ZAMBIA: AFRICAN PITTA SPECIAL BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Zambia: African Pitta Special: Day 1 Our special tour begins around midday at Livingstone. The city of Livingstone is situated on the Zambian bank of the Zambezi River at the Victoria Falls. This spectacular and breathtaking place still has a stunning impact even after one has seen innumerable films or photographs. The falls themselves are magnificent and, as David Livingstone himself once declared, “On sights as beautiful as this, angels in their flight must have gazed”. Here the mighty Zambezi widens to nearly two kilometres broad before plunging vertically downwards. As we approach the falls, dense clouds of water vapour hang over the area and the sound of millions of tons of water dropping into chasms over 100m deep is awe-inspiring.
Rock Martins and Red-winged Starlings fly through rainbows that arch across the fine spray before vanishing into the gloom of the gorges. The area protected by the national park is not as extensive as on the Zimbabwean side and bird song is difficult to hear above the deafening rumble and pounding of cascading water. The falls were known as a regular haunt of the rare Taita Falcon, but these days, with increased disturbance, the birds have retreated to the inaccessible gorges downstream. Perhaps the most interesting birds that live here are the African Black Swifts of the paler race hollidayi that is endemic to Victoria Falls.
After our visit to the falls we shall head further west to our comfortable lodge, idyllically situated on the banks of the Zambezi, where we will stay for two nights. Around the lodge we should find White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Southern Masked Weaver and Red-billed Firefinch. At night we may find Pearl-spotted Owlet, African Wood Owl and Square-tailed Nightjar.
Zambia: African Pitta Special: Day 2 Today we shall explore the mopane woodlands well to the west of Livingstone that are home to the Black-cheeked Lovebird. This delightful little parrot is now treated as a Zambian endemic, as any valid records outside the country are now thought to refer either to vagrants or else to feral birds. The species particularly favours mopane woodland and it has a patchy distribution in southwestern Zambia, being restricted to an area between the Zambezi and Kafue Rivers, with a total population numbering no more than 10,000 individuals.
The habitat here encompasses part of the Zambezi floodplain and shallow pools, thorny thickets and stands of mopane are characteristic of the area, so there will be much to distract us along the way. Restricted-range species to look out for during our travels include Coppery-tailed Coucal, and Meves’s and Burchell’s Starlings.
More widespread species include Great White Pelican, Marabou Stork, White-backed Vulture, Black-chested and Brown Snake Eagles, Gabar Goshawk, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Martial and Tawny Eagles, Crested and Swainson’s Francolins, Crowned Lapwing, Double-banded Sandgrouse, African Mourning and Namaqua Doves, Grey Go-away-bird, Jacobin Cuckoo, White-browed Coucal, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, Böhm’s Spinetail, Red-faced Mousebird, Woodland and Striped Kingfishers, Swallow-tailed and Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, Purple (or Rufous-crowned) and Lilac-breasted Rollers, Common Scimitarbill, Southern Ground Hornbill, and Southern Red-billed and African Grey Hornbills.
Passerines include Rattling Cisticola, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Arrow-marked Babbler, Southern Black Tit, Magpie Shrike, Yellow-billed and Red-billed Oxpeckers, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Lesser Masked Weaver, Red-billed Quelea, Yellow-crowned Bishop, White-winged Widowbird, Violet-eared Waxbill, Green-winged Pytilia, Jameson’s Firefinch, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Village Indigobird and Black-throated Canary.
The area borders on the much drier country to the west, marking the beginning of a rather different avifauna, and so there is always the chance of a surprise.
We plan to take a boat trip along the river near our lodge in search of African Finfoot, Rock Pratincole, Half-collared Kingfisher and the restricted-range Chirping Cisticola, not to mention the fascinating Hippopotamus.
More widespread species along the Zambezi include Striated (or Green-backed), Black, Squacco and Purple Herons, Little and Intermediate Egrets, African Openbill, Glossy and African Sacred Ibises, Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese, African Fish Eagle, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Water Thick-knee, White-headed Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Grey-headed Gull, White-winged Tern, Giant Kingfisher, Sand Martin (or Bank Swallow), Wire-tailed and Barn Swallows, and Lesser Swamp Warbler.
Zambia: African Pitta Special: Day 3 Today we return to Livingstone and continue eastwards to the Choma region of southern Zambia for a two nights stay in the Nkanga Conservation Area. We will be staying in stylish and very comfortable accommodation and join our hosts in the main house each evening for our meals, an experience that makes for a most welcoming and friendly stay. We may arrive at Nkanga in time for some initial exploration.
Zambia: African Pitta Special: Day 4 The Nkanga Conservation Area contains several cattle ranches and farms that have been actively protecting the local wildlife and are involved in mammal reintroduction schemes.
