It was a very long awaited trip. I had promised myself many years ago that I would do a big birding trip to celebrate my 40th birthday – a little birthday present to myself was the way I liked to look at it.
Unfortunately, due to work commitments, and a few other reasons, the trip this time did not coincide with school holidays, so I would be leaving the boys behind. It was a very disappointing turn of events for them but at departure time they had come to terms with it and took it very much in their stride. With cricket, swimming, athletics, schoolwork and all sorts of other activities they would be more than busy enough to keep their minds off all the birds they would be missing.
My companions for this trip would be carefully chosen. I would want my very closest mates with me for such an auspicious trip and, if they were birders, and/or able to put up with a fanatical itinerary, so much the better.
Those that follow my blogs will know of my good mate Paul. He seldom lets a good birding trip go by without putting his name down. Paul actually reckons that about 600 of his 640 odd life birds have been seen whilst birding with me. He was team member two.
The third member of the triumvirate would be someone from left field. Perhaps someone I would never have imagined joining Paul and I on a birding trip. Someone whose knowledge of birds was so scant that he decided he would start his life list on zero for this trip. That person was my good friend Saul.
Paul and I had decided this would not only be about birding but would also be about three good mates spending some time together celebrating a life milestone.
So, there were just three of us but that was a good number for me.
Before I continue, perhaps a few more words about my two companions.
They both happen to be actuaries which you can read into any way that you wish, but let it be said that it was unlikely to be a conventional threesome.
Saul is an investment professional, is football mad (Liverpool being followed and obsessed about as much as I obsess about birds), played premier league cricket and, most notably (for this trip), knew absolutely nothing about birds.
Paul works as the CEO of a multi-billion rand global reinsurance company (as he reminds us regularly), follows football a little less obsessively than Saul, didn’t quite make it as a cricketer and knows about 400 birds’ worth of birds despite ticking well over 600. For as long as I have known Paul he has been known not as Paul, but as “Lombie”, which is short for Lombard and is an acronym for “Lots Of Money But A Real Doos”. Just to reassure you he wears this name with great pride.
So, it would be a small group heading on the trip and now we had to decide the location. I would only be able to afford a week off work and so Mozambique was out of the question. A scan of the map of Southern Africa led me to only one destination – it would be Harare and the Eastern Highlands in Zimbabwe. Although I had done previous trips to Zim, they were very time-pressured and I had left quite a number of birds behind.
To put the trip into a little bit of context my 40th birthday wasn’t the only milestone we would be celebrating. We would also hope to celebrate my 800th Southern African bird.
Since I was a little kid and started placing an ink tick next to the name of the birds in my very first Newman’s I had dreamed of seeing 800 species in the sub-region. In my teens I accelerated rapidly into the 400’s but then had a birding hiatus when attending university, stalling my progress. I got back on track with a Namibian trip just after Jeanie and I got married and hit the 500’s while there. The 600’s were relatively easily achieved with a few dedicated trips with my father, and ultimately reached 700 species about 10 years ago with a Buffy Pipit in Kasane. Not a particularly impressive bird but it got me into the 700’s and that was all that really counted.
I suppose it does not say a lot for my birding exploits in the intervening period that I was still short of 800 before taking this trip. Although I did not accelerate through the 700s I would have to say that the last 3 or 4 years of my birding has been the most rewarding as it has included a number of memorable trips with my two oldest boys. But, I still wanted to get to that milestone eventually.
So, for years my list crept along at a snail’s pace and I found myself on 794 species as the plane’s wheels touched down at Harare International Airport. I had checked and rechecked my total on several occasions as I needed to know exactly where I stood as I added species. It is not often that I am too obsessed about my list but I had to know which bird was going to be the milestone bird.
I knew that it would require some hard work and luck to get to the required total but I had earmarked about 20 possible birds and, although many of them were going to be tough, I felt reasonably confident that I would get there. Still, I know how this birding thing works and there was still a chance something would, and could, go wrong.
