Trip Report: Namibia, birding in
Africa's living desert, 10-26 March 2006
This was a two week guided Birding
Africa group tour, from 10 to 26 March 2006
Total number of bird species seen: over 350 species
Total number of mammal species seen: over 50 species
Namibia was at its best this year! Birding Africa is one
of the few companies that times its tour at the end of the
rains: the biological equivalent of the Northern Hemisphere
spring. The result is that the birds are in breeding plumage
and are very active throughout the day and the Namib is
relatively cool. The landscape is also very green, and after
exceptional rains this year, the Namib was the best I’ve ever
seen it (even better than 2005). The overwhelming impression
was of the desert in bloom and we spent two weeks spent soaking
up the wonderful birds and biodiversity. Along the way, we
were fortunate to see all of the Namib’s endemic and near-endemic
species (most were scoped, and each member of the group had
extended views of each special). We recorded over 350 species
on the tour, although it has to be said that our emphasis
was not on the list but on quality views of the characteristic
species. Game watching was excellent with sightings of Desert
Elephant, Lion, Cheetah, Black Rhinoceros and the curious
Dassie Rat in fact we recorded over 50 mammal species!
10 March 2006
After a mid-afternoon arrival at the International Airport
in Windhoek, we transferred to our accommodation to settle in.
After a short rest, we headed off for some bead shopping
in town, and then for late afternoon birding in the nearby Daan
Viljoen Nature Reserve. Although we’d seen a few species on the
drive from airport, this was our first taste of birding in Namibia
and the rolling hills covered in acacia woodland are an excellent
place to start. It was a terrific introduction to thornveld and
Namibia’s birds and mammals. The birding was diverse, with excellent
looks in the late afternoon light at many species including Rockrunner,
Violet-eared Waxbill, Rock Kestrel, Black-chested Snake-eagle, Shaft-tailed
Whydah, Short-Toed Rock-Thrush, and Ground-scraper Thrush.
Mammal highlights were our first views of Dassie Rat, Blue Wildebeest
with young, the endemic Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra, and Red Hartebeest.
We also saw our first male Common Diadem butterfly.
11 March 2006
Although this was a long day with much driving,
the scenery was truly spectacular! We were struck by the greenery
of the landscape following record rains over the preceding few months,
from the highlands of Windhoek with its mountain scenery, down to
the Namib Desert below.
The morning provided us with great views of the brown, scaly Bradfield’s
Swift, allowing us to compare it to other swifts flying nearby
(during our fuel fill up at the gas station). At Spreetshoogte Pass,
we enjoyed picnic lunch with sweeping views onto green Namib plains.
We also stopped at Solitaire where we had fabulous brown bread and
tomato sandwiches. At our accommodation at Weltevrede, we viewed
100’s of Larklike Buntings drinking at the birdbath. After
a quick swim we did a late afternoon walk to view rock paintings.
Highlights were Leopard spoor in our path in a sandy riverbed, and
sweeping views of the Namib plains and mountains with oceans of
silvery grass blowing in the wind under a magnificent sunset.
Bird highlights for the day included African Pygmy
Falcon in the morning, diminutive in contrast with the large
Secretarybird that we saw shortly thereafter. We had excellent
views of Rüppell’s Korhaan in late afternoon slowly
crossing the road in front of us.
12 March 2006
This morning was the classic Namib Desert experience.
We made an early start to watch the sunset over the dunes, before
heading closer to explore the red sands. It really is truly spectacular
to be surrounded by the vast imposing red dunes, and we pottered
around on the dunes, immersing ourselves in the natural history
of the area. We had great views of Dune Larks (the only bird
fully endemic to Namibia, although there are many other near-endemics
that extend marginally into Angola) scurrying among the lower, grassier
sections of the dunes and then found a nest with two chicks at
the base of a clump of the endemic Namib Dune Grass, Stipagrostis
salbucola (which only grows on the red sands). Here too we found
specially-adapted tenebrionid beetles, the sandy burrows of Grant’s
Golden Mole, a subterranean “swimmer” through the soft Namib sands,
and a myriad of tracks from gerbils and lizards.
