Namibia Day 7: Catching up with the Caspian plovers

Today, we headed into Etosha National Park, one of the two crown jewels of the Namibian national parks system. Etosha is a massive park, over 20,000 km2, even larger than the famous Kruger National Park in South Africa. It was first proclaimed in 1907 and reached all the way to the Skeleton Coast on the Atlantic Ocean but was broken up steadily until 1970 when it reached its current size. The most notable feature of the park is its massive salt pan in the middle that is over 4,500 km2 and makes up over 20% of the park. This pan was once a massive inland lake stretching into Angola. As recently as 35,000 years ago, Etosha pan looked similar to the Okavango Delta with populations of sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii), lechwe (Kobus leche), and buffalo (Syncerus caffer) but the rivers feeding it changed course, leaving the pan dry for most of the time. When it does flood, it is spectacular and supports an incredible diversity of waterbirds. The park is also famous for its incredible game viewing with black rhino (Diceros bicornis), leopard (Panthera pardus), lion (P. leo), and cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) as well as an incredible assortment of antelope.

Before we left for Etosha, Dayne decided we should give the Hartlaub’s spurfowl (Francolinus hartlaubi) and rockrunner (Achaetops pycnopygius) a bash before breakfast. Despite trying multiple spots, we dipped for another morning but we did catch up with our first Damara dik-dik (Madoqua kirkii), an endemic antelope as well as a young shikra (Accipiter badius). At breakfast, Nico, our host, put muesli out for the resident Monteiro’s hornbill (Tockus monteiri) pair who viciously defended their meal from a hungry red-billed spurfowl (Pternistis adspersus) right outside our window. After breakfast, we bid the resident African scops owl (Otus senegalensis) farewell and headed towards the park.

Our first stop was for a young male ringtail harrier quartering over one of the cattle fields. We stopped in the middle of the road to jump out and try to identify the bird which we ultimately decided was a Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus). We also picked up a secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) and kori bustard (Ardeotis kori) on our way back to the tarred road. Once on the tarred road, we saw raptors galore including our first white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) of the trip and numerous tawny eagles (Aquila rapax) and steppe buzzards (Buteo vulpinus). Dayne had his eyes on the powerlines, looking for olive bee-eater (Merops superciliosus), a summer visitor to this strip of Namibia. First, he spotted a young bird sitting on the line, followed by several adults with full tail streamers. A great lifer for the morning!

We entered the park, popped up the roof of our kitted-out safari vehicle, and headed east. We quickly spotted the familiar oryx (Oryx gazella) as well as impala (Aepyceros melampus) (new for the trip believe it or not). In the Etosha region, there is a near-endemic subspecies of impala called the black-faced impala, named for the distinctive black stripe down the center of their faces. We continued to the first waterhole where we found a whole host of game and some pretty nice birds as well. There were giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), oryx, blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), and impala at the waterhole. In addition, there were both species of zebra (Haartman’s mountain (Equus zebra hartmannae) and Burchell’s (Equus quagga burchellii)) right next to each other which made for a very interesting comparison. The western side of Etosha is the only place in the park where the two overlap. On the bird front, there were many of the common waterbirds in the waterhole as well as a single (very lost looking) black-winged pratincole (Glareola nordmanni) and four or five Temmnick’s coursers (Cursorius temminckii). We continued on stopping at each waterhole and picked up our first red hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus caama) and the first elephant (Loxodonta africana) for the trip as well as a single rufous-naped lark (Mirafra africana).

For lunch we stopped at Olifantsrus, a former elephant culling station turned bush camp and information center. Etosha culled 525 elephants during the early 1980s due to the loss of grass and increased desertification of the park. This was believed to have been caused by a combination of a severe drought and the immigration of elephants from the surrounding unprotected areas. Although the culling was controversial, it was a highly efficient operation in Etosha and every part of each elephant was utilized for science or food. Now the biggest attraction at Olifantsrus is the incredible two story hide on a small waterhole next to the camp. The hide allows you to either be at water level, nose to trunk with elephants, or above them looking over the waterhole. We were lucky and four or five bulls had arrived just as we had. They were so close you could hear them breathing and squelching in the mud, and could see every hair and wrinkle on their body. We spent around half an hour with them before having a quick toasted sandwich and continuing our journey. We left, continuing east, and stopped at another waterhole which held 65 elephants, making up several breeding herds. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many elephants in one place. The rest of the drive to Okaukuejo was fairly uneventful except for a far off lion lying under a bush.

After a quick siesta, we headed off for a quick afternoon drive. The heat of the day was just starting to dissipate and the sun was casting a gorgeous golden light across the dry plains. Northern black korhaans (Afrotis afraoides) and kori bustards stalked through the open plains, double-banded coursers (Rhinoptilus africanus) seemed to be crouching under every bush, and antelope plodded across the arid landscape. We headed for Gemsbokvlaagte, a particularly popular waterhole. When we arrived there, we found plenty of antelope, a swoop of Abdim’s storks (Ciconia abdimii), and a murder of Cape crows (Corvus capensis). We were sitting taking it all in when a black rhino, our first for the trip, emerged from the bushes to have a drink. Behind him, a lioness padded along, keeping herself hidden in the bushes. She stretched before lying down out of sight. With gate close time nearing, we headed off but not without a quick stop Nebrownii, another waterhole. Dayne was scanning the dry, gravelly patch around the waterhole when he found a group of Caspian plovers (Charadrius asiaticus), a lifer for all four of us! There were at least a dozen plovers and some of them were in their bright breeding plumage. These birds are a rarity in southern Africa, although they are semi-regular in Etosha. They migrate from their breeding grounds in central Asia, mostly around the Caspian Sea, to Africa for the winter. After enjoying them for a quick couple of minutes, we raced back to camp and made it minutes before gate close time.

After dinner (during which a black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) was standing on a neighboring table and licking plates clean), we spent a couple hours at the famous floodlit waterhole in camp. We watched as no fewer than ten black rhinos came in and drank before heading over the hill and disappearing into the darkness. At one point, three females with three calves were all at the waterhole at one time. In addition to the mammals, rufous-cheeked (Caprimulgus rufigena) and fiery-necked nightjars (C. pectoralis) were also foraging on insects attracted by the floodlights. They were joined by nocturnal fork-tailed drongos (Dicrurus adsimilis) who spent the whole evening munching on moths.

Over the course of the day, we found around 90 bird species with two lifers each for Melissa and me. Watching the incredible landscape change as we moved from west to east was also an amazing experience and Etosha certainly has not failed to wow us so far. Not only were the landscape and the birds impressive, the sheer numbers as well as diversity of game are unbelievable. Tomorrow, we continue to explore this national park, heading to Halali camp in search of bare-cheeked babblers (Turdoides gymnogenys) and violet wood-hoopoes (Phoeniculus damarensis).

 

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