Complete Malawi: Birding the Warm Heart of Africa
Dates and Costs:
05 – 19 November 2022
Provisionally closed for new bookings – kindly book for 2023 to avoid disappointment, or
e-mail us ([email protected]) if you want to be waitlisted, added to a similar 2022 tour we still have openings for, or if you have a group of 4-8 and want a bespoke version of this birding tour.
* Please note that currency conversion is calculated in real-time, therefore is subject to slight change. Please refer back to the base price when making final payments.
05 – 19 November 2023
Price: US$7,796 / £6,673 / € 7,741 per person sharing
Single Supplement: US$1,133 / £970 / €1,125
(Please also read our blogs about recommended field guides for the seven continents here)
Duration: 15 days
Group Size: 4 – 8
Tour Start: Lilongwe
Tour End: Lilongwe
Meals (from lunch on day 1 until breakfast on day 15)
Unlimited bottled water
Expert tour leader
All entrance & conservation fees
All ground transport, including airport pick-up and drop-off
International/domestic flights (to/from Lilongwe)
Items of a personal nature, e.g. gifts, laundry, internet access, phone calls, etc.
Any pre- or post-tour accommodation, meals, or birding excursions
Personal travel insurance
Gratuities (please see our tipping guidelines blog)
Complete Malawi: Birding the Warm Heart of Africa
Malawi, a small country in southeast Africa rarely visited by tourists, is an absolutely amazing destination for birders. Its numerous national parks and protected areas are brimming with avian riches, and the beautiful Lake Malawi adds a different mix of birds to the enjoyment. Malawi has some of the finest patches of miombo woodland anywhere in Africa, and also hosts a number of highly localized forest birds, that only occur in this remote area of neighboring northern Mozambique, southern Tanzania and Malawi. A number of these miombo species are almost impossible outside of Malawi and thus the country arguably offers some of the best birding anywhere in south-central Africa. Our comprehensive tour covers the length of Malawi, taking in all the necessary and key localities needed to ensure we have a chance of finding all the country’s many specials. Although this tour is specially designed to target the special birds found here, visiting various national parks along the way means we’re also exposed to another of Africa’s core attractions – its megafauna – of which such characteristic species as African Elephant and Hippopotamus should all be seen!
The gorgeous Böhm’s Bee-eater should be found on this trip.
This tour begins and ends in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. After our arrival, we venture southwards and explore the remnant tracts of montane forest atop the Zomba massif. Here a number of highly localized species await, including Malawi’s only endemic bird – Yellow-throated Apalis, along with the rare Thyolo Alethe and the stunning White-winged Apalis. The lush lowlands of the Shire River Valley follow next as we explore the excellent Liwonde National Park, gradually working our way northwards. Our bird and mammal list will grow rapidly here, where top specials such as Pel’s Fishing Owl and Lilian’s Lovebird await. What is arguably the best miombo woodland birding anywhere in the world follows – in the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve. This unique woodland is localized in south-central Africa and supports a whole host of species virtually confined to this habitat such as the highly localized Stierling’s Woodpecker, African Spotted Creeper, Yellow-bellied Hyliota and Souza’s Shrike.
The highly localized Stierling’s Woodpecker is only reliably seen in Malawi.
We head northwards more rapidly now, transiting to the breath-taking Nyika National Park located in the very north of the country. We make a few key stops en-route, first on the Viphya Plateau followed by the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve – both key sites with specials birds, such as the strange Babbling Starling (which is almost impossible to see outside of this site), perfectly located to break up our journey. We have a few days to explore and take in the incredible surrounds, vistas and birds that await us in Nyika National Park – which is without a doubt one of Africa’s best-kept secrets and one of our guides’ favorite locations anywhere on the continent. A wide array of species are possible here, and we’ll search for highly localized birds such as Sharpe’s Akalat, and Scarlet-tufted Sunbird, as well as other highly prized species such as Bar-tailed Trogon, White-headed Saw-wing and Blue Swallow. We end this tour on the shores of Lake Malawi, which is one of the most scenic and picturesque of the East African Rift Valley lakes.
Malawi is a fabulous country to travel around – with excellent birding, and good wildlife viewing possible – such as this family of African Elephants in Liwonde National Park.
This tour can be combined with our exciting Highland Zimbabwe and Mozambique – African Pitta Special Tour, which follows this Malawi tour. Here we focus our time on finding the many special birds unique to the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, along with finding many of the birds restricted to the lowland forests of central Mozambique where one of Africa’s most prized birds is our core target – the near-mythical African Pitta.
Itinerary (15 days/14 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Lilongwe
Today is set aside as an arrival day – and you are welcome to arrive into Lilongwe, the capital city, at your leisure, following which we’ll transfer to our comfortable lodge on the outskirts of the city. Should we have time available, we will undertake an afternoon birding excursion either in the area around the lodge, or to the nearby Lilongwe Wildlife Sanctuary. Both areas offer a similar suite of species, including some prized birds. Rivers and streams support denizens such as African Finfoot and Half-collared Kingfisher, although African Black Duck and Mountain Wagtail are more regularly seen. White-backed Night Heron also occurs, but this is best sought when we visit Liwonde National Park later on the trip (Day 4/5). The denser riverine trees and bushes support specials such as Schalow’s Turaco, Black-throated Wattle-eye and Red-throated Twinspot, amongst many other more widespread species. African Broadbill can also sometimes be found here, but is again easier elsewhere on the trip. The birding is assured to get this tour off to a fantastic start.
Overnight: Kumbali Country Lodge, Lilongwe
A pair of attractive Red-throated Twinspots – a species we should see on the tour.
Days 2 – 3. Birding Zomba Mountain
We will have a final morning to explore either the surrounds of our lodge, or the Lilongwe Wildlife Sanctuary, searching for those targets mentioned above (Day 1). In addition, we should also be able to get a head start on a number of woodland species, which might include the likes of African Green Pigeon, Woodland Kingfisher, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Black Cuckooshrike, Flappet Lark, Green-capped Eremomela, Violet-backed Starling, Ashy Flycatcher, White-browed Robin-Chat, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Southern Citril and Golden-breasted Bunting. Following our morning here, we will transit southwards to Zomba, the old capital, and transfer up the mountain that looms above the town. Here we will base ourselves at a comfortable lodge with stunning views of the plains below, for two nights, as we go about exploring the area.
Our core focus will be in the remnant pockets of montane forest that exist on the plateau – much of which has been cut down unfortunately, as has happened with other sites in the country, such as the forests around Thyolo. These small pockets however, still support a wealth of birdlife and importantly still support some of Malawi’s most prized birds. Foremost amongst those is the Thyolo Alethe – a shy forest robin that requires stealth and patience to see. Malawi’s only endemic bird, the Yellow-throated Apalis is another primary target and is typically more easily sought on the forest edges. Noisy Livingstone’s Turacos and Olive-headed Greenbuls are a regular sight in the canopy, with Long-crested Eagle and White-eared Barbet preferring exposed branches above the canopy. The forest interior supports a greater number of species and here we’ll search for a wide range of species such as the unique dimorpha subspecies of Cape Batis, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Common Square-tailed Drongo, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Little and Placid Greenbuls, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Black-headed Apalis, Orange Ground Thrush, White-starred Robin, Dark-backed Weaver, Green Twinspot and Red-faced Crimsonwing.
Yellow-throated Apalis is Malawi’s only endemic bird, and should be seen around Zomba.
