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Malawi Trip Report, 20 November - 2 December 2010

Please click here for more information about our Malawi Tours.

Dates: 20 November - 2 December 2010 (13 days)

Areas visited: Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, South Vipya Plateau, Nyika Plateau NP, Vwasa Marsh,
Lake Malawi, Dedza area, Zomba Plateau, Liwonde National Park, Lilongwe Sanctuary

Total number of species recorded: 395 bird species (with 19 heard-only)

Top 10 birds: Lesser Seedcracker, Black-lored Cisticola, White-winged Apalis, Pennant-winged Nightjar,
Boulder Chat, Lillian's Lovebird, Sharpe's Akalat, Yellow-throated Apalis, Black-fronted Bushshrike,
Anchieta's Sunbird

Highlight mammal species: Roan and Sable antelope, large herd of Eland, Gentle/Samango
Monkey, Elephant and Hippo


Detailed Trip report
:

This busy, 13-day tour to the little-birded country of Malawi provided some superb sightings of rarely
seen species. Our birding focussed on the highland grasslands, shrublands and forests of the Nyika
and Zomba plateaus, and the miombo woodlands of Dzalanyama Forest Reserve and Vwaza Marsh
National Park (visited very briefly). We also had time for short stops in Lilongwe, on the South
Viphya plateau, along the shores of Lake Malawi, and in the Dedza area.

This report, hopefully a welcome change from the standard report format, is based around the top ten
species (as voted for by the participants and myself) seen on the trip. In total, we amassed a respectable
total of 395 bird species (with 19 heard-only).

Mammals were also a feature of the trip, and sightings were enjoyed of species such as
Roan, Sable, African Elephant, Gentle/Samango Monkey, Spotted Hyaena, Zebra,
Eland (a massive herd of more than 200!), Blue Duiker, Common Reedbuck, Lesser Bushbaby and
South African Porcupine.

Together with the spectacular scenery, comfortable and well-situated lodgings and good food,
Malawi offers an all-round nature experience that is hard to beat!

The top ten bird species were as follows:

1. Lesser Seedcracker
Although most of Dzalanyama is cloaked in closed-canopy Miombo woodland, it is worthwhile also
birding along the drainage lines that cut through the landscape. These riverine features called dambos
can be covered in short grassland or, as is the case with the ‘main dambo’ at Dzalanyama, dense
tangles and some riparian forest. Here we found displaying Broad-tailed Warbler, bright Yellow-
throated Longclaw, Holub’s Golden Weaver and Southern Citril, thicket-loving African Firefinch,
Grey-rumped Swallow, Pearl-breasted Swallow and Croaking Cisticola, amongst others. The more
forested areas held African Emerald Cuckoo, Grey-olive Greenbul, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Scaly-
throated Honeyguide, Bar-throated Apalis and White-tailed Blue Flycatcher. However, the star of the
show was a pair of Lesser Seedcracker, very rarely-seen birds, which put in no less than three
appearances during our brief visit! The first was frustratingly fleeting, but on our second morning we
were treated to prolonged views (long enough for Jan to sprint all of 100m in time to see it!) of a
striking male perched up on some dry twigs, and later some very close views of a female feeding in
the dense undergrowth. This brilliantly coloured bird, very rare and secretive, gave excellent views
and is a worthy bird of the trip, although it shared honours with…

2. Black-lored Cisticola!
In over ten years of leading trips around sub-Saharan Africa, this is the first time I have ever had a
cisticola in the top ten! Never mind a tie for first! But this large, highly excitable and equally musical
cisticola put on its superb clock-work displays at close range, creating one of the most memorable
sightings of the trip. In Malawi, Black-lored Cisticola is confined to the Nyika plateau, where it
favours thickets at the forest-grassland interface and around drainage lines, rocky outcrops and dams.
In this habitat at Nyika we also found the localised and unobtrusive Yellow-browed Seedeater,
Baglafetch Weaver, here at the southern limit of its distribution, numerous Churring Cisticola, dozens
of bright, full-breeding-plumage Mountain Marsh Widowbird, delicate Yellow-bellied Waxbill and
Yellow-crowned Canary. In the surrounding grasslands we tracked down several smart Red-winged
Francolin, a pair of regal Wattled Crane feeding very near the track, numerous bright Blue Swallows,
Pallid Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Denham’s Bustard, Wing-snapping Cisticola and Rufous-naped
Lark. Dusky Turtle Dove also favoured the forest edge, and around our cosy accommodation we
grabbed a last-minute sighting of Ruwenzori Nightjar feeding along the edge of the plantation, spotted
pre-dawn by Andrew. Three cheers for Andrew!

