Our group for the trip comprised George and Barbara Skinner, Koos Pauw and myself – two late withdrawals reduced the party to four instead of the planned six, plus our two guides for the trip, Gary Douglas and Jonathan (Jonno) Francis. These two, operating as Douglas and Francis Safaris, have been highly praised in birding circles and deservedly so, for their exceptional knowledge of all things natural, their amazing ability to find the specials and their absolute determination to make your trip the best one ever – all accompanied by good humour, excellent food and unbridled enthusiasm. “Guys come quickly, you’ve got to see this!!” became the signal to rush over to one or the other to view the latest sighting, by which time they often had a scope trained on the bird for outstanding views.
What follows will never do justice to the fantastic experience of birding with them, but for the record, here goes:
Day 1 : We were collected by Jonno at HarareAirport and immediately started our Trip List with Abdim’s Stork plus a few other common birds as we were taken to the Francis home, our base for the next 2 days. We were hardly out of the vehicle when Jonno shouted Whyte’s Barbet and there was our first lifer before we had even considered seeing one! After a quick lunch we set off for the Harare Botanical Gardens where we had a busy couple of hour’s birding, collecting Green-backed Honeybird, which had Jonno in an extreme state of excitement, something we experienced a number of times over the following days. The gardens are unlike most others of our experience – no manicured lawns and flower beds with “keep off” signs, just a wonderful collection of plants and trees allowed to go their natural course for the most part. The feeling is of being in wild forest country rather than the middle of Harare.
Later the same day, when the rest of our group arrived, we were off to Rainham Dams near Harare where we spent the time until sunset combing the water and adjoining vleis for the specials – Black Coucal, Senegal Coucal were easily spotted and a Western Marsh-Harrier did a majestic fly-past, while Variable and Copper Sunbirds showed in the bushes.
Day 2 : An early trip to one of Harare’s vleis in search of Streaky-breasted Flufftail, which had arrived following substantial rains according to Gary and Jonno. After a few attempts at surrounding the spots from which the calls were emanating, 2 were persuaded to flush and fly a short distance, affording good views. We ended up with very wet shoes, a few ticks of the biting kind and a number of the birding variety, including excellent views of Rosy-throated Longclaw, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Cuckoo Finch and Yellow-mantled Widowbird.
Back to the house for dry shoes and an energizing breakfast, watched over by Red-billed Firefinch, then off to prime Miombo Woodland in the Christon Bank area which produced great views of Collared Flycatcher, Cabanis’s Bunting, Miombo Tit amongst a busy bird party of around 20 species which gave us non-stop ticking opportunities. Further along, a second stop was as good and included Red-faced Crombec, Grey Penduline-tit and stunning views of Spotted Creeper as it went from branch to branch. A young Boomslang in a small bush was a surprise sighting and had us walking with slightly less abandon as we wondered where his closest relatives were residing.
A late afternoon visit to the Botanical gardens for those who did not get there the previous day produced a good crop of birds including a stately Ovambo Sparrowhawk high up in a tree and, just as we were leaving, the call of a Buff-spotted Flufftail had us excited but it refused to be tempted into the open for a sighting before darkness fell.
Day 3 : Another early start to get our shoes wet in another of Harare’s “amazing vleis” (could this be the title of a birder’s anthem?) – the gradual encroachment by allotment farmers creating a patchwork of mielies right across the vlei were disturbing, nevertheless good sightings of Great Reed-Warbler, African Reed-Warbler, Little Rush-Warbler and Orange-breasted Waxbills perked up our spirits. Red-chested Flufftails were heard calling but attempts to flush them failed.
After another hearty breakfast, accompanied by the resident nesting Paradise Flycatchers, we headed off to one of Harare’s Sewerage farms which proved to have an abundance of birds such as Abdim’s Storks, White-backed Vultures and Black Kites. The verdant green kikuyu pastures were filled with prime cattle, hundreds of Cattle Egrets and tens of Yellow Wagtails, making for a memorable scene as they all moved in unison against the brilliant green grass backdrop – who says Sewerage farms are ugly? Exiting the farm we found a Dark-capped Yellow Warbler in a roadside bush and picked up a Black-chested Snake-Eagle on a distant pylon.
Late afternoon saw us in more beautiful Miombo woodland north of Harare – this time to look for Wood and Tree Pipits in particular – an obliging Tree Pipit caused much excitement, followed by a White-breasted Cuckooshrike, but the Wood Pipit would have to wait. We came to the conclusion that Miombo woodland makes for excellent birding apart from the special birds – it is easy to access, the trees are not too tall and there are no thorny bushes to impede progress.
Day 4 : An enormous day from all points of view! We set off from Harare just after 6am and headed south towards Marondera. A breakfast stop at Gosho Park provided another opportunity for Miombo birding which produced stunning views of Miombo Rock-Thrush, a Freckled Nightjar that flushed from the rocky outcrops and other specials such as Redfaced Crombec, Black-eared Seedeaters, Spotted Creeper and a Wood Pipit to make up for the previous day’s dip.