Anyway, we were quickly through the airport and soon on the road to a good friend’s house for my first three nights ever spent in Harare. Leigh, who lives in the north-east of the city, would be putting up with the three of us for our first three nights. I warned Leigh of my quirky companions but she took it in her stride and also made sure we were well catered for when it came to a few fussy eaters.
Harare offers two main types of specialist birding. The Miombo birding in Harare is amongst the best in the world with a number of spots to choose from within close proximity of the city, whilst the Harare vleis are world-renowned for their wetland birds during the rainy summer season. We had hoped for a lot of rain before our trip but the dryness in the city was evident on our drive from the airport and so we would have to rely mostly on Miombo birds to add to my list.
Lombie and I had experienced the toughest of Miombo birding on a previous visit. It was the wrong time of year, wrong time of the day whenever we seemed to find ourselves in it and possibly a lack of time that made for a very disappointing time through legendary places like Gosha Park, Cecil Kop and the Tom Hulley Road in the Vumba. We eked out many of the species but it was very hard work and we left quite a few behind. Our biggest mistake 3 years ago, I suspect, was not to visit the Harare sites.
We would not repeat that error again and so we gave ourselves some good time for Miombo birding in and around the city. We visited two prime areas – Mukuvisi Woodlands, virtually in the centre of the city, and Christonbank, about 20 kms north of the city.
We also chose to enlist the services of Ian Riddell as a guide for the Harare portion of the trip, much like we had done three years previously. Ian lives in Harare and knows the best spots better than anyone. He would be taking us to Mukuvisi on our first afternoon. No time for us to rest before seeking my lifers.
Mukuvisi gave me my 795th bird on the first afternoon with a reasonably confiding Spotted Creeper. We had to traipse through quite a bit of woodland to find it but find it we eventually did. A few high fives and I was on my way. We added a few other good Miombo birds but it was really the creeper that we had come for. I had said to Jeanie before leaving that I would not be returning to Cape Town unless I had seen a creeper on this trip, so it was a big relief to have it under the belt. Perhaps an even bigger relief for Jeanie?
Mukuvisi was good but we still did not get that huge rush one is supposed to feel when there are frantic bird parties moving through all parts of the canopy. We were still waiting for that.
Well, Christonbank delivered in more ways than I could have expected.
We had a slow start on a misty morning but once the charismatic Boulder Chats showed themselves, it was like someone had turned on a switch.
We spent the next three hours cleaning up almost every possible Miombo species in that area. At the beginning of the action I added my 796th bird with a few very good sightings of Black-eared Seedeaters.
We then recorded at least 25 species in a single party (I list them here for my own future reference: Whyte’s Barbet, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Southern Hyliota, Black-headed Oriole, Mocking Cliff-chat, Lazy Cisticola, Grey Penduline Tit, Green-capped Eremomela, Miombo Tit, Miombo Rock-thrush, Striped Pipit, Boulder Chat, Black-eared Seedeater, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Black Cuckooshrike, Fork-tailed Drongo, Cardinal woodpecker, Brubru, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, Southern Black Flycatcher, Black-backed Puffback, Common Scimitarbill, Brown-crowned Tchagra and Dark-capped Bulbul).
It was a sustained period of action that went on for almost an hour and there were times that I did not know which direction to look, fearing that I may be looking at the less exciting birds whilst something much juicier was a few meters away on a different branch.
There was one very important bird that we had not yet seen. Quite a significant bird, in fact. On a work trip to Joburg last year I had attempted to twitch the Collared flycatcher in Malcolm Wilson’s garden in Randburg (see blog here). I had missed that bird by less than 10 seconds and I had felt quite bitter about it. Although it was a rather drab individual it was still a Collared Flycatcher. With this Zim trip on the horizon I felt there was going to be some payback. We were at the perfect place and Ian had had a glimpse of what he thought was a female amongst the birds in the party, but when we turned to head back to the car it was still missing from our list as none other than Ian had seen it and very briefly at that.
It was just then that a small pied bird landed in a tree right above our heads. Lombie and I looked up and my initial thoughts were that it was yet another Hyliota, but it couldn’t be – it was pure white underneath and way too big. We both got a very quick glance before it took off and headed through the trees displaying white chevrons on its wings. It was definitely a Collared Flycatcher but my views were too quick. I couldn’t tick it yet.
