Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tanzania – the heart of East Africa (Part 3)

Extending from the Taita Hills of Kenya south to the Udzungwa Mountains of southern Tanzania lies the endemic-rich Eastern Arc Mountains. Nicknamed the Galapagos of Africa, several of the ranges such as the Udzungwa, Uluguru and Usambara Mountains hold scores of endemics and some of the best birding in East Africa. Due to the lack of glaciations and relatively steady climate, the flora and fauna of these tropical forests had plenty of time to evolve becoming a very unique ecosystem.

After having to pass up the Udzungwa and Uluguru Mountains, I was eager to spend four days birding the East Usambara Mountains. Upon arriving back to the mainland, I met up with the owners of Emau Hill Forest Camp who offered to give me a lift to camp – a three hour journey up a terrible mountain road. Emau Hill offers a great base point for exploring Amani Nature Reserve and the rest of the Usamabaras.

Emau Hill Forest Camp
 The first three days were spent birding around camp and nearby trails; you don’t have to go very far to find great birds. On my first morning I woke to the loud calls of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills and Fischer’s Turacos – no need for an alarm clock! Leaving my tent I explored around the garden adding countless birds to my trip list – Olive and Uluguru Violet-backed Sunbirds, Montane White-eye, Southern Citril, Red-backed Manikin, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Black-throated Wattle-eye and several species of Greenbuls mostly restricted to the Eastern Arcs.  This place was phenomenal! 

East Usambaras near Emau
 Day by day I was adding endless trip birds – Mountain and Gray Wagtails, Evergreen Forest-Warbler, Kenrick’s and Waller’s Starlings, Cabanis’s Bunting, Baglafecht Weaver, White-browed Barbet, Long-crested Eagle – my list was getting an enormous boost. The ultimate highlight though was an Usambara Eagle-Owl - one of the most difficult endemics – that I had early on the second morning calling from the opposite side of the valley.

Following a successful three days around camp I hitched a ride back down the mountain with one of the tour groups that were present during my stay. Obviously you don’t stop birding once you enter a vehicle so on our way down we were adding several more good birds including Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Mombasa Woodpecker, Red-tailed Rufous-Thrush, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Black-and-white Flycatcher, Little Yellow Flycatcher and the highlight of the day – Usambara Hyliota! This little known, minute, endemic is mainly recorded from the foothills of the East Usambaras. It is listed on the endangered list as its entire population is roughly 1,000 – 2,500 individuals, according to Birdlife International, and its habitat is disappearing at a rapid pace.  

It was hard to leave what I would consider my favorite region of Africa yet, but there was still more birding to be done. After returning to civilization, I took a bus 8-9 hours to Arusha and settled down at a backpackers for the night.

About an hour north of town lie the Angyata Osugat Plains, east of the village Engikaret in the rain shadows of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru. These Massai lands are well-known for one of the rarest birds on the African continent – the Beesley’s Lark. A recent split from the more common Spike-heeled Lark, these birds number no more than 100 individuals. After a much needed goodnights rest, I headed north in search of these rarities. With tips from local birding legend, James Wolstencroft, I was able to find two Beesley’s after about three hours of searching! I can’t even explain the rush that went through me as I watched one of the rarest birds in Africa with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance. Other birds of note include Montague’s Harrier, Kori Bustard, Temminck’s Courser, Athi Short-toed Lark and Fischer’s Sparrowlark.

Angyata Osugat Plains
Beesley's Lark
 Although nothing could come close to topping the Beesley’s, I continued birding the final hour of daylight in the nearby Acacia-commiphera woodlands. Being a new area I haven’t birded, I was able to pick up quite a few new birds including White-bellied Go-Away Bird, Von Der Decken’s Hornbill, Red-tailed Shrike, Superb and Hildebrandt’s Starlings, Beautiful Sunbird, Kenya Rufous Sparrow and White-bellied Canary. Before I knew it, it was dark and I headed back to Arusha.

Drive back to Arusha
Mt. Kilimanjaro
Unfortunately, this ended my last day of birding in Tanzania as it was time for me to start heading back south - I needed to be in Cape Town by December 10th (20 days away) and I still needed to travel through Malawi, Mozambique and across South Africa.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tanzania - the heart of East Africa (Part 2)

Off the coast of Tanzania lies Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous archipelago consisting of two main islands and numerous smaller islets. The larger and more populated Unguja Island, informally known as Zanzibar, is a popular tourist destination offering white sandy beaches, shop browsing in Stone Town, and some of the best scuba diving off the coast of Africa. The smaller, less frequently visited Pemba Island to the north is less developed and more appealing to naturalists. If this wasn’t a bird/nature orientated blog, I would go on forever talking about the fascinating, rich Muslim culture of the islands but for the meantime, I will try to keep it bird related.