We enjoyed dramatic views of Gemsbok (or Southern Oryx,
which is easier on the throat to pronounce! The “G” is similar to
the “ch” in loch) and Ostrich surrounded by the red dunes.
We had a picnic breakfast at the base of a big dune that we then
climbed (or spectacularly fell off, Mark...).
We then drove northwards through the Namib Desert plains
to Walvis Bay. The highlights of this drive included paddling in
the Kuiseb River (a
rare event since it only flows a few days a year, if at all), seeing
the plains in peak of their greenery (normally desolate Namib plains
were covered in Bushman Grass) and seeing endemic Gray’s Lark.
The desert scenery, with distant arid mountains, was very striking.
In the late afternoon, we explored the mudflats and
saltpans at Walvis Bay, among the 1000s of migrant waders. The cold
Benguela current surging up the Namibian coast results in a rich
upwelling system with a profusion of marine life and endemic species.
Highlights included Bar-tailed Godwit and the near-endemic
Damara Tern just before sunset.
13 March 2006
We drove northwards to Swakopmund, stopping along the
way to see breeding Cape and Crowned Cormorants on
Bird Island. Reptile enthusiast Tommy took us on a two and a half
hour trip across the Namib dunes in search of the reptiles. Highlights
included dune-diving lizards, side-winding adders, a web-footed
gecko and Namaqua chameleon. Skilful dune driving and dramatic scenery
were also highlights.
We organised lunch at the German bakery, and then headed
to the Spitzkoppe. These huge and scenic volcanic inselbergs are
the best site for one of Namibia’s trickiest endemics, Herero
Chat, which we had scoped after a very dedicated search! We
also saw the Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Namaqua Dove and
We drove through Usakos where we bought biltong, a traditional
Southern African delicacy, and then headed to Karibib where we met
up with Deirdre, and continued to Erongo Wilderness Lodge. Erongo
Wilderness Lodge is set in truly spectacular surrounding and is
one of my favourite in Africa. Imposing granite whalebacks surround
the entire area, and each luxury tented suite is set privately among
the boulders. Birds abounded in camp, including White-tailed
Shrike. It was the perfect setting for gin and tonics - sitting
among the red rocks, with baboons barking and all lit by a spectacular
14 March 2006
We made a pre-dawn start in search for another elusive
endemic, Hartlaub’s Francolin. We first encountered
a group of three Freckled Nightjars, their cryptic plumage
blending almost perfectly with the splendid granite rocks. While
scanning for Hartlaub’s Francolin, we were entertained by
the antics of cliff-climbing Chacma Baboons. Other interesting mammals
included Rock Hyrax, and a rock-dwelling antelope, the Klipspringer.
It was becoming very frustrating to only hear the francolins calling,
but then Deirdre spotted a male and female Hartlaub’s Francolin
duetting atop a rounded boulder! After watching them in the telescope,
we then trained the scope on an Amethyst Starling and were
dazzled by its shimmering coppery violet sheen. African Grey Hornbills
and Rockrunner were other highlights.
We then settled in to an extended and relaxed morning
breakfast. Speckled Pigeon, Great Sparrow, and Black-throated
Canary were all present at the nearby birdbath. We had close
views of the curious Dassie Rat, the only member of its unique
rodent family, and the brightly coloured Namibian Rock Agamas.
Rosy-faced Lovebirds and provided an early morning splash
of colour. The charismatic and endemic White-tailed Shrikes
were seen well.
We had a relaxed day, watching the water baths where
we saw both Black-faced and Violet-eared Waxbills,
and strolling around near the lodge where we saw Pale-winged
and Cape Glossy Starlings, and Grey Go-away Birds.
