As far as holidays go, I don’t think I’d ever been as excited as I was for our 2015 Namibian road trip. There were a few reasons for this. A major factor was the sign off of our annual financial statements, which was enormously stressful, and was finished off just before we left. Another good reason was the fact that Namibia is just about my favourite country to travel in. Admittedly my life list of countries is pretty short but nothing beats the open spaces and spectacular scenery of Namibia.
But, I suppose the most exciting reason for the trip was that it was picked specifically by Adam as a celebration of his tenth birthday. My parents have very kindly offered to take each of our kids on a holiday to celebrate their tenth birthday. Tommy celebrated his at Eurodisney and in London but Adam had chosen to do a wildlife trip and, most beneficially for the rest of the family, he had specifically requested that we all tag along.
I had absolutely no complaints as it meant another Buckham road trip.
We flew into Windhoek and had a short stay over before we headed north to the eastern side of Etosha where we would spend three nights at Mushara Lodge. We had just enough time for a short walk around the water tower on the koppie dividing Windhoek and Klein Windhoek, which produced very little until we had our target bird, White-tailed Shrike, which was a good lifer to set off Adam’s list. His first Namibian endemic.
I had chosen Mushara as a destination for only one reason. I know it sounds like I was hijacking Adam’s birthday trip, but I was determined to knock off my major Namibian bogey bird – Black-faced Babbler.
The world famous spot for it is Roy’s Camp near Grootfontein and I had visited there with my father in 2003 with the single-minded purpose of seeing a Black-faced Babbler. Admittedly we hadn’t given ourselves too much time, only spending one night, but my sources were confident that a few hours in the afternoon and a few hours the next morning would be more than enough time. We were also on a very tight schedule on our intense Namibia/Botswana clean-up trip so it was all we could afford. These birds were virtually tied to the birdbath, we were told. Black-faced Babbler is a tricky Namibian bird and is seldom encountered by chance, so Roy’s Camp had become the most reliable place for most Southern African birders to see it.
I knew we were doomed, however, when the ranger at Roy’s Camp guaranteed me the bird when we arrived. “They were feeding on the lawn half an hour ago. I guarantee you that you will see them before you leave tomorrow”.
Well, that was it. The birding gods know no mercy and we spent about five panicked hours looking for the damn things. At 10am the next morning we had about 10 of the lodge’s staff out in different corners of the property searching for them. I think the ranger felt suitably guilty for making a promise that he couldn’t keep and he was also in serious danger of spoiling his 100% record.
Suffice to say, we never smelt hide, nor hair, of a Black-faced Babbler and it remained a bogey bird on my list.
My good friend, Dave, visited Mushara Lodge a few months back and had a group of Black-faced Babblers on the lawn in front of the breakfast room the one morning. As a childish habit, we often send screen grabs of bogey birds to one another when seeing them. I have sent Dave plenty of pics of Red-chested Flufftails over the years, and so it was all in good sport when he sent me a full frame photo of a Black-faced Babbler from Mushara Lodge when they were virtually falling over him while he was having breakfast one morning. As annoying as this little game is, it still encouraged me to start hatching the itinerary for Adam’s birthday trip. So, Mushara Lodge it was, and we wouldn’t make the same mistake as we did at Roy’s Camp. We would spend a full three nights there and make sure we nailed that damn bird.
At Roy’s Camp the birds are well known and I suspect it is a good source of revenue for them, but what I discovered at Mushara is that no one really has a clue about the special bird that they have on their door step. Shortly after arriving at the lodge, I noticed that the birds weren’t falling over themselves to be revealed, so I started to ask every person that worked there if they knew where I could find the babblers. I asked the porter who lugged our luggage from the car to our tents; I asked the lady that made the cappuccinos who barely spoke a word of English and I even asked the ladies that cleaned our tents. Not one of them even seemed to show the slightest inkling that this bird even existed. Perhaps they were not quite as commonplace as Dave had led me to believe.
After two days at Mushara I had still not seen the babblers. I wouldn’t say that I was in a panic state, but I was getting close. It was really the only reasonably gettable bird in Namibia that I still needed (incidentally, I still need to clean up the Grey Kestrel, Angola Cave Chat and Rufous-bellied Tit but they required a good deal more adventurous travel) and after at least 6 visits to the country I wasn’t sure I had enough energy for another bash at it.
Late on our second afternoon I decided to take a walk from our tented camp to the slightly more upmarket Mushara Outpost.
It was a short 1km walk and I thought the lawns at the Outpost may hold a little more hope. I had slim expectation of bumping into them in the bush.