Stone Town
 From Dar es Salaam, I hopped on a ferry to Stone Town, the largest city in the archipelago where I spent three nights exploring the historical town and the rest of Unguja Island. Although bird-wise it’s not that exceptional, there are two endemic mammals – the endangered Zanzibar Red Colobus (Monkey) numbering around 1,000-1,500 individuals and the presumably extinct Zanzibar Leopard. The local belief that the leopards were kept by witches to wreck havoc on the villagers combined with habitat encroachment caused their decline. Unguja is also home to an endemic subspecies of the Servaline Genet.

Paja Beach
 Besides observing a few shorebirds on the beaches, the only real birding I did on the island was an hour at Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, particularly to see the Zanzibar Red Colobus, being at their stronghold in this 19 sq mile park. It took no effort to find them as they were hanging along the main road and around the parking lot. Birding was considerable slow but Black-bellied Starling, East Coast Boubou and Dark-backed Weaver made a showing.

Jozani Forest
Zanzibar Red Colobus
 On the fourth day I hopped on another ferry to Pemba, an island off the tourist route, which still holds on to its very traditional Muslim heritage. During my four night stay, I only saw 3-4 other ‘westerners’. Based out of Wete, the largest town on the island, my goal was to see all four endemics: Pemba Scops-owl, Pemba Green-Pigeon, Pemba White-eye and Pemba Sunbird as well as the incredibly massive Pemba Flying Fox – a species of bat that went nearly went extinct but now numbers around 20,000. To see what they look like, check out (

Upon arriving to Wete in the evening, I watched as thousands of the crow-sized Pemba Flying Foxes were leaving their roost to forage for fruit and later that night heard my first of the endemics – a Pemba Scops-owl. The following two days I easily picked up the more common of the endemics, the sunbird and white-eye just around town leaving the Pigeon – the most difficult of the four. North of Wete is the Ngezi Forest Reserve – one of the most reliable areas to find them. Due to the lack of a vehicle and dalla dallas (local transportation) I decided to chat to the locals instead as they usually know more about the local birdlife than anyone else. Shortly later I was watching three Pemba Green-Pigeons, or ninga as the locals call them, in a known roost tree. No need heading all the way to Ngezi when you have help from the locals! Other interesting birds I had on the island include Brown-headed Parrot, Mangrove Kingfisher, Broad-billed Roller and Palm-nut Vulture.

Mangroves on Pemba
 Before I knew it, I was on a flight back to the mainland ending my week on the Zanzibar archipelago. It was time to head to the endemic-rich East Usambara Mountains and Mt. Kilimanjaro! (End of part 2)

(Note: sorry for the lack of bird photos, after nearly 3 months, my photo taking became lazy)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tanzania – the heart of East Africa (Part 1)

Home to some of the oldest human fossils on earth, the vast Serengeti where the great wildebeest migration occurs, Mt. Kilimanjaro – Africa’s tallest mountain, Zanzibar and it’s incredible beaches, and some of the most fascinating cultures, Tanzania should be on the top of everyone lists of places to visit.

Mt. Kilimanjaro
This geographically diverse country has everything from montane forests, tropical coast, deserts, savannah grasslands, scrub and the largest freshwater lake in the world – it’s no wonder the bird list surpasses 1,000 species! Not only that, the endemic-rich Eastern Arc Mountains and the coastal forests are part of two major Biodiversity Hotspots in eastern Africa.

The idea of going to Tanzania was on the spur of the moment. My three month travel visa for Namibia was about to expire and I was planning my route back to Cape Town via Botswana. I really did not want my trip to come to an end so after getting word of a train that takes you from central Zambia all the way to the coast of East Africa; I was on that train within a couple days! You must understand, I had no knowledge on Tanzania, the birds, the culture, nothing - I was headed to foreign lands. I did some quick research on the internet creating a basic itinerary and picked up the Birds of Africa south of the Sahara (which includes East Africa) in Lusaka before boarding the train.

Waiting for the train at Kapiri Mposhi
There’s no doubt, the train ride was one of the top highlights of my four month trip. If you want to experience Africa off the tourist route and into the heart of the countryside – take the Tazara. Connecting Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the railway was originally built by the Chinese in the 1970’s to encourage trade. Little maintenance has occurred in the past four decades leaving the train far from Western standards but it was still an enjoyable trip. November 4th at 6pm I set off on the train with two fellow travelers I just met – a South Korean and a Zambian. We passed time by chatting, playing guitar, looking out the window and birding. The train stops every couple hours at rural train stations, which allowed us to interact with the locals, buy goods and practice our limited Swahili with the children.

Bananas for sale
Village kids having fun
Meals were surprisingly good, believe it or not, which is probably due to that fact that everything we were eating was just bought a few minutes before from the villagers and cooked by the chefs on board. It was interesting watching the live chickens be carried onboard and shortly later, a plate of chicken, nshima (ground maize flour), soup and vegetables served for only $3. About a day later we arrived at the Tanzania border where the customs agents boarded as well as money changers. 

