TRIP REPORT: NAMIBIA – 2019 December – Desert & Etosha

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Trip Report by Debbie Beer; photos by Adrian Binns

Pre-trip / Friday November 29 – Windhoek to Swakopmund

Deb and Adrian arrived a few days ahead of the group, for a short pre-tour along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast before the official birding trip began. We departed Thanksgiving morning on a non-stop, 15-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, and arrived in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia, the following day. After clearing customs, changing dollars into rand, and watching the obligatory safe-driving video from the rental car company, we were finally on our way around 1:15 pm.

Namib Desert at Swakopmund

Our goal this afternoon was to reach Swakopmund before dark, driving approx 400 kms west to this coastal city. We made good time on the tarred highway, hardly slowing for a troop of Chacma Baboons and a small warthog on the edge of the highway. The long drive featured the beautiful desert landscape of central Namibia. Arid rocky plains were dotted with small hardy shrubs, with occasional mountains rising up in the distance. We saw a pair of Southern Giraffes, a pair of Ostriches, and a few Lappet-faced Vultures clustered around something – likely a carcass.

Monteiro’s Hornbills and Laughing Doves flew by; Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes perched on fences. A lovely Rock Kestrel posed on a tower, followed by several Pale Chanting Goshawks.

We reached Swakopmund with stomachs growling and just enough daylight to see gulls and terns circling over the waterfront, and note some of the interesting attractions of this popular town. We checked-in to our lovely unit of the Moringa Apartments, and walked 3 blocks to the Fish Deli for a freshly-caught meal. Fish was always a delicious choice along the Namibian coast!

Pre-trip / Saturday November 30 – Swakopmund to Cape Cross

We awoke early to pack up and drive a few blocks to the Cornerstone Guest House for a hearty breakfast. We detoured briefly to the nearby jetty to see a porpoise, a seal, and a number of Cape Cormorants, Hartlaub’s and Kelp Gulls, Cape and House Sparrows, and domesticated Helmeted Guineafowl looking for tourist handouts on the green.

Perinquey’s Adder

At 8:00 am, we were picked-up by Douglas, the leader of our pre-booked “Living Desert Tour” of Namibia’s spectacular coastal sand dunes. For the next 4 hours, our small, international group trekked in a comfortable 4×4, learning and discovering how small animals adapt to the harsh desert environment. Douglas shared a wealth of information, while tracker Grant found remarkable creatures for us to see and photograph up close:  Fitzsimmon’s Burrowing Skink, Perinquey’s Adder (sand viper), Namib Dune Gecko, and 2 good-sized Namaqua Chameleons, one of whom was quite old and shedding it’s skin in large, itchy-looking sheets. Many of these reptiles burrow into the sand by day to keep cool, escape predators, or find food that may be doing the same. Constantly-blowing wind moves seeds and plant material for miles, often settling at the lee side of dunes. Such piles serve as “beetle muesli” feeding more than 20 species of beetles, their larvae, etc. The food chain never stops, in the ever-thirsty desert. We spotted Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, Dusky Sunbird, Barn Swallow, and our first Damara Tern – a near endemic species that breeds in the gravel pans adjacent to the coast. Our rugged vehicle traversed prescribed tracks through striking yellow sand dunes, and pebbled plains dotted with dollar shrubs and tamarisk trees along the underground riverbed. We marveled at the beautiful landscape, marred only by a few permitted off-road vehicles. Doug described everything with thorough knowledge, humor, and passion.

We said goodbye to our hosts at the Cornerstone, and continued northwards, after stopping at the grocery store for lunch and snacks, and the African arts square to haggle with locals for wooden carvings and batik cloths.

