Posted on the 25th October 2017

A few rippers north of the Limpopo

Text & images by MC Botha

Four of us – Charel and Marlien Bruwer, Pierre du Plessis and I – recently undertook a 6-week tour to Malawi via Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, returning to South Africa through Mozambique and Swaziland.
Travelling 12 000 km in such a relatively short time makes one aware – in retrospect – of where the birding hot-spots were. Of course this is a subjective observation, also influenced by the specific route we travelled.
Thus, in general, we saw by far the most number of species in Botswana – both in the drier parts (Nossob and Mabuasehube in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park), and wetter areas of the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park.

What enthrals one of the drab Kalahari landscape are the sudden bursts of colour in the form of common species like the Crimson-breasted Shrike and the Violet-eared Waxbill. Also great to see so many other common birds we in the Overberg are bereft of, like the Kalahari Scrub-robin, Marico Flycatcher and Scaly-feathered Finch. The latter has the beautiful Afrikaans name of Baardmannetjie, alas also applied to the female of the species, which obviously is neither a “mannetjie” nor does she sport a beard.

Doep and I were amazed to find this 'wader' in the middle of the Kalahari desert, but it turned out to be a Double-banded Courser
Marico Flycatcher with a nasty twig in flesh just behind mandible - Nossop










Kalahari Scrub-Robin before sunrise on a bitterly cold morning at Mabuasehube, Kgalagadi TFP









The Kgalagadi is legendary for the easy spotting and large numbers of raptors or birds of prey, and there is hardly anything to add by this amateur, save to perhaps add that we saw a lot of juvenile Bateleurs and Gabar Goshawks. This makes sense as far as the former is concerned, since we were there in late August and they lay in autumn according to Roberts’ Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa, while the latter’s main laying period is in October, which in turn doesn’t make sense, unless – in the scurry between books – we misidentified them with Shikras, or immature males of the rufous form of the Ovambo Sparrowhawk, or Little Sparrowhawk juveniles. Who knows?

We have never seen so many African Spoonbills feeding simultaneously - Chobe River







One highlight of the trip was camping out for three days in seclusion on the banks of the magic Khwai River in Moremi. Here typical savannah and woodland species were interspersed with water birds galore – a true feast to our bird-loving eyes. The giant leadwood in the centre of our campsite regularly played host to little flocks of noisy Meyer’s Parrots, and even noisier Hartlaub’s Babblers which occur here in their southernmost range, therefore you won’t see them in South Africa, or even Zimbabwe and Mozambique, as you would their cousins, the Arrow-marked Babblers.
Coming and going in the tree we also saw Pririt Batis, Great Sparrow, Marico Sunbird, Giant Kingfisher, Bearded Woodpecker, Willow Warbler and Grey Go-away-bird. Vervet monkeys as well made their appearance now and again in the tree, in preparation for raiding our camp – much to the chagrin of Charel who didn’t waste any time in shouting abuse while simultaneously hurling all sorts of missiles at them.

White-browed Sparrow-Weaver at Sinamatella, Hwange











All along the river were a plethora of herons and egrets, often foraging in the presence of elephants. Little, Great and Western Cattle Egrets especially were in abundance, while Senegal Coucals were equally plentiful – their skulking manner no different to the Burchell’s we all know further south.

As much as we loved Botswana, so we were disappointed by Zimbabwe, having visited both Hwange and Matusadona National Parks.A rather horrible discovery was that the area we travelled in from Milibizion the southern tip of Kariba, towards Matusadona, was virtually devoid of any birdlife. And we soon saw why – from the youngest boys to old men walk around with ketties, not that we could find or see any live bird left to kill. Birds of prey in the air? None, not even the ubiquitous crow. The only other place I have witnessed this type of avian extermination caused by humans in the throes of famine was on the Mozambican coastline between Quelimane and Moma, where you literally don’t hear a single bird heralding the wonder of a new day.