3. White-winged Apalis
The upper edge of Zomba town holds a few small patches of large trees consisting mostly of exotic
Eucalypts and Jacarandas, with the odd Albizia and Fig tree representing local tree species. Rather
surprisingly, and despite its location right on the edge of town, this spot produced some very
productive birding, with sightings of Dark-backed Weaver, a perched Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, sought-
after White-eared Barbet, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird right under our noses, and a Black-backed
Puffback feeding an oversized juvenile African Emerald Cuckoo. However, the undoubted highlight
was a pair of confiding White-winged Apalis, deservingly punted as Africa’s most beautiful warbler.
We enjoyed eye-level views of a pair, showing off all aspects of their perfect plumage. Fantastic!

4. Pennant-winged Nightjar
Although the shores of Lake Malawi are densely populated by people and the habitat largely
converted to farmland, a couple of special birds can still be found here. We tore ourselves away from
swimming in the lake and lying around in deck chairs on our private beach to admire colonies of
bright, fiery-eyed Yellow Weavers and skulking Grey-olive Greenbul in the gardens. And just five
minutes from our comfortable accommodation, we watched Square-tailed Nightjar churring away in
the spotlight beam, followed shortly by the strange and incredible display of several male Pennant-
winged Nightjars, buzzing like insects as they went. At times it was hard to believe we were actually
looking at birds! We also made a pre-breakfast outing to the nearby Mukwadzi forest, where we
tracked down the desirable East Coast Akalat. Initially it remained well hidden for some of the group,
but after some perseverance gave superb views for everyone. Red-capped Robin-Chat also put in a
brief appearance here.

5. Boulder Chat
A chain of rocky hills runs along the western border of Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, forming the
frontier with Mozambique. Although it was hard work getting into this habitat, our sweat was greatly
rewarded with superb views of a pair of Boulder Chats, which sang loudly and excitedly just above
our heads in the crisp morning light. This was Paul’s favourite bird, and one he worked hard for. The
species is not only unusual, belonging to its own genus, but is hard to see on any regular birding
itineraries, as most of its distribution lies within Zimbabwe. Nearby we found another trip favourite,
Whyte’s Barbet, in the tall miombo woodland, and the rocky slopes were home to Striped Pipit.

6. Lillian's Lovebird
Draining from Lake Malawi southwards to the Zambezi River, the lethargic Shire River is surrounded
by pockets of riverine forest and thicket, with Mopane woodlands set slightly further back from the
river banks. These lowland habitats are diverse in birds and large mammals, and are best accessed at
Malawi’s showcase national park, Liwonde. During an early-morning bird walk from our tranquil,
river-side camp we found flocks of brightly coloured Lillian’s Lovebirds coming to pools to drink.
Other highlights of our walk near camp included several fine Dickinson’s Kestrel, Red-necked Falcon,
the pretty Livingstone’s Flycatcher, flocks (and I mean flocks) of Purple-crested Turaco, Brown-
hooded Kingfisher, many dainty Boehm’s Bee-eater, Collared Palm Thrush which sat on the breakfast
tables, Southern Brown-throated Weaver and Burnt-necked Eremomela. Nearby, the forested river
banks were home to roosting White-backed Night Heron which sat tight just metres away, a trio of
Pel’s Fishing Owl which were watched at length through the scopes, Palm-nut Vulture, Trumpeter
Hornbill, Eastern Bearded Scrub-Robin and the localised Brown-breasted Barbet. The river and river
banks were home to Giant Kingfisher, Long-toed Lapwing, Spur-winged Lapwing, Water Thick-knee,
African Skimmer, Gull-billed Tern, Black Egret, and numerous other waterbirds, all enjoyed on a
relaxing evening boat cruise. And after we departed, Dale also added Rufous-bellied Heron and
Allen’s Gallinule to the list.
The Mopane woodlands also had its share of worthwhile sightings, and were home to Western
Banded Snake Eagle (one carrying a metre long snake in its talons), several Speckle-throated
Woodpeckers, many Meves’s Starlings, Red-billed Hornbill, colonies of busy Red-headed Weaver that
added a splash of colour to the baobab trees, Brown-headed Parrot and the scarce Thick-billed
Cuckoo, which gave prolonged perch views through the scope. And at a small pond in the woodland
we were lucky to find a lone Dwarf Bittern. Perhaps the greatest frustration of the trip was spending
several hours scouring these woodlands, finding many European Roller, Broad-billed Roller and
Lilac-breasted Roller, but no Racket-tailed Roller this time. Finally, when leaving Liwonde, we found
singing Purple Indigobird and Village Indigobird, although they were not yet in breeding plumage.

