Friday 30 November 2018

Namibia, day 6 ... mammals on the move

16 November – Etosha National Park (Namutoni to Okaukuejo)
We were out at sunrise again, pausing to look at two red-necked falcons near Namutoni. There were lots of plains mammals around, all looking relaxed so last night’s lions must have been elsewhere. A superb male kori bustard with neck feathers fluffed out gave an impression of haughty arrogance as he walked slowly into the bush.

Two capped wheatears were new for some and buffy pipit for all. There was a small, loose flock of sparrowlarks on the ground but by the time we’d grasped that there are two species, black-eared and chestnut-backed, and that finchlark = sparrowlark, they’d gone. More straightforward was the large, tight flock of red-billed queleas perching on small acacias before massing on the ground.
Red-billed queleas (David Bennett).
After a relaxed cooked breakfast, we packed and headed west towards Okaukuejo (pronounced Ok-a-koo-yoo). There were quickly interesting sightings: a black morph Gabar goshawk, chestnut-bellied sparrowlark seen well this time and purple roller. These were merely appetisers for the full Africa experience.

We reached a point where we were surrounded by zebras, with good numbers of impala, wildebeest and springboks, a sprinkling of giraffes and a herd of our first red hartebeest. This was near a waterhole that none of the plains mammals were approaching, so it’s likely that there was a lion there. The zebras milled around us and cameras clicked. To be in the middle of so many mammals was an extraordinary experience and was a holiday highlight for many.
Surrounded by zebras (David Bennett).
We enjoyed this for a good while, and when it was time to move our next stop was another waterhole after driving through mopane shrub, leaves coloured like beech leaves in spring and with a distinctive split shape like a camel’s hoof or a Montpellier maple seedpod. A black-chested snake-eagle was perching prominently and a second eagle appeared. A male painted snipe was a surprise – the male being the duller gender – and there was a marsh sandpiper next to a wood sandpiper for easy comparison.

We had lunch at Halali, accompanied by scores of super-tame Cape glossy starlings looking out for bits of toasted sandwich. Gill was alert to a southern white-crowned shrike in the trees and there was a tree squirrel. We were then driven a short distant to the Halali water hole, with a short walk to a tiered seating area. It was hot, very hot, as we watched elephants, cinnamon-breasted buntings and a group of yellow-rumped yellow canaries.
'Do take a seat': Cape glossy starlings on every chair back at Halali where we stopped for lunch.

Detour 8km, it says, but underneath ...

Heading west again on the dirt road, there were two vehicles plainly watching something. 

It turned out that there was a young leopard in a hole under a stone road sign saying ‘detour 8km’. An extraordinary stroke of luck to add to today’s star sightings.

Leopard under a road sign (Tim Hunt).
A final water hole had a male lion lying down in vegetation in the middle. A drinking giraffe had the perspective of height to see him there. A black rhinoceros came in from the right and proceeded to roll on its side to get caked in mud. In the meantime a young impala, on its own at first, came to drink. The lion stayed low and the impala seemed unaware of its presence. Inevitably thoughts turned to whether a kill was coming, but it didn’t. The impala, now with others, moved on. A secretary bird was also in the same binocular view as the giraffe and the rhino; also there were tawny eagles and our first Cape crows and Cape teals.

Then on to Okaukuejo and to our chalets, very close to the waterhole. There was no electricity when we arrived but it came on later that afternoon. Having twice lost water at Namutoni, being patient with this kind of glitch is all part of being in Africa. There was time to settle in and spend time looking at wildlife around the waterhole, with flashes of lightning with accompanying thunder producing just a few drops of rain that evaporated in an instant. Most returned to the waterhole again after dinner when the floodlit area had three black rhinos, two giraffes, at least three jackals and five barn owls. Skimming nightjars gave the ‘tuk tuk’ call of freckled nightjar and a large scorpion played dead on the path.
 A black rhinoceros ... proceeded to roll on its side to get caked in mud (Cheryl Hunt).

