Caprivi Strip Pt. 1: Revisiting the Red-billed Spurfowl

Well, this has been a long time coming but it is finally here, the first of our Caprivi Strip trip blogs! Caprivi Strip, or the Zambezi region as it is now known, is the panhandle in the northeast of Namibia. It borders or is crossed by four major rivers, the Kavango (which flows into the Okavango Delta), the Kwando, the Chobe, and the infamous Zambezi (which flows on to Victoria Falls and eventually the Indian Ocean). The strip has an interesting and long history. It was first acquired as part of German South West Africa by German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi in 1890. The hope was that the Zambezi River would allow the Germans a trans-continental waterway all the way to the Indian Ocean and their colony of Tanganyika. After the transfer, it was quickly discovered that due in part to the Victoria Falls, this was a pipe dream. Twenty-five years later, during the first World War, South Africa conquered and occupied South West Africa, managing it as a fifth province until Namibian independence in 1990. Caprivi was made a homeland under apartheid law in 1976 with its own flag, anthem and coat of arms but only pseudo-independence. During this period, it was also a key strategic location for ANC operations against the South African apartheid state as well as for fighters in the Angolan Civil War. Evidence of this military history can be seen along the strip in the form of military bases that are either now run by the Namibian government or are crumbing completely.

These days, the Zambezi region is a popular place for birding, fishing and wildlife watching with large portions under protection in the form of Namibian National Parks. More on all of this as well as the habitats in the next blog detailing our time in the region rather than our journey there!

Namib_Pt1
Our initial route up to the Zambezi region of Namibia. We stayed a night outside Windhoek, a night outside Grootfontein, and a night outside Rundu.

Our journey began in Johannesburg where we (Melissa, my mother Sarah, and my godmother also Sarah) departed from O.R. Tambo International Airport. Our departure was not quite as smooth as we would have liked. We boarded the plane, which happened to be broken, took buses back to the terminal, waited, took buses to the new plane, and took off two hours late. However, all went well from there! Customs was a breeze as usual, the local Bradfield’s Swifts (Apus bradfieldi) were swarming around the airport as usual, and our driver was their to meet us! As if the swifts were not enough, we got a bonus in the form of a flock of Rosy-faced Lovebirds (Agapornis roseicollis) screeching away in one of the planted airport palms!

From the airport, we headed to Voightland Guesthouse, one of my favorite farms I’ve ever stayed at. The landscape was a beautiful as ever, arid, mountainous, and covered in camelthorns. Red-billed Buffalo-weavers (Bubalornis niger) filled the trees and Cape Glossy Starlings (Lamprotornis nitens) perched on fence posts as we drove towards the farm. We arrived at dusk, with Red-billed Spurfowls (Pternistis adspersus) calling all around and Lesser Masked-weavers (Ploceus intermedius) coming in to roost in the garden. Gabby, who runs the guesthouse was there to meet us, along with Dayne, our guide for the trip! We all caught up, had a beautiful, homemade supper, and quickly fell asleep.

The next morning, Melissa and I awoke just before sunrise to stalk the Red-billed Spurfowls around the house. It was a beautiful morning filled with the sounds of Red-billed Buffalo-weavers and White-browed Sparrow-weavers (Plocepasser mahali). Within a few minutes, we heard the first spurfowl calls, coming from about fifty meters ahead of us. We moved closer and scanned all around but there were no spurfowl. So we moved even closer but still no spurfowl. Finally, we took one more step and a covey of the birds burst out of a dense Acacia and went running off into the bush. Mission accomplished, another old friend resighted! From there, we joined everyone at breakfast before setting off towards Roy’s Rest Camp in Grootfontein.

Of course being birders, we could not even get out of the long dirt driveway without numerous stops. We spotted a gorgeous pair of Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters (Merops hirundineus) perched near the road. Their blues, greens, and yellows glowing in the early morning sun. This was closely followed by a single Monteiro’s Hornbill (Tockus monteiri) foraging in a dry riverbed along with a flock of dapper Southern Pied Babblers (Turdoides bicolor) on the other side of the road. Petite Scaly-feathered Finches (Sporopipes squamifrons)were dripping off of the barbed wire fences the whole way and shining Pearl-breasted (Hirundo dimidiata) and Barn Swallows (H. rustica) swooped above. It was good to be back in Namibia!

