MALAWI BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Malawi: Day 1 Our tour begins around midday at Lilongwe airport, from where we will drive to the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, where we will stay for three nights. We should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Malawi: Days 2-3 The vast forest reserve of Dzalanyama lies to the west of Lilongwe towards the Mozambique border. Within the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve is one of the largest expanses of miombo woodland remaining in the country. The woodland covers the low-lying flat areas and ranges from galleries of evergreen forest along the rivers to climax Brachystegia forest on the slopes of the hills. The reserve is not rich in mammals but what might be lacking in terms of large herds of game is certainly made up for by a host of birds, many of them miombo endemics. At this time of year, most birds will be actively breeding whilst the very big bird parties so characteristic of this habitat will just be forming. Early morning sounds emanating from the forest will include a chorus of Ring-necked and Emerald-spotted Wood Doves and perhaps the rhythmic calls of Southern Ground Hornbills, but we will be concentrating on finding species such as the localized Pale-billed Hornbill and the uncommon Stierling’s Woodpecker (the latter restricted to Malawi, southernmost Tanzania and northern Mozambique).
If we can find some flowering proteas we may well find an array of sunbirds that could include the range-restricted Eastern Miombo as well as Copper, Amethyst and Western Violet-backed Sunbirds, and hopefully two more range-restricted species: the gorgeous Anchieta’s (or Red-and-blue) and the uncommon Shelley’s Sunbirds.
Other miombo specialities here include Whyte’s Barbet, Miombo and Rufous-bellied Tits, Miombo Rock Thrush, Miombo Scrub Robin, Red-capped Crombec, Stierling’s Wren Warbler, the somewhat unusual Böhm’s Flycatcher, Souza’s Shrike and Reichard’s and Black-eared Seedeaters, and we shall hope to find most of them during our explorations. Even the rare and localized Olive-headed Weaver occurs here, although we would need much luck to see it.
By walking through the woodlands, we might find Coqui Francolin. More importantly, the magnificent Pennant-winged Nightjar can sometimes be flushed from the short grass. Sometimes the birds fly only a short distance and can then be admired in full view!
We will also climb one of the forested inselbergs where we stand a good chance of finding the restricted-range Boulder Chat and the distinctive Striped Pipit.
Other birds likely to be seen at Dzalanyama include African Cuckoo-Hawk, Wahlberg’s Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, Lizard Buzzard, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Shikra, Ovambo Sparrowhawk, African Harrier-Hawk (or Gymnogene), Common (Steppe) Buzzard, African Green Pigeon, Klaas’s and Red-chested Cuckoos, Speckled Mousebird, Lilac-breasted and Broad-billed Rollers, Striped and African Pygmy Kingfishers, Little and European Bee-eaters, Common Scimitarbill, Crowned Hornbill, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Black-collared Barbet, Green-backed and Brown-backed Honeybirds, Pallid, Lesser, Scaly-throated and Greater Honeyguides, Golden-tailed, Green-backed (Little Spotted) and Bearded Woodpeckers and Meyer’s Parrot.
Passerines include Chinspot Batis, Grey-headed Bushshrike, White-crested and Retz’s Helmetshrikes, Black-crowned Tchagra, Brubru, White-breasted and Black Cuckooshrikes, African Golden and Black-headed Orioles, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, Flappet Lark, Black (Eastern) Saw-wing, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Red-faced Crombec, Red-faced and Short-winged Cisticolas, Neddicky, Red-winged Warbler, Green-capped Eremomela, Arrow-marked Babbler, African Yellow White-eye, Yellow-bellied and Southern Hyliotas, African Spotted Creeper, Violet-backed Starling, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Southern Black, Pale, Ashy and African Dusky Flycatchers, Yellow-throated Petronia, Holub’s Golden and Red-headed Weavers, Black-winged Red Bishop, Red-collared Widowbird, African Firefinch, Bronze and Red-backed Mannikins, Pin-tailed and Broad-tailed Paradise Whydahs, Mountain and African Pied Wagtails, Wood Pipit, Yellow-fronted and Brimstone Canaries and Golden-breasted and Cabanis’s Buntings.
