Mozambique Birding Trip : Mostly Magical (Part 3)

The Trip so far

We had set out to cover some of the best summer birding spots of southern Mozambique during a 15 day birding trip and, in the 6 days covered by Parts 1 and 2, we had already seen a lot of special birds. This Part 3 includes further birding of the Rio Savane area outside Beira, then we continue northwards to Mphingwe and the assorted delights of lowland forests plus a hazardous trip to the Zambesi River to look for a highly sought after species of Bee-eater.

The Group

Etienne Marais (Indicator Birding : http://birding.co.za ), our group leader and guide for the trip, with his passengers Corné Rautenbach, Edith Oosthuizen and Bruce Dyer who had all flown up from Cape Town for the trip, Owen and Sue Oertli from Johannesburg, Neithard and Katharina Graf von Durkheim from Pretoria, Myself (also Pretoria) and George Skinner (Johannesburg, but at the time I write this has “emigrated” to Dullstroom).

In describing the trip I have again borrowed from the itinerary which Etienne had drawn up and distributed prior to the trip and which sets it out nicely on a day by day basis ……….

Day 7 Beira to Mphingwe

“After some early morning birding in the Rio Savane area, we depart northwards on the Dondo-Muanza road. This drive is long and the road poor – but it offers excellent birding in the woodlands en route

Overnight : Mphingwe Camp (the cabins are simple wood structures which are pleasantly furnished and beautifully situated within the woodland. The restaurant offers a limited but good menu and early morning coffee is usually provided 30 minutes before departure time.”

Rendezvous time at our lodge in Beira was 5 am for breakfast, but the staff had misunderstood and we had to wait a short while until they were ready.

Immediately after breakfast, we left and headed back to the Rio Savane area for further attempts to find some of the secretive species.

The 40 km of sandy road leading to the Rio Savane was busier this morning and we once again marveled at the local men, riding old-fashioned “dikwiel” bicycles, trying to earn a few Meticals by delivering long bags of charcoal to agents somewhere in town (ie 80 km or more there and back) – there were many of these fit men (some older men too) visible on the road, carefully steering their bikes with their heavy loads mounted crosswise behind the seat.

Charcoal transporters, Rio Savane
Charcoal transporters, Rio Savane

Various stops on the way through the lush fields of grass produced Osprey, Lizard Buzzard, several Black-chested Snake-Eagles again, 5 or 6 African Marsh-Harriers (where else is this species a “trash bird”?) and many Yellow-throated Longclaws.

Rio Savane
Rio Savane
Rio Savane
Rio Savane

Giant Kingfisher was a new one for the trip, as was a pair of Wattled Cranes with a youngster at the far end of one field.

Wattled Crane, Rio Savane (a long way from the camera)
Wattled Crane, Rio Savane (a long way from the camera)

The bridge where we looked for Seedcracker yesterday was busier today with White-browed Robin, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Spectacled Weaver and Black-throated Wattle-Eye (first and only sighting of this species on the trip) all busily going about their daily routine in and amongst the dense bushes.

Kathrin and Edith enjoy a rest at Rio Savane (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
Kathrin and Edith enjoy a rest at Rio Savane (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
Dragonfly
Dragonfly

We followed this with a couple of “rope trick” attempts, hoping to flush a Blue Quail, but to no avail and we returned sweating to the vehicles but energized for the long (in terms of time) trip to Mphingwe.

We did 9 hours of driving in all for the day, covering some 480 km on the way to Mphingwe along the EN1 National road, which for long stretches is in a shocking state, so it was a case of constant vigilance and a drunken style of driving, swerving back and forth to avoid the worst potholes. Passing Gorongosa National Park, we stopped to take in the view of the Gorongosa mountain in the distance.

Gorongosa
Gorongosa
A stop on the road near Gorongosa
A stop on the road near Gorongosa
Stick insect, Gorongosa (males are usually smaller than females)
Stick insect, Gorongosa (males are usually smaller than females)

Once settled in at Mphingwe, we enjoyed a superb dinner – simple food well cooked.

