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Zambia Tour Report 8 - 25 August

On our recent visit to the extensive Miombo woodlands, Mopane forests, dense thickets and riverine marshes of the small, friendly and little-known Central African country of Zambia, we recorded 236 species of birds and 32 species of mammals. The bird voted 'Bird of the Tour' was the spectacular and rarely encountered Pel's Fishing-Owl. Other bird highlights included such uncommon and range restricted species as Rufous-bellied Heron, Bat Hawk, Western-banded Snake-Eagle, Grey-crowned Crane, African Finfoot, Three-banded Courser, Lilian's Lovebird, Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Racket-tailed Roller, Chaplin's and Black-backed Barbets, African Broadbill, Woodland Pipit, Arnott's Chat, Bohm's Flycatcher, Miombo Tit, Anchieta's and Miombo Double-collared Sunbirds, Retz's Helmet-Shrike, White-winged Babbling Starling, Brown Firefinch, Reichard's Seed-eater and Cabanis's Bunting. We also found two species of birds which are vagrants to Zambia, which always adds spice to any tour. Both birds were found by Joy; the first was a pair of South African Cliff Swallows and the second, was a Black-tailed Godwit, in non-breeding plumage. Well done Joy. We did particularly well for mammals, the most memorable being a pair of South African Porcupines, Spotted Hyenas at their own kill, a splendid sighting of a Common Genet, a very close sighting of the rarely encountered Serval, two superb Leopard sightings, which included us following one as it was actually in the process of hunting, many sightings of Lions, including one pride at a kill and two sightings of the world's smallest species of Antelope, the Sharpe's Grysbok.

Following a long flight from Australia via Johannesburg, we arrived at Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. Unfortunately, not all of our luggage arrived with us. We then drove to a very fine hotel in town, where we spent a very comfortable night.

The following morning we did some birding in the grounds of our hotel and then we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast with a large number of Village Weavers and a couple of Lesser Masked Weavers, which were nesting above a small pond outside the dining room. The rest of the day was taken up with a long drive northwards to the Mutinondo Wilderness Reserve. The only bird of note during the drive was a splendid Lizard Buzzard, sat on roadside telegraph wires and once inside the reserve we saw our first troop of Vervet Monkeys.

The Mutinondo Wilderness Reserve is a 10,000 hectare area of prime Miombo woodland; this easily accessible habitat is only found in the southern central part of Africa and holds a very distinctive avifauna and these were the birds we were particularly looking for on this tour. We spent two full days exploring the area; many of the trees were just beginning to show off their striking fresh green and orange leaves. The breeding season had already started, so the large bird parties so characteristic of Miombo woodland had started to dissipate. Even so, there was plenty of birds on offer in the woodlands; we enjoyed watching three Ross's Turacos sat in the tops of trees, catching the early morning sun, we found several parties of Black-backed Barbets, a stunning African Broadbill, which sat motionless in a small tree, on a small branch no more than a metre above the ground, allowing perfect looks at one of Africa's most inconspicuous birds. We watched a fine Woodland Pipit walking around on the ground, this is an extremely range restricted species, which only occurs in large stands of Miombo woodland. In Riverine vegetation we saw the retiring Grey-olive and Cabanis's Greenbuls, a Kurrichane Thrush was digging for worms, Red-capped Crombecs flitted from tree to tree, a pair of Yellow-bellied Hyliotas slipped through the forest unobtrusively, a Bohm's Flycatcher sat motionless in a small tree, a pair of White-tailed Blue Flycatchers flitted through the sub-canopy, flowering mistletoe attracted Anchieta's and Miombo Double-collared Sunbirds, a few pairs of White-necked Ravens made a nuisance of themselves around the campsite, a Reichard's Seed-eater flitted into view momentarily and a Golden-breasted Bunting was observed feeding on the ground.

More widespread and well-known birds seen during our two days here included Yellow-billed Kite, Bateleur, Cape Turtle-Dove, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Little Bee-eater, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Cardinal Woodpecker, Plain-backed Pipit, Groundscraper Thrush, African Stonechat, Familiar Chat, Pale, Southern Black and African Dusky Flycatchers, Bar-throated Apalis, Amethyst and Variable Sunbirds, African Yellow White-eye, Eastern Black-headed Oriole, Brubru, Black-backed Puffback, Fork-tailed Drongo, Yellow-throated Petronia, Golden Weaver, African Firefinch, Fawn-breasted Waxbill and Bronze Mannikin.

