Herero Chat, one several localised species we see on the tour. Photo: Steve Rooke
Namibia has everything going for it as a great wildlife destination. First of all is the place itself – Namibia is blessed with some stunning scenery which we sample right from the start in the south of the country at the famous Sossusvlei, home to the iconic bright red dunes of the Namib Desert. These are best appreciated at dusk or dawn when the low sun throws up those famous curving shadows. We then cross the huge Namib-Naukluft to the Skeleton Coast to visit Walvis Bay and the quaint seaside town of Swakopmund, teeming with hundreds of thousands of birds, before heading inland to the towering domed rocks of the Erongo Mountains. From there we move on to the classic African backdrop of Etosha National Park and finish the tour on the Waterberg Plateau.
Secondly there is the rich and varied wildlife which we’ll encounter along the way. Namibia has many species restricted to Southern Africa and while only one, Dune Lark, is an endemic others such as the Herero Chat can only be found here or in Angola. Then it has a superb array of mammals, most of which are concentrated around the wonderful Etosha pan where we spend four days. All this combined with an exemplary infrastructure – the roads are great, all the accommodation comfortable, the food delicious, and a friendly welcome everywhere we travel - to present a truly satisfying wildlife holiday.
Despite all this, Namibia remains something of a hidden gem in terms of birding tours and our short tour is designed to show you the very best the country has to offer.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Windhoek, via Johannesburg.
Day 2: After clearing the airport and checking into our hotel, we should have time for some birding locally. There are a selection of sites close to our accommodation which provide a great introduction to the birds of Namibia. Acacia Pied barbet, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Pririt Batis, Black-chested Prinia, Chestnut-vented Tit Babbler and Southern Masked Weaver are all possible before dinner. Night near Windhoek.
Day 3: Before breakfast we’ll look close to our accommodation for one of Namibia’s special birds, Rockrunner and during our outdoor breakfast we may be distracted by Short-toed Rock Thrush, Carp’s Tit, Familiar Chat and Bradfield’s Swift. We’ll then start our journey south and should soon see massive Sociable Weaver nests, clinging to roadside poles and trees, and some may have the tiny Pygmy Falcon in attendance. Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks will also be using the roadside poles as a convenient lookout perch while other raptors could include Black-winged Kite or the mighty Martial Eagle. Monteiro’s Hornbill, Rufous-crowned Rollers, Southern Anteater-chat, Common Fiscal (of the local ‘white-browed’ Latakoo form), and Chat Flycatcher should be some of the obvious species, and groups of passerines could include White-browed Sparrow Weaver and lots of Lark-like Buntings.
Our destination is a working guest farm at Namibgrens which is perched on the edge of the Khomas highlands, close to the famous Spreetshoogte Pass, a gateway to the vast Namib Desert and the perfect base from which to explore the area. Night at Namibgrens.
Day 4: We’ll start the day birding the grounds of the farm where Groundscraper Thrush, Karoo Scrub-robin and Crimson-breasted Shrike are all possible before breakfast. We then drive through the Spreetshoogte Pass where from the top we can gaze across the immense Namib-Naukluft wilderness stretching away towards the coast. The Pass should give us a variety of birds from smart Augur Buzzard to stunning Bokmakierie, and Scarlet-chested and the tiny Dusky Sunbirds. It is also one of the traditional sites to see Herero Chat, a bird that is restricted to Namibia and neighbouring Angola. This distinctive flycatcher uses the small acacia trees as a look out but can at times be remarkably difficult to locate, although its Golden Oriole-like call often gives it away.
Moving on we’ll stop to look for some other species, which we may only see in this area such, as Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. This dry country is good for larks and we should also see Stark’s, Sabota, and Karoo Long-billed Larks today and we’ll also hope for a sighting of the impressive Ludwig’s Bustard. We’ll pause at Solitaire, an isolated and quirky outpost where a small bakery is famous for its delicious apple pie. The trees surrounding the buildings can be a good place to see Rosy-faced Lovebirds coming to drink at dripping taps as we defend our apple pie against Cape and Great Sparrows and Cape Starlings! Although we are in a remote part of the country, Sossusvlei is one of Namibia’s big tourist attractions – it is here where you can see those huge brick-red sand dunes that adorn the guide book pages. We aim to visit the dunes in the afternoon when the crowds have mostly dispersed. It is then that the low light creates dark curving shadows that contrast with the deep red sand forming endless photo opportunities. There are also of course birds to look for and this will be the first of several chances to look for the endemic Dune Lark, plus Common Ostrich, Rüppell’s Korhaan, Greater Kestrel and Mountain Wheatear. Night in Sesriem area.
