Namibia – success around every corner

It had been an exceptionally long awaited trip.

It was a trip not that long in the planning but the time between the first idea of doing this trip and the actual departure from Cape Town International at 2:45 on the 5th of June felt like a lifetime. Sure, the Kruger Park trip was a very special one, being the first time with my boys in a place that brought back so many memories from when I was a kid, but this would be different.

So, what was different between the Kruger trip and this one?

Well, this one was going to be pure unadulterated birding from the minute the sun rose to the minute the darkness descended for each of the four days of the trip. It was also going to be a trip with two of my best mates but most importantly it would be a trip with my newly fledged lifetime birding companion. Yes, Tommy was coming with.

It was also going to be a trip to one of my favorite birding destinations – Namibia.

With photography being a relatively new pursuit I had not had an opportunity to photograph birds in Namibia and with the prospect of 100% sunshine for the four days I just knew that the camera would be working overtime. Furthermore there were plenty of lifers for Tommy and almost equally as many for my two birding mates – it would be new ground for them and if I wasn’t seeing lifers myself it would be almost as satisfying finding some good birds for them (please note that I have once again tried to avoid laundry lists so I have attempted to place photos of certain birds in the relatively accurate chronological sequence of the trip).

The two mates who were joining Tommy and I on this trip were Andrew, who is a godfather to my middle son Adam and who is largely responsible for my interest in mountain biking and Paul who doesn’t have much noteworthy claim to fame other than being the spiritual guide to Jack, my youngest and wildest child. Paul has a few other qualities, one of which is the fact that he is an actuary which by default means he is a little different. Some might say, eccentric. Someone coined a nickname for him which I will most likely use to refer to him in this blog, rather than his simple Christian name, and that is Lombie. It has an unfortunate source in that it is a shortening of the name LOMBARD which was given to him as it stands for “Lots Of Money But A Real D..s”. It is an unfortunate name, really, but it has stuck.

The itinerary for the trip was simple. Unfortunately it always has to be simple, given the short period of time we always give ourselves for these whirlwind adventures. We would fly to Windhoek, rent a car, drive to Swakop via the Erongo mountains and then barrel back along the B2 on Sunday to ensure we make our flight back to our eagerly awaiting wives and children. The brief would also be simple – see as many Namibian near-endemics as possible. Sounded like a very good plan, despite it’s simplicity.

I have always battled with pre-birding travel and dead time. The lead up to departure day is always excruciating with mind-flashes to that first leap out of the car to put the camera or bins on the first big one of the day. Snapping back to reality whilst at one’s desk is the source of that excruciation and the last few days before departure day seemed to be interminable.

Departure day, however, is always the worst. So close yet so far.

Finally it was time to dash out of the office, speed along the M3 back home, throw in last minute items, get picked up for the airport and weave in and out of traffic to make sure nothing compromised the planned departure. It is never unusual, however,  to arrive breathless at the airport and look up at the departure board and see that the flight was delayed.

More waiting.

We eventually boarded our Air Namibia plane and Tommy and I inched inevitably to the worst seat on the plane – the very last row right next to the toilets. I couldn’t complain though as we were on the right hand side of the plane giving us spectacular views over the arid, yet beautiful landscape that unfolded as we flew north.

Our departure was not without incident though. We were sitting on the Tarmac after being pushed away from the skybridge and as I was casting a glance out of the window watching a true Cape winter deluge sweeping past the plane, we were suddenly jolted by what seemed an extraordinary bump against the plane. It felt like a bus, truck or possibly even another plane bumping into us. In moments like that we knew we were okay but we had no idea what had caused the jolt. It is natural to expect the air stewards and air hostesses to placate all passengers immediately or at the very least to have the pilot making an announcement that all would be okay. Not this time. All I noted was a flurry of activity at the front of the plane with the air hostesses scurrying into the cockpit. Clearly they did not know what had happened either. After what seemed like a timeless 10 minutes we had still not moved from the spot where we had felt the jolt. My mind was starting to prepare for the eventuality that we would be returning to the terminal to wait for repairs/new plane or alternatively traveling in a plane that I had no confidence in (I am not the most relaxed flyer at the best of times).  I was not sure if I could wait any longer for this trip.

