This is an incredibly attractive reserve and in a few months’ time it would be full of impressive wildflowers, however, for now we would just have to enjoy it for its good birding.

We then drove the final hour to the Vioolsdrif border post, which did not take too long to negotiate and as usual, it was a pretty quiet and stress-free crossing. We were staying for the night at the fairly basic but comfortable Orange River Lodge, which was just through the border. Upon arrival we soon started ticking off new Namibia birds which only just make it into southern Namibia, such as Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Karoo Thrush and Cape Robin-Chat. Other nice birds seen in the area included Acacia Pied Barbet, Orange River White-eye, Black-throated Canary and Bradfield’s Swift. We took a drive down to the Orange River itself and birded the shoreside vegetation in the hope of finding Namaqua Warbler but drew a blank here.

Acacia Pied Barbet was common throughout treed areas of southern Namibia.

The following day we spent most of the morning driving from Vioolsdrif, west along the Orange River and then northwest to the coast at Lüderitz. I was hoping to find Namaqua Warbler and Fairy Flycatcher along the Orange River, but despite trying on countless occasions, the birds would not show. We stopped for coffee at Norotshama River Resort, a lovely spot, and we noted that next time we did a southern Namibia trip we would spend a night or two here. We were hoping to find African Black Duck and Namaqua Warbler which surely occur here (the habitat just looks so good) but they would have to wait until next time. We did, however, enjoy some nice birding along the river front, and found Orange River White-eye (in the highest densities I’ve ever experienced), Common Reed Warbler, Goliath Heron, Yellow-billed Duck (a range-restricted species in Namibia) and Swallow-tailed Bee-eater.

Orange River White-eyes were numerous along the Orange River.

Later that morning we continued with the long drive along the Orange River and through the Namib Desert (the oldest desert in the world) and made it to Lüderitz. Along the drive we did manage to find Jackal Buzzard, Karoo Prinia, Black-headed Canary, Pririt Batis and the first of many Pale Chanting Goshawks. I had hoped to find Sickle-winged Chat in the plains around Rosh Pinah, however, all the chats we inspected turned out to be either Familiar, Tractrac or Karoo Chats.

Jackal Buzzard can be tricky to track down in Namibia.

Tractrac Chats are rather widespread throughout the desert areas.

Two nights were then spent in the coastal town of Lüderitz, where we enjoyed lots of birding, history and sightseeing. The town is named after Adolf Lüderitz, the founder of German South West Africa, which was Imperial Germany’s first colony. Lüderitz is perhaps not the prettiest town but it does have some attractive colonial architecture and is a good place to base yourself to explore Kolmanskop ghost town (see more below) and has a lively waterfront with some nice restaurants. From a Namibian listing perspective it has a small population of the introduced Common Starlings which are not too difficult to see in town, and we found them easily enough. Additionally, for the last couple of years, there has also been a single male Red-winged Starling in town, sadly, despite our best efforts to find this bird, we did not have any success. How this bird arrived in Lüderitz is anyone’s guess, as it is many hundreds of miles out of range, with the only other Namibian records of this species being in the extreme eastern Zambezi region!

An early morning was spent in the Namib Desert between Lüderitz and Aus where we had lovely views of a confiding pair of Barlow’s Larks (soon to be lumped with Dune Lark) and found Karoo Eremomela and a few Grey-backed Sparrow-Larks. The lumping of Barlow’s and Dune Lark will mean that Namibia will lose its only country endemic, as Barlow’s Lark’s range extends just south of the border into South Africa. We again tried our best to turn the chats in the area into Sickle-winged Chats but they had to remain as Familiar and Tractrac Chats, unfortunately.

Barlow’s Lark was seen near Aus.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the ghost town of Kolmanskop, on a guided tour, which was a fascinating way to discover the history of this now-deserted town. The town was established in 1908, soon after the discovery of high densities of diamonds in the area, and at its peak had a population of 400 people and included a hospital, ballroom, power station, theatre, casino and an ice factory! The town was abandoned in 1956 after many years of decline, once most of the diamonds had been depleted. Nowadays, the sands of the Namib Desert have invaded and reclaimed the abandoned buildings, turning this ghost town into a popular tourist destination.

The Namib Desert sands are slowly taking over the buildings of Kolmanskop.

The Kolmanskop mine administrator’s former residence.

Lüderitz has some good coastal birding in the general area and we took a couple of drives south of town along the edge of the lagoon towards Dias Cross which produced good numbers of both Greater and Lesser Flamingoes and a host of common shorebirds such as Grey Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and Eurasian Whimbrel. We scanned the coastline here and found a small group of tiny Damara Terns which are always a delight to see. At Dias Cross itself we did a quick seawatch and saw White-chinned Petrel, Cape Gannet and Parasitic Jaeger, and found a washed up and decaying Heaviside’s Dolphin. In the nearby coastal desert, we found a pair of Gray’s Larks, which are close to the southern extent of their range here.

This Common Ringed Plover was looking dapper in its full breeding colors.

