By Errol de Beer
14 AUGUST – 10 SEPTEMBER 2014
This trip was run as a customized tour for three clients, all with lists of well over 7000 species seen worldwide, and in fact Dollyann was hoping to reach 8000 species by the end of this trip. Travel to some really remote destinations, particularly in Malawi, was necessary to find some of the group’s target birds. Places like Misuku Hills and Uzumara Forest in Malawi are hardly ever visited by birders, primarily from a logistics point of view, and also because of lack of suitable accommodation. Both these destinations are, however, excellent birding spots, and Uzumara in particular could be included in most itineraries, using accommodation in the town of Rumphi as a base. On the Zambian side we included the Mwinilunga area, a must for any serious birder; this area hosts many Angolan/Congo specials, found nowhere else in Zambia.
Day 1, 14th August. Livingstone Airport to Lodge
Ron, Dollyann, and Kay arrived on the same flight from Johannesburg at around 13h00. After a short meet and greet and a quick visit to the bank for some local currency, we loaded up and started our journey to our lodge. Not much was seen en route other than a few marauding Pied Crows and a single African Grey Hornbill. We arrived at the lodge in good time and decided to take 20 minutes to refresh, before starting our bird quest.
Our first obligatory stop was at the Miombo Pied Barbet stakeout. But this time around the barbet wasn’t nearly as obliging as it had been a month earlier, and after trying for a while we decided to concentrate on the other specials of the area. Birding was slow, but we did manage to find Neddicky and Southern Black Tit, and a short burst of playback produced the desired result as two Racket-tailed Rollers came in and entertained us with their antics. We drove further down the road, and now, with the sun at our back, we headed back into the woods. Pretty soon we found both Retz’s and White-crested Helmetshrikes, followed by Grey-backed Camaroptera. Golden-breasted Bunting showed well, and then, bang, we had a nice male Miombo Rock Thrush. Further along we heard Miombo Pied Barbet, but it took us a while to track down the bird, after which we had crippling views of it through the scope.
Once back at the lodge, Ron and Dollyann located our first African Finfoot for the trip, and a Little Sparrowhawk was another noteworthy addition.
Day 2, 15th August. Machile and Simungoma IBAs
We started at 5h30 in the morning, when it was pretty much still dark as we pointed the nose of the vehicle westwards. Nothing much was found en route other than our first Southern Ground Hornbill.
We arrived at the Machile turn-off in good time and proceeded north, bumping into both Meves’s and Burchell’s Starlings shortly after leaving the main road. A possible Locustfinch sighting will forever remain a mystery, as the bird was flushed from the track in front of the vehicle. We were, however, treated to good views of Meyer’s Parrot and a distant Scarlet-chested Sunbird. Sadly there was no sign of the hoped-for Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, but this was made up for in the form of a Black Coucal. Other good birds as we drove along came in the form of Grey-rumped Swallow, White-winged Widowbird, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Long-crested Eagle, Capped Wheatear, and African Hoopoe. We eventually reached the spot for the Black-cheeked Lovebird, and we didn’t have to search long for what is arguably Africa’s most range-restricted parrot. We were treated to cracking scope views of at least three birds. Other good birds that put in a showing at this same spot were Bennet’s Woodpecker, Long-billed Crombec, Red-headed Weaver, and Orange-breasted Bushshrike.
After leaving the Machile IBA and getting back to the main road, we headed straight for the Zambezi Floodplains at the Simungoma IBA. Here we made out way to the first pan, where we planned to have our packed lunch. Both the birding and the packed lunches turned out great, with at least half-a-dozen Lesser Jacanas and several more African Jacanas in attendance. The Lesser Jacanas in particular were super confiding here. There were lots of White-backed Ducks and also several Red-billed and Hottentot Teals around, with a surprise find being a small group of five Greater Painted-snipes. A single African Openbill and several juvenile Black Crakes completed the picture. Overhead were a number of Pearl-breasted Swallows and Brown-throated Martins. Our main target here was Slaty Egret, but after several hours of checking numerous patches of water we had to admit defeat, but not before finding a cracking Rufous-bellied Heron, a number of African Pygmy Geese, Saddle-billed Stork, and Southern Carmine Bee-eaters. A Bradfield’s Hornbill was a welcome addition, as were Greater Swamp Warbler and Black-faced Waxbill, the latter two both lifers for Kay. We ended the day with good views of Double-banded Sandgrouse.
Day 3, 16th August. Livingstone to Choma (Nkanga River Conservation Area)
After our first sit-down breakfast for the trip, we headed to Livingstone with our bags packed. Ron and Dollyann decided to pay a visit to one of the great natural wonders of the world, the mighty Victoria Falls, while Kay and I enjoyed a cup of coffee. A few more essential stops in Livingstone, and we were on our way, picking up a Hooded Vulture in town in the process. The road to Choma produced very little, but we did manage to find Amethyst, Scarlet-chested, and White-bellied Sunbirds in a flowering coral tree and a gorgeous Shikra on a power line. Further stops on the way to the lodge after lunch produced Grey Penduline Tit, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Blue Waxbill, several flocks of Trumpeter Hornbill, a responsive Grey-headed Bushshrike, Yellow-throated Petronia, and Neddicky, while Lizard Buzzard was the most numerous raptor.
At the lodge itself we were treated to cracker views of Miombo Blue-eared Starling, Arnot’s Chat, and Terrestrial Brownbul. We decided against having welcoming drinks, as the light was already starting to fade, so we made our way straight into the miombo woodland, which proved rather quiet. It took us a while to locate our first bird party. As we stopped and jumped out the vehicle we flushed a pair of Francolin, which we unfortunately did not see enough of to make a conclusive ID, although it was almost certainly Shelley’s. Ron and Dollyann got their first lifer of the day in the form of Miombo Tit, and we also had fabulous views of African Spotted Creeper, Red-headed Weaver, Crowned Hornbill, and Green-capped Eremomela.
