A Flying Visit To Namibia During The Biggest Twitch In 2008

Namibia does stunning scenery and birds - a fantastic destination!

It felt liberating to be heading for an airport with hand luggage only! We were off for a very quick visit to Namibia to grab some great birds before we left Africa and headed for Oz.

As we were returning to Cape Town before heading to Australia we could leave most of our gear at our friend Christian’s place in Cape Town, and travel light for a change.

We boarded the tiny plane that would take us north along the wild western seaboard of Africa to Walvis Bay on the desolate Skeleton Coast of Namibia. As we neared our destination, the clouds melted away and we could look down on the famous red sand dunes that stretch along the remote and forbidding coast.

Our little aircraft bumped down hard on the tarmac, and we taxied close to the small chalet-style arrivals building - if only all international travel was like this! Our hire car was waiting outside and within minutes we were on our way down to the shallow lagoon at Walvis Bay. This was our second visit here and we had really loved our first Namibian experience back in November 2006. Arriving at the seafront, we were a little disappointed to see the tide was a long way out. It had never occurred to us that this might be a problem. Our last visit had been at an easy pace and if the tide was out, then no worries, we would wait for it to come back in. No such luxury this year, we had a tight schedule to follow and no time to stand and stare. We bombed along the coast road, south, scanning as we drove. Then we saw them: two tiny Damara Terns hovering over a creek flowing across the vast mudflats. Phew! It looked like all the other terns had been sucked out of the lagoon with the receding tide, so we were very happy to score these two. Similar in size and build to our Little Terns back in the UK, the Damara’s have all-black bills and a solid black cap with no white forehead. There were plenty of waders tempting us far out in the distance but there was no time for these. We were off heading north, fast.

We had time for a brief stop, though, to look at amazing spectacle of the huge wooden guano platforms, and to scan the cormorant colonies. These massive wooden structures had been constructed just offshore to provide nesting areas for seabirds. Their droppings were then collected and used to make fertilizer. They looked like giant four-legged bird tables out in the sea and were totally covered in birds, not only the cormorants, but also Great White Pelicans, Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls and Great-crested Terns.

On again, and at Swakopmund we turned inland leaving the dunes behind and took the Kalahari Highway east. After a long, hot drive we eventually turned north onto a gravel road and slowed the pace so we could look for birds. We quickly picked up a pair of Ruppell’s Korhaans, our main target bird along this stretch. It was now late afternoon and we needed to look for some accommodation in this remote area. We reached the rather drab town of Usakos and cruised the streets to assess the options. It was soon clear they were very limited: the Bahnhof Hotel or nothing. It looked grim and the only parking seemed to be on the street - never a clever idea in an African town - but beggars can’t be choosers so we went in and enquired about a room, a chance for Ruth to practise her German. As it turned out, the Bahnhof Hotel was better on the inside than out, and even had a secure parking lot round the back. The best thing about the place was that it wasn’t far from where we wanted to bird in the morning: Spitzkoppe.

Dawn saw us amongst the huge, weird rock formations at Spitzkoppe. A flat gravel plain with sparse vegetation surrounded these massive, rounded rock faces that rose from nothing, stretching up to the huge sky. As the sun crept up, the weirdly jumbled rocks took on an orange glow which slowly faded as the brightening sky behind them turned cobalt blue. Soon it would be very, very hot. As the sun warmed the cliffs, Bradfield’s Swifts left their roost and spiralled up into the sky.

We needed to find our birds and quickly but try as we might no sign of the endemic Herero Chat. This was a bitter blow as we had missed this species on our previous visit, and we had hoped to correct that dip. We trudged around in the thorn scrub at the base of the rocks but no, we just could not find our bird. White-tailed Shrikes did show off, however. A family party of these charismatic, upright, piebald birds with lovely pale-yellow eyes bounced around from rock to rock. With no other birds and no other people around, the magic spirit of this place crept over us and we soaked up the scenery.

As we left, a lone tree threw a tiny patch of shade onto the parched desert floor and there in the shade stood a panting Burchell’s Courser. The poor bird was being plagued by masses of flies crawling over it. What kind of a life was this: baked by the sun and covered in flies, how grim, but a great bird.

We headed next for Orongo Wilderness Lodge, a wonderful place that we had fallen in love with on our last visit. Not having booked accommodation for the night as we had wanted to be flexible, we thought we should check out the nearby town of Omaruru in case the lodge was full. We were surprised to see a good few signs advertising various places to stay; it looked like to would be easy to find somewhere to stay, should we need it. Knowing we had a plan “B” if necessary, off we went to Orongo.

