Birding in and around Windhoek

Shaft-tailed-Whydah-(1)Many people find it strange that I love my hometown of Windhoek so much. They say it is dry and drab, but I see it completely differently. It sits at 1700 metres above sea level (12th highest capital in the world) in the Khomas Highland plateau area between the Auas and Eros mountain ranges. It is home to about 400 000 people at a low density of only 63 per square kilometre and has over 300 sunny days per year.

It is also very rich in avifauna, with over 300 species possible in and around Windhoek, many of them near-endemics of Namibia. There are a few key areas to visit to maximise your bird count here.

Daan Viljoen.jpg

The Daan Viljoen Game Park on the western side of the city provides excellent dry-country birding and could yield Monteiro’s Hornbill, Rockrunner, Carp’s Tit, Short-toed Rock-Thrush, Orange River Francolin and Barred Wren-Warbler. The park also hosts gemsbok, eland, greater kudu, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, giraffe and other antelope.

East of the city is Avis Dam, a spot that should see you add Shaft-tailed Whydah, Violet-eared Waxbill, Rock Kestrel, Great Spotted Cuckoo and Desert Cisticola to your list. If there is water in the dam you could also see South African Shelduck, Red-billed Teal or other waders and warblers.

Sewage Works (1)

The sewage works in the city is, as always, a productive if somewhat strange spot to visit. Only a birder would understand! Here you should see Maccoa Duck, Purple Heron, Common Moorhen or even Black-necked Grebe and Baillon’s Crake if you are lucky.

Another must-visit spot is the area around the odd “ice cream cone” structure on the hill in the city centre. You can’t miss it! This is a good spot for White-tailed Shrike, Pririt Batis, Rosy-faced Lovebird and Chestnut Weaver.

Rosy-faced Lovebird

So you see, even in a supposedly dry and drab place like Windhoek, there is plenty of birding excitement to be had. That is why I love the city so much and am proud to call it home.

Etosha NP

I am fortunate to have been able to visit al the big game parks in Africa but Etosha is still my favourite. My first memory of being in the bush was from this great place and most of my childhood holidays and weekends were spend exploring this unbelievable park.
Etosha needs no introduction and is synonymous with big game and wide open spaces. The name Etosha actually means “great white area” referring to the huge dry pan in the middle of the park. It is home to a staggering amount of wildlife, both common and rare. What makes the park unique is the floodlit waterholes at all the main camps. There is something magical about enjoying the spectacular sunset at either the Okaukuejo or Halali waterhole watching as hundreds of Double-banded Sandgrouse come to drink, landing between an Elephant herd or solitary Black Rhino.
Etosha also has a bird list of more than 350 species, and summer is definitely the best time to visit. The occasional rains then turn the dry pans into seasonal lakes, attracting migratory and wetland species in large numbers. The sight of thousands of bright pink flamingos in the Etosha pan is something one never forgets.
Etosha also has the odd record of having the smallest southern African bird, the Cape Penduline Tit, the world’s largest bird, the Common Ostrich, and the world’s largest flying bird, the Kori Bustard.
The park is furthermore home to more than 40 species of raptors and owls, and bushveld Namibian specials include Bare-cheeked Babbler, Violet Wood-hoopoe, Carp’s Tit, Monteiro’s Hornbill, Rockrunner and Rüppell’s Parrot.
It is also a hotspot for rarities, and it is the only place in the sub-region where Egyptian Vulture is seen with any regularity.
Naturally Etosha is a photographer’s dream, with the contrasts in light, colour and textures particularly dramatic. Many of my “lifer shots” of southern African bird species was taken in the park.
A variety of accommodation options are available, and include ultra-luxurious lodges, luxury bungalows, camping and caravan sites. The park is malaria free and accessible in a regular sedan car.
Whether from a birding or wildlife point of view Etosha is truly is one of the great parks of Africa.