Some of us went on a drive to spectacular Bushman paintings and
learnt about indigenous plant uses. Highlights included Terminalia
prunoides, a beautiful tree that was conspicuous during the
rest of the trip.
At night, we found the dorso-ventrally flattened Marbled
Rubber Frogs, especially adapted for creeping into rocks crevices
during the harsh heat of the day. The Cream-striped Owl, a type
of moth, was very keen on our wine at dinner! The sounds of Rock
Hyraxes lulled us to sleep.
15 March 2006
After a relaxed breakfast and some birding,
with highlights being extremely close views of Rosy-faced Lovebird,
we drove out of Erongo Wilderness Lodge and saw one of Africa’s
smallest antelopes, the Damara Dik-dik, superbly concealed under
an acacia tree. Arriving at the town of Omaruru, we did the essential
curio buying at Tikolosh carving shop, well known for its particularly
imaginative mopane root carvings. We drove through to Uis for lunch
at Vicky’s Coffee Shop, where a member of staff was pointlessly
watering the gravel as if it were grass! Insect highlights were
Armoured Ground-Crickets and Common Diadem butterflies. Our next
destination was the Brandberg White Lady Lodge, situated below Namibia’s
tallest mountain. After a much-needed swim, we hopped into an open-top
4x4 and went on one of the most spectacular scenic drives of the
trip (through the rocky Damaraland semi-desert basked in red evening
light, in and out of dry riverbeds dry riverbeds, with distant purple
mountains all around). Bird highlights were Burchell’s Coursers
running across gravel plains and Pearl-spotted Owlet whistled
up in some riverine trees.
We also saw a Black-backed Jackal. After the windswept
drive back, we enjoyed sipping a G&T and a hearty meal at the
lodge. Typical and worth mentioning in Damaraland are the scattered
cattle and goat donkey pens among colorful huts made of a patchwork
of metal plates, radiator, wood, and other materials.
16 March 2006
We had a late breakfast and handled the rare Anchieta’s
Dwarf Python in the lodge’s garden after it had been found nearby
the previous day. We then drove to the open desert plains below
the towering Brandberg. There we found one of Namibia’s newly recognised
endemics, the Benguela Longbilled Lark. Several individuals
treated us with fantastic views of their aerial display. Mark spotted
a Ludwig’s Bustard strutting along
in close proximity to a Northern Black Korhaan and a Rüppell’s
We then transferred to a four-wheel drive vehicle to
continue our search for the desert elephants. We managed to find
a bull elephant in the golden grass, thanks to our local herdsmen
guide’s eagle eye! Bird highlights were 250 Abdim’s Storks
clustered around a water pool, and good views of Fawn-coloured
Lark and Cape Penduline-Tit. We stopped for lunch at
Khorixas, where we cooled down with a footbath in the pool, and
were entertained by bantam chickens running among our feet. Mark
spotted a Shaft-tailed Whydah and earned his new title as
the “whydah man”. We then proceeded to the Kamanjab shopping emporium
where the tradition of savouring Magnum ice-creams imprinted upon
We continued north towards Hobatere Lodge through magnificent
thunderstorms vistas with mushroom rain clouds. Closer looks at
a gigantic Flap-necked Chameleon provided a break from the drive.
On our way to Hobatere, we had splendid scoped views of a large
group of Madagascar Bee-eaters. The late afternoon light
emphasised the colours of more than 50 bee-eaters dust-bathing in
the sand of the road and hawking insects in flight. Driving into
Hobatere, we encountered Giraffe, Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra and
Gemsbok. The day ended with one of the most fantastic sunsets of
the trip and a fabulous meal.
17 March 2006
After waking up to the roaring of lions and
whistles of Pearl-spotted Owlet, we did an early morning
drive, but it started raining so we returned quickly. Still, highlights
included Dusky Lark (which we were able to directly compare
with Ground-scraper Thrush), Secretarybird,
Ovambo Sparrowhawk, and lots of Gemsbok, Springbok, and Hartmann’s
Our mid-morning breakfast was great for birds: Bare-cheeked
Babblers spotted by Mark, Damara Hornbills on the muesli,
Meves’s Starlings all around. After breakfast, our late morning
drive and walk included highlights such as Violet Woodhoopoes,
Shrikra with the red eyes, and four species of “Blue” butterflies.