Once we hit the main road, we popped past Klein Windhoek to look for the resident Bat Hawks to no avail and then continued on our way up the B1. There were long quiet stretches but a few avian gems punctuated the drive. A pale-faced Damara Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus damarensis) (a Namibian near-endemic) was perched on a roadside power line and a mystery raptor that soared over turned out to be a young Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus). The Martial Eagle was only the first of many roadside raptors and we soon picked up Tawny (Aquila rapax), Wahlberg’s (Hieraaetus wahlbergi) and Lesser Spotted (Clanga pomarina) Eagles as well as Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), Brown Snake-eagle (Circaetus cinereus), and Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)! Vultures were also in evidence with Lappet-faced and White-backed putting in appearances. A lone rocky patch added to our raptor count with African Hawk-eagle (Aquila spilogaster) and Verreaux’s Eagle (Aquila verreauxii).

By just before lunchtime, we had reached Otjiwarango and so we decided to try our luck at the sewage works for any crakes, rails, flufftails or rarities. It was all fairly quiet although we did pick up quite a few waterbirds including Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Ruff (Calidris pugnax), Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides), and Little Egret (Egretta garzetta). There were also several flocks of colourful granivores including Common (Estrilda astrild) and Black-faced (Estrilda erythronotos) Waxbills and Shaft-tailed Whydah (Vidua regia), so all in all a nice stop and a good leg stretch.

The next stretch up to Otavi was very quiet due to the oppressive midday heat and the napping of most of the observers. However, when we left the B1, the scenery and the birds made a dramatic change. We left the Acacia-dominated habitats and moved into a broad-leaved zone. In addition, we were in a valley between amazing verdant mountains. The raptors continued to amuse us as we added Black-chested Snake-eagle (Circaetus pectoralis) and Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus). We collected our first (and second) Senegal Coucal (Centropus senegalensis) of the trip as well as our first White-bellied Sunbird (Cinnyris talatala). We continued east through the town of Kombat before stopping at a roadside pond full of Knob-billed Ducks (Sarkidiornis melanotos) and Egyptian Geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca). Cinnamon-breasted Buntings (Emberiza tahapisi) and Green-winged Pytilias (Pytilia melba) darted around as an afternoon drizzle began.

The rain had subsided when we reached Grootfontein sewage works, the last stop of the day. The sewage works was busier than Otjiwarango with a handsome Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) terrorising the locals. We also spotted Black-crowned Night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis), White-backed Ducks (Thalassornis leuconotus), and Southern Pochards (Netta erythrophthalma). Perhaps the highlight was our first views of the western subspecies of Village Indigobird (V. chalybeata), well south of its documented range. After an hours birding (and a distasteful interaction with a drunk soldier), we headed on to our accommodation at Roy’s. The habitat changed again with the topography flattening and the appearance of Makalani Palms (Hyphaene petersiana). We finally pulled into Roy’s, just before dark and before dinner.  A shower, dinner, and a quick walk back to our chalets (complete with a fierce-looking Pearl-spotted Owlet (Glaucidium perlatum)) was all we could manage before falling asleep.

The next morning, we awoke early to look for the camp’s most famous residents, the Black-faced Babblers (Turdoides melanops). If you look on any bird tour itinerary or southern African birdfinder, Roy’s will be mentioned because of this easily located population. Sure enough, they were easy to find (although not entirely cooperative for photos). The babblers happily picked through the leaf litter and removed insect carcasses from the camps lights. Once we found the celebrities, we continued our walk around where we spotted a few more goodies including, Red-billed Spurfowl, Black-backed Puffback (Dryoscopus cubla), Brown-crowned Tchagra (Tchagra australis), and Crimson-breasted Shrike (Laniarius atrococcineus). From there, it was breakfast, packing, and hitting the road again. However, Roy’s Camp was not quite done, throwing in an edge of range Carp’s Tit (Melaniparus carpi) on the way out!

It was another long drive up the main road to the northeast. It was periodically broken up with African Grey Hornbills (Lophoceros nasutus), Purple Rollers (Coracias naevius), and Wahlberg’s Eagles. Quick stops would reveal little parties with more and more species to add to the list such as Chinspot Batis (Batis molitor), Grey-backed Cameroptera (Camaroptera brevicaudata), and Marico Sunbird (Cinnyris mariquensis). The land began to change into communal grazing lands with only patches of forest remaining between fields and homesteads. This land still held some interesting birds including a young Ayre’s Hawk-eagle (Hieraaetus ayresii), a Shikra (Accipiter badius), Red-headed Finch (Amadina erythrocephala), and a wing-flicking Dusky Lark (Pinarocorys nigricans). Dusky Lark is a favorite of mine and was bogie bird for many years. It is stunningly different from all other southern African larks with its black and white plumage and migratory habits. Add the fact that it is also quite the nomad, and it really makes every sighting of this species satisfying! Our lists grew and grew as we spotted bright Southern Carmine Bee-eaters (Merops nubicoides), sleek Lanner Falcons (Falco biarmicus), and stunning Groundscraper Thrushes (Psophocichla litsitsirupa).