Day 4, 17th August. Choma (Nkanga River Conservation Area)
We were up very early and made our way to the paddock, where we would search for Chaplin’s Barbet, Zambia’s only true endemic. We reached the paddock at first light and started our search, finding other good birds such as Burnt-necked Eremomela, Sooty Chat, and Senegal Coucal, while searching for the barbet. It didn’t take us too long to find Chaplin’s Barbet, only a singleton, but we were treated to amazing views.
Barbet under the belt, we made our way back to the lodge for breakfast, finding African Black Duck and Ovambo Sparrowhawk en route. Shortly after finishing breakfast we headed back to the miombo woodland, back to the spot where we flushed the francolins the previous day. We got ourselves in position, and I started playback for Shelley’s Francolin. It wasn’t very long before they responded and eventually came very close, but the groundcover was just too thick for us to see them, so we walked out towards them, and no less than four Shelley’s Francolins flushed from the spot. We also heard Coqui Francolin calling nearby. Again the miombo was very quiet, probably because of the windy conditions. Fortunately, we did find a few bird parties, consisting of birds such as African Spotted Creeper, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Miombo Tit, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, and Cabanis’s Bunting. A pair of Racket-tailed Rollers treated us to some spectacular displays, and we also found Miombo Pied Barbet again.
We took a break of an hour after lunch, when Ron and I explored the gardens and managed good views of Yellow-bellied Greenbul, White-browed Robin-Chat, and Collared Sunbird. Then we headed back to the miombo for a third time, and this time we found Schalow’s Turaco while driving through the thicket. Only most of the usual culprits were found in the miombo, so we decided to drive to the campsite, where we found Natal Spurfowl and African Finfoot.
A night drive produced African Wood Owl and Spotted Eagle Owl.
Day 5, 18th August. Choma to Lusaka with a visit to Lochinvar National Park
We left Choma soon after we enjoyed a hearty breakfast, with little in the way of birding around the lodge. The drive to the turn-off to Lochinvar NP went smoothly, but the same can’t be said for the gravel road from Monze to Lochinvar; fortunately it seems that there are improvements underway. A missed turn cost us a bit of time as we had to backtrack, and then we make our way to the park.
A pair of Mosque Swallows posed nicely near the entrance, and with paper work completed we entered. A slow drive produced several Namaqua Doves and a noisy flock of Arrow-marked Babblers. We made our lunch stop at the impressive Chunga Lagoon, resembling an inland sea, from where careful scanning revealed Caspian and Whiskered Terns, African Fish Eagle, African Pygmy Goose, Long-toed Lapwing, and Red-billed Teal. Spectacled Weavers were calling in the trees, and White-browed Robin-Chats were scurrying around in the undergrowth. We headed east from Chunga Lagoon to an area of seasonally inundated floodplains; this area held lots of Red-capped Larks as well as Buffy and African Pipits. Quailfinches were everywhere, and there was impressive numbers of Wattled Crane as well as several Grey Crowned Cranes. Big flocks of Black Herons hunted cooperatively in the small pools, and other waterbirds included Intermediate Egret, Yellow-billed Stork, Black-winged Stilt, Glossy Ibis, Spur-winged Goose, and Hottentot Teal. Raptors were also plentiful with several African Marsh Harriers, Bateleur, African Hawk-Eagle, Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures, and a juvenile Red-necked Falcon on our way out.
Time was running out in Lochinvar, which certainly warrants further exploration, with Lusaka still some distance away. A quick stop at the main Kafue bridge before Lusaka produced only Purple Heron and White-browed Coucal. Traffic through Lusaka was horrendous, and we only reached our lodge after 7h00.
Day 6, 19th August. Lusaka to Chingola in the copperbelt
The morning got off to a slow start as we got all the baggage ready before breakfast. A few common species such a Red-eyed Dove and Dark-capped Bulbul did book their places on the day list. The first part of the drive was rather uneventful, as we concentrated on making good time. I did, however, have a fabulous lunch stop in mind at one of the more scenic birding locales in Zambia, Nsobe Game Camp south of Ndola, a spot that is sadly hardly ever visited by foreign birding outfits.
We arrived just before lunch, and during the slow drive in one immediately became aware of the incredible birding potential of the place. Various dams held species such as White-breasted and Reed Cormorants, African Darter, Grey Heron, Striated Heron, Yellow-billed Stork, Woolly-necked Stork, African Openbill, Hamerkop, White-faced Duck, Southern Pochard, Yellow-billed Duck, and various kingfishers. The denser riverine vegetation quickly produced Yellow-throated Leaflove, African Dusky Flycatcher, and Black-throated Wattle-eye while we waited for lunch. Large tracts of intact miombo woodland beg to be explored, and our brief foray added our first Red-capped Crombec as well as Miombo Scrub Robin. Other goodies included African Spotted Creeper and Pale Flycatcher. On the way out the locals were burning grass, and here we managed great sighting of Red-throated Cliff Swallow, a sought-after Zambian tick. There were also good numbers of Brown Firefinch around. Nsobe definitely warrants a longer stay, but we sadly had to depart to our next destination.
The road through the copperbelt did not produce overly much, other than our only sighting of Martial Eagle in Zambia. We were shocked at the state of the road through the copperbelt, and I couldn’t believe it was the same road I had traveled on two years prior. There are huge mining projects going on, and this is taking a toll on the roads and admittedly also on the environment. Due to extreme congestion on the road we only arrived at our lodge in Chingola well after dark, but just in time for a spectacular dinner.