The following day was very much a travel day as we drove from Mutinando Wilderness Reserve to Chisanba, in central Zambia. During the long drive, new birds for the tour observed along the roadside included Yellow-billed Stork, Black-shouldered Kite, African Harrier-Hawk, the stunning Lilac-breasted Roller and while having our picnic lunch along the side of the road, a solitary White-winged Babbling Starling flew by; unfortunately, we were unable to relocate the bird, in the dense Miombo woodland. On arrival at the Chaplin's Barbet Guesthouse, new birds in the grounds of the lodge included a small flock of Red-necked Spurfowls, Crowned Hornbill, Tropical Boubou and a few Blue Waxbills.

We spent the early hours of the morning birding in the grounds of our lodge, which proved very rewarding, as we enjoyed watching a brown morph Wahlberg's Eagle flying overhead, a small group of Natal Francolins, several Laughing Doves, a family party of Red-faced Mousebirds, the very large Trumpeter Hornbill, one or two Black-collared Barbets, some tame Yellow-bellied Greenbuls, a stunning White-browed Robin-Chat, the diminutive Long-billed Crombec, some very confiding Tawny-flanked Prinias, the beautiful Yellow-breasted Apalis, a stunning male Scarlet-chested Sunbird, a Black-crowned Tchagra, a few Spectacled Weavers, a large flock of Yellow Bishops, a few Pin-tailed Whydahs and several beautiful Yellow-fronted Canaries. We were finally reunited with all of our luggage, before undertaking a long afternoon drive to McBrides Camp, in Kafue National Park. During the drive we had a puncture and while changing the tyre, we enjoyed good views of Black-breasted Snake-Eagle and African Grey Hornbill. Once in Kafue National Park, the night crept up upon us and during the drive to McBrides Camp we enjoyed superb looks a splendid Leopard, which just walked around in front of us, in our vehicles headlights. Chris also spotted Greater Galago, Four-toed Elephant Shrew and Scrub Hare.

Kafue is Zambia's oldest national park and the second largest national park in the world, encompassing more than 22,400 square kilometres of floodplain, shallow pools, Mopane woodland and savanna plain. We spent most of the day slowly drifting down the Kafue River, on a double decker boat, which proved a terrific way to watch birds. White-breasted and Reed Cormorants flew up and down the river and there were plenty of African Darters to be seen. We saw a few Striated Herons, a couple of Little Egrets, a solitary Intermediate Egret, enjoyed super close looks at a Goliath Heron, as the name suggests, one of the largest species of herons in the world. Hamerkops were fairly numerous, we enjoyed close looks at the very beautiful Saddle-billed Stork, noisy Hadada Ibis frequented the shallows, there were plenty of Egyptian Geese, we saw several very close African Fish-Eagles, there were White-backed Vultures flying overhead, as well as a couple of Martial Eagles. A Black Crake was glimpsed, we saw a few African Finfoots very well indeed, an African Jacana showed very well, we saw a large flock of Water Thick-knees, a couple of Three-banded Plovers, several Blacksmith and African Wattled Lapwings, a few Common Greenshanks, several Common Sandpipers, enjoyed great looks at nesting African Skimmers, kingfishers were well represented, we saw Brown-hooded, Giant and Pied Kingfishers and somewhat surprisingly several uncommon Half-collared Kingfishers. White-fronted Bee-eaters were seen very well and large numbers of both Lesser-striped and Wire-tailed Swallows flew up and down the river. On arrival at our tented camp, where we would spend the night, we went for a walk in the late afternoon. Here we saw a huge flock of Helmeted Guineafowl, African Green Pigeons fed in fruiting fig trees, the beautiful Meyer's Parrot was seen very well, we glimpsed a Schalow's Turaco in flight, enjoyed great looks at several Grey Go-away-birds, a Crested Barbet, an immature Greater Honeyguide, enjoyed good looks at several range restricted Arnott's Chats, saw a few Rattling Cisticolas, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Arrow-marked Babbler, White-winged Black Tit, Brown-crowned Tchagra and several Red-billed Firefinches. New mammals today included a troop of Yellow Baboons, a few lionesses' several African Savanna Elephants, large number of Hippopotamus, a few African Buffalo, the very beautiful Bushbuck, the shy Bush Duiker and lots of Puku and Impala.