While in Lüderitz we also took a boat trip out to Halifax Island, where we got to enjoy close-up views of African Penguin and saw Cape, Crowned and Bank Cormorants en route to the island. Halifax Island might be familiar to southern African twitchers as it is the site of the subregion’s only record of Band-rumped Storm Petrel, which was photographed in October 2009. The waters around Halifax Island hosted a small pod of Heaviside’s Dolphins which hung around for a while for us to enjoy.

Some ponds just outside of Lüderitz held a few interesting waterbird species, with the most notable find being a dead Cape Eagle-Owl which had become entangled in a powerline and had been electrocuted. Although sad to see this, we were encouraged to know that they still occur in the area!

On one of our misty afternoons at Lüderitz we paid a visit to Shark Island (which has now been connected to the mainland by a causeway). This was a sad reminder of the tragic history of the town: Shark Island was the site of a concentration camp (during the years 1905-1907) which killed between 1,000 and 3,000 Africans from Herero and Nama tribes in the area. The gloomy weather added to the eerie atmosphere of the place and it was interesting to read the plaques that have been erected here to commemorate the dead.

After a couple of days on the coast, we moved inland, stopping at the feral horses’ drinking trough en route. Here, we saw a few horses coming down to drink and noticed a few foraging Gray’s Larks in the area. The feral horses probably number between 90 and 150 and are thought to originate from German breeding programs which were then released into the desert in the early 20th century. The drinking trough near Garub is the classic place to see sometimes large congregations of the horses as they come down to drink during the heat of the day.

One of the feral desert horses of southern Namibia.

We stayed a night near Aus at Desert Horse Inn, as there were again a number of birds we wanted to target in the area. From our accommodation we took a few short drives out into the desert and to explore some rocky outcrops. In the general area, we did well with our targets and managed to find Karoo Korhaan, Nicholson’s Pipit and Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, as well as other quality birds such as Burchell’s Courser, Ludwig’s Bustard (Jaime’s 300th southern African species), Stark’s Lark, Karoo Long-billed Lark, Layard’s Warbler, Karoo Eremomela, Sociable Weaver and Pale-winged Starling.

Stark’s Larks were numerous near Aus.

Sociable Weavers made their nests in the many quiver trees in the area.

Our next stop was just outside of Keetmanshoop to explore the nearby quiver tree forest. We first paid a visit to the giants’ playground, which is a series of dolerite boulders which look like they have been placed on top of each other by giants, and a fascinating area to walk around and enjoy the scenery. The quiver tree forest was visited at last light and then again the following morning, at first light, with the glorious light adding to the beauty of the area. The Quiver tree (also known as the Kokerboom; Aloidendron dichotomum) is a tall, distinctive, succulent plant occurring only in Namibia and South Africa, with its English name referring to the San practice of hollowing out its tubular branches to store their arrows. The forest itself was a truly impressive place to visit, with many of the trees hosting massive Sociable Weaver nests. Unfortunately, we did not find any Pygmy Falcons, which utilize these nests.

The quiver tree forest at sunset was spectacular.

Our final couple of nights were spent at Canyon Village near the famous and very impressive Fish River Canyon. The lodge is around 10 kilometers from Hobas (the entrance camp to the Fish River Canyon) and is beautifully set, with some great birding to be had from trails leading out from the lodge. Birding around the lodge over our couple of days here produced Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Black-headed Canary, Layard’s Warbler, Grey-backed Cisticola, Lanner Falcon, Verreaux’s Eagle, Rosy-faced Lovebird and a fantastic Cape Eagle-Owl (a living bird this time) at night.

Of course, the main reason for visiting the area was to enjoy the spectacular Fish River Canyon (Africa’s largest canyon) which we viewed from several vantage points. The views did not disappoint and we visited the canyon edge in the late afternoon and early morning to see how the different light would look on the rugged and extreme landscape. We saw the start of the 88-kilometer self-guided hiking trail (normally done over five days) and decided we would have to leave this for another time.

The mighty Fish River Canyon.

Another highlight of our Fish River Canyon visit was birding the gravel plains between Hobas and the canyon, where we saw a pair of Karoo Korhaan and found the bird of the trip when we bumped into a flock of foraging Sclater’s Larks. These larks are perhaps southern Africa’s most tricky lark species to track down due to their highly nomadic nature, with most sightings of this species being at artificial drinking troughs. It was fun to see these birds feeding in their nature habitat (that being stony plains) and listening to them call softly as they moved slowly across the landscape.

Karoo Korhaans were seen in the stony plains near to the Fish River Canyon.

Perhaps the showiest Cinnamon-breasted Warbler I have ever seen.

A visit to the hot springs at ǀAi-ǀAis (with a Gemsbok seen en route) was enjoyable and we relaxed for a while in the warm water and took a walk around the leafy camp, which acts as somewhat of an oasis for birds. The camp is also the end-point of the Fish River Canyon self-guided trail. We had hoped to finally catch up with Namaqua Warbler here but again we were unsuccessful. We did however find Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Acacia Pied Barbet, Common Scimitarbill, Dusky Sunbird and Black-chested Prinia.

Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters were confiding at ǀAi-ǀAis.

On our final day, we took the long (but not actually that long) road back to Cape Town after what had been a thoroughly enjoyable and highly successful week-long jaunt to southern Namibia.

Gemsbok were surprisingly spare in southern Namibia, this animal seen near the Fish River Canyon.

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