7. Sharpe's Akalat
This localised and secretive forest robin is very rare in Malawi, although it is regularly recorded from
Manyanyere forest on the Zambian side of Nyika National Park. A steep embankment formed by
grading the main road through Nyika meant that we could not drive onto the track that leads to
Manyanyere, so a few brave souls opted for the long walk to the forest. Those who put in the effort
were amply rewarded, and within 30 minutes of arriving in the forest we had enjoyed close-up and
clear views of a bright Sharpe’s Akalat, a species which can otherwise be seen only in Tanzania.
Following hot on its heels was another trip favourite, the beautiful White-chested Alethe, which also
gave better-than-hoped-for views, and a very confiding Olive-flanked Robin-Chat (it was a good
morning for skulkers, wasn’t it Andrew?). We took our time in walking back to the main track,
stopping to admire Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Wailing Cisticola,
Ludwig’s Double-collared Sunbird, Fülleborn’s Boubou, and several bright Scarlet-tufted Malachite
Sunbirds in some flowering Proteas.

8. Yellow-throated Apalis
Although not rare in its habitat, the bright Yellow-throated Apalis, a Malawi endemic, was one of the
trip highlights at Zomba. And Helen’s favourite for co-operating with the camera! Here the small
patches of montane forest were home to other exciting forest birds, and we were lucky to obtain great
views of Red-faced Crimsonwing, Olive-headed Greenbul, Placid Greenbul, Yellow-throated
Woodland Warbler, at eye level for a change, Black-headed Apalis, Orange Ground-Thrush (watched
singing its sweet song through the telescope), Tambourine Dove, Olive Bushshrike and Livingstone’s
Turaco. Perhaps the greatest success at Zomba was finding the very rare Cholo Alethe, a species
hardly ever seen on the Zomba Plateau these days. Paul probably had the best views of the bird
perched at eye level, just on the verge of the road, although some of the group were a bit too relaxed
this morning (no names mentioned) and missed the show. At the forest edge another favourite was the
localised Bertram’s Weaver, especially for John. Another highlight was watching both Red-backed
Mannikin and Magpie Mannikin going to roost near our accommodation. And we spent some time
watching large, black swifts calling like Little Swifts. I first recorded these birds in Angola (published
on my bird calls CD of Angola), and Callan has now seen them in Uganda. Hopefully we’ll be able to
put a name to them one day…

9. Black-fronted Bushshrike
Chowo forest was the main focus of our forest birding at Nyika, with a full morning spent in its dark
interior. Forest skulkers proved hard to see, but with some perseverance we enjoyed good views of the
secretive Evergreen Forest Warbler and Olive-flanked Robin-Chat. The mid-storey highlights
included several bright Bar-tailed Trogon, less vividly-coloured Sharpe’s Greenbul and Southern
Mountain Greenbul, pretty White-starred Robin, furtive White-tailed Crested Flycatcher and local
Malawi Batis. In the canopy were Chapin’s Apalis, Brown-headed Apalis and the shaggy-crested
Schalow’s Turaco. But the highlight was a striking male Black-fronted Bushshrike, which for a long
time remained entirely hidden behind leaves. We hung around in hope, and suddenly it popped out
into the open and fed in bright sunlight for several minutes, allowing us to study its smart plumage in
full detail. Overhead we saw displaying Crowned Eagle through the canopy, and the much smaller
Scarce Swift. And at the forest edge we watched White-headed Sawwing, Red-rumped Swallow,
Angola Swallow, Bronzy Sunbird and Forest Double-collared Sunbird.

10. Anchieta's Sunbird
Birding in the tall miombo woodlands of Dzalanyama Forest Reserve was one of the highlights of the
trip. Although most birds were breeding and hence foraging flocks not as active as normal, we picked
out a great range of miombo specials. These included Southern Hyliota, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, three
young, noisy Ovambo Sparrowhawk, perched and in-flight Grey-headed Parrot, two circling Ayres’s
Eagle, Spotted Creeper, Cabanis’s Bunting, minute Red-capped Crombec, sought-after Souza’s Shrike
(on the nest), Pale-billed Hornbill, Miombo Double-collared Sunbird, Grey-headed Kingfisher,
chattering Green Woodhoopoe, Common Scimitarbill, Green-backed Honeybird (one young bird
following a pair of Yellow White-eye), Green-backed Woodpecker, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, the
localised Stierling’s Woodpecker, Eastern Sawwing, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Black
Cuckooshrike, Miombo Bearded Scrub Robin, Miombo Rock-Thrush, Yellow-bellied Eremomela,
Green-capped Eremomela, Stierling’s Wren Warbler, Rufous-bellied Tit, Miombo Tit, Western Violet-
backed Sunbird, White Helmet-Shrike, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike, African Golden Oriole, Miombo Blue-
eared Starling and shy Orange-winged Pytilia. Whew. The star of the show, however, was the vivid,
blue-and-red Anchieta’s Sunbird, of which several were seen glowing in the bright sunlight. After
dark we found African Wood Owl. Thanks to Ken Longden and Lizanne Roxburgh from Lilongwe for
joining us here for the day, and sharing their expertise!