Day 7, 20th August. Chingola to Mwinilunga via Chimfunshi
We left Chingola after a scrumptious breakfast, ticking Speckled Mousebird in the lodge’s pawpaw tree. The drive to Chimfunshi, a wildlife orphanage originally established as a chimpanzee sanctuary, didn’t take too long, but due to the fact that they moved the entrance road it took us slightly longer to get to the spot we wanted to search for the prized Sharp-tailed Starling. This is probably one of the most reliable places in Africa to get to grips with this species, and after some searching we managed good scope views of this rather restless and shy starling. Once again we didn’t have much time to explore the area, but we did have good sightings of Coqui Francolin, Meyer’s Parrot, Arnot’s Chat, and then another target bird, Pale-billed Hornbill. I heard the hornbills call (they sound a bit like a Spotted Thick-knee), and after stopping managed to locate them by waiting for them to call again.
We still had a long drive ahead of us, and after a brief lunch stop next to a small stream, where we managed to locate our first and only Black-faced Canary of the trip, headed to Mwinilunga. We arrived there in reasonable time after the roads had improved significantly after the town of Solwezi. We did, however, have a longish drive on dirt tracks to our camp on the banks of the West Lunga River to negotiate, so again we arrived shortly after sunset.
Day 8, 21st August. Nkwaji Game Farm in Mwinilunga
We spent the whole day exploring the various habitats on this great game farm/reserve, starting with the river itself and its associated mushitu (riverine forest). Here we had brief views of Shining-blue Kingfisher, followed by our first Ross’s Turaco, Little Greenbul, Red-faced Cisticola, and cracking views of Fawn-breasted Waxbill in the rank grass, which also held Moustached Grass Warbler.
I was gobsmacked when I turned around to go back towards camp, to see a bird that was unmistakably a quail flying in and landing in an open area with sparse grass. I urged everyone on, and we successfully flushed our first Blue Quail of the trip, a lifer for Ron and Dollyann. Our next target was Bamboo Warbler, which we heard calling in a dense tangle of shrub and reeds next to the camp. We soon managed to lure him nearer but had to be satisfied with brief glimpses, as this shy and retiring bird refused to come out into a more open spot.
The miombo woodland proved rather quiet, and we decided to concentrate on the grassy dambos in the northern section of the farm. We soon found a fair number of Black-collared Bulbuls, a couple of Marsh Widowbirds, our first Black-and-rufous Swallows, and a good number of both Dambo and Stout Cisticolas. A small patch of mushitu at the far end of the dambo, along a river that ran next to the boundary fence, we found Splendid Starling, Brown-headed Apalis, and Wahlberg’s Eagle. Back at camp, we managed very unsatisfactory views of both Western Bronze-naped and Afep Pigeons.
Day 9, 22nd August. Nkwaji Game Farm, Chitunta Plain, and the source of the Zambezi
We started the morning by walking along the river again. Our host had told us that Margaret’s Batis is sometimes seen along here, but as on the previous day we again failed to locate it. We did find a large number of Chinspot Batis, though. The walk produced Grey Waxbill, a lifer for Kay, Laura’s Woodland Warbler, African Thrush, African Broadbill, and much better views of both Afep and Western Bronze-naped Pigeons.
After breakfast we headed toward the Chitunta Plain, Zambia’s best-known locality for Grimwood’s Longclaw. A stop in the miombo woodland on the way to Chitunta Plain got us into a nice little bird party, and we soon had both Miombo and Rufous-bellied Tits, Yellow-breasted Hyliota, Green-backed Honeybird, and the handsome gephyra subspecies of Red-capped Crombec – here it is very evident how this species got its name, as this subspecies has a fully red (chestnut) crown. Further along, and still within Nkwaji, we also found Pallid Honeyguide, Miombo Wren-Warbler, Red-chested Cuckoo, and Orange-winged Pytilia – the latter, according to my GPS, actually in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The track that straddles the border between the two countries seems to enter the DRC on several occasions, great for adding a few species to a DRC list.
We arrived at Chitunta mid-morning, and while Kay opted to wait back at the car, we slipped on our rubber boots and headed out onto the floodplain. Hardly a few yards in we flushed our first Fülleborn’s Longclaw, and shortly after that Ron spotted our target, Grimwood’s Longclaw. Great scope views were had, and, with the added bonus of several Locust Finches that flushed from the marshy ground every so often, we all had reason to smile. On the way to the source of the Zambezi we got Kay another lifer in the form of Böhm’s Spinetail, followed by our only Grey-headed Kingfisher of the trip. It was a great experience to see the actual source of the Zambezi, from such humble beginnings to what will become one of Africa’s largest rivers. Birding here was very quiet, and the much hoped-for Grey-winged Robin-Chat just didn’t want to show. We did, however, add Buff-throated Apalis here.
Day 10, 23rd August. Nkwaji Game Farm, drive to Chingola via Chitunta Plain
We changed our strategy slightly this morning as we headed straight into the mushitu nearest the camp to try for Grey-winged Robin-Chat. But although we heard it calling once, we never did manage to locate this elusive bird. In the same mushitu we had great views of Blue Malkoha and African Goshawk flying over, with Least Honeyguide a very welcome addition. At Nkwaji Lodge we located a very obliging Narina Trogon. This morning we also encountered huge numbers of Sunbirds: Purple-banded, Amethyst, Variable, Collared, and a single Bannerman’s, a female, which was, unfortunately, only seen by me, and we failed to relocate it after about an hour of trying.
On the way to Chitunta Plain we found our only Broad-billed Roller, another DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) tick. J
Back once more at Chitunta, we headed for the dry upper reaches of the plain, which are characterized by high densities of small, black Cubitermes termite mounds and stunted woodland. This is prime habitat for our target, Angolan Lark. After walking up and down and getting slightly disheartened, we eventually flushed our first bird and then a couple more. What a relief! We also flushed quite a few Rosy-throated Longclaws in the process.
After filling up with fuel in Mwinilunga we started the long and uneventful drive back to Chingola, where a stunning dinner once again awaited us at our guesthouse.
Day 11, 24th August. Chingola to Forest Inn, Mkushi, via Imanda IBA
Another long drive awaited us, since we weren’t going to give up on Margaret’s Batis and decided to detour to Imanda, an area that is particularly good for this rather sought-after batis. Again we had to face the insanely busy copperbelt road, fortunately slightly less busy than the previous time we had traveled it. After a short stop in Ndola to change some money we were on the road again, heading to Imanda. A short lunch stop at a small stream near Imanda netted us Black-collared Barbet and Brown-crowned Tchagra.
