Namibia Day 5: Happening upon the Herero chat

We decided to give the Swakopmund Salt Works one more bash to try to pick up any rare shorebirds before heading north to Spitzkoppe. We headed out and trolled the lagoons for anything new. We found the usual suspects, lots of flamingoes, white-fronted plovers (Charadrius marginatus), and Damara terns (Sternula balaenarum). The other common shorebirds were also all in attendance. Dayne then decided to take us to one more spot for our nemesis, the red knot (Calidris canutus). We arrived on the rocky shore just west of the salt works and investigated every single peep we saw. There were plenty of whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus), grey plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), little stints (Calidris minuta), curlew sandpiper (C. ferruginea) and ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres) foraging on the seaweed covered rocks. Then we noticed a flock that looked out of the ordinary circling out over the water before coming to rest on a rocky peninsula. We checked each bird. Little stint. Curlew sandpiper. Red knot! We had found our plump brown bird just as we were giving up hope. We left the salt works satisfied and went to pick up my mother before heading inland.

 

We left the greenness of Swakopmund and headed out into the surrounding desert. There was only a handful of plant species scattered across the mostly barren landscape. Chat flycatchers (Bradornis infuscatus) adorned every power line, swooping down periodically to catch insects. We made a few stops on our way up to check out the endemic kraal aloe (Aloe asperifolia) on the side of the road and some lappet-faced vultures (Torgos tracheliotos) eating a carcass in the desert. Along the entry road to Spitzkoppe, we found more Rüppell’s korhaans (Eupodotis rueppellii), lots of white-browed sparrow-weavers (Plocepasser mahali), and tons of pale-winged starlings (Onychognathus nabouroup). We were stopped to watch some small bird when all of sudden, we heard a thin, descending whistle. We wheeled around to figure out where the sound was coming from and soon pinned it to one bush. Our first karoo long-billed lark (Certhilauda subcoronata) (the most northern race) was singing his heart out on the top. We headed on to the Spitzkoppe camp for a cold cider/beer and a quick rest before exploring the area.

Spitzkoppe is a massive granite massif, rising out of the surrounding flat plains. The reserve itself is great example of community conservation efforts where the people from the surrounding areas manage the park and receive money from it. The whole staff is from this same area including the maintenance crews, cooks, and barmen. Spitzkoppe is most famous among birders for being one of the most reliable areas to find the near-endemic Herero chat (Namibornis herero), the only species in its genus. The bird is notoriously difficult and is missed by many visiting birders as they tend to be fairly quiet and live mainly on rocky slopes where they are reasonably inaccessible. Along with the Herero chat, there are a host of other interesting species including the white-tailed shrike (Lanioturdus torquatus) (another near-endemic), rosy-faced lovebirds (Agapornis roseicollis), and Layard’s tit-babbler (Sylvia layardi).

We went out during the heat of the day, not to bird but to enjoy the gorgeous rock pool on one of the smaller granite hillocks. The rock pool was full of tadpoles that darted around our legs. We watched some birds come to the edge for a drink including lark-like buntings (Emberiza impetuani), African red-eyed bulbuls (Pycnonotus nigricans), and pale-winged starlings. After quickly drying off in the hot sun, we headed off to find some more birds. We tried several spots for the Herero chats but they were not home. However, plenty of other good birds showed up including rosy-faced lovebirds, cardinal woodpecker (Dendropicos fuscescens), ashy tit (Parus cinerascens), a pair of Verreaux’s eagles (Aquila verreauxii), and barred wren-warbler (Calamonastes fasciolatus). We were driving up to the next chat spot, when I spotted an odd bird hawking insects from a dead hanging branch. We backed up and very quickly realized that this was our Herero chat, not in his rocky kloofs but on the Acacia plains below. We got out of the car and followed the bird for two or three minutes while it foraged, completely relaxed. Melissa took some amazing photos of the bird as he flew around us before he disappeared. We could not believe that we had seen this rather tricky bird so close and for so long.

Buoyed by our success, we continued our drive to see what else we could find and were amply rewarded. First, we found our second white-tailed shrike of the day, sitting on a perfectly formed cup nest. She glared out at us with her bright yellow eyes as we sat and admired her little home. After we tried one more spot for Layard’s tit-babbler (a bird that had evaded us a few times during the afternoon) and we were successful. A recently fledged bird came to us, still sporting a yellow gape and calling feebly. It was as though it was not quite sure if it had the right song. Behind the little bird, a trio of klipspringers (Oreotragus oreotragus) literally tiptoed up the rocks, watching us the whole time.

We were happy with our haul of birds and headed home for supper. We had picked up 53 species (excluding the salt works) for the day which kept with our steadily increasing pace. Melissa collected two lifers and I collected three. Tomorrow, we continue our trek north to find some of the Namibian near-endemics and go on a night drive to look for some night birds and mammals.

Spitskoppe Panoramic Namibia

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