Namibia Day 10: Hiking for the Hartlaub’s francolin

We left Etosha National Park today to head to completely different environment, the Waterberg Plateau about 300km south. The Waterberg is a massive flat plateau of 7500 km2 reaching around 1700 meters above sea level. It is a geological relic caused by the erosion of the softer sandstone that once surrounded it. The plateau is truly ancient with the oldest rock dating from 850 million years ago. Currently, the plateau includes a Namibian national park which is used for breeding rare and endangered game such as white (Ceratotherium simum) and black rhino (Diceros bicornis), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), roan (Hippotragus equinus), and sable (H. niger). The animals are unable to escape due to the steep cliffs of the plateau. The area is also one of Namibia’s important bird areas (IBAs) with 350 species of bird reported in the region. All of this makes the Waterberg special but what we were all most excited about was the lushness of the vegetation when we arrived.

We began the day with our last game drive of the trip. Dayne took us to all the waterholes in the area to see if we could find any more cats. We didn’t find any cats but we did have our best spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) sighting of the trip with several emerging from the tree line and heading for water. Our last stop in the park was Klein Namutoni. We picked up a new bird for the trip in the form of a single grey-headed gull (Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus). On our way back from the waterhole, we got our first really nice view of the Damara dik-dik (Madoqua kirkii), an endemic antelope to Namibia. They are tiny, only about 40cm tall and a little over 5kg in weight. Dik-diks also have a peculiar long snout that has evolved to help prevent them from overheating. After our time with the dik-diks, we headed onto the tar road out of the park. The road was fairly quiet but we did pick up a couple of emerald-spotted wood-doves (Turtur chalcospilos) and a hornbill that didn’t seem quite red-billed (Tockus erythrorhynchus) or Damara (T. damarensis). As we exited the park, we bought a couple of bird mobiles so we could enjoy the birds of Namibia even when we were back at home.

Our next target for the day was the black-faced babbler (Turdoides melanops), a broad-leaved woodland specialist found in Namibia, Botswana, and Angola. Etosha and surrounds area in the far southern reaches of their range and therefore, they are a reasonably uncommon species in the area. Dayne had a spot where a group was nesting at one of the lodges just outside the gate. We arrived at the lodge and immediately enjoyed a palm tree full of lesser masked-weavers (Ploceus intermedius) and nests. The garden surround the massive lodge was lush with mature trees and green lawns. We strolled around, looking for the babblers as we went. We bumped into a band of banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) as well as a yellow-bellied greenbul (Chlorocichla flaviventris) (a bird I never would have expected here) and another African golden oriole (Oriolus auratus). Common tree squirrels were everywhere and were extremely confiding. But there were no babblers to be seen. Dayne suggested we get a coffee (as a “fee” for birding in the lodge’s garden) and while we sat and drank coffee, Dayne was out looking for the black-faced babblers. While he was looking, we admired a pair of African paradise-flycatchers (Terpsiphone viridis) feeding their fledglings. About twenty minutes later, Dayne returned, triumphantly announcing that he had found the birds. We all finished out coffee and headed out, finding a nice Jacobin cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) on the way. The birds were there, foraging in the leaf litter. We sat down and watched one bird as he came closer and closer, seemingly oblivious to us. He flipped leaf after leaf, investigating under each one for any tasty morsels, and soon was only a meter or two away. The only time the birds seemed at all perturbed by our presence was when we stepped to close the bush that must have held their nest. We quickly backed away from that one. After twenty minutes, we left the babblers and continued south towards Waterberg.

