MALAWI

If you don’t want to miss out on some won­der­ful sights, then con­sider this lovely African coun­try for your next bird­ing trip

Bird Watching (UK) - - World Birding - WORDS: DO­MINIC COUZENS

It was late af­ter­noon at a guest house in one of Africa’s less well-known cap­i­tal cities, Li­longwe. I was sit­ting op­po­site my guide, Abasi Jana, re­view­ing the day’s bird­ing with cup of tea in hand. The last of the sun­light twin­kled on the gar­den pool and a gecko roused it­self from slum­ber to scut­tle across the wall. Our at­ten­tion was caught by a small bird in one of the gar­den shrubs. “Col­lared Sun­bird,” called Abasi af­ter the briefest scan with his binoc­u­lars. “That’s a new one for the day”. He was right, it was yet an­other. Much as I al­ways think it’s rude of a new bird to ap­pear when you are ac­tu­ally tal­ly­ing your day-list, this in­tru­sion was, in a way symp­to­matic of the happy pro­fu­sion we had ex­pe­ri­enced in the last few hours. Col­lared Sun­bird was species 109, on a cur­tailed day – we hadn’t even started at dawn. Malawi, you might say, was show­ing off. Per­haps, though, it needs to. This small repub­lic in south-cen­tral Africa, a third sub­merged un­der the epony­mous Rift Val­ley lake and its south­ern half sur­rounded by Mozam­bique, is far from a fa­mous bird­ing lo­ca­tion, seem­ingly out­shone by the sa­fari cen­tres of neigh­bour­ing Zam­bia and Tanzania. Yet it punches above its weight bird-wise, 650 species cram­ming into a coun­try smaller than Greece, ow­ing to a rar­efied mix of dif­fer­ent habi­tats and high num­ber of lo­calised species that make even hard­ened Africa-philes sali­vate. As to this open­ing salvo of birds, it hap­pened that we had seen most of them in rel­a­tively un­usual cir­cum­stances – in miombo wood­land, a well-de­fined habi­tat made up from mod­est-sized trees with­out much un­der­story, on poor soils. Miombo hosts a pro­fu­sion of birds, but see­ing them can be far from a dod­dle. Suc­cess de­pends en­tirely on find­ing roam­ing bird flocks that come and go as they please. At Dza­lanyama For­est Re­serve there’s 100,000 hec­tars of the stuff, plenty in which to hide. In the end, it took all of 15 min­utes to find our first flock. Just be­yond the en­trance gate, Abasi stopped the car and de­clared “Pale-billed Horn­bill”. A scramble led us to a clear­ing and a great view of this de­cid­edly scarce species; it was perched re­splen­dent on a tree­top and mak­ing a sound like a very pan­icked Green Wood­pecker. Within sec­onds we were dis­tracted by move­ment in the green­ery a few me­tres away at eye level, and were amazed to see one of Dza­lanyama’s most sought-af­ter species, a Souza’s Shrike. In con­trast to our own shrikes, which are gen­er­ally birds of open ar­eas, this small grey and olive-brown shrike spe­cialises in feed­ing low down in the shade of the wood­land, mak­ing it easy to over­look. Souza’s Shrikes ha­bit­u­ally join bird parties and, sure enough, the sun­lit canopy was soon alive with flit­ting shapes. This is al­ways a thrilling spec­ta­cle, elic­it­ing a whole­some mix of ex­cite­ment and panic, and here in the heart of Africa, ex­otic names came thick and fast – Yel­low-bel­lied Hyliota (like a colour­ful Pied Fly­catcher), Green-capped Ere­mo­mela (yel­low­ish, war­bler-ish), Black-eared Seedeater (spar­row-like) and African Par­adise Fly­catcher (caramel brown, op­u­lent long trail­ing tail). My note­book was hot for half an hour, be­fore the feed­ing party ghosted out of sight. “Good start,” I re­marked to Abasi. “Stier­ling’s Wood­pecker!” he replied, eyes fixed be­hind me. This was an­other “mega”, hardly found any­where else in the world. It looks like a cross be­tween a Great Spot­ted and a Green Wood­pecker, with a bold black stripe through the eye,