A pre-breakfast walk in a nearby area of Monpane woodland, produced several new birds which included a small flock of Common Scimitarbills, a splendid Golden-tailed Woodpecker, a small flock of Yellow-bellied Eremomelas, a pair of Southern Black Tits, the very range restricted Miombo Tit, large numbers of Greater Blue-eared Starlings and a solitary and very uncommon Cabanis's Bunting. During the walk we also saw Warthog and Waterbuck. We then took the river boat back to McBrides Camp and as we did so, we added Great Egret, Malachite Kingfisher and surprisingly, a couple of South African Cliff Swallows, which were catching insects just above the surface of the river. According to the recent Atlas to the birds of Zambia, there are only seven previous sightings of this species in Zambia. We then had a long drive from Kafue National Park to the Itezhi-Tezhi Hydro Electric Dam, where we spent the night. We had our lunch in the town of Mumbwa, while we were having the bottom of our gearbox welded! This gave us some insight into the African way of life. Yet again, we endured an unscheduled night drive, but it was not all doom and gloom, as we did see a splendid Serval, who sat in front of our vehicle and washed itself, exactly the same as a domestic cat does!

The following day we had another long drive from Itezhi-Tezhi Dam, to our lodge in Livingstone, in the far south of Zambia. While having breakfast at our lodge we added Smith's Bush Squirrel and several Yellow Spotted Hyrax, sitting on a large rock, soaking up the rays of the early morning sun. At a ferry crossing across the Kafue River, we enjoyed good looks at a few Grey-headed Gulls and an Ashy Flycatcher. Later in the day we stopped to admire a roadside Marabou Stork and we also saw several very attractive Magpie Shrikes. We had intended to visit Lochinvar National Park but a puncture put paid to that and once again we got to know the African villagers very well while we had a puncture repaired, by hand! During this time we did add Namaqua Dove and White-bellied Sunbird. During another unscheduled night drive, we enjoyed good looks at a Sharp's Grysbok, the world's smallest species of antelope, at the side of the road.

The following morning we enjoyed a good pre-breakfast birding session in the grounds of the Natural Mystic Lodge, which produced several new birds. These included Shikra, Terrestrial Brownbul, Bearded Scrub-Robin, a pair of Violet-backed Starlings and the uncommon, Jameson's Firefinch. We spent the rest of the morning at the world famous Victoria Falls National Park. The falls are a massive 1.6 kilometres wide and plunge in one massive sheet of water into a deep chasm, just 60 metres wide. It was a spectacular sight. The only new bird seen here was a large number of African Rock Martins which were nesting in the sheer cliffs, beside the falls. In the afternoon we drove to Masuka Lodge, in the Nkanga Conservation Area, near to Choma. We arrived late in the afternoon and went birding at a large dam close to the lodge, where we saw our only Rufous-bellied Heron of the tour, our fist Black-headed Heron, several Comb Ducks and best of all, a superb Bat Hawk, which flew directly overhead, just on dusk.

The Nkanga Conservation Area is a collection of farms that are actively protecting the local wildlife. The main reason for visiting here was to search for the Chaplin's Barbet, the only truly endemic bird of Zambia. The bird is restricted to an area as small as a few hundred square kilometres and only occurs where thee are a good number of Ficus sycomorus fig trees. The owners of the Nkanga Conservation Area are so committed to conservation that they now have a young man who is studying the Chaplin's Barbet on a full time basis. He took us to an area where they had roosted the night before. In no time at all we had one in the scope, that we could all enjoy looking at, which was greatly appreciated by us all. Without the young mans help, they would have been almost impossible to find. Unfortunately, this delightful species is declining rapidly and very few remain. We spent the rest of the day birding in the conservation area and managed to find a good selection of new birds for the tour, which included Grey Heron, Brown Snake-Eagle, a magnificent adult Crowned Eagle, which circled directly above us, we saw many flocks of both Shelley's and Swainson's Francolins, enjoyed good looks at a Senegal Coucal, had a close encounter with a few Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, admired a small flock of Green Wood-Hoopoes, we managed to locate a pair of uncommon Southern Hyliotas and managed to find two new species of cisticolas, the widespread Desert Cisticola and the extremely range restricted Long-tailed Cisticola.