Namibia, day 5 ... birdwatching in Etosha

15 November – Etosha National Park (Namutoni, day 2)
Meet at 06:05 as the gates open at 06:15, was the instruction, and actually the gate was open already a little before that as the two buses went in separate directions around a large salt pan area called Fischer’s Pan. I was in Geoff’s bus and we soon saw several kori bustards walking close to or across the road: the heaviest flying bird in the world, says Geoff, though in Extremadura (Spain) that’s also claimed for great bustard. Other bustards were a single red-crested korhaan (the crest is rarely seen, only when a male is displaying) and several northern black korhaans including a male with a fine black face and neck with a large white cheek spot vaguely reminiscent of a goldeneye, as Malcolm observed, and a smart vermiculated pattern on the back, as Mary described. We agreed counts of 36 wildebeest and 54 elands. The eland group clearly had a big age mix and was joined by three others, probably bachelor males, and spent a long time at a water hole. Black-backed jackal, early on in the drive, and a group of banded mongooses were among other mammals out in the relative cool of the early morning. New birds for the holiday included ostriches, red-breasted swallows, black-shouldered kite, a party of Burchell’s sandgrouse and two elegant secretary birds. Darrin’s bus returned with tales of honey badger and Namibian scrub robin on a nest. Breakfast was back at Namutoni Camp, complete with Doctor Sue’s regular reminder to take anti-malarials. 
Kori bustard (David Bennett).
A morning drive took us to two water holes, first Koinachas, then Chudop. At Koinachas, as we arrived, a tawny eagle was perching out in the open, allowing first class views, before it dropped out mostly of view behind the island of reedmace in the centre of the large pond. Several white-backed vultures dropped into the same area, plus one Cape griffon vulture. There were two blue cranes on view the whole time, one of which had a turquoise colour ring with the letters NBZ. Wildebeest, southern oryx (locally and hereafter called gemsbok), impalas and springboks all came into drink.
Tawny eagle (David Bennett).
Two bull elephants were enjoying the second water hole, Chudop. One left the area having urinated and defecated and could have been mistaken for having five legs; you can imagine some of the commentary from onlookers. Again there was a succession of mammals coming to drink, including some fine, twisted-horned kudus. Emerald-spotted wood-doves outnumbered Namaqua and Cape turtle doves. Waves of red-billed queleas moved between the reeds and the water’s edge. We (in Darrin’s bus) paused on the return drive for a very close and clear red-capped lark with two smaller brown, streaky birds in the same dry bush for which desert cisticola was the best fit for ID.

After lunch, Geoff and Darrin went out in search of diesel during the usual afternoon break in the heat. That included time for me at the Namutoni waterhole where Daphne, Jeremy and Gill were watching marabou storks. Jeremy had also found a pair of painted snipe, definitely a five-star bird, which we shared though telescopes with others waiting there. Red-necked falcon, banded martin and red-breasted swallow were other good finds, and finally Gill found a golden oriole which moved from the rushes to a perch beside a fork-tailed drongo.
"Gill found a golden oriole which moved from the rushes to a perch beside a fork-tailed drongo."
The afternoon drive took us back to Koinachas and other waterholes with many birds and mammals to see, including a scrub hare. A stream of impalas was close to the buses at one waterhole so you could admire not only their general beauty but also the black blaze on the nose, which might be just a colour form or might be a subspecies. Injuries were also talking points: a zebra with a scar on the rump and a giraffe with just a stump of a tail, both presumably ‘ones-that-got-away’ from a lion.

After our return several visited the old German fort at sunset, and from there we saw our first lions. Apparently a male came and went and when I reached the viewing area on top of the fort there were two large lionesses and eight cubs of two sizes. Red-necked falcons moved to and fro, especially into a large fan palm.