About 6 kilometres north of Swakopmund, a saltworks factory sprawls over many acres of land along the coast. Hundreds of Lesser and Greater Flamingos forage in large pools, while hundreds of thousands of Cape and White-breasted Cormorants preen and pose on iron structures. We spent more than an hour enjoying a variety of species, including Pied Avocets, Black-winged Stilt, White-fronted Plovers, Little Stint, Damara and Great-crested (Swift) Terns, Sandwich Terns, a lone Eurasian Curlew. We reluctantly moved on from this spectacle, continuing up the coast. We made a brief roadside stop to photograph the Zeila, a rusting old fishing boat that wrecked right off the coast in 2008. Hundreds of Cape Cormorants perched on the structure, as waves pounded against the broken ship.

Perched on the edge of the ocean, the town of Hentiesbaii offers precious amenities to a growing number of vacationers and fishermen. We filled up with petrol, as there are no other gas stations for many miles. About 35 kms further, we reached the Cape Cross lodge, our home for the next two nights. Attractive rooms are set around a small museum of whaling history and bones, and a lovely restaurant serves meals just yards from the ocean. We spent the sunset hour walking along the beach, watching cormorants, Sandwich Terns, Kelp Gulls, and a few Cape Wagtails. About a dozen dead seal pups decayed on the sand, surrounded by bleached bones from hundreds more who died near their birthing grounds. The unique landscape of ocean, desert, and distant mountains felt vastly empty and magically mesmerizing. We savored dinner and a relaxing evening with the crashing waves lulling us to sleep.

Pre-trip / Sunday December 1 – Skeleton Coast National Park

We got up at first light, hoping to spot a jackal or rare Brown Hyaena scavenging on the beach. We were thrilled when a Black-backed Jackal trotted past our view, carrying something in its mouth, no doubt a piece of seal pup carcass. Two additional jackals were moving around the area.

At breakfast we watched the now familiar assortment of Cape Cormorants, Sandwich Terns, Kelp Gulls, Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings. A Subantarctic Skua cruised past us, chasing a tern.

Following a hearty breakfast we began our day trip driving northwards along the coast into the Skeleton Coast National Park. We were grateful that Namibia’s infamous coastal fog did not shroud us this morning, and the unique landscape was visible for many kilometers on long straightaways. Rocky arid plains expanded to the edge of the ocean, pocked by jagged boulders and scrub vegetation. Fresh water is scarce, and mostly underground, but hardy, slow-growing succulents find sustenance from fog moisture.

Within an hour we reached the “Ugab gate” at the southern side of the Skeleton Coast National Park. We purchased the inexpensive entry permit, and soon passed through the “skull-and-crossbones” gate. The only other entrants were fishermen in large 4×4 vehicles loaded with rods, firewood, camping gear, and spare tires. They are seriously dedicated to their sport, spending ample time and money to load-up on gear, drive long distances, navigate off-road tracks, and park on the edge of crashing waves to fish the Namibian coast. They zoomed past us, though we did pass one unlucky group changing a tire. Fishing, birding… it’s good to have a hobby!

Remains of the South West Seal along the Skeleton Coast

We stopped several times to ogle mesmerizing moonscape surroundings with golden dunes as a backdrop. A little ways beyond the Ugab gate, we pulled off to look at the South West Seal. Stranded in 1976, the wreck was mostly buried in sand, though enough corroded metal parts were visible to make it interesting. A giant bleached whale bone sat nearby, a stark reminder of the harsh life along the aptly named Namibian Skeleton Coast.

Farther up the road, we briefly detoured to Haub Lagoon, where a surprising amount of water flowed to the ocean. It was quiet, except for a Familiar Chat, and a dozen terns flying together – Great-crested (Swift) and Sandwich.

The landscape changed continuously, with mountains, dunes, and gullies rising and falling to the east, and gravel plains spreading everywhere. Sands shifted in infinite shades, reflecting a variety of metal composition – yellow, red, green, gray, turquoise, slate blue, brown and black. Some rocks were small and jagged, others smooth and low. Vegetation varied, usually small bushes that grew atop sand mounds. Multiple jackals crossed our path along the drive, some posing quite close to the road for photos.