Denser thickets found along the streams running through the area support the likes of the vocal Evergreen Forest Warbler (although this skulking species is not easily seen) and the stunning White-winged Apalis – often referred to as the most beautiful ‘warbler’ in Africa! Sunbirds abound throughout the area, with Forest Double-collared, Olive and Collared Sunbirds all commonly seen. Small areas of open lands exist on the plateau and hold further species such as Red-necked and Hildebrant’s Spurfowls, African Yellow Warbler, Singing and Wailing Cisticolas, the scarce Bertram’s Weaver, Black-winged Red Bishop, Red-collared Widowbird, Yellow-bellied Waxbill and African Firefinch. Rocky areas will be searched for the likes of Striped Pipit, and while the dams and streams don’t have a wealth of waterbirds, Mountain Wagtail is often present. We will need to keep our eyes to the sky as raptors such as Augur Buzzard, Black Sparrowhawk, along with aerial feeders such as Scarce and Mottled Swifts can be readily sought here.
Overnight: Sunbird Ku Chawe Hotel
Days 4 – 5. Liwonde National Park
We have a final morning available on Zomba Mountain to try and find any species that we may still be searching for – which might include the tricky and difficult to see Thyolo Alethe, along with White-winged Apalis, before transferring to our next destination – Liwonde National Park. This is a short transfer of under two hours, from where we will call in at the very comfortable Mvuu Camp, set beautifully overlooking the Shire River, where we will be staying for two nights.
The lively Livingstone’s Flycatcher is an important target bird in Liwonde National Park.
Liwonde National Park is a very biodiverse area, supporting a wealth of birdlife and a wide range of Africa’s megafauna. Our time here will be spent exploring the park with a mix of game drives, boat cruises and bush walks, and while the birds and birding will be our main focus, we’ll also keep an eye out for all of Africa’s megafauna and certainly won’t be ignoring them. Indeed, we find that while looking for birds, we come across a wide range of mammals in the process. Although our bird list will grow handsomely here with a wide range of species possible, there are various target species we’ll be specifically looking for. The riverine woodlands hold the sought-after Pel’s Fishing Owl, Green Malkoha, Brown-breasted Barbet, Böhm’s Bee-eater, Livingstone’s Flycatcher and Collared Palm Thrush, with Lilian’s Lovebird being more widely distributed throughout the wooded areas of the park.
White-backed Night Heron is another important target here, occurring in the over-hanging river vegetation. Dickinson’s Kestrel is best sought in the open lala palm savannah on the edges of the floodplains, while Racket-tailed Roller, Speckle-throated Woodpecker and Arnot’s Chat are best sought in the vast mopane woodlands further away from the river. A wide array of waterbirds can be found here, with numbers and species varying depending on the water levels of the Shire River. Some of the more important species we’ll be searching for include African Skimmer, Saddle-billed Stork, Spur-winged Lapwing and in the adjoining reedbeds, Southern Brown-throated Weaver. Liwonde is a great place for raptors – we stand a good chance of seeing a number of different species, such as Palm-nut Vulture, African Cuckoo-Hawk, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Bateleur and African Hawk-Eagle. Owls are likewise well represented, and we stand good chances at finding African Barred Owlet, African Wood Owl and Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, in addition to the prized Pel’s Fishing Owl. This is a list highlighting only our ‘main targets’ at Liwonde – we’re assured to see many other birds whilst attempting to find these above-mentioned species.
Western Banded Snake Eagle can be found in the woodlands along the Shire River.
Shifting our attention to the other wildlife possible here – The ‘Big 5’ do occur (African Elephant, African Buffalo, Lion, Leopard and Rhino), although some of them such as Lion and Leopard are rarely seen. African Elephant, African Buffalo and Hippopotamus abound and are easy to see. A wide array of plains game, such as Plains Zebra, Waterbuck, Greater Kudu and Common Warthog can also be seen. The park is also a great area to find the stunning Sable Antelope. African Parks has been actively involved in reintroducing game to Liwonde, and it has been very successful so far in reestablishing populations of Lion and Cheetah, and helped to bolster the population of Black Rhino found in the reserve. Nile Crocodile, including some very large individuals, can be readily found in the Shire River.
Overnight: Mvuu Camp, Liwonde National Park
Days 6 – 7. Birding Dzalanyama Forest Reserve
We have a final morning available for one last activity at Liwonde National Park, and may opt for a birding walk or boat cruise, depending on what species may still be eluding us. Following which, we’ll transfer to the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, via Lilongwe – this is a roughly five-hour drive. We anticipate arriving in the mid-afternoon, from where we’ll check into our rustic, yet comfortable lodge, located in the heart of the reserve. We have two nights based here as we set about covering various locations in the area – most of our birding will be on foot allowing us to cover the area at our leisure. Set on the Mozambican border, the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve protects some of the finest patches of miombo woodland anywhere in Africa. Indeed, the stunning rocky hillsides blanketed in this visually appealing woodland make birding in this area a pleasure, and it is a firm favorite amongst our guides.
As its name suggests, Miombo Rock Thrush is a special of the miombo woodlands.
Miombo woodland is a unique woodland dominated by brachystegia tree species, and supports a very specific suite of birds, virtually restricted to this woodland – many of which have ‘miombo’ in their name. The birding here is very exciting, with the birds often occurring in ‘feeding parties’, and after finding one, the birds come in thick and fast. Dzalanyama is one of the best places anywhere for the localized Stierling’s Woodpecker, and this will be one of our main targets. Whilst traversing the woodlands, we will be trying for many other miombo specials, such as Pale-billed Hornbill, Whyte’s and Miombo Pied Barbets, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Souza’s Shrike, Rufous-bellied and Miombo Tits, Red-capped Crombec, Yellow-bellied and Southern Hyliotas, the prized African Spotted Creeper, Miombo Blue-eared Starling, Miombo Scrub Robin, the inconspicuous Böhm’s Flycatcher, Miombo Rock Thrush, the stunning Anchieta’s and Western Violet-backed Sunbirds, Wood Pipit, Reichard’s and Black-eared Seedeaters and Cabanis’s Bunting. The rocky hillsides support small numbers of Boulder Chat – another very special bird, that is otherwise largely restricted to Zimbabwe. The incredible Pennant-winged Nightjar can occasionally be found in these woodlands as well – sometimes we find them at their day roosts. Rarely seen species that we’ll keep an eye out for include Shelley’s Sunbird and Olive-headed Weaver – however, we’ll need a good dose of luck to find either of these birds. Small wetlands (known as dambos) found within the woodlands are home to another major target – the difficult Lesser Seedcracker. Whilst searching for the seedcracker, we’re also likely to find other species such as Fan-tailed Grassbird, Short-winged Cisticola, Red-winged Prinia (Warbler), Yellow-mantled Widowbird and Orange-breasted Waxbill. Denser stands of riverine thickets and woodlands support further specials such as the beautiful White-tailed Blue Flycatcher and the tricky Grey-olive Greenbul.
Overnight: Dzalanyama Forest Lodge
Dzalanyama is a reliable site for the uncommon and difficult-to-find Souza’s Shrike.
