Birding in Zambia: Chamba Valley

The birding in Zambia has been enjoyable of late.  I have been frequently seeing the Long-crested Eagle both on my way to work and then Wednesday evening she showed up in my yard.  Where I live now compared to where I work is about five kilometres as the crow flies so I think it is possible that it is the same bird.  They do look the same, with their crest being about the same length, (I have seen birds with lots longer crests than this one.) The short crest and brownish, not white, leggings indicate this bird is a female.

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Here she is where I spotted her in a tree just outside our yard.

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Later she flew into one of our eucalyptus trees.

Also this week, an out of town friend asked if I had a free morning to go birding, and it just so happened that I did.  The problem birding around Lusaka is that as far as I can tell, most of the land is privately owned, so it can be tricky finding places to go.  The ornithological society often gets permission to visit private farms.  There is one private farm that allows visitors for a fee but it is tricky to get to and I do not have good directions.  Other than that, there is one public park called Lusaka Forest Reserve off of Leopard’s Hill Road and I hope to visit it again sometime as we saw some nice birds when we went with the Ornithological society in April.  However, again, without good directions I did not feel comfortable driving there myself so I decided to take Amit to my old stomping grounds, where I knew there were some good birds.  This was the campus where I used to live in Chamba Valley, and also to Mutumbi Cemetery in Chamba Valley.  And we did have some good viewing.  At my old campus I saw two birds that I had never seen there before.  One of them was this gorgeous Grey-headed Bushshrike – my only good picture of the day.

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The other new bird for that area for me was a Black-backed Barbet which greeted us immediately upon our arrival.  We arrived around 6:15 AM and the birds were all very busy and noisy so our first hour was quite exciting.  The mousebirds and the Paradise Flycatchers in particular were very busy and we enjoyed many good views of them.

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As we were getting read to leave and head to the cemetery, Amit asked about going to check for the Palm-Thrush one more time.  Just as I was about to say yes, a bird flew into the tree just above us.  I thought maybe it was “just a bulbul” but we checked it out and it was our elusive Collared Palm-Thrush!  What a great ending to that section of our morning!

We drove on to Mutumbi Cemetery which is gated but by nature, it is open to the public.  Once past the cemetery there is some good woodland and scrub where you can walk around a bit.  Here we got a good view of a White-browed Scrub-Robin but I was not fast enough with the camera to get a picture.  We also saw a small flock of European Bee-Eaters but they were too high for a good picture as well.

Other good sightings included a Black-shouldered Kite, Willow Warbler, a female Red-thraoted Twinspot, Long–billed Crombec and a Thick-billed Weaver, which I have seen there several times in the past. 

We left around 9:30 and headed to a couple other nearby spots but it was already getting hot by then and the birds were no longer as active so we called it a day rather early, but all in all we had a nice morning outing with quite a few birds that I rarely get to see.  Nice!

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Just a bulbul

If you go out birding in Zambia with me  for even one morning, chances are you will hear me say this magic phrase, “Agh, just a bulbul!”  It’s true that I could possibly be accused of being a bulbul hater.  Dark-capped Bulbuls are one of the most abundant species of birds in Zambia and they live in just about any habitat including suburban yards, even very close to downtown.  Any small patch of green space with a few trees or shrubs is likely to have them.  Maybe you are out for a morning of birding, whether you are near to Lusaka, or in a remote national park.  You may see what looks like an interesting bird fly past and land nearby. Upon closer inspection, however, agh, just a bulbul. 

It’s not that bulbuls are particularly ugly, or have any bad habits.  It is just their sheer numbers that renders them contemptible.  Actually they are a relatively handsome bird, with their dark head, slight crest and yellow vent. Also in their favor, they can be quite bold and sometimes allow you to take plenty of close-up photos and even posing for you.  Consequently, we have quite a few decent photos of bulbuls.  Maybe, I was out in my yard trying to get a decent shot of that different sunbird or the barbet that I only see every few months or so.  And of course who will come and land close by but a bulbul.  Why not?  Snap, snap.  The barbet is nowhere to be seen at this point anyway.  So, the bulbuls are always there to keep you company when there is no one else more interesting to look at.

So with these good qualities in mind, here is my tribute to bulbuls, and I will try not to be so annoyed with them on my next birding outing. After all, it is not their fault that they are so abundant and adaptable.