Eventually the pilot put us out of our uncertainty with the announcement that it was simply a problem disconnecting from the tow-vehicle that had caused the jolt.

“Nothing to worry about” he broadcast nonchalantly.

It turned out we would soon be on our way. The fun was not over though. The northerly ascent straight into the teeth of the storm tossed the plane up and down and from side to side until eventually we popped out into blue sunshine above the cold front and I could finally relax.

Our delayed departure from Cape Town, the 20 minute layover in Walvis and the 1 hour time change did nothing to ensure that I adhered to Tommy’s mother’s parting words: “remember that he is only 7 and he must get his full 11 hours of sleep each night”. Jeanie was not to know that this curfew would be tough to adhere to given a few very early starts and the occasional nightjar hunt well after dark.  It was always tough to get Tommy to spend the dead hours in the middle of the day catching up on some well needed sleep lest he miss a crucial bird but we managed one or two catnaps without too many bird missing consequences.

Our arrival in Windhoek was soon followed by dinner at a local Portuguese restaurant and as soon as Tommy finished his steak roll his head slumped onto his hands in exhaustion. We excused ourselves from the table and went to sit in the car so Tommy could lie down. As his head hit my lap he jumped back up shouting: “what’s wrong with the moon”.

Since there was not a cloud in the sky and knowing that it was full moon I was puzzled. Normally I’m well aware of lunar eclipses but this one seemed to have crept up on me. It was a starlit night in Windhoek and for the next 30 minutes Tommy’s bed time was further delayed as we watched the eclipse take full effect. I’m not sure if his mother would have felt his sleep should have been further deprived for the benefit of his ongoing astronomical education but I was in charge and I would deal with the consequences of a tired 7 year old the next day!

The explanation of the eclipse required the use of several items of kitchen implements from the guest house so eventually we had the coffee cup as the sun, a glass as the earth and a spoon as the moon and as I shuffled them around one another in a contorted fashion the penny dropped and Tommy had suddenly learnt something that his curriculum had probably not yet reached. And who said birding trips were all about birds?

The alarm to wake us up the next morning signalled the real start of our trip. The alarm was certainly not necessary with our excitement levels high for what lay ahead. We bundled into the car on a freezing morning (the temperature gauge reflected 1 degrees) and we hit the north road headed for Karibib which is where our birding began.

Karibib was our most likely spot for Namibia’s toughest near-endemic – Herero Chat. I had seen this bird a few times before but for my traveling companions it would be a first. The birding, after being so long in coming started fast and furiously. A stop just south of the town of Karibib had us all looking in different directions as one species after another was added to our list. Pygmy Falcon was a firm favourite for Tommy, being as obsessed with raptors as he is.

For me, however, the highlight of the first stop was probably the most unusual bird of the trip. As I trudged through the long and itchy grass (after the wettest summer in the last 25 years the whole route we travelled was blanketed with knee high grass and pools of water everywhere) I flushed two tiny quails with fluttering wings – Small Buttonquail. Certainly a very unusual bird, particularly at this time of year. Unfortunately their fluttering did not last long as they dived back into the long grass and were never to be seen again despite four pairs of legs traipsing through the marked spot. My only reward for all the trudging was a serious skin rash (I am not a fan of wearing closed shoes so I have to suffer the consequences).

Our trip had started well but the first real test was the finding of the chat. After a few minutes of driving south of Karibib we stopped at two roadside koppies for our first view of the remarkable White-tailed Shrike.

A casual scan a little beyond the shrike revealed a very obliging Herero Chat perched in the early morning sunlight allowing for some “hard to believe” views of what was supposed to be the Achilles heel of most central Namibian birding adventures.

We were not even 30 minutes into the birding and we were already way ahead of schedule. Plans for a breakfast stop at a roadside cafe in Karibib were already being bandied about even though we’d only just begun. This theme of running ahead of schedule was fortunately going to continue for the rest of our trip. I suppose it also needs mentioning that the only thing that came close to the importance of the birding focus during the weekend was ensuring that we maintained as minimal a gap between meals as we possibly could. 