Mphingwe turn-off
Mphingwe turn-off

We had arrived to heavy rain and hoped that the weather would play along the next day, which promised to be special.

Day 8 and 9 Catapu Area

“We have three full days in the Catapu area which includes the Zambesi River and associated wetlands, the Zangue floodplain, Coutada 12 and Catapu itself. The time will be managed according to the birds we see and what the priorities are. Catapu provides access to excellent patches of lowland forest…. In late summer large numbers of Cuckoos are often present.

Overnight : Mphingwe Camp.”

We had our first exposure to proper lowland forest birding, doing a long circuit on day 8 and a shorter out-and-back trip on day 9.

The forest was pristine and stretched for tens of kms and it seemed that wherever we stopped there was bird life aplenty to be seen. Once off the tar road, which also provided excellent roadside birding but was rendered a little hazardous by passing trucks and buses, we made frequent stops along the quiet sandy roads, each stop providing opportunities to see and hear the numerous specials.

Road through the forest, Catapu area
Road through the forest, Catapu area
Here comes the team (part of it) (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
Here comes the team (part of it) (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
What's happening?  (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
What’s happening? (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
Butterfly : Eyed bush brown (henotesia perspicua), Catapu area
Butterfly : Eyed bush brown (henotesia perspicua), Catapu area

Some of these were fairly easily found and seen, such as :

  • Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah – up until then this species had an almost mythical feel for me, but in fact we saw it a few times during the two days, proving once again that many “rare” species change to common when you are in the right spot
Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah
Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah
  • Retz’s Helmetshrike
  • Black-winged Red Bishop (the old name of Fire-crowned Bishop still suits it better)
Black-winged Red Bishop
Black-winged Red Bishop
  • Grey-headed Parrot in small flocks, calling in typical squawky parrot fashion
Grey-headed Parrot
Grey-headed Parrot
  • Emerald Cuckoo
  • Thrush Nightingale – calling melodiously from a roadside bush but refusing to show itself, as they are wont to do
  • Buffy Pipit
Buffy Pipit
Buffy Pipit
  • Cuckoos, both Common (European) and African – each time we came across one of these it generated some discussion as to which one it was – they are very alike with only the subtlest of differences in bill colouring. At least once we wondered whether the species we were looking at could be of the Lesser/Madagascar species but could not come to a conclusion.
Cuckoo on a cable, Catapu area
Cuckoo on a cable, Catapu area
African Cuckoo, Catapu area
African Cuckoo, Catapu area
  • Zambezi Indigobird – seen a few times
  • Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike – raised the pulse rates of a few in the group, being a lifer and quite a dramatic bird
Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike
Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike

Then it was the turn of some of the more difficult species as we tried to get a glimpse of Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo which was calling stridently close by, but concealing himself in the tall trees to the extent that all we could see was a dark shape flitting about, until he kindly flew across the road high above our heads, allowing the briefest of glimpses.

At certain stops, Etienne took us into the forest where the relatively clear understory allowed easy access, found a suitable clearing and had us sit down in a crescent to wait for target species to react to calls played on a remote speaker. It’s a wonderful way to do forest birding, in surroundings that couldn’t be more peaceful and the combination of sitting in a comfy camp chair, surrounded by trees with dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy, with  no  sound  but   the   soft   calls   of   forest   birds , tends .. to ..  make ..  you …  quite drowsy ….. ….. zzznnnggggzzzzznnnnggg (oops, it’s happening again) and at least one of our group succumbed for a while, head bowed and snoring quietly!