We arrived at Imanda just after mid-day and arranged with some locals to look after the car. There is no official trail in Imanda, and the forest floor was inundated with water in many places, making for tough going. Our first point of entry got us knee-deep into mud but made up for it by providing cracking views of Black-fronted Bushshrike and Black-throated Wattle-eye, but sadly no sign of Margaret’s Batis. We decided to try again and entered the forest in another area. This time the going was a bit easier, and after what seemed like forever we eventually got really good views of Margaret’s Batis, much to everyone’s delight – target bird down! Black-backed Barbet also put in a brief showing.
From Imanda we proceeded to Forest Inn near the town of Mkushi, settled into our rooms, and met again for dinner.
Day 12, 25th August. Birding Forest Inn and the Mkushi area
The birding around Forest Inn and the Mkushi area in general is always good and the highlight of many a trip to Zambia; this was to be not different this time. We headed out towards Mkushi shortly after an early breakfast. Our first stop at a small stream produced cracking views of Lesser Striped and Pearl-breasted Swallows as well as Red-throated Twinspot. We reached our patch of miombo woodland shortly after counting at least 10 Lizard Buzzards on the road. Other noteworthy birds en route included Swallow-tailed and Southern Carmine Bee-eaters.
Birding was “hot” as soon as we entered the miombo. We followed bird party after bird party, finding birds such as Böhm’s Flycatcher, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, Black-eared and Reichard’s Seedeaters, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, African Spotted Creeper, African Golden Oriole, and Green-capped Eremomela. It didn’t take long until we had superb views of Black-necked Eremomela, a top miombo bird.
After some exhilarating birding we decided to head back to Mkushi to find a place where we could just relax a bit during the mid-day heat and have some cool drinks. A lodge on the outskirts of Mkushi looked just the place, and some flowering trees produced our first Western Violet-backed Sunbird here.
Refreshed after the rest we headed back to the miombo woodland, as we had dipped Bar-winged Weaver in the morning. Needless to say, we encountered another bird party, and soon had cracking views of at least three Bar-winged Weavers, never an easy bird. Souza’s Shrike also put in an appearance, our first for the trip. Back at the little stream we located our only Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher of the trip and also saw Schalow’s Turaco at a distance.
Day 13, 26th August. Forest Inn to Kapishya Hot Springs
Today we were off toward another favorite birding spot, Kapishya Hot Springs. We left Forest Inn shortly after breakfast and made a short stop at some open miombo, where we found a very obliging little bird party. Never before have I had such good views of Black-necked Eremomela; here in open miombo woodland they were so incredibly obliging! Other star birds included Red-capped Crombec, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Arnot’s Chat, and our first Miombo Double-collared Sunbird.
We stopped for lunch at Lake Lusiwasi, which was rather quiet in terms of birding other than for Purple Heron, Great Egret, and a few African Jacanas. The flowering coral trees were a hive of activity, however, with sunbirds of all descriptions feeding like crazy. Here we also saw our first Brimstone Canary.
Then we decided to explore a side road some distance before reaching Mpika, specifically to search for Anchieta’s Sunbird. This road didn’t disappoint, and we soon had several Anchieta’s Sunbirds around us – what a cracking little bird! For the rest of the day we pretty much just pushed on to get to our destination, finding a nice Peregrine Falcon as we turned off the main road towards Kapishya Hot Springs. We arrived at the lodge in the late afternoon and settled in before dinner.
Day 14, 27th August. Birding around Kapishya Hot Springs and Shiwa Ng’andu
After an early breakfast at the lodge we departed to bird the area around Shiwa Ng’andu. This colonial estate is run by the same family as is Kapishya. The lake by the same name was to be our central point for birding this morning, and we quickly noticed some more common birds such as Hadada and Glossy Ibis, African Jacana, Black-winged Stilt, and Kittlitz’s Plover. We noticed a group of vultures on a carcass on the opposite bank, and through the scope we managed to identify Hooded, White-backed, and White-headed Vultures, and they were even joined briefly by a Palm-nut Vulture. We scanned the fig trees for barbet activity but only came away with the commoner ones like Black-collared Barbet. Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbills were also enjoying the feast. Overhead we had our first White-rumped Swifts, while we also added Red-backed Mannikin, Pin-tailed Whydah, and Bar-throated Apalis to our ever-growing list.
Shortly before lunch we made a stop at the stately old manor house, built over a century ago and now open for public viewing. While Dollyann enjoyed the splendors of an era gone by, we stocked up with some fresh meat at the farm butchery, a necessity, since we had to provide our own provisions for our next stop in Malawi, where a cook would prepare our meals for us.
We headed back to Kapishya for lunch and ticked Familiar Chat en route. A short break after lunch was welcomed by all. Ron took the opportunity to improve on some of his photographs with some very obliging birds in the garden, especially Grey Waxbill and Red-throated Twinspot.
An afternoon walk past the actual hot springs, through the camp ground, and along the river got us awesome sightings of Green-headed Sunbird, a splendid Whyte’s Barbet in the woodland on the way back, and then, to top it off, unbelievable looks at Bocage’s Akalat at the hot springs. What a day!
Day 15, 28th August. Kapishya Hot Springs to Misuku Hills in Malawi
Today was primarily a driving day. We were joined by an Italian couple in their rental vehicle, who asked if they could follow us, since they did not know the road we were to take to Malawi. They had the option of using one of the more conventional routes to Malawi, but that would take them a full two days at the very least.
We took the adventurous route through northern Zambia, entering Malawi at Chitipa – a route I’m sure no other birding group has ever attempted. This route was made easier, however, by the fact that the road from Chitipa into the rest of Malawi has been upgraded and paved no less than a year and a half ago. We left Kapishya bright and early and had cracking views of a male Coqui Francolin crossing the road ahead of us on the way out.