We moved as quickly as humanly possible through the woodland, making sure to avoid tripping over one another and keeping an eye on the flycatcher as it would perch momentarily and then suddenly move on to a different perch. Eventually we all caught up with it and had great views. This was not a drab female or non breeding male; this was an absolutely cracking breeding male bird. Seeing it in Miombo woodland in Zimbabwe made me feel so much better about missing it in Randburg.
Bird number 797.
Back at the car we felt that the morning could not really have gone any better. I had seen two birds that took me closer to my big number and we had finally experienced the Miombo at its very best.
Before heading home we figured we could eke out a quick visit to Marlborough Vlei. Ian had told us that the vlei was too dry for crakes and flufftails, and it was the latter end of the morning, but I had still never seen a Yellow-mantled Widowbird (which is mildly embarrassing having been a birder for as long as I have) and so we could probably notch that one up quite quickly. Well, it went pretty much according to plan. We parked the car on the edge of the vlei, walked 30 meters in the grass and the widowbird did a fly-by in front of us and landed nicely on the top of a bullrush.
Over the next 2 days we saw more of these birds than you could shake a stick at but it was bird number 798 and that was all that really mattered.
The Harare vleis are legendary amongst birders. They are the most reliable sites for the crakes and rails that migrate from Europe and Northern Africa when conditions are just right. Those conditions require a good sustained period of summer rains and although February is perhaps a touch on the late side, it is usually still okay. Unfortunately the conditions this time around were far too dry but it is the chance one takes when arranging a birding trip in advance. The vlei birding is most likely best arranged at a moment’s notice when word filters through that the rains are late and sustained and a quick weekend trip can be arranged for the vlei birds alone. But, seriously, who has the time for that?
So, we took our chances with the timing and we came up short. Unfortunately the vleis had done their dash and Marlborough and Monavale were completely dry making a flufftail search fruitless.
The vleis have also been under a lot of pressure over the last few years as a result of subsistence farming. I’m not an economist, but in a country where the concentration of wealth resides mostly with a single person, the average low-income Zimbabwean has to find some way to feed his family and so mielie fields have systematically been replacing the pristine flooded grassland areas. I know this may surprise a number of people when I say it but I had expected the worst from an encroachment point of view and I was pleasantly surprised. Marlborough Vlei was certainly the worst off but we still saw some excellent birds there. A good stable population of Rosy-throated Longclaws entertained us in the heat of the day and I thought the mielie fields were not as extensive as I had expected.
Following a good 7 hour morning birding stint we opted for a little down-time. Hardcore birders would be tut-tutting but we had been invited to a braai at the Hayters (some very close friends to Leigh) and three famished birders were never going to turn down a relaxed afternoon after a successful morning. The hospitality was classic Zimbabwean with way too much food and drink and we also watched the end of the SA-Pakistan test at Supersport Park on TV. It seemed a little wrong to have our feet up just relaxing but we had some busy days ahead of us and the “off” time was just what was needed.
Ian suggested a different “unknown” vlei for our early morning stint the next day. We arrived bright and early, missing the Monday morning rush hour in Harare, and stepped into the wettest vlei in Harare. The weather was perfect and the long grass shimmered in the early morning sunlight. We had donned our “wet” shoes and had high hopes for a Streaky-breasted Flufftail, one of my biggest targets for the trip. We had found some perfect habitat and this could deliver. Within about 30 minutes of walking through the vlei we heard the Streaky-breasted calling quite close by.
I would love to tell you that we managed to get a view but, sadly, I can’t. It never showed itself despite quite a concerted effort.
I was well compensated, however, by my 799th bird which was a very good early morning view of a Western Marsh Harrier. Luckily for us it was harassed by two Pied Crows which meant we had prolonged views as it evaded the menaces.
There were a few other photogenic birds at the vlei:
We gave Monavale a bit of a bash as well but it was desperately dry and we had very little to show from our efforts there aside from a Marsh Owl and a Black Coucal. Always good birds to see.