 

Walvis Bay/ Swakopmund

I like contrasts. In nature, in photography and in my life in general. One of the most extreme examples in my home country of Namibia, is Walvis Bay where you have the contrast between the dry Namib Desert just outside Walvis Bay and the pink brilliance of over 50,000 Flamingos in the lagoon a few hundred yards away!
The two tourist towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund on the West Coast of Namibia are very important sanctuaries for hundreds of thousands of both resident and migrating water birds. The Walvis Bay lagoon and salt pans are regarded as the most important coastal wetland in southern Africa, as over 150,000 migrant birds spend the summer months in here, with non-breeding Palearctic and intra-African species dominating. The famous Mile 4 Saltworks just north of Swakopmund support similar species.
Over 150 different bird species have been recorded in this area. The usual suspects are Greater and Lesser Flamingos, South African Shelduck, African Black Oystercatcher, Hartlaub’s Gull, Damara Tern, Chestnut-banded Plover, Black-necked Grebe, Cape Gannet, Crowned Cormorant, Black-tailed Godwit and Red-necked Phalarope. The more rare vagrants include Broad-billed, Pectoral and Terek Sandpipers.

Although there are many rare and special species, it’s the sheer number and diversity of birds that is the major attraction of visiting the Walvis Bay/Swakopmund area. The best time for birders is between October and April when the visiting migrants are around.
For general naturalists like myself, there are also other attractions. 11 types of chameleons, lizards and geckos, and 13 species of mammal (including Pygmy Rock Mouse, Littledale’s Whistling Rat and Setzer’s Hairy-footed Gerbil) reside in the area.
I have never had birding friends or clients visit this area and leave disappointed. This area is a must stop both as a destination on its own or as part of a longer Namibia birding itinerary.

Beautiful Walvis Bay Sunset.jpg

The birds that catch the eye

Nature-Travel-Namibia-Rosycheeked-lovebirds-NM6_1665-2Most people picture the dry desolate desert when they think of Namibia. However, though it is quite an arid country, there is much more to it than the Namib desert. In much the same way, first time birders to the country often expect the birds to be of the drab, brownish variety. Even though you do find those as well, three of my favourite Namibian birds are much more colourful… and very loud!

The Rosy-faced lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis, pictured above) is native to arid regions in southwestern Africa. With its luminous green coat, blue rump and pink face, this Lovebird adds a splash of colour to any occasion. They also have a high-pitched shriek call that is unmissable. Lovebirds are very social animals and often congregate in small groups, eating seeds and fruit, and taking frequent baths. They are colonial breeders with natural breeding sites in inaccessible and often vertical cracks in sandstone areas.

The Rüppell’s parrot (Poicephalus rueppellii, below) is another bird that initially seems entirely out of place in the Namib desert. It is endemic to an area from central Namibia to southwestern Angola, favouring mixed woodland near to dry streams or rivers, where it nests in tree cavities. Although mostly greyish brown, this parrot stuns with its bright blue rump and striking yellow on the wings and thighs. It also boasts a loud raucous shriek call in flight.

The Violet wood-hoopoe (Phoeniculus damarensis, below) is another of my personal favourites. Its distinctive features are the coppery purple iridescence on the upperparts and its long, bright red bill. They are normally found in groups in arid woodlands along dry streams on the Namibian escarpment, where they give their resonant cackling call.

The calls of these three birds are usually the first thing that would alert me to their presence. I have had guests jump up from their breakfast to photograph a flock of very entertaining Rosy-faced lovebirds only to return 30 minutes later to cold eggs and coffee. I have also had many encounters where I heard both the Rüppell’s parrot and Violet wood-hoopoe call somewhere down a dry riverbed and ended up running after them with guests in tow. It is always very rewarding when we find these three stunning birds.

Namibia is home to over 600 bird species, including one true endemic and about 14 near endemics. Most of the country’s specials are found in relatively accessible locations, with good infrastructure in terms of accommodation and roads. All of this makes Namibia a brilliant birding destination.