So, anyway, after a successful sojourn at Karibib we headed north to Omaruru and the Erongo Wildrness Lodge. There was an obligatory stop at the Omaruru Rest Camp for the famous flock of Violet Woodhoopoes and, if the truth be told, this bird was probably the only one that did not play ball. Not for the fact that it never showed up (as it did with plenty of mates) but when it did show up it was adorned with a far greener head than we had expected. Omaruru represents a bit of an overlap zone between Green and Violet Woodhoopoes but the consensus from a few people including one or two locals is that Green Woodhoopoes do not occur in Omaruru and one can safely tick Violet when encountering a flock in this area.

I have remained very neutral in this debate and based on photographic evidence that I have at hand I will be leaving this species off my list. I have seen them before in Etosha at Halali Camp (the truly classic site) and so I was not too fussed (well, not really true as I wanted a photo just as badly as the other three wanted a view). We spent a while watching the flock fly short distances between the large riverside trees before cackling and then moving across to the next tree in their noisy and jumbled way, all the time taking as many shots as possible hoping that the angle of the sun would illuminate the violet iridescence rather than the green.

We were not easily beaten, however, and so we repeated the exercise the next day and endured a true de ja vu moment as we chased the same flock around the campsite hoping that the right colours would be on show. I can report with authority that we are still no closer to the rather vague truth. We have some photos on the memory card and we will be presenting these to the true experts to let them ponder this complex genetic puzzle.  Whilst missing the woodhoopoes was a disappointment our time at Omaruru was certainly not wasted with plenty of other good birds to entertain us in between bouts of being taunted by the woodhoopoes.

Having suffered our first real challenge we were not having to wait too long before our spirits were lifted. The arrival at Erongo Wilderness Lodge is enough to lift any down-trodden spirits. It is a truly beautiful place surrounded on all sides by huge granite monoliths interspersed with dry woodland and savannah and some fascinating rock loving species of the arboreal and avian kind.

The African Star-chestnut is the predictably considered “star” of the show with purple tubular boughs looking like a weirdly shaped sweet potato.

The lodge was a real spoil for the four of us with luxurious tents nestled amongst the boulders with views from the toilets and showers, providing relaxing relief even when busy with the day’s most menial chores. The winter special, however, was very good value with breakfast, afternoon tea, dinner and full time guiding thrown into the all-in price.

We spent our time at Erongo focussing on the real specials which, most importantly, included Hartlaub’s Spurfowl and Rockrunner. We had chosen to spend two nights at Erongo to ensure we did not leave empty handed. The spurfowl is the trickier one with a short window of opportunity that opens pre-dawn as the birds start calling and then rapidly closes as the dawn turns to daytime. We had one morning to claim this one as we planned a pre-dawn departure for Swakop on our second morning so we had some pressure. The guides at Erongo came close to jinxing the spur fowl forever by almost offering a guarantee but I shut them up before they could say anything as I know only too well what happens with birding guarantees.

(As an aside: a dedicated night’s stay at Roy’s Camp in north eastern Namibia many years ago for the sole purpose of ticking Black-faced Babbler is still a painful memory after I was guaranteed a sighting and after turning the place upside down we had to leave empty handed.)

So with our chances looking good we congregated at the lodge verandah pre-dawn shivering at the knees in the chilly morning air and waited. The lovebirds came flocking in, the Red-eyed Bulbuls were present and correct but the spurfowls remained quiet following their burst of calling as we were getting dressed in the tent 20 minutes earlier.

We then started anxiously scrambling up and down the granite boulders surrounding the lodge until at last we heard another burst of calling nearby. Within a minute or two our wait was over as a male bird perched right in the open no more than 20 meters away and ended our anxiety in an instant cheekily shouting at us.

We spent the rest of the morning with Glassius, the lodge’s extremely capable bird guide and is sure to assist any visitors with additions to their list. We were whisked away to a dry riverbed (well, not totally dry after all the rain in Namibia) and we nailed a few more endemics (Damara Hornbill, Carp’s Tit and most importantly, Ruppel’s Parrot).