Along the river, we should see Hamerkop, Black-crowned Night Heron, Reed Cormorant and Hadada Ibis. The skulking Tropical Boubou occurs in the riverine thickets, whilst overhanging branches and reeds hold a multitude of nesting Village and Southern Masked Weavers. In the treetops stunning Schalow’s Turaco utter their raucous cries and Red-eyed and Tambourine Doves chant monotonously while Blue Waxbill and the brightly coloured Red-throated Twinspot forage quietly on the ground and Hildebrandt’s Francolins call from the dense undergrowth. In the thicker tangles we should hear the strange noise made by the African Broadbill during its remarkable clockwork-toy-like display and we will try to get a good look at this amazing avian spectacle.
Other species we may well find in this area include Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Cardinal Woodpecker, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Black-backed Puffback, Fork-tailed Drongo, African Paradise Flycatcher, Pied Crow, Dark-capped Bulbul, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Kurrichane Thrush, White-browed Robin-Chat, Spectacled Weaver and Variable, Olive, Scarlet-chested and Collared Sunbirds.
Malawi: Day 4 Today we will drive south past Blantyre. Along the way, we will visit a high inselberg where we stand a good chance of finding the restricted range Vincent’s Bunting (now relumped in Cape Bunting by the IOC, but treated as a full species by other authorities). Our journey then takes us down along the Mozambique border and not for the only time during this tour we will find ourselves divided between one country and another although here it will be somewhat strange to see signs in English on one side of the road and in Portuguese on the other!
We shall keep an eye open en route for the localized Bertram’s Weaver and hope to arrive at the Thyolo Mountain area in the early afternoon in time for some initial exploration and an overnight stay.
Malawi: Day 5 At one time Thyolo Mountain was extensively covered with dense forest, but much has been cleared and replaced with vast tea plantations, which are almost devoid of birds. However, there are some islands and galleries of natural forest left and it is in these small oases where a good variety of forest birds still thrive that we shall be looking for some very special species. In particular, we shall be searching out the near-endemic Thyolo Alethe, a bird that always seems to skulk in the darkest thickets. We shall listen out for its piping call and try to coax it into view. If we are very lucky it may be found attending an ant swarm and then be totally oblivious to our attention.
With many other species to look for, we shall certainly be kept busy but the small size of the remnant forest concentrates the birds. At the forest edge we have an opportunity to look for the superb White-winged Apalis. This beautifully coloured warbler with its exceptionally long tail and conspicuous white wing patches is one of the most attractive African warblers. A sighting of the Green-headed Oriole, now a very rare bird in Malawi is also a distinct possibility here.
Spectacular Livingstone’s Turacos and White-eared Barbets call from the treetops and on entering the forest the easily recognizable “Hello Georgie” cry of the African Emerald Cuckoo comes drifting through the trees, while Bar-tailed Trogons may respond to an imitation of their whistling call. If conditions are wet enough, we shall listen out for the eerie foghorn like call of the Buff-spotted Flufftail and if we are fortunate to find a responsive bird then we may get some glimpses of this secretive little forest crake creeping through the leaf litter or alternatively even climbing up into shrubs or small trees!
Other birds to be found in the forest and neighbouring tea estates include African Goshawk, Trumpeter and Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, the near-endemic Malawi Batis, Pale Batis, Black-fronted Bushshrike, Square-tailed (sometimes split as Ludwig’s) Drongo, Olive-headed, Little, Placid and Yellow-streaked Greenbuls, Wire-tailed Swallow, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Singing Cisticola, Black-headed Apalis, Green-backed Camaroptera, Orange Ground and Olive Thrushes, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Collared Sunbird, Olive and Bronzy Sunbirds, Dark-backed Weaver, Red-billed Firefinch, Common Waxbill, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and if we are lucky, Green Twinspot. At night we will look for African Wood Owl.
In the afternoon we will continue to Zomba, the first capital of Malawi. A winding road snakes up the escarpment high above the city itself and we should arrive at our well-situated hotel in Kuchawe in time for some initial exploration and an overnight.