The second full day we traveled through Tanzania passing the Eastern Arc Mountains including the Udzungwa Mountain Range (home to over 600 endemic plants, 5 endemic primates and several endemic birds including the unique Udzungwa Forest Partridge) and the Uluguru Mountain Range (also home to numerous endemics including the Uluguru Bush-shrike which was only just rediscovered in 2007). Unfortunately for me, I only had a total of two weeks to spend in Tanzania before I had to start heading back south so I had to skip these incredible mountains for now. I’m already planning a return trip to be able to explore these areas along with the nearby Kilombero Swamp, which holds a few endemics itself. 

Udzungwa Mountains
Fifty-five hours later after we left, the train arrived at the Dar es Salaam train station at 1am. Due to the high crime in the area, the security guards locked all ‘hundreds’ of people in the station where we all shared the hard floor for the night. (End of part 1)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Namibia Wrap-up

          It’s been another lengthy gap since my last update two months ago and a lot has transpired. Backpacking in Africa without a laptop, regular internet, and time makes it incredibly difficult to maintain a blog. It’s safe to say that from today on forward, I won’t be able to use that excuse anymore as I have returned to Cape Town with regular internet and will be back to the states in three weeks.

African Jacana

 Starting where I left off on October 12th, I remained in the Caprivi through the end of the month filling in those gaps on my Namibia list with help from returning summer migrants. Various highlights in those remaining weeks include Hooded Vulture, Lizard Buzzard, Long-toed Lapwing, six species of cuckoos, Rosy-throated Longclaw, and two Northern Grey-headed Sparrows at their most southern limit. Finally having time to tally up my Namibia list – I can now say that I’ve finished at 362 species (10 out of 14 endemics/near-endemics) putting me in first place on eBird for Namibia. Quite impressive for relying on hitchhiking and public transportation only! With a car, I probably could have surpassed 400 with some effort. Other highlights include the dozens of mammals such as Lions, Black Rhinos, Sitatungas, Hippos, various buck species and my favorite – Leopard.

Avis Dam - Windhoek
 While staying in Katima Mulilo preparing to head back to South Africa via Botswana, I caught word of a local train that connects Zambia to Dar es Salaam on the coast of Tanzania. Within a couple days I was eastward bound - my trip just took a new direction…

Dunes near Walvis Bay

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Namibia Update (Shamvura, Caprivi, Big Sit results)

A lot has occurred since my last update two weeks ago. After completing my volunteering stint at Shamvura Camp I travelled a few hours east into the heart of the Caprivi region of Namibia. For the next couple weeks I will be volunteering for the IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) training local birding guides, producing area checklists and translating local bird names into English among other activities. Currently I’m staying deep in the bush at the Sijwa Training Centre – a rustic field camp shared among other field workers with the IRDNC, WWF etc. As with a lot of my previous blog write-ups, I’m going to backtrack through the past couple weeks.

The final week at Shamvura was quite exciting with a couple more boat trips down the Okavango River and various birding jaunts in the surrounding broad-leaved woodlands. Although nothing out of ordinary was recorded, almost daily I was adding another country tick

African Openbills - Okavango River

African Skimmer - Okavango River

Southern Carmine Bee-Eater colony
Hippos - Okavango River
Leaving Shamvura Camp last Thursday, I travelled 300km east to the village, Kongola, where I was transported south to the Sijwa Training Centre along the Kwando River. This rustic, but developed camp is quite exceptional with electricity, internet, kitchen and a viewing platform over the Kwando River. For those familiar with the novel, The Beach, there’s quite a lot of resemblances with life here at camp.

Birding has been excellent as one would expect with several more country ticks including African Paradise-Flycatcher, Swamp Nightjar and summer arrivals such as Common House-Martin, Barn Swallow, Spotted Flycatcher and Willow Warbler. Last Sunday was the annual Bird Watcher’s Digest Big Sit and I registered a team calling us the Sijwa Sitting Cisticolas. Despite lacking an important habitat (Acacia scrub) and a scope, the final tally of 80 species isn’t too bad. Several mammals were also recorded including Hippo, Red Lechwe and African Clawless Otter.

View of Sijwa from Big Sit platform

View of the Kwando River from Big Sit platform
Now that I’m caught up with my blog, hopefully my posts will be published in real-time so keep checking back for updates.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shamvura update

The past couple days have yielded a dozen or so new birds for my Namibia list. Tropical Birding guides Charles Hesse and Jerry Connolly brought a tour through the past two nights and I tagged along while they birded the area. I knew it was going to be an excellent couple days when I stumbled upon my first Thick-billed Weaver on my way to greet everyone – a common resident to the region but one that has eluded me.