Waiting for the bus (or a rare bird) (Photo ; George Skinner)
Waiting for the bus (or a rare bird) (Photo : George Skinner)
Forest floor (Photo ; George Skinner)
Forest floor (Photo : George Skinner)
Butterfly : Brown Commodore (Junonia natalica natalica), Catapu area
Butterfly : Brown Commodore (Junonia natalica natalica), Catapu area

In this way some of the group got brief glimpses of White-chested Alethe (I think I was the only one to actually see it), Tiny Greenbul, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and better views of East Coast Akalat.  While waiting, a Mangrove Kingfisher came and sat on a branch literally above our heads.

Mangrove Kingfisher
Mangrove Kingfisher

The calls we heard ranged from Square-tailed Drongo to Narina Trogon, in between the vociferous calls of Tiny Greenbul, very vocal but hard to see.

Overgrown track in Catapu area
Overgrown track in Catapu area
Kite Spider, Catapu area
Kite Spider, Catapu area
Joker / Tolliegrasvegter (Byblia anvatara acheloia), Catapu area
Joker / Tolliegrasvegter (Byblia anvatara acheloia), Catapu area

At other spots we waded through shoulder height grass and into wooded areas and were rewarded with sightings of Cabanis’s Bunting, Short-winged Cisticola amongst others.

More birders in the bush, Coutada 12 area
More birders in the bush, Coutada 12 area
Birders beating about the bush (Corne (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
Birders beating about the bush (Corne (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
Short-winged Cisticola
Short-winged Cisticola – Etienne pointed out the main feature of this bird ie no features at all

All of this wonderful birding (and some butterflies) made up for the fact that I started suffering around lunchtime with an aching body and tummy problems which got progressively worse as the day wore on – some sort of bug had got to me.

Back at Mphingwe, I skipped dinner and on one of my trips to the toilet block in the dark, while pointing my torch at the pathway to see where I was going, I hit my head against the protruding edge of the corrugated iron roof, cutting the top of my head quite severely in the process. It’s well-known that your head bleeds profusely when cut and this was very much the case with me – blood poured down my face and over my glasses until I could get hold of a towel to wrap around my head and soak up some of the worst of it. But enough of the gory detail – suffice to say I sought assistance and it came in the form of Mandy, ex nurse now working at Mphingwe and resident there, who worked some magic, cleaning the wound and applying strategic plasters that held it together. The slight scar I have will forever remind me of that evening.

The camp staff cut off the offending, dangerously protruding roof the next morning, so others won’t have to worry about suffering the same fate.

Day 10 Via Sena to Rademan’s Farm and back

Day 10 was a day of mixed fortunes, to say the least. I was not on top of the world after last night’s drama, but my head was not too uncomfortable and my tummy manageable so I clocked in with the others for the day’s outing. We left after early morning coffee at around 5.30 am and did a short recce along the road in the vicinity of the turn-off to Mphingwe, but heavy mist made it difficult to spot much, other than a Harrier-Hawk and an initially puzzling raptor which turned out to be an African Goshawk.

Misty pond near Mphingwe
Misty pond near Mphingwe
African Goshawk in the mist, Mphingwe
African Goshawk in the mist, Mphingwe

Then we moved on to Caia 30 km away for two of the vehicles to fill up with petrol, which had been unobtainable for a day or two – they had to be content with roadside “take away” petrol at inflated prices as the regular petrol station had run out. From Caia we took the road to Sena along a road which fast turned out to be the worst kind for a vehicle – rough and rutted dirt that shook the vehicles to their core for the whole 80 kms. I was concerned about what it may do to my vehicle but pressed on at speed in order not to lose contact with the rest of the group, hoping that everything would hold together.

There was a good reason for taking on this poor road – our destination was the farm where we hoped to find Bohm’s Bee-eater (remember Inspector Closeau’s “bomb”) – a highly sought after bird in the Southern African region. Part of the way there, Etienne stopped at a small graveyard with a few large Palm trees and heavy surrounding bush – ideal habitat for another desirable species, Collared Palm-Thrush, and, true to their name, there they were.