Day 8. Transfer to the Viphya Plateau
We will have a final morning available to spend in the rich miombo woodlands of Dzalanyama, searching for any of the specials we may still be needing, before we venture northwards. Our destination will be the Viphya Plateau (roughly five hours away), which provides a convenient stop-over point to break our drive to the north of the country. We will likely make a few birding stops en-route, most notably at wetlands where we’ll search for the likes of Lesser Jacana, African Pygmy Goose and White-backed Duck. We anticipate arriving in the mid-afternoon, from where we’ll check into our comfortable lodge, before undertaking our afternoon birding excursion. To a degree, our birding here will depend on what species we have seen, and missed, so far on the trip. Miombo woodlands here host species such as Whyte’s Barbet and African Spotted Creeper, and may serve as a good backup site. The bulk of our time however, will likely be spent in the old pine forests and remnant montane forest pockets that remain – where we’ll try for the likes of Olive Woodpecker, African Broadbill, Fülleborn’s Boubou, Black-browed Greenbul and Chapin’s Apalis.
Overnight: Luwawa Forest Lodge
We should find African Spotted Creeper on this tour.
Day 9. Transfer to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve
We have the full morning available for us to continue birding around the Viphya Plateau. In addition to the species mentioned yesterday (Day 8), we will likely also focus some time on the wetlands, the open grassy areas and the lodge gardens. Species we’ll be trying for include the difficult-to-see Red-chested Flufftail and African Rail, along with Moustached Grass Warbler, Trilling Cisticola, Bronzy Sunbird, Bertram’s Weaver and Yellow-bellied Waxbill, amongst others.
Following our morning birding, we’ll continue our transfer northwards, this time to the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, and surrounds. We anticipate arriving in the early afternoon (roughly three-hour drive), from where we’ll check in at our rustic, yet comfortable, lodge, on the outskirts of Rhumphi. Our time in the Vwaza Marsh area will be dedicated to, primarily, finding two species – the unique Babbling Starling and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Weaver. These are both localized species that are very difficult elsewhere in their range and this region is one of the best localities for finding both of these birds. They occur in the rolling hills, dominated with miombo woodlands. We will have our first attempt at trying to find these species this afternoon – which usually involves walking through the woodlands, listening for bird parties – which both birds frequently attend. Our time in these miombo woodlands will naturally produce many other species – most of which we should have seen earlier in the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve (see Days 6 – 7), but this serves as a good backup site for many of those species. In particular, the miombo woodlands here are good for the likes of Miombo Pied Barbet, Miombo and Rufous-bellied Tits, Böhm’s Flycatcher and Miombo Rock Thrush – should we have missed any of these species.
Overnight: Matunkha Safari Lodge, Rhumphi (or similar).
The stunning Anchieta’s Sunbird is an inconspicuous miombo woodland specialist.
Days 10 – 12. Transfer to Nyika National Park
We will be able to spend the full morning of Day 10 searching the miombo woodlands around Vwaza Marsh for our two primary targets – Babbling Starling and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Weaver, if still required. Following which, we’ll transfer to the nearby Nyika National Park, where we will spend the next three nights. This large reserve is one of Malawi’s premier reserves and attractions and will be one of the main highlights of the trip! We will base ourselves at the very comfortable Chelinda Lodge, which is stunningly set in the high montane grasslands atop the Nyika plateau with commanding views of the surroundings.
The birding in this reserve is nothing short of outstanding, and our time will be spent birding various sites in the different habitats here. The lower slopes of the Nyika plateau, such as near the entrance gate hold some excellent, and stunning miombo woodlands. Although we should have seen almost all of the miombo specials by this point on the trip, Nyika can also prove to be a reliable backup for tricky species such as Yellow-bellied Hyliota and Anchieta’s Sunbird. Additionally, these woodlands are also reliable for other species we’re only likely to see here such as Trilling Cisticola, White-winged Black Tit, Collared Flycatcher, Tree Pipit and Eastern Miombo Sunbird. Arguably our most important target here is the scarce Black-backed Barbet. As we near the top of the plateau, the miombo gradually begins changing and thinning out. Open areas with some rank growth will be searched for Red-winged Prinia and Marsh Tchagra, while the open woodlands here also host Brown Parisoma, Green-headed Sunbird and Brown-headed Apalis. Eventually, we emerge onto the top of the plateau, where rolling grasslands are dominant with the odd pocket of montane forest.
Black-backed Barbet can be reliably seen in Nyika.
The grasslands support a number of specials that we’ll be targeting; large Denham’s Bustards are usually conspicuous, while the endemic subspecies of Red-winged Francolin play hide and seek in the grass. Localized Black-lored and Churring Cisticolas are common, as are Montane Widowbirds as they display over the grasslands. Mountain Yellow Warbler, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Whyte’s Double-collared Sunbird, Baglafecht Weaver, Yellow-crowned Canary and the scarce Yellow-browed Seedeater are specialists of the denser areas with rank growth, often lining the streams. All the while, good numbers of the stunning Blue Swallow flit over the grasslands, with smaller numbers of Angola Swallow. Stands of proteas support small populations of the prized Scarlet-tufted Sunbird, often alongside Malachite and Bronzy Sunbirds. We’ll search for Montane Nightjar after dark in these areas. The dams and wetlands up here typically don’t support a wide range of birds, but this can be a good area for Red-chested Flufftail. While raptors are not at their most abundant here, numbers of the elegant Pallid Harrier frequent the grasslands, and we should also keep an eye out for the likes of Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk, Western Marsh Harrier and Augur Buzzard.
Nyika has its own endemic subspecies of Red-winged Francolin.
The forests here also hold a number of target birds, and we’ll need to spend some time in various forest patches to give us chances at finding all of the specials. Some of the more frequently encountered species include Schalow’s Turaco, Moustached Tinkerbird, Fülleborn’s Boubou, Black-browed Greenbul, Waller’s Starling and Cape Robin-Chat. In between these, we’ll be on the lookout for the prized Bar-tailed Trogon, Sharpe’s Greenbul, African Hill Babbler, Chapin’s Apalis, Abyssinian Thrush (here at the southern limit of its range), Slender-billed Starling and the secretive duo of White-chested Alethe and Olive-flanked Ground Robin. We will also undertake a special trip to search for the localized Sharpe’s Akalat. The forest edges can also prove to be birdy areas, and should give us additional species such as White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher and the stunning White-headed Saw-wing. Although this is a national park, the reserve does not support a vast contingent of megafauna. We’re likely to enjoy the distinctive races of Eland and Plains Zebra found here, along with the scarce Roan Antelope in the grasslands. Leopard do occur in the grasslands as well, but we’ll need a great deal of luck to find one. African Elephant do persist in the woodlands and forests, but are rarely seen.
Overnight: Chelinda Lodge, Nyika National Park
The shy Olive-flanked Ground Robin is another important target at Nyika.
Day 13. Transfer to Lake Malawi
We have a final morning available for us to use tracking down any of the above-mentioned species that may still be eluding us. Alternatively, we can also spend some time in the miombo woodlands near Vwaza Marsh if we still require the likes of Babbling Starling. Following which, we’ll transfer to the idyllic shores of Lake Malawi (roughly four hours) near Chintheche. Our primary goal here is to visit the small patches of lowland forest that remain – which support the scarce East Coast Akalat. This is a shy robin, and can be difficult to see, but with enough time and effort, we should get good views. While we’re searching for the akalat, we’ll also be keeping our eyes open for species such as Green Malkoha, Narina Trogon, Green-backed Woodpecker, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Nicator and Red-capped Robin-Chat, amongst others.