We reached Torra Bay by late morning. This milestone on the map was simply a campsite for fishermen. It bustled with a surprising number of vehicles, tents, and people – far more than we’d encountered – but we passed by quickly as there was nothing notable, and zero amenities. Just north of here, the Uniab River spreads into a delta before reaching the ocean. No water was visible, but underground channels fed stands of lush reeds, and vibrant green shrubs. A small herd of Springbok foraged on the lush plants, and a lone Damara Tern flew over the road, looking for a suitable nest site on the plains.

We arrived at Terrace Bay, the end of the road, by noon. Formerly a small mining operation, the compound is now owned by the Namibian government and operates as lodging, food, fishing, and fuel for fishermen or any intrepid travelers. This is the farthest north that vehicles can travel in Skeleton Coast Park. Sites north of here to the Angolan border are accessible only by plane. The compound was quiet and mostly empty, though we saw some rooms open and a few people walking around. The restaurant was closed, so we ate our picnic lunch on a bench overlooking the waves, joined by a few Pied Crows eyeing our cheese and grapes.

We reversed course and drove the long salt road back to the gate. We made better time, stopping only briefly for the few birds we managed to see – three White-fronted Plovers crossing the road, and a Tractrac Chat. Checking out at the gate (it’s good they keep track of the tourists), two Cape Crows bid farewell from the building roof.

The final leg back to Cape Cross went smoothly on a more improved (though not tarred) road. Just before the lodge entrance, we decided to take a track inland, to more closely examine fields of lichen. These fragile organisms blanket acres of plains, showcasing a variety of colors and textures. It was an interesting stop, topped-off by sightings of a Springbok and jackal.

Tea and cake back at the lodge was a welcome refreshment after driving hundreds of kilometers. We watched the sunset from the lodge deck, savoring a full day of unique desert experiences.

Pre-trip / Monday December 2 – Cape Cross to Windhoek

Cape Fur Seals at Cape Cross

We awoke to the sound of ceaseless waves rolling against the shoreline – a wonderfully soothing sound, just meters from our balcony. We checked out after breakfast and drove to the nearby Seal Reserve, where we waited a bit for the gates to open a few minutes after 8. A long winding entranceway led to a spit of land jutting into the ocean. A massive colony of Cape Fur Seals live here, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. We could hear and smell them before they came into view. This is the birthing season, and thousands of mewing baby seals added to the din of adults grunting, barking, and growling. The huge animals lolled in clusters, spread out as far as the eye could see – on the sand parking lot, over a low stone wall, even on the fenced-in boardwalk. They generally lumbered out of the way as we approached, though many lunged with snarling, sharp teeth. We witnessed two live births, and evidence of many other recent ones, with fresh after-birth sacs and bloody piles scattered around. Dead seal pups lay everywhere – a fact of life in such a huge colony; research indicates that up to a third do not survive their first days. We understood why Cape Cross is the best place in Namibia to see Black-backed Jackals; at least a dozen trotted around, their bellies full. Hundreds of Kelp Gulls moved among the animals, feasting on the dead. It was sad but fascinating to observe, photograph, and video the seal nursery. After an hour, we were ready to leave.

We headed south to Henties Bay, where we filled the gas tank, then east on Route D1918 towards Windhoek. The gravel road traverses the dry, desolate Dorob National Park. We drove 30 minutes before seeing another vehicle, and half-wondered if we were on the wrong road (we weren’t). It took about 1.5 hours to reach Spitzkoppe, where huge rock mountains rose up from the desert. We saw a few birds on the western outskirts, including 3 Double-banded Coursers, Chat Flycatcher and Tractrac Chat. We decided to enjoy our picnic lunch inside the park, at a cluster of empty campsites. The birds also knew this was a good place to eat, and flew in close eyeing our food. Pale-winged Starlings boldly hopped up on our table, hoping for a handout. White-browed Sparrow-weaver, Black-fronted (Red-eyed) Bulbul, Long-billed Crombec, Monteiro’s Hornbill and Damara Red-billed Hornbill all showed well. A Rock Kestrel hunted the crags high overhead.

