Zambian Barbet Day-trip 13 March 2018
It was my privilege to take Bob, from Georgia USA, on his first African birding trip. I picked him up from his hotel and took a route out of town which saw us, almost immediately, bumping along the pitted, puddled, rutted dirt tracks for which the continent is justly famous. It was a fabulous time to be out, especially for a first-timer as all the widowbirds, whydahs and bishops were in resplendent breeding dress and buzzing about the tall green grass. We quickly racked up Red and Yellow Bishops, Long-tailed (Eastern) Paradise Whydah and an extravagantly red-faced Green-winged Pytilia. Black-winged Kites were a regular, solitary presence on the power lines. Our first brief stop was at a small water body which is always good for a surprise or two. It was a bit windy when we arrived, so there was less activity than usual, but we were treated to the site of a Lesser Swamp Warbler hunting insects in the open, giving us clear, close-up views of a normally secretive bird. The roadside from here was alive with more jauntily-clad polygamists, like the Pin-tailed Whydah and Broad-tailed Paradise-Whydah, and we had a glimpse of the very handsome Red-throated Twinspot and an immature Cuckoofinch (Parasitic Weaver).
As we approached the Zambian Barbet spot, a handsome Black-chested Snake-eagle came in low over the road, checking our pockets for snakes with its big yellow eyes as it briefly filled our windscreen. When we got to their kingdom, a group of huge fig trees dominating open pasture, the Zambian Barbets were visible from afar as lurid white blobs against the green of their favourite perch. We walked up at our leisure and watched them darting in and out, fearlessly driving away hordes of intruders. The Yellow-breasted Apalises, Black-backed Puffbacks, Tropical Boubous and a Eurasian Golden Oriole were more interested in bugs, spiders and caterpillars than in figs, but the Common Bulbuls were direct competition for the barbets and got short thrift. A persistent clucking from a low bush eventually drew us away and we found a pair of frisky Senegal Coucals, which were signalling their intent to get it on; they didn’t seem to mind having an audience. The babble of a huge Village Weaver colony attracted us next and we visited their nests, which were built in thorn trees around the edge of a crocodile pond. I am always amazed at how extended the breeding season of these birds is: they are among the first to get active, usually in July, and the last to slow down, around the end of March. The Diederic Cuckoo, which is a parasite on weavers, has a similarly protracted displaying season, and we heard them calling nearby.
We carried on to our next birding stop, a small lake flanked by bird-rich thicket which yielded Common Waxbill, Variable and Collared Sunbirds, Grey-backed Camaroptera and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike. Malachite and Pied Kingfishers, White-breasted and Reed Cormorants and a Fish Eagle pair were spied over the water.
We had lunch at one of my favourite birding areas: a large swathe of miombo woodland which offers a great variety of woodland specials, including Racket-tailed Roller, Green-backed Woodpecker, Red-capped Crombec and Pale-billed Hornbill. Before sitting down to our meal, we wondered off through the woods on foot, disturbing a Commmon Waterbuck and a Grey Duiker before we saw any birds. It wasn’t long before the latter came on the scene, however, led by a group of White-crested Helmet-shrikes, which were soon joined by Pale-billed Hornbills, the darker Retz’s Helmet-shrike and two female African Paradise Flycatchers. Directly above us, a family of Ashy Flycatchers made their soft twitterings as they hunted, and a juvenile Brubru crept among the leaves. Black Cuckooshrikes, male and female, stopped by briefly followed by a group of Chinspot Batises and a pair beautiful Rufous-bellied Tits. We meandered further through the bush following the bird parties, and by the time we got back to the vehicle we had added Arnott’s Chat, Green-backed Honeybird, Green-capped Eremomella, Yellow-bellied Eremomalle, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Grey Penduline Tit, Miombo Tit and Yellow-breasted Apalis to the list. After lunch we took a roundabout drive spotting some interesting game including Eland, Kudu, Puku and Impala, before heading back to Lusaka.