Northern Birding Safari (March 2016)

Categories: Safari

Day 1
This safari began in rather moist, March weather. Our first bit of birding was East of Lusaka, on the
afternoon of my five guests arrival. Under the wet, blustery conditions, I was surprised at the amount that we did see, even if it was not nearly as good as this spot has been in the past. There were two photographers in the group: John and Michael, and they had a good deal of entertainment from a very large flock of European Bee-eaters hunting from the power lines which ran through our little patch of woodland. Across the cut-line, we spotted a male Collared Flycatcher, a sparse migrant and a remarkably handsome representative of a generally drab group. In the same area we heard and then saw a Spotted Creeper, with Red-faced and Rattling Cisticolas noisily conspicuous in the cut-line. Stierlings Barred Warbler was highly vocal in the woodland and termitaria thickets, but refused to offer more than a fleeting glimpse. A grey Cuckoo gave us much pause in the evening half-light as we tried to determine which species it was, eventually settling on Red-chested. As darkness fell, we set off for a particular treat, which Rob, Lapwings caterer had been hard at work preparing: a bush dinner. Our table was set in a beautiful, hilltop spot crowded with spectacular trees. Thankfully, the rain had given out completely by this time, and Rob’s skillfull cooking was
appreciated in comfort.
We now began our trek up north, with a spot about an hour from town being the home of our first big target: the Zambian (Chaplin s) Barbet. The barbets were not as punctual as they have been in the past, but we had plenty of other entertainment from a variety of widowbird s and bishops, Mosque and Red-breasted Swallows, Northern Fiscal, Red-throated Twinspots, Diederic Cuckoos, a Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-bellied Greenbuls and White-browed Robin-chats. A Red-necked Falcon flew low over the scene, causing a sudden hush among the other birds. I knew that the Barbet was just brushing up for its big appearance, but the team was getting a bit antsy. Just ten more minutes I assured them. It was on about the ninth when the bird finally arrived. After a photo session with the bird of the moment, we piled back into the vehicle and continued ever northwards. Arriving at our lodge in the mid-afternoon, we had a good bit of armchair birding from the porch of one of the chalets, spotting first an immature African Goshawk, then a pair of Black-backed Barbets on the same convenient, perfectly positioned branch.
We took a morning walk from camp, aiming to take in the main habitat types: riverine, miombo woodland and dambos. Following the river edge, we quickly picked up O live Sunbird, Dark-backed Weaver, Yellow-breasted Apalis, White-browed Robin-chat and Purple-throated Cuckooshrike, a pair of the latter show-casing their starkly different plumage: the male a deep blue-black, and the female a vibrant yellow. Our path took us next into a large dambo, and on the edge we found a pair of beautiful Black-tailed Grey Waxbills flitting between the grass and some low termitari a thicket. A large fig tree was fruiting atop the termite mound, and the crown was full of birds. Black-collared Barbets took the uppermost podium, a leafless twig, and gave their bobbing duet; Dark-capped Bulbuls crowded the branches and, just as numerous but far less conspicuous, a large flock of African Green Pigeons rewarded a searching gaze with glimpses of muted purple and lime green, and flashes of yellow and orange. An Orange-breasted Bush-shrike owned this thicket and flitted anxiously about at mid-level, whistling Beethovens Fifth. The dambo was too wet for a deeper exploration, so we skirted it and found ourselves in the miombo woodlands. Always apt to tease, the miombo pretended to be completely empty as we paced through its cool shadows. Eventually, the shrill, double-note of a Green-backed Woodpecker sounded in the distance and, closer to hand, the chip, chip of a sunbird: Amethyst. A wide loop through this stretch hotted up when a pair of Wood Pipits rose in front of us. Simultaneously, we heard the wheezing call of an Arnots Chat and a pair of Southern Hyliotas broke cover in the canopy. We were in business. Cardinal Woodpeckers and Red-headed Weavers appeared next, both providing wild splashes of colour as the bright red heads of the males bobbed among the greens and browns. The Arnots Chat family flitted around the most gnarled, bent and holey tree-trunks whilst a motley collection – Green-capped Eremomellas, Red-capped Crombec, Kurrichane Thrush and Chinspot batis – brought swelling life and sound to the
Our circuit brought us to the edge of another dambo. As the woodland thinned and the grass got longer, Trilling Cisticolas defended every patch of habitat with an amazing volume of noise. Red-chested Flufftails called from out in the damp grassland and the ever-popular Red-throated Twinspot appeared in a clump of termitaria thicket, allowing us a few more photos. Our best sighing here was an obliging group of Brown Firefinches. Back at camp we had African Stonechat, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, African Firefinch and Grey-olive Greenbul in action in the mixed habitat opposite the verandah where we were eating lunch.