Spitzkoppe

Finally it was time to head to Windhoek, still 3 hours away. On our way out, a Yellow Mongoose ran across the road, flashing its white-tipped tail. Several kilometers on, we pulled over for a beautiful White-quilled Bustard (Northern Black Korhaan), standing in a rocky field. It flew as we stopped, giving us great looks at unique wing patterns and display flight. The kilometers rolled on and we added a few more roadside species to the list: African Fish Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, and Southern Masked Weavers.

We drove through a bit of rain on the edge of Windhoek, pleased that it would help alleviate some of the severe, ongoing, 5-year drought in Namibia. A little water and drop in temperature may bring good bird activity.

The Hilton in Windhoek provided good comfort after a long day on the road. The hotel restaurant offered an expansive dinner buffet, where we connected with our expert local guide Martin, and the rest of the group – Janis, Margie, Howard and Doris. We look forward to our first full day birding all together tomorrow!

Day 1 / Tuesday December 3 – Windhoek

The group awoke for an early breakfast, eager to explore and discover birds of Namibia, on our first full day together. Outside the hotel doors, Martin introduced us to Windhoek’s urban birds, identifying a large mixed flock of swifts swirling over city buildings – mostly Little Swift, with several Alpine, Bradfield’s, and African Palm Swift amongst them. Speckled Pigeons and Pale-winged Starlings alighted on nearby buildings.

We loaded into our safari vehicle for a short day trip west of Windhoek. Martin pulled over to point out a Southern Giraffe beneath acacia trees on a rocky hillside, with a group of Chacma Baboons moving nearby. We saw and heard the first of many Ring-necked Doves, a ubiquitous African species, constantly calling “bird-hard-er, bird hard-er.”

Crimson-breasted Gonolek

Minutes later we turned onto a quiet lesser road, providing opportunity for multiple stops to see and learn the region’s birds. We scoped a pair of Damara Red-billed Hornbills on a rocky slope, joined by several Grey Go-away-birds. A pair of Crimson-breasted Gonoleks (Shrike) were as brilliant as their name. White-browed Sparrow-Weavers hopped around, along with Black-fronted (Red-eyed) Bulbul, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Pririt Batis, Cape Starlings, and a lovely Shaft-tailed Whydah perched atop an acacia shrub, its long tail streaming. We tracked down a Southern Pied Babbler on the ground. Flocks of Red-billed Francolins and Helmeted Guineafowl walked under shrubbery, poking on the ground, calling frequently.

Our first birding stops were wonderfully productive, and we’d only covered a few kilometers! Reaching the gates of Daan Viljoen Park we completed the obligatory entry paperwork, then proceeded inside. The well-paved road wound through spectacular scenery of hills and valleys dotted with rocks, gullies, trees, and shrubs. A Warthog trotted across a distant ridge, and handsome Kudu paused to watch us. Bird activity was ample on this pleasantly overcast morning (not too hot). A Cape Penduline-Tit was briefly glimpsed, while we enjoyed good looks of Chestnut-vented Warbler (Tit-babbler), Kalahari Scrub Robin, Mariqua Flycatcher, and Violet-eared Waxbill. Water features near park buildings attracted ample activity: Lesser Masked Weavers chattered among palm fronds over a pool; Scarlet-chested Sunbirds sang from a perch; Black-throated Canarys flitted in a tree. We followed Burnt-neck Eremomela around a corner, and came upon two Groundscraper Thrush.

More goodies awaited us farther into the park, at the remains of a river bed and dam. Though Martin said water was flowing in October, all was dry now, except for a small muddy pool under a dripping pipe – perhaps setup by park staff to help thirsty animals. Several Kudu foraged the sandy riverbed, along with Springbok and some Warthogs. A family of Ostrich stalked slowly towards us. We saw Mountain Wheatear, Familiar Chat, African Pied Wagtail, Cape Bunting, and Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters. Monteiro’s and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills flew through the trees. A pair of African Reed Warblers flitted through a fairly small stand of reeds that managed to stay green despite the drought. Rock Martins darted in and out of cliff crags, and a Southern Masked Weaver flew down to the reeds. A pair of Three-banded Plovers stayed close to the muddy pool. Our first raptor – a juvenile African Hawk Eagle soared overhead.