A short salad and sandwich lunch filled us for a relaxed
afternoon. The swimming pool and surrounding viewing deck overlooked
the massive grass covered valley with fantastic species of game.
What a great way to spend the afternoon! Late afternoon, Steve Braine
banded a Dusky Lark as part of an ongoing research project.
During our night drive, Callan caught a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar
that was settled in the road and we all had close views in the hand
of its distinctive features.
18 March 2006
We started off with a super breakfast with mango
and poached eggs, followed by an early morning walk with a local
guide Martin. It was fantastic to experience the bush on foot where
we could see dropping and tracks closely, and birding highlights
were Pearl-spotted Owlet, African Scops-Owl, and Verreaux’s
Eagle-Owl in quick succession. The final climax of the walk
must go to Rüppell’s Parrot, our final Namibian endemic.
We all agreed that it was a pity that Gerry, who first conceptualised
this trip but had to cancel at the last minute, couldn’t be here
We left Hobatere in the late morning and took small
back roads to arrive at Tandala Ridge Wildlife Reserve for late
afternoon tea and light sandwiches. The panoramic view below the
patio where we ate left us dazzled. We watched Tim Osborne, a Namibian
bird-ringer, band three Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill chicks.
We also saw Red Hartebeest.
After the adventurous drive through to Etosha (earlier
rains had left the roads very muddy, nice views of African Harrier-Hawk
here though), we were sure to position ourselves at the floodlit
waterhole at Okaukeujo just after sunset just in time to see the
Double-banded Sandgrouse come to drink. We also saw the rare and
localised Black-faced Impala shortly after entering into the park.
19 March 2006
Our morning game drive was spectacular: the vast expanse
of Etosha Pan filled with glittering water and vast groups of game
were absorbing. We spend the next few hours watching the antics
of baby Plains Zebras and Springbok. Bird highlights were Double-banded
Courser, Crowned Lapwing and Capped Wheatear.
Before leaving for the Halali, we went for a short walk
around Okaukeujo and Callan gave a crash course on the identification
of swifts and swallows at the waterhole. We also had close views
of Sociable Weavers in a huge apartment-like nest, with South
African Ground Squirrels scurrying about underneath. We then headed
to Halali where we saw a Kori Bustard, the world’s largest
flying bird, a striking male Northern Black Korhaan very
close to the road and Greater Kestrel. We arrived in Halali
in the early afternoon and had a swim and spent a few hours relaxing
20 March 2006
We went on a pre-breakfast drive for an hour, past beautiful
koppies. Louise spotted a camouflaged Bronze-winged Courser
roosting on the rocky ground. After breakfast we located a cryptically
concealed African Scops-Owl and walked to Moringa waterhole
and where we met a profusion of wild flowers and butterflies. At
the waterhole we saw a pair of Blacksmith Lapwings with their
chicks, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, and a Bateleur
rocked gently overhead.
We then drove through to Namutoni where a highlight
included a group of three Cheetahs under a tree near the road. After
a brief rest during the heat of the day, we drove to northwards
to Fisher’s Pan, where we saw a selection of waders (Marsh and
Wood Sandpipers) and a had a crash course in wader-identification!
Mammals were excellent: we spotted two bull elephants
sparring along the water’s edge, and further north we were treated
to extended views of a Black Rhino - and then magnificent views
of a pride of lions framed by a golden sunset over a water-filled
Etosha pan. A pair of Tawny Eagles mated atop a tree in the
golden light but our views were cut short was we had to rush back
for the gate closing time. We did however manage to make a brief
stop for a Spotted Hyaena sloping against the grassy plains
in the failing light.
