Madeeha was working at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka and was very keen to get out into the countryside over the weekend. After doing the full-day Zambian Barbet Tour on Saturday, we took a half-day trip into the woodlands just outside town on Sunday. Bird activity began the moment we turned off the main road but we paid little attention to the bishops, canaries and doves that we had already seen the day before: we were after the miombo specialties, which generally take a little more work and patience. Once we were thoroughly surrounded by tall woodland we got out and walked slowly among the trees. At first, there was very little indication of life but soon, movements in the leaves and muted calls indicated that things were picking up. First to swoop into view were a flock of White Helmet-shrikes, characteristically bold and low-flying, which were soon snapping bills and scuffling among themselves within a few metres of us. At one memorable point there were five of them strung out on one branch just above us, all bobbing and calling together in a high state of excitement about… a particularly flavourful bug one of them had eaten, I suppose. As is the way in the miombo, nothing is missed by the ever-watchful neighbours who always want a piece of the fun: before long a pair of beautiful Common Scimitarbills flew in over our heads and a nearby tree came alive with the croaks and clicks of a family of Chinspot Batises. Conspicuously quiet, however, was a Spotted Creeper which made a graceful dive onto the base of a tree nearby. As the brown, white-spotted bird began its unique crawling progress up the trunk I was reminded, as always, of a tsetse fly on someone’s ankle. Characteristically noisy, I attributed the Creeper’s silence to the first winterish nip in the air: at the onset of the cool season many birds lapse into a quieter mode. Still strident, however, was the Stierling’s Barred Warbler which came flitting in amongst the shrubbery. Always tricky to spot, this bird called loudly at no great distance from us for several minutes before we could claim a satisfactory sighting. When the helmet-shrikes started up again in wild chorus louder than before, it became apparent that there were weighty matters afoot: the scimitarbillls reappeared, subtly agleam in the morning light, and were joined by Common Bulbuls and a Yellow-bellied Sunbird scolding loudly on the edge of a thicket. We stealthily approached, eyes peeled for a snake, as I was sure that this was the source of the alarm, but things quietened down quite quickly and we only found a burrow where, no doubt, the snake had made its escape from the mob. There were other quiet observers of this drama: a Souza’s Shrike peered at us through the leaves of a low bush, and a Green-backed Honeybird scanned the scene from a high treetop.
After another short bout of driving we found ourselves on a hilltop overlooking the eastern suburbs of Lusaka. We walked down a winding path which followed the contour of the hill and were rewarded with excellent sightings of an immature Miombo Rockthrush and a White-bellied Cuckooshrike. Thus satisfied that we had done the woodlands justice, we drove out to a big patch of thicket to sample a very different set of possibilities. Collared Sunbird and Spectacled Weaver were immediately obvious by their persistent calls and a Black-crowned Tchagra and Grey-backed Camaroptera both crept very close to us in the bushes. A Lesser Honeyguide made a brief appearance before the one we had been really hoping for, the Schalow’s Turaco, showed up and leisurely preened itself in full view before gliding to a nearby tree, followed by two others. Steppe Buzzards were also feeling the change in the weather and we spotted two big ‘kettles’ of around fifty birds circling high among the clouds as they gathered for their migration back north. Decidedly less energetic was a Long-crested Eagle which sat hunched on the edge of a thorn tree, its extravagant top-knot waving in the cool breeze.