Our drive south was punctuated with many stops, the first of which was Lake Otjikoto to look for kingfishers. This lake is an incredible sinkhole in the dolomite rock with turquoise water and its own endemic fish species. There were no kingfishers but we did find and a single melanistic gabar goshawk (Micronisus gabar). We continued on and made several stops to look for Bradfield’s hornbill (Tockus bradfieldi), a species found in a band across southern Angola and Zambia, and northern Botswana and Namibia. The hornbills evaded us at every stop and so we headed on to lunch. Our lunch stop was quiet birdwise but we did see a “new” mammal in the form of a zedonk, a zebra crossed with a donkey. Over lunch, Dayne decided to add a quick stop at the Otjinwarongo sewage works. We arrived at the sewage works in peak day heat. The wetlands were pumping with hundreds of birds. The first pond we investigated contained red-billed teal (Anas erythrorhyncha), Cape teal (A. capensis), white-faced whistling-duck (Dendrocygna viduata), and a very handsome male knob-billed duck (Sarkidiornis melanotos). White-winged (Chlidonias leucopterus) and whiskered terns (C. hybrida) circled above every pond and African swamphens (Porphyrio madagascariensis), black crakes (Amaurornis flavirostra), and colourful greater painted-snipes (Rostratula benghalensis) moved in and out of the reeds. There were half a dozen squacco herons (Ardeola ralloides) scattered around the ponds as well as a few grey herons (Ardea cinerea). The shorebird numbers were impressive with three-banded plovers (Charadrius tricollaris), common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), marsh sandpipers (T. stagnatilis), wood sandpipers (T. glareola), and common ringed-plovers (C. hiaticula). A single yellow-crowned bishop (Euplectes afer) was new for the trip and a single female maccoa duck (Oxyura maccoa) was new for the year. Best of all, as we were driving out, I spotted a brown raptor sitting in a bush on the roadside. It took off as we pulled over and all of us instantly recognized it as a European honey buzzard (Pernis apivorus), a scarce European migrant. We leaped out of the car to get better looks and eventually admired it (well technically her) as it say in a large tree.

An hour later and we were approaching the Waterberg in all its green glory. The road leading there had plenty to look at including a handsome dark-form Wahlberg’s eagle (Hieraaetus wahlbergi), black (Cuculus clamosus) and Levaillant’s cuckoo (C. levaillantii), Damara hornbill, and two Verreaux’s eagles (Aquila verreauxii). We arrived at our camp and had some coffee and cake while admiring the numerous African paradise-flycatchers (including two chicks in a nest) in the garden. After our afternoon snack, we headed out for a hike to see what we could find. It felt so nice to be able to walk after being unable to leave the car in Etosha. Bubbling kassinas (Kassina senegalensis) (a frog species) were calling below us in the spring-fed stream and grey go-away-birds (Corythaixoides concolor) called from the trees above. We stopped at a rock for a quick look around and called out a Bradfield’s hornbill who sat calling from a dead tree for several minutes before returning to his rocky haunts. We also spent some time sorting out the swifts and picked up Bradfield’s (Apus bradfieldi) and common (A. apus). We continued our walk (with two more birds on our life list) to the spring where bat hawk (Macheiramphus alcinus) has been seen before. Just as we arrived, we all froze. High up on the mountain, we could hear a duetting pair of Hartlaub’s francolin (Francolinus hartlaubi). We sprinted to the base of the cliff and scanned, eventually picking up the female sitting on a rocky outcrop. A few minutes later, the male joined her before they both scuttled off and disappeared. We had found our second to last near-endemic target. We hiked back, glowing with our success and ready for dinner.

After our four course supper, we went on our last night walk of the trip, hoping to pick up a few more owls and perhaps a freckled nightjar (Caprimulgus tristigma). The owls and nightjars were silent but we found dozens of lesser bush-babies hopping around in the trees. We also did some frogging, finding common platanna (Xenopus laevis) and hearing more bubbling kassinas. It was definitely a nice night to be out, enjoying Namibia.

We had a spectacular day, picking up 108 species of birds as we transitioned from arid Etosha to wet Waterberg. Melissa and I each picked up four lifers including the tricky Hartlaub’s francolin. Tomorrow, we have one last near-endemic target, the rockrunner (Achaetops pycnopygius). After that, it is off to Windhoek and then home to Johannesburg.

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