Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Windhoek to Walvis Bay

I thought yesterday was a good day, but today was even better – fantastic in fact. We began the day driving to a rocky area just after first light and were very fortunate to find a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler creeping around the boulders on the hillside above us. It came in reasonably close to check us out, and the views through the scope were great but it wasn’t good for photos. A pair of Cape Buntings were also a good find here. We drove back to the lodge, and along the way saw a pair of African Hawk-Eagles and flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse flying in the distance, and had repeated views of the very common Grey-backed Sparrow-lark.

A small drinking pool in the garden had lots of birds coming to drink including Namaqua Dove, Cape Sparrows, Lark-like Buntings and other common birds, and there was also a pair of Dusky Sunbirds feeding on some nearby flowers. I was surprised to see quite a few Rosy-faced Lovebirds flying out of the large trees in the garden, and we managed to see a couple of them perched as well a little later. After breakfast we loaded the luggage into the trailer of our minibus and had a quick walk around the grounds, but it was getting quite hot by now and apart from some very nice butterflies we really only saw a pair of Green-winged Pytilia. It was a shame a Bokmakierie was only heard as we very much wanted to see this species. John and Jenny also saw a Verreaux’s Eagle here, whilst everyone saw a pale-phase Booted Eagle.

Solitaire Guest Farm - gardens

The rooms

This is the Solitaire Guest Farm where we stayed

Leaving here we called into the Solitaire Filling Station for fuel and a chance to purchase some cold drinks before setting out on the drive towards Walvis Bay, passing through the Namib Desert. We spent much of the time scanning for bustards along the way but for the first couple of hours we drew a blank. Our first stop was for a Lappet-faced Vulture feeding on something close to the road, and as we watched it was joined by a White-backed Vulture. 

Lappet-faced Vulture

The usual Pale Chanting Goshawks were also around, and we also saw Greater Kestrel, Rufous-crowned (Purple) Roller, Cape Crow, Tractrac Chat, and the mega Dune Lark which took some work but everyone saw it quite well. Mammal highlights were Mountain Zebra and a family group of Meerkats – the latter was found as we watched the Zebras. Lucky or what?

Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk - common on this tour

 Just before lunch John C pulled the rabbit out of the hat when he spotted a pair of Ruppell’s Korhaan feeding a couple of hundred metres away in the desert. 

Ruppell's Korhaan - more a habitat shot really......! But can you see them...?

And afterwards we had our picnic lunch in the shade of some trees before continuing our journey for another 130kms. A pair of Namaqua Sandgrouse and a small chick were present right on the edge of the road, prompting us into a hasty three-point turn to get a better look.

Namaqua Sandgrouse

We eventually arrived at Walvis Bay around 3.30pm and began birding along the lagoon immediately. As the tide was high there were many birds on the water on the inland side of the road, as well as out on the marshes at the edge of the bay. Tom spotted our first White-fronted Plover and I was amazed to see so many present as we drove along. 

White-fronted Plover and chick

A flock of Greater Flamingo held some Lesser Flamingo and you could see how much smaller the latter species was. There were hundreds of familiar waders (for UK birders) with the most numerous species being Curlew Sandpipers, some of which were in breeding plumage. There were also Common Greenshanks, Little Stints, Sanderlings, Common Ringed Plovers and a Whimbrel – all familiar fare admittedly, but it was fun scanning through so many birds. Undoubtedly, the highlight was a flock of 32 Damara Terns – the most wanted bird here and to see such a big flock perched on a sandbar was amazing as you can easily miss this species here. Other birds seen included Cape Cormorant, Great Crested (Swift )Tern and lots of Hartlaub’s Gulls.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

WIndhoek to Solitaire

A pre-breakfast walk from the hotel gave us much the same birds as yesterday, but after a refreshing night’s sleep I think we all appreciated them a little more this morning. We did add Common (Eurasian) Swift to our list, along with a pair of Blue (Cordon-bleu) Waxbills, Cardinal Woodpecker and Rock Kestrel were new for us as well.

