Namibian Spring check-listOctober 1, 2013
VOTE: Make your mark on Team NamibiaOctober 2, 2013
Text and photos by Pompie Burger
You can easily fall into the trap of using over-used adjectives such as incredible, magical, ultimate, uncompromising et cetera for Mahango, but I’ll rather settle for: My favourite birding spot.
Each one of our visits to this little gem in north-eastern Namibia has been unforgettable (there I go again). Mahango hosts more than 410 species in an area of less than 25 000 ha. The reason for this multitude of different birds is the mosaic of habitats ranging from open water, floodplains and swamps to dry, dense, broad-leaved woodland.
Birding in this area is an experience that can probably be enjoyed as much with your eyes closed. Early in the morning, the bubbling cascade of ‘water-bottle’ notes of the White-browed Coucal (Centropus superciliosus) along the river wake you, soon followed by the mocking calls of the White-browed Robin-Chat (Cossypha heuglini). The Woodland Kingfisher’s (Halcyon senegalensis) call is almost synonymous with the acacia bushveld. By now, you can open your eyes and start enjoying the beautiful surroundings.
The loop road running along the Mahango omuramba and onto the floodplain margin provides the best birding opportunities. From the turnoff into the loop, the first kilometre will provide the first special, the Dickinson’s Kestrel (Falco dickinsoni), according to Steve Brain sitting in the first dead tree on the left-hand side of the road. In early autumn, the omuramba usually teems with water birds when the level of the Kavango River has risen into it. Where the road approaches the floodplain the African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus), Long-toed (Vanellus crassirostris) and African Wattled (V. senegallus) Lapwings, Spur-winged Geese (Plectropterus gambensis) and White-faced Ducks (Dendrocygna viduata) are quite visible.
As soon as you’ve reached the woodland area the first of the Mahango’s regulars can be seen, such as Swainson’s (Pternistis swainsonii) and Red-billed (Pternistis adspersus) Spurfowls and Meves’s Starling (Lamprotornis mevesii). Be careful not to be misled by the White-browed Sparrow-Weavers (Plocepasser mahali) with their bulky untidy nests, and their incredible ability to look like exotic birds.
At the first turnoff to the Kavango River floodplain you will have your first encounter with one of Mahango’s real specials, the endangered Wattled Crane (Bugeranus carunculatus). Red lechwes (Kobus leche) favour this area and are usually in the company of a few hippos. A real highlight could be sighting a Slaty Egret (Egretta vinaceigula), which is a special, not only for Mahango. Prick up your ears for the bleating call of the Grey-backed Camaroptera (Camaroptera brevicaudata), and the hammering of the Golden-tailed (Campethera abingoni) and Bennett’s (C. bennettii) Woodpeckers in the big riverine trees lining the floodplain.
By now you have most probably ticked off your first raptors, so look out for the Brown (Circaetus cinereus) and Western Banded (C. cinerascens) Snake-eagles, Dark Chanting Goshawk (Melierax metabates), African Hobby (Falco cuvierii) and the Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina)- MAIN PHOTOGRAPH. Further down the road the Pearl-spotted Owlets (Glaucidium perlatum) and the hornbills take turns to nest in the trunk of a dead leadwood tree.
The first picnic spot at the giant baobab tree is a favourite hangout for the Banded Martin (Riparia cincta) and the Lesser Striped (Hirundo abyssinica) and Grey-rumped (Pseudhirundo griseopyga) Swallows. This is an excellent place to catch up with your water-bird spotting. During the rainy season you will have a good chance of seeing Collared Pratincoles (Glareola pratincola), a breeding migrant from tropical Africa, and Temminck’s Coursers (Cursorius temminckii), looking for insects on the floodplain as you approach the baobab tree.
In the scrubs further from the river the Yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus) love to hitch a ride on the back of the local buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and sable antelope (Hippotragus equinus) taxi service. Being more of a bird photographer than a bird ticker, I obviously prefer Mahango for its bee-eaters and kingfishers, rather than for its LBJs. For instance, the Grey-headed Kingfishers (Halcyon leucocephala) with their stunning blue wings and the Striped Kingfishers (H. chelicuti) with their black/red bills compared to the Brown-hooded Kingfishers (H. albiventris) with their red bills are a much more agreeable reason to stop than a Greater Swamp-Warbler (Acrocephalus rufescens) or a Chirping Cisticola (Cisticola pipiens).
During the rainy season, the shrikes are quite active in the park, keeping the insect population under control. Some of the more commonly seen shrikes are the Red-backed (Lanius collurio), Southern White-crowned (Eurocephalus angiutimens), Crimson-breasted (Laniarius atrococcineus) and Lesser Grey (Lanius minor) Shrikes. In springtime the elaborate mating display of the Magpie Shrike (Corvinella melanoleuca) is a sight you’ll never forget.
At the picnic site at Kweche, you’ll be welcomed by the very vocal Hartlaub’s (Turdoides hartlaubii) and Arrow-marked (Turdoides jardineii) Babblers. This is always a prime spot for various reasons, one of the less exciting being a herd of elephants passing less than 20 metres away on their way to the river. The crocodiles tend to keep any potential bird-watcher on his toes (so don’t get too close to the water, you might end up toeless), but for the brave there is always a chance of seeing the odd Black Crake (Amaurornis flavirostra), or you may even see an Allen’s Gallinule (Porphyrio alleni). This is also a prime spot to see the African Skimmers (Rynchops flavirostris) brushing the water surface with their uniquely shaped, yellow-tipped red bills. While having your morning tea, you can close your eyes again and listen to the synchronised duet of the Black-collared Barbet (Lybius torquatus) and Swamp Boubous (Laniarius bicolor) respectively.
A walk along the riverbank can be rewarding, especially if you’re looking for rarities like the African Green-Pigeons (Treron calvus), Retz’s Helmet-Shrike (Prionops retzii) and Ashy Flycatcher (Muscicapa caerulescens), but watch out for the odd roaming lion.
The other photographer’s temptation in Mahango – the brightly coloured bee-eaters – is well represented. After having ticked off the rare Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Merops persicus), you can now enjoy the likes of the resident Swallow-tailed (M. hirundineus) and Little (M. pusillus) Bee-eaters. During summer the other migrant bee-eaters add more colour to the scene with the likes of the Southern Carmine (M. nubicoides) and White-fronted (M. bullockoides) Bee-eaters.
The western section of the park is accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle, and is much less travelled. The birding is not that impressive, but it is still good. Some of the specials to be found are the very rare and difficult to find Sharp-tailed Starling (Lamprotornis acuticaudus), while the mopane woodlands may yield views of Racket-tailed Rollers (Coracias spatulatus) and Cape Parrots (Poicephalus robustus).
Because of the restriction on the number of words I may use in this article, I initially thought it would be better to mention the birds that do not occur in Mahango, but then again, there is also a restriction on the minimum number of words, so I tried to compromise, and for those birds I haven’t mentioned, I am truly sorry.
When you eventually go to bed after a hard day’s birding, you may hear the call of the African Barred Owlet (Glaucideum capense), or even the three syllabled dog-like pow-wow-wow of the Freckled Nightjar (Caprimulgus tristigma). Whatever your itinerary for your next visit to Namibia, don’t miss out on this magical place.
Flamingo, September 2008
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.