We took an evening drive and had sun-downers at a very picturesque dam with a large crocodile in the middle. Rufous-bellied Herons were pleasingly positioned on trees ov erhanging the water, prompting some determined bundu-bashing from the photographers for the optimal angle, with good results. There were large numbers of Black-crowned Night-herons flying over to their feeding grounds, and a flock of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters hawked and squabbled across the water. Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warbler chattered from the reedbeds. An African Wood Owl called briefly then moved off, and it was night. On our return journey, we got out the spotlight and were rewarded with a European Nightjar, several Fiery-necked Nightjars, and a Grass Owl.
After breakfast most of our final morning at the Lodge was spent observing and photographing two spectacularly colourful residents: a Black-fronted Bush-shrike which would appear and reappear periodically in the canopy of a large riverine tree, and an exquisite Painted Reed Frog which was stationed in the shrubbery underneath. Soon after we left the gates of the reserve, we noticed a large number of Starlings flying across our front, so we walked into the bush to investigate. A large fruiting tree was full of the birds, and they were making a huge racket with their chattering. They turned out to be Miombo Starlings and as we were not pressed for time, we became absorbed for a while in their antics. There were several immatures among them, whose plumage easily differentiates them from the otherwise very similar Sharp-tailed starling.
By lunchtime we were at our next destination and the meal was served beside a pleasing lake with a resident Osprey. After this we drove to our exclusive bushcamp set on the edge of a thicket, overlooking a large dambo with woodland and termitaria around its edges. We spent the evening in the vicinity of the camp, taking a stroll along the southwestern boundary fence. We picked up a couple more from the Barbet family, with Crested calling continuously from the dambo edge and Golden-rumped Tinkerbird in the thicket behind camp. Blue Duiker, the worlds smallest antelope, was also seen in the thicket. That night we ha d a close encounter with a pair of Wood Owls living around camp.
We spent the morning sampling the evergreen forests, which abound in the area. I had strong hopes we might encounter the Magpie Mannikin, which we had so far missed. It is dependent on a type of bamboo in the area, so we wondered around a few clumps, but didnt find it. We were somewhat cheered by further views of the beautiful Red-throated Twinspot, and then exultant at the appearance of both Schalows and lady Rosss Turacoes, sunning themselves on bare branches above the forest canopy. A noisy bunch of Trumpeter Hornbills contributed to the excitement by alighting on a nearby dead tree in the morning light: perfect for photos. The sky was crowded with European Bee-eaters, and we soon came upon a large flock on another dead tree. Things were distinctly quiet for the next forty minutes, before we came upon a party of smaller forest birds: Lauras Warbler, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Little Geenbul and Square-tailed Drongo.
After lunch we headed into the miombo woodlands, aiming particularly for the Chestnut-mantled Sparrow-weaver and Bohms Flycatcher. The birds held out on us until we had less than an hour of light left, and then they all appeared: a family group of Chestnut-mantl ed Sparrowweavers, a Miombo Scrub-Robin, African Thrushes, Bennets and Bearded Woodpeckers and lastly, a pair of Bohms Flycatchers with flying young. A Giant Eagle-owl started up in the distance as we got back into the vehicle and headed to camp. There we had more entertainment from the Wood-owls to round out the day.