After a superb buffet breakfast we headed to Avis Dam, just a short drive away where we spent a nice couple of hours. At the edge of the car park a Black-faced Waxbill appeared as soon as we arrived, and several White-rumped Swifts showed much better than yesterday. 

Red-headed Finch

The acacias nearby held Grey Go-Away Birds, a flock of Red-headed Finches, Common Waxbills, and Southern Red Bishop – all new birds for us. A Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler also appeared, whilst an Acacia Pied Barbet was also much appreciated. Out on the water, there was White-breasted Cormorant, a pair of Egyptian Goose, an African Fish-Eagle flew across, and later on we saw a Great White Pelican as well. Walking onto the dam itself, several Greater Striped Swallows showed amazingly well when they landed right below us, a Gabar Goshawk flew over and several Alpine Swifts appeared. A Cape Wagtail and some Red-billed Firefinches were seen in the damp areas below us, and a few people saw a Yellow Mongoose as well. 

Pearl-spotted Owlet

Walking on we called in a Pearl-spotted Owlet which came in close and was promptly mobbed by an Acacia Pied Barbet and a Brubru. Returning towards the minibus, we had a Great Spotted Cuckoo and shortly after a Diderik Cuckoo as well. Then a group of Red-billed Quelea flew down to a small pond to drink, and we saw a playful group of South African Ground Squirrels.

Leaving here we set out on the long journey to Solitaire, but it was birding all the way with many, many stops for some quality lifers. The first 90kms were on a paved road before turning off onto a ‘gravel’ road for the rest of the journey, passing through great open scenery interspersed with rocky canyons – finally arriving at our brilliant lodge around 6pm! 

We birded here.......

The road to Solitaire
Crowned Lapwing

Anyway, there were lots of birds today and we made our first stop when a pair of Pale Chanting Goshawks and Rattling Cisticola were seen, and from then on we made frequent stops. Amongst many goodies we saw Red-billed (Spurfowl) Francolin, Pygmy Falcon, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Chat Flycatcher, Sabota Lark, Capped Wheatear, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Crowned Lapwing, Three-banded Plover, Blacksmith Lapwing, Common Fiscal, many colonies of Social Weavers, and Southern Grey-headed Sparrow.

Pygmy Falcon

Sociable Weaver

A pair of Double-banded Coursers actually on the road in front of us was my personal highlight today, and this sighting was made even more memorable when a displaying male Northern Black Korhaan flew right over us.

Double-banded Courser

As the scenery changed from the open, acacia plains to rocky canyons we tried a couple of times for Herero Chat, which never appeared. However, we picked up Lanner, White-throated Canary, Lark-like Bunting, and a Mountain Wheatear for a couple of us, plus a troop of Chacma Baboons and a few Klipspringers

Lark-like Bunting

As we dropped back down into the lowlands a Black-chested Snake-Eagle was a great spot by Charly and some Greater Kudu were rather impressive. And as we got closer to the lodge, Jenny spotted a female Northern Black Korhaan and our first Helmeted Guineafowl and Springbok were seen. 

Greater Kudu

After settling into our rooms nestled at the base of some hills we had a fabulous buffet dinner, were entertained by the staff singing some local folk songs and then had a quick night drive, seeing some Spotted Thick-knees. What a great day!

Friday, 18 April 2014

Namibia - Arrival

My first of two Namibia tours this year began with a long overnight journey, eventually arriving in Windhoek in the early afternoon and meeting up with our guide, Charly. A quick look around the airport  was quite productive with Familiar Chat, Black-chested Prinia, Black-throated Canary, Great Sparrow, Cape Wagtail, Greater Striped Swallow, African Palm, Little and White-rumped Swifts and lots of Rock Martins being seen. It was only 40kms into the city of Windhoek and after dropping our bags into our rooms, met up with Charly who gave us an overview of the tour ahead, as well as a map showing our forthcoming route. 