Circling back towards the complex of lodges, we saw Laughing Doves, Pale-winged Starling, Spotted Flycatcher, and Cape Wagtail. White-rumped Swifts circled with Little and Alpine Swifts. Several colorful Namib Rock Agamas scuttled on rock walls and boulders; males flashed bright orange and blue, while females showed yellow head and neck markings. We had already seen more than 50 bird species before lunch.

We ate at the artfully-decorated park restaurant, where food service took unusually long, due to a large conference group.

We returned to Windhoek for the afternoon, to relax before our very early start tomorrow. On the way, Adrian spotted a Southern Red Bishop in some reeds on the edge of town. Traffic and a narrow bridge prevented us from stopping, but we anticipate more chances to see this species.

Day 2 / Wednesday December 4 – Windhoek to Sossusvlei

Social Weaver nests, the largest avian structure built

We set out before dawn for the long journey south to Sossusvlei. Few cars were out at this hour, and vanished completely as we drove deeper into the desert on gravel roads. By sunrise, birds and animals were active in the acacia trees and roadside scrub vegetation. We stopped several times to look at large Sociable Weaver nests, Pale Chanting Goshawk, Red-backed Shrike, Grey Go-away-bird, and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill. Small groups of animals grazed on the plains – Springbok, Gemsbok (Oryx), diminutive Steenbok, and South African Ground Squirrels. We enjoyed watching White-quilled Bustard (Northern Black Korhaan) in display flight, along with three Ludwig’s Bustards.

Numerous Sabota Larks moved along the track, and we had excellent views of a Spike-heeled Lark. Dozens of Namaqua Sandgrouse pecked grit from the road, flying off as we approached. We appreciated great looks of Southern Anteater Chat, and Common Scimitarbill.

At Spreedshoogte Pass we began looking for Herero Chat. Descending steep switchbacks, we stopped frequently to admire stunning views and scan rocky hillsides, its favored habitat. Winds were blowing fiercely, and few birds showed, but we heard it singing and tracked it down to a shrub on the lee-side of a hill. Not everyone saw it, as it paused only briefly, and didn’t reappear despite dedicated searching. White-throated Canary, Mountain Wheatear, Dusky Sunbird, Violet-backed Starling, and Black-fronted Bulbul popped up briefly.

We continued south, driving through strong winds and along washer-board roads. At a junction of gravel roads, a small homestead with a filled water trough attracted flocks of Great and Cape Sparrow, Lark-like Bunting and a few Rosy-faced Lovebirds. We saw several Chat Flycatcher, Southern Fiscal, and a Greater Kestrel.

We reached the outpost of Solitaire in time to enjoy a relaxed lunch at the town cafe. Their back patio was nicely landscaped with flowering plants and shady trees which hosted a variety of birds: Scaly-feathered Finch, Red-headed Finch, Sociable Weaver, Lesser Masked Weaver, Namaqua and Laughing Doves. We treated ourselves to famous apple pie served by “Moose MacGregor Bakery” and ogled the eclectic assortment of rusted vintage cars artfully arranged, half-buried in sand for attention at the town entrance. A Ground Agama, and a Kalahari Tree Skink in the tree next to our vehicle delayed our journey a few minutes while we photographed these at close range.

Gemsbok and Blue Wildebeest

The road stretched out long, hot and bumpy. Desert scenery expanded as far as the eye could see with shifting colors, textures, mountains and gullies. Herds of Gemsbok and Blue Wildebeest stood in clusters under trees, seeking shade from the brutal midday sun. We saw a Pygmy Falcon and a pair of Ruppell’s Korhaan’s under a shrub. Common Ostriches seemed immune to the heat, stalking the wide open plains.

We stopped for restrooms at Sesriem, the entrance to Sossusvlei Park. A Cape Crow fussed with a Pied Crow, while a Familiar Chat hopped along the thatched roof of the toilets building.