We walked out into the dambo after breakfast and quickly racked up some g
ood open-country birds: Black and Coppery-tailed Coucals, Croaking Cisticola, Yellow-mantled Wi dowbird and Broad-tailed Warbler. We found a dry route across, and among the thicket clumps on t he other side found Western Banded Snake eagle, Golden-tailed Woodpecker and White-winged Black Tit. After this we tramped back through the dambo and embarked for another transfer, this time to Kasanka National Park.
The action started pretty quickly once we got through the gate into Kasanka, with some tantalising action luring us out of the vehicle before we got to reception. The main result was an excellent view of a group of Black-necked Eremomellas. We were soon distracted again, this time by a large flock of noisy Pale-billed Hornbills gathered, with a few other species, at a site of insect emergence (we didnt find time to identify the insects!). A pair of Cuckoo Hawks were prowling on the periphery and calling to each other.
We had exclusive use of a lodge at the western end of the Park and on the way there we picked up on a large flock of Sharp-tailed Starlings, White-headed and White-backed Vulures, and an elephant – don t know how that made the list! It was nearly dark by the time we got int o camp.
Our first act of the day, after eating, was to get into a boat and explore the Luwombwa River. We started off downstream with the motor off, steering with paddles. Malachite Kingfisher and White-fronted Bee-eaters were frequent flashes of colour and Giant Kingfishers fled cover at the last moment, with penetrating notes of alarm. Perhaps more importantly, we picked up three of the river s best specials: Bohms Bee-eater, Half-collared Kingfisher and last, but by no means least, Pels Fishing Owl.
In the afternoon we drove out, eventually reaching the extensive Chikufwe Pla in. A number of raptors were soaring overhead, of which Martial Eagle and European Honey Buzzard were new for the trip list. In the woodlands were Retz Helmet-shrike, African Dusky Flycatcher and Grey Penduline Tit.
We moved across the Park to spend our last Kasanka night in the East, with an en route stop-off at Fibwe, the famous tree hide. On the way, a combination of aerial and terrestrial activity brought us to a halt, and we walked into the bush in the wake of a bird party and a pack of Banded Mongooses. The latter have a broad repertoire of sounds, amongst which is a rather bird-like, high-pitched chirping. This caused some initial confusion as we tried to separate the birds out from the mammals (birding 101), but once we got that sorted, we racked up African Golden Oriole, Striped Kingfisher and Meyers Parrot, and had excellent sightings of a pair of White-breasted Cuckooshrikes. Fibwe lived up to expectations, and we found ourselves sharing the hide-tree with Olive Woodpeckers, a Pallid Honeyguide, Yellow-throated Leaf-love and a pair of White winged Black Tits. Anchietas Tchagra, Chirping Cisticola and African Marsh Harrier were in and above the Kapabi Swamps which stretched out below us. African Moustached Warbler was singing quite near the hide-tree, but refused to show itself. On the short stretch through the woodlands to the lodge, we had an excellent view of a male Coqui Francolin.
After refuelling ourselves at the lodge, we spent the afternoon in the Eastern end, and for half an hour followed a family of pipits up and down the airstrip till we we re all satisfied that the birds had a pinkish (not yellowish) lower mandible, that their tail-bobbing was exaggerated (not less pronounced), and that they were consequently Buffy (not Plain-backed).
The great trek north resumed… this time to Kapishya Hot Springs, north of Mpika. The weather when we arrived was overcast with drizzle, so we didnt get in much birding.
DAY 10
There was much noisy action in the gardens from the start and among our first new sightings was the Greenheaded Sunbird. Lauras Warbler, Brownheaded Apalis and other forest species appeared, but we couldnt dig out the Bocages Akalat, Bluemantled and White-tailed Crested Flycatchers that we had hoped for, from the patch of forest around the Hot Springs. Rosss Turacoes consoled us with very good views and photo-opportunities, but before long we left the forest and headed into hilly miombo, where we intercepted some fairly diverse parties.
In the afternoon, we drove out towards Shiwa Lake. The first bit of activity was in some small crop-fields which had overgrown. Fawn-breasted waxbill, Black and White-headed Sawwings, Green-winged Pytilia, Dusky/ Variable Indigobird and Marsh Widowbird were new, and Pin-tailed Whydahs in a hot dispute provided much to occupy the photographers.
