Friday, 2 September 2016

Namibia - the coast

Namibia has a pretty large coast, but like many tourists I stuck with the specific area around Walvis Bay and Swakopmund for a couple of days - before venturing north a bit to Henties Bay and then heading off inland...

Anyway, August is wintertime and though there were still tens of thousands of birds (mostly flamingos!), the famous salt pans at Walvis Bay were comparatively quiet - still, with White-fronted and Chestnut-banded Plovers in good numbers as well as a couple of Red-necked Phalaropes and Curlew Sandpipers, it wasn't all that bad!
White-fronted Plover Walvis Bay
Chestnut-banded Plover Walvis Bay
Not to mention retina burning action wherever you looked - the place teeming with Lesser and Greater Flamingos, as well as White Pelicans and a whole whack of Crested Terns.
Lesser Flamingo Walvis Bay
Greater Flamingo Walvis Bay
The key species to locate here is Damara Tern. And a month or so later this would have been extremely easy. However, with the majority of the population moving north in winter, it took me until the second day to locate two birds feeding off the promenade in Walvis Bay. Nice diminutive things with a dagger like bill - I did see plenty of signs warning people of their colonies and not to stray off the tracks, which was obviously a decent thing (despite the lack of birds!).
White Pelican Walvis Bay
Cape Cormorant Walvis Bay
Karen is a sucker for a boat trip on a holiday, so this was the only place to cram one in - and like many trip reports I'd read we plummeted for a real dudey one where the boatman had his Cape Fur Seal that he hand fed and some bow riding Heaviside's Dolphins. While eating a load of oysters and champagne (that's how I roll), I looked out and noticed a load of nice stuff including a couple of White-chinned Petrels, several Cape Gannets as well as Crowned Cormorant, African Black Oystercatcher and the only Grey-headed Gulls of the trip (the latter three species seen while the punters enjoyed the seal colony).
copious numbers of Cape Fur Seals Walvis Bay
Cape Gannet Walvis Bay
Obviously, there were a few larks about - managed to locate Gray's Lark in the stony desert east of Swakopmund salt pans and this Red-capped Lark was an enjoyable roadside bird.
Red-capped Lark between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund
We stayed in Swakopmund, and in the place we were staying, this vocal Southern Masked Weaver was busily tending to its nest.
Southern Masked Weaver Swakopmund
However, and I'm sure regular readers know this already, there was a good reason for me to visit Namibia. Hartlaub's Gull - a gull tick, nice and common too all along the coast. They didn't even need bread to be enticed but of course it helped...

1st-winter Hartlaub's Gulls
And the Kelp Gulls were superb and monstrous too!
adult Kelp Gull
1st-winter Kelp Gulls
So with our coastal jaunt completed, it was off back into the desert to see some cave art in Damaraland. And of course some more decent birding and mammals.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Irish interlude - Royally chuffed

Yesterday, Thursday 25th August, was spent in County Kerry. News of a Royal Tern last week in County Mayo made me sweat, but I wasn't able to go straight away what with just getting back from Namibia and A Level results day at school. Anyhow the bird had flown, and so it allowed me one less Royal Tern dip compared to the guys that went out there last week. Roll on exactly a week and the Kerry tern legend Davey Farrar was visiting Beale Strand - as he does regularly - and had one of those heart stopping moments. Having already found an Elegant a few years ago, having a big orange bill pop out wasn't perhaps as big a surprise for him though! Anyway, I was unable to go on Wednesday day so flew out late that night and was on site for dawn Thursday... just me and four Irish birders. A quick check of the point revealed little, and so I headed east to the next car park near Astee. And there, hobbling about in among the Sandwich Terns, was a whopping Royal Tern: -
Royal Tern Beale Strand, Kerry 25th August 2016
It really was a massive bird, and at one point in time as it flew over it actually spooked all the other terns for some reason. With a gammy leg and full black cap, this Royal Tern was the same as that in Mayo a week ago and lays to rest a species I've chased three times unsuccessfully in the past.
Royal Tern Beale Strand, Kerry 25th August 2016
I had a brief trip to Black Rock during the day too, where three juvenile Curlew Sandpipers and a couple of flag ringed Sanderling (from Greenland/Iceland - awaiting results) were nice to see. So all in all a very enjoyable day out of London!