We reached the Kulala Wilderness Reserve before 4pm, and received a friendly greeting from the Desert Lodge staff, with much-appreciated cold refreshing ginger drinks. Soon after, we were back out for an evening introduction to the reserve, exploring in the sunset hours. A dry riverbed held a nice assortment of birds, including: White-backed Mousebird, Eurasian Hoopoe, Crimson-breasted Gonolek, Black-chested Prinia, and Short-toed Rock-Thrush. We learned the ubiquitous song of Ring-necked Doves which sounds like “Work harder, bird harder, drink lager.”

Winds picked up and swirled sand in all directions. Our Wilderness guide, Stanley, urged us to return back to the lodge ahead of a dust storm. Tired but exhilarated, we enjoyed dinner and a song/dance show by the staff – wonderful sounds, harmonies, drum beating, and foot-stomping!

Day 3 / Thursday December 5 – Sossusvlei

Success finding the endemic Dune Lark!

We arose early to get out at first light in this beautiful location. Sossusvlei, located inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park, is famed for it’s stunning desert landscape of ever-changing red sand dunes – the oldest in the world – and gorgeous sunrise/sunset photos. While most visitors come to climb the dunes or take a hot-air balloon ride, we were keen to look for Dune Lark, a Namibian endemic found only here. Dune #1 is the spot, and a Dutch birding group had arrived before dawn, seen the birds, and were eating breakfast as we pulled up. We walked into the red sand mounds to look ourselves, for these small birds that prefer to run, rather than fly. Dune Larks subsist on ants that live in the dried grasses, and we saw many ants as well as tracks of other creatures – hyaena, cape hare, geckos, white lady dancing spider and beetles. A flock of Pied Crows mobbed a skeleton on the far hill, and a jackal trotted in the distance. It took more than 30 minutes of zigzagging through soft sand, but finally everyone in the group got good looks of a pair of Dune Larks.

We continued birding in a nearby dry riverbed, finding Red-faced Mousebird, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Ashy Tit, Long-billed Crombec, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Chestnut-vented Warbler, Acacia Pied Barbet, Southern Masked Weaver, Cape Sparrows, Dusky Sunbirds, and the now-familiar Familiar Chat. An uncommon summer visitor a South African Cliff Swallow mixed with several Barn Swallows, darting around the eroded riverbank.

Deadvlei

We returned back to the beautiful Kulala Desert Lodge with ample time to relax before and after lunch. At 4:30 pm we set out once more to explore Sossusvlei in the evening light. At Dune 45, a popular dune to climb, there were no people, and winds had swept away all footprints from day visitors. We preferred photos to climbing, and admired the view before proceeding on to the Deadvlei, where 900 year old camelthorn acacia tree skeletons are starkly stuck in a petrified marsh, long turned into a salt pan. Several of us walked onto the “toes” of the Big Daddy Dune, and enjoyed spectacular sunset photos.

Darkness descended as we drove back to the lodge, and our bellies were growling for a late dinner, but we were all thrilled with the incredible experiences of this unique, stunning desert landscape.

Day 4 / Friday December 6 – Sossusvlei to Walvis Bay

Kulala Desert Lodge, Sossulvlei

We lingered over breakfast out on the open terrace of our lodge, sorry to leave this mesmerizing place. It was a long journey to Walvis Bay, but we exited the reserve slowly, stopping for morning birds and wildlife. Bustards/Korhaans were plentiful, with several Ludwig’s and Ruppell’s seen well and close. We walked a few minutes at a riverbed, where trees and shrubs held a variety of the local species. Several skinks, a large beetle, and a mouse were active under a large shrub next to our vehicle.