When we got to the Lake, one of our first sightings was a Palmnut Vulture. This beautiful bird was perched in the open in soft light, and could hardly have planned a better reception for us. Nearby, a mixed flock of Amur falcons and European Hobbies swooped on a cloud of emerging termites. We proceeded passed the lake and walked a causeway which passed through a large, wet dambo. Levaillants (Lesser Black-backed) Cisticolas were dotted throughout, as were Marsh Widowbirds
and flocks of Fawn-breasted and Common Waxbills. A White-tailed Blue Flycatcher tamely hopped among the stunted waterberry trees lining the causeway.
We cracked out the spotlight for the route back to Kapishya, and were quite surprised at the high number of Freckled Rock nightjars that we found on the road.
DAY 11
It was finally time to turn back south but, before we left, we returned to the Lake at Shiwa Ngandu. The highlight here was a pair of Fullebornes Longclaws, which flew out of the short grass of the shoreline and over our heads in full song, landing amongst some scattered bushes. It fell to the guide to flush them out again and I dutifully went in pursuit. Meanwhile, those wily longclaws had sneaked beyond the bushes into a miry depression. I dutifully went in pursuit and, after much travail, succeeded in chasing them back into the bushes. Noone else saw them, however, so I emerged and doggedly charged the bushes. Predictably, the longclaws nipped back into the mire giving as little as possible. With a deep sigh of long suffering I steeled myself for another so rtie into the mud when a Longclaw, taking pity, flitted out of the grass and onto a nearby bush, posing admirably. Having settled that to everyones satisfaction, we re-embarked for our next destination: Mutinondo Wilderness.
The lodge is some 25 km from the main road, and its rare to make it all the way in without seeing something special. About half-way we stopped for a noisy bird party. Here we had our first fleeting glimpses of Anchietas and Miombo Double-collared Sunbirds, but a pair of Anchietas Barbets stole the show, perching prominently in the centre of the action. It was not long before our trip was again interrupted by the local fauna. This time, a Rhombic Night-adder was stretc hed out into the road, holding a huge toad (Flat-backed) in its mouth, by the head. The toad had responded to the attack by inflating itself, and now the hungry snake was waiting for the toad to succumb to its venom and deflate sufficiently to be swallowed.
DAY 12
We took a morning walk from camp, picking up first the Bar-throated Apalis, then better views of the Miombo Double collared and Anchietas Sunbirds. The last sighting of the morning was the much-desired Bar-winged Weaver. This great event was marked by the heavans opening and off-loading a ton of water onto us, resulting in a mad dash back to camp.
When we re-emerged from shelter in the early evening, the rain had abated and we visited a nearby dambo, to see what we could flush. We had been joined by Frank Willems, the manager, and he and I tied a rope between us, from which dangled a line of empty tins. Thus armed, we tramped through the grass, hoping to flush something spectacular. The flufftails evaded us, but we did eventually put up a female Blue Quail and a Swamp Nightjar. There were a number of Stout and Pal
e-crowned Cisticolas about and we were over-flown by a group of beautiful Black-ch inned Quailfinches. There were several European Rollers swooping and calling across the dambo, and we had a clear view of a distant Crowned Eagle.
DAY 13
We had a fairly long day s driving ahead of us, but were determined to break it up with a bit of birding. Accordingly we left Mutinondo relatively early and con tinued south down the Great North Road until we came to Kundalila Falls. It was a brief visit, but we did manage to get the Miombo Rock-thrush which I had been hoping for. As we trundled out again, a nice surprise was a Tinkling/Grey Cisticola in some scrub growing in an abandoned field. After that, we were on the road almost continuously until we reached Chisamba, just north of Lusaka. Here we stopped for the last night of the tour and had an hours birding before dark.
DAY 14
After breakfast, we had about an hour to kill before heading to the airport, and we used this to pick up such handy additions as the Collared Palm-thrush, Grey-backed Camaroptera and Red-billed Firefinch, which are not so easy to find in the north.