The following day was very much a travel day as we had to drive from Choma to Siavonga, on the shores of Lake Kariba. We decided that we would make another attempt to visit Lochinvar National Park on the way. Unfortunately, we never made it, once again our vehicle let us down and we were forced to spend hours sitting by the roadside. Prior to our breakdown we had found a pair of Red-breasted Swallows and two immature African Cuckoo-Hawks flying directly above us. While waiting to be rescued from the side of the road, some of the group went birding, Chris saw a Gabar Goshawk and Barbara, Joy and Michael found a Pale Wren-Warbler. We also found a new mammal for the list during the drive; we saw a small troop of Chacma Baboons. It was very late when we arrived at Chiboola Lodge on the shores of Lake Kariba.

We very much appreciated having a whole day to go birding in the grounds of Chiboola Lodge. We spent a good part of the morning and then the late afternoon exploring the thickets surrounding our camp on foot. The dense undergrowth of this riverine woodland provided us with gems like the infrequently encountered Little Sparrowhawk, who circled overhead, as we marveled at how small this species of accipiter really is. A Wood Sandpiper was found along the edge of the lake and we very much enjoyed watching the bird bobbing its tale up and down. We found our first Southern Red-billed Hornbills of the tour and we were very pleased to find two new species of woodpeckers; we watched a Bennett's Woodpecker clinging to the side of a tree and enjoyed watching a Bearded Woodpecker climbing up the main trunk of another tree. A delightful White-browed Scrub-Robin showed particularly well and we were able to admire it rufous rump and tail, which contrasted sharply against its broad, brilliant white wing bars. We enjoyed watching a pair of Tinkling Cisticolas, foraging around on the floor of the forest. One bird we particularly enjoyed watching, which was always in flocks, was the very elegant and extremely range-restricted Meves's Starling. Another attractive species we saw here and once again in large flocks, was the very attractive White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, they had many of their rather untidy, communal nests, crammed into one bush. Large flocks of Red-billed Queleas were also very much in attendance. We then found a little stunner here, the very beautiful Green-winged Pytilia, a stunning species of waxbill. We also found one or two extremely range restricted Brown Firefinches, feeding on the floor of the forest. A solitary Cinnamon-breasted Rock-Bunting popped into view and we enjoyed watching this brightly patterned species of bunting. We very much enjoyed drinking our sundowners as the sun slowly set and one or two nocturnal birds started to call. Soon we obtained point blank views of one of these nocturnal birds as it sat in the middle of our spotlight, just a few metres away from us. It was a superb Fiery-necked Nightjar and it just sat there and looked at us.

The following morning we said goodbye to Chiboola Lodge and its gracious host but not before adding a Red-winged Starling, to our ever growing trip list. We then took a boat trip across Lake Kariba, to Siavonga. While loading our vehicle, for the drive back to Lusaka airport, Michael pointed out a Collared Palm-Thrush, which we all enjoyed. In the afternoon we flew to South Luangwa National Park, for a three nights stay at the splendid Kafunta River Lodge. In the late afternoon new birds around the lodge included Squacco Heron, Sacred Ibis, good numbers of the extremely range restricted Lilian's Lovebirds and a pair of beautiful Mosque Swallows.