The birding in the riverbed was incredible (besides the endemics) with a bird party numbering 14 species (for the benefit of a count here is a laundry list: Burchell’s Starling, Ruppel’s Parrot, Carp’s Tit, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Black-backed Puffback, Brubru, Black-faced Waxbill, Violet-eared waxbill, Southern Masked-weaver, Common Scimitarbill, Bearded Woodpecker, Groundscraper Thrush and Grey-backed Cameroptera).

Erongo is one of those places that allows a resting of the soul. The endemics were easily in the bag and our evenings were spent on two of the mountain tops (sounds impressive but it only involved an hour’s walk in each direction) enjoying an endemic Tafel Namibian beer. Glassius was more than just an able birder – he also lugged our refreshments up the mountain and our second night atop the granite dome was enjoyed even more as we were entertained by a pair of Rockrunners warbling to accompany the setting sun as well as posing for some last minute photos.

Our parting shot as we arrived back at the lodge was a floodlit fly-by of a Freckled Nightjar which completed the full suite of target birds. This bird also held a special place on the trip as it was Tommy’s 400th life bird (embarrassingly it was also a life bird for me) so it was a good one to share. The next day would be a long one on the road as we wound our way through the Erongo conservancy heading west to the coast. The Erongo mountains gave way to the barren plains around Uis at the foot of the impressive Brandberg and then descending further to the seemingly endless desert before reaching the icy cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean at Henties Bay.

Our destination was Swakopmund but there were plenty of birds to stop for before then. My primary target birds for this trip were hopefully going to be found on this journey. I had two remaining Southern African larks on my list having seen all 29 of the other lark species (if you count the sparrow larks and you lump Cape Clapper with Agulhas Clapper for those of you that are technically inclined) and it would be important to me to wrap them up being one of my favorite groups of birds.

The first one on the list and in the path of our coastal destination was Benguela Long-billed Lark. A slightly tricky bird not for the fact that it would be difficult to find (although one can easily miss these things as I had done on a previous trip to this area) but rather the fact that it exists in a bit of a hybrid zone near the town of Uis, being very difficult to separate from the northern form of Karoo Long-billed Lark which is thought to occur south of Uis. Well, the finding bit was very easy. We had one calling on the outskirts of the town as we arrived and so we bundled out of the car and picked up an obliging specimen right next to the road. The sighting was accompanied by a full display with a sweeping upward flight followed by a plunge to the ground whilst shouting its descending whistle. The theory, once again for those that are technically minded, is that the birds north of Uis are clearly Benguela and those south are potentially hybrids. After a bit of debate and much reference to our field guides we were confident of our ID and one more closer to my full complement. Interestingly the next day at Spitskop we saw a few Karoo Long-billed Larks and looking at the photos below there is quite a clear distinction between the species.

Benguela Long-billed Lark

Karoo Long-billed Lark

The next lark on the menu was amazingly Stark’s Lark. I say “amazingly” as it is an abundant bird in Namibia in the right conditions but it was a bird that I had always seemed to miss on previous trips. Not more than 30kms beyond Uis we stopped to look at a bird perched on a rock (which turned out to be a Larklike Bunting) and just before we got in the car Tommy shouted that he had seen a bird foraging in the tall yellow grass next to the road. A quick look revealed my final piece of the lark puzzle – Stark’s Lark. It took some time before all of us got decent views as there were several birds flushing from the depths of the grass and flying over our heads before settling down out of view back in the long grass.

As it turned out we needn’t have worried. For the next 50kms we saw literally thousands of these birds as they flushed from the road in front of the car. A bit of entertainment for the day involved a pair of Larklike Buntings that flew into the open door of our car as we were looking at the Stark’s Lark. What they wanted out of the car was a mystery to us but we had to open the boot of the car and flush them out. One had to be manhandled from between the luggage before it was set free.

What was very noticeable as we headed to the coast was the impact of the rain on the landscape. Barren gravel plains had been transformed into grassy meadows and lifeless desert sand closer to the coast was covered in vegetation looking like a green carpet had been rolled out. It is unlikely that this area had looked as green and full of life as it did now.

It was an incongruous sight seeing desert specials such as Ruppel’s Korhaan foraging amongst knee high grass and true camouflage specials like Gray’s Lark sticking out like sore thumbs amongst the green tussocks.