Overnight Makuzi Beach Lodge, Chintheche
Day 14. Transfer to Lilongwe
We have the full morning available to us, to either continue searching for East Coast Akalat in the nearby lowland forests, or for us to explore some of the other habitats in the area – which include a mix of wetlands and woodlands. Aside from the species mentioned above (Day 13), we’re also likely to find species such as Purple-crested Turaco, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, African Barred Owlet, Black-throated Wattle-eye and Purple-banded Sunbird. Eastern Golden Weaver nest in the area and are usually in evidence. Various excursions on Lake Malawi (such as snorkeling) can be arranged at your own cost (but please note you would need to opt out of the birding excursions in their place). Following a good morning, we will transfer back to the capital, Lilongwe, in the afternoon (roughly five hours), where we should arrive in the late afternoon. We will have our final group dinner together, reminiscing about all the many excellent birds and wildlife encounters this trip would have delivered.
Overnight: Kumbali Country Lodge, Lilongwe
Day 15. Departure
Today is set aside as a departure day – and you’re welcome to leave at your leisure. The bulk of the flights usually depart in the late morning/early afternoon period, and we’re likely to be able to get some final birding in this morning. We can either spend our time birding the expansive grounds of our lodge for a wide range of species (see Day 1/2). Should we be feeling adventurous, we can try and visit some nearby wetland areas – and although they’re likely to be dry at this time of the year – they should still support sought-after species such as Rosy-throated Longclaw and even Locust Finch. Fischer’s Sparrow-Lark move in when conditions are dry and can usually be found as well. This tour will officially end at midday at the Lilongwe International Airport.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors. In addition, we sometimes have to use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.Download Itinerary
Comprehensive Malawi Trip Report
15 -29 November 2017
Malawi’s only endemic, Yellow-throated Apalis, showed well.
Following the same route and itinerary as our set-departure Malawi tour, this tour was run specifically for our clients and saw us attempting to find as many new species as possible for them. This comprehensive tour takes in the best of Malawi. Beginning in the southern lowlands we explore a few national parks and the montane forests of the Zomba Plateau. We then move to the miombo-clad hills of the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve before continuing to the famous Nyika National Park in the north of the country. Our final destination is the Chintheche area on the shores of Lake Malawi before ending the tour in the capital, Lilongwe. Since the tour was run at the beginning of the austral summer, rain was expected during the tour and did hamper us somewhat, although it was a price that we paid happily in exchange for the excellent birding we enjoyed throughout the tour – a result of birding during the peak breeding season. A testament to the good birding saw us ending the tour on 380 species (plus 16 heard only) despite the rain challenges and the target-based nature of the trip, with us not focusing on widespread species.
Day 1, November 15. Arrival in Lilongwe
Art and Alicia landed in Lilongwe in the early afternoon, and after collecting them we made our way to our comfortable lodge on the outskirts of town, where we checked in, dropped our things, and prepared for a bit of afternoon birding.
A short ride later and we were at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, where we spent the remainder of the afternoon until closing. It was rather quiet, but as we progressed along the walk we made some headway. Some thickets early on held a pair of Black-throated Wattle-eyes that showed well, along with White-browed Robin-Chat and Olive Sunbird. Some scanning of the river produced a pair of African Black Ducks along with Hamerkop, Common and Green Sandpipers, and Pied Kingfisher. As we progressed we picked up on the raucous notes of Schalow’s Turaco, and had the bird within view in no time. We enjoyed great scope views of it as it sat contently, calling occasionally. Other species seen here included Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, Black-backed Puffback, Tropical Boubou, Black Cuckooshrike, African Paradise Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Apalis, and Kurrichane Thrush.
Day 2, November 16. Lilongwe to Lengwe National Park
With a long drive ahead of us today we had only a small bit of time in the morning to bird locally before having to set off. We concentrated our efforts in the gardens of our lodge and the surrounding woodlands. The birding was excellent to put it simply, and we never ran out of getting more species. The lush lodge gardens and thickets provided us with many species, including Speckled Mousebird, Willow Warbler, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Arrow-marked Babbler, African Yellow White-eye, Southern Black and Ashy Flycatchers, Collared, Olive, and Variable Sunbirds, Spectacled Weaver, Red-billed Firefinch, Bronze and Red-backed Mannikins, and a small group of the truly spectacular Red-throated Twinspots.
Moving into the surrounding mixed woodland the good birding continued, and here we added African Green Pigeon, Striped and Woodland Kingfishers, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Black-collared Barbet, Cardinal Woodpecker, Chinspot Batis, Long-billed Crombec, Garden Warbler, an excited group of the prized Green-capped Eremomelas, Violet-backed Starling, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Golden-breasted Bunting, and a mixed group of canaries made up of Southern Citril and Yellow-fronted and Brimstone Canaries.
With that excellent start behind us our breakfast went down well before we got onto the road for our long drive to Lengwe National Park in the lowlands of the southern part of the country. We made good progress and arrived at the entrance gate in the mid-afternoon. We made our way over to Nyala Lodge where we checked in and then headed out for an afternoon walk. The combination of thickets and open woodland here made for excellent birding, and we got a good taste of it this afternoon. A White-backed Vulture perched atop its nest got us off to a good start, while we added to our Kingfisher tally with finding Grey-headed. Little Bee-eaters hawked insects over an opening, while a noisy Broad-billed Roller kept watch over a small pond. The open woodlands held Red-faced Mousebird, Green Wood Hoopoe, Bearded Woodpecker, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Brubru, Sombre Greenbul, and Greater Blue-eared Starling. Suddenly a large raptor flew in, and although it landed somewhat obscured, we were able to see enough of it to confirm that it was a magnificent Crowned Eagle. A final run-through of some thickets on the edge of the lodge produced Bearded Scrub Robin and Collared Palm Thrush. Some of the mammals encountered on our walk included Nyala (for which the lodge and reserve is perhaps best known), Impala, Smith’s Bush Squirrel, and Vervet Monkey. We enjoyed the first of many sundowners as dusk came!
A pair of Red-throated Twinspots paused for a few seconds.
Day 3, November 17. Lengwe National Park
We had a full day to spend exploring the depths of this park and began with a morning walk, taking us into some of the proper ‘lowland thickets’, before returning back to the lodge for a much-needed and delicious breakfast. Before we actually got into the thickets we passed through some mature open woodland and enjoyed some more widespread species, including a surprise Namaqua Dove, Levaillant’s and Jacobin Cuckoos, Common Scimitarbill, Greater Honeyguide, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Southern Black Tit, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, and Grey Tit-Flycatcher. The thickets were pretty quiet, but some persistence paid off with the sought-after Böhm’s Bee-eater, Crowned Hornbill, Retz’s Helmetshrike, African Golden Oriole, Terrestrial Brownbul, Square-tailed Drongo, and Dark-backed Weaver, while Eastern Nicator called at regular intervals but refused to show. En route back to camp the open woodland again held a few different species, with the best being Marabou Stork, African Harrier-Hawk, a regal Martial Eagle, Rattling Cisticola, and Pin-tailed Whydah.