Out on the main roads (hard gravel), the kilometers clicked on. We saw more bustards, Mountain Wheatears, Greater Kestrel. We took a 30-minute walk up the base of granite escarpment, finding Layard’s Warbler (Tit-babbler), and an unexpected female Eurasian Golden Oriole. We passed through Solitaire again, then veered northwest. Lunch was enjoyed in the winding shaded pass, joined by an opportunistic pair of Cape Buntings and a Mountain Wheatear – they knew that picnic tables meant tasty crumbs! Back on the road edges, an assortment of larks, Sabota, Spike-heeled, and Stark’s posed on rocks for close photos. We also saw Namaqua Doves and a Tractrac Chat.

After crossing the Tropic of Capricorn we reached Walvis Bay mid-afternoon, with time to explore a bit of this growing town on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed incongruous to suddenly see dozens of vehicles after driving hours with none, and flocks of Flamingos wading in a pond ringed by green shrubs. Here, the desert meets the Atlantic Ocean with no transition.

We walked the harbor promenade across the street from our bright yellow Lagoon Lodge. Hundreds of flamingos, shorebirds, terns, gulls, and pelicans congregated in the harbor. Dinner was a slow but delicious fresh-fish affair at the nearby Raft restaurant. Tomorrow we’ll explore more of the Atlantic Ocean coastline.

Day 5 / Saturday December 7 – Walvis Bay and Swakopmund

Our group slept well last night, in the relative cool of overnight breezes in Walvis Bay, just yards from the Atlantic coastline. Margie and Janis awoke extra early to join leaders Adrian and Martin on a short pre-breakfast walk down the promenade. The tide was out, exposing ample mud for a variety of foraging shorebirds, including Little Stint, Common Ringed Plover, Black-bellied (Grey) Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Pied Avocet, and a lone Eurasian Whimbrel. Greater and Lesser Flamingos stalked the shallow waters, while Cape Cormorants streamed by, and Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls circled low overhead.

A friendly Great White Pelican poses for a portrait

After breakfast, we drove to the public wharf to join a tour of Walvis Bay harbor aboard the Silversand catamaran. The water was like glass on this warm sunny morning, and we motored slowly for a thoroughly wonderful experience on the boat. Immediately upon boarding, a half-dozen Great White Pelicans flew in and landed on the railings, waiting for crew member Villem to start tossing fish, pleasing the birds as much as the tourists! The large birds flapped clumsily around the small deck, occasionally stepping on people or even landing on their heads to get to the food. We couldn’t focus cameras fast enough; at point blank range, the pelicans’ long pouched bills, thick legs, and huge bodies were most impressive. “Nicholas,” a big male Cape Fur Seal, joined the action, by sliding up onto the boat in one swift effort, and hauling himself next to Villem to get a fish reward. Monica, our on-board expert naturalist reminded us that the pelicans and seal were wild animals, even as they were smart enough to recognize an easy meal. They were also the most photographed of the trip, as our boat moved slowly away from the dock with cameras clicking rapidly. Monica provided warm greetings, and shared loads of interesting information about pelicans, seals, harbor history, and more. We learned about oyster farming and ocean currents along the Namibian coast, while watching hundreds of Cape Cormorants, Common and Sandwich Terns engaged in a feeding frenzy on a school of fish. Distant Parasitic Jaegers were spotted chasing terns.

Humpback Whale

Monica suddenly called out “whale!” and we all looked to where she pointed. A Humpback Whale had just breached, and several boats motored to the area, as eager to see it as we were. Humpbacks were uncommon in Walvis Bay, and caused much excitement. We were treated to 4 brief sightings as it surfaced in the small harbor. The catamaran continued towards the long peninsula where more than a quarter-million Cape Fur Seals stretched along the Pelican Point shoreline, in a cacophony of sound, smell, and motion. This was a breeding colony with thousands of newborn pups. About a third of them die quickly from natural causes – born prematurely, being trampled by lumbering large-size adults, getting separated from their mothers and unable to nurse. We watched seals bellowing, shuffling, laying in the sand, and diving in the waves, sometimes rolling with a flipper up. The long peninsula featured a lighthouse around the middle. One hundred years ago, the lighthouse was at the end of the spit. The structure hasn’t moved, but strong prevailing southern winds from the benguela current have deposited tremendous amounts of sand, extending the land northwards by about 4 kilometers. The harbor contours are monitored closely, as Walvis Bay is one of the busiest cargo ports in Africa, and a deep water channel must be maintained for continued big-ship access to the harbor.