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Namibia - Kulala Desert Lodge and the famous red dunes

Pied Crow at Sossuvlei
It took a little longer than expected to reach the area around Sesriem from Buellsport on 4th August. Though as we turned in to Kulala Desert Lodge, with the entrance track being upwards of 10km through stony and sandy desert, the birding and mammal watching began. This area was great, and I drove it a couple of times during our couple of days' stay, with the bird highlights being fantastic views of both Ludwig's Bustard and Ruppell's Korhaan as well as some more distant views of Temminck's Courser one morning: -
Ludwig's Bustard at Kulala Desert Lodge
Ruppell's Korhaans at Kulala Desert Lodge
Mammals too showed well on our entry with a small group of fairly cute looking Bat-eared Foxes swaggering across the road, as well as a couple of Black-backed Jackals along with the more common Oryx and Springboks.
Bat-eared Fox at Kulala Desert Lodge
Around the camp, birdlife was relatively sparse with just the odd White-backed Mousebird, Pale-winged Starling and Red-eyed Bulbul; having Ostriches mooch past was fairly novel though!
Ostrich at Kulala Desert Lodge
The first evening drive was pleasant, if not fantastic for wildlife. Though with plenty of Ostriches, Oryx and Springboks in the evening light I was happy enough: -
Springboks at Kulala Desert Lodge
Oryx at Kulala Desert Lodge
The following morning we'd booked a balloon ride over the dunes for first thing. It was really great, and one of those experiences that was worth shelling out for and we even got a champagne breakfast sitting in the dunes afterwards. Truly dudey and touristy, but there was a plan - Dune Lark! This is the only true Namibian endemic, and is restricted to the sandy desert in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. I didn't realise how easy they would be, and was extremely happy to find a handful of birds pecking about on the periphery of our breakfast area. Really nice birds too; skittish when approached quickly but they soon settled down to be nicely papped...

Dune Lark at Sossuvlei
Pied Crows enjoyed the action too, pecking at what they could get in this otherwise extremely arid environment.
Pied Crow at Sossuvlei
After chilling out during the middle of the day, I ventured out again for the evening into the same area I'd been the previous day. The undoubted highlight was this African Wild Cat: -
African Wild Cat at Kulala Desert Lodge
Our final morning here, August 6th, was all about the red dunes. We set off in the dark and into the Sossuvlei National Park where we had a climb of Dune 45 and then onto the somewhat eerie Deadvlei, where dead trees populate the sand. Predictably, the birdlife was limited here although Ruppell's Korhaans, Cape Sparrows, Familiar Chats, Pied Crows and a Pale Chanting Goshawk all showed rather nicely.
Cape Sparrow at Sossuvlei
We got back to Kulala Desert Lodge at around 11am, and after collecting our bags, we were on the road north towards the coast at Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. The whole Sesriem and Sossusvlei area was filled to the brim with incredible desert scenery - the best I've seen (and I've seen the Sahara in Mauritania, Morocco and Western Sahara), and would recommend it to anyone.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Namibia - from Windhoek to the dunes

After visiting Avis Dam early morning, and then having the first of many great Namibian breakfasts, we set off south from Windhoek and then headed west and into the Namib desert. The destination for the afternoon/night was Buellsport which, although on the map as a place, was literally the farm and guesthouse where we were staying! This was obviously our first full day, and was an introduction into how sparsely populated the country is.

Anyway, Karen had booked some horse riding for the afternoon so while she did that, I went for a long walk in the stony desert on a quest for Hartmann's Mountain Zebra. Predictably, I took the 6 mile long Zebra trail and thankfully it delivered: -
Hartmann's Mountain Zebra
In total, I saw a dozen of these vulnerable, range restricted beasts - a couple on the mountain ridge and then a group of ten grazing distantly. There was a bit of birdlife too, with White-tailed Shrike, Brubru, Sabota Lark, Karoo Chat, Black-chested Snake Eagle and a load of Sociable Weavers seen. Back at the guesthouse Pririt Batis and Yellow-bellied Eremomelas were common by our chalet. I also had to sort out a puncture that evening too, as driving on gravel/dirt roads for miles and non-off road tyres aren't an ideal combination.
Pririt Batis
The next day, before heading off west again, we had an early morning walk for a couple of miles where in the stony desert, I was able to eek out a bit of birdlife - a couple of Cape Buntings were nice, as was a group of Cape Penduline Tits and some more Crimson-breasted Shrikes. Monteiro's Hornbill and Common Scimitarbill were present in the woodland along the dry riverbed. Pale-winged Starlings were really common around the guesthouse too.
Cape Bunting
Pale-winged Starling
A small (and I mean small) area of water held a single South African Shelduck; miles from any other water, and in the middle of nowhere, I felt a bit sorry for this bad boy: -
South African Shelduck
After breakfast on 4th August, we set off towards Sesrium and Sossuvlei - Namibia's iconic red dune system. A short while down the road, a couple more Hartmann's Zebras were seen while as we neared our destination there was a bit of commotion by the roadside...
Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures on Zebra kill
These Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures were lapping up this zebra kill, and was a great African wildlife scene to watch for a while. I noticed a couple of the Lappet-faced Vultures were yellow wing-tagged, so hopefully should find out where they're from sooner or later. Other than that, the drive was filled by nice views of my first Springboks, Oryx and Ostrich. All good stuff!