Following a break over the midday period we resumed birding on an afternoon drive, exploring other areas. A small ephemeral pond on the edge of a large patch of thicket held numbers of Knob-billed Ducks, Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese, Yellow-billed and White Storks, African Openbill, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, and many Wood Sandpipers. Our stop here also provided the difficult Green Malkoha, and we enjoyed some good views of this skulker. African Emerald Cuckoo taunted us but refused to show. As we pressed onward we enjoyed a number of raptors, including White-backed Vulture, Black-chested and Brown Snake Eagles, Bateleur, and Wahlberg’s Eagle, before the track began turning less and less drivable. We should have taken our cue at this point but continued onwards and soon found ourselves embedded in a mud patch, which was carefully hidden under a mat of grass. We spent a little while trying to dig ourselves out and eventually came free. With smiles all around we made our way back to camp, but not before picking up the stunning Livingstone’s Flycatcher and Hildebrandt’s Francolin as a bonus. We added a few more mammals during the course of the day, including Yellow Baboon, Samango Monkey, Common Warthog, Cape Buffalo, and Suni.
Day 4, November 18. Lengwe National Park to Zomba.
With not too much ground to cover today we made the most of the morning in Lengwe with another morning walk. We focused on an area near to where we spent the previous afternoon and with overcast conditions enjoyed a productive walk. Highlights went to glorious views of a perched Crowned Eagle, Western Banded Snake Eagle, an African Goshawk displaying overhead, Black, Red-chested, African, and Common Cuckoos, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, African Grey Hornbill, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Grey-headed Bushshrike, the localized Pale Batis, Lesser Masked and Village Weavers, and Jameson’s Firefinch.
After breakfast we picked up a flock of Crested Guineafowls just outside the camp before gathering our things, packing, and beginning our journey to Zomba. On our way out of Lengwe the agricultural fields produced Variable Sunbird and Southern Brown-throated Weaver. We made good ground, and after a quick car-wash in Blantyre (to get rid of all the mud from yesterday) we arrived in Zomba and checked into our comfortable hotel on top of the plateau. We enjoyed a good lunch before beginning birding around the hotel gardens. Here we enjoyed our first montane forest specials, including Tambourine Dove, Livingstone’s Turaco, White-eared Barbet, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Olive-headed Greenbul, Black-headed Apalis, African Dusky Flycatcher, Cape Robin-Chat, and Forest Double-collared Sunbird.
With the hotel grounds exhausted we extended our search to a nearby tract of forest. We were off to a great start when we picked up a skittish White-starred Robin, and while we were trying to get some decent views of the robin a stunning Yellow-throated Apalis popped out of a bush and put on a great show for us. So Malawi’s only endemic was out of the way! As we continued we added African Olive Pigeon, Little and Placid Greenbuls, and Evergreen Forest Warbler – with the latter only showing for the briefest period of time, leaving us wanting more, despite following up on many calling individuals. All too soon the heavens opened and promptly ended our birding for the day, and we made our way back to the hotel. The rain didn’t relent until after dark, while we enjoyed a good, warm meal before retiring for the evening.
Day 5, November 19. Zomba Plateau
We woke to an overcast morning once again and set off to bird some of the remnant montane forest patches still remaining on the plateau. The weather held for the morning, and we enjoyed some truly excellent birding in a short span of time. Our main target was the rare and difficult Thyolo Alethe, and we began searching some prime tracts of forest. In no time, we were onto a calling bird, and time seemed to stop as I got onto it briefly before the bird moved off, with Art and Alicia having missed it. Fortunately, we were given a second chance as we picked it up again perched in the mid-strata, completely in the open. We enjoyed the bird and our great views for a time before it moved off, leaving us elated with our views! Then we focused our efforts on another highly-prized bird, White-winged Apalis, and while the apalis proved elusive, our efforts were rewarded with a number of other species. These included Long-crested Eagle, Livingstone’s Turaco, Cape Batis, Square-tailed Drongo, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Olive-headed, Little, and Placid Greenbuls, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Yellow-throated and Black-headed Apalises, Garden Warbler, African Yellow White-eye, a far more cooperative White-starred Robin, Collared Sunbird, Red-faced Crimsonwing, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, and Mountain Wagtail. Just as we were about to give up we struck gold and found a showy pair of White-winged Apalis that put on a great show for us.
After some searching, we managed to locate the prized White-winged Apalis.
After our highly successful morning we headed back for breakfast and afterwards set off on a drive around the plateau. Augur and Common Buzzards were seen in flight, while birding in the rank grasslands gave us African Yellow Warbler, Singing and Wailing Cisticolas, African Stonechat, Yellow Bishop, a surprise group of Green Twinspots, many groups of Yellow-bellied Waxbills, Bronze and Red-backed Mannikins, and Southern Citril. As we ascended above a certain altitude, we were plunged into some of the densest fog I have ever been in, and we could scarcely see the road in front of us. We made our way back down to below the fog line and emerged into a world we could once again see. Right on the verge we decided to try our luck at yet another calling Evergreen Forest Warbler, and this proved to be a good move, as we had a pair showing very well almost immediately. While driving alongside a tract of forest I heard the distinctive song of Orange Ground Thrush, and we headed in search of it. It didn’t take us too long before we found the bird, calling from high up in the canopy, as this species so often does. We enjoyed it for some time before it moved off, and we were amazed at how many great birds we had already seen today.
With rain predicted for the afternoon period, we set off to bird the southern slopes of the Zomba Massive, searching for primarily Bertram’s Weaver, one of our last remaining targets here, but, sadly, without success. But as soon as we arrived on site we had time enough to enjoy Red-throated Twinspot before the rain started, well earlier than it had been predicted. Similar to yesterday the rain didn’t relent and put an early end to our birding efforts. Mammals are scarce here, and species seen during the day were limited to Yellow Baboon, Samango Monkey, and Red Bush Squirrel.
Day 6, November 20. Zomba to Liwonde National Park
Owing to our immensely successful day yesterday we needed only the morning around the greater Zomba area before continuing to our next destination, Liwonde National Park. A morning walk, searching for our missing Bertram’s Weaver, sadly failed, but we did enjoy a plethora of other great species, similar to what we managed yesterday. Standout sightings went to Black Sparrowhawk, Livingstone’s Turaco, Black Saw-wing, Yellow-throated Apalis, and Red-faced Crimsonwing.
After enjoying a good breakfast, we packed and headed down the mountain to try another area for the weaver, enjoying a showy Striped Pipit en route. Not being rained out allowed us to properly work the area for a time, but we sadly had to leave without finding our target. However, we still had some great birding, with highlights being Augur Buzzard and White-necked Ravens regularly moving overhead, the difficult Pallid Honeyguide perched and calling from within a massive Eucalyptus tree, Singing and Red-faced Cisticolas, African Firefinch, and Red-throated Twinspot all present, while some of the larger trees held a gaudy pair of White-winged Apalis. Before long we were at the entrance to the famous Liwonde National Park, only to be told that after recent rains the roads within the reserve were closed, and we had to head to an alternate entrance, from where we had to take a boat to our lodge.
After arriving and meeting up with our local guide Duncan we settled for lunch and a slight rest before our drive later in the afternoon. A stroll around the grounds gave us some better views of species we had seen already, such as Woodland Kingfisher, Böhm’s Bee-eater, Tropical Boubou, Spotted Flycatcher, White-browed Robin-Chat, Collared Palm Thrush, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, and Southern Brown-throated Weaver.