Nightfall, dinner and a catch-up of wildlife checklists included comparing notes on geckos: for example, there were four Cape geckos outside my chalet, helped by the outside light bringing in insects. The reptilian theme continued as I removed a striped skink from Gill’s bath. Over at the waterhole, rufous-cheeked nightjars churred and flew around.    
Cape gecko on a Namutoni chalet door.

Thursday 29 November 2018

Namibia, day 4 ... from Waterberg to Etosha

14 November – from Waterberg to Etosha National Park (Namutoni, day 1)
I think only Jeremy went on the ‘official’ pre-breakfast walk, though everyone seemed to be taking a leisurely stroll with various wildlife sightings as 7am neared. Female red-veined dropwings were soaking up some warmth on roadside stones and a party of violet wood-hoopoes chased each other around tree trunks. We took our time over breakfast and had the luxury of a lift back to our chalets. It was 8:30 as we drove away from Waterberg.
Picnic, on the way to Namutoni Camp in Etosha National Park.
There were several stops before we re-joined the main north-south road for southern white-crowned shrike, purple roller and tawny eagle. A bateleur twisted and turned as it was chased by a small bird of prey. At 9:30 we turned north towards Otjiwarongo, making steady progress until we stopped in the town for fuel and supplies from the Spar supermarket. Heading out of Otjiwarongo we passed a sign saying ‘no public urinating’, not a risk with the comfort stops Geoff plans, and nearing Etosha we stopped again at a roadside picnic table for a light picnic under the shade of spreading trees, that shade essential in the mid-day sun.

We had to dodge a couple of blesbok as drew up to fortress Etosha National Park, two high fences with a no-man’s-land between them marking the boundary. The bureaucracy and picking up keys proved straightforward here at Namutoni Camp. There was a golden oriole into the trees by the chalets as Geoff explained the lie of the land. It was time for to settle in and have a break in the heat of the afternoon.

At 4:30 we headed off on our first Etosha game drive. With the back seats down, everyone had a window seat and we had the benefit of our vehicles’ air conditioning. Being the dry season, essentially we went from water hole to water hole, via a mix of open scrub and grassland plus dry saltpans. Darrin’s bus, which I was in, took a brief detour to see a party of elephants, but there were several vehicles there so we didn’t linger. There was a fine selection of small birds at the first stop, with scaly-feathered finch especially numerous, though you had to see them in the right direction to see the black malar stripes. Great sparrow was much more striking than the picture in the book, and I was struck by the angular shape and large size of the beak of a female red-headed finch. There were pale chanting goshawks at the first two water holes, but the small birds carried on feeding regardless.
Pale chanting goshawk (Cheryl Hunt).
We paused on the road through the grasslands by the saltpans as a steady stream of perhaps 60 zebras came through, large and small. Then both buses left the camp gate to find the final water hole. Our group paused as a slender mongoose ran across, long tail waving in the air and settled in the shade behind a bush. The final waterhole had a fine selection of waders including greenshank, wood sandpipers, black-winged stilt, three-banded plover and a flock of ruffs. Our bus added marsh sandpiper to that list and Geoff’s group Kittlitz’s plovers, a distant group. Three giraffes grabbed our attention, naturally. On the way back, Geoff’s group saw kori bustard, ours Swainson’s spurfowl. We all saw a close black korhaan. A straw poll in my bus gave slender mongoose, zebras, great sparrow and pale chanting goshawk as highlights of the outing.
Slender mongoose (Cheryl Hunt).
The water supply was back on in the chalets when we returned and it was soon time for our buffet dinner taken in the open air outside the restaurant. A fork-tailed drongo hunted moths by a large light on the roof. Many called briefly at the waterhole after dinner where two rufous-cheeked nightjars were illuminated as they hunted over the marsh.
Northern black korhaan (David Bennett).

