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!