A vlei selected by our expert guides a bit further along had us sweating as we trudged through the long grass, but the excitement ran high when first a Black-rumped Buttonquail and then our target species of Locustfinch flushed, flew a short distance and dived back into the grass, affording good views to the group.
Our next stop for lunch was a well-chosen rocky outcrop with wonderful views and equally wonderful birding – by now we were starting to appreciate just how good our two guides were as they spotted one special bird after the other, in between naming every tree, butterfly, squirrel that we queried. We hardly had time to enjoy the tasty Pit(t)a burgers between viewing the birds on offer : Yellow-bellied Waxbill, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Robert’s Warbler, Singing Cisticola, Bronzy Sunbird plus others.
And there was more to come before the day ended…. a brief detour towards Nyanga National Park to search for Blue Swallows was successful at the second stop and a Blue-spotted Dove flew up as we passed and eyed us from an open branch close to the road.
Finally we proceeded to our overnight stop at Far and Wide Resort near Mutarazi Falls where the last half hour of a stunning day was spent at a viewpoint overlooking the Honde Valley 1000m (yes, one kilometre vertically!) below and to top it all Scarce Swifts appeared as we enjoyed a sundowner.
Day 5 : An early walk in the forested area surrounding the resort produced glimpses of Barrat’s Warbler and good views of Stripe-cheeked Greenbul but the one that really bowled us over was a Red-faced Crimsonwing feeding at the edge of the path.
Sightings of Bronze-naped Pigeon and Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler rounded off the early morning.
Most of the rest of the day was spent travelling to Aberfoyle with several stops along the way to enjoy the views and further specials such as Grey Waxbill and Livingstone’s Turaco. On arrival at Aberfoyle there was hardly time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings as various birds put in an appearance – Eastern Sawwing swept gracefully past us and an African Broadbill was spotted sitting quietly on a nearby branch. Palmnut Vultures flew by and a Green-backed Woodpecker had us running to the spot where Jonno and Gary had set up the scope to view it. Red-throated Twinspot and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird put in a welcome appearance during the afternoon.
- Day 6 : A slower day’s birding, to allow us all to recharge, started with a dawn trip to the nearby marsh on the estate to find the Anchieta’s Tchagra, which we duly did. Half-collared Kingfisher and Silvery-cheeked Hornbill were added to the list on the way back. On our return, Pallid Honeyguide caused excitement in the gardens of the country club, after which we walked a stretch of the golf course to view some of the spectacular butterflies present. Lunch was at the river which flows through the estate and the humidity persuaded us to take a dip in the cold clear waters, followed by a siesta. Having heard the Buff-spotted Flufftail calling from the forest adjoining the club, we spent the late afternoon tracking it and persuading it to show, once again to no avail.
Day 7 : Another full day travelling, this time our destination was Vumba in the highlands, with more magnificent scenery along the way – various stops produced several lifers for all : Zambezi Indigobird in a dry tree next to the road, a pair of Augur Buzzards soaring in the wind, fleeting glimpses of Magpie Mannikins as they flew across the road and a Black-winged Bishop amongst mielies, looking for all the world like the familiar Southern Red Bishop until he flew a short distance, displaying the paddle-shaped black wings that our guides had warned us to look out for.
Near our destination we stopped in a heavily forested area where we had an incredible encounter with a Swynnerton’s Robin which we struggled to see in the dense undergrowth until it made its way slowly and deliberately towards where our group was anxiously crouching, where it was an arm’s length away – it eyed us for a while until it wandered off, leaving us shaking our heads at the jaw-dropping views of this uncommon bird.
Once settled in our accommodation we spent the last hour of the day in the adjoining forest which quickly produced Orange Ground Thrush and glimpses of Lemon Doves as well as Olive Sunbird.
Day 8 : After a forest walk and breakfast, our last full day was spent driving the route to Burma Valley and back, enjoying the picturesque scenery in the misty conditions. Highlights along the route included a Lanner Falcon posing imperiously in a tree, good sightings of Magpie Mannikin and an Emerald Cuckoo on an open branch. Our guides once again found a couple of specials in Cinnamon-breasted Tit and Pale Batis in adjoining trees.
Day 9 : The last day held a few more surprises in store for us before boarding the plane at Harare International for the trip back to Gauteng. As we were departing Seldom Seen a Black-fronted Bush-Shrike was heard and shortly after well seen by all. With a long way to travel and limited time for stops, our guides concentrated on finding a few more lifers for us at selected spots along the way back to Harare. We were fortunate to find both Boulder Chat and Thrush Nightingale at one of these spots along with a handsome Shikra, while another small dam produced a pair of Pygmy Geese and a bonus of a fly-past of a group of Mottled Swifts.
A final walk through a vlei by half our group (the rest had an earlier flight and unfortunately had to rush ahead) intent on flushing something special, struck gold when a pair of Blue Quail flushed in front of us, topping off what had turned into the birding trip of a lifetime.
We ended off with a trip list well over 300 and lifers ranging between 48 and 72 for the members of our group. My own lifers count was a stunning 60!