Namibia, day 3 ... Waterberg

13 November – Waterberg National Park
Breakfast was at 7am, with a lift for those who wanted one down the hill, so we could make a 7:30 rendezvous with our game drive for the morning. There was room for all of us in the open-sided truck with driver and guide Nelson. The route on wide dirt tracks through the lowlands below the cliff, pausing go through several gates, included stops to see a steenbok crossing the road, warthogs and hornbills. To our right a couple of hamerkops flew through and on the grass on the left was our first crowned lapwing. Somewhere we passed a farmstead under a flowering jacaranda tree before the route took us up the escarpment to the plateau at the top of the cliffs.

Waterberg National Park, panorama from the top of the plateau.
The sandy track through scrub brought us, in time, to three waterholes, at least waterholes of sorts. By an impressive stone wall to mark the spot, a sandy walkway took us to a large hide overlooking a large area of sand with a stone pond in the centre, close enough to see but far enough so visiting mammals were not disturbed by humans in the hide. At this first hide a large bull eland came from stage right, drank and exited stage left. The baboons around the water then had to make way for a family party of Cape buffalos, some of which went into the water body to drink. These are not native, we learnt, as the ear-tag on the biggest testified: the introduction of TB-free Cape buffalo is to add interest and establish a population that can then be traded to supplement other areas. It’s not nature conservation as we understand it in Europe but part of the model used in southern Africa where game is behind fences and has to be justified economically. The Cape buffalo would struggle to survive without the water provided, taking advantage of Waterberg’s easy to harvest supply.
Bull eland (Cheryl Hunt).

Sable antelope (Cheryl Hunt). 
We passed a couple of giraffes (also non-native, and unlikely to be able to reach the Waterberg plateau) on the way to the second hide. The entrance and hide was much the same and an elegant-looking sable antelope (again, probably non-native here) was drinking as we arrived. It limped away – a hind foot or ankle was damaged – and Nelson located three kudu in the scrub to our left. As at the other waterhole we could pick out African monarch butterflies around the water. Here, as well as these and tiny blues, there was a butterfly that was a two-tailed pasha type, one of the emperor Charaxes group, species unknown. Two golden-breasted buntings on the concrete rim of the waterhole were birds to enjoy, distinctive with strong black and white black head markings and white on the wings as well as the deep yellow breast of their name. Geoff called many of us back as were walking away from the hide as half a dozen elands had appeared. What elegant beasts they are. Those who didn’t come back to look at the elands saw some impalas near the truck.

The third water hole had no hide and was simply another stone pond in an open sandy area, with a rock kestrel but little else to see. Time had moved on so we headed back, pausing for panoramic photos by the cliff-edge. Leaving Nelson by camp reception, we all just about squeezed into Geoff’s bus to drive up the hill to the restaurant for a cold drink and a light lunch.

After a siesta we met up, at 4pm again, for a gentle saunter through the scrub between the chalets and the cliffs. By the road at last there was a good view of rosy-faced lovebirds for everyone; a very short distance into the sandy ground under the scrub we looked at ant-lion larval pits. New birds as we progressed included grey-backed camaroptera, black-faced waxbill and black cuckoo. A wet flush had bright blue Julia skimmer dragonflies. Back on the road, the first few to arrive at the huge fig tree timed it perfectly to see a handover of food from a male grey hornbill to a female whose beak showed through the crack beyond which she was sealed into a nesting hole.

After dinner there were Ferrero Rocher chocolates to share to mark Malcolm’s birthday and we admired the badge with his picture and flashing lights, Helen’s handiwork of course.
Red-veined dropwing, resting on a termite mound near the Waterberg chalets.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Namibia, day 2 ... dik-diks outside chalets

12 November – Windhoek Botanic Gardens and drive to Waterberg National Park
Narrow-leaved ipomoea, Windhoek Botanic Gardens.
Breakfast was at 7am and we were away just after 8am, to take advantage of the relative cool of the morning. We then took the short drive to Windhoek Botanic Gardens where we were greeted by some 150 little swifts circling and calling around us. We saw their mud nests on the buildings once we were inside. 
Little swifts buzz over Windhoek Botanic Gardens.