Friday, 19 August 2016

Introduction to Namibia - Windhoek and Avis Dam

After an overnight flight on Monday 1st August, we arrived late morning in Namibia and went straight into Windhoek city centre - not much cultural bits to see thankfully. Bird wise there was just the odd White-backed Mousebird, so by late afternoon I'd convinced Karen to head to Avis Dam 'for an evening walk to keep us awake'. Anyway, she evidently knew it was a birdy place and so I set about my business...
Southern Fiscal Avis Dam
As I started picking up my first Namibian birds - stuff like Blue Waxbills, Cape Wagtails, Pale-winged Starlings and Fiscal Shrikes - the sun was going down all too quickly, and I had a lot less time than I had expected. Though the African Palm Swifts and Rock Martins were busy whizzing about, all the other passerines had shut up shop.
Blue Waxbill Avis Dam
So, after a great meal that (somewhat hypocritically) involved Kudu, Springbok and Oryx that night, I headed back to Avis Dam the next morning and experienced loads more birds during the first African sunrise of the trip! I think I woke up this sleepy Rock Kestrel: -
Rock Kestrel Avis Dam
Avis Dam is just a couple of km outside Windhoek, and from reading tour reports, seems to be where most groups/visitors go to first. And there is a reason why with the gaudy looking Crimson-breasted Shrike being common, lots of Yellow and Black-throated Canaries, Cape Glossy Starlings, Monteiro's and African Grey Hornbills, smart looking Kalahari Scrub Robins with loads of Short-toed Rock Thrushes, White-browed Sparrow Weavers, Marico Flycatchers, Familiar Chats and Mountain Wheatears. Though Avis Dam is a site for Rockrunner, I didn't really try too hard for it - knowing I would have a site where it was easy later in the trip. Just nice to get a feel of the common birds for starters.
Kalahari Scrub Robin Avis Dam
Crimson-breasted Shrike Avis Dam
White-browed Sparrow Weaver Avis Dam
Black-throated Canary Avis Dam
Marico Flycatcher Avis Dam
The dam itself was dry, with a solitary Egyptian Goose the only waterbird. This was to be the start of a trip full of aridity, surface water shortages but a country still full of birds and great birding. One of my most enjoyable trips to date - with the combination of some good mammals too. So after Avis Dam, we left Windhoek and drove south and then west to Buellsport where we stayed for the night of 3rd August...

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The day I flew to Namibia...

Admittedly old news now, but on Sunday 31st July I was sat in the London Guildhall celebrating my mate's wedding. Pretty safe season birding wise, although these days the big birds seem to drop whenever (usually when I have prior commitments!). Anyway, there was news of a Purple Swamphen at Minsmere RSPB - potentially a new British bird?

To be honest, I reckon a fair few people were stung recently with the acceptance of the Chinese Pond Heron. What this meant was a more 'glass half full approach' to this bird, with little skepticism about the bird's origins from the birding fraternity - with a recent scattering of birds in France, with one recently in the extreme northwest and nine extralimital records since April, there was also decent circumstantial evidence for wild origin. Added to this, the overall bluish toned plumage meant it was of the nominate Iberian/European race too; unlike the usual escaped poliocephalus 'Grey-headed' birds.

Despite flying to Namibia early evening, I decided to dawn raid Minsmere on 1st August and look what was plonking about in the early morning haze...
Purple Swamphen Minsmere RSPB, Suffolk 1st August 2016
Nice bird, great to be up and about at one of Britain's best wildlife reserves at the crack of dawn. I had actually seen a Purple Swamphen in Britain previously - in Cumbria in 1997; it cost me an Ivory Gull (which I still needed at the time) and I must admit that the origins (and race) of this bird were never properly determined. With the new breed of BOU decision making - a combination of pseudo-science and mere opinion - I doubt it'll be more than a couple of years before this Suffolk record gets the green light. Happy days!

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Namibia quick update

Just a quick update on the first week here in Namibia. We've been here since Tuesday, travelling south and west from Windhoek into the Namib Desert and then up onto the coast to the Walvis Bay/Swakopmund area - so far a night in Windhoek, a night in Bullsport then two nights at Kulala Desert Lodge and then here in Swakopmund. If you like aridity, deserts, wide landscapes and a distinct lack of people then this is a decent place to come. The South Atlantic midwinter rollers aren't too shoddy either. This isn't a hardcore birding trip, but I have managed to squeeze a bit in along with some mammal viewing: -
Dune Lark - Namibia's only truly endemic species
Ruppell's Korhaan
Ostrich
Pied Crow
Kalahari Scrub Robin
Hartmann's Mountain Zebra
Black-backed Jackal
African Wild Cat
Oryx
Springbok
And of course what trip of mine wouldn't be complete without some of these: -
adult Kelp Gull