Tropical Birding group
The following morning we headed off to explore the surrounding forests near Shamvura. Our first stop was the nearby quarantine station where cattle are held for a period of time to prevent the threat of foot and mouth disease. A couple small feeding flocks were present but nothing of interest and the area was fairly quiet. However, upon returning to the van, we discovered at least 20 Sharp-tailed Starlings drinking from a leaking pipe – a highly sought after specialty and a lifer for the whole group. Also present was a pair of Southern Black Flycatchers, a species I’m amazed I haven’t run into yet.  As the starlings moved on, we worked our way east along the B8 birding a couple locations where the habitat was still rather intact. Despite the increasing heat, we wondered around the broad-leaved forests in search of more feeding flocks. We found a few including one consisting of a half-dozen Green-capped Eremomelas – an uncommon and localized target bird. Other birds of interest include Purple Roller, Black-crowned Tchagra and a Dark Chanting Goshawk on our drive back to Shamvura. Around the garden I finally found a Purple-banded Sunbird in a good sized feeding flock – another bird that has eluded me this trip.

Observing a feeding flock
Dark Chanting Goshawk
Following lunch and an afternoon swim, the group reassembled and loaded a boat for a 3 hour trip down the Okavango River. As we drifted downstream, we counted numerous species of herons, egrets, bitterns among other waterbirds as well as Fan-tailed Widowbirds patrolling the floodplains. Plenty of great birds were recorded including Comb Ducks, African Skimmers, Collared and Rock Pratincoles as well as trip birds for me such as Wood Sandpiper, Gray-rumped Swallow and an unexpected White-winged Tern flying around the oxbow lake

From here on forward, it’s all target birding for me. My trip list has reached 320 and I hope to achieve 350 before returning to Cape Town. I’m very doubtful but if I remain up here into summer (southern hemisphere), I should be able to pick up quite a few birds including cuckoos and old world warblers.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Namibia Days 12-16 (Ovamboland, Ruacana Falls)

It’s been a month since my last update and during that time I have traveled all along the Kunene, Okavango and Zambezi Rivers in four countries. After reaching my final destination, the incredible Victoria Falls, I have since then backtracked to Shamvura Camp where I’m currently volunteering. Located roughly 110km east of Rundu, Shamvura Camp is well known among birders and has a list exceeding 430 species. In the next couple weeks I’m going to make an effort to finish writing up my trip reports as well as send out updates from Shamvura Camp. I also want to apologize for the lack of bird photos – I’ve been lazy at taking photos in general and have been spending most of my time just observing. Now that I have settled down for a bit, I’ll make a greater effort to do some bird photography. Starting where I left off…

Day 12 (August 25, 2011)
Leaving the vast Namib Desert behind, I took a combi (informal minibus taxi) to Tsumeb the “gateway to the north”. This small mining town of roughly 45,000 residents is world-renown for its productive mineralogical sites where nearly 40 minerals were first discovered. I have little knowledge on minerals but from what I have read, this area is quite exceptional. Tsumeb is also notorious for being the site of the biggest meteorite in the world, known as Hoba, which weights roughly 60-tons! Being a travel day however, I didn’t have enough time for any birding so I met up with my Couch Surfing hosts for the night, a group of Peace Corp volunteers - Quinn (Texas), Gretchen (Oregon) and Rob (Florida).

Day 13 (August 26, 2011)
Starting early in the morning Rob and I hitched out of town heading northwest towards Ondongwa – the heart of Owamboland - far from your typical tourist routes. This region is home to over half the population of Namibia on just 6% of the land and as you can imagine, the environmental degradation proves it. Upon arriving in Ondongwa, Rob headed north and I continued towards Outapi where I stayed with my next host, Ben, a Swiss-German working in the IT industry along with two visiting Algerian friends of his. Today was another travel day but involved some spot-lighting of the resident African Scops-Owls.

Baobab tree in Outapi (prior post office and chapel inside!)

Day 14 (August 27, 2011)
Luckily Ben and his Algerian friends were heading to Ruacana Falls this morning, my next destination. Before getting dropped off at the Hippo Pools Camp where I was going to camp for the next two nights, we stopped by Ruacana Falls to find they were entirely dry! The water flow depends upon whenever Angola decides to release water and our timing was bad. Nonetheless, the area was still incredible and I ticked off a couple more trip birds including Black-checked Snake-Eagle and Rufous-tailed Palm-Thrush – the latter just hardly creeping into Namibia from Angola. After setting up camp, I did some birding along the Kunene River and the surrounding creeks which host the sought-after Cinderella Waxbill, a difficult bird restricted to the area. No waxbill this evening but the birding was phenomenal giving my trip list quite a boost. Some of the additions include Meve’s Starling, Montiero’s Hornbill, Goliath Heron, African Green-Pigeon and an unexpected Rüppel’s Parrot, an endemic to Namibia and Angola. I went to sleep that evening to the deep grunt of Hippos and calling African Scops-Owl and Pearl-spotted Owlets.

