BOTW: African Darter

My Bird of the Week this week is the African Darter, a common bird seen along Zambia’s rivers and dams.  It dives for fish, spearing them with its long sharp bill.  Unlike many other water birds, it does not have any oil on its feathers so it is not very buoyant.  This helps it to be able to dive underwater quickly but is a hindrance when it comes time to fly.  The darter, like other birds in its family, often sits in the sun with its wings out in order to dry them.  If its wings are wet, it will not be able to fly well. 

These two pictures show a darter which we accidentally startled along the Kafue River.  The darter had to spend a great deal of effort to get out of the water and into the air because its wings were soaked and it had not had time to dry them properly.



The second picture shows one of the common features of the darter: its long, curved neck.  The darter is sometimes called the snake-bird because it often swims with just its long neck and head out of the water, resembling a snake. African Darters are very similar to the North American Anhinga.  Anhinga is the name of the family and genus of both of these birds.  The word anhinga comes from the Brazilian Tupi language and means devil or snake.


Something I had never paid attention to before was that darters have some slight sexual differentiation.  The female has a pale brown throat, but the breeding male has a brighter, rufous throat with a white stripe down it. With its handsome black and white plumage, it is truly another beautiful bird.


Bird of the Week: Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove

Unlike in my last BOTW, where I hardly ever saw the Collared Palm-Thrush except in my yard, I usually see this week’s Bird of the Week everywhere except in my yard.  You don’t have to go very far out of the city to hear or see an Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove but even though my old house was just on the edge of Lusaka, I never saw any of them there.  I only had to go a few more kilometers North before I started seeing them though, and they are quite common on virtually any trip to a national park or out into a village in the bush.

I suppose you wouldn’t find them in a plains area, but there is a lot of woodland and savannah here in Zambia which is their preferred habitat.  I have been on many game drives in Kafue National Park where they fly up in front of the vehicle by the dozens all along the road.

It is when the fly up that you get a good look at their wings.  Overall their body looks kind of greyish brown but their wings when they fly are a beautiful deep rufous.  Though it is hard to get a picture of one flying, fortunately sometimes they don’t scatter too far and you can get some good pictures if you aren’t driving too fast.


Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove 


In the first picture the wing spots just look dark and this is what they will look like most of the time but in this second picture you can see the way the green spots on the wings are actually iridescent in the sunlight which is where their name, Emerald-spotted, comes from.  Another beautiful bird!

Trip report: Kafue National Park

Mushingashi Conservancy

A few weeks ago we made a trip to the Mushingashi Conservancy which is just outside of Kafue National Park.  This area is known as a Game Management Area which means that hunting is allowed and it was obvious that this was more of a hunting camp than a tourist lodge.  The animals (and birds) were what we were there  to see though so we didn’t mind much.

Jonathan informed me at the beginning of the trip that it was NOT a birding trip.  It was a family trip and only birds that everyone found interesting were on the docket.  This meant no stopping to id the lbj’s  or really for any birds at all. Jonathan only birds the bcb’s – big or colorful birds – (but I knew that I could squeeze some birding in between game drives.)    The trip started off on excellent footing for me as the birder in the family when we came across a bustard in a field about 15 kilometers past the town of Mumbwa.  It was a Denham’s Bustard and I had only ever seen one once before so I was pretty excited.   I managed to convince Jonathan to stop and get some pictures for me and we watched it for a little while before we decided we had to move on. My day had already been made, and we hadn’t even arrived yet!


Upon entering the conservancy there is a nice marshy area with some small ponds and we saw some water birds there including these Wattled Cranes.


We also got some nice shots of a black crake who was trying to hide in the vegetation but was at least fairly close to us.  (This was definitely straining Jonathan’s definition of big or colorful, so he was getting a bit impatient to move on, but nevertheless got some good pics for me.)


We have often gone to Kafue N.P. on our vacations so going to the conservancy was a bit of a divergence but Mushingashi did not disappoint.  The water birds were abundant and also one of the highlights for me was the bird parties that often wandered through camp, especially in late morning just as we were getting back from our morning game drive.  Some of the great birds that wandered through camp included:


Black-backed Barbet,


and Southern Black Tit.  As usual the birding in Zambia is excellent and all in all I counted up 79 species which is not bad for a non-birding trip.  Along the way, we also managed to snag a few mammal sightings so here are the best  of those as well as a bonus:


We came across a few lions.  This male and a female made an attempt at a bushbuck but it got away.