Collared Palm-Thrush, in palm grove on the Road to Sena
Collared Palm-Thrush, in palm grove on the Road to Sena
Looking for a Palm-Thrush in the dead centre of town
Looking for a Palm-Thrush in the dead centre of town
Collared Palm-Thrush
Collared Palm-Thrush

A Blue-spotted Dove made a brief appearance to add to the moment and as we were on the verge of leaving a large raptor flew over the nearby tall trees and settled in the top of one, then took off to soar high over our heads, causing much camera activity amongst the group. It turned out to be Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, despite our attempts to turn it into the Western variety, nevertheless a desirable tick.

Blue-spotted Dove
Blue-spotted Dove
Butterfly : Green-banded swallowtail / groenlintswaelstert (Princeps nireus lyaeus)
Butterfly : Green-banded swallowtail / groenlintswaelstert (Princeps nireus lyaeus)
Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, Road to Sena
Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, Road to Sena
Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, Road to Sena
Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, Road to Sena

Arriving at the farm at last, shaken but not stirred, we were immediately “greeted” by our target species, Bohm’s Bee-eater, in the garden of one homestead on the way to the main farm-house, hawking insects from open branches. Thrilled with this special sighting we recovered enough composure to check out the Yellow Wagtail nearby (thunbergi race).

Bohm's Bee-Eater, Rademan's Farm on Zambezi River
Bohm’s Bee-Eater, Rademan’s Farm on Zambezi River
Bohm's Bee-Eater, Rademan's Farm on Zambezi River
Bohm’s Bee-Eater, Rademan’s Farm on Zambezi River
Yellow Wagtail (race Thunbergi)
Yellow Wagtail (race Thunbergi)

Etienne had the owner’s permission to use their verandah even though they were not at home, which we gladly did, enjoying breakfast with a view of the Zambesi at the bottom of the garden and several species in the trees. I wonder where else would you be able to view six species of Bee-eater in one location? Apart from Bohm’s there were White-fronted, Little, Carmine, Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters.

On the verandah at Rademan's Farm (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
On the verandah at Rademan’s Farm (Photo : Corne Rautenbach)
The gardens at Rademan's Farm, Zambezi River in the distance
The gardens at Rademan’s Farm, Zambezi River in the distance

A walk around the garden and birding a patch of dense undergrowth nearby added a number of species with highlights being :

  • Great Reed-Warbler calling constantly from the undergrowth
  • Goliath Heron flying overhead
  • Rufous-bellied Heron over the river
  • Thrush Nightingale and Basra Reed-Warbler calling from the same clump of bushes but remaining concealed despite our attempts to flush them
  • Willow Warbler foraging in the trees
Willow Warbler
Willow Warbler
Striped Kingfisher, Rademan's Farm on Zambezi River
Striped Kingfisher, Rademan’s Farm on Zambezi River

Eventually we gathered ourselves for the return journey along the same bone-rattling and car-shaking road – we hadn’t gone very far when my heart sank as I felt and heard a knocking from the transmission tunnel next to my seat, gradually getting worse until I was forced to drive at snail’s pace for the last 30 kms, but fortunately made it back to Mphingwe. Neithard and Kathrin in their Pathfinder were less fortunate as the fan had dislodged itself and caused the radiator to lose all its coolant, so the remaining 2 vehicles had to help get them back to the camp. A disastrous end to an amazing day’s birding! One consolation was a Moustached Grass-Warbler in long grass next to the road, a lifer for me.

Moustached Grass Warbler, on the Road to Sena
Moustached Grass Warbler, on the Road to Sena

The next day was Sunday so any attempts to repair the Touareg would have to wait until Monday, when Joe, an experienced Mechanic and responsible for keeping Mphingwe’s sawmills in operating condition, undertook to assess the damage and see what could be done.

That took care of the rest of the planned trip for George and myself, as the group was due to travel to Zimbabwe on Monday and we were not sure how and when the vehicle would be repaired or how we would get back home, all of 1500 kms away.

Part 4 will conclude this particular trip story – will we make it back home? Tune in next time to find out.

Map of the route

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