View of Ruacana Falls from below
Angola Border Post
Day 15 (August 28, 2011)
Another exciting day packed with scores of trip birds. I started along the river where Red-headed and Chestnut Weavers made an appearance along with a vocal group of Hartlaub’s Babblers before moving inland to a series of creek beds that drain into the Kunene. As I mentioned before, this is one of very few sites in the world where you can find the Cinderella Waxbill; a notoriously difficult bird to find. During normal years, the water in the beds dry up leaving a few scattered puddles which the waxbills visit during the heat of the day. This year however, the region received a lot of rain causing the beds to retain a lot of water. The once localized puddles became too prevalent. No waxbills were found but several other birds made up for it including Bare-cheeked Babbler, White-tailed Shrike and more Rufous-tailed Palm-Thrushes. That evening I joined a French couple (Vincent and Sarah) for a braai and learned they are traveling around Namibia photographing and filming wildlife and in the morning heading east - so was I and they offered me a lift back to Outapi in the morning.

View of the Kunene from my Hippo Pools campsite
Day 16 (August 29, 2011)
After one last failed attempt for Cinderella Waxbill, Vincent, Sarah and I hit the road towards Outapi by 8:30am. Besides a brief stop along the road to look at Yellow-billed Oxpeckers, the rest of the day was spent relaxing, catching up on emails and packing for my next jaunt in the morning – Roy’s Camp, known among birders for hosting Black-faced Babblers.

Yellow-billed Oxpecker on cow

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Namibia Days 7-11 (Swakop, Wavlis Bay, Spitzkoppe)

I’m currently in Swakopmund and will embark in the morning for Tsumeb – the halfway point to my next destination – Ruacana along the Angola border. It’s safe to say that the past few days have been very successful with target birding picking up endemic and near-endemic Namibian birds. Starting where I left off…

Day 7 (August 20, 2011):
After pancakes and coffee at the Cardboard Box, I set off towards Swakopmund, a popular Namibian resort town. Leaving Windhoek’s thornveld-dominated landscape behind, the shrubs started thinning and after 280km, I was surrounded by what is considered the world’s oldest desert – the Namib, a Nama word meaning ‘vast place’. Covering 80,900 sq. km (31,200 sq. miles), I’d say it was appropriately named!

Following a tour around Swakopmund with my new Couch Surfing host, Susan, I was off to bed for a goodnights rest.

Day 8 (August 21, 2011):
In the morning, Susan and I drove down near Walvis Bay to an area called Rooibank, which is known to host Dune Larks – the only ‘true’ endemic bird to Namibia. Their range is restricted to the sparsely vegetated dunes and interdune valleys with Bushman grass and !nara, a type of melon that only grows in Namibia. No longer than 30 minutes passed and we were eye-to-eye with a Dune Lark.

Dune Lark
Dune Lark habitat
Following our success we took a quick drive around the Wavlis Bay lagoon and saltpans, one of the most important coastal wetlands in Southern Africa. Due to record rains recorded in the mainland, many of the birds followed the rain inland and the saltpans were empty for the most part. Nonetheless, there were still a few shorebirds around including good numbers of Curlew Sandpipers as well as Ruddy Turnstones, White-fronted Plovers, Common Greenshanks, Black-winged Stilts and Pied Avocets.

Day 9 (August 22, 2011):
Another target bird day – this time in the barest of gravel plains north of Swakopmund. The Gray’s Lark is probably the palest and least-marked lark, which offers efficient camouflage in what some would call inhospitable habitat. After a bit of searching east of the Swakopmund saltpans, I discovered a small flock working the barren grounds.

Gray's Lark habitat
Moving on, I walked over to the Swakopmund saltpans, which proved to be more productive than the Walvis Bay lagoon. Shorebirds include 60 Chestnut-fronted Plovers, 40 Kittlitz’s Plovers, 12 White-fronted Plovers, 9 Ruddy Turnstones, 7 Whimbrel, 6 Curlew Sandpipers, and 5 Common Greenshanks as well as Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Swift Terns and thousands of White-breasted Cormorants. They’ve built large platforms for the latter to collect the guano and the sight (and smell) is incredible.

Day 10 (August 23, 2011):
Moving back inland, I got a ride 120km from a local Afrikaans girl to the Spitzkoppe turnoff where I was almost immediately picked up by a van full of Afrikaans and Germans who took me the remaining 30km to the Spitzkoppe Community Rest Camp. For those who aren’t familiar with birding in Namibia – Spitzkoppe is renown for being one of the best and most reliable spots for the Herero Chat – a difficult to find near-endemic. These bald granite peaks stand out significantly from the flat surrounding plains and with luck, one can find the chats at the base of these hills. After setting up camp, I explored around a bit before dark adding Lark-like Bunting, Montiero’s Hornbill, Common Scmitarbill, Booted and Verreaux’s Eagles to the trip list. Other birds of note include more sightings of Carp’s Tit, Rosy-faced Lovebird and White-tailed Shrike.

