The next phase of our journey would take us away for the hustle and bustle of the city. Quite frankly, I had grown weary of the busy roads and uncomfortable potholes in Harare. I know it sounds a little whiny but it felt a bit strange having to sit in traffic jams on our way to birding spots. Birding trips should mostly be spent in beautiful places away from the noise and chaos of an African city.
I was quite sad, however, to leave Leigh and her kids. Having left my family behind it felt very homely to be staying with Leigh and Will (11), Gus (8) and Em (3). Whilst in Harare we had sat down like normal people at the table for meals, chatted to the kids and generally caught up with Leigh and all her goings-on living in Harare. We had been very spoilt having their house as our base.
Another one of the real bonuses was that I was saved from traipsing around Leigh’s extensive garden to look for frogs and toads by her three very accomplished herping kids. On the one evening we sat having a quiet, civilized drink with Leigh whilst all three kids carried a bucket around the garden and collected a whole bunch of toads, as well as a Common Platanna, from the garden pond. Then, when they had found enough, I grabbed my camera and took a few photos of my hard-earned subjects. I certainly felt like the lazy man’s herper. Unfortunately they were not much use in assisting me with the ID’s so I post these pics with great hesitation as I feel quite sure I have misidentified them.
The next morning, as we threw in our last luggage before heading south-east, the two boys came to say goodbye, looking particularly dapper in their school uniform whilst Leigh dragged Em out of bed to make sure she didn’t miss the farewell. Our lunch was packed and we were on the road, bump-bumping our way through the early morning traffic.
Our GPS was set for Gosha park in Marondera, about 90 Kms south-east of Harare and it was with a small degree of trepidation that we made our way to our next birding stop. My last two visits to Gosha (three years ago) were amongst the most disappointing birding experiences of my life and I was worried there would be a repeat. Christonbank had also set a very high bar and it would be hard to match that. The weather was not helping either. There was a mist over Marondera and we had found that the birding at Christonbank only really came to life when the sun came out. This mist did not look like it was going anywhere and, in fact, we were caught out in a brief rain shower whilst several hundreds of metres from the car.
The beginning of the experience lived up to its expectations. It was deathly quiet for the first half an hour or so. A cold wind was drifting through the trees and there was not a peep from anything. I almost felt like I should be squeezing the birds out of the trees.
Then, suddenly, a first bird called, and then another and another until eventually we had a stream of birds twittering and chattering through the trees in front of us. The precursor to each rush of birds seemed to be a small flock of White-crested Helmet-shrikes. They would squeak and croak as they tumbled up and down the branches and they would be followed by tits, batises, cuckooshrikes, creepers, thrushes, barbets, sunbirds, drongos, crombecs, flycatchers and tchagras as they sent all the insects fleeing for their lives.
We learnt quickly that we should keep the helmet-shrikes in our sights as they would be the key to our success. For the next 2 hours Gosha park steadily redeemed itself. It wasn’t quite as “hot” as Christonbank but it was great birding.
One of the highlight birds was an obliging Lizard Buzzard that sat quite still in the early morning drizzle as the three of us crept closer and closer for better views. Eventually I was prone on a granite boulder in stealth mode taking full frontal shots of this lovely bird. It was a lifer for Lombie so a few high fives were shared as it finally had had enough and flew off through the woodland.
As you all know I have grown fond of a few extra animal types over the last year or so. Frogs and reptiles have been added to my list of targets, but, truthfully, I have found it hard to get too excited by insects. Perhaps there are just too many to contemplate. Strangely, we were faced with possibly one of the most interesting creatures I had ever seen. And, it was an insect.
I felt the tickle of a Miombo leaf stuck to my sock. I lent down and gave it a quick flick but in doing so realized it wasn’t a leaf at all but rather the most extraordinary insect. I’ve seen the quality of camouflage in a number of stick insect the boys have found in our garden but this “leaf” insect was in a different category. How these things are ever found I struggle to imagine. It provided for some great photographic moments as the macro lens brought it to life. The legs and torso of the creature were adorned with protrusions looking like the tapered points of a leaf and its head was long and shielded and up close it was not hard to imagine where Stephen Spielberg conjured up the foe to face Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movie.