and two of them pecked away at close range, ad­ja­cent to a plain-faced Car­di­nal Wood­pecker. The wood­peck­ers were part of a new flock, and we were rapidly im­mersed again in shift­ing shapes. Sev­eral species, in­clud­ing the hylio­tas, had dis­ap­peared, while new ones ap­peared such as South­ern Black Fly­catch­ers – no flock in miombo wood­land is ex­actly the same. The va­ri­ety kept up: we clocked the scarce and smart Ru­fous-bel­lied Tit (African tits are lan­guid crea­tures, seem­ingly robbed of the fam­ily ef­fer­ves­cence by the heat), plus Black­throated Honeyguide, the bird that leads peo­ple to bees’ nests and waits for the comb to be ex­tracted as its re­ward. Flock three turned up about 40 min­utes af­ter that (with one of my favourites, Spot­ted Creeper, one of the few land birds that in­hab­its both Africa and In­dia), and flock four just be­fore lunchtime (with Vi­o­let-backed Star­ling, a bird of sali­vat­ing gor­geous­ness). By the time we were set­tling into what was packed-lunch enough for eight, it seemed we had seen al­most ev­ery top qual­ity bird – ex­cept one. “We should see Anchi­eta’s Sun­bird by the dambo,” Abasi re­as­sured me. But I was twitchy. You see, Anchi­eta’s Sun­bird is, to Malawi, what a com­pletely gor­geous ac­tress or ac­tor might be to a film – worth the en­tire spec­ta­cle. I re­mem­bered see­ing the plate in Birds of Africa de­pict­ing this gem, years be­fore, and tak­ing a sharp in­take of breath. The bird has a glit­ter­ing blue head and a bril­liant yel­low breast, but it looks as though some­body has taken a dag­ger to the lat­ter and there is a splash of vivid crim­son flow­ing down the front. The dambo, a wet area within the for­est, de­liv­ered, of course, with a male sun­bird in a flow­er­ing protea. And this be­ing Africa, a habi­tat shift of­fered an­other spike of new species, in­clud­ing Scaly-throated and Pal­lid Honeyguides, Flap­pet Lark and, pre­sum­ably em­bar­rassed by the plen­i­tude, both a Red-faced Crombec and a Red-faced Cis­ti­cola (tiny war­bler-like birds). De­spite the won­ders of miombo wood­land, to many bird­ers the big­gest joy of Malawi is in its re­main­ing patches of high­land for­est. Con­ti­nent-wide, this is now a very scarce habi­tat, and the feath­ered gems as­so­ci­ated with the Afro-mon­tane biome seem to be di­min­ish­ing by the day. You could ac­tu­ally see this at two of our next des­ti­na­tions, on the Zomba Plateau a few hours south of Li­longwe and fur­ther south at Thy­olo, where the veg­e­ta­tion is al­most com­pletely de­nuded, leav­ing only rem­nant patches to hint at the riches of the past. We saw a num­ber of wood­cut­ters even dur­ing our short visit to Zomba. Ad­mit­tedly, it does make for­est bird­ing eas­ier, and over the next few days we caught up with al­most all the spe­cial­i­ties, in­clud­ing such sought af­ter species as Bar-tailed Tro­gon, Whites­tarred Robin, African Broad­bill, Square-tailed Drongo and a host of so­cia­ble, thrush-like birds called green­buls, which are be­witch­ingly dif­fi­cult to iden­tify. We also scored a hat-trick of gor­geous mini-finches: Red-faced Crim­son­wing and both Green and Red-throated Twinspots, each of which has white dots on the un­der­parts. Sev­eral in­hab­i­tants of these forests are rare even within Afro-mon­tane biome, and are cur­rently con­fined in this small cor­ner of Malawi and neigh­bour­ing Mozam­bique. Ar­guably the two big­gest stars are the colour­ful White-winged Apalis, a small, long-tailed canopy species with bold