Our afternoon drive was incredibly productive as we worked the mosaic of open floodplains, thicket, and mopane edge together with the majestic Shire River. The thicket areas held Purple-crested Turaco, Trumpeter Hornbill, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Brown-headed Parrot, the sought-after Lilian’s Lovebird, and a pair of the unpredictable Orange-winged Pytilia. The woodland edges and the dry floodplain were very productive and provided Palm-nut Vulture, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Bateleur, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Little Bee-eater, Meves’s Starling, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, and Yellow-throated Longclaw. The river was our last port of call, when we settled in and enjoyed a spectacular sundowner, with all the many waterbirds going about their business before the day ended. Species seen here included Yellow-billed and Saddle-billed Storks, Black-crowned Night and Squacco Herons, Great Egret, White-breasted Cormorant, African Darter, African Fish Eagle, Water Thick-knee, Spur-winged Lapwing, Common and Green Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, a small number of African Skimmers, and Pied and Malachite Kingfishers. A night drive back to the lodge saw us connecting with Large-spotted Genet along with White-tailed, Marsh, and Meller’s Mongooses and Scrub Hare.
Day 7, November 21. Liwonde National Park
With a full day available for us to explore this great reserve, we began with a morning walk through some riverine frontage, searching for, among others, primarily Pel’s Fishing Owl. It was a rather quiet morning with not much activity. Species we eked out included African Cuckoo-Hawk, Grey Go-away-bird, Green Malkoha, Klaas’s Cuckoo, a family of African Wood Owls at their day roost, Giant Kingfisher, Southern Ground Hornbill, Livingstone’s Flycatcher, and Bearded Scrub Robin. African Barred Owlet was heard only as we transferred to the other side of the river to resume our search, along with a try for the incredibly localized Brown-breasted Barbet. We enjoyed a roost of the prized White-backed Night Herons en route. We tried a few stakeouts for the barbet and were eventually rewarded when a Brown-breasted Barbet came to a fruiting tree. Although it moved around a lot and was pretty skittish, we enjoyed some excellent views of this sought-after species. Following our success here we resumed our search for the Pel’s Fishing Owl, and, as if on cue, successfully managed to find one. Although the bird was mostly obscured, some careful positioning saw us enjoying some fine scope views of this glorious species before retiring for our (much needed) breakfast.
Pel’s Fishing Owl was a bird high on our target list.
Following a midday break we regrouped for the afternoon stint and headed into the mature mopane woodland, searching for a few of our outstanding targets. The afternoon was excellent and saw us finding Brown Snake Eagle, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Southern Red-billed Hornbill, Speckle-throated Woodpecker (one of our primary targets), Lilian’s Lovebird, Marsh Warbler, Violet-backed and Greater Blue-eared Starlings, and Arnott’s Chat. We again settled in for our sundowners with a majestic view of the river and enjoyed among others a Eurasian Hobby hunting overhead.
We once again went on a night drive back to the lodge and enjoyed a stunning Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, while African Scops Owl was heard only. Today had also been a day for mammals, and species seen included the sought-after Sable Antelope along with African Elephant, Hippopotamus, Greater Kudu, Plains Zebra, Waterbuck, Bushbuck, and Short-snouted Sengi (Elephant-shrew), while our night drive added a calling Thick-tailed Greater Galago (Bushbaby) and excellent views of African Civet.
Day 8, November 22. Liwonde National Park to Dzalanyama Forest Reserve
We began the day with a morning boat cruise along the Shire River and enjoyed a wealth of life. Some of the birds seen included Yellow-billed Stork, African Openbill, African Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Squacco Heron, Western Osprey, Spur-winged Lapwing, Common Ringed Plover, a pair of Greater Painted-snipes feeding along the edges, African Jacana, Ruff, Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns, Giant Kingfisher, both Dickinson’s Kestrel and Eurasian Hobby, a surprise Banded Martin, Lesser Masked Weaver, and African Pied Wagtail. Ever-present mammals were Hippopotamus and African Elephant.
We sadly had to gather our things, transfer back to our car, and continue onward, bringing our stay at this fantastic national park to an end. We made good ground as we transferred first back to Lilongwe and from there to the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve. We arrived in the mid-afternoon, and birded our way through the fantastic miombo woodland en route to the lodge. Our first stop for a party was a good one on the right on the woodland edge. We quickly acquainted ourselves with such specials as Pale-billed Hornbill, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Green-capped Eremomela, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Yellow-throated Petronia, and Reichard’s and Black-eared Seedeaters among other more common party members.
After we had checked into the basic Dzalanyama Forest Lodge the heavens opened up, and we took it easy, waiting for the rain to stop. Eventually it did, and we headed off on a late-afternoon walk through some of the mature miombo close to the lodge. It was a slow walk, and we managed to eke out a calling African Barred Owlet that showed well, along with a showy pair of Miombo Rock Thrushes and a Cabanis’s Bunting. We enjoyed an excellent home-cooked meal before retiring for the evening.
Day 9, November 23. Dzalanyama Forest Reserve
Dzalanyama is quite simply a magical place and an area I adore and love birding within. We had a full day to explore the reserve at our leisure, and with a number of target birds for the day we set off early and were off to a flying start. Birding in miombo woodland can be difficult at times, as one relies to be successful on finding bird parties that normally host the specials, and simply walking and spending as much time as possible in the woodland is the ultimate key to success. Very soon after leaving the lodge on our morning walk a few calls alerted us to a nearby party, and in no time we were surrounded by birds as the party moved through. It was an exceptionally exciting first party, as it contained species such as the highly-prized Stierling’s Woodpecker, Miombo Tit, Red-capped Crombec, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Yellow-bellied and Southern Hyliotas, and a group of African Spotted Creepers, among others. Having had our fill and enjoying the views of the various species we pressed onwards to our final point at a dambo (a grassy/wetland break in the woodland). Our main target at the dambo was the difficult Lesser Seedcracker, of which we only managed brief views after a lengthy search, leaving us wanting more. Our time around the dambo wasn’t without reward, though, as we enjoyed the likes of Schalow’s Turaco, Short-winged Cisticola, Red-winged Warbler, Black-winged Red Bishop, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, and another highly prized species, Anchieta’s Sunbird.
We eventually began making our way back for breakfast but not before running into another party. Not as exciting as the first one, it still gave us a few new additions, namely White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Miombo Scrub Robin, and Wood Pipit.
Our midday period saw us tackling the many large rocky outcrops in the reserve, targeting a very unusual and highly-desired species, Boulder Chat. Our great day continued as we found and had great views of a small group of Boulder Chats at our first site. After having enjoyed them we came down from the hills and focused once again on the miombo. Approaching midday, activity was generally low, but we did quite well adding the difficult Böhm’s Flycatcher and Western Violet-backed Sunbird to the list. We were also privy to finding a nest of the flycatcher and watched them at leisure around their nest.
We took a break over the lunch period and resumed birding in the afternoon, hoping to better our views of Lesser Seedcracker. After much effort we eventually tracked down a calling bird, but it was just hidden from sight, no matter where we positioned ourselves, and, frustratingly, went unseen. But after we had just about given up a last-ditch effort saw us find a stunning male Lesser Seedcracker, quietly perched in some nearby bushes, and fortunately it stuck around for us to enjoy it for a few moments before it disappeared into the vegetation once more. During our time here we added African Harrier-Hawk, Lizard Buzzard, Burchell’s Coucal, Grey-olive Greenbul, Sand Martin, Holub’s Golden Weaver, African Firefinch, and Brimstone Canary. On our walk back to the lodge we flushed a European Nightjar, and working a bird party further along we could add Souza’s Shrike to the list, one of the last true miombo specials we had been missing so far. This brought an end to a truly fantastic day where everything seemed to go to plan!