It was subsequently identified as a Ghost Mantis.
In addition to the mantis I added one other non-bird to our trip list. The granite rocks in the park were home to plenty of Variable Skinks (fingers crossed my ID is correct).
So, our Gosha Park visit had been a far more successful venture than the last time out and when the Miombo went dead as the morning wore on we bundled back into the car and headed for Seldomseen.
We had been told by the Hayters to visit the Portuguese club in Mutare for lunch on our way through. We found it on the GPS and aimed to get there by lunch time. A few roadworks set us back and when arriving at the keyed-in coordinates in the middle of Mutare there was not much to see with the exception of traffic-lightless chaos at every intersection.
Saul was keen for the club but Lombie and I decided time was of the essence and agreed that the Mutare Nandos was good enough for us. So, while Lombie guarded the car and all our precious belongings, Saul and I ordered three cheese and pine burgers, medium chips and a coke at the smartest Nandos we had ever visited. How is it that the streets are undrivable, the traffic lights don’t work and the there is considerable poverty but yet there is an upper class Nandos selling chicken burgers for $12 each?
After a roadside stop at the Prince of Wales viewpoint on the way up the pass to the Vumba (to gobble our Nandos burgers) we arrived at the renowned quaint cottages at Seldomseen.
There was no one there to greet us so we used our initiative and drove all the way down the steep driveway to what we thought was our cottage for the night. Unfortunately it was an error of judgement and we were actually residing at the cottages at the top of the drive. Our Hyundai iX(5) was put through its paces and had Saul and I (the 2 heavies in the birding party) not gotten out of the car I am not sure if it ever would have made it back up the hill.
Our birding in the Vumba was memorable as was expected. We spent the first afternoon at Leopard Rock ticking a few good birds for the area (Silvery-cheeked Hornbills and Black-fronted Bush-shrike being the most exciting) and then spent a relaxing evening at Seldomseen.
We spent a bit of time looking for a Marshall’s African Leaf Chameleon which we failed to find and consoled ourselves with a good view of the resident African Wood-owls and then retired for the day with a whiskey and our lists.
Struggling to sit still for too long I did head down to the pond in the middle of the forest to look for a few frogs. I found this great reed frog calling from a “perch” and almost ended up completely soaked whilst trying to get in a better position for a photograph. As it was, one shoe and the lower half of my leg was sodden for my efforts.
In addition to the reed frog there were quite a Cape Dwarf Geckos on the walls of the cottage that made for some decent pics.
Wednesday morning was the big one. We would drive south-west down the Burma Valley Road looking for a good few lifers. The area is best known for being the most reliable site (probably anywhere) for Zambezi Indigobird.
As was the case three years previous we had decided that we wouldn’t bumble along on our own but rather enlist the help of Bulawesi, one of the great guides that work at Seldomseen. Bulawesi knew the Burma Valley well and he would accompany us down there.
He was confident of finding the Zambezi Indigobird as well as a few other birds that could potentially add to my list. The Burma Valley was a place I had never visited and since I had read plenty about it and the amazing birds to find down there it held pretty high expectations. I battle to sleep on just about any night before a day of good birding but the night before the Burma Valley was probably one of the most restless I had had for a while.
Driving down the pass to get there was no different than any other Miombo hillside but it was the valley at the bottom that was our destination. I had three or four birds targeted and it had been some time since a morning of birding offered this much potential.
We arrived on the valley floor and parked on the side of the road. Whilst Lombie and I were faffing, Saul and Bulawesi were out of the car and had their bins trained on a bird at the top of a dead tree. It was certainly the first time Saul beat me to a lifer as it was a Zambezi Indogobird (bird number 801). Literally the first bird we saw in the valley was our main target.