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This first shot is taken of a bulbul on my compost pile – I know, lovely, right?  But it shows how bulbuls have a very wide variety in their diet.  This may be why they have managed to become so abundant.  Like raccoons back home, they are not afraid to be near people and they eat almost anything.  I have seen bulbuls catching insects as well as eating fruit such as guava.  In the compost pile, maybe they are eating rotten fruit, or possibly the insects that are attracted to it. 

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Bulbuls sing all day long.  Usually their song sounds like some variation on “sweet, sweet potato.”  As their bold personality would suggest, they are also often eager to make a fuss over predators such as snakes, hawks, owls and others. 

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Bulbuls often sit together like this in pairs and you often see them flying together from tree to tree, sometimes seeming to chase each other, while other times it appears to be a friendly interaction. In Trevor Carnaby’s Beat about the Bush: Birds, I learned that the male is larger than the female and that they form long term bonds, so this is undoubtedly a mated pair.

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I thought this last picture really sums up the bulbul personality, bold and curious.  Perhaps they are not beautiful, but they are, at least a handsome, bird.

All in a Day’s Work

Mom and Dad Golden Weaver care for their little ones.

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Baby chicks in the nest.

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Mom brings a snack.

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And another, and another.

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While Mom is busy feeding the chicks, Dad is busy keeping his eye on a pair of Senegal Coucals who may or may not be interested in eating the babies.

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He valiantly puts up a fuss and the pair of coucals move off.  Just another busy day at home for the nesting weavers.

Birding in Zambia: Miombo Woodland

We took a morning trip to some Miombo Woodland off Leopard’s Hill Rd. near Lusaka with Leslie of Lapwing Safaris.  Eventually this tract of land will be carved up into plots and who knows what will happen to the woodland at that point but for now it is a lovely spot to go birding.  We managed to see lots of the miombo specials that can be tough to find, and had a really enjoyable morning walk. 

One bird I have been especially keen to see is the Spotted Creeper.  It is fairly similar to the Brown Creepers that I used to enjoy in our backyard in Ohio and this was one reason I was wanting to see it.  Up until now, the Spotted Creeper has eluded me, and it is no wonder with their amazing camouflage, but today was definitely the day for creepers.  We probably saw several pairs of them, though it was hard to tell how many were different. They definitely seemed to be all over the place and not particularly shy. We had many, many good views and a few photos came out okay as well.

So, here is a picture of a spotted creeper. (I couldn’t resist, showing this. Obviously, they are pretty well camouflaged!)

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Same picture – cropped:

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And here is one that came out a little bit better:

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Other Miombo specials we saw inluded: Miombo Rock-Thrush,

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Yellow- bellied Hyliota,

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White-breasted Cuckooshrike,

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and also, Miombo Grey Tit, Green-capped Eremomela, and Souza’s Shrike.  Lifers for me for the day included the Spotted Creeper, an African Golden Oriole, a Red-capped Crombec, and this gorgeous Giant Eagle Owl.

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After we spotted this owl from the back, we wanted to go around to the other side of him to get a better view, so we had to be  very careful not to disturb him or the other birds would mob him even worse than they already were.  We slowly worked our way around the tree keeping our distance and ended up with this great view.  Another great morning, birding in Zambia!

Bird of the week: Red-faced Mousebird

There are six species of mousebirds found in Africa and they can not be found on any of the other continents.  Mousebirds are not closely related to any other birds so they form their own order: coliiformes.  Mousebirds have a habit of creeping along branches in trees and thickets resembling mice or other rodents and this is where they get their name.  They tend to live in groups and I often see them quite close to each other like this group of five that we saw at Blue Lagoon N.P..

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Red-faced Mousebirds are the only kind that we find in southern and central Zambia but there is one other species in the north, namely the Speckled Mousebird. Their habitat is listed as thornveld and open, broadleafed woodland, as well as suburban gardens.  When I see them they are often in the low, thick bushes such as bougainvillea and lantana.  Often they can be hard to see since they like to stay inside the bushes and cling to the branches, but sometimes they come out into the open.image

The other day, Jonathan sat out with his camera and got a few photos.  First the mousebirds started a group preening session.

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Then they started grooming each other.