With training in guiding and veterinary science, Nick Buys’ work in the field and passion for birds resulted in him setting up Nature Travel Namibia, through which he guides specialist trips around the country as well as the rest of Africa.

Birding Hotspots in Namibia – Erongo

The Erongo area of central Namibia is one my favourite birding spots in the country. The landscape is dominated by rugged granite outcrops standing tall over the surrounding arid plains. This region is named after Mount Erongo, a well-known and often photographed landmark. It has excellent accommodation options and is only a short drive away from Windhoek.

Many rare, endemic, and special species of bird, animal, invertebrates, reptiles and plant life thrive here, making this one of Namibia’s most diverse and wildlife-rich areas. The region is one of the 19 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) designated by BirdLife International in Namibia.

Erongo is the best area in the country to search for the very secretive Hartlaub’s Spurfowl Pternistis hartlaubi. This species is almost entirely confined to granite and sandstone outcrops surrounded by grassy shrubland in northern Namibia and southern Angola. It is the smallest of the southern African spurfowl, but makes up for that with a complex, high-pitched synchronised call that, due to its ventriloquial character, makes it difficult to locate the bird. Unless calling, they are almost impossible to find. However, I have sat sipping my morning coffee at a lodge in the Erongo area only for a small family group to casually saunter past seemingly oblivious to my presence!

The other very special bird found in the Erongo area is the Rockrunner Achaetops pycnopygius, also known as the Damara Rock-jumper. It is a fairly common but localised species, occurring from the north-central and western escarpment regions of Namibia northwards to southern Angola. It occurs on hillsides and rocky outcrops, and has the odd habit of hopping, running or flying from boulder to boulder, as its name suggests. I have spent many early hours clambering over boulders trying to catch up with one of them for a photo!

Rockrunner

Other fantastic birds that occur in the Erongo area include Monteiro’s and Damara Red-billed Hornbills, Ruppell’s Parrot, Rosy-faced Lovebird, White-tailed Shrike, Barred Wren-Warbler, Carp’s Tit and Short-toed Rock-Thrush.

The Erongo area is not just famous for it’s wonderful birds. I have been very lucky to see leopard a few times whilst birding in the area. An early morning bush walk started off with following a flying Peregrine Falcon through my binoculars, when I saw a big male leopard staring at me from the rocky outcrops. A fantastic bonus and big treat! Erongo really should be on your must-see list when you visit Namibia.

Kunene region, Namibia.

When people talk about getting away from their busy lives in the city and going to the stillness of the bush to relax, I inevitably think of the Kunene region of Namibia. It is the quietest place I know; a place where you can hear your own breathing, truly relax and get in touch with your creative and contemplative sides.

Kunene is situated in the northwestern corner of the country, and compared to the rest of Namibia, it is very much underdeveloped. This is due to the inaccessible mountainous terrain and the extreme dryness of the area. It is a spectacular remote wilderness area, with my personal highlight being the contrast between the bone-dry desert and the lush green strip of the Kunene river running through the region as it forms the northern border of Namibia with Angola. The river even boasts two dramatic waterfalls, the Epupa and Ruacana. I have often done some white-river rafting there!

This region is home to some incredibly well-adapted animals, including the famous desert lions and elephants, as well as the largest population of free-roaming black rhino. All animals here, from biggest to smallest, have adapted to survive in the most harshest of conditions imaginable.

Kunene is also known as a legendary birding hotspot, as it is the only place in the world to reliably see the elegant Cinderella Waxbill, and one of the few sites for the noisy Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush. Over 300 species have been recorded in the area, with other highlights being Grey Kestrel, Chestnut Weaver, Bare-cheeked Babbler and Olive Bee-eater. If you are feeling very adventurous you can even organise a day trip to look for the very rare and enigmatic Angola Cave Chat.

The sense of adventure, the utter exotic remoteness and the spectacular scenery; this makes the Kunene region of Namibia one of my favourite destinations on the entire continent. Put on your boots and your hat and come feel like an explorer again!