After a covered area with drought-loving succulents the wide paths took us around helpfully labelled shrubs and trees, though most had little more than a few leaves showing. There were two types of skinks, variegated and striped, and a low rocky outcrop had a pair of rock agamas displaying, the orange-headed and orange-tailed male doing press-ups to impress the female. Scarlet-chested sunbird and diderick cuckoo were nice finds for some of the group, some saw rosy-faced lovebird, Gill saw a rock hyrax and red-headed finch was probably a new bird for everyone. The showiest butterfly seems to be a good match for wandering donkey acraea; an orange-tip may have been speckled sulphur tip and the underwing pattern showed well on a brown-veined white.

Male rock agama, Windhoek Botanic Gardens (Tim Hunt).
The rest of the morning and past noon was taken up with the long drive to Waterberg NP. The roads were good through mostly rather featureless thorn scrub, punctuated with termite mounds in the latter half. Not far from our destination we stopped under the shade of an acacia for a picnic lunch – southern yellow hornbill was new here – before we finished the last part of the journey on a dirt road. There were two marico flycatchers by the gate into the Waterberg complex and a nicely tame Burchell’s glossy starling was enjoying the watered lawns near reception where Geoff collected keys. We drove to the higher part of the site to find our chalets, spread out under the long sandstone cliffs. A little sparrowhawk dashed through before we split up and Geoff gave us a warning about the house-breaking abilities of the party of baboons at home in the area.
Red-billed spurfowl: common at Waterberg (Tim Hunt).
African grey hornbill (Tim Hunt).

After settling in and a break, most of us reconvened at 4pm for a gentle stroll in the chalet area. Red-billed spurfowls fed on the grass and an African grey hornbill was a new bird. Two Verraux’s eagles drifted through towards the cliff; a buzzing song alerted Geoff to a white-bellied sunbird high on a bare tree. There were groundscraper thrushes on a different patch of grass, like a short-tailed mistle thrush. On the drier ground around the buildings and under the trees was a big group of little birds. Most were green-winged pytilias (formerly melba finch), pretty enough in their own right but among them were two stunning male violet-eared waxbills, with blue waxbills for good measure. A couple of grey go-away-birds were dust-bathing as we walked back to where we’d come from, and then banded mongooses moved to and fro in the roadside vegetation. Later they emerged, 14 of them, on the grass by the chalets where they mingled with Damara dik-diks.

We walked to the dining room, a converted hospital, past the swimming pool where earlier Daphne had swum and seen a snake. Checklists with a drink then dinner were followed by walking back up the hill with Darrin, armed with torches. A bat was hanging in a bare tree, then more flying around. A pearl-spotted owlet was calling and a lucky few saw some bushbabies scampering through the trees. 
Damara dik-dik (Cheryl Hunt).

Namibia, day 1 ... Windhoek

This is the first of what is intended to be a series of Honeyguide blog postings about Honeyguide's holiday in Namibia, November 2018. 

Namibia Day 1, 10/11 November – Heathrow to Windhoek

A bright English morning turned to driving rain on the M25, but everyone made it to Heathrow Terminal 2, including David and Steph who had flown in from Manchester. A walk to the distant departure gate was followed by the long, smooth and very full overnight flight to Johannesburg, punctuated by meals and sleep as best everyone could manage while sitting. Passport control and luggage reclaim was quick, on this occasion. 
Southern marked weaver, Windhoek (Tim Hunt)

Observant Jeremy noticed the rock martins outside as we walked – albeit not far – from Terminal A to Terminal B to check-in for Windhoek, then walked back to Terminal A to go through security again and catch the Windhoek flight. Outside there were little swifts. The onboard meal, an early lunch, was welcome; less so the wobbles in turbulence as we descended. The pilot took us round again and then it was a smooth landing, though he said he nearly postponed it for a second time on account of baboons on the runway. There was full African heat as we walked the short distance to the terminal, with pale, long-tailed African palm swifts buzzing round the buildings and palm trees. Passport control here was very slow, but eventually we were through, meeting Geoff and Darrin who’d driven with the vehicles from Cape Town.

