ZIMBABWE REVISITED – BIRDING TOUR January 2012

The 2012 birding year got off to a scintillating start with 330 species notched up in quick succession during a nine day birding trip to Zimbabwe. For me it was also an opportunity to experience first-hand the current state of environmental well-being in a Southern African region I had travelled to several times before the collapse of the currency and the many logistical problems to do with overland travel that went along with it.

Victoria Falls

African Goshawk, Zimbabwe January 2012
 African Goshawk
 
White-browed Robin Chat Zimbabwe January 2012
 White-browed Robin Chat
 
Rufous-naped Lark, Zimbabwe January 2012
  Rufous-naped Lark
 
Dickinson's Kestrel, Zimbabwe January 2012
  Dickinson’s Kestrel
 
Kori Bustard, Zimbabwe January 2012
 Kori Bustard
 
Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Zimbabwe 2012
   Southern Carmine Bee-eater
 
Quail Finch female, Zimbabwe 2012
 Quail Finch female
 
Quail Finch, Zimbabwe 2012
 Quail Finch, male
 
African Scops Owlet, Zimbabwe 2012
  African Scops Owlet
 
Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Zimbabwe 2012Yellow-billed Oxpecker
 
Sable, Zimbabwe 2012
 Sable Antelope
 
Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Zimbabwe 2012
 Yellow-mantled Widowbird
 
Little Bee-eater, Zimbabwe 2012
 Little Bee-eater
 
Zimbabwe Granite Hill
 Zimbabwe Granite Hill
 
White Helmet-Shrike, Zimbabwe January 2012
 White Helmet-Shrike
 
Grey-backed Camaroptera, Zimbabwe January 2012
 Grey-backed Camaroptera
 
Chirinda Apalis, Zimbabwe January 2012
  Chirinda Apalis
 
Augur Buzzard, Zimbabwe January 2012
  Augur Buzzard
 
Lazy Cisticola, Zimbabwe January 2012
 Lazy Cisticola
 
Swynnerton's Robin, Zimbabwe January 2012
 Swynnerton’s Robin
 
Cabanis's Bunting, Zimbabwe January 2012
 Cabanis’s Bunting
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

For Kim Frost from Denmark, who was accompanied by his ever supportive non-birding wife, Sunneva, it was the opportunity to boost his ‘Southern Africa’ bird list to over 700 species, given the impressive number of highly localised species found within the varied habitat types unique to Zimbabwe.

And so we set off on our seventh birding trip together on a flight from Johannesburg to the town of Victoria Falls on the banks of the mighty Zambezi in the north-west corner of the country.

Here the broad Zambezi cascades over an ancient basalt dyke with a thunderous roar, accompanied by plumes of towering spray, as the now dissected river wends its way through a maze of cataracts and spillways, before re-uniting in a tidal race of conflicting currents and white water rapids coursing through the deep-cut gorges far below.

From afar the ‘smoke that thunders’, as the spray billowing above the falls was described locally well ahead of David Livingstone’s arrival, is conspicuously evident varying only in relation to the level of flow in response to seasonal fluctuations in the rainfall pattern along the river’s course from its far off source in Zambia.

Having visited this mystical source, in the form of a serene and diminutive wellspring in the heart of a tropical forest on the very edge of the Congo basin, during an exploratory birding trip to north west Zambia in 1998, I was struck by the contrast between the tranquillity of the crystal clear trickle of the emergent stream in relation to the awesome power and frenzied ferocity of the river as its foaming white waters surged purposefully eastwards through Mozambique to the Indian Ocean.

I was somewhat apprehensive about what I would find in the riverside town and surrounding national park following my last visit over a decade ago. This concern was a direct result of the publicized political and economic uncertainty regarding Zimbabwe’s future during the intervening years. To say I was pleasantly surprised with what I found  was an understatement – much of what I remember was unchanged, the birding was as good as ever, and the locals cheerful and enthusiastically accommodating as always no matter the request…

Zimbabwe’s fairly recent decision to convert to a US Dollar based currency system had made a significant difference and improved life dramatically for all in the country as dollars flowed back from Zimbabweans working outside of the country along with a steady uplift in dollar based tourist activity.

The surrounding countryside was well wooded and extremely lush following the recent spell of sustained cyclonic weather. Birds were evident everywhere as we headed towards the town centre some 20mins from the airport.

We checked into the Victoria Falls Hotel, affectionately still referred to locally as the ‘Grand Old Lady’ of the riverside town for the standard of accommodation, outstanding hospitality and friendly staff.

In all respects, we were not to be disappointed as our imaginations drifted back historically to a time of Victorian opulence, pomp and ceremony to do with the heydays of colonial expansion in Africa, and the classic traditions of an era now long passed, as we admired the fixtures and fittings within the recently refurbished hotel.