Our arrival in Swakop was timed to meet Mark Boorman who is Swakop’s resident expert and knows the area better than any other. We were treated to a quick loop around Mile 4 salt works to show us not one, but two, Common Redshanks that seemed to be happier spending winter in Namibia than hauling thousands of kilometers north for the boreal summer. It didn’t take long for Mark to latch onto the targets and we were very lucky (and truly grateful) to have the benefit of his knowledge.

Once the Redshank was “in the bag” we had one final chapter to this whirlwind trip. We only needed Dune Lark to wrap up every single species that we had targeted. It was hard to believe how well everything had gone and it looked like we had just enough time to drive the 80kms south to Rooibank to knock it off. We looked at our watches, keyed in the co-ordinates on our GPS and calculated we would have about 45 minutes of sunlight to trundle through the dunes to find our bird.

There is a bit of a background story to the Dune Lark (if you’ll indulge me an aside). Lombie’s father, being a bit of a birder himself (albeit rather casual), had visited Namibia a few months ago and accompanied a guide at Sossusvlei who had pointed out a Dune Lark and remarked how lucky they were to see such a “rare” bird. When Lynn (Lombie’s father) heard we were planning a trip to Namibia, Lombie mentioned that Dune Lark was one of our target birds. As is standard for most father/son relationships the competitive spirit came out and Lynn told Lombie that we would never see a Dune Lark given it’s rarity. Naturally Lombie told me this story and requested that we make a special effort for this one. It would be a travesty to return from Namibia with a load full of lifers but be missing the one bird his father had told him we wouldn’t see.

Having seen Dune Lark on a previous occasion and knowing that it is certainly not rare (nothing like Herero Chat – Lynn, if you ever read this, yes we saw Herero Chat which you didn’t) but simply range restricted (being Namibia’s only true endemic) I was quite confident that we would see this bird and Lombie would be able to gloat right back. At the same time, though, I was fully aware that birding never offers guarantees and it would be “tough luck” irony that this would be the only bird we would miss.

We were also giving ourselves such a short window to see it and at the worst possible time of day with the afternoon coastal wind blowing over the dunes forcing these birds down between the tussocks. It was with great trepidation that we approached Rooibank, armed with Mark’s pinpoint directions, and soon we were scrambling over perfect habitat looking for our bird.

The wind had dropped a little but we could hear nothing (the distinctive rattling call is the best way to find this dune skulker). After a few minutes of silence I started to think our luck had run out. I know a few minutes is not a long time to search for a good bird but the rest of the trip had gone so well and the sun was starting to dip closer and closer to the horizon. Just when I started to think that we would have to come back the next morning and thwart our well laid plans I heard just the faintest of trills. We immediately froze and sharpened our senses to wait for the next trill that would focus our search but there was nothing more being offered. Our hopes were up and then suddenly back down again when they shot up again when I heard Lombie shout “there it is!”

It couldn’t have been more appropriate that he would be the one to nail this one. There it was running between the tussocks picking up it’s last morsels before the sun set. It was going to be a satisfying dinner at our chosen restaurant spot that evening.

A final bird for the day was an obliging Orange River White-eye in the dying sunlight and then it was a quick drive back to Swakop and a regroup before the long day of travel on Sunday.

Our final day was not completely without birding. We stopped for a few hours at Spitskop to enjoy the final few Namibian specials on this trip and we remarked several times how grateful we were that we were not still needing Herero Chat at the traditional site as it never made an appearance.  The Spitskop mountains are spectacular indeed and the view on the horizon becomes more and more impressive the closer one gets.  The surrounding gravel plains were very different to how I’d seen them in the past with waving fields of whispy grass moving with the gentle breeze that whispered between the granite domes.  This land of plenty was being filled by literally thousands of Lark-like Buntings as they fluttered up from the depths of the grass as our car ground out along the gravel road taking us to the mountain.

Squeezing the most out the trip that we possibly could we had one more stop at the Windhoek sewerage works, euphemistically named “the Gammams Water Cleaning Plant” to attempt a boost of our trip list. It was a seriously good surprise as we racked up 28 more species to take our trip tally to 175.