We had two full days to explore the famous South Luangwa National Park, Zambia's most famous wildlife sanctuary and it is the jewel of the nation's national park system. It is situated at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley and encompasses 9,065 square kilometres of unspoilt African wilderness. The shallow and very broad Luangwa River flows remarkably slowly, as it meanders its way through park, regularly changing its course, leaving behind characteristic oxbow lakes and lagoons. The floodplains and the surrounding savanna grasslands attracted vast numbers of both mammals and birds. Hippopotamus wallowed and grunted in the deeper pools, massive Nile Crocodiles basked on the sandbanks and African Savanna Elephants bathed and swam. Both days followed the same pattern; a small breakfast just after dawn, before setting off in our 4WD vehicle for a game and birding drive and back for a late brunch. We then had a siesta period during the heat of the day, before meeting at 4 o'clock, for a second game and birding drive, were we would stay out after dark spotlighting for both birds and mammals, before returning to the lodge for a late dinner. This system worked perfectly. On the first, very full day, we found African Openbill wading in the shallows of one of the oxbow lakes along with several African Spoonbills. Small numbers of Hooded Vultures were observed flying overhead and very fortunately, a superb adult White-headed Vulture, Africa's rarest species of vulture, circled high above us. A perched Western-banded Snake-Eagle was a real treat, as this species is rarely encountered. We saw a distant Lanner Falcon in flight; we were able to approach small flocks of the stunningly attractive Grey-crowned Crane to within a few metres. In the river there were dozens of snorting Hippos and we found a few Black-winged Stilts, a few White-fronted Plovers, a couple of Marsh Sandpipers, a small flock of Little Stints, a solitary Curlew Sandpiper, a few Ruffs and best of all, Joy pointed out a Black-tailed Godwit, in non-breeding plumage. This species is a vagrant; this far south in Africa and it was a new bird for our splendid safari driver, Josephat. We saw a few White-browed Coucals very well indeed, enjoyed super looks at a massive Verreaux's Eagle-Owl; we could clearly see the bird's bright pink eyelids! One of the great highlights today were the small flocks of Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, which were simply spectacular. The much more subdued coloured Lesser Honeyguide, was also much appreciated, flocks of Brown-throated Martins, were nesting in the banks of the river and in the nearby woodlands we found Grey-headed Bush-Shrike, the very attractive Retz's Helmet-Shrike, Wattled Starling and Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver. However, by far the best bird of the day was the fabulous Pel's Fishing Owl that peered at us from the top of a nearby tree. The views of this huge orange nocturnal predator were out of this world, little wonder it was voted `Bird of the Trip`. New mammals today included several Common Zebras, which we enjoyed watching as they drank at a small oxbow lake and we also saw several Giraffes today, which had both Yellow-billed and Red-billed Oxpeckers in attendance. After dark our safari drive was enlivened by a superb Three-banded Courser and brilliant close looks at a Square-tailed Nightjar. New mammals for us during the night drive included great looks at the nocturnal White-tailed Mongoose, a pair of South African Porcupines and lots of Long-eared Slit-faced Bats.

We followed exactly the same schedule the following day and new birds included a couple of Tawny Eagles, circling overhead, a couple of Crowned Lapwings, a splendid African Barred Owlet in broad daylight and a male Collared Sunbird. We finally caught up with other species of swifts, which included Alpine, Little and African White-rumped Swifts and in the Mopane woodlands, we found the star bird of this habitat, the very beautiful, but all too uncommon, Racket-tailed Roller. New mammals included Dwarf and Banded Mongoose and Greater Kudu, a splendid species of large antelope. During the night drive we enjoyed super looks at a delightful Common Genet, in the spotlight and then we really hit the jackpot. A pride of Lions had made a kill no more than 300 metres from our lodge. A couple of lionesses had charged a large herd of Impalas; the herd had panicked and scattered in all directions. One Impala had been caught by the Lions and another had run right into three Spotted Hyenas, which promptly killed it and began to eat it, only 50 metres away from where the pride of Lions were eating their kill. Half a dozen or so Lions, feasted on the Impala, while the three Spotted Hyenas feasted on theirs. It did not take the Lions long to finish eating their Impala, especially as the male, had grabbed the largest share. Two large lionesses were still hungry and one of them decided that she would steal the kill from the Spotted Hyenas. It was very interesting to watch the following scenario unfold. As the lioness approached the Hyenas kill, one of the Hyenas picked up the Impala in its powerful jaws and carried it away from the approaching lioness; the two remaining Hyenas charged the lioness and she ran off back to the pride. A few seconds later the scenario was repeated by the second lioness, with exactly the same result. Had the lionesses attached together and worked as a team, instead of individuals, they could well have stolen the Impala from the Hyenas. This provided a fitting climax to a great tour in a most welcoming and friendly country.

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