Namibia Day 3: Glimpsing Gray’s lark

Today we drove through Namib-Naukluft National Park up to Swakopmund on the coast. The Namib-Nakluft National Park includes almost 50,000 km2 of the Namib Desert and is the largest game park in Africa. It includes Sossusvlei and so much more. We had no particular targets today and were more than happy to look at anything that crossed our paths. Mostly it was just a travel day.

The day started well with huge numbers of Namaqua sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua) flocking at a dam on the side of the road, a new species for our trip. As we continued on, we nearly had a head on with a Haartman’s mountain zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae), an endemic mountain zebra subspecies, that was galloping down the dirt road. We reached Solitaire for petrol, apple cake, and lots of photos of mountain ground squirrels (Xerus princeps). Shortly after, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and continued on north into the park.

Things started to get interesting when we reached Ganeb, a campsite in the park, for lunch. The small waterhole had attracted plenty of game including springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), gemsbok (Oryx gazella), and warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus). A bokmakierie (Telophorus zeylonus) was calling in one of the camelthorns while a chat flycatcher (Bradornis infuscatus) was hawking insects from a log. Sociable weavers (Philetairus socius) were all over the picnic spot, cleaning up crumbs from our sandwiches. We drove out slowly through a little gravel plain with a few new shoots of grass when an LBJ popped across the road. We watched it scuttle around, eating some seeds, until it perched on a rock. And that was when it gave itself away with a quick flick of its crest. It was the highly nomadic Stark’s lark (Spizocorys starki) and as we scanned the ground around it, we found plenty more. The Stark’s larks follow rainfall and the seeds and insects that follow. They are unpredictable and finding them here was good luck. On top of the Stark’s lark, we also found a little family group of Gray’s larks (Ammomanes grayi) feeding on the same plain. What good lark luck!

We made a quick stop at the next watering hole, Hotsas, but had no luck with game there. However, we saw the camera traps and information about a vulture tracking project in Namibia. Lappet-faced (Torgos tracheliotos) and white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) are wing-tagged with specific numbers and camera traps are set up at known vulture haunts. This allows vulture scientists and conservationists to understand where these nomadic birds end up without needing a lot of manpower.

Past Hotsas, we had the best mammal sighting of the day, a family of meerkats (Suricata suricatta). These little desert mammals are incredibly social and very hardy. A small family group of four was napping in the shade of a tree as we drove past. They quickly bolted to their burrows and stood in typical meerkat position watching us. Further on, we found the most amazing flock of Namaqua sandgrouse on the side of the road. There were at least 50 of them both males and females, shuffling around the quartzite with their reddish bodies contrasting against the white rock. Sandgrouse are famously desert-adapted with super water-absorbent breast feathers. They use these feathers to take water up to 50kms back to their chicks to provide hydration and keep them cool.

Namaqua Sandgrouse Female - Hotsas, Namibia
Namaqua sandgrouse in the quartzite

As we got closer to Swakopmund, the dunes got lighter in color, more yellow than red. Dayne spotted a beautiful pair of double-banded coursers (Rhinoptilus africanus) on the side of the road, another lifer for Melissa. Across the road, several Welwitschia mirabalis were growing so we went to check them out. These amazing plants are the oldest in the world, reaching 3000 years old. They only grow in the Namib Desert in Namibia and Angola. Perhaps what is most interesting about the species is the fact that they are their own ecosystem with a gorgeous Hemiptera (true bug) insect that is specific to the plants and another Hemiptera that parasitizes the first!

Welwitchia Plant - Swakopmund, Namibia
A 300-500 year old Welwitschia

We arrived at Swakopmund and began trolling the saltworks to finish our day off. Namibia produces a huge amount of salt for eating and for the chemical industry and the evaporation pans attract a huge number of shorebirds including many rarities. We quickly found a Damara tern (Sternula balaenarum) on a nest and a few red-capped larks (Calandrella cinerea) running around. The pans were full of flamingoes, pied avocets (Recurvirostra avosetta), plovers, and sandpipers. Hartlaub’s (Chroicocephalus hartlaubii) and kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus) perched on the rims of pans and gave their screaming cries. Cape cormorants (Phalacrocorax capensis) were stuffed onto a long jetty, barely a millimeter between them. We also found the most northern race of tractrac chat (Cercomela tractrac) which is extremely pale before making it to Hotel Pension Rapmund for the night

Overall, we had a great travel day picking up about 70 species over the course of the day. Melissa got two lifers and so did I (getting ever closer to 650 species). The landscape of the central Namib made an incredible impression on us both with its stark contrasts, faerie circles, and huge camelthorn trees. Tomorrow we head to Walvis Bay to try for some of the rarities and collect some more shorebirds.

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