Our 3 1/2 hour boat tour included lunch, and in the final hour we were ushered into the cabin for a delicious feast of raw and baked oysters, assorted seafood and beef, various salads (egg, deviled ham, avocado spread) on crostini, and delectable desert sweets. Champagne and cold drinks flowed, to create a perfect meal!

The pelicans and Nicholas the seal joined us again, to bid farewell as we motored back into the harbor. All enjoyed this wonderful catamaran tour of Walvis Bay.

Terns and Lesser Flamingos at Swakopmund Salt Works

Relaxed and refreshed, we spent the afternoon birding in Swakopmund, about 40 minutes north of Walvis Bay. It was interesting to drive through this larger seaside town, featuring german-influenced architecture, and enticing guest houses, restaurants, and art galleries. We focused on the Swakopmund salt works complex, just north of town. The the flat, arid gravel plains hosted 9 Gray’s Larks, a Tractrac Chat, nesting White-fronted Plovers and much of the world’s population of breeding Damara Terns. We delighted in watching the diminutive terns fly up and down channels, calling and stopping to rest. Thousands of Common Terns clustered on salt pans, dotted with Black, Sandwich, and Great-crested (Swift) Terns. We estimated more than 50,000 Cape Cormorants perched on facility structures, with White-breasted (Great) Cormorants mixed in. Greater and Lesser Flamingos stalked, flapped, and foraged everywhere, joined by Pied Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, and shorebirds. Curlew Sandpiper was the most abundant “peep”, with good numbers of Little Stint, Common Ringed Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Common Greenshank, Chestnut-banded and White-fronted Plovers. While looking at two Ruff, we spotted a Common Redshank nearby, the latter being quite rare in Namibia. Fortunately we got some photos before they flushed.

We finally had to leave this avian spectacle on the salt pans, and made a brief stop at the Swakopmund sewerage treatment plant – no birding trip would be complete without visiting such a spot! Open water tanks surrounding by lush reeds and green vegetation hosted a variety of species: Cape Teal, Eurasian Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot, Least Grebes, African Reed Warbler, Blacksmith Lapwing, Three-banded Plover, Common Sandpiper, Ruff, Common Greenshank, Gray Heron, Southern Masked Weaver, and White-throated Swallows. Peregrine Falcon was an unexpected treat. No doubt there was more to find in this oasis, but we needed to return to Walvis Bay before dinner.

With an hour to spare before our reservation at “Flamingo Villas,” Martin and Debbie did some additional birding while others cleaned up. They explored the Walvis Bay salt holdings, just south of the promenade, seeing most of the same species as in Swakopmund.

Fish meals were again delicious, caught fresh from the ocean. We reminisced about a fine morning on the boat, followed by a super spectacle of species at the salt works.

Day 6 / Sunday December 8 – Walvis Bay to Doro Nawas

We departed the bright yellow Lagoon Lodge promptly after breakfast, starting a long drive north to Doro Nawas. Our journey was marked by several birding stops along the way, especially the first hours along the coast. Conditions were sunny, quiet, and wonderfully pleasant, a bit cooler than yesterday. We stopped briefly at a stretch of rocky coastline between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, to scope a Crowned Cormorant and Whimbrel posing together. On the outskirts of Swakopmund, we spent a half-hour exploring a small landscaped area adjacent to a complex of medical buildings. We meandered well-trimmed pathways lined with exotic trees and ground succulents, while workers pruned palm trees with machetes on this quiet Sunday morning. Sprinklers kept the plants lush and flowering, attracting a nice variety of species, including Orange River White-eye, Red-billed Quelea, Familiar Chat, and a chattering flock of House and Cape Sparrows. Martin heard a Garden Warbler singing, and we tracked down the large skulking