Great Sparrow

Afterwards it was down to business as we birded the road outside the hotel, which proved to be worthwhile as a number of good birds were discovered. We began with several Marico Flycatchers adorning the fence, followed by a group of amazingly beautiful Violet-backed Starlings, as well as African Red-eyed Bulbul and Fork-tailed Drongo. And then a little further along the road we came across a real burst of activity with a bunch of new birds all appearing at the same time. John C spotted a pair of Burnt-necked Eremomela, a stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike was many people’s top bird of the day, a pair of Marico Sunbirds were superb, a female Pririt Batis was also stunning, and there was also an Ashy Tit, a few Southern Masked Weavers and a Rufous-vented Tit-Babbler also put in an appearance.

Marico Flycatcher

As the light began to fade several hulking Bradfields Swifts flew over, and walking back to the hotel several close White-browed Sparrow-Weavers were admired, and a pair of Groundscraper Thrushes were scoped. Other birds seen this afternoon included Pied Crow, Pale-winged Starling, and lots of Cape Glossy Starlings as well. So we ended up seeing quite a few really nice birds quite easily but it was something of a relief to get a hot shower, excellent meal and retire early after all the travelling involved to get here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Giant Pitta…..Giant Pitta…!!!!

With just this last morning to notch up a few more lifers I wasn’t sure how it would pan out at all and you know, usually we end a tour on a high with some final explosive moment to give the tour one final flourish and wow! factor. So when we tried 3 different calling Blue-headed Pittas without any luck I really thought that was it and once again those damn pittas bring you crashing back down to earth with a bump. But you have to keep the faith right..? Being a Liverpool fan all these years has shown me that. So there we were, feeling disconsolate, when a young Orang-utan appears overhead and climbs down a bit to check us out, I thought “that’s nice”.

Our 3rd sighting of Orang-utan on this tour was this lovely juvenile

Then, all of a sudden, a Giant Pitta starts calling and that instant “shaky hand’, adrenaline pumping excitement kicks in and I have to remind myself to get a grip. So 5 of us scramble down the slope and sit down on the floor trying to ignore tiger leeches and huge ants - the battle begins. The pitta is calling maybe 200 yards off to our left and we play the call, but the pitta just calls back. It may have moved slightly but wasn’t coming to us. I was concerned the clearing next to us was just too open so we move inside the forest, play the call again, wait and wait but the birds just calls back. So we creep deeper into the forest, which at this point is quite dense and we have to manoeuvre around tree roots, vines, branches and some dense secondary growth. We were pretty quiet but the pitta called from further away so we sit down and wait for a while. Eventually it comes closer but it was never going to come in close enough for us to have a view as there was a shallow ridge right in front of us and it was always calling from just out of sight, before moving behind a large dead fallen tree. Sneeky git! So we creep closer, picking up numerous leeches along the way but keep going. When we stop and sit down and wait some more the bird stops calling for ages and all of a sudden pops up on the ridge just a few feet from us, but only Lee sees it. A matter of seconds later its calling from some 50 yards away and our hearts get that sinking feeling. So we clamber up onto the ridge and look across a nice little wide gulley and can scan where we think the bird is calling from, but it’s still out of view. We move slowly forward and it moves away further, so we keep going. It knows we are here but if the bird keeps moving in the same direction it is going to get cut off as there is a huge clearing with fallen trees away to our left and Paul, our excellent local guide, has sneeked in from the far side to cut it off. Suddenly there is a shape dashing very fast to our left, it stops and binoculars are raised, but it dashed further left – a large brown blob with paler underparts. Boy its big and sure is fast. It goes out of sight off to our left but surely its got nowhere to go but back again in front of us? And sure enough it steams in, stops behind a fallen log and peers over looking at us before rapidly heading off to our right at high speed, stopping again but then disappearing. Wow! We had just seen a female Giant Pitta, a lifetimes ambition of mine and one of the highlights of my fortunate time birding all over the world.