Day 5: This morning there may be more time to search for more new birds including Secretarybird and Karoo Chat, as well as stately Gemsbok, the most common ungulate in this area. Driving again via Solitaire, whilst we refuel and stock up on water, there may be a chance to see if the apple pie production is consistent and then embark on a drive across the Namib-Naukluft, a huge national park the size of Switzerland that takes us through the oldest desert in the world. This is a drive to sit back and take in the slowly unfolding landscape which takes us through more dramatic passes and past dark inselbergs before the landscape levels out as we near the coast.
Birds are not numerous here but there are two in particular that we’ll look for. The striking pale Namib form of Tractrac Chat lives out in this harsh environment and can appear as an almost pure white bird sitting on some low vegetation. It shares this environment with small flocks of Gray’s Larks which scurry over the sand in search of seeds.
We should reach the coast and the seaside town of Walvis Bay in the afternoon and after checking in to our hotel, we’ll take our first look at the lagoon. One thing is certain – there will be lots of birds – tens of thousands of them in fact, but how close they might be depends on the tide. Immediately obvious are the pink Lesser Flamingos stretching to the horizon, with smaller number of Greater Flamingos in amongst them, and very large flocks of Cape Cormorants constantly streaming up and down the lagoon. Less numerous will be the noisy African Black Oystercatchers, while Great White Pelicans can often be found right up on the boulevard that borders the lagoon. Night at Walvis Bay.
Day 6: The extensive salt pans at Walvis Bay are a great place for birds. Driving along the convenient roadways that separate the pans it is hard to escape both species of flamingoes, but they will be mingling with hordes of Cape Teal, Pied Avocets, and a mix of early migrant waders such as Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Red-necked Phalarope, Curlew Sandpiper, and Little Stint. Around the edges of the pans there will be White-fronted Plovers dashing back and forth and we’ll look through these to pick out Chestnut-banded Plover, a dapper African wader typically found on salt pans. Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls are always present, along with large Swift and Caspian Terns, which dwarf the local speciality, Damara Tern, a small tern often seen diving for tiny fish in the salt pans and out on the main lagoon.
If we have not yet seen Dune Lark we have another chance near Walvis Bay, and there are also some great places to see Gray’s Lark as the strip of desert that runs inland behind the coast is much to their liking. We may also travel up the coast to Swakopmund to search for Bank Cormorant, and explore places around Walvis Bay for Red-faced Mousebird, Orange River White Eye, and African Reed Warbler. And being on the coast it would be a crime not to sample the delights of the local cuisine so we’ll take dinner one night at a local seafood restaurant. Night in Walvis Bay.
Day 7: Today we leave the coast and strike inland. If we still haven’t seen Herero Chat then we’ll make a detour to visit Spitzkoppe, a gigantic inselberg that rises out of the plain. Other species in this area include Pale-winged Starlings, Rosy-faced Lovebird and Layard’s Tit-babbler, whilst Verreaux’s Eagles float overhead.
Our final destination today is the Erongo Mountains. Our lodge is located amidst some superb habitat – a wonderful mixture of scrub and mature trees woven in and around the smooth red rocks. There are some special birds here and in particular we hope to see the rare Hartlaub’s Francolin, whose strident calls echo around the rocky habitat at dawn, and the smart White-tailed Shrike, a striking black and white bird that is restricted to Namibia and parts of Angola. As darkness falls the barking calls of Freckled Nightjar start to fill the air and we stand a good chance of seeing the birds as they flit around the lodge lights. Night in Erongo Mountains.
Day 8: We’ll have a pre-breakfast walk around the lodge grounds. As well as catching up with Hartlaub’s Francolins, there should also be Red-billed Francolins here, and Green-winged Pytilia, White-browed Scrub Robin, and Black-faced Waxbill to name a few.
Setting off once more we follow the roads north towards Etosha – one of Africa’s great wildlife destinations. Etosha – the Great White Place – is a magnificent national park. At its centre lies the massive baked salt pan that gives it its name. Some seventy miles long, this shimmering expanse is dry most of the time, only receiving a thin cover of water after significant rain. However, this impressive natural feature is surrounded by a rich habitat of savannah, mopane woodland, and open grassland, all of which are alive with birds and animals. Dotted through this are a series of waterholes that provide an essential lifeline for the wildlife, and a unique viewing opportunity for the visitors.
This national park is huge, covering some 8800 square miles, so to see all that it has to offer we’ll divide our stay between the Western, Central, and Eastern section. We begin in the west and today’s drive takes us across Damaraland to the western end of Etosha and we’ll arrive at our lodge in time for an afternoon game drive and our first chance to see some of the areas abundant mammals. Giraffe should be immediately obvious towering above the trees and we have a very good chance to see our first African Elephants. There will be lots of antelope ranging from the huge Eland to the tiny Damara Dik Dik, and with so much prey around, a sighting of a Lion or Spotted Hyena can also be expected. We’ll also take part in a night drive here in the hope of seeing some nocturnal wildlife. Possible species include Aardvark, Aardwolf, Bat-eared Fox, the strange Spring Hare, White-tipped Mongoose, and Small-spotted Genet, while night birds could include Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Spotted Thick-knee or Rufous-cheeked Nightjar. Around the lodge we may encounter Little Sparrowhawk, Damara Hornbill, or Madagascar Bee-eater. Night around western perimeter of Etosha.