Throughout the hotel memorabilia of the British Empire remained as tangible reminders of a time long gone but service and room standards appeared to be little changed in contemporary terms to those stringently upheld in the past.

Our sumptuous buffet meal that evening under the stars at the ‘Jungle Junction’, relating back to the pre- World War 2 days of flying boats arriving with passengers for the night, was superb in every respect, complemented further by the standard of traditional entertainment and a pleasingly inexpensive and expansive wine list.

Yet it was the birds in the immediate vicinity of the hotel that took centre stage, with Little Sparrowhawk and African Goshawk in clear view in the gardens, Schalow’s Turaco’s squirreling their way through the fig trees on crimson wings and the persistent wailing of Trumpeter Hornbills in the gorge below, adding a tropical touch to the start of the scenically spectacular Falls walk.

Birds were everywhere and in close proximity. An African Crake crossed the path in front of us while raucous Natal Francolins and melodious White-browed Robin Chats competed for vocal attention within the thickets around us. Other memorable sightings along the trail included Village and Purple Indigobird, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Black-collared and Crested Barbet, Red-billed Wood-Hoopoe, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, White-browed and Senegal Coucal, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, Red-faced Cisticola, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Red-billed and Jameson’s Firefinch to mention a few…

After a traditional English breakfast we returned to the airport to connect with our charter flight to Hwange National Park for a three night stay at Little Makalolo – a compact and delightful bush camp run by ‘Wilderness Safaris’ in the heart of the exclusive concession area.

The 4X4 track along an ancient flood plain leading away from the landing strip to the bush camp was not without interest, with Rufous-naped Larks calling from the tops of termite hills, and Flappet Larks in audible display flight above us as we approached the fringing edge of the woodland. Other typically grassland species included Buffy and African Pipit as well as Desert Cisticola.

That afternoon, after a short siesta to avoid the heat of the day, we set off on the first of several game drives intended to give us the best possible mix of bird and mammal species within the limited time frame at our disposal. Prior to our arrival the south western sector of the country had experienced an extremely dry spell of cripplingly hot weather. All this had changed two weeks ahead of our arrival in keeping with Africa’s highly erratic oscillation between highs and lows within the weather pattern. A low pressure system associated with the Intra Tropical Convergence Zone had settled in for several days of non-stop rain resulting in the emergence of a verdant landscape of rolling grasslands, flooded roads and ephemeral pans in every direction.

The effect of this inundation was a complete transformation of the surrounding habitat from an arid and dusty wasteland to a vast floodplain, literally pulsating with life, following the overnight climatic transformation that precipitated alate (winged termite) irruptions in every direction.

This in turn had drawn hundreds, if not thousands, of termite-targeting birds to the floodplain to participate in the feeding frenzy in collective harmony. Across the size spectrum, from eagles to waxbills, they all converged with vigour on the emerging termites.

Never in my life have I been treated to a spectacle of such avian magnitude with over a thousand birds aloft at any one time with many more grounded or perched through sheer over indulgence. Others in mixed species groups hopped and padded about points of emergence snapping up termites before they could take to the wing.

Sightings included Black and Yellow-billed Kites in every direction and Amur Falcons too numerous to estimate, satiated  Steppe and Lesser Spotted Eagles in abundance with visually  distended crops along with ‘grounded’ Tawny Eagles and Hooded and White-headed Vultures here and there. Steppe Buzzards circled above and Dickinson’s Kestrels monitored the unfolding situation from exposed perches, while Marabou and Abdim’s Storks spiralled in ‘kettles’ above us.

Elsewhere, White and Wooly-necked Storks paraded about the open grassland in the company of Secretarybirds, Grey Crowned Cranes and Kori Bustards, in significant numbers to the extent they reduced their visual worth, along with family groups of Southern Ground Hornbills striding leisurely along the fringing woodland.

Still the show went on with Bateleurs, across the age-class spectrum, sweeping magnificently by at regular intervals along with a single spectacular sighting of a low flying adult Martial Eagle shearing its way through the aerial collective of raptors and storks.

Lilac-breasted, European and Purple Rollers along with Carmine and European Bee-eaters, Magpie and White-crowned Shrikes took full advantage of the termite bonanza, hawking from the crowns of dead lead-wood trees dotted about the floodplain, along with mixed groups of African Grey, Bradfield’s and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills.

At the lower end of the size scale it was the unexpected view of a pair of African Quail Finch competing aggressively with inch long Matabele ants for downed alates in the wheel ruts of the 4X4 track that captivated my attention. This was the first time ever I have enjoyed really close-up views of these extremely attractive little birds, normally encountered on the wing as they ‘explode’ with a sing note from under ones feet for a distant flight into obscurity…

At dusk a single European Hobby circled above the palm trees and a male Pennant-winged Nightjar, complete with primary pennants, appeared unexpectedly in ethereal display during sun-downer time above one of the larger hippo carrying pans on the floodplain.