I was now more or less resigned to the fact that my 800th bird would come during our time in the Vumba. No birds were guaranteed (as was the Yellow-mantled Widowbird) but I was sure that the law of averages would eventually get me there.
We had done well with our time in Harare having seen most of the birds we had targeted so we contemplated our next move. With a full afternoon at our disposal we had a kind of free pass to choose whatever took our fancy. Our lunch at the Hayters had revealed that Mark Hayter’s company leased land at a place called Imbwa, which was about 25kms south of Harare. Chatting to Ian we discovered that it was the old sewerage works, and in days gone by it was a legendary birding spot. Birds like Garganey and Northern Pintail were renowned from these works, but since they had been mothballed, access had been denied to birders and it seemed as if it had not been visited in almost 2 decades. Mark had kindly arranged for us to gain access to Imbwa and we took the opportunity to do some birding on a completely unknown site. Lombie referred to this outing as “going off piste”.
The drive south through Harare was atrocious. The roads in Harare are close to undrivable in some places and the traffic is not a lot better. Some traffic lights don’t seem to work and it appears as if it is the survival of the fittest when crossing an intersection. We ultimately arrived at our destination and it certainly appeared as if it had not been accessed in many years. There was an impressive row of Jacarandas greeting our arrival but the small settlement just inside the property looked fairly unimpressive.
We pressed on, though, and soon found ourselves at the settling ponds which were completely dry. Any overshooting Garganeys and Pintails would have kept on flying when looking down at what was on offer.
We were undeterred as we had been told that there was a dam at the “bottom” end of the property and we would head for that. The problem is that we had no idea where the bottom was. Did bottom mean “south”? Did it mean “at the end of the road”? We really had no great feeling of where to go. That didn’t seem to worry us. We carried on driving along a road that started to look less and less like a road. The surface of where we were driving seemed okay but I had a strong recollection of the Rolux Magnum advert as a kid where David Livingstone bumps into Stanley as their mowers mow a pathway through grass that is as high as the proverbial elephant’s eye.
Our car was engulfed by a sea of grass. Not only on the sides, but the middle mannetjie had grass standing up more than 7 feet high. We could not see anything in front of us and just relied on the fact that the reason that the road looked like this was that no one was likely to be on it. At times I would jump out of the car and run ahead just to make sure we weren’t about to drive into a gaping hole. Our GPS units showed a river and a dam ahead and we kept on the “road” heading in that direction. The estimated distance was about 3 or 4 kms and it was becoming more and more doubtful as to whether we would ever get there.
It was a good thing that we pressed on.
We all agreed that that moment was what the trip was all about. Three good mates doing something a little adventurous in an amazing place. The road was awful but the scenery was the opposite. When we could actually see the view, it was magnificent. As we got closer to the river the grassland gave way to typical savannah with large acacias standing in islands amongst the extensive grasslands.
But there was more good reason for us to carry on.
In a flurry of whirring wings a Corncrake flushed from just in front of the car. It flew about twenty metres giving us good views of its rufous wings before crashing into the long grass. We had more than a good enough view to confirm the ID.
This was a very unexpected bird and one that was not yet on my life list. This was it. This was number 800. All those years of birding had come down to this wonderful moment.
I am not sure if I was excited at reaching the milestone or whether it was the crake that got me going but there were some elaborate celebrations as we all clambered out of the car. It really was a great place to achieve the number and I was with two of my closest friends when doing it. Certainly a birding moment that I will remember forever.
I had hoped to get some photos of my 800th bird but a Corncrake turned out to be a bad one from that perspective. Instead there were a few other subjects at Imbwa.
That moment closed the chapter on our time in Harare. As we sat in rush hour traffic back into the city I sms’ed Jeanie to let her know I had achieved my target. Shortly thereafter I got a response from her telling me that the boys at home wanted to know if I could come home now that I had achieved what I had set out to do! Unfortunately for them there were still 6 more days of birding for the three of us and hopefully a few more lifers.
Next stop, Seldomseen…