A flying visit
If ever you need proof that birdwatchers are a different breed, turn to Martin Benadie. By his own admission he is consumed by a quest to spot as many species as he can in his lifetime. He’s travelled all over Africa, but he repeatedly returns to one country… Namibia. In Namibia, he claims, it’s impossible not to catch the ‘birding bug’. Recently he set himself a test. How many different birds could he spot on a two-week trip? Hold on to your sunhats. Here’s how he got on. 

 

My wife says I am addicted to birding. If she’s right, then Namibia is my ultimate ‘fix’. We were barely off the plane before we saw the vibrant crimson-breasted shrike, yellow-billed hornbills and iridescent Cape glossy starlings. We set out from Hosea Kutako International Airport with our sedan packed with basic camping gear, camera equipment, binoculars and spotting scopes. The air was heavy with the anticipation of many ‘lifers’ – bird watchers’ jargon for species you’ve never spotted before.


From Windhoek the tarred B2 is the quick route to the coast. My parents always chose gravel roads instead of highways on family holidays and we continued the tradition. Settling for the less-travelled pass (C26) off the central escarpment was a good choice, but progress was slow. Within minutes we’d screeched to a halt. There was a Monteiro’s hornbill. It was quickly followed by snow-white pied babblers and a short-toed rock-thrush.  Alongside the road, telephone poles and trees were decorated with gigantic sociable weaver nests – one of the truly remarkable sights of Namibia. Oh, and there were plenty of pale chanting goshawks too. The 340km stretch took us all day to complete. I was in paradise, and all these birds had been spotted by the side of a road. It couldn’t have been easier.


The Namib beckoned. Descending the Spreetshoogte, we wondered what would be seen next.


Once on the flat gravel plains, the starkness of the landscape exceeded my wildest dreams as, in the distance, ostrich shimmered in the afternoon light. The desert was far from lifeless, and we were lucky to find a flock of cryptic Gray’s lark without getting out of the car. These birds are unique in that they display before sunrise to avoid predators, but I am sure their pale plumage helps conceal them too.


A lagoon swarming with pink greater flamingos welcomed us at Walvis Bay, just in time for an awesome sunset and cold beer at the stilted Raft Restaurant overlooking the lagoon.  Walvis Bay Lagoon is one of the most valuable wetland sites along the west coast of Africa. This haven is a phenomenal spectacle in summer, when it supports more than 150,000 birds. Apart from the flamingos, the mudflats are home to masses of pelicans, terns, grebes, plovers, gulls and migratory wader species. Even if you are not a birder, you cannot help being impressed by the numbers. The imposing dunes at the nearby settlement of Rooibank harboured another gem: dune lark. In the crisp morning air their rattling calls and distinctive tracks betray their presence. A walk on the southern side of the dry river course found us stumbling over a foraging group of these birds.


After a whirlwind 48 hours in Walvis and Swakopmund we continued northwards, but not without several essential stops. Slightly anxious, we left Swakopmund early – we were in search of an illusive bird: the Herero chat.  From the abandoned mining town of Uis we worked the dry, wooded drainage lines, and eventually found one. It was very shy and not anywhere as colourful as the traditional dress of Herero ladies. Perched unobtrusively in a shepherd’s tree, the bird flew closer to us as if to reward us for all the hard work.


Next, in the rocky mountain slopes north of the Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain, we found the Benguela long-billed lark. This distinctive bird with a long, downward-curving bill is often located by its whistling call, likened to the sound of a falling bomb.


In Damaraland the flat-topped Etendeka Mountains and red-rocky plains dotted with welwitschias create a dramatic birding habitat. This is interrupted by the Huab and Aba-Huab Rivers – linear oases with beautiful specimens of camel thorns, ana trees and Salvadora bushes, home to some sought-after endemic birds and desert-adapted elephants. An early morning walk along the Aba-Huab started off fairly slowly, until we tried a whistled imitation of pearl-spotted owlet (a diurnal owl species that often preys on small birds). This soon produced the goods and in no time we had Damara hornbill, the bizarre white-tailed shrike and a noisy flock of bare-cheeked babblers trying to find the ‘owl’ in the tree above us. Walking on fresh elephant tracks, I felt like the late Dr Austin Roberts on one of his pioneering ornithological field trips.


Next up on our fast-paced ‘twitch’ was Etosha National Park which, apart from the abundant wildlife, offers superb birding. From Okaukeujo Camp, the drive towards the natural spring at Okondeka crosses vast flat plains, and we spotted many different larks and the distinctive secretary bird. In Etosha, the key to success is to drive slowly, exploring the park’s many waterholes. At Sueda a pair of blue crane and their fully-grown youngsters was the highlight.  At Salvadora, on the pan’s edge, a red-necked falcon orchestrated a tactical mid-air kill on a hapless Namaqua dove. Who needs a lion kill?


The intimate Halali Camp, nestling beside a dolomite kopje in soothing mopane woodland, is famous for violet wood-hoopoe, and the camp security guards showed us a roosting white-faced owl too. We left Etosha through King Nehale Gate, and crossed the plains. Here springbok mingled with cattle belonging to the local tribesmen, and we  found the brackish wetland at Okashana. An artesian well burst here a few years ago and has flooded an area, to the delight of livestock, birds and wildlife. We were thrilled to find Caspian plovers here – another good addition to our ever-growing list.


In the far northeast of Namibia, the Caprivi Strip is a narrow stretch of land very different to the rest of the country – the Kavango River and the teak woodlands offer many mouth-watering bird specials. By chance we ended up at Shumvura Camp, owned by Mark and Charlie Paxton. This couple are certainly eccentric – the first time I met Mark, he had a speckled mousebird clinging to his beard. Their camp, situated right on the Kavango, is perfect for exploring the area. On a boat with Mark it is possible to see most of the Okavango specialities, yet it was the woodlands that were the most exciting. Here the birds move in mixed feeding flocks.  Incredibly, we identified 30 species in minutes as the flock moved through. Mark even knows spots where you can find the rare Souza’s shrike and elusive sharp-tailed starling.


The Erongo Mountains near Omaruru were a fitting finale to our birding trip. Erongo Wilderness Lodge is set amid huge granite boulders, and one does not have to go far to find birds. At dawn, from our vantage point, the bird sounds were incredible. Hartlaub’s spurfowl called raucously from the tops of boulders and the liquid song of the evocative rockrunner echoed around us. With a drink in hand, I quietly toasted Namibia’s feathered jewels, just as rosy-faced lovebirds landed nearby. Lunch was promptly interrupted. Again.


Birding Namibia certainly delivered – we amassed 367 bird species and countless memories that will stay with me long after the Namib dust has worked out of my trusty binoculars. When you next travel in Namibia, remember the birds. You might just become the next birding junkie.

 

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