There were plenty of hippos; this one was quite unhappy with our presence so we kept our distance and decided not to linger.


Of course there were plenty of antelope, this mother hartebeest with her calf was a highlight.


All of the above, plus plenty of time to relax by the river and enjoy the beauty of Zambia.

Bird of the Week: Collared Palm-Thrush

This week’s Bird of the Week is a good example to me of an interesting phenomenon regarding my and perhaps others’ perception of how common a bird is. In some ways, I think that the Collared Palm Thrush has taught me the meaning of “Locally Common,” which is the status assigned to it according to my field guide.  For three years I saw these birds daily in my front and back yards.  I became quite familiar with them and rather took them for granted. 

Once on a bird walk at a local farm with the ornithological society there were some folks making quite a big deal about seeing a Collared Palm-Thrush and I really could not understand it.  Based on my experience at the time (the fact that they were in my yard), I had thought they could be found everywhere. 

It was only after I moved to a different house in a nearby suburb, that I realized that they are not, after all, found everywhere.  Despite the fact that there are palm trees in many of my neighbors’ yards,  I do not see or hear any of these thrushes in my new suburban yard, which is only a few kilometers from my old yard. I am pretty sure that the only times that I have seen these birds was on that one walk and in my old yard.  I don’t recall seeing it on any other trips to the bush or in any other suburban areas. 

Collared Palm Thrush (2)

Collared Palm Thrush (1)

Palm-Thrushes depend on some sort of Palm tree for breeding, thus their common name. This is apparently more for nest-building reasons than for food.  According to Trevor Carnaby’s Beat About the Bush: Birds, they eat mainly insects and other invertebrates but are omnivorous, occasionally eating fruit and other plant material.  

Hyphenae and Borassus palms are two of the palm trees listed as suitable habitat for this bird. (Palm tree photos from Wikipedia)

Collared Palm Thrush (5)

I liked this photo that Jonathan took at the water-tower near our yard.  This Palm-Thrush appears to building a nest and seems to be quite choosy about his material.  I found it interesting that he would prefer some sort of colorful synthetic material over more natural materials. I don’t know why that would be but at any rate it made a nice photo. Another beautiful bird.

Nice surprises

It was a nice morning today.  The weather is starting to warm up a little in Lusaka so I decided it would be nice to go outside and drink my coffee on the porch. It seems that the birds were also enjoying the warmer weather. Even before I sat down I was hearing some interesting sounds coming from the yard, a low chuckling sort of call. Right away I was able to spot two Schalow’s Turacos who were making the chuckling sound from one of our eucalyptus trees. I hadn’t seen them near the yard in months, though perhaps it was because the cold mornings had been keeping me inside.


As I was enjoying the beauty and antics of the turacos, another large bird started moving about in the tree.  I thought it was a third turaco based on the size (all of the birds had the sun behind them so my views were not great) until it landed and then I realised it was a hawk.  Turns out it was a Cuckoo-Hawk and there were two of them as well. Perhaps they were the same ones that started a nest in that same tree last year.  They appeared to be checking out the same nest site. 


Here he is perched in the eucaplyptus tree and you can just see the back of what I assume is his mate at the top of the photo sitting at the old nest site. (His eye is reddish brown and when you blow up the photo you can see that the female on the nest has yellow eyes.)

And here he is in the next tree over with the morning sun on him.


Some nice surprises on a beautiful morning.

Camping in Lochinvar N.P.

After a bit of a long drive from Lusaka which included road construction and an unexpected detour we arrived at Lochinvar National Park and made our way to the campsite at Chunga Lagoon, stopping on the way for a late lunch at Gwisho hotsprings. Lochinvar is a great place to go birding. The water birds are abundant and there is also a good variety of other birds in the scrub and savannah in the drier areas of the park. On our drive in we were treated to plenty of birds: a Striped Kingfisher


and a Long-billed Crombec


were some of our better shots.