Miombo birding at its finest: African Spotted Creeper …
… and Stierling’s Woodpecker
Day 10, November 24. Dzalanyama to Luwawa Forest Lodge
With our spectacular day of birding yesterday our list of targets was short, and we focused our efforts toward the edge of the miombo, where we’d be looking for chiefly Whyte’s and Miombo Pied Barbets. We had a surprisingly slow morning and had to work hard for any birds, and our targets went wanting. Highlights of the morning were Western Banded Snake Eagle, Shikra, Bearded Woodpecker, Black-throated Wattle-eye, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Red-winged Warbler, Miombo Scrub Robin, Wood Pipit, and great looks at Grey-olive Greenbul, while Rufous-bellied Tit eluded us and was heard only.
We bade Dzalanyama farewell and undertook our long drive northwards to Luwawa Forest Lodge, on the Viphya Plateau. A quick detour via Lifupa Dam in Kasungu National Park gave us a few common waterbirds such as Abdim’s Stork, White-faced Whistling and Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-billed Teal, Red-knobbed Coot and our special target, Lesser Jacana.
In the mid-afternoon we arrived at the entrance track to Luwawa Forest Lodge and birded our way to the lodge. Some of the species seen included Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Singing Cisticola, Bertram’s Weaver (which sadly didn’t hang around very long), Orange-breasted Waxbill, and African Pipit.
After arriving at the lodge and checking in we joined one of the local birders who knew a spot for Whyte’s Barbet. After being cooped up in the car for most of the day we opted to walk to/from the site. This proved a good move, as we were able to bird on the way and enjoyed both African Marsh Harrier and a few Pallid Harriers floating over the grasslands. We arrived in the stunted miombo and almost immediately got onto a bird perched atop some dead branches – Whyte’s Barbet! Success, and we enjoyed some scope views before the bird disappeared. We headed up to a nesting spot to see if we could get better views, but alas, the bird wouldn’t show again. Other species present here included Red-chested Cuckoo, Lesser Honeyguide, Northern Fiscal, Trilling Cisticola, Garden Warbler, and African Firefinch.
We made our way back to the lodge and investigated a grassy area near the lodge, which produced Moustached Grass and African Yellow Warblers along with Fan-tailed Grassbird and Croaking Cisticola. All too soon darkness came, and we settled in for a good meal.
Day 11, November 25. Luwawa Forest Lodge to Nyika National Park
With today going to be a tight day time-wise, we had only a brief period of birding available around the lodge before we had to get going. We focused initially on the forested areas adjacent to the lodge, which was excellent, and here we recorded Schalow’s Turaco, Fülleborn’s Boubou, Black-browed Greenbul, Bar-throated and Chapin’s Apalises, Green Twinspot, and Red-faced Crimsonwing before the mechanical purring of African Broadbill started. We aligned ourselves and managed to pick up an individual displaying, enjoying good scope views of this highly-desired species! We then birded through some scrub habitat and wetland fringes before making our way through another patch of forest. Species seen included Blue-spotted Wood Dove, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Olive Woodpecker, Evergreen Forest and Red-winged Warblers, White-starred Robin, Bronzy and Forest Double-collared Sunbirds, Bertram’s, Spectacled, and Holub’s Golden Weavers, Black-winged Red Bishop, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, and Southern Citril. The large dam held little besides Malachite Kingfisher, while an inlet had calling African Rail, Red-chested Flufftail and Little Rush Warblers, but, try as we might, we were unable to get views.
Before long we were on the road, heading for Nyika National Park. While the park wasn’t too far away it took a good few hours to get to the camp after entering. This large park is one of the country’s ‘best-kept secrets’ and one of my all-time favorite places to visit, harboring not only a wealth of biodiversity but also a great number of sought-after species and generally excellent birding – not to mention its unique setting.
We eventually managed good views of the difficult Black-backed Barbet.
We arrived at the park around midday and immediately started looking for our first target, Black-backed Barbet, which eventually cooperated after giving us only brief views a number of times initially. Rain clouds had been building up throughout the morning, and they were now looking as though they would burst. Luckily we got back to the car just in time as the heavens opened up shortly after.
We continued the drive to Chelinda Camp, and as soon as the rain stopped a wealth of bird activity arose and we set out to investigate. We were in some stunted miombo, and one of our main targets on this stretch, Rufous-bellied Tit, began calling, and we enjoyed a few individuals a few moments later as they bounced around the trees. We also enjoyed other species such as Miombo Tit, Red-capped Crombec, Willow Warbler, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Miombo Scrub Robin, and Tree Pipit, before forcing ourselves away.
We eventually exited the miombo and saw the rapid change in habitat as we neared the top of the plateau. Small forest patches surrounded by rolling grasslands were now the order of the day, and we stopped to investigate one of the first forest patches we found. We had quite a bit of excitement here, as both Olive-flanked Ground Robin and White-chested Alethe began calling not far away. Sadly, we were to only hear these two ‘ghost’ birds for now.
We continued our way to the lodge, stopping occasionally for a few more new birds, and arrived at our comfortable lodge shortly before sunset. Species seen along the way included Hildebrandt’s Francolin, Lizard Buzzard, African Olive Pigeon, Moustached Tinkerbird, Olive Woodpecker, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Black-browed Greenbul, Grey-rumped and Red-rumped Swallows, Mountain Yellow and Cinnamon Bracken Warblers, Fan-tailed Grassbird, a plethora of Cisticolas including Singing, Trilling, Wailing, Croaking and Short-winged, Chapin’s Apalis, Waller’s Starling, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher and Malachite and Whyte’s Double-collared Sunbirds. We also enjoyed a large herd of Roan Antelope, Common Eland, and Plains Zebra, along with a lone Oribi.
Day 12, November 26. Full day at Nyika National Park
We had the day to spend within Nyika, and we headed off on a morning walk to start the day with local guide Alam. It didn’t take us long before we had our first flyby of Blue Swallow, and it is encouraging to note how well this species seems to be doing here. We also managed to find the two localized Cisticolas of the area, Black-lored and Churring. Montane Widowbird was next before we found a large flock of Yellow-crowned Canaries and the difficult Yellow-browed Seedeater. White-necked Ravens were a regular sight overhead, and just as we started making our way back for breakfast we located a nearby covey of Red-winged Francolin before a mighty Denham’s Bustard flew overhead and landed on the opposite hillside.
Following breakfast we joined up with Steven and headed to the Zovo Chipolo Forest, where we would try for Bar-tailed Trogon, among others. Upon arrival at the forest a vocal Olive-flanked Ground Robin was first to appear, giving us incredible views, before a Fülleborn’s Boubou popped up, giving us better views than on the previous day. We enjoyed other forest species such as Schalow’s Turaco, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Black-browed Greenbul, Chapin’s and Brown-headed Apalises, White-starred Robin, and Moustached Tinkerbird before we found a calling Bar-tailed Trogon. We managed to track the bird down, but it was mostly obscured, but then we noticed another individual, much closer and completely in the open. We enjoyed breathtaking views of this prized species, as both birds went about their business, unperturbed by us, before we left them be. Abyssinian Thrush went by unseen. As we exited the forest we enjoyed a flyby European Honey Buzzard along with Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk, before a glorious White-headed Saw-wing floated into view and stuck around at the forest edge.
