News

Text Ron Swilling | Photographs Dayne Braine

Main photo: Violet wood-hoepoe

When the storms of summer are but a sweet memory, the Namibian winter offers new and different opportunities and experiences.

I t’s the dry time of the year when waterholes shrink and grass turns golden. The summer avian visitors, the migrants – African and Palaearctic – have returned home, leaving the Namibian residents behind for the winter. This is, therefore, an opportune time to see the Namibian endemics in the arid Namib, PreNamib and bushveld areas. With the exception of the Damara tern – an intra-African migrant that migrates northwards to the bulge of Africa, returning south to breed – they are all resident birds.

This is the slower time of the year, without the glitz and glamour of the summer breeding season. Birds such as weavers, bishops and paradise flycatchers are out of their colourful breeding plumage, and are now dressed in their day-to-day outfits, the sexes indistinguishable from each other.

In the Windhoek area, look out for Monteiro’s hornbill (larger than the other hornbills), White-tailed shrikes, and rockrunners. The Waterberg area is good for spotting rockrunners, the striking blue and yellow flashes of Rüppell’s parrot on the wing, Carp’s tit and Hartlaub’s francolin, and in the PreNamib – the scrub bordering the desert – Benguela long-billed lark and Rüppell’s korhaan. On the coastal gravel plains, keep your eyes open for Gray’s lark, Damara tern and Dune lark, and in the central gravel plains around inselbergs such as the Spitzkoppe and Brandberg, the Benguela long-billed lark.

The Herero chat, with its distinctive black patch running through its eye to its ear coverts in pirate fashion, is the prime attraction in the Spitzkoppe-Brandberg area, its distribution extending through Damaraland into Angola. Along river courses and in woodland areas in the north-west, the attractive Violet wood-hoopoe and family groups of chattering Bare-cheeked babblers can be seen (and heard).

NAMIBIA’S ENDEARING ENDEMICS

The word endemic indicates a species that occurs only within a certain country. The Dune lark is the only bird species in Namibia considered a true endemic. It is found in the vegetated coastal dune belt from Lüderitz up to the Kuiseb River, just south of Walvis Bay. There are another 13 species that are often referred to as endemics, although they are essentially near-endemics insofar as their distribution extends into another area, in this case Angola, because the largest populations of the species are found within Namibia.

Dune lark
Monteiro’s hornbill
Damara red-billed hornbill
White-tailed shrike

Carp’s tit
Hartlaub’s francolin (spurfowl)
Herero chat

Rüppell’s korhaan
Rockrunner
Bare-cheeked babbler
Benguela long-billed lark

Gray’s lark
Violet wood-hoopoe
Rüppell’s parrot

Tawny eagle

A special time – winter birding in the north-east
The Zambezi and Kavango regions, usually a cacophony of sound, quieten down during the winter months. The non-migrant or resident Southern African ‘specials’ (that is birds which occur there as well as in other areas, but not in great numbers) are found this time of year, making it a prime time to observe the specials. Although winter is the optimum game-viewing period as there’s no rain, less mud and mosquitoes, and easier visibility as the forest thins out, the birds are less vocal and it takes a little more effort to view the avian bounty in its entirety. There are still, however, enough waterbirds to dazzle – elegant herons skim the water and the sound of the fish-eagle rings through the air on the Kwando and Zambezi waterways. Skimmers, White-crowned lapwings and pratincoles can usually be seen when the water level is lower. This is a favourable time to spot African skimmers nesting on the sandbanks and Rock pratincoles on exposed river rocks.

North-eastern Namibia is a good locale to view Dickinson’s kestrel, Western banded snake-eagle, the large ginger-coloured Pel’s fishing owl, White-backed night-heron, Slaty egret with its yellow legs and rufous throat, Black coucal and Rosy-throated longclaw. The Brown firefinch, a sought-after species, can also be seen, as can the Sharp-tailed starling, Rufous-bellied tit and Shelley’s sunbird. The African hobby, White-breasted cuckooshrike, Racket-tailed roller, Arnot’s chat, Wattled crane, Chirping cisticola and Greater swamp-warbler are additional specials to look out for in the north-east.

Visitors may also be able to see several Carmine bee-eaters that haven’t joined the annual migration to equatorial Africa, but have remained for the winter. The bee-eaters begin breeding in holes along the riverbanks early in the season in August. The distinctive bird, with its dark turquoise crown, is always a bright attraction of the area.