The rest of the day was rather uneventful as we pushed to reach the border in good time. We were very surprised to see how degraded the whole of north-eastern Zambia is, all along the road we hardly saw any intact woodland, with subsistence farming and charcoal production very evident everywhere.
We reached the border in good time, considering we had to negotiate an almost non-existent road and having to ask directions in a few places, just to get there and learn that the border official, the only one, had gone off to town to do some shopping. Fortunately, we managed to get hold of his phone number to contact him, and he promised to be back in thirty minutes, which turned out, however, to be more like an hour and thirty minutes. Some birds around the border post to entertain us in the meantime included Green-winged Pytilia, Yellow-fronted Canary, Blue Waxbill, Red-billed Firefinch, and Red-headed Quelea in non-breeding plumage.
After eventually getting our documentation done and the passports stamped, we left Zambia and entered Malawi, where we had to repeat the process. Luckily there was no shortage of staff on the Malawian side. The main road through Chitipa was good, brand new tarmac, and we made good time to the turn-off to Misuku. The last 29 kilometers to Misuku, though, sported a winding dirt track that ascended the mountain – a road that I would hate to try in the wet season, even with a good 4×4. We arrived at our destination with a bit of daylight to spare and decided to get settled before dinner.
Day 16, 29th August. Misuku Hills
We set off early to meet with the local forest guardian to arrange access to Mugesse Forest Reserve. There are three major forest blocks in the Misuku Hills, Mugesse, Wilindi, and Matipa, the latter two often referred to as Wilindi-Matipa Forest Reserve due to their close proximity to each other. Fortunately, Mugesse was very close to our accommodation at the local coffee estate’s rest house, so this was where we decided to focus our attention. Our visit to Misuku Hills was planned to enable us to find a couple of species that would not be possible in other parts of Malawi.
After all the formalities were concluded we made our way toward the forest. On the way we passed through coffee plantations and small plots with agriculture. These areas actually attract a lot of birds, and raptors were very evident, with Long-crested Eagle and African Harrier-Hawk showing particularly well. Silvery-cheeked Hornbills were more common here than anywhere else I have been in Africa; they were literally everywhere – what a pleasure!
We were mightily surprised when, while watching various seedeaters feeding in the cultivated plots, a small flock of about six to seven Reichenow’s Seedeaters showed up, among the more common Yellow-fronted Canaries. These birds have never been recorded in Malawi as far as I am aware. Admittedly, their occurrence here should not come as a major surprise as they occur just across the border in southern Tanzania.
Other good birds along here included Yellow-breasted Apalis, Bronzy Sunbird, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Red-headed Quelea, Schalow’s Turaco, Scarce Swift, and White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher.
A driveable track leads through the forest, making birding in Mugesse a pleasure. Once in the forest, one of the first birds we heard was Bar-tailed Trogon, which showed very nicely shortly after. Forest Double-collared Sunbird seemed to prefer the forest edge, but we did find a few in the forest as well. Greenbuls were much in evidence, and we soon had good looks at Placid, Olive-headed, Little, and Shelley’s Greenbuls. Our main target, however, still eluded us, but this was soon to change as our first Dark Batis showed and we quickly realized that they were actually quite common in the forest here, with several more pairs showing well during the course of the day. Another sought-after bird is Chapin’s Apalis, and we were amazed at just how beautiful this little apalis actually is. A small but noisy little family group entertained us for a while before disappearing into the depths of the forest. Green Barbet was also a very common bird here, and we had several good looks at Moustached Tinkerbird. Amazingly, we even managed reasonably decent views of Evergreen Forest Warbler, a bird that at times can be very frustrating to get any views of. Other common birds included the stunning White-starred Robin, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, and several Red-faced Crimsonwings. Singing Cisticola showed well at a viewpoint overlooking Tanzania.
Day 17, 30th August. Misuku Hills to Livingstonia
We squeezed in an early breakfast and headed out to Wilindi-Matipa Forest Reserve, which was a bit further from where we stayed, so we had to drive back through the village to get there. The forest there is not nearly as accessible as at Mugesse, and it took us several tries to find the obscured track leading into it. The track is very overgrown in places, but birding was amazing nonetheless, with a juvenile African Goshawk just as we turned off the main dirt road, Southern Ground Hornbill flying over the village, and many Red-faced Crimsonwings in the forest. Several birds that we had found in Mugesse were again common here, but we did manage to find our first Olive Woodpecker, and Waller’s Starling also seemed more common here.
After a couple of hours in the forest we sadly had to move on. We picked up our bags from the rest house and then headed south. Finding a Striped Pipit was a nice added bonus. On the way to Karonga we encountered Western Banded Snake Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Angolan Swallow over the North Rukuru River.
In Karonga we drove down to the shore of Lake Malawi, where we found our only group of Magpie Mannikins of the trip. Further south a nice little wetland held Grey Heron, Great Egret, Squacco Heron, Yellow-billed Stork, Hamerkop, African Wattled Lapwing, and White-browed Coucal.
The road up to Livingstonia is something to behold, as you climb up the escarpment with beautiful vistas over Lake Malawi as the road twists its way up the side of the mountain.
Day 18, 31st August. Uzumara Forest
Breakfast was a pretty informal affair this morning, as the staff left out all the goodies for us to help ourselves. After coffee and cereal we collected our packed lunches and headed down the mountain.
It was with some trepidation that we approached the North Viphya Mountains. The weather was drizzly and foggy, and we were not even heading up towards Uzumara Forest yet. Several Red-winged Starlings in a fruiting fig tree were encountered en route, and as we got closer to Uzumara the birding and the weather slightly improved. We were still only in the foothills, though, and looking towards the mountain it still looked ominous. A Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk took us by surprise as it swooped past the car, hanging around just long enough to get decent views. Although we passed some good-looking habitat, we were intent on reaching the forest. After a long drive we eventually started the ascent to the entrance to the forest proper. Soon we reached the cell tower, where we parked the car and got out into, you guessed it, rather foggy weather, with low visibility. We were a bit worried, but luckily there was very little precipitation.