The time on the plane gave me a good opportunity to reflect on what I would consider my most successful birding trip ever. Looking at it from a list perspective it couldn’t have gone better. I had targeted 3 life birds and managed 4 which is unheard of (for interest’s sake my life birds were the two larks, the nightjar and the Small Buttonquail). Pre-trip, Lombie had mentioned he would have been delighted with 20 life birds but he managed an extraordinary 36 whilst Andrew is yet to figure out what is on his current list so his lifers may number anything between 30 and 50! Tommy’s list went through the proverbial roof on this trip adding a monstrous 64 lifers and breaking through the 400 barrier.

This trip however was about far more than lists. It was a golden opportunity to spend amazing quality time with two of my best mates and more importantly special times with Tommy. For a 7 year old he was a stalwart. I know people far older than Tommy who would have fallen by the wayside on an incredibly intensive trip of this nature. We were at it from an hour before sunrise every day until the last rays of the sun were extinguished and sometimes longer and there are no moments that come to mind that I can recall when he complained. I can assure you that he moaned a lot less than Lombie who was incessant in reminding Andrew how much his snoring had kept him awake.  

There were also times that my own mood seemed to darken. I actually asked Tommy for forgiveness at the airport when my tiredness seemed to have made me a little snappy.

It was also a privilege to travel through one of Africa’s most beautiful countries. The landscape was at it’s best following all the rain and the weather couldn’t have been more comfortable. It truly is an easy place to go birding.

Thanks for your patience in getting this far in this trip report and if you have only clicked on the link to view the photos (knowing how verbose I can be) then that is fine too. A quick word of thanks to Niall for some critical co-ordinates without which we would never have found birds like Herero Chat, Gray’s Lark, Pygmy Falcon and Fawn-colored Lark. Also, thanks to Callan for some pointers on where to find Ruppell’s Parrot and Damara Hornbill as well as for directing us to Omaruru Rest Camp for those darned Violet/Green Woodhoopoes without which our trip would have been too easy. Mark took time out of his Saturday afternoon to blitz us around Mile 4 and we certainly wished we could have spent many more hours learning one or two more things from a truly passionate and knowledgeable birder.

Thanks also go to my trip companions, Andrew and Lombie, who are probably the only two friends of mine that are prepared to put up with me for the lengths of time that they do having the patience to stand and watch while I get that photo that is just that much better than the previous one I took. My final thanks go to my family for being so patient with my birding exploits, particularly my wife, Jeanie, who understands why I need to do what I do even though she may not understand the birding itself – yet!

8 Responses to Namibia – success around every corner

  1. Pam says:

    What an amazing trip and how special to share it with Tommy and your two very good friends. I am sure it will be a real highlight for you and Tommy forever.

  2. Olga says:

    Awesome post Mike! As you know Andrew is not the chattiest of men so it is great for me to get the details of your trip through your blog 🙂 Thomas is a real trooper and you are creating some very special memories and a tight bond with him which is amazing. You do know that Nicholas and Adampie are itching to join you next year?!!

  3. Margaret Maciver says:

    How wonderful that you got these difficult birds in winter!. In the heat of November last year, I got those larks you needed (so did I) in exactly the same places, just outside Uis and Rooibank.

  4. Nancy Robson says:

    As a northern Namibian I have enjoyed reading your trip report AND your beautiful photos. This wet season has been the heaviest on record since the records began in 1891

  5. ALAN COLLETT says:

    Hi Mike,
    Namibia is my favourite place to bird and your post has rekindled my desire to go back there. I will have to go back because of the number of of species I left behind. We will definitely change our route next time. Why have you put a question mark behind the Green Woodhoopoe. It must be because you weren`t sure between Green and Violit. I had the same experience at Halali: a group moved through the camp and a while later I was talking to somebody about them and he said: were they green or violit and because of inexperience I said I didn`t notice.I will know what to look for next time.

  6. James says:

    I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your reports from a birding perspective as well as hearing how well Tommy does on your trips. I have 2 young girls who I would love to take on special trips like these should they be interested in our avian friends.

    I look forward to your next report and hearing how Tommy’s list keeps growing.

  7. Per Holmen says:

    Again a splendid trip report. What is your photographic list at now?

  8. Gregg Darling says:

    Good trip and report. Thanks Mike.

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