Text and photographs Pompie Burger – Main photograph: Dune Lark, Calendulauda erythrochlamys
“…en die groot en oop grasvlaktes
Span dit toe met doringdraad
En die olifant tot gemsbok
Al die diere moes kom buig
Voor die mag van die grootwildjagter
Voor die mag van sy groot geweer
Totdat net die stilte oorbly
Totdat net die stilte heers.”
Halala Afrika, Johannes Kerkorrel
Some scientists define an endemic species as one where 100% of its specimens occur in a particular area or country, while others are satisfied when more than 90% or even 75% occurs there. Whatever your idea of an endemic might be, in Namibia there is, in fact, only one 100% or true endemic bird species, namely the Dune Lark (Calendulauda erythrochlamys). This diminutive bird occurs in western Namibia on the fringes of the Namib dune-sea between the Koichab River in the south and the Kuiseb River in the north.
If your rules are a bit more relaxed (as in regarding 90% as sufficient), the count goes up to 15 endemics. Fortunately, birding is not only about numbers and statistics. It is also about exploring Namibia and enjoying its multitude of habitats and birds, mammals, insects, plants, reptiles and scorpions because they all form an integral part of the bigger picture that makes Namibia such a special destination.
When searching for Namibia’s endemics, you‘ll have to start at the region (fairy circle) in which they occur. There are three endemic landscape regions, the escarpment, the Namib lowland (sand, gravel plains and dunes), and the highlands to the east. The north-eastern region hosts the highest concentration as far as overall diversity of birds is concerned, while the dry western and north-western areas are the endemism hotspots. The reason for the high endemism in this region is probably that most species evolved here because of factors such as climatic changes and food availability (insects, reptiles, plants and mammals).
It is no surprise that when looking at the map of endemism of the five different entities (plants, birds, mammals, reptiles and scorpions) all occur basically in the same region. What is interesting is that the endemic bird distribution tends to extend into southern Angola, while the mammal distribution tends to reach south into the Republic of South Africa. The endemic scorpion concentration is the highest just east of Swakopmund in the Namib Desert.
The escarpment divides much of the country into two landscapes, the low-lying coastal plains to the west and the higher plateau to the east. The endemic bird with the highest concentration in the escarpment area is the melodious Herero Chat (Namibornis herero), which, incidentally, also happens to be the bird with the most ‘endemic’ name. These birds are relatively sedentary in their specific habitat, and although they were previously thought to be rare, a study conducted in 1995 found that they were quite common in the areas where they are localised.
To the west, the Namib lowland gravel plains are well-known for Rüppell’s Korhaan (Eupodotis rueppellii). They are usually single or in pairs. The male differs from the female in that it is larger and has a black moustache, eyebrow and vertical line behind the cheek, while the female has black diamond-shaped markings on its back.
The sandy dunes host Namibia’s only true endemic, the Dune Lark. Apparently, these birds have much longer toes than the other larks, probably an adaptation to negotiate the soft and sandy dune areas. They are also sedentary, with no recorded history of drinking (a very non-Namibian characteristic).
Barlow’s Larks (Calendulauda barlowi), occur in southern Namibia among succulent scrubs, especially the euphorbias east and south-east of Lüderitz. Incidentally, they were described as a different species only in 1996 because many of the lark species are superficially similar in appearance (you could’ve fooled me). Researchers eventually classified the Dune Lark, Red Lark (Calendulauda burra) and Barlow’s Lark as three different species, with three sub species within the Barlow’s Lark group, C.barlowi spp cavei, patea and barlowi. This somewhat unimportant information is just to make matters even more complicated.
Gray’s Lark (Ammomanopsis grayi) is also a gravel-plain endemic, but has a much wider distribution than Barlow’s Lark, extending from just above the Orange River in the south to Angola in the north. These birds with their very distinctive aerial and vocal display at pre-dawn, dawn and twilight, are seldom seen because the display takes place in virtual darkness.
Just to bring some moisture and balance into this rather dry scenario, the coastline has its own breeding endemic, the Damara Tern (Sterna balaenarum). Unfortunately, the ever-present off-road quad-bike and 4×4 fraternities threaten their breeding sites (a simple scrape on a gravel plain). As a result, they are listed as one of the most endangered species in Southern Africa. Even more unfortunate is that breeding takes place during the peak of the holiday season, from October to January.
The highlands host the most diverse group of the endemic birds, the mopane woodlands being one of the common denominators in the areas where this group of birds occurs. Apart from the Rockrunner and Hartlaub’s Spurfowl, the nomadic, tree-cavity-nesting endemics in this area are Rüppell’s Parrot (Poicephalus rueppellii), Carp’s Tit (Parus carpi), Violet Wood-Hoopoe and Monteiro’s (Tockus monteiri) and Damara Hornbills(Tockus damarensis). Rüppell’s Parrots are endangered because of the threat of illegal export of wild birds for the caged-bird industry.
The Damara Hornbill, another late addition to the endemic list, was initially seen as a subspecies of the Red-billed Hornbill. Monteiro’s Hornbill is known to occupy the driest habitat of all the hornbills. The icon of Namibia’s endemic birds, the White-tailed Shrike (Lanioturdus torquatus) is probably the most visible and common of all the endemics, while the Bare-cheeked Babbler (Turdoides gymnogenys) is the most vocal and loud endemic, usually seen foraging among foliage on the ground. The smallest endemic bird, Carp’s Tit, is mostly heard before it is seen chattering in small groups in the mopane trees. Monteiro’s Hornbill, the White-tailed Shrike and the Rockrunner are Windhoek’s contribution to the endemic distribution saga.
The very musical Rockrunner (Achaetops pycnopygius) has a much larger distribution, reaching into the next region, the highlands. Rockrunners have a rich, robin-like call, often heard early in the morning. The highly secretive Hartlaub’s Spurfowls (Pternistis hartlaubi) have a beautiful and distinctive duet call between male and female and are relatively rare. The Violet Wood-Hoopoe (Phoeniculus damarensis) is, as far as numbers are concerned, the most endangered (less than 3 000). This is further compromised by hybridisation between them and the Red-billed hoopoe (Tockus erythrorhynchus). All three these endemics share a common talent for musicality.
The patterns of endemism reflect and emphasise the importance of the habitats that support for these species found nowhere else on earth. More than one of these endemics is already endangered. It is, therefore, our duty as Namibians not to allow the treasures that have been entrusted to us to disappear, leaving us with just the silence.
Flamingo, April 2008
About the author:
Based in Windhoek, Pompie Burger is an orthopaedic surgeon whose part-time passion is photography, in particular wildlife, and specifically birds. This regularly takes him to the most remote corners of the country, resulting in riveting images and articles. Pompie is the author and photographer of the coffee table book Birds of Namibia, which was published in 2008. The book contains articles and photographs which attest to the insight and knowledge of an accomplished observer. Read more of his articles in our Birding Section.