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Zambia is a birding delight

Zambia is a birding delight


Vultures circling in the sky are nature’s first alert to the location of a carcass. With poaching on the rise again this might reveal the presence of poachers; a new trend among these vile rogues is to poison their unwanted spoils, thus ensuring nature’s first warning is hushed.

Sudden drops in vulture sightings are now a strong indication of poaching activity. Rory McDougall, an artist extraordinaire and an exceptional professional guide, is leading the first vulture count of its kind in the region. The birds of Zambia represent a world Rory has loved since childhood and it is hard to not get swept away with his infectious enthusiasm and zest for nature’s beautiful outdoor classroom.

As I trundled off with Rory for an afternoon of birding, he regaled me with stories of favourite bird spots, special species and the reason Zambia’s beautiful birds have remained a largely untapped niche.

Many southern African bird field guides and distribution lists end abruptly at the Zambezi River. The combination of Zambia’s different habitats, soils and rainfall attracts different species, but it wasn’t until publication of reliable data in the form of The Zambian Bird Atlas, The Birds of Zambia (Dowsettet et al. 2008) and The Important Bird Areas (Leonard 2005) that this began to change.

Zambia’s only true endemic bird is the Zambian (previously Chaplin’s) Barbet. Other Zambian specialties include the Shoebill Stork, Black-Cheeked Lovebird, Slaty Egret and Wattled Crane. With such varied pockets of habitat across Zambia it is no wonder that Rory cannot pick a favourite spot. “Lochinvar at times is unbelievable, teeming with lechwe and birdlife. As you slosh through the shallows, the secret is to find the pools on the floodplain that the birds are using, which are quite often not in the park at all.”

“The Nsefu sector of South Luangwa National Park is another magical spot, especially when Carmine Bee-eaters are nesting. Nothing beats the ambience of the hot springs at sunset, with the honking of the Crowned Cranes bidding you goodnight.”

Rory also loves a spot in North Western Zambia, known as Mwinilunga which forms part of the Congo forest zone, and as such is home to a host of species occurring nowhere else in Zambia. This is also the source of the mighty Zambezi.

One of the greatest known migrations of mammals anywhere on the planet occurs in Zambia. This remarkable event was a secret until the BBC shared it with the world in an incredible documentary. Ten million straw-coloured fruit bats flock to Kasanka National Park where for six weeks they gorge themselves on fruit. When the bats take to the skies en masse at sunset and then return at sunrise, the sight is something to behold. While the bats have made Kasanka famous, there are many other gems waiting to be discovered in this small park including the Pel’s Fishing Owl, African Finfoot and Half-collared Kingfisher.

Another vast area with unparalleled richness of aquatic birdlife is the Bangweulu Swamp which aptly means ‘where water meets the sky.’ This wetland paradise is home to the bizarre Shoebill, large flocks of Wattled Cranes and huge herds of endemic black lechwe.

Other top twitching spots include Shiwa Ng’andu with its recently restored manor house, large water body and exotic vegetation. Mutinondo Wilderness is another destination where 10,000 hectares of private miombo woodland, massive granite whalebacks and crystal clear streams provide home to a host of special species. The enormous Busanga Plain in Kafue National Park is also prime spot for both grassland and miombo specials, including the stunning Rosybreasted Longclaw.

Rory’s face lights up as he tells me about a new Crowned Eagle nest he discovered in Kafue earlier this year. He mentions that he always keeps an eye out for the elusive Tinkerbird that was last seen in the 1950s. If anyone finds it, it will be this amazing birdman.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 07, Dec 2011)

Explore Zambia’s beautiful birds with Rory McDougall (BSC)
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