Red-billed Queleas at Lake Ngami
Male Grey Heron nailing her down, Manaadavu, Hwange









As for the once wildly revered Matusadona: the last 100-odd kilometres there was a nightmare to drive, by far the worst of our trip. The road is mostly washed away by countless floods, leaving dongas, rocky outcrops and impossible inclines and declines to negotiate. Even the other bad roads filled with deep and hidden potholes which we invariably landed on were child’s play compared to this one. Adding insult to injury was the fact that it was substantially more expensive to enter and stay there than in Hwange, while hardly any wildlife was left to see. Furthermore the camp headquarters on the shore of Lake Kariba have perished over the last decades to a motley array of ruined buildings and a scrapyard of vehicles. Unless you really like decay or wish to wallow in a splendid past that has been irretrievably lost: stay out!

White-browed Coucal's back feathers ruffled in the wind - Zambezi Valley, Zambia
White-crowned Lapwing at Lake Kariba
















One of our camps in Zambia was at the confluence of the Zambezi and Kafue Rivers, where we were rewarded by hornbills: Trumpeter, Bradfield’s and Crowned. The latter two’s ranges overlap marginally – just here – and remarkably I photographed both of them at the same time from exactly the same spot, as they were sitting opposite each other in adjacent trees. Yet more was to come. One morning within half an hour we saw the handsomest of coucals, the White-browed (absent in South Africa), and then a little gem: the Mangrove Kingfisher, supposedly only to be found on the eastern and south-eastern coastline of Africa, not a thousand kilometres inland. But here it was in its red-billed, white-bellied and black- and blue-feathered splendour. Maybe it just decided one day to leave its home ground on the Indian Ocean coastline to follow the great river upstream, and luckily found some mangroves at the confluence with the Kafue.

Mangrove Kingfisher at the Zambezi-Kafue confluence
Blue Swallow males interacting at Nyika, Malawi










But an even a rarer bird, about a dozen of them to boot, awaited us at our journey’s northern turning point: the Blue Swallow at 2 370 metres above sea level in Malawi’s Nyika National Park. No mean feat to photograph them, for in flight they are even faster, dodgier and more aerobatic than swifts. It took hours over two days of lying on my back in a secluded spot under a line of black wattle trees and wildly sweeping the 400 mm lens across the sky in the hope of getting a decent shot. Three pairs were breeding in a dilapidated building at the park’s airstrip, but they are extremely weary of humans and even though I hid myself well in tall grass 20 metres from the building they did not even venture a fly-over and remained no more than tiny specs in the distant sky for the entire period I lay there.

For Marlien the highlight inNyika was the sighting of a bevy of Bar-tailed Trogons – many a birder’s dream. But it came at a rather exorbitant US dollar price, for she had to hire a parks game warden all to herself; luckily he could firstly spot the rare birds in the canopy of a dense forest, and secondly lure them down for her to experience more than just a glimpse. Meanwhile her three travel mates somehow grudgingly kept tighter rein on their purses.

African Fish-Eagle with prey - Chobe River
Common Sandpiper's hippo run - Chobe River









Another rare bird all of us saw, with its spectacular blue bill in the breeding season, was the Montane Widowbird, endemic to northern Malawi and southern Tanzania. In Nyika too, by the way, you will see on the rolling grass-covered hills more reedbuck than you will ever see in any other reserve in Southern Africa.

Male Rufous-bellied Heron - Khwai River
Long-toed Lapwing - Khwai river









All in all we had a splendid trip with hardly a mishap worth mentioning. Despite our heavily-laden 4x4s, not without their contraband, we were never searched or asked to unpack at any border post, except when we entered South Africa through Golela where a couple of police women tried their damnest to confiscate our coconuts and beer for their own use, later. But to their credit they eventually gave everything back to us, and suddenly we realised we were back home: a place where right or wrong is balanced on a knife’s edge, and those who decide which is which can go either way.

Collared Palm-Thrush - Ngola Beach, Malawi
YBK chasing off Pied Crow - Zavora, Mozambique















ALETTA ROBERTSON (posted: 2017-10-25 23:51:54)
Excellent report. Lovely pics.