Our interest here lies primarily with the striking endemic Chaplin’s Barbet. This threatened barbet occurs only in a restricted area of Zambia that is probably as small as a few hundred square kilometres! The bird needs plenty of Ficus sycomorus fig trees for its source of food and it is threatened when these are cleared for cultivation. We shall be scanning the fig trees scattered across the open grasslands in search of bright white dots that could ultimately prove to be the bird itself.
The ranch house overlooks an attractive small dam surrounded by dense thickets and beautiful open miombo woodland, which is an excellent place to find the sparsely-distributed Racket-tailed Roller and Miombo Pied Barbet. Further special birds of Nkanga include Stierling’s Wren Warbler, Souza’s Shrike and African Spotted Creeper.
Other species that may well be found here include Little Bittern, African Spoonbill, White-backed Duck, African Black Duck, Red-billed and Hottentot Teals, African Cuckoo-Hawk, Long-crested Eagle, Hooded Vulture, Shelley’s and Natal Francolins, Red-necked Spurfowl, Black and Senegal Coucals, the spectacular Pennant-winged Nightjar, White-fronted Bee-eater, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Brown-backed Honeybird, Bearded Woodpecker, Rufous-naped Lark, Terrestrial Brownbul, Collared Palm Thrush, Zitting Cisticola, Neddicky, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Red-capped Crombec, Miombo Grey Tit, Grey Penduline Tit, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Spectacled Weaver, Southern Red and Yellow Bishops, Orange-breasted Waxbill, Cuckoo Finch (previously known as Parasitic Weaver) and Cabanis’s Bunting.
Zambia: African Pitta Special: Day 5 After some final birding at Nkanga we will continue eastwards to Siavonga, on the shores of Lake Kariba (a dammed section of the Zambezi that streaddles the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe), for a three nights stay.
Zambia: African Pitta Special: Days 6-7 The first hours of daylight will be key to our success as we seek out one of the most attractive and sought-after of all African birds, the glorious African Pitta. We will have to leave our lodge while it is still dark in order to arrive at the favoured area of dense thickets that hide this jewel of a bird so easily from sight. Our ears will be strained to catch the sound of the African Pitta’s frog-like display call and with persistence (and because we are spending enough time here) we have a very high chance of being able to track this fabulous bird down and watch as it leaps up from its perch with each and every note it utters. This part of Zambia is one of the most accessible places to see African Pitta, but even so we may have to keep trying for some time.
During our visit to Lake Kariba wee will also be looking for some of the other interesting birds of the area, and in particular the colourful Purple-crested Turaco, the strange, seemingly tail-less Böhm’s Spinetail, Bearded Scrub Robin and the delightful Livingstone’s Flycatcher.
Other species that occur in the area include Crested Guineafowl, African Emerald and Barred Long-tailed Cuckoos, Crowned Hornbill, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, African Broadbill, Lesser Striped Swallow, Sombre Greenbul, Eastern Nicator, Thrush Nightingale, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Garden Warbler, Purple-banded Sunbird, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Red-billed Quelea and Red-throated Twinspot.
Zambia: African Pitta Special: Day 8 We shall have another opportunity to look for the pitta this morning, if need be, before heading for Lusaka airport, where our tour ends this afternoon.
Zimbabwe Extension: Day 1 We will overnight at Lusaka.
Zimbabwe Extension: Day 2 This morning we will take a flight from Zambia’s capital to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. From there we will transfer to the Vumba (or Bvumba) Mountains, part of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, for a three nights stay. The drive passes through a mosaic of open grasslands, fertile agricultural areas, well wooded hills and valleys and attractive conglomerations of enormous, well-weathered rocks.
Zimbabwe Extension: Days 3-4 The Vumba (or Bvumba) Mountains rise to just over 1900m, astride the Mozambique border and are still partly covered in lush montane evergreen forest. Large areas have been transformed into banana, tea and tobacco plantations, but in these ‘mountains of the mist’ several large chunks of forest have been rigorously protected and here we will search for three near-endemics; Swynnerton’s Robin, Chirinda Apalis and Roberts’s Warbler (formerly Roberts’s Prinia), all of which are fairly easy to find. On the forest floor we may chance upon a shy Lemon Dove, while the skulking Barratt’s Warbler calls from the densest thickets. We even have a chance of seeing the secretive Buff-spotted Flufftail.
Other species we will hope to find in these woods and surrounding open areas include Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Cape Grassbird, Mouse-coloured Flycatcher, Gorgeous Bush Shrike, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike, Dark-backed Weaver, the secretive Red-faced Crimsonwing, the skulking Grey Waxbill and Black-throated Canary.
Zimbabwe Extension: Day 5 Today we return to Harare, where our tour ends this afternoon.