21 March 2006
Our pre-breakfast game drive treated us with highlights
including a pair of Blue Cranes and their youngsters,
extended views of Giraffe, and Lesser Moorhen.
After breakfast, specials during our walk around camp
included Icterine Warbler, Blue Waxbill and Chestnut-vented
We then departed on the drive north into the more tropical,
woodland areas of the Okavango River. Small tribal homesteads and
large herds of Nguni cattle started to dot the landscape refreshing.
Roy’s Camp was a refreshing break with swimming, cold drinks, and
White Helmet-Shrike and Red-billed Hornbill. In the
late afternoon we settled into the Sarasuga River Lodge on the back
of the Okavango River where we had phenomenal views of Grey-headed
Kingfisher. Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters flew overhead as we relaxed
in the pool at the end of the day.
22 March 2006
Despite the phenomenal dawn chorus of birdsong, our
early morning birdwalk was washed by rain so we headed directly
to the Okavango region. We took a short break in the moist woodland
where a brief scan produced great views of the African Golden
Oriole, more White Helmet-Shrikes, Black Cuckoo and
Mid-afternoon was spent in Mahango Game Reserve. This
must be one of Namibia’s best-kept secrets, and we had the entire
reserve all to ourselves. Between bouts of torrential rain, we were
treated to wonderful wildlife sightings. Habitat included dense
woodlands along the broad Okavango floodplain. Game highlights included
Hippos submerged in lily clad plains, large herds of impala huddled
together in the rain, big grazing herds of Plains Zebra, Blue Wildebeest
and Giraffe, and two Southern Reedbuck bounding through golden grass
with water drops from their splashes sparkling in the sun, all with
grey thunderclouds in the back.
However, the Mahango highlight was the herd of 15 Sable
with calves that only narrowly out competed the Roan antelope standing
in full view! We also saw the very shy Sitatunga at the edge of
Bird highlights were cartwheeling African Fish-eagles,
a dazzling pair of unlikely looking Saddle-billed Storks
(female’s pale eye and male’s drooping wattles clearly visible),
a tree full of Spurwinged Goose, Senegal and Coppy-tailed
Coucals, African Jacana, Goliath Heron, and close views
of Little Bee-eaters, Long-tailed Lapwing, African Pygmy Goose,
Rufous-naped Lark displaying from atop a bush and Bradfield’s
Border formalities into Botswana went smoothly and
the rain cleared up for our boat ride to the isolated Xaro camp
near Shakawe where we were to spend the night.
Warmly wrapped, our luggage and ourselves made the boat
trip in about 20 minutes, with birding highlights including Blue-cheeked
and White-fronted Bee-eaters, Pied Kingfisher, African Fish-Eagle
and Goliath Heron. Xaro Lodge, secluded elegantly among
beautiful riparian forest on the banks of the Okavango River, was
the perfect setting to spend two days. Our luxury tents, each with
their own ensuite bathrooms, overlooked the river (tucked under
gnarled century-old Jackalberry, Wild Mangosteen and Sausage trees).
Birds abounded in the grounds: White-browed Robin-Chats whistled
from the thickets and Hartlaub’s Babblers hopped on the lawn.
The open-air dinner was made ever the more perfect by the grunting
of surrounding hippos.
23 March 2006
A cacophony of birdsong woke us up for a promising
early morning walk through the riparian forest with camp manager
and owner, Donovan. A major excitement was a superb scope view of
the ginger giant, Pel’s Fishing-Owl, perhaps Africa’s most
desired owl. We observed a pair of these owls roasting in a large
tree. Other highlights were Diederick Cuckoo, Woodland Kingfisher,
Black-collared Barbet, Golden Weaver, a male Thick-billed
Weaver building a nest, Yellow-breasted Apalis, White-fronted
Bee-eater, and Crocodile.
We returned for a well-deserved breakfast before heading
out on a boat trip in search of the elusive White-backed Night-Heron.