Malawi: Day 6 The summit of the Zomba Plateau at 2,087 metres towers above the surrounding countryside. Far below is Lake Chilwa whilst to the southeast are the isolated massif of Mulanje Mountain and Mozambique in the far distance. Although there are extensive montane grasslands on the tops we are more interested in the highly threatened and isolated forest patches that still survive amongst the planted introduced conifers that cover much of the area. It is in these threatened habitats that we shall look for Malawi’s only endemic bird, the endangered Yellow-throated Apalis. This attractive species is restricted to three massifs (Mt Mulanje, Mt Zomba, Mt Malosa) in southeast Malawi, only occurring at an altitude of between 1000 and 2400 metres and favouring evergreen forest and secondary growth.
There is some overlap of species that we were searching for on Thyolo Mountain and we will have another chance to see White-winged Apalis.
Amongst other birds that we should encounter here are Long-crested Eagle, African Olive Pigeon, Lemon Dove, African Black Swift, Olive Woodpecker, Northern Fiscal, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Evergreen Forest Warbler, Red-winged Starling, Cape Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin, Forest Double-collared Sunbird and if we are fortunate the attractive Olive Bushshrike.
Later we will leave the Zomba Plateau to travel to Liwonde town where we will leave our vehicle and transfer by boat to Liwonde National Park for a two nights stay, birding the riverbanks as we go. Our journey takes us along the Shire River, which drains Lake Malawi and then enters Lake Malombe before flowing south through the park on its way to join the mighty Zambezi in Mozambique.
As we slowly make our way up the river, the evocative cries of the African Fish Eagle echo through the air and we should encounter large flocks of waterbirds on the flood plain or on dead trees lining the banks. Western Osprey and the huge Goliath Herons (the world’s largest heron) fish these waters and African Marsh Harriers quarter the open grasslands and reedy areas.
Amongst the hundreds of Long-tailed and White-breasted Cormorants and Great, Little and Intermediate (or Yellow-billed) Egrets, we may see flocks of African Open-bills and Yellow-billed, Woolly-necked and Marabou Storks, a few Striated (or Green-backed) Herons, Grey and Purple Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, African Sacred, Hadada and Glossy Ibises, African Spoonbill and perhaps a Saddle-billed Stork and some African Darters. Countless Western Cattle Egrets follow the herds of African Savanna Elephants drinking at the water’s edge whilst Squacco Heron, Black Heron, Water Thick-knee, White-fronted, Kittlitz’s and Three-banded Plovers, and Wattled, Blacksmith, Spur-winged and Long-toed Lapwings rest on the sand bars along with White-faced Whistling Ducks, Knob-billed Ducks, Spur-winged and Egyptian Geese, Gull-billed Terns and Grey-headed Gulls. Hundreds of hulking hippos and impressive Nile Crocodiles inhabit this mighty river and if the water levels are right, the bizarre African Skimmer and hundreds of Collared Pratincoles may be present.
Malawi: Day 7 Liwonde National Park encompasses part of the Shire River and the southernmost portion of Lake Malombe. The dominant vegetation is mopane woodland; dry and sparse in some areas but much denser in the wetter regions closer to the river. In times of flood, the Shire River spills over to form extensive grassy plains in the open areas with thick stands of reeds surrounding isolated pools that provide a haven for Black Crakes and African Jacanas. Closer to the river are long stretches of Borassus Palm savanna, whilst on the steeper banks of the river thick tangles of vegetation harbour warblers and weavers and provide perching places for Malachite, Woodland, Pied and Giant Kingfishers. Punctuating this varied habitat are enormous baobab trees, convoluted and riddled with crevices and holes.
The park is full of large mammals and here African Elephant, Cape Bushbuck, Zambezi Kudu, Ellipsen Waterbuck and Common Impala are common and we should also find Yellow Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Bushpig, Common Warthog, Cape Buffalo and with luck, the handsome Southern Sable Antelope.
Birds are prolific and at Mvuu Lodge, where we are staying, the local guides usually know where a Pel’s Fishing Owl is roosting, so that we will most likely be able to admire this huge orange owl in daylight! The bulbous-eyed White-backed Night Heron can even be found on the banks by our beautifully situated accommodation.