Day 11 (August 24, 2011):
I woke up at 6am right as the sun was rising and set a goal to be out of the camp by 10am so I could move on to Omaruru. That gave me four hours to find Herero Chat and being one of the most challenging birds to find, I was having my doubts. It wasn’t until 9:58am when I finally had one…what a relief! Very little is known about this bird and its first nest wasn’t even discovered until 1969. Last I’ve heard their taxonomic position remained somewhere in the robin, chat, flycatcher combination. Leading up to the goal bird, other trip birds include Ashy Tit, Small Buttonquail and Layard’s Tit-Babbler at its northern limit. I then walked into the nearby village to see if I could luck out in finding a ride to Omaruru or at least to Karabib to the north. However, 5 hours passed and only the 3rd car drove east – an Italian couple heading to Swakopmund – guess I’ll go back there knowing there’s a bed to sleep on! While waiting under the big shade tree – a Bearded Woodpecker joined the wait.

Spitzkoppe - not the actual Herero Chat location
To remain on schedule, it looks like I’m going to have to cross out Omaruru from my itinerary and head straight to Tsumeb. That’s alright though, the exciting areas are yet to come!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Namibia Days 1-6 (Windhoek, Etosha)

I don’t even know where to begin; that past nine days have been crammed with incredible birds, mammals I’ve only dreamed of seeing and experiences that will last a lifetime. It’s hard to believe I’m already on Day 9 of my 35-40-day trip and there’s still much to see. To make things simple, I’m going to write my reports from the field in a daily format starting with the first six days.

Day 1 (August 14, 2011):
After boarding the Intercape in Cape Town, I left the Mother City to embark on a 21-hour bus ride north to Namibia’s capital city, Windhoek. Peering out the window, I watched as the landscape changed and ticked off trip birds that will not be recorded later on including Blue Cranes and Pied Starlings. By the time we reached the South African/Namibian border post, it was dark and the moonlight reflected off the Orange River.

Day 2 (August 15, 2011):
Surprisingly, the bus arrived on schedule and I was already birding Avis Dam by 7am. Located on the eastern edge of the city, Avis Dam offers a great introduction to central Namibian birds and is a pretty reliable spot for the endemic Rockrunner. Starting from the parking lot, I climbed the hill to the north getting a good feel for the common thornveld species such as Cape Glossy Starling, Swallow-tailed Bee-Eater, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, Black-chested Prinia, Marico Sunbird and White-browed Sparrow-Weaver. Within 15 minutes I found my first lifer, the near-endemic Rosy-faced Lovebird, which is easily detected by its screeching calls as small flocks fly over. I slowly worked my way back to the dam accumulating a good trip list adding goodies such as my first Hamerkop – a bird that has eluded me in South Africa. Upon my arrival to the dam, I found a mixed feeding flock consisting of several species including African Red-eyed Bulbul, Pririt Batis, Green-winged Pytilia, Yellow Canary and my third lifer of the morning – the incredible-looking Blue Waxbill. Continuing along the dam wall, the day list was increasing with Short-toed Rock Thrush, Mountain Wheatear, Crimson-breasted Shrike and distant calling Orange River Francolins being tallied along with the local subspecies of Grey-backed Cisticola – a possible future split. Lowering my binoculars from the resident pair of African Fish-Eagles, a bird caught the corner of my eye as it hopped along the dam…a Rockrunner! After the excitement, I reached the end of the wall adding my fifth and final lifer of the day, a Grey Go-away-bird which is named because of it’s harsh “kay-waaaay” call.

Avis Dam
Concluding a good three hours birding, I headed into town to pick up a Namibian SIM card for my phone and met up with my Couch Surfing host – Guillaume, a French guy who, interestingly, shares an apartment with 4 Germans and a Scottish. For those who are not familiar – Couch Surfing is an alternative to paying for accommodation where a ‘host’ opens their ‘couch’ to travelers needing a place to sleep and in return there’s cultural exchange and you meet new people. You can learn more here –

Day 3 (August 16, 2011):
Today started off with a quick jaunt up to the Hofmeyer Walk (Aloe Trail) along the ridge that divides Windhoek main and Klein. The main purpose of this trip is for the near-endemic White-tailed Shrike, which is regularly found here. Not only did I get great looks at two different individuals, I also added a few new birds for the trip including Bradfield’s Swift, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Acacia Pied Barbet, life African Grey Hornbill and three additional Rockrunners which was unexpected.

The rest of the day was spent visiting with Guillaume and preparing for the next three days at Etosha National Park such as grocery shopping and picking up the rental car.

Day 4 (August 17, 2011):
Etosha National Park is one of Africa’s most famous game reserves and is outstanding for birds and mammal viewing. Due to its steep prices, however, I decided to only camp two nights at the Halali Camp, which would give me a good introduction to the park. Leaving Windhoek at 4:10am I was expecting it to take roughly 5-6 hours to reach the Anderson Gate. Not the case. By 8am I was already through the gate heading towards Okaukeujo – the oldest and largest camp in the park. I didn’t spend too much time in this congested camp but did a quick walkthrough adding Greater Blue-eared Starling (very common), Burchell’s Starling, Sociable Weaver (large nesting colony in the camping area), Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill and Scarlet-chested Sunbird to my list.