By just before lunch, we were just south of Rundu at a radio tower famous for its Rufous-bellied Tits (Melaniparus rufiventris), a tricky Caprivi special. The habitat around us was very sandy, sparse Miombo-like woodland. As we drove in, luck seemed on our side with quick view of a female European Honey-buzzard (Pernis apivorus). However, the woodlands were silent with no sign of the tits. We did a walk around to better our chances and picked up some more new species for the list such as African Yellow White-eye (Zosterops senegalensis), Yellow-fronted Canary (Crithagra mozambica), and White-fronted Helmetshrikes (Prionops plumatus) but the tits remained sadly elusive! We ate our lunch, passing out parts of it to the children who had been following us for half our walk, before heading through Rundu and on to our home for the night, Hakusembe River Lodge.

European Honey Buzzard Male - Rundu, Namibia
A far off European Honey-buzzard

From the moment we turned onto Hakusembe’s road, you could tell we were approaching water. The grasslands on either side of the road were swarming with snazzy, bumblebee-like Yellow-crowned Bishops (Euplectes afer) and glowing European Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster). Intermediate Egrets (Egretta intermedia), Common Greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), and Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola) waded in the flooded meadows. People and cattle gathered on the sides of the more open water. We crossed a particularly wide floodplain where we spotted African Openbill (Anastomus lamelligerus), Lesser Moorhen (Paragallinula angulata), and African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus) along with some really interesting weirs built by the local fishermen. We arrived at our new home at about 14:00. Hakusembe is built on the Kavango River which at this particular point, divides Namibia and Angola. It is a gorgeous, shady camp with lush lawns and beautiful deck overlooking the river. While Melissa and my initial plan was to rest and shower, our birding fever got the best of us and we were out again in no time!

One of the most striking things as we began birding was the density of African Pygmy Geese (Nettapus auritus). Every few minutes, one would fly along the river, squeaking as they went. They were perched on all the rafts along the river, they were drifting in the lilies, they were just about everywhere! Within five minutes, we had seen more pygmy geese at Hakusembe then we had seen in all our other sightings of the species combined! We began walking around picking up riverine specials as we went. Wire-tailed Swallows (Hirundo smithii) danced in the skies above us, Green-backed Herons (Butorides striatus) skulked in the river reeds, and Tawny-flanking Prinias (Prinia subflava) shouted from to tops of Papyrus. As we strolled along the river, we began hearing the call of Hartlaub’s Babbler (Turdoides hartlaubii). We walked closer and closer, trying to get eyes on the birds. We scanned reeds and undergrowth, only to discover the babblers on the other side of the river…outside the subregion in Angola. So we waited, and within a few minutes, the group flew across the river into Namibia where they became our first lifer of the trip and our last southern African babbler! Our walk back was just as satisfying! A gorgeous Swamp Boubou (Laniarius bicolor), with a snow white breast, popped out in a Terminalia tree. This was another lifer for both of us and the last of our boubous in the region! The boubou was joined by a bright and beautiful African Golden Weaver (Ploceus subaureuschuking at us from above. And as if all that were  not enough, we got stunning views of Brown Firefinch (Lagonosticta nitidula) in the reeds as we reached the lodge deck! Yet another lifer and the last of the region’s firefinch for us! We decided to rest while we were ahead and joined our other three members for an ice cold Savanna while admiring the mighty Kavango.

After our rest, we decided to go explore a small wetland behind the camp in the hopes of finding a crake or two. We headed out, respotting our babblers, boubous, and weavers along the way. Soon we had reached the edge of the wetland and we began scanning. The highlight was certainly a single Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii) hiding in the reeds but the Black Crake (Amaurornis flavirostra) stalking across the lily pads was also nice to see. We headed out and around to the other side of the wetland. As we marched through the dry grassland penininsula, we flushed a mystery nightjar which flapped off into a far grass patch. Luckily, Dayne snapped a few record shots which later allowed us to ID it as a Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis). We continued our walk to the of the spit, examining the wetland once again for any life. All was quiet and we turned back towards home! As we turned, a single, small, dark heron made an appearance, flying from a distance wetland. When we got it in our binocular sights, it was clear that it was a Rufous-bellied Heron (Ardeola rufiventris), another lifer! Our day could not have gotten any better! We strolled back towards home for a shower and dinner before passing out for the night. The next day, we were headed further east into the Caprivi to look for some infamously difficult birds. More on that in the next blog!

Dwarf Bittern 1 - Hakusembe Lodge, Namibia
A sneaky Dwarf Bittern in the reeds

2 thoughts on “Caprivi Strip Pt. 1: Revisiting the Red-billed Spurfowl

  1. THANKS FOR THE INFO. We will be in the area from Sunday 15th July and hope to be as lucky as you were. Love to read about the rest of your trip….

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