The lodge lies hidden on the far side of a steep rocky ridge, so we were collected by a 4x4 truck and driven the last mile or so to the lodge. Our little hired Toyota Corolla was not up this rough track! Sadly, our fears were confirmed: the lodge was fully booked, so we would be sleeping back in town. Ruth joked “Shouldn’t be a problem getting a room. Can’t see there being a festival down in Omaruru!”

From what we had seen of it, the town didn’t look a buzzing place, that’s for sure.

As it was still baking hot, we sat in the shade of the restaurant overlooking the water drip. We knew from our previous visit that this tactic could pay off in the heat of the day. We didn’t have to wait long. A gang of gorgeous Rosy-faced Lovebirds, cute and endearing little parrots, soon flew in and drank greedily, new bird. Next up was a flock of Black-throated Canary, again the water proving the draw for these streaky finches.

At last, the temperature began to drop from the high of 39 degrees C in the shade! We ventured out and searched the area around the lovely chalets scattered around the boulder fields in this orange-coloured moonscape. Ashy Tit soon showed, and we watched a pair feeding on large caterpillars in the thorn trees right above the path. Our most-wanted bird here was a little more elusive but after just over an hour’s searching, a movement amongst some rocks caught our eyes. We stood stock still and waited. Up it leapt: a Damara Rockjumper, also known as Rockrunner, and what a cracking bird! Orange below and brown above with streaked breast, it was a bird with attitude as it leapt about the boulders, sometimes showing off and then vanishing before our eyes, only to pop up again like some magic act!

With some great birds under our belt, we drove back to town as the light quickly faded. Dusk is very short in Africa. The first B&B we tried was full. Guess what? There was a festival on! Now, what were the chances of that? The town was full of foreign exchange students, and it took ages to find a place that would take us. Even then we had to be very persuasive. They did have a room but with so many teenagers staying on the premises, they had their hands full. We promised not to be any trouble and we had our room though, we had to wait an age before supper was served.

We were back at Orongo at dawn, but now we had a problem: the entrance gate was firmly padlocked. We hadn’t reckoned on that! But no problem, we had a plan. Christian had told of us of a dry riverbed beyond the entrance which we had planned to bird later. Why not try it now? We soon found the spot; it looked promising with tall trees alongside the river of sand. We walked the riverbed and soon heard some bird calls. Following the noise; we found a roving band of Southern Pied Babblers! These are cool birds, mostly white with dark wings. They are highly social birds, calling to each other constantly and moving restlessly through the trees. Target bird in the bag, we headed back to Orongo.

The gate was open now, but no-one was in sight; looked like we would be walking up. But this proved to be a very good move. Not far up the slope we had great views of Damara Rockjumpers just a few meters away. Then there was a movement in the scrub above us. We quickly focused our bins on the spot, and there was a Hartlaub’s Francolin creeping surreptitiously uphill, looking very guilty and hoping we could not see him! But we could, and through the scope we had a very good view indeed of this highly-prized bird. As we reached the crest of the hill, we tried playing a tape for Barred Wren Warbler. Instant success: a male popped up and showed off atop a small thorn bush. This was a great morning.

We reached the lodge with just one more species on our shopping list: Short-toed Rock-Thrush. As we neared the restaurant we heard voices. They sounded familiar. Surely not? Here in Namibia? But, oh yes, the voices were familiar all right: Chuck and Nancy Bell were having breakfast just round the corner. Chuck and Nancy had been on our Ethiopia tour back in February and now here they were in the wilderness of Namibia! It was very strange meeting people we knew, but it was painful listening to Chuck as he told us of his Herero Chat sighting at Spitzkoppe the previous day. How had we missed it?!

But it wasn’t all bad news. They had seen the rock thrush that very morning and Chuck took us the spot. Sure enough, there was the male Short-toed Rock-Thrush singing away on a pinnacle in the morning sun, a stunning bird. Shopping done, we gave Chuck our birding notes from Christian as we had to head for the airport now, and we wished them good luck in their search for the babblers.

But we were not completely done with birding. On the way to Windhoek for our flight back to Cape Town, we picked up Chestnut Weaver, Sociable Weaver and a lovely pair of Double-banded Sandgrouse right next to the gravel road.

Our year list now stood at 3,310 species for 2008. Australia was next, and a shot at the world record! We couldn’t wait!

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