Days 9 - 10: We’ll take an early breakfast and then leave our lodge to take a slow drive towards the heart of Etosha. Our drives out on the plains can provide us with a wonderful variety of encounters. On the areas of open grassland we’ll be looking for Kori Bustard, Helmeted Guineafowl, Temminck’s and Double-banded Coursers, Red-capped, Spike-heeled, and Pink-billed Larks, Capped Wheatears, Desert Cisticola, Rufous-eared Warbler, and African Pipit. Overhead the open skies are the domain of the park’s many raptors and we’ll be looking for both Lappet-faced and African White-backed Vultures, Tawny Eagle, and Bateleur.
These plains will also be home to large herds of Springbok, Blue Wildebeest, Warthog, and Burchell’s Zebra, all of which will join other species at one of the many waterholes. Watching over an active waterhole is fascinating. As well as the previously mentioned animals, groups of African Elephants often spend long periods wallowing in the cool water, and groups of elegant Black-faced Impala and beautiful Greater Kudu nervously creep around the edges – nervous as a pride of Lions could appear at any moment – while the Giraffes are more confident as they attempt to get their heads down to the water. One of the real stars here can be Black Rhinoceros, and although after dark is best for these shy mammals we may see them in the daytime seeking shade from the intense sun. Black-backed Jackals seem to be everywhere and it is not unusual to find groups of Spotted Hyenas coming to the waterholes as well. Birds also need to drink. At some of the more open waterholes the morning air is filled with the distinctive calls of Namaqua Sandgrouse, flights of which are constantly coming and going. These birds are always very wary when drinking, as indeed they should be with the attendant Lanner Falcons always on the lookout for a meal. Occasionally the abundant Namaqua Sandgrouse are joined by the much rarer Burchell’s Sandgrouse, their reddish colour and lack of tail streamers helping us separate them out. Many Cape Turtle and Laughing Doves will join the throng, as will the common Grey-backed Sparrow-larks and perhaps a few Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks. Waders are also attracted to the pools and most will have some resident Kittlitz’s Plovers in attendance, while it’s not unusual to see a Hamerkop stalking the water’s edge.
The mosaic of savannah, scrub and woodland of Etosha is criss-crossed by numerous tracks that gets us close to many of its birds. Lilac-breasted Rollers can allow a close approach and both Red-crested and Northern Black Korhaans creep around the small bushes and can often be found on the roadside, while the bushes hold a variety of birds such as African Grey and Southern Red-billed Hornbills, Long-billed Crombec, African Barred Warbler, Burnt-necked Eremomela, and Southern White-crowned Shrike. On one day we’ll take lunch at Okaukuejo which boasts a fine waterhole where we can spend time sitting, cold drink in hand just watching what comes in. Nights in central Etosha.
Day 11: We now move to the eastern part of Etosha, and our drive there will take in more waterholes along the way. We’ll also stop at another lodge to search the grounds for the distinctive Bare-cheeked Babbler, another bird found only in Namibia and Angola. This lodge is also usually home to a resident Barn Owl and a tiny African Scops Owl, both of which we hope to see at their daytime roosts, and we could also find Violet Wood-Hoopoe and Black-backed Puffback here.
From our eastern base we will undoubtedly have many repeat encounters with the birds and mammals that have entertained us over the past few days. However, there will be new things to look for as we search for Swainson’s Francolins, Red-necked Falcon, Shikra, Gabar Goshawk, Yellow-billed Hornbills, Meyer’s Parrot, Rufous-naped Lark, Black-faced Babbler, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, and Scaly-feathered Finch to mention a few. Night near Namutoni.
Day 12: Taking our reluctant leave of Etosha, we begin our return journey towards Windhoek. However, before we reach there we have one final place to visit, the renowned Waterberg Plateau. This dramatic and very prominent feature rises some 700 feet out of the eastern plains. We’ll arrive in time to spend some of the afternoon birding this unique region, with one species in particular, Rüppell’s Parrot high on our list. This attractive bird, a near-endemic, can be found feeding on the seed pods of tall acacia trees around the lodge. Other birds we may find in this rocky habitat include another chance of Hartlaub’s Francolin while Golden-tailed and Bennett’s Woodpecker, African Hawk Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon all possible. Night near Waterberg Plateau.
Day 13: We’ll spend the first half of the day looking for birds and mammals around the plateau, and then set out on the drive back to Windhoek where we’ll spend the night.
Day 14: There may be some time to look for birds around our lodge before we transfer to the airport to connect with flights back to London where the tour ends on Day 15.
Updated: 22 August 2016