The only other areas visited that did not feature top-ten birds were:
1. The South Viphya plateau, where Southern Ground Hornbill, the smart Anchieta’s Tchagra
and Trilling Cisticola were highlights,
2. The Dedza area, where we found a flock of eight Locust Finch, seen very well in flight but
which vanished from sight as soon as they hit the ground,
3. Vwaza Marsh, where we had an excellent morning tracking down several Chestnut-mantled
Sparrow-Weaver, the very desirable White-winged Babbling Starling (although John had
expected more from this unusual species), Coqui Francolin, which flushed from our feet, a
very co-operative Miombo Pied Barbet, Greater Honeyguide on its song perch, Bennett’s
Woodpecker, Boehm’s Flycatcher and Collared Flycatcher, and
4. Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary, where Hildebrandt’s Francolin stalked along the forest paths,
dazzling Red-throated Twinspot fed at close range, at least two male African Broadbills were
watched performing their strange display flights, and the river held Mountain Wagtail and
African Black Duck.

Birding Africa Trip Report by Tour Leader Michael Mills .

Many of the birding sites on this trip are described in detail in the Southern African Birdfinder which is widely available in South African bookshops and on the internet. (e.g., www.netbooks.co.za or www.wildsounds.co.uk). However you're always welcome to contact us if you're interested in a guided trip in this area.

Practical tour information: Malawi

Please also visit our tour calendar and trip reports.

Focus For keen birders and mammal enthusiasts. Designed to see as many as possible endemic birds, but while on the walks we spend a lot of time looking for other aspects of wildlife such as mammals. We can also customise any itinerary to suit to the keen birder, the wildlife enthusiast or both.
Photography Many participants on our trips are amateur wildlife photographers. And when we get excellent views of a bird or mammal, some time is usually spent watching and photographing it. However, this is not a photographic tour and once the majority of the people have felt that they have absorbed the animal or bird to their satisfaction, then we move on in search of the next encounter. Thus, while the photographic opportunities are very good, the group will only occasionally wait for somebody who wants to spend even longer getting better photos.
Fitness No fitness is required. The few walks are generally in relatively flat areas with occasional small inclines.
Timing Birding is good all year round. Some species are more difficult to find in the dry season, but navigation is easier then as the roads are less muddy. Our tours usually go in November.
Climate Warm to hot
Comfort A good standard of accommodation in guest houses, lodges and small hotels.
Transport We travel by minibus or four wheel drive vehicle.
Group Size This depends on the specific tour. Please enquire.
Top birds

Very diverse birding, from montane to woodland specials: Böhm's Bee-eater, African Broadbill, Thyolo Alethe, Bar-tailed Trogon, Green-headed Oriole, White-winged Apalis, Yellow-throated Apalis, Chapin's Apalis, Green Barbet, Whyte’s Barbet, Miombo Pied Barbet, Souza's Shrike, Stierling’s Woodpecker, Pale-billed Hornbill, Olive-headed Weaver, Baglafecht Weaver, Red-capped Crombec, Miombo Scrub-Robin, Rufous-bellied Tit, Anchieta’s Sunbird, Ludwig's Double-collared Sunbird, Scarlet-tufted Sunbird, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Yellow-crowned Canary, Pel's Fishing-Owl and Babbling Starling.

Top mammals African Palm Civet, Bushpig, African Elephant, Greater Kudu, African Buffalo, Banded Mongoose, Eland, Roan, Sable, Blue Duiker, Tanzania Mountain Squirrel, Mutable Sun Squirrel, Side-striped Jackal, Spotted Hyaena, Leopard and Blue Monkey.
Booking Your booking can be secured with a booking form and deposit of USD 400. You will receive confirmation and our tour information pack with practical information on what to expect and how to prepare for the tour. The balance is due 3 months before the tour. Email us about availability.

About Birding Africa

Birding Africa is a specialist birding tour company customising tours for both world listers and more relaxed holiday birders.  We combine interests in mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, botany and other natural history aspects and will guide you to Africa's and Madagascar's most diverse birding destinations. Our guides' knowledge of African birds and birding areas is our greatest strength and together we have rediscovered species, shared exciting observations with the birding community and had a fun time exploring our home continent.  We've even written two acclaimed guide books on where to find Southern Africa's and Madagascar's best birds. Birding is more than our passion, it's our lifestyle, and we are dedicated to making professional, best value trips filled with endemic species and unique wildlife experiences. Since 1997, we've run bird watching tours in South Africa and further into Africa for individual birders, small birding groups and top international tour companies. We've run Conservation Tours in association with the African Bird Club and work with and consult for a number of other top international tour companies and the BBC Natural History Unit.

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