Once in the forest, we almost immediately connected with “Malawi Batis” (the northern Malawi subspecies of Cape Batis, not recognized by most authorities as a full species) and heard Chapin’s Apalis, which, however, stayed obscured in the fog. We wasted no time, though, in getting into position for Sharpe’s Akalat, and a short burst of playback had the bird nearly on top of us. I suppose it was also of the opinion that it needed to get close to see anything in the fog, that aside we couldn’t ask for better close-up views, what a delightfully cooperative bird. I scouted further ahead but conditions were miserable and we returned to the car. We drove down a little and entered the forest in another spot, this time to try for Olive-flanked Ground Robin, which was not as cooperative as the akalat, but perseverance paid off, and we eventually got great views as well. We called it quits as the fog now really settled in and a fine drizzle made things worse.
We opted to head for the foothills again, where we hoped conditions would be better. Indeed they were, and at our first stop we found Crowned Hornbill and the sought-after Bertram’s Weaver. Further on at our lunch stop we had cracking views of Cabanis’s Bunting, Miombo Rock Thrush, Shikra, Black Saw-wing, Brimstone Canary, and Bronzy and Amethyst Sunbirds. A slow drive back to the lodge got us there around mid-afternoon, with everyone opting for some well-deserved R&R.
Day 19, 1st September. Livingstonia to Nyika National Park via Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve
We followed the same routine as the previous day with cereal, fruit and coffee left out for us, after which we got the last bags in the car and made our way toward one of the iconic destinations in Malawi, Nyika National Park. We passed through the town of Rumphi, finding Mountain Wagtail at a small stream. Our plan was to visit the southern end of Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve, where we would bird around the lake and hopefully would also add some birds in a different habitat there, after which we would head back to Rumphi to refuel and have lunch before heading for the northern part of Vwaza Marsh and then continuing to Nyika.
At the lake we found Yellow-billed Duck, Egyptian Goose, African Spoonbill, Yellow-billed Stork, and Grey Heron. Working our way afterwards through some very dry Acacia thornveld, we managed to add Red-necked Spurfowl, Meyer’s Parrot, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Crested Barbet, and Long-billed Crombec in quick succession. Great views of Greater Honeyguide concluded our short visit as we headed back to Rumphi for lunch.
I left the group at our lunch stop at a local orphanage just outside of town, where they offer very nice accommodation and a restaurant, and headed into town for some much needed money and fuel. With the vehicle filled to the brim, I met up with the group again, just in time for my lunch. Soon afterwards we bid the friendly staff farewell and made our way to the northern part of Vwaza Marsh, where we had two target birds to find. The road was as rough as nails, but we eventually managed to get to the split in the road where we had to keep left to get to Vwaza’s northern gate.
We entered the park and scoured the surrounding miombo woodland. Things were awfully quiet for a while, but after what felt like an eternity we bumped into our first bird party. It contained a striking African Golden Oriole, Red-headed Weaver, a lone Böhm’s Flycatcher, and luckily also the first of our targets, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Weaver, of whom everyone managed to have great views. But unfortunately time didn’t allow us to continue our search for Babbling Starling, as the drive to Chelinda Camp in Nyika NP can take a fair amount of time.
We had to take a detour to get to Chelinda, as they were busy repairing the bridge near the camp, and so we had to go the long way around, arriving in camp just after dark.
Day 20, 2nd September. Nyika National Park
Nyika had a fantastic early morning in store for us. The dam had a pair of Little Grebes, and as I was watching them while waiting for the group I heard Red-chested Flufftail calling. Once the group joined me we moved into position, and with a bit of playback we were rewarded with incredible views of the flufftail. A lone Black-headed Heron patrolled the shoreline, and a pair of Baglafecht Weavers was busy building a nest in a tree along the edge of the dam. Splendid views of the highly sought-after Yellow-browed Seedeater followed, while Yellow-crowned Canaries proved very common. A pair of Ludwig’s Double-collared Sunbirds was very confiding, with the grey female quite different from the likes of Forest Double-collared Sunbird. The squeaky, wheel-barrow call of Black-lored Cisticola drew our attention to a pair of these handsome birds, and Churring Cisticola, looking dull in comparison, was another welcome tick. We couldn’t believe our luck when two Cinnamon Bracken Warblers came right out into the open in a bit of a territorial dispute, chasing each other around and perching in the clear for a split-second clear view of this normally rather skulking species.
Breakfast tasted even better after such a great morning, but we still had a lot of birding to do. So we started off to a reliable stakeout for Scarlet-tufted Sunbird soon after. En route we encountered a number of Augur Buzzards, Red-capped Lark, and crippling views of the local race of Red-winged Francolin. A Common Quail was also flushed from the track. We reached the rocky outcrop to look for the sunbird, climbed to the top, and there they were, the Scarlet-tufted Sunbirds. We sat for some time watching a couple of them – what splendid little birds! A pair of White-necked Ravens joined us at our tea break, and we could appreciate the finer plumage details of these birds at close quarters. On the way back we bumped into Blue Swallow, Grey-rumped Swallow, Dusky Turtle Dove, and Hildebrandt’s Francolin just as we entered camp.
After a delightful lunch and a short break we headed for one of the local forest patches, where we found our first Black-browed Greenbul, Waller’s Starling, and African Olive Pigeon. We drove back at dusk and thoroughly enjoyed several Ruwenzori Nightjars en route.
Day 21, 3rd September. Nyika National Park
Another glorious day in one of Africa’s gems! Again we opted to bird around the camp before breakfast, following a trail along the stream below the dam. W had almost great views, on foot, of a leopard, but we caught only the back end of it as it disappeared into the undergrowth. The birding made up for it, though, with cracking views of Malachite Sunbird, Cape Robin-Chat, and Mountain Yellow Warbler. An immature White-backed Vulture flew low overhead as we made our way back to camp.