Adam and Tommy were naturally with me, making sure they missed absolutely nothing on this trip, but there was hardly anything moving on a warm winter’s afternoon. We had become accustomed to the many African Red-eyed Bulbul false alarms where we had stopped in our tracks hoping for the best, but those hopes were dashed as we lifted our bins only to find the Voldemort bird perched atop the bush.
As an aside, the “Voldemort bird” is a phrase we had coined on a previous birding trip referring to the “bird that shall not be named” as it was so ubiquitous and did not bear mentioning and hence stopping a vehicle for. For those of you that have never read Harry Potter I am afraid I cannot help you further in understanding the reference.
Anyway, the two Voldemort birds that perched atop one of the roadside bushes initially did not bear mentioning but, even at a little distance, I could tell that they were not quite right for bulbuls. I didn’t see the yellow vent as they flew off and disappeared lower down in the thickets. Tommy and Adam dismissed them, but I was harbouring a tiny bit of hope that they may actually have been Black-faced Babblers. I did what all desperate birders would have done in that situation. I played their call. A few seconds of BBF babbling from my iPhone worked way better than I could have expected. Almost immediately, my target bird perched atop a nearby bush and gave all three of us some amazing views.
It was a huge relief to have finally been able to tear out the babbler page in my Southern African field guide. To avoid a bit of puzzlement at my apparent disrespect for bird books, the expression is really a metaphorical one used when wrapping up a full suite of birds within a family, allowing for the removal of the pages as they are no longer needed. It was good to wrap up another family, but I promise I didn’t actually rip out a page from my book.
I realized why these babblers had taken me so long to see. They were so different to their noisier cousins. All other babblers are obvious birds in the bushveld, with their loud calls and gregarious behavior giving them away quite readily. These BBFs were furtive and amazingly quiet as they hopped around the base of the thorn thicket going about their food collection.
So, another lifer for the year which has been a productive one considering where my Southern African list is at right now. I do have to admit that I do enjoy “natural” lifers a little more than the twitched vagrants. There is nothing better, in my opinion, than ticking a range-restricted species in its natural habitat.
A further bit of fortune was that my parents trundled by in the vehicle a few minutes later and we were able to get my dad onto the birds as well. Jeanie even got out of the car to see what the big deal was. I am not sure she really understood the importance but she was delighted that my mood would improve, having finally wrapped up this bogey bird.
Aside from the babblers there were so many other new sights for Adam on his birthday trip at Etosha. Winter is a quiet time for birds in this part of the world but we still eked out a few lifers for him as each day went by.
Another piece of unfinished business for me was to try and photograph some Violet Woodhoopoes. Our last trip to Namibia a few years before had yielded a family group of rather confused looking birds at the Omaruru campsite. There may have been enough to think about ticking them as Violet but I was not convinced that they were pure breed, so I still needed to get that one on my memory card.
The best place, as most birders know, is Halali Rest Camp in central Etosha. We made the pilgrimage from Mushara and promised the family a sumptuous meal at the camp as their reward for hanging in there while the boys and I chased birds.
The woodhoopoes were very obliging and, within minutes of arriving there, Adam spotted the family group that squabbled its way around the camp as we followed, excited at finding them so easily. There was only a single adult bird amongst a number of juveniles and I spent at least 45 very frustrating minutes to get the right kind of pic but still failed. Don’t look too closely at the pic as you will see a bit of green flecking in amongst the violet but I suspect it is a trick of the sun rather than the fact that these were maybe a bunch of Green Woodhoopoes like the ones we had seen at Omaruru four years previously.
The meal we promised wasn’t quite as forthcoming. For some bizarre reason the restaurant closes at 12pm for normal toasted sandwiches and burgers and they open an elaborate buffet which seems so inappropriate for a game reserve meal. We conscientiously objected and filled ourselves on chip rolls and chocolate bars instead. It was not a popular meal for the adults but the kids, and Jack in particular, asked us at every meal thereafter whether we would be doing a repeat of the chip rolls we’d done at Halali as they felt it was a perfect lunch. Fortunately we were never forced to stoop that low again with the great food we had on the remainder of the trip.
Our time at Mushara was very well spent covering as much of the eastern part of the park as we could given the limited time we had with a 3 year old in the car. The most productive viewing was at the Klein Okevi water hole where we counted at least 25 species of birds as they came to drink. The most exciting bird for me, though, was a single Burchell’s Sandgrouse that settled for a minute or two before whirring off to some other waterhole to get its fill. It was the first time I had photographed one of them and it was a lifer for Tommy and Adam.
Eventually our time was up and we had to move on to the next phase of our journey. Before reading the next instalment here, these are some of the other birds and other animals we saw at Mushara and Etosha:
For the next instalment of our trip click here.