We will be able to explore the park on foot and in purpose-built open safari vehicles that are perfect for birdwatching. Colourful, restricted-range Lilian’s Lovebirds and more widespread Brown-headed Parrots present little problem to see and the grey-headed form of Brown-necked Parrot can also be found. Beautiful Böhm’s Bee-eaters, the lovely Livingstone’s Flycatcher and Collared Palm Thrushes are ‘garden birds’, but Racket-tailed Roller, the striking Brown-breasted Barbet, Speckle-throated Woodpecker and Arnot’s Chat may require a bit more searching for. Raptors such as Martial Eagle, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Bateleur and Palm-nut Vulture occur here and in the palm trees, we should find the dainty Dickinson’s Kestrel and Red-necked Falcon. As twilight approaches and the first bats flit about over the reeds snapping up insects they may, in turn, be picked out of the air by Eurasian Hobbies and we should keep a lookout for a Bat Hawk.
A night drive can turn up some Square-tailed Nightjars or an African Scops Owl, whilst mammals include White-tailed Mongoose, Rusty-spotted Genet and if we are fortunate Meller’s Mongoose or some other surprise.
Other species regularly encountered in the park include Black-headed Heron, Helmeted Guineafowl, Red-necked Spurfowl, White-backed Vulture, Yellow-billed Kite, Brown Snake Eagle, Little Sparrowhawk, Senegal and Crowned Lapwings, Mourning Collared Dove, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Purple-crested Turaco, Grey Go-away-Bird, Burchell’s Coucal, Levaillant’s, Jacobin, Diederik and African Cuckoos, African Palm Swift, Red-faced Mousebird, Swallow-tailed and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, African Hoopoe, Green Wood Hoopoe, Southern Ground, Southern Red-billed and African Grey Hornbills, Crested Barbet, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Southern Black Tit, Sombre and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls, Terrestrial Brownbul, Lesser Striped and Mosque Swallows, Long-billed Crombec, Rattling Cisticola, Greater Blue-eared and Meves’s Starlings, Red-billed Oxpecker, Bearded Scrub Robin, White-bellied Sunbird, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Southern Brown-throated and Lesser Masked Weavers, Green-winged Pytilia, Jameson’s Firefinch, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah and Yellow-throated Longclaw.
Malawi: Day 8 After some final early morning birding in the park we will retrace our journey downriver back to Liwonde town to re-join our vehicle and commence the long drive north along the shores of Lake Malawi to Chintheche for an overnight stay, stopping for anything of interest we see along the way. At our lodge, one can choose to swim in the lake or bird around the grounds where we should find African Barred Owlet, White-browed Scrub Robin, Purple-banded Sunbird and Eastern Golden Weaver.
Malawi: Day 9 Before leaving the area we will make a short visit early this morning to some thick tropical forest choked with vines and creepers. Our target here will be to see the endemic race of the East Coast Akalat (or Gunning’s Robin) but we may also find Green Malkoha, the glorious Narina Trogon, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and Yellow-spotted Nicator.
From Chintheche we will wend our way over the escarpment for the drive north to the highest reaches of Malawi, the Nyika Plateau, where we will stay for the next three nights. Access is by a single dirt road and as we enter the park we will start seeing a new selection of birds and animals amidst some breath-taking scenery.
Malawi: Days 10-11 The Nyika National Park is Malawi’s largest national park and with an area of 3200 km2 straddles both Malawi and neighbouring Zambia and we will be able to explore habitats on both sides of the border as there is open access. The name Nyika means, “where the water comes from” and these wet habitats are endowed with a rich flora with many species of orchids and proteas. The beautiful landscape comprises expansive moorlands, rocky outcrops, marshes, small pools and dams and fascinating dark forests with majestic trees and tangled lianas.
Herds of dignified Roan Antelopes roam the plateau alongside the Crawshay’s form of Common Zebra, groups of Zambian Reedbuck and enormous Common Eland whilst often shy Cape Bushbuck here venture forth from the forest to graze and Bushpigs are occasionally glimpsed. Zambian Klipspringers favour the crags and the park has a healthy population of Leopards, which are occasionally seen.