Joe's Beer House, Windhoek,  with eccentric paraphernalia

With cash and sim cards sorted, we noted laughing dove, fork-tailed drongo and house sparrows around the airport car park. We then drove west to Windhoek, Geoff explaining how recent rain had brought green to the scrubby acacia trees. We seemed to be earlier than expected at Klein Windhoek Guest House, but keys and rooms were found. In the meantime some of us watched a southern masked weaver on a new nest, and Geoff showed us the bird bath he’d filled earlier which drew in red-faced mousebirds. We went to rooms to freshen up. Outside my room I found blue waxbill, white-crowned sparrow weavers and acacia pied barbet, and the theme of easy birds close to home continued for everyone who gathered for a cold beer. The star species was certainly swallow-tailed bee-eater; fly-over European bee-eaters called on occasions too. A yellow mongoose wandered across the plot of land we overlooked on at least three occasions.

After a bit of a rest, most of the group gathered at 4pm for a short drive to Avis Dam, a popular spot for dog walkers and others out on a Sunday this hot afternoon. Where there is sometimes water today it was dry, though the mixture of scrub behind the dam and dry grassland where water might have been was still productive. Aerial feeders stayed with us in good numbers the whole time: white-rumped and little swifts, rock martins and striped swallows. A plain bird in the scrub had the chestnut undertail area that is a feature of chestnut-vented tit-babbler (actually a Sylvia warbler); a dark bird under a bench revealed the red underside of crimson-breasted shrike. There was more: a familiar chat perched alongside more swallow-tailed bee-eaters; three African hoopoes landed on a bare tree-top; a black-headed heron and six blacksmith plovers flew into the grassy area.

We gathered at 6:20 for the short drive to the celebrated Joe’s Beer House for our evening meal among its eccentric paraphernalia.
Swallow-tailed bee-eater, Windhoek (David Bennett)

Wednesday 7 November 2018

A Tale of Two Bugs

November’s guided walk at NWT Thorpe Marshes was on a lovely mild morning. Stonechats are overwintering on the reserve for the third time and both of the pair showed well for the group of 20 people. However winter birds, such as ducks on the gravel pit, St Andrews Broad, were all but absent.

The riverside footpath isn’t always the nicest with some muddy patches, but it feels sheltered and lush. Keen eyed group members found two interesting bugs tucked into the stinging nettles and white dead-nettles.

I guess any experienced bug observer would know them, but I couldn’t name them straight away and that feels like a good reason to share their names and pictures. Much as most of us would know blackbirds and chaffinches, or red admirals and large whites, common bugs feel like a learning curve worth tackling.

Thorpe Marshes regular Susan Weeks showed herself to be that experienced bug observer and came up with the right IDs on the spot. Well, I was impressed.

The red and black bug is Corizus hyoscyami, a scentless plant bug called 'cinnamon bug' or, rather simply, 'black & red squash bug'. I don’t recall seeing it at Thorpe Marshes before. In East Anglia it should be an easy one to remember. Not so once you get into Europe. Have a look at all these rather similar red and black bugs.

The shield bug is hairy shieldbug Dolycoris baccarum, also known as sloe bug (e.g. in Chinery’s Pocket Guide to Insects) though that name is waning as it seems to be a misnomer with no link to sloes or blackthorn. The black and white antennae are easier to observe than the bug’s hairiness.

Even without the right field guides, help is easy thanks to online sources. These two are good: Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society's Shield Bugs of Norfolk and, across the river from Thorpe Marshes, James Emerson’s Shieldbugs & allied insects of the Whitlingham area. Bear in mind that larval forms of bugs can look quite different to adults.

Valencia: bird ringing sheds light on wetland warbler survival

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