Namibia Day 9: Breakfasting with the bare-cheeked babblers

Today, we moved on from Halali camp to Namutoni, the most eastern camp in Etosha. Namutoni has a long military history. It began in 1897 when the Germans built a small camp to prevent livestock movement from Ovamboland south to the German controlled areas due to a nasty rinderpest (a cattle disease) outbreak. In addition, the camp attempted to prevent smuggling from the German controlled areas to Ovamboland. In 1902, the Germans built the famous white fort that can be seen at the camp today. Unrest between the Hereros supported by the Ovambos and the Germans was increasing during this period and in 1904, 500 Ovambos sieged the fort. Although 200 Ovambos were lost, the Germans temporally left the fort before returning at the end of the year. From this point, the fort was manned until 1912 when the unrest decreased to the point that the fortress was no longer needed. Thirty-five years later in 1947, the fort was declared a national heritage site and in 1957, it opened as part of the tourist camp and forms the center of Namutoni. It is surrounded by beautiful savanna and is the closest camp to Andoni Plains, a grassland area in the north.

Before we left Halali for Namutoni, we had one more target to find, the bare-cheeked babbler (Turdoides gymnogenys). Babblers, in this case the genus Turdoides (although there are other babblers in Asia) are a fascinating group of birds named for their raucous calls. There are 30 species in total of which 17 species are exclusively African (five in southern Africa). All of the African species live in highly social groups, breeding cooperatively and contributing to raising the young. They cement their bonds by allopreening, basically grooming each other. Bare-cheeked babbler is a near endemic species to Namibia, extending into southern Angola and is definitely on the most wanted list for visiting birders.

Before we went to bed, Dayne told us to get to his chalet at 6:40am to go search for the babblers. We arrived a couple minutes early and were looking around when at EXACTLY 6:40am, the babblers pitched up in a tree five meters from Dayne’s chalet. It was as though we made an appointment with them.  Because the babblers live in a busy tourist camp, they were extremely relaxed. They jumped around on the white rocks around the chalets, talking to each other with quiet contact calls. One proceeded to hop up on one of the camp lights and pick dead moths off of it, one by one. Another pair sat in a nearby mopane (Colophospermum mopane), allopreening. It was truly everything you could wish for in a bare-cheeked babbler sighting. After our fill of babblers, we had breakfast and packed up. We spotted the violet wood-hoopoes (Phoeniculus damarensis) and African golden oriole (Oriolus auratus) around the camp before heading to the waterhole one more time. There were plenty of birds to watch including a pearl-spotted owlet (Glaucidium perlatum) being carefully watched by a willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) and a pair of Carp’s tits (Parus carpi) noisily foraging in the trees.

We headed out for our morning drive via the runway again. Right at the end of the short dirt strip, we heard the distinctive “purple jeep” call of the monotonous lark (Mirafra passerina). Everyone scanned around looking for the source of the call and soon we spotted a displaying bird with its distinctive white throat puffed out. Monotonous larks are truly an incredible species, descending on areas in huge numbers when the conditions (rains) are right. When they arrive, males will display and sing their repetitive call day in night in hopes of wooing a female. Because of their nomadic nature, they can be a tricky bird to find so it was nice to add it to the year list. We continued our drive with a little loop where we encountered a single black rhino (Diceros bicornis), hundreds of European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) and a single yellow-bellied eremomela (Eremomela icteropygialis). And of course, we had to head back to Rietfontein to see what we could find. At first, it all appeared quiet, with only the waterhole regulars, but as we say and scanned the area, we found plenty to be watched. As we sat and watched, car after car came to tell us that there was a lion (Panthera leo) right on the side of the road and seemed baffled when we did not immediately rush off to find it. As we all checked out the waterhole, Melissa spotted a single cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) 500m away under a bush. How she saw it we really have no idea but it was nice to find our own cat. In addition to the cat, we got a nice surprise in the form of a Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo) flying over our heads. And after having our fill of Rietfontein, we still found the lion, right where she had been lying all along. From there we drove to Namutoni and found another white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) and flocks of flamingos in a single salty puddle on the edge of the pan.

We arrived at beautiful Namutoni for lunch and a break before the afternoon drive. The camp was filled with birdlife, starting with a white-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) flyover while we were filling the car up. Red-faced mousebirds (Urocolius indicus), Cape glossy starlings (Lamprotornis nitens), and red-billed buffalo weavers (Bubalornis niger) zoomed around the camp. We had lunch (and lots of cold drinks) and spent a half hour at the camp waterhole seeing what we could find. Another purple swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis) showed up along with a single black crake (Amaurornis flavirostra). The world’s mangiest black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) also joined us with not a single hair on his body. The highlight was a lesser spotted eagle (Clanga pomarina) that flew in and walked around twenty meters from the water.

We left for our afternoon drive earlier than usual, pushing it to try to reach Andoni plains and look for the Eastern clapper lark (Mirafra fasciolata). On our way out, we pulled into Klein Okevi waterhole for a quick look and found a black rhino and THREE cheetah, a mother and two cubs. The rhino moved off quickly but the cheetah remained, stretching, licking each other and eventually moving to the waterhole for drink. They walked less than five meters from the front of the car. It was the most amazing cheetah sighting of my life. The rest of the journey to Andoni plains was relatively uneventful with another lesser spotted eagle and our only greater blue-eared starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus) of the trip. We arrived at the plains in late afternoon. There was game everywhere including giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii), blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), and a single bull elephant (Loxodonta africana). Big birds, such as kori bustard (Ardeotis kori), blue crane (Anthropoides paradiseus), and secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius), stalked through the tall grass. A quick stop at Andoni waterhole revealed a Cape teal (Anas capensis) and another Caspian plover (Charadrius asiaticus). The plover was so close to us when we noticed him, he was nearly roadkill! Despite being close, he refused to turn around and show us his rufous chest. We never did find our clapper lark but luckily there was plenty to look at.

 

Heading home, it began to rain for the first time during the trip. It was brief but it cooled everything down. We drove around Fischer’s Pan, an offshoot of the main pan. Hundreds of western red-footed falcons (Falco vespertinus) were sitting in the pan with a few Amur falcons (F. amurensis) mixed in with them. As we crossed the pan, we noticed a large male black rhino, walking in the road ahead of us. We sneaked closer and close but every time we got anywhere near, he would turn and mock charge. He moved along the road for 100 meters with us trailing behind him before finally deciding to move off the road. This was our chance. Dayne gunned it past as he gave us a quick charge before reoccupying his road. Dayne took us to Klein Namutoni for our last stop of the afternoon. It was relatively quiet with the exception of a single common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) and a dozen black-winged pratincoles (Glareola nordmanni). It was a nice end to the drive though with plenty of common waterfowl milling around.

We arrived back at camp and had a nice dinner before heading to the waterhole for a quick check of who was around. The highlight was certainly a Verreaux’s eagle-owl (Bubo lacteus) sitting on a snag beyond the waterhole. This was closely followed by a barn owl (Tyto alba) fly-by. Besides the owls, all was quiet and we had a relatively early evening.

We spotted about 80 bird species over the course of the day as well as some incredible mammals. Both Melissa and I had a single lifer, the incredible bare-cheeked babbler but we also saw plenty of other special birds. Tomorrow, we leave the park and head south to the Waterberg Plateau. It’s also our last full day in Namibia. The Waterberg is our last chance to pick up Hartlaub’s spurfowl (Francolinus hartlaubi) and rockrunner (Achaetops pycnopygius), two sought after near-endemics. Hopefully we will strike it lucky!

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