Namibia Day 6: Discovering the Damara hornbill

We set out through Damaraland after a quick breakfast (and a common scimitarbill (Rhinopomastus cyanomelas) sighting) at Spitzkoppe. It is in the northwest of Namibia and is inhabited by mostly Damara people who make up around 8% of Namibia’s population. It is extremely dry and sparsely poulated with open plains, granite koppies, and dolomite ridges. Damaraland is home to many of the Namibian near-endemics including violet wood-hoopoe (Phoeniculus damarensis), Carp’s tit (Parus carpi), Hartlaub’s francolin (Francolinus hartlaubi), rockrunner (Achaetops pycnopygius), Benguela long-billed lark (Certhilauda benguelensis), and Damara hornbill (Tockus damarensis).

We headed out to try for some of the many endemics in the dry river beds along the road to Uis (a tiny mining town close the Brandberg). The river beds were huge, a few hundred meters across, with massive trees growing in them. They do flood sporadically but with the poor rain so far this year, they were bone dry and dusty. The first river bed we stopped in held many new species for the trip such as southern pied babbler (Turdoides bicolor), violet-eared waxbills (Uraeginthus granatinus) (with a nest), and southern white-crowned shrikes (Eurocephalus anguitimens) galore but there were no hornbills, tits, or wood-hoopoes and so we moved on to the next riverbed. As we got out of the car, we could hear three of the near-endemics, so the big question was where to begin. We started by checking out a little band of Carp’s tits that was right above us, giving their harsh little call. After we had investigated the tits, we continued into the river bed itself to look for the Damara hornbill pair which had been calling. We found them within a few minutes sitting in a large tree, dueting. What success! However, by the time we had found the first two, the third had moved on so no violet wood-hoopoes (yet).

Damara Hornbill - On route to Toko Lodge, Namibia

As we drove to our next river bed, we got lucky with a pair of Monteiro’s hornbills (Tockus monteiri) sitting on one of the few power poles in the area. They also gave us a little performance, calling nicely. We hit our third and final riverbed at about 10:30am, in the heat of the day. Dayne immediately picked up on Rüppell’s parrot (Poicephalus rueppellii) calls. They swooped over the road and back again before settling in a large tree. They are truly a stunning bird, with a blue stomach that contrasts with their brown-grey plumage, and incredible yellow “pants” around their legs. While the others were watching the parrots, I caught a dark bird flying out of the corner of my eye. When I went to investigate, it was a single violet wood-hoopoe, another near-endemic down! Sadly, the others missed the bird and despite trolling the area to find it again, it did not turn up. We did also find a nice juvenile African cuckoo though which was nice for the year list.

From this last river bed, we sped off to Uis, bumping into a pair of gorgeous martial eagles on the way. Uis is a tiny town of around 3,600 inhabitants that was once a tin mining town. However, the tin mine shut down around 25 years ago, leaving the town in rather poor shape. It currently relies on tourism from people visiting the Brandberg and on crystal and mineral collection. Collectors of minerals flock to Namibia due to the diversity, quality, and ease of collection of the minerals available in the country and Uis is in the heart of the mineral region.

After a nice lunch in Uis, we continued north with a quick stop to look for Benguela long-billed lark. This bird is complicated as it has been split from karoo long-billed lark (Certhilauda subcoronata) mainly on genetic evidence when the long-billed larks were split. It does tend to be paler than the closest karoo subspecies and have a slightly longer song but is largely indistinguishable. Luckily, according to the field guides at least, the two species do not overlap at all because of a gap from Spitzkoppe to Brandberg (the Brandberg Gap). However, when you talk to many birders, this may not entirely be the case and more investigation may be needed for these two closely related species. We arrived at a little koppie at about 1:00pm in the absolute heat of the day and played the Benguela call. Within less than a minute, we had the lark call back from the top of a bush. He even did his amazing diving display.

We continued north, heading for just south of the western portion of Etosha National Park (our destination tomorrow). Along the way, we investigated a few small pans to boost our species list for the day with some waterbirds. These small oases in the otherwise completely dry area attract waterbirds from miles around including many waders and ducks. We were fortunate and found our first South African shelduck (Tadorna cana) for the year at one of the ponds. The next produced a young African harrier-hawk (Polyboroides typus) along with the usual mix of common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), wood sandpipers (T. glareola), and three-banded plovers (Charadrius tricollaris). The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful and we made it to our lodge, Rustig Toko, at about 4:00pm.

Rustig Toko is named for the hornbills that call this place home but is also host to many of the endemics we are searching for and a great place for night drives. As soon as we arrived, our host took us to see the Carp’s tits that were nesting in one of the gate poles by the lodge. Within 30 seconds, one of the parents arrived to feed the chicks, deep in the pole. After enjoying the tits for a few minutes, we headed to the porch for a drink and admired the view across the savanna and dolomite ridges. We got lucky with an adult and sub-adult Ovambo sparrowhawk (Accipiter ovampensis) flying over the farm in the distance, always a good raptor to see.

Before we headed for bed, we had one last activity, our only night drive of the trip and a chance to catch up and photograph a few of the night birds (and mammals of course) on the farm. Within minutes of starting the drive, we had already turned up an aardwolf (Proteles cristata), a usually scarce and skittish night insectivore. As we continued on, a rufous-checked nightjar (Caprimulgus rufigena) flew across the front of the vehicle but Dayne was searching for a sitting nightjar. We soon found one and he crept up the catch the bird. It was a gorgeous fiery-necked nightjar (C. pectoralis) with a slight rufous ring around its neck. Seeing a nightjar up close allows you to admire the smaller traits of the bird such as the bristles around the mouth to aid in its search for food and the combs on one toenail on each foot to groom themselves. Dayne also caught a pouched mouse (Saccostomus campestris), probably one of the more adorable mammals in the savanna and a new one for the mammal list. We spotted five more aardwolves (and to think we had never seen one before this drive), an African wildcat (Felis silvestris), and many springhares (Pedetes capensis). On the bird front, we found a gorgeous barn owl (Tyto alba) sitting on the fence at the end of our drive but dipped on spotted eagle-owl (Bubo africanus) and southern white-faced owl (Ptilopsis granti). Those two will just have to wait!

Today was our most successful day yet in terms of finding the near-endemics of Namibia with five new near-endemics being spotted (and being spotted well). We also added tons of new birds to the year list including some night birds which can always be tricky. Tomorrow, we head into Etosha National Park through the western gate to spend the night at Okaukuejo camp, home of the black rhinos (Diceros bicornis), for a night before continuing east into Etosha.

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