We were eventually able to approach a pair of the night-herons as
they roosted silently in a tree overhanging the water.
Other highlights were Malachite Kingfisher and
African Pygmy Goose.
Returning from the boat trip, we enjoyed a light lunch, swim
and relax in camp.
A distant storm made for a dramatic sunset over the
Okavango River. Even the camp manager brought out his camera for
this exceptional view.
24 March 2006
Early morning downpours curtailed the morning walk,
but we did have some conciliation in the form of Giant Kingfishers
that perched nearby.
Our boat transfer back to Drotsky’s threatened to be
damp (with the light rain), but conciliation was provided in form
of an Osprey flying overhead and an African Marsh-Harrier
quartering the reedbeds. Our walk in the riverine forest at Drotsky’s
(among the best in Botswana with its huge Sausage Trees, intertwined
with strangling figs and lianas) yielded White-browed Robin-Chat,
Terrestrial Brownbul and African Paradise Flycatcher.
We were very fortunate to obtain an unobstructed view of “Chobe”
Bushbuck in the forest at Drotsky’s.
Then we proceeded back into Namibia and did some afternoon
birding at Mahango. Birding highlights were the pale and dark morph
of Jacobin Cuckoo in one tree, Striped Kingfisher, Shaft-tailed
Whydah on a termite mound, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Burchell’s
Starling and Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove. We then checked
into Popa Falls and did a late afternoon walk, which provided Little
Sparrowhawk above our rustic huts, and exciting views of hippos
yawning (showing the lower tusks) and demonstrating their flattened
tail “paddling” scat. Our pre-ordered dinner arrived timelessly
and we had an early night.
25 March 2006
Today was mainly driving day, returning from the Okavango
region. We made an early start to have a full breakfast in Rundu,
at Ozzy’s Beerhouse, where we were confused by the advertisement
on a nearby store: “Ice end bed for sale cash loan”. We proceeded
southwards en route to the Waterberg stopping for a welcome break
at Roy’s Camp where we enjoyed refreshments, swim and a group of
Black-faced Babblers before proceeding south for ice creams
at Otavi (Magnum ice creams had become a staple on this trip!) Close
to the Waterberg, we stopped in a patch of thornveld where punchy
late afternoon birding resulted in 30 species in 30 minutes all
from exactly the same spot! Scope views were obtained for most species.
Colourful highlights were Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Long-tailed
Paradise Whydah, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Green-winged Pytilia, Great-spotted
Cuckoo, Black-faced Waxbill, Brubru, Acacia Pied Barbet and
Arriving in our spacious accommodation set in dense
Waterberg woodlands, we were pleased to find small groups of Damara
Dik-dik in the gardens. A genet dashed across the road on our evening
drive to dinner.
26 March 2006
We started this day with an early morning walk
to breakfast. The variegated colours of light on the red sandstone
cliffs of the Waterberg, catching the early morning light, provided
a spectacular backdrop to our pre-breakfast walk. Highlights were
Ruppell’s Parrot scoped, African Paradise Flycatcher,
and a small group of curious Dwarf Mongoose. Breakfast was
on the veranda, overlooked the canopy of the trees and the misty
plains below. Perching prominently in the trees were a partially
leucistic Cape Glossy Starling, Acacia Pied Barbet, a male
Marico Sunbird, and a stunning group of Southern Masked Weavers
in breeding plumage.
While packing the car, a small group of Rosy-faced
Lovebirds landed on the grass nearby while an African Hawk-Eagle
circled overhead. It was with much regret that we had to curtail
our morning birding and head southwards to Windhoek for our flight.
Raptors on our drive south included a Yellow-billed Kite
chasing a Rock Kestrel and a stunning adult Black-chested
Snake-Eagle. We arrived at the airport in good time and enjoyed
a coffee while going over our final birdlist
Trip report by Birding Africa tour
leader Callan Cohen.
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.