While Leslie, our guide from Lapwing Safaris, set up camp, we checked out the lagoon, walked around and explored a bit, but the sun sets pretty early, so we enjoyed the beautiful sunset over the lagoon and soon enough it was dark and we sat around the campfire for dinner.


First thing in the morning we had a quick breakfast and then started in with the birding.  The variety of water birds is amazing.  This picture of the lagoon near where we camped, shows four different birds just near our side of the shore. The dark bird on the left is an African Open-Bill, the tallest bird is a Saddle-bill Stork, the closest is a Little Egret and the bird on the right is a Grey-headed Gull.  In the far distance on the shore you can see many blurry “blobs” which are mostly all birds of various kinds although there may be a lechwe or two as well.


At the lagoon, the terns and gulls were quite busy.  Two of the terns were lifers for me – the Caspian Tern and the White-winged. Here is a picture of the Caspian. At one point some of our group “may have seen” a slaty egret fly over head but as for me, I barely got a glimpse.  Not sure if I am ever going to get another chance at it.


While we were checking out all the birds at the lagoon, many others would fly overhead.  These Crowned Cranes flew over both mornings but they didn’t land near enough for us to find them again so we were never able to observe their beauty and grace in more detail.IMG_4236

Later on we explored the surrounding savannah both on foot and in the vehicles.  We didn’t have to go far to find some really great birds.  Though it wasn’t a lifer for me, we did get a really good look at a beautiful Luapula Cisticola, a tiny bird  that was hunting around in the plants near the shore. Later on Leslie heard a White-browed Scrub-Robin and was able to spot it for us.  This one was a lifer for me.


After lunch I had thought to lay down for a bit of a rest, and did not realise the others had gone off on another walk.  The next thing I knew, Leslie was calling me.  Now, Leslie is a great guide and I knew he wouldn’t be calling me for no reason so I quickly answered and started getting my shoes on.  One of Leslie’s many great qualities as a guide is that he pays attention to even casual comments you make about what birds you would like to see or what would be a lifer for you.  In this case, they had spotted a Burnt-necked Eromomela and he knew that it would be a new bird for me.  The Eromomela stuck around long enough for me to catch up with the group and we were able to watch the little guy for quite a while. I always enjoy these types of little woodland birds that seem so cheerful as they are busy flitting about in the trees. (So busy they are hard to get good pictures of!)


Total number of birds for me on this two-night trip was 106, though others saw more. Seven of them were lifers for me and one a new Zambia tick (a Yellow-billed Hornbill, previously seen in Zimbabwe.)  Other lifers for me not mentioned were  Desert Cisticola, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark, and a Lanner Falcon. My final assessment of Lochinvar however is not about the lifers but about enjoying the abundance of birds and the quiet of the Bush.  I don’t know if I will ever find a place for birding that is more enjoyable than Zambia.

Bird of the Week: Long-crested Eagle

I have lots of favorite birds.  One of them is the Long-crested Eagle.  I tend to especially like birds that have a unique or unusual look and this bird definitely meets the criteria.  This was another bird that I saw in the book but thought I would never have a chance to see in real life.  I first saw one when visiting friends in the Copperbelt of Zambia which is in the north, but then I found one on a walk, just a kilometer from our home on the outskirts of Lusaka. Since then I have seen a few different ones and thus discovered that they are relatively common.

Lately I have been seeing one on my way to work, very near where I used to live, and I often wonder if it is the same one that I saw three years ago in that same vicinity. When I drive to work, I often pick up a co-worker who is walking and I pointed the eagle out to him.  He asked me what it ate and I had to admit that I wasn’t sure. I only had a general knowledge that most birds of prey would eat small mammals and some prefer reptiles.  According to Wikipedia this one eats mostly shrews and rodents.  The area where this one has been perching is over a swampy sewage pond near farmland which is their preferred habitat according to the field guide: “woodland, plantations, and forest edges, especially near water.”

The pictures were taken in Kafue National park. The first one clearly shows the long crest which gives the eagle its name. I also love how it shows his talons which look quite formidable. I like the second picture for showing the white wing “windows” which are present on the upperwing and how much white is in the underwing, despite their plain brown appearance when perched. Another beautiful bird.




Photos by Ian Hoad.