Suddenly Paul is telling us there is a Great Argus and we walk up to him, thinking one of the other rangers has radioed a sighting in, but in fact the bird is on the other side of the path and after frantic directions it is in fact a lot closer to us than we realised, like 30 yards away! Holy cow – another lifer and a major bogey bird of mine once and for all laid to rest. Not as mega as the pitta but a keenly desired bird.

Alas, no photos of either bird, just very, very happy memories and that old shakey hand feeling…..

Whiskered Treeswift is a garden bird at Borneo Rainforest Lodge

So that was it, off we went back to the lodge for a shower and lunch before departing to Lahad Datu and our evening flight back to Kota Kinabalu and very delayed connection to Kuala Lumpur. Danum Valley had certainly lived up to its reputation indeed!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Danaum Valley continued….

Another full day in the amazing Danum Valley, with more new birds and much more excellent food consumed than is entirely healthy for a single person! An early breakfast at 6am was had and then we were out all morning until 11.30am walking the trails in search of Blue-headed Pitta. Well we never saw the pitta but heard it at the same section of trail as yesterday. But plenty of goodies came our way with a personal favourite being the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge that ran across the trail in front of us twice. 

Striped Wren-babbler

The same area also held Striped Wren-babbler, Black-throated Wren-babbler, Black-capped Babbler and a Rufous-tailed Shama flew in right in front of us. Further along a huge fruiting tree held our first Bornean Gibbon, plus a close Banded Broadbill, Spotted Fantail, Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, Grey-headed Babbler, Brown Fulvetta and a male Large-billed Blue Flycatcher. David yet again spotted a male Banded Kingfisher sitting quietly in the canopy above us, and we had further views of Chestnut-rumped Babbler as well.

Rufous-tailed Shama

Moving to another trail a Dusky Broadbill showed very well, a White-chested Babbler was bathing in a stream, and a White-crowned Forktail appeared briefly, plus a Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker was seen as we approached the lodge.

Dusky Broadbill

In the afternoon we spent quite some time staking out the Blue-headed Pitta which just called back at us. So we gave up and visited the canopy walkway where a Yellow-eared Spiderhunter was the best find. But walking back a pair of Chestnut-naped Forktails appeared, and that was pretty much our lot this afternoon.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Danum Valley

What a day this was and we began with a pre-breakfast walk along the forested road which was alive with birds. The star bird was undoubtedly a stunning Black-crowned Pitta we were able to watch feeding beside a narrow trail – and in fact it was on view for a couple of minutes allowing us to really study its beautiful plumage. A little distraction came by a group of 5 Crested Firebacks walking quietly through the same patch of forest – our only sighting of the tour.

Black-crowned Pitta

 A number of new trip birds were found along the walk, including Cinnamon-rumped Trogon, Banded Broadbill, Bornean Blue Flycatcher, Plain Sunbird, and Straw-headed Bulbul along the river. We also saw Yellow-bellied Bulbul, Dark-necked Tailorbird, and a super confiding Short-tailed Babbler. At one spot we had a flurry of babblers with Sooty-capped, Scaly-crowned, Rufous-crowned and a pair of Ferruginous Babblers.

Cinnamon-rumped Trogon

Other goodies included Wallace’s Hawk-eagle, Diard’s Trogon, Chestnut-winged Babbler, Pygmy Ibon, as well as better views of White-crowned Shama.

White-crowned Shama

After breakfast we walked up the hill which was very steep in places and not particularly ‘birdy’ although a Blue-banded Kingfisher was a very surprising bonus sitting next to a small stream and a Red-throated Barbet was scoped in a tall tree. During our two hour stake-out of a calling Blue-banded Pitta, David spotted a male Banded Kingfisher below us and that was about all. Well, that is until Lee picked out the calling pitta from a dense area of tangled vines and we had to scramble down the steep slope and get just the right angle to view the bird from. But what a result and our second pitta species today. A male Siberian Blue Robin gave us reason to pause on the steep trail back down to the lodge.

The only bird I remember form the exceedingly quiet late afternoon walk is Chestnut-rumped Babbler. But calling Giant and Blue-headed Pittas will have to wait for later…..