Here the stately Denham’s Bustard still wanders over grasslands but Secretarybird and the rare Wattled Crane have now seemingly vanished from the area. However, brilliant but endangered Blue Swallows present little problem to see as they fly low over the open hills and bracken- and briar-covered valleys where Black-lored, Wailing and Churring Cisticolas are common and even easy to identify with their distinctive songs and plumages. We will be on the lookout for the restricted-range Yellow-browed Seedeater as well as Red-winged Francolin and Mountain Yellow Warbler. At patches of flowering proteas, we shall check the sunbirds carefully for, as well as Malachite Sunbird and the restricted-range Whyte’s Double-collared Sunbird, we will be hoping to see the equally impressive Scarlet-tufted Sunbird (a high-altitude bird that is extremely hard to access elsewhere in its range). In the wetter areas, we should find the restricted-range Montane Widowbird in breeding plumage complete with some very impressive tails.
We will want to spend most of the mornings inside some splendid montane evergreen forest where we will be concentrating on finding more secretive, restricted-range forest birds such as Black-browed and Sharpe’s Greenbuls, Olive-flanked Ground Robin, the striking White-chested Alethe, Sharpe’s Akalat, Chapin’s Apalis and Fülleborn’s Boubou. These birds are often localized to very particular forest patches and are not always easy to see but we have enough time and with patience and persistence we should be able to find them.
In the late afternoon, it is a pleasure to watch the sunset with a sundowner in hand and gaze over the rolling hills that stretch off into the haze and clothed in warming blankets, a night drive back to the lodge could turn up mammals such as Side-striped Jackal and Cape Porcupine and Marsh Owl, Spotted Eagle-Owl and even African Grass Owl are all possible whilst around the pine plantations we should keep a lookout for Ruwenzori Nightjar (the form here is sometimes split as Usambara Nightjar).
Other species we should see include Yellow-billed and African Black Ducks, Common Quail, Black-winged Kite, Lappet-faced Vulture, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Crowned Eagle, Black and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawks, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers, Augur Buzzard, Black-bellied Bustard, Temminck’s Courser, Dusky Turtle Dove, Scarce Swift, Moustached Tinkerbird, White-necked Raven, Rufous-naped Lark, White-headed Saw-wing, Banded Martin, Red-rumped and Angola Swallows, African Yellow Warbler, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Wing-snapping Cisticola, Bar-throated Apalis, Brown-headed Apalis, African Hill Babbler, Brown Parisoma, Waller’s and Slender-billed Starlings, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, African Stonechat, Baglafecht Weaver, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, African and Tree Pipits and Yellow-crowned Canary.
Malawi: Day 12 We will leave the Nyika Plateau today and drive to Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve, an area that contains some superb miombo and dry bush country at the base of the plateau. At Vwaza we will search for two restricted-range specialities; the strange Babbling Starling, a bird in a monotypic genus that looks more like a cross between a babbler and a helmetshrike than a starling, and the striking Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Weaver. We also stand a good chance of finding the scarce Miombo Pied Barbet and Bennett’s Woodpecker as well as having another chance to see some of those other miombo specialities again or indeed any that we may have missed.
Afterwards, we will continue to Luwawa Forest on the Viphya Plateau for an overnight stay.
Malawi: Day 13 Luwawa Forest Lodge is scenically placed on the edge of a large dam surrounded by conifer plantations. Our stop at Luwawa is primarily to break up the journey back to Lilongwe as most of the birds here will now be familiar to us. However, we are likely to turn up a few additions, with possibilities including Red-chested Flufftail, Little Rush Warbler, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Thick-billed Weaver and Green Twinspot.
After some early morning birding at Luwawa Forest, we will drive back to Lilongwe for an overnight stay, stopping at a dam en route where Lesser Jacana can often be found.
We should also have time to visit a dambo that, if conditions are right and reasonably wet, may well hold Rosy-throated Longclaw and an assortment of bishops and widowbirds. We also have a good chance of seeing Locust Finch, although usually only flight views are obtained as this tiny bird is seemingly almost impossible to see on the ground. During the Palearctic winter (from November onwards) many Amur Falcons gather in the city itself.
Malawi: Day 14 Our tour ends this morning at Lilongwe.