We drove another route this morning, marveling at the sheer size of two of Africa’s largest antelope, eland and roan antelope, complete with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers. We found several Rufous-naped Larks and a displaying Denham’s Bustard, then a low-flying Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, followed by Red-rumped Swallow and a pair of Angolan Swallows at the airstrip. Montane Widowbirds were just getting into plumage, with a few males already growing their tails.
After lunch we headed to another forest patch, where we located Fülleborn’s Boubou and a nice ant swarm, which attracted the likes of Olive-flanked Ground Robin, White-starred Robin, Black-browed Greenbul, and White-chested Alethe. The drive back to camp produced a stunning pair of Marsh Owl, hunting at dusk.
Day 22, 4th September. Nyika National Park to Lilongwe
A long drive awaited us, and we left camp before day break, getting to the gate at 6h00. We found Fiery-necked Nightjar and Spotted Eagle-Owl on the way, as well as a lone spotted hyena. We then drove down to another known spot for Babbling Starling, but other than one possible fly-by we had no luck with these unique birds. A small bird party, however, produced Ashy Flycatcher, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Orange-winged Pytilia, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Grey Penduline Tit, Whyte’s Barbet, and the first Barn Swallow for the season.
We stopped in Mzuzu to re-supply ourselves with food, as we needed to take our own provisions to Dzalanyama for the cook to prepare, and at the same time managed to get Kay some replacement eye-drops for her prescription eye-drops that unfortunately had leaked out. On the way to Lilongwe we decided to stop at a lake just outside Kasungu, where we added some nice waterbirds such as Purple Heron, Squacco Heron, White-backed Duck, Southern Pochard, Red-knobbed Coot, and Malachite Kingfisher, as well as Namaqua Dove to our list, and also a lifer for Kay in the form of Orange-breasted Waxbill. We arrived at our lodge in Lilongwe before dark and enjoyed a scrumptious dinner that evening.
Day 23, 5th September. Lilongwe to Dzalanyama Forest Reserve
We left the lodge at the crack of dawn and were already out of the city before traffic could affect our progress. The road to Dzalanyama is not signposted at all, and with various little roads leading in all directions it’s not always easy to keep a sense of direction. We arrived at the park’s southern entrance. The northern entrance is recommended, but we wanted to try a different approach. So we inquired with the gate staff about the condition of the road, one reply was good and the other one bad. We decided to be optimistic and pushed on.
The first decent patch of miombo woodland produced our first target bird, Stierling’s Woodpecker. We spent some time watching a pair probing the bark, the male finding a monstrous juicy grub – we’re not sure how he managed to swallow it. White-breasted Cuckooshrike and Black-headed Oriole were regular, and Common Scimitarbill and Kurrichane Thrush also put in the occasional showing. We eventually reached some granite outcrops, where we searched for Boulder Chat. Eventually we found a pair that unfortunately proved totally uncooperative, leaving us with rather unsatisfactory views. Other good birds this morning included Lazy Cisticola, African Hawk-Eagle, Spotted Flycatcher, African Hoopoe, Southern Black Flycatcher, and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird. We had to cross a rather dodgy wooden bridge to reach the lodge; luckily it held out and we managed it safely to the other side, reaching the lodge just after lunch.
An afternoon birding session near the lodge produced a quick-fire little bird party with the likes of Stierling’s Woodpecker, Black-eared and Reichard’s Seedeaters, African Paradise Flycatcher, Souza’s Shrike, Pallid Honeyguide, and Pale-billed Hornbill. Another great day drew to and end as we updated our bird lists before dinner.
Day 24, 6th September. Dzalanyama Forest Reserve to Zomba
A quick stint of birding at Dzalanyama before tackling the road to Zomba saw us nail Purple-crested Turaco, the always sought-after Thick-billed Cuckoo, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Thick-billed Weaver, Red-throated Twinspot, and Grey-olive Greenbul, a lifer for Kay. On the way out we stopped at a rather degraded patch of woodland near the gate and were amazed at the bird diversity, with some awesome birds such as Anchieta’s Sunbird, Miombo Tit, Red-capped Crombec, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Green-capped Eremomela, African Spotted Creeper, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Rufous-bellied Tit, Green-backed Woodpecker, and Golden-tailed Woodpecker.
Finding our way out of Dzalanyama was almost as challenging as getting to Dzalanyama in the first place. Finally we made it to Lilongwe for lunch, which took much longer than we had hoped, scattering any ideas of afternoon birding en route. After lunch we pretty much just pushed to get to Zomba, where we arrived just after dark and just in time for arguably the best dinner of the trip.
Day 25, 7th September. Zomba
Birding started in the gardens of our lodge before breakfast. with lots of Red-throated Twinspots, Forest Double-collared Sunbirds, Dark-backed Weavers, Spectacled Weaver and then some new trip birds like White-eared Barbet, Black Cuckooshrike, Square-tailed Drongo, and Black-headed Apalis.
On the way out after breakfast we were delighted to find an African Goshawk sitting at eye level as we worked our way up to the Zomba Plateau, stopping at Mulunguzi Dam, where we found African Black Duck and Mountain Wagtail. Just below Sunbird Ku-Chawe Inn we ticked one of our want birds, Yellow-throated Apalis, alongside Black-headed Apalis and White-tailed Crested Flycatcher.
We headed back to the lodge for lunch and marveled at Yellow-bellied Waxbills and Livingstone’s Turaco while enjoying a superb lunch. We headed back up the plateau, a bit further this time, up to Chagwa Dam, where we tried for Thyolo Alethe. After also failing to find it at the Trout Farm, the bird still eluding us, we had to be happy with good views of Lanner Falcon hunting instead.