Our afternoon saw us undertake a drive into the grasslands, bound for a rocky hill where we hoped to find Scarlet-tufted Sunbird. The regular Angolan Swallow showed well, and we encountered a number of coveys of Red-winged Francolin along with an unexpected group of Temminck’s Coursers. The dam held little besides African Black Duck and Green Sandpiper, but then a Lanner Falcon graced the sky. Rufous-naped Larks and African Pipits showed at regular intervals, while I was the only one to get view of a flushed Common Quail that exploded off the road. Banded Martins were seen quartering the grass, but we were unable to see the small specks that were Wing-snapping Cisticolas, despite their call persisting throughout the afternoon. We arrived at the Scarlet-tufted Sunbird site just in time for the clouds and rain to move in. Only Steven and I caught a fleeting sight of a distant sunbird, which otherwise remained heard only, before we called it quits here and slowly made our way back to the lodge.
Mammals seen throughout the day included the same species as yesterday with the addition of Common Duiker.
We undertook a night drive coming back, and although it was slow going we did manage to find Spotted Eagle-Owl and a skittish Montane (Ruwenzori) Nightjar, while a Side-striped Jackal was the mammal highlight, rounding up another fantastic day.
The exquisite Bar-tailed Trogon never fails to impress.
Day 13, November 27. Nyika National Park to Chintheche
With our main goal to get as soon as possible into the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve to search for some localized specials we started early from Chelinda Camp. Our trip out of the reserve was quick going for the most part, although we did have a few stops, where we were able to pick up species such as Dusky Turtle Dove, Lemon Dove, Moustached Tinkerbird, Olive Woodpecker, Cape Batis, Pearl-breasted and Mosque Swallows, Black-lored and Churring Cisticolas, Pale Flycatcher, White-chested Alethe (finally, some brief views obtained of this master skulker!), Whyte’s Double-collared Sunbird, Yellow Bishop, Montane Widowbird, and Tree Pipit, among others. As we approached the exit gate the heaven opened up again and an absolute deluge came down.
We headed to the now reasonably close Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, within which the road deteriorated rapidly until we reached an impassable section now flooded from the recent rains. We decided to not head further and retraced our steps for a bit to bird a few of the remnant patches of miombo further up on the access road. As it turned out this proved to be a good move, as the rain stopped and the birds came alive. We began working the tall hillside miombo and encountered our first party consisting mainly of Rufous-bellied Tits, but we also noted Crowned Hornbill, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Miombo Blue-eared Starling, Miombo and White-browed Scrub Robins, Collared Flycatcher, Miombo Rock Thrush, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Yellow-throated Petronia, and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Try as we might, though, we could not find the two big Vwaza specials, Babbling Starling and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Weaver. Broad-billed Rollers were in evidence, as was Meyer’s Parrot, while a Narina Trogon called from a distant valley and both White-headed Saw-wings and Lesser Striped Swallows flitted about overhead.
We were trying for better views of the parrots when a distant, but very distinct African Pitta called. I couldn’t believe it, as not only is this one of the most-wanted birds within Africa, but also a rare summer visitor to the region and here completely out of habitat — I fumbled at getting the words out. After composing myself we immediately set off after the bird, and fortunately for us it continued calling and displaying, leading us right to it. It was within a massive tree along a riverbed, and it took a little while to get some good views of the bird as it kept jumping around and displaying near the top of the tree, mostly obscured. But bit of patience ensured that we finally had excellent views of African Pitta. Eventually we had to pull ourselves out of the riverbed, after having our fill, with now two birds calling along this stretch of the dry riverbed.
African Pitta just about to launch into its display – a truly unforgettable experience!
A Senegal Coucal was the last noteworthy bird before we called it quits here to continue onwards to Chintheche, where we would stay overnight. Following an uneventful drive we arrived in the late afternoon shortly before dusk, when we settled in and enjoyed sundowners, looking over the beautiful Lake Malawi from our comfortable lodge.
Mammal highlights for the day included Slender Mongoose and Southern Reedbuck, both in Nyika.
Day 14, November 28. Chintheche and surrounds
We woke to a thunderstorm and rain this morning, which put paid to our morning birding. We waited for it to clear and headed out on a walk of the lodge and surrounds. Although the weather was pretty awful we eked out Striated and Black Herons, White-breasted Cormorant, African Fish Eagle, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, African Green Pigeon, Purple-crested Turaco, African Black Swift, Giant and numerous Pied Kingfishers, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Terrestrial Brownbul, Red-faced Cisticola, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Garden Warbler, Ashy Flycatcher, Collared and Purple-banded Sunbirds, Eastern Golden Weaver, and African Pied Wagtail, among others.
It rained on and off through the morning, but the weather fortunately improved over the afternoon, which saw us heading to a forest patch to try for East Coast Akalat. Unfortunately, soon the road to our destination became impassable due to the recent rain. We were able to access the road from the other end and gave that a try. This proved to be successful, although the road was in bad shape, and it was very slow going. We were not able to reach the original forest we wanted to go to and instead investigated a few smaller forest patches we had passed en route, which looked excellent. Here we were able to enjoy virtually all of the other specials of the area, including Green Malkoha, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Green-backed Woodpecker, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, views of Eastern Nicator at long last, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Red-capped Robin-Chat, and Collared Flycatcher, but, try as we might, no akalat. After trying for a quite some time we gave up and made our way slowly back to the lodge, where we settled in for our last sundowner of the trip.
Day 15, November 29. Chintheche to Lilongwe and departure
With a longish drive back to Lilongwe we started fairly early in the morning, noting a similar spectrum of birds to what we had found the previous day. We wanted to explore a nearby wetland, but just as we arrived the heavens opened up again, so we got back into the car and hit the road instead. Not far from the lodge we came across a young Bat Hawk flying parallel with the car; however, we lost the bird when we pulled off. The drive was relatively uneventful until we arrived at a dry dambo north of Lilongwe around midday.
The weather was still overcast, but the rain seemed to be holding. So we set off to look for a few additional species, chief among them being Locust Finch and Rosy-throated Longclaw. The area was pretty birdy, and we enjoyed many species, from raptors such as Pallid Harrier and Amur Falcon to ground-dwelling species such as Common Buttonquail, Fischer’s Sparrow-Lark, and Red-capped Lark to rank-growth species such as Moustached Grass and African Yellow Warblers, and there were a number of Common House Martins overhead. Cisticolas were well represented with Red-faced, Singing, Croaking and Zitting, while also present were Yellow-throated Longclaw, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Black-winged Red and Yellow Bishops, and many seedeaters, including Jameson’s Firefinch, Common and Orange-breasted Waxbills, Village Indigobird, and Pin-tailed and Long-tailed Paradise Whydahs. We seemed to be unable to find the two chief targets, though, but just as we had practically given up we managed to flush a group of Locust Finches, but they disappeared as dark specs, as this species usually does. We headed to the area where they landed and searched for a while, sadly without luck.
Time had come to head to town to drop Art and Alicia off at their hotel, where they would spend the night and fly back home the following day, while I would begin the drive back to South Africa the following morning as well.
One of many sunsets gorgeous experienced on the tour.
I would like to kindly thank Art and Alicia for the good times and especially the many exceptional sightings we had, including the vast majority of the region’s specials. Although the rain hampered us somewhat, the excellent birding we continually had made up for this, and our African Pitta experience will no doubt remain with me for the rest of my life! Our trip was mightily successful, scoring just under 400 species in two weeks, especially considering the target-based nature of this trip!
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included. This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.