Greater Blue-eared Starling
Before heading east to Halali, I took the road north through the grassy plains towards Okondeka seeing Brubru, Grey-backed and Chestnut-backed Sparrowlarks, Kori Bustard, Northern Black Korhaan, Secretarybird, Crowned Lapwing, Double-banded Courser, African Hoopoe, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Eastern Clapper and Pink-billed (!) Larks to name a few.

Double-banded Courser
Upon arriving at Halali and setting up camp, I ventured off to the dolomite hill and mopane forest behind camp during the afternoon. A quick stop at the waterhole provided mixed flocks of Golden-breasted Buntings, Black-throated Canaries, Southern Grey-headed Sparrows and Red-billed Queleas coming in to drink. The mopane forest was slow so I headed back to camp in search of the guard who knows all the owl roosts. He happily showed me African Scops-Owl (which turned out to be 30 meters from my tent) and the attractive White-faced Scops-Owl near the chalets.

After dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I returned to the waterhole to watch the sunset. Just as the sun dropped below the horizon, the calls of Double-banded Sandgrouse filled the air and soon, hundreds surrounded the waterhole for their last drink before roosting. Just as the final stragglers were leaving, the highlight of the day, or possibly the trip, arrived - a Leopard! It slyly appeared on the backside of the waterhole, took a few minute drink before disappeared back into the scrub. This was one of my ‘most wanted to see’ mammals. The show continued when seven (!) Black Rhinos came in for a drink as well. The Halali waterhole is well known to regularly host Black Rhinos but seven is quite exceptional. Other mammals include two Spotted Hyenas, a Scrub Hare and three Kudu.

Day 5 (August 18, 2011):
I woke up at five and made my way to the waterhole for the morning show. As with the evenings, the Double-banded Sandgrouse arrive in masses before the sun rises. Just when there was enough light to see, I noticed two Groundscraper Thrushes also taking advantage of the waterhole. Eventually the sun appeared above the horizon and I ventured back into the Mopane forests on the dolomite hill. Near the top I discovered a sizeable mixed flock containing around a dozen species including Brown-crowned Tchagra, Long-billed Crombec, Green-backed Camaroptera, Violet-eared Waxbill, Emerald Spotted Dove, Yellow-bellied Eremomela and one of Halali’s species – Carp’s Tit! On my way back to camp I added Southern White-crowned Shrike and a large flock of Black-faced Waxbills.

Elephants at Halali waterhole
Long-billed Crombec
Mid morning I set off to explore around the park and check out several of the waterholes. First stop was Rietfontain, which provided Lilac-breasted Roller, Great Sparrow, African Jacana, Martial Eagle and one of many Southern Pale-Chanting Goshawks. Several species of mammals were also present including large numbers of Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras.

Salvadora and Sueda waterholes were pretty quite but added Greater Kestrel and Red-capped Lark to the trip list as well as several mammals including Gemsbok, Black-backed Jackal, Wildebeest and Warthog. Heading back to camp produced a small flock of Scaly-feathered Finches, Shikra, Purple Roller and a Honey Badger near the Halali gate.

Lucky for me, instead of having PB&Js for dinner once again, neighboring campers (a group of 4 Afrikaaners from the Free State) invited me over and fed me several chicken sandwiches, homemade cookies, coffee, tea and two baggies of biltong for the road! If you ever stumble upon my blog - baie dankie!

Day 6 (August 19, 2011):
Unfortunately, this was my last morning in Etosha and I had to be out of the park by 10:30am. Since it was a 1.5hr drive back to the Anderson Gate I only had time to do a quick run trough the Mopane woods once more. Nothing new was found, however more great looks at Carp’s Tit was nice.

I left Halali and made my way back west, once more taking the detour past Salvadora and Sueda waterholes. This proved to be an excellent idea as I was able to observe two adult and 4 young Lions come in to drink, rest and play. With the clock ticking, I had to break myself away stopping only twice more before leaving the park – first to look at a mixed flock of Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures roosting in a tree and for a Gabor Goshawk pair flying around Okaukeujo. Several hours later I was back in reality surrounded by the rush of Windhoek where I stayed the night camping at The Cardboard Box – a well-known backpackers.

Next update will focus on Swakopmund, Wavlis Bay, Spitzkoppe, Omaruru and more.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Backpacking Southern Africa

On Sunday I embark on a month long backpacking trip across Southern Africa. After 22 hours by bus, I will arrive in Namibia’s capital city – Windhoek. From here I will transverse the country visiting most of Namibia’s finest birding sites.