Day 26, 8th September. Zomba to Liwonde National Park
According to the owners at the lodge where we were staying they have recorded White-winged Apalis in the grounds. This is of course one of the star avian attractions of Zomba. We tried for it before breakfast, but to no avail, so we decided to head down to Zomba town to try for it in one of the gardens, where they breed annually.
Upon arriving at the garden we met the owner, who is a keen birder himself and a wealth of information. We joined him for a short walk and soon found Lemon Dove, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Tambourine Dove, Bertram’s Weaver, Black Sparrowhawk, and cracking views of Scaly-throated Honeyguide. Frustratingly, we found White-winged Apalis in the garden, but I ended up being the only one to see it, so we returned to the lodge for lunch with mixed feelings.
I was, however not giving up that easily, and we returned to the garden after lunch. Within minutes we had a pair of White-winged Apalis in view; this time everyone got onto it, to our great relief. Sadly, due to the apalis giving us the run-around, we ran out of time and had to abandon any plans to try for Thyolo Alethe again.
We proceeded to Liwonde National Park, after having a puncture fixed in town. We arrived at Liwonde’s gate with an inkling of rain in the air. Nevertheless, it was a rather pleasant afternoon, and the birds agreed. We had superb views of Dickinson’s Kestrel, and then we found a Black Sparrowhawk (a rather odd sighting for Liwonde), several Western Banded Snake Eagles, a fairly common bird here, and small flocks of Brown-headed Parrot. We saw a big herd of buffalo, several elephants, impala, greater kudu, bushbuck, and banded mongoose, the impala complete with Red-billed Oxpeckers. As we reached camp we got onto our first Böhm’s Bee-eater, breeding in a hole in the ground out in the open.
We met with our local guide, who showed us around and discussed plans for a night drive with us. So shortly after dinner we headed out and had a fairly good night drive with both lesser and thick-tailed bushbaby, large-spotted genet, and on the birding front Square-tailed Nightjar, lots of Water Thick-knee, and an African Barred Owlet.
Day 27, 9th September. Liwonde National Park
We had a full day in the park ahead of us and wasted no time getting out, making good use of the cooler morning hours, as it can get pretty hot in Liwonde. We arrived at our first stop, keeping a wary eye on the ever-present elephants. Well, actually our armed game ranger kept his eyes on the ellies while Samuel, our local guide, and we focused on the birds. We found our first target, Livingstone’s Flycatcher, with relative ease; it was quite hilarious how Samuel kept trying to point a Green Malkoha out to us, with everyone intent on watching the flycatcher instead. The malkoha is, of course, a top bird for Liwonde, while the Flycatcher is a relatively common resident. We later explained to a perplexed Samuel that at that point a lifer in the form of Livingstone’s Flycatcher took precedence over the malkoha, which we did see very well in the end. We had to change course a few times to avoid getting too close to the elephants, briefly seeing a Brown-necked Parrot in flight and then bumping into a couple of small flocks of Lilian’s Lovebird. Again we had good views of Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle and a short while later also African Hawk-Eagle, while Red-necked Spurfowl showed a few times. Both Sombre Greenbul and Terrestrial Brownbul showed well, with Collared Palm Thrush common around the palms near the river. We located an Eastern Nicator by call, which was followed by a White-bellied Sunbird. We returned to camp for a late but well-deserved breakfast, finding Village Indigobird in camp.
Our plan was to find Speckle-throated Woodpecker next, and we left soon after breakfast. The heat sure slowed things down a bit, and birding was pretty tough. We kept finding the likes of Golden-tailed and Bearded Woodpeckers, but the Speckle-throated kept eluding us. Then, suddenly, the cry went out as we spotted another woodpecker. This one looked promising, the right size, and flying up from low down, possibly from the ground. We watched were it landed, and as we got closer we noticed that it indeed was a male Speckle-throated Woodpecker, starting to excavate a nest hole. We watched him for quite a while and even had the female visit a couple of times. A happy group returned to camp for lunch, and with this, our last achievable target, in the bag, we decided to spend the afternoon on a cruise on the river for some general birding.
The afternoon cruise lived up to promise, with the most phenomenal views of several White-backed Night Herons, with a Black Crake sauntering past just in front of them. We managed to see all three Ibises, Glossy, Hadeda and African Sacred, and at one point we had a Whimbrel flying in formation with a small group of Glossy Ibis. Gull-billed Terns were relatively common, and we also had White-winged Tern among lots of Grey-headed Gulls. African Skimmer showed once, followed by a cracking Western Osprey. Other birds included Grey Heron, Little Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Saddle-billed Stork, Spur-winged Goose, and Common Ringed Plover.
Our night drive produced similar results to the previous night, with the added bonus of an African Wood-Owl.
Day 28, 10th September. Liwonde National Park to Lilongwe
The last day of an epic trip arrived all too soon. We did some early-morning birding in Liwonde and were rewarded with cracking sightings of Palm-nut Vulture, Greater Blue-eared Starling, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, and Lesser Masked Weaver. The Southern Brown-throated Weavers were still in non-breeding plumage, but we were happy to add them to our list nonetheless. Probably one of the better sightings of the day was a Red-capped Robin-Chat that sang its lungs out only meters from us.
We departed with a packed lunch and made our way back to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, where we stayed at a lovely lodge on the outskirts of the city. I said my farewells to the group that evening over dinner, as I was to travel back to South Africa by road and planned to leave very early the next morning.
This truly was a ground-breaking trip in many respects, with visits to places very few birders ever venture to. All participants ending with 50+ lifers (with over 600 species recorded for the trip), which was particularly significant in the case of Dollyann, who managed to break the magical 8000 mark by doing this trip; her 8000th species being Lilian’s Lovebird. A big shout-out must also go to Kay, who, at 88, is still actively birding and still super fit. We traveled a total of nearly 8000 km in Zambia and Malawi, on some rough roads in many places, but everyone managed to keep their spirits up, which helped in making this a very memorable trip indeed.
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.