yel­low, black and white col­oration, and the Thy­olo Alethe, which is a chunky, over­sized Robin-type bird that feeds on or just above the for­est floor, lap­ping up its favourite food, ants. The tri­umph for us of find­ing the lat­ter species was tem­pered by the fact that some of its more as­sertive prey found their way up our trouser legs and ef­fected a se­ri­ously painful bite. An­other favourite, al­though slightly more widely dis­trib­uted, is the Green­headed Ori­ole, which I ac­tu­ally spot­ted be­fore Abasi (equiv­a­lent to get­ting the ball off Lionel Messi once in five days). An­other species to make South­ern African bird­ers go weak at the knees, this ori­ole has, as you can guess, a moss-green head and man­tle. Malawi’s high­est moun­tain is Mount Mu­lanje, an in­sel­berg ris­ing from the sur­round­ing 700m plain, with sev­eral peaks top­ping 2,500m and one, called Sapitwa peak, at 3,002m. Here there is enough lux­u­ri­ant for­est to give you hope that some of the Afromon­tane spe­cial­i­ties will sur­vive. We spent an in­tox­i­cat­ing af­ter­noon ob­tain­ing mag­nif­i­cent views of Sil­verycheeked Horn­bill and a lit­tle fly­catcher­type gem known as a Blue-man­tled Elminia, while Scarce and African Black Swifts rode the up­drafts on the cliffs high above. What a place! There could hardly be a greater con­trast be­tween the high moun­tain forests and our next lo­ca­tion, Li­wonde Na­tional Park. Ly­ing on the plain next to the Shire River that drains Lake Malawi, it pro­vides a dose of what any tourist would think of as “wild Africa”. Only 540 square km in area, Li­wonde apes its host coun­try in minia­ture by en­com­pass­ing a net­work of dif­fer­ent habi­tats, in­clud­ing marshes, sa­van­nah and a type of tall wood­land known as mopane. Within this rich mix, game an­i­mals are ev­ery­where in­deed, from the restau­rant of my ac­com­mo­da­tion, the lux­u­ri­ous Mvuu Lodge, you could see Water­buck, Bush­buck, Im­pala and Warthogs ev­ery time you glanced up from your ice-cold beer. (At night, we saw a Pel’s Fish­ing Owl from the din­ner ta­ble, a com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence here). The river froths with Hip­pos, liv­ing in one of the high­est den­si­ties in the world. To­gether with a more than healthy pop­u­la­tion of Nile Crocodiles, and 900 ele­phants, this is not a place to go swim­ming, or in­deed wan­der­ing off. The rich­ness of Li­wonde ex­tends to its birds, with more than 400 species recorded in this rel­a­tively tiny area (one of the high­est to­tals in south­ern Africa). This means that you can hardly go any­where with­out see­ing a glit­ter­ing away of colour­ful, iconic and – fre­quently – un­usual birds. For ex­am­ple, you can en­joy such African sta­ples as bee-eaters, rollers, wood­hoopoes, horn­bills, weavers and sun­birds around the camp, while you’re en­joy­ing a cup of tea, or on a short day­time walk (a treat in wild Africa). But you can hardly avoid com­ing across de­lights such as Böhm’s Bee-eater, a small, dainty species that frol­ics around the chalets here, but is ac­tu­ally pretty rare ev­ery­where else in the world. On the boat trips to en­joy the Hip­pos (and the ele­phants, which of­ten swim across the Shire River), it is quite easy to see African Skim­mers and White-backed Night Herons. The many palm trees host Dick­in­son’s Kestrels and Red-necked Fal­cons, and the mopane wood­land just drips with birds, in­clud­ing rar­i­ties such as Lil­ian’s Love­bird (a tiny par­rot) and Racket-tailed Roller. The va­ri­ety is daz­zling, and in­deed we again saw 100 species in a sin­gle day here. Malawi is fab­u­lously rich in wildlife, safe, gen­uinely friendly and small, mean­ing that the dis­tances be­tween sites are eas­ily man­age­able. The only thing that Malawi seems to lack is vis­i­tors – and they are miss­ing a treat.

With thanks to: Cen­tral African Wilder­ness Sa­faris (cawsmw.com) and Malawi Tourism.

A wealth of great wildlife can be en­joyed in Malawi, in­clud­ing Hip­pos White-backed Night Heron im­age­bro­ker/alamy

Spot­ted Creeper View from the Zomba Plateau Racket-tailed Roller African Par­adise Fly­catcher Afripics.com/alamy Jo­evo­gan/alamy FLPA/ALAMY

Mount Mu­lanje – a bird-rich habi­tat Sil­very-cheeked Horn­bill Pel’s Fish­ing Owl F1on­linedig­i­talebilda­gen­turgmbh/alamy

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