Starting in Windhoek, which holds excellent birding right in the city itself, I will head up to one of Africa’s most famous game parks – Etosha National Park. After a couple nights at Halali Camp, I’ll return to Windhoek and head to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay along the Atlantic coast before returning inland to start the long journey north to the Angola border. Birding along the Kunene River, which divides Angola and Namibia, offers exceptional birding and should produce specialties including the Cinderella Waxbill and Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush. From here I’ll head east along the Caprivi Strip towards Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Birding stops include Rundu, Popa Falls, Katima Mulilo, Shamvura and a few days across the border in Botswana’s extraordinary Okavango Delta.
My route in red
After a good month or so, fascinating cultures and several hundred bird and mammal species later – I’ll make the several days journey back to Cape Town traveling through Botswana to South Africa’s capital city – Johannesburg before catching a train back to the mother city.
I'll make an effort to post reports and photos along the way so keep checking back for updates!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dubai Birding

Scorching – that’s the best way to describe Dubai. My plane landed at 8am and it was already in the mid 90’s. In fact, now that I think of it, that’s the average low. After fruitlessly renting a car, I took a taxi to the Ra’s al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary in the heart of Dubai. This tidal estuary interspersed with saline lagoons offers phenomenal birding in the winter. In the summer however, it’s is mostly dry with only a few birds present. Nonetheless, I was still able to see around 40 species including a few lifers.

My first stop was the Flamingo Hide which was quite unsuccessful. The only birds present were Kentish (Snowy) Plovers, Eurasian Curlews, Eurasian Collared-Doves, Laughing Doves, Red-vented Bulbuls and Common Mynahs. Just as I was leaving, a park warden arrived to drop off several bags of feed for the birds. I opted out watching the pigeons eat and continued walking outside the fence to the Mangrove Hide.

Flamingo Hide
Walking a mile lugging two carry-on bags with temperatures in the 100’s proved quite difficult; however I picked up a few new species including my first Red-wattled Lapwings, Crested Larks and Graceful Prinias. Arriving at the hide, I was surprised to find complimentary cold water and a public scope to use – a Leica believe it or not. For the next couple hours I scanned the estuary and conversed with the guard who is from Pakistan. He showed interest in learning birds so he joined me and spent a lot of time browsing through my Birds of the Middle East field guide showing me what he has seen while sitting in the hide.
Crested Lark
Shorebirds were the main show as fall migration had just begun. Although numbers were still low, there was a fair selection present. Close to the hide were more Kentish Plovers and Red-wattled Lapwings along with Black-winged Stilts, Grey Plovers, Black-tailed Godwits, and Eurasian Curlews. Further out were larger flocks of shorebirds just out of scope range. A few of them were sand plovers though most of them were likely Curlew Sandpipers. Other birds present include Greater Flamingos, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Striated, Gray and Western Reef Herons and several Laridae including Slender-billed Gull , Caspian Gull, Gull-billed and Caspian Terns.

Dubai skyline from Mangrove Hide
By midday, it was unbearably hot, birding just wasn’t practical…therefore I went into the city to explore a bit before returning to the airport for my flight to Cape Town.
Burj Khalifa - tallest man-made structure in the world

Monday, July 25, 2011

South Africa bound

Tomrrow morning I depart Pittsburgh International Airport. After a full-day layover in Dubai (birding included) I will return to Cape Town, South Africa. The rest of the year will entail numerous trips throughout Southern Africa so keep checking back for updates.

On top of that, I'm the new eBird reviewer, hotspot editor and filter creater for South Africa and will be busy getting South Africa eBird-efficient. Not familiar with eBird? Check out (

If you find yourself in Cape Town, feel free to contact me and I will show you around.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Montana: Part 2

    After the floods ceased and roads dried up, the field season ended quite successfully; we were able to complete our 166 transect goal. It will be interesting to see the outcome for the season. Since my last post back on the June 25th, I covered a lot of miles around Montana surveying the Crow Indian Reservation south of Billings, Powder River near Broadus, Yellowstone River near Hysham, the remote region around CM Russell NWR and the Lewis & Clark National Forest south of Lewistown. In all I only accumulated 10 more state birds but quality made up for that. Not only did I finally pick up Burrowing Owl and Mountain Plover in the northeast, I also saw the only Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in the state at Bear Canyon, Black-billed Cuckoos south of Broadus and the localized Cassin’s Kingbird in the Custer National Forest. I fell well short of my goal of 250 species with 218, however, I spent far less time in the mountains than expected which would explain a lot of easy misses such as Sharp-shinned Hawk, Dusky Grouse, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Pygmy Nuthatch to name a few. Looks like I have an excuse to return and that just might happen next summer as I might be guiding a Glacier/Grasslands/Yellowstone tour.
To wrap up the season, here’s my summer in numbers:

Miles driven: ~10,000
State Birds: 218
Flat Tires: 2
Water crossings: 3
Counties visited: 37 out of 56
Life birds: 3 (Baird’s Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit and Gray Partridge)
Species of warblers: 18 (Bests: N. Parula, Mourning and Canada)

And a few photos from the field...

Baird's Sparrow

Montana had some of the most amazing cloud formations...not to mention sunrise/sunsets

The reason you do not drive on roads with water rushing over.

Fun times in the Snowy Mountains