This close of play crepuscular treat was followed by excellent sightings of Bat-eared Fox and an extremely obliging Leopard grooming itself at leisure just off the track on the way back to camp.

On the nocturnal front Square-tailed Nightjar were found to be relatively common on the floodplain, while Fiery-necked Nightjar in number occurred in the woodland along with Verreaux’s  Eagle Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet and African Scops Owl.

Other highlights in Hwange included repetitive views of African Golden Oriole and African Cuckoo throughout the mixed woodland, Coqui Francolin, Arnot’s Chat, White-crested and Retz’s Helmet-Shrike, Southern Black Tit, Yellow Throated Petronia, Yellow-fronted Canary, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Wood Pipit, Bronze and Three-banded Courser as unexpected daytime sightings, White-breasted Cuckoo Shrike, Arrow-marked Babbler,  Red and Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Lizard Buzzard, Meyer’s Parrot, White-browed Sparrow Weaver, Groundscraper Thrush, Pale Flycatcher, Blue Waxbill and Whiskered Tern circling above the smaller pans in full breeding plumage. Red-crested Korhaan were in comical display mode as they somersaulted about and, on the shorebird and general waterbird front, African Wattled Lapwing, Painted Snipe, Little Stint, Ruff, Wood Sandpiper, Greenshank, White-faced Whistling Duck, Red-billed and Hottentot Teal, Comb Duck and Southern Pochard were relatively common.

Additional mammal sightings included African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Wild Dog, Black-backed Jackal, Chacma Baboon, Eland, Burchell’s Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Giraffe, Impala, Banded Mongoose and unquestionably Africa’s most regal antelope, the Sable Antelope.

Our departure charter flight connected with the scheduled Air Zimbabwe flight from Vic Falls to Harare where we were met by David Gray for the next stage in our safari.

After checking into a comfortable guesthouse, situated within easy walking distance to a number of good restaurants, we set off for the first of a number of recently inundated marshlands in the company of Alex Masterson, unquestionably the foremost authority on crakes and rails in Zimbabwe.

The next stage involved a spell of ‘bog-trotting’, to take stock of whatever the recent rains had brought to the area in the way of migrant marsh and wetland bird species, along with a number of highly localised ‘specials’ such as Black Coucal, Yellow-mantled Widowbird and Rosy-throated Longclaw.

We were not to be disappointed, and soon after starting in we picked up on a Western Marsh Harrier quartering across the marsh and a single Saddle-billed Stork at the water’s edge.

Next up was an obliging Cuckoo Finch followed by a Yellow-throated Longclaw, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Red-chested Flufftail, Purple and Black-crowned Night Heron, Variable Sunbird, Little Bee-eater, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Groundscraper Thrush, Croaking and Le Vaillant’s Cisticola for the late afternoon walk.

The next day saw an early start deliver up good views of African Crake, Black Coucal, Little Bittern, Broad-tailed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Marsh Owl, Scarlet-chested and Amethyst Sunbird, Little Bee-eater before switching marshlands to another site.

This change to a more rank environment produced African Rail, Streaky-breasted Flufftail, Orange-breasted Waxbill, African Stone Chat, Red-faced Cisticola, Little Rush Warbler, White-winged Widowbird, African Reed Warbler, Common Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Red-collared Widowbird, Rosy-throated Longclaw, Greater Striped and Red-breasted Swallow.

A late afternoon drive to the granite studded hills around Christian Bank produced sightings of Boulder Chat, White-breasted Cuckooshrike and good views of the prinia-like Lazy Cisticola.

An unexpected fly-over was an Osprey with a fish firmly grasped in its talons.

The following day we teamed up with David Dalziel to bird a patch of pristine ‘miombo’  Brachytegia woodland, a habitat type characteristic of Zimbabwe around Harare itself.

This outing to the Mukuvusi Woodlands produced the following sightings in quick succession once an active bird party had been successfully  located, starting with African Black Duck and African Cuckoo-Hawk on arrival, Spectacled Weaver, Brown and great views of  Green-backed Honeybird, as well as Lesser and Greater Honeyguide, Whyte’s Barbet, Miombo Grey Tit, Spotted Creeper, Southern Hyliota, Black Cuckooshrike, Green-capped Eremomela, Cardinal Woodpecker, Miombo Double-collared Sunbird, Southern Black Flycatcher, Southern Masked Weaver, Collared and Amethyst Sunbird, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Willow Warbler, Chin-spot Batis and African Yellow White-eye.