I have to confess that indigobirds hold very little interest for me. I should get more excited about them but all 4 species (Village, Dusky, Purple and Zambezi) are all just so damn similar (they’re all black in breeding plumage) and they always seem to perch at the top of dead trees in horrible light, making for pretty average views and therefore difficult identification. The colour of the bill and the legs are the key ID features but that would be too easy – sometimes the one with the red bill has a white bill and sometimes the one with the white legs has red legs.
All very confusing, and pretty frustrating.
I suppose it is relatively interesting that they are brood parasites (which means they are like cuckoos in that they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and play no part in raising their young) and they are species-specific with regards to their hosts (unlike the cuckoos who may have a range of hosts). In addition to parasitising other birds they have the audacity to mimic their hosts’ calls and this is often the best clue to their identification. The Purple, Village and Dusky Indigobirds parasitise firefinches whilst the Zambezi Indigobird is unusual in that it chooses a twinspot to pick on – Redthroated Twinspot, in fact. We had now seen the Zambezi Indogobird first up and made sure we noted the greenish gloss to the feathers and then, to be quite honest, I was happy to ignore every single Indigobird after that. Bulawesi made us look at them all until we had to tell him enough was enough!
We then searched hard for additional lifers with Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah causing the most vociferous debate. For all the money in the world the Whydah that presented itself was of the Long-tailed variety, in my mind, but the presence of a pair of Orange-winged Pytilia (the Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah’s host) caused confusion. We ultimately decided that circumstantial evidence was not quite enough to add the Broad-tailed to our list. Unfortunately one of my potential lifers dropped off as a target species.
I managed to get my first ever pics of a pair of Orange-winged Pytilias. They were extremely skittish and this was all that I could muster:
We also saw our first Black-winged Bishop of the trip. Lombie called it a “twifer” which meant it was the second time he had seen it in his lifetime, having seen it for the first time three years previously. It was also a twifer for me. We would see plenty more of them in the Honde Valley but it was a nice surprise to see it in the Burma Valley. As it turned out we would see loads more twifers on this trip, catching up with birds we were only seeing for the second time.
A minor blip down in the valley was an accidental deletion of my Robert’s Multimedia from my iPhone. Up till that point it had been an invaluable resource for all the calls, but in my excitement to get it out for a vocal Thrush Nightingale I managed to delete the icon from the screen. A frantic few moments followed, searching all the nooks and crannies of my phone but, unfortunately, it was gone for good. We had a few backups for the calls but it was a big blow. I put it behind me as quickly as possible and moved on with the birding.
A word of caution to birders visiting the valley is that the security is a bit iffy. We were approached several times by various dodgy looking individuals who insisted we pay them for being on their land. It was critical having Bulawesi with us as he had some strong negotiation skills and managed to quell any potential situations. At 5 foot 2 inches tall and weighing in at about 55kgs it was certainly his negotiation skills that got us through the confrontations rather than his physical presence. In fact, most of the exchanges were in Shona and we were blissfully unaware of any tension.
The one remaining lifer in the valley was the afore-mentioned Thrush Nightingale which behaved typically elusive until Lombie and I climbed underneath a lantana to get a glimpse from below (bird number 802). Saul did not show the necessary levels of commitment and missed this skulking bird. I did have to remind him that he needed to pay a few more “school fees” before ticking a bird that has taken me almost 35 years to see.
Our time in the Vumba was not only spent birding. We had been told that Tony’s cake shop in the Bunga Forest Reserve (a five minute drive from Seldomseen) was well worth the visit. I was a bit hesitant. How could we forsake an hour of birding for a piece of cake? How good could it really be?
I caved under the pressure from my two companions and agreed to stop off at Tony’s. The setting was magnificent. Tony’s cake shop is housed in a little cottage in the forest that resembled a combination of a setting from a Jane Austen novel and Alice in Wonderland. I am not sure if Tony would appreciate this but we could not help feeling as if we were at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
The crockery was the finest bone china and large slices of cake were adorned with large dollops of cream and orange nasturtiums. The cake was delicious and the chocolate coffee I had was a good one for my first ever cup of coffee.