The bubbling call of the Coppery-tailed coucal reverberates through the waterways, adding to the evocative sounds – hippos grunting and the chiming of painted reed frogs – that make a visit to the Zambezi and Kavango regions so appealing.

Rosy-faced lovebirds
Golden-tailed woodpecker

STEVE’S LIST OF INTERESTING BIRD FACTS

  1. Honeyguides are known to lead honey badgers (and humans) to beehives. The Greater honeyguide flits from tree to tree, chattering continuously until it reaches the hive. Bushmen have always used honeyguides to find honey and leave a portion aside for them, believing that if they fail to do so, they won’t be led to the hive again. The honeyguide is one of the only birds able to digest beeswax.
  2. Rosy-faced lovebirds carry building material to line their nests in their rump feathers, rather than in their beaks. They make use of holes in trees, crevices in rock faces and abandoned birds’ nests. They are good indicators of water because they need to drink. If you find Rosy-faced lovebirds in a riverbed, you know water is within flying distance – up to 5 km – away.
  3. Sociable weavers build the largest nests in the world. They live in arid areas and drink only when water is available. Their nests are used by a multitude of other birds: Spotted eagle-owls nest and roost on top, and Pygmy falcons, Rosy-faced lovebirds, Acacia pied barbets and Red-headed finches make use of the nest chambers.
  4. During the breeding season, the male sandgrouse soaks its specially-adapted breast feathers in water and flies up to 50 km to its nest to moisten its eggs or for the chicks to drink.
  5. Owls are silent flyers, which is used to their advantage while hunting. In a pitch-black night, they are able to pick up the sound of their prey without seeing it.
  6. Birds of prey have forward-facing eyes, which gives them binocular vision (the fields of view of the left and right eye overlap), enabling them to judge distance accurately.
  7. The woodpecker has a shock-absorbing mechanism that allows it to peck wood as hard and as often as it does – which can be up to 22 times per second – without causing a headache or brain damage. This entails having a stout beak, spongy bone between the beak and the cranium, and the hyoid apparatus that supports its long tongue.
  8. Paradise whydahs out of breeding season are almost identical. The males grow their spectacular breeding plumage after the rains to attract as many females as possible. The females lay two eggs in a Melba finch nest, but unlike cuckoos, their chicks don’t eject the eggs or young of their host. Whydah chicks mimic the fluorescent spots in the host chick’s gape, directing the parent bird to their opened beaks.
  9. Palm swifts build their tiny nests of saliva and feathers in the dry palm fronds of makalani palms. They stick the eggs down with a saliva mixture to prevent them from falling out of the nest in heavy wind. (Palm swifts are one of the few birds that don’t turn their eggs during incubation.) The swift clings on to the nest to brood the eggs.
  10. When a predator approaches a Kittlitz’s plover’s nest, it feigns a broken wing as a distraction and kicks sand over the eggs. When the predator has departed, it scrapes the sand off and continues incubating.

A BRAINE FOR BIRDS

Steve Braine, well-known Namibian bird expert and naturalist who hails from a birding fraternity, has spent his entire life with birds. His grandfather was an aviculturist and his father a keen birder. The avian interest has been passed down through the generations to Steve’s sons, Sean and Dayne, who continue the tradition. They join Steve and co-founder, John Lötter, as knowledgeable guides in Batis Birding Safaris, guiding guests to top birding destinations.

Steve studied conservation in South Africa, worked for the Directorate of Nature Conservation (which became the Ministry of Environment and Tourism – MET – after independence in 1990) in Namibia and has since been doing research, including netting and ringing, on various bird species. He has written numerous articles on birds in Namibia, especially from the Skeleton Coast area. He and his wife, Louise, ran the popular Hobatere Lodge for many years.

“Birding has always been a passion for me,” he says. Batis Birding Safaris specialises in birding tours in Namibia, Angola and Antarctica, offering scheduled safari options and tailor-made tours.

www.batisbirdingsafaris.com

Carmine bee-eater

This is a favourable time to spot African skimmers nesting on the sandbanks and Rock pranticoles on exposed river rock

Rockrunner

This article was first published in the Travel News Namibia Winter 2012 issue.

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