Namibia Day 8: Admiring the African golden oriole

Today, we continued our journey eastwards in Etosha to Halali camp. Halali is a smaller camp in the middle of mopane (Colophospermum mopane) woodland below a dolomite hill. It is famous for being one of the most reliable place for violet wood-hoopoes (Phoeniculus damarensis) and bare-cheeked babbler (Turdoides gymnogenys). Halali is also near many productive waterholes where Namibia’s isolated population of blue cranes (Anthropoides paradiseus) breed. In addition to the incredible birds of Halali, the game is also quite good with many leopard (Panthera pardus), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), and lion (P. leo) in the area as well as both species of rhino.

We had an early breakfast (no jackal this time) at Okaukuejo before heading out at gate open time to look for pink-billed lark (Spizocorys conirostris) and rufous-eared warbler (Malcorus pectoralis) as well as checking in on the previous day’s Caspian plover (Charadrius asiaticus). We checked all the pink-billed lark spots multiple times, checking under shrubs and bushes and listening for their call but the larks were not home anywhere we looked. Despite dipping on the pink-billed larks, we were successful in finding a single male rufous-eared warbler in some karoo-like scrub. They are handsome little birds with chestnut colored cheeks, a black band across their breast, and a tail that is nearly always cocked.

After our rufous-eared warbler, we continued exploring the Okaukuejo area, looking for whatever we could find. Our Caspian plovers seemed to have disappeared and we did not see them again but we did find a single bull elephant (Loxodonta africana), a bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), and plenty of plains game. At Gemsbokvlaagte, we found pair of Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii) stallions fighting over a small herd of mares and foals. Zebra males tend to fight by trying to bite and break their opponents rear Achilles’s tendon. They spent at least a half hour biting and kicking before we left. Every time one got close to the others tendon, the victim would sit down to protect it. Before we headed due east, we went to check for the plovers one more time. As we were heading to the waterhole, we spotted a single lioness walking on the crest of a hill. When we got closer, we found a whole pride of lions taking refuge under a cluster of small bushes. They watched us with their huge orange eyes in a way that definitely made us all feel like prey. We continued on and Dayne decided to try one more loop to look for our elusive pink-billed lark. We didn’t find the lark but Melissa did spot a massive male lion under a tree with a freshly killed zebra. We must have missed the kill by a few minutes as he had not begun to eat his prey and was simply panting under the tree.

From the loop, we headed straight to Halali. The first waterhole we stopped at held two blue cranes. They gracefully made their way through the long, brown grass with the massive salt pan in the background, certainly a far cry from their habitats in Overberg in the Western Cape or the Devon grasslands where we have seen them before. After the cranes, we found a group of twenty or so white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) on a dead zebra. White-backed vultures are extremely gregarious feeders as well as being incredibly competitive eaters. The strongest birds will eat the most and the best parts of the carcass while the weaker birds will miss out. This leads to a high mortality rate of first and second year birds as they simply cannot compete with the adults. We watched the vultures tussling, hissing, and gorging themselves on zebra for a few minutes before carrying on. Just before we reached the camp, we spotted a lone white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) plodding through an open grassy plain. This was quite a rare sighting as there are very few white rhinos in Etosha. They were introduced quite recently back into the park.

We arrived at beautiful Halali camp and enjoyed lunch while being watched by a single striped tree-squirrel eating a French fry. After lunch, we had promised ourselves that we were going to take a nap but that idea quickly left our heads when a group of violet wood-hoopoes flapped past. We followed them through the camp, listening to their laughing calls as they foraged under bark all around us. As we were watching them, we caught a flash of yellow and black fly by. We quickly followed the bird and found our first ever African golden oriole (Oriolus auratus) sitting in a large mopane. The bird disappeared as quickly as it arrived. Funny how such a bright bird can disappear so thoroughly. After that, all chances of a nap disappeared and we decided to spend the next hour exploring the camp. We found plenty to look at. To begin with we flushed a striped leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros vittatus) from under the eaves of our chalet. It flew to a nearby tree and hung, grimacing at us with massive, white teeth. After that, Dayne pointed out a roosting African scops owl (Otus senegalensis), sitting on a large shelf mushroom, panting in the heat. Lastly, Melissa and I headed to the waterhole to see what we could find. We found a few impala (Aepyceros melampus) drinking and a single Damara hornbill (Tockus damarensis) sitting in the shade. Over all it was a productive hour of birding although a nap would have been nice too.

We headed out for our afternoon drive along the edge of the pan. There was plenty to look at including a single black rhino (Diceros bicornis), an African purple swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis) looking very out of place in a tiny freshwater seep, and two pairs of blue crane, one with a tiny chick. We also picked up our first rattling cisticola (Cisticola chiniana) for the year, singing loudly from the top of a dead bush. We eventually decided to spend some time at the beautiful Rietfontein waterhole. It is a beautiful, reedy body of water and was filled with life. There were the ubiquitous red-billed teals (Anas erythrorhyncha), wood sandpipers (Tringa glareola), blacksmith lapwings (Vanellus armatus), and Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca) as well as some scarcer residents. There were no fewer than 50 South African shelducks (Tadorna cana) milling around in the deeper water. A single African jacana (Actophilornis africanus) was delicately foraging on its long toes in the marshy edge along with a well camouflaged African snipe (Gallinago nigripennis).

However, the highlight of the waterhole was the diversity of raptors. It began with a young African fish-eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) sitting in the reeds and was followed by a single harrier swooping in, flushing shorebirds as it came. It was instantly clear that it was a gorgeous male pallid harrier (Circus macrourus). The harrier landed in the bright green grass and sat drinking the whole time we were there. Next, a massive tawny eagle (Aquila rapax) flew in and was instantly harassed by a very persistent Cape crow (Corvus capensis). Eventually, the eagle took off with its vicious crow right behind. The storm front in the back ground also pushed the small migratory falcons in and so we found a single male Amur falcon (Falco amurensis) along with half a dozen Western red-footed falcons (F. vespertinus). These tiny birds migrate from eastern Asia and Europe respectively in their thousands, wintering in Africa and feasting on insects before heading back to the breeding grounds. Once we had finished with our raptors, we headed back to camp with a quick stop at the runway to find a pair of buffy pipits (Anthus vaalensis).

After dinner, we spent the evening trying to pick up on a southern white-faced owl (Ptilopsis granti). We missed the white-faced owl but did pick up barn owl (Tyto alba) and pearl-spotted owlet (Glaucidium perlatum) as well as hearing the African scops owl again. We also spent some time at the hide and found a mother and calf black rhino drinking but no leopards. Maybe next time.

We found over 100 bird species today including two lifers (the oriole and the harrier) each for Melissa and me. Halali camp is beautiful, quiet, and full of birds. Tomorrow, we are targeting the bare-cheeked babblers before heading to our final Etosha camp, Namutoni.

 

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