BIRDING OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IN CENTRAL MOZAMBIQUE

For me finally leaving the bustling international border post with its plethora of pedantic paperwork and other time consuming control requirements marks the definitive start to an exciting birding holiday exploring the relatively uninhibited hinterland of central Mozambique along roads less traveled …

Strategically situated close to the meandering Crocodile river, which scythes its way lethargically through the boulder strewn and euphorbia dotted Lebombo mountains at the southern end of the Kruger National Park, this outpost of a Colonial era long ago has seen travelers come and go in their quest for a new life as mining opportunity opened up the promise of good fortune in the 19th Century.

Mahindra in Water Feature!
Olive-headed Weaver
African Broadbill
Chestnut-fronted Helmet Shrike
Racket-tailed Roller
Saddle-billed Stork
ancient baobab trees
Mount Gorongosa
Scenery
Scenery

While this sense of economic opportunity can no longer be said to strictly apply to the modern day traveler, there is nevertheless for me an air of eager anticipation that envelops my senses as I gaze in awe and wonder across a largely uninhabited landscape dotted about with baobab trees and a myriad of lily covered pans, surrounded by yellow fever trees, so characteristic of the coastal plain of Mozambique.

As such this unique African setting holds the potential for me of a host of new bird and mammal sightings of a localized and, in some instances, extremely isolated nature in the central interior. Most are likely to be found along roads less traveled in the remote lowland forests of this vast and relatively uninhabited land that extends for over 2500kms from South Africa to the Tanzanian border.

It is GPS country where ‘Tracks for Africa’ count for more than conventional road maps in a world devoid of signage once what little in the way of the tarred arterial EN1 is left far behind as one journeys north east. Here in the heartland one discovers the wonders of 4X4 capability as the varying state of the network of logging tracks and capillary like roads within the mix of rural towns and villages test the spectrum of vehicle and driver capability. Sandy tracks, gouged out drainage lines, rustic bridges and saturated wetlands are all part of the recurring medley of off road experiences that scroll past as each day of adventure unfolds.

Yet it is the diversity of habitats themselves and the vast vistas that open up and stretch out across the pan studded flood plain with not a soul in sight that hold me in awe under pollution free African skies.

All around bird song emanates from the depths of pristine stands of miombo woodland as bird parties forage in active harmony through the connecting canopy of autumn shades and dappled sunlit glades flanked by wisps of ‘old mans beard’ trailing enchantingly from the larger trees within this fascinating biome of deciduous broad-leaf woodland.
This unique habitat is also home to the much sought after and geographically restricted Olive-headed Weaver that has been high on my ‘target’ list of desirable sightings. In this regard I was not to come away disappointed with several sumptuous views enjoyed in near perfect viewing conditions!

Yet it is the lowland forests and stands of Lebombo ironwood that for me hold the greatest birding appeal in terms of quality sightings. For here in the dark recesses of tangled roots, sunlight and shadow that search in earnest for memorable views of East Coast Akalat, African Pitta, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, African Broadbill, Red-throated Twinspot and White-breasted Alethe commences in earnest.

These highly localized species form the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the under storey while higher up the overhead canopy supports such birding delights as the charismatic Black and White Flycatcher, Chestnut-fronted Helmet Shrike, Black-headed Apalis, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Pale Batis, Red-faced Crombec, Plain-backed and Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Livingstone’s Flycatcher, Southern Hyliota, Speckle-throated and Green-backed Woodpecker, Green Malkoha, Broad-tailed Whydah and the stunning Racket-tailed Roller to mention but a few of the more regular resident species …

Add to this the not unheard of possibility of a clear sighting of Southern Banded Snake Eagle, Dark Chanting Goshawk, African Cuckoo Hawk, Thick-billed Cuckoo, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Dickinson’s Kestrel or chance of an Ayres Hawk Eagle or even Mascarine Martin and Eastern Saw-wing circling overhead and you have a clearer picture of what is potentially available to the avid birder such as myself.

Yet it is not all about the climax forests and sprawling miombo woodland that make up the tapestry of scenic delights. Ephemeral and permanent lily covered pans of varying size and composition surrounded by tall palms and leadwood trees support African Pygmy-Goose, African and Lesser Jacana, Rufous-bellied Heron , White-backed Duck and the possibility in the winter months of ‘ticking’ off Malagasy Pond Heron hold perennial appeal for me as a wetland enthusiast.

Areas of flooded grassland are good too for Saddle-billed Stork, African Openbill, Great and Yellow-billed Egret along with Squacco Heron and a ‘lucky’ Eurasian Bittern sighting – a cryptically plumaged bird more often heard ‘booming’ but seldom seen unless on the wing as it switches location within a sprawling marsh.

Lush grassland in the surrounding floodplain of the larger rivers is good for Short-tailed Pipit in winter along with other desirable specials such Black-bellied Bustard, Black-rumped Button Quail, Locust and Quail Finch and in summer so much more as migrants in the form of Blue Quail, Pallid and Montague’s Harrier flow into the system.

Equally impressive are the isolated stands of ancient baobab trees, some of which are in excess of 2000 years of age, that support the enigmatic Bohm’s Spinetail, Lizard Buzzard and Grey-headed Parrot amongst a host of other species roosting and nesting within the crown of root like branches. This inverted appearance certainly supports the Bushman view that God in a fit of rage tore up the original belligerent baobab and plunged it head first into the ground so that forever afterwards its roots would reach up to the skies in an act of total submission!

Yet for me it is Mount Gorongosa rising out of the coastal plain to over 1800m that exudes an allure that has attracted birders with a strong sense of enthusiastic determination and exploratory commitment to its forested flanks. All like me are in search of one striking bird in particular that has been isolated by geological time from populations to the north in Malawi and Tanzania. Here we are talking about the Green-headed Oriole – an absolute ‘cracker’ of a bird found only on this mountain and no where else in Southern Africa.

Add to the thrill of the sighting such delights as Anchieta’s Tchagra and the striking Variable Sunbird on the long trek across the lower slopes of sprawling grassland and glimpses of Swynnerton’s Robin foraging in the leaf litter in deep shade, along with the White-tailed Crested Flycatcher flitting through the canopy in a state of continual agitation and you have some idea of what to expect and why I keep returning to this enchanted land …

Mozambique is not only about birding but indeed a country rich in scenic contrast and delightful in habitat composition as one mentally blends the coastal tranquility of a inbound dhow under lateen sail in soft evening light with the full grandeur of a spectacular African sunset over the Gorongosa floodplain with the mountain itself set sentinel like in silhouette in the distance.

All in all Mozambique adds up to a truly unforgettable holistic experience of many parts to be retained and never forgotten…

Such are the delights of Mozambique and the guide best placed to lead the way has got to be Etienne Marais of Indicator Birding who has conducted regular 4X4 trips in both summer and winter to sites of particular birding interest throughout Central Mozambique.

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