A post scriptum has to accompany this paragraph. The slices of cake at Tony’s are likely the most expensive you will find anywhere in the world. Each slice cost $12 and the cups of coffee were $6. Just another example of how expensive things have become in Zimbabwe since the US dollar replaced the Monopoly money that came before.
I will add that one slice would have been adequate for all of us (even though we had voracious birding appetites) but we took all three and ended up with cake takeaways that accompanied us for the rest of the trip. On the very last day of the journey I had to convince Saul that the time had come for us to part ways with the remainders.
We also had another reminder of the difficulty of life in third world countries whilst in the Vumba. Whilst chasing forest birds on the main road through the Bunga Forest Reserve, Bulawesi had waved to a friend of his sitting on the back of a bakkie with his wife and 18 month old child. The bakkie had sped past at an unreasonable pace considering the treacherous twists and turns that the road takes when dropping altitude towards Mutare. We learnt later that day that 5 minutes after we had seen the car whizz past us the driver had lost control and had overshot one of the corners into the forest. The father and child had been killed instantly and the mother was seriously injured. One of the passengers in the front cabin had also met with a fatal end whilst the driver seemed to have narrowly escaped death with some serious injuries.
Our need for transport back home is easily fulfilled when we climb into our own cars, yet, in stark contrast, people living a tough life in these rural areas just have no choice as to how they get from one point to another, often having to settle for a lift that is unreasonably risky. It was a sobering moment on our trip and being with Bulawesi when he found out about the tragedy made us all feel that finding birds was somehow a little arbitrary.
Having said all of that, my main target in the Vumba was Red-faced Crimsonwing. Bulawesi worked very hard for this little jewel of the forest. He took us to all his favoured spots and eventually came up with the goods in the Vumba Botanical Gardens. A pair of crimsonwings flitted through the canopy of the forest and gave us all just enough time to get onto them before they disappeared into the gloom (bird number 803). Unfortunately I have no photos to show of this little one.
It was when finding birds like this that Bulawesi’s wonderful personality would shine through. His eagle eyes would easily spot the bird whilst the three bungling “muppets” would be seeing nothing. He would grab each one of us by the shirt sleeve, tug us over to the prime spot and shout “THERE! THERE!” whilst pointing frantically into the foliage. More often than not we were just as clueless as before and with no clear description of where we were looking the pointing and shouting would continue, getting progressively more and more breathless until we would eventually see what he was seeing. I suspect he needed tablets for high blood pressure at the end of each excursion with the three of us.
The botanical gardens were a vast improvement compared to what we had found there three years ago. The paths had been cleared, the long grass had been cut back significantly and there seemed to be some degree of order about the place.
The birding was excellent and we actually chose to spend our last morning in the Gardens instead of doing the forest walk at Seldomseen. We were rewarded with more great birds, including the resident pair of tree pipits in the parking lot. A serious amount of stalking was needed to nail the necessary photos whilst they fed on the ground before flushing into the trees and disappearing forever.
We had a few other good birds in the gardens, as well as a few “cheeky little monkeys”:
All too soon we were heading back to Seldomseen to drop off Bulawesi, grab a quick brekkie and pack our stuff before hitting the road for the final phase of our journey down at Aberfoyle.
Bulawesi had one last gift for us which was a Marshall’s African Leaf Chameleon. This is an animal that is endemic to the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and one that I really wanted to see. Adding this one to our list was almost as rewarding as the crimsonwing. Being a chameleon it certainly sat still for far longer than the crimsonwings did, and at least gave us a chance for a few photos.
To close the chapter on the Vumba area we picked up another take away Nandos in Mutare and spent an hour and a half up at Cecilkop for one more go in the Miombo. Another pair of Tree Pipits patrolled the parking lot of the camping grounds but the warmth of the mid-morning sun sent most Miombo birds to rest as we battled to find much on the contour road heading up from the curio sellers. Despite the paucity of birds Lombie managed his spot of the trip by finding another Collared Flycatcher sitting quietly in the canopy. Unfortunately it did not stay for long and when it flitted away into the next patch of Miombo we decided it was time for us to make a move.
Aberfoyle was waiting…