From here a short mid-morning stop at Gosho Park near Marondera produced excellent views of an extremely accommodating Racquet-tailed Roller and a Black-eared Seedeater before heading eastwards to the scenically spectacular Vumba Mountains above Mutare for a three night stay.

‘Seldomseen’, a collective of self-catering cottages adjacent to the Vumba Botanical Gardens, is the place to stay for any birder keen to ‘round-up’ the ‘specials’ unique to this area of relatively untouched  montane forest. Most species are tricky to locate but fortunately the services of Peter Mwadziwana and Buluwezi Murambiwa, two of the best bird guides I have ever had the pleasure of birding with, are on hand to assist those booked in to ‘Seldomseen’.

 Meandering at leisure with Peter through the warren ways of many paths that criss-cross this area of pristine forest is a delight in itself. Having birded the area intensively since the late ‘70’s, when Peter was ‘ringing’ assistant to the late Alec Manson, who lived at ‘Seldomseen’ and added considerably to the Zimbabwe ornithological record, there is little Peter doesn’t know about the many localised birds and their habits in the Vumba forests.

My first walk with Peter was in the early 80’s and certainly he hasn’t lost his touch as he showed us round his ‘patch’.

Sightings included White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Red-faced  Crimsonwing, Livingstone’s Turaco, White-eared Barbet,  Barratt’s Warbler, Tree Pipit, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Orange Ground-Thrush, Olive Sunbird, Red-capped Robin Chat, Swynnerton’s Robin, African Emerald Cuckoo, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Lemon Dove, Tambourine Dove, Cape Robin Chat, Kurrichane and Olive Thrush, White-browed Robin Chat, Starred Robin, Chirinda Apalis, Bar-throated and Yellow-breasted  Apalis, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler,  Robert’s Warbler, Singing Cisticola, Wailing Cisticola, Yellow-streaked and Stripe-cheeked Bulbul, Eastern Saw-wing, Buff-spotted Flufftail, Olive Bush Shrike, Golden and Thick-billed Weaver, Collared and Bronzy Sunbird. Mammals encountered included Samango Monkey and Sun Squirrel in the forest canopy while Long-crested Eagle, White-necked Raven and Augur Buzzard soared overhead at regular intervals.

Lower down the slopes, in the vicinity of Mutare and up towards Cecil’s Kop, we recorded an impressive bird list in miombo woodland and patches of mixed cultivation in the town with Buluwezi as our guide.

Sightings were many and included the following highlights: Cabanis’s Bunting, Red-faced Crombec, Grey Penduline Tit, Cinnamon-breasted Tit, Collared Flycatcher, Striped Pipit, Spotted Treecreeper, Black-backed Puffback, African Firefinch, Chinspot Batis, African Yellow White-eye, Brubru, Black-headed Oriole, Red-backed Mannikin, Black-winged and Yellow Bishop, Garden Warbler, Red-faced and Lazy Cisticola, Orange-winged Pytilia, Black-crowned Tchagra, Stierling’s Wren Warbler, African Paradise Flycatcher, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Common Scimitarbill, Striped Kingfisher and Mottled Swift circling above Cecil Kop.

Staying at ‘Seldomseen’ in one of the well-appointed  self-catering cottages, bearing in mind a number of excellent restaurants and a great tea garden exist close by for those less inclined to cook for themselves, and birding with either Peter or Buluwezi  ranks in my book as one of the ‘Top 10’ birding experiences in Southern Africa.

As can be seen from the species  list, compared to the latest field guide maps, many of the birds mentioned are found only in this very special high altitude area, making it a ‘must do’ for any dedicated ‘lister’.

All in all a highly rewarding nine day trip to Zimbabwe in terms of the varied and at times spectacular scenery, mammal and of course great birding in particular. All this with very few logistical hassles along the way, and great support from local guides throughout as well as overnight establishments chosen for this tailored route along roads less travelled that pushed Kim’s ‘Southern African’ total up to an impressive 706!

In Kim’s words:

‘This trip to Zimbabwe was our seventh birding tour with Patrick as enthusiastic ‘cicerone’ was the best ever. With 44 out of 48 possible new birds an immense logistic achievement!

Looking forward to next years tailored birding trip with Avian Leisure!’

Our conclusion: Zimbabwe in spite of its current political and economic difficulties comes highly recommended as a birding destination well worth visiting…

For more info on birding in Zimbabwe please contact me direct on patrick@avianleisure.com.

PJC/Avian Leisure/ 16/01/12.

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to ZIMBABWE REVISITED – BIRDING TOUR January 2012

  1. Brilliant photography, especially the one of the African Scops Owlet – amazing how you ever see one when you look at how camouflaged they are.

  2. rudy erasmus says:

    Patrick , great birding , and good suggestions ,very good pic’s, Regards R

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