Birding for Beginners

Heritage Week 2018
September 17, 2018
How the Fish River Canyon Ran Over Me
September 21, 2018
Heritage Week 2018
September 17, 2018
How the Fish River Canyon Ran Over Me
September 21, 2018
Text and Photographs: Pompie Burger

Arriving in Namibia many moons ago as a free man, not on any anti-depressants but with lots of hair and muscles, weekends were open for enjoyment. As a novice birder (2 months), I decided that Etosha should be the first place to conquer with my new-found knowledge and enthusiasm for the world of birds. Since I had been in the country for just one month there were a few birds to discover, over 600 to be more precise. Without wanting to bore the reader with the “wel en weë van (ups and downs of) die blou bul birder” this might be of real importance to any novice Namibian and birder.

Lesson one: Etosha is not just a short distance from Windhoek! Still, a weekend is more than enough time to do Etosha, no sweat (no aircon). Zip away on a Friday afternoon (not so zippy with a Datsun 120Y bakkie), arrive too late to enter the park, sleep outside Andersson Gate, fire, beer and worsie (sausage), problem solved, but bad start.

Apparently, had you made it to Okaukuejo instead, you would have seen and heard a few different owl species. At the waterhole, you would have seen at least a rhino and a few elephants. During the rainy season, the odd nightjar would have entertained you, and you would easily identify it within the next 35 years.

Early Saturday morning after a beer for breakfast we popped in at Okaukuejo, took a quick walk around the camp and saw our first raptor, a Pygmy Falcon, at a Sociable Weaver nest behind the camping site. On that walk, we also saw our first normal birds: Groundscraper Thrush, Acacia Pied Barbet and a few other grasshoppers, not to mention a Common Scimitarbill and a Southern White-crowned Shrike. The Crimson-breasted Shrike was a good colour introduction to the rest of our trip.

If you want to see Etosha within 48 hours you have to move on, so we took the western bypass to Leeubron. The big Acacia tortilis provided us with a majestic Martial Eagle. Unfortunately, the tree is history now, the eagle left and was replaced by the odd White-browed Scrub-Robin and Scaly-feathered Finch. On the way back to the main road we saw a Fiscal Shrike (years later the importance of the subspecies subcoronatus was realised).

Our next stop was Adamax. On the way there we saw Double-banded Coursers, Northern Black Korhaan, Kori Bustards and other plains birds like larks. Next on our map was Okondeka, but back then no lions yet. Fortunately, new birds were added to my list on the way there, among them a Ludwig’s Bustard, another special sighting for any birder. A few new raptors had been identified, such as the Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk and the Greater Kestrel. Incidentally, both like to do their hunting on foot in this area (they have no other options, there are no trees in the vicinity).

Cisticolas, larks and pipets were rather irrelevant at that stage of my birding career (I was still struggling to differentiate between an ostrich and a dove), but they were on my waiting list, although only many years later. When the surroundings started to look familiar, we realised we were back at Okaukuejo, so after another beer for dessert, we continued east. Reaching Gemsbokvlakte we came across two Secretarybirds trying to catch a snake, while I also saw my first Capped Wheatear. Back then my birding was done in Afrikaans so it was a Skaapwagter, although there were no sheep in sight.

On the way to Olifantsbad, we saw a Lilac-breasted Roller having breakfast, and I quickly took 200 pictures from all different angles. Realising time was running out, we made a quick stop at Aus. A Lanner and a Peregrine Falcon did not make our progress any easier, so lunch at Halali had to wait. Obviously, from here, the more our speed, empty beer bottles and the heat increased, the fewer birds we saw, but Kris Kristofferson explained to us that if he and Bobby McGee could make it, no reason why we couldn’t.

At Charitsaub (now my absolute favourite waterhole) we saw a pair of Blue Cranes with a chick, incidentally, a very special group of (Etosha) Blue Cranes because their closest family/friends are about 2000 km south. In the tree, the only tree, we saw four different raptors, that’s if you call a Black Crow a raptor, a Lesser Kestrel, a Redneck Falcon and yet another Greater Kestrel. From here it was back to the main road while Rodriquez was trying to keep us cool, but his Cold Facts were not really effective.

Halali Camp was an eye-opener and more birds were added to my growing tick list. A quick walk in the camp provided us with Violet Wood Hoopoes, White-crested Helmetshrikes, Bare-cheeked Babblers, Carp’s Tits, Southern White-faced Owls and Damara Hornbills (some of these identifications were made about 20 years later, and in fact, four of these were endemics, whatever that meant). More importantly, we had a few beers at the restaurant seeing two Scops Owls in a tree above us, while sorting our fluid levels out yet again. It might have been one, though. The pair of Augur Buzzards at the Helio Hills was a good introduction to the area east of Halali. At Goas the Tawny Eagle sitting on a dead leadwood tree was a worthy visitor to this beautiful waterhole.

Unfortunately, we were running late again, planning not to sleep outside Namutoni’s gate.

At Kalkheuwel a lost leopard and a flock of over a million, maybe more, Red-billed Quelea were trying to have a drink while being harassed by a Gabar Goshawk and a Little Sparrowhawk. Trying to balance our fluid levels (getting rid of fluid), a group of Rüppell’s Parrots came in for a drink (fluid levels). Before arriving at Namutoni we saw a Red-footed Falcon getting to know a Namaqua Dove very intimately. Our raptor count was reaching dazzling proportions. Making it through the gate just in time after another tough day in Africa, we settled down inside the camp with some fluids and tjoppies on the coals.

The next morning we did some birding in the camp and saw a Brubru, a Bearded Woodpecker and a group of Buffalo Weavers. A visit to the fort revealed some sunbirds and starlings enjoying the nectar of an Erythrina tree. Then we hit the road to Fischer’s Pan, although the bakkie was particularly good at hitting potholes.

Apart from various LBJ’s (this term made sense to me only much later), we saw our first Gymnogene (African Harrier-hawk) hunting for food in a tree. The fact that we saw a kill with a few vultures and Marabous cleaning up does not mean this is standard procedure on a visit to Etosha. The group of European Bee-eaters was a surprise in the context of the greater colour scheme. Nothing could have prepared us for the next surprise awaiting us at the bridge back to Namutoni, where a large flock of Flamingos was trying to settle down among stilts, waders and shovelers.

A last throw-of-the-dice-visit to Klein Namutoni waterhole was a good end to our weekend. Apart from a couple of Damara dik-dik and a rhino we saw Grey Hornbills, Crested Francolins and babblers. A few years later I realised that the Black-faced Babblers we saw were yet another special. After this, we decided to call it a day. We could always come back for more at a later stage.

Surprise, surprise the later stage became another and another… I did not make a tick list, but we might be at visit number 100. Dylan is still with us, Springsteen was added and Cohan is not with us anymore, but his golden voice is still on the CD (no tape recorder!). The beer was replaced by ice cream, but apart from that little has changed.

You might also enjoy reading: By word of mouth – Birds of Namibia

This article was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of TNN.

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