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Recently I was asked by a friend why I enjoy birds so much.  Was it their beauty, their songs, their colors, what?  It is all of those things, but it is also the fact that there is so much variety and so much to learn about birds.  There is always something new and interesting to learn.  When I was looking at the pictures that Jonathan took and I saw this next one, it looked like this bird was eating the leaf.  For a minute I actually doubted what was clearly happening because I had never heard of birds eating plants or leaves before.  They eat insects or seeds, fruits, nectar, and in the case of raptors, lizards and mammals.  Not plants, or so I thought.

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“[Mousebirds] are. . .omnivorous birds, eating insects, small millipedes and plant material. Urocolius indicus  [Red-faced Mousebird]  in particular eats a great deal of fruit, leaves, buds, flowers, nectar and similar material,”  quoted from Gordon Maclean’s Robert’s Birds of Southern Africa.  There are only a few birds that eat leaves, mainly because they do not contain enough energy.  There is a whole blog post about it here. One more interesting thing is that birds that eat plants often do not fly well, since plants are heavy and more of them need to be eaten by weight as compared to insects or fruit.  Red-faced Mousebirds are a good example of this since you don’t see them flying around much but rather, they often just glide from tree to bush.  Of course they can fly, but they don’t much.

This final picture is my favorite.  The mousebirds are generally grey, but this picture shows the bird with a sort of  greenish tinge and then the typical buffy areas on the chest and face.  It seems to me to be almost the exact color of the lantana leaves when they are covered with dust as they are just behind the bird.  Perfect camouflage!  With its long tail, short crest and striking face mask: another beautiful bird.

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Saving the best for last

I recently wrote about our birding/camping trip to Lochinvar N.P. but I deliberately saved the best sightings for last.  On our last day, after we had packed up camp, we were “birding” our way to a nice lunch spot when Leslie stops the vehicles, gets out and says, “This looks like a good spot.  Let’s go for a little walk.”  I have no idea what made this particular spot look good, but we had not gone twenty feet hardly when we flushed a barn owl out of a nearby tree.

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He hung around for a while and let Jonathan get some good shots of him.

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He moved around a bit, as if trying to get away from us.  We seemed to be disturbing him a bit so we moved on.

We hadn’t gone far when we flushed another bird, this time a Mozambique Nightjar, and we had practically stepped on it. In fact there were four of them and once one had flushed, they all got nervous and flushed a few different times.  It almost felt magical as we walked through that area as the nightjars would flush randomly, fly almost straight up about 15 feet in the air and then drop back to the ground in a different place.

They are practically impossible to see when they sit still, even at only ten feet away,  so you have to watch carefully where they land in order to find them.  With five pairs of eyes to watch, we had good luck spotting them once they landed. When our group stopped moving, the nighjars settled down as well and we were able to get some good views and photos. 

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This first picture hopefully shows how hard the nightjars are to see.  Even this picture is quite zoomed in and then cropped.  You can probably find him, but it shows their camouflage well. (Photo by Leslie Reynolds.)

 

 

 

Below is the same photo, cropped even further so that you can see the beautiful details and camouflage on this guy.

Photo by Leslie Reynolds

Unfortunately all the flushing had attracted the attention of a nearby hawk – I think it was a Gabar Goshawk but can’t remember for sure – and one of the nightjars had to take flight to avoid being caught.  We watched for some time as the nightjar flew higher and higher with the hawk following.  Eventually another hawk also joined the chase, and then they flew too high for us to see them.  We are not sure but we think the nightjar may have escaped.  We had settled down to eating lunch a little ways away, thinking we were far enough not to disturb them any further, but again the nightjars began flushing up from nearby.  And again there were four of them.  Of course we are unsure if this were perhaps a different group or the same group with a fifth member that we were unaware of earlier.  When they settled down again, Jonathan got some nice photos of this one which had ended up on some comparatively bare earth.

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There’s a saying in ChiTonga, “Abota mapepe akaya kuli lukumba,” which means, “What beautiful feathers the nightjar has.”   The saying is literally about nightjars which are rarely seen during the day, but instead hide their beauty from others by being active at night.  Figuratively,  the saying is used to refer to someone who has some talent that they are hiding instead of sharing it with the community. We were happy the nightjars (and the owl) didn’t hide their beauty from us this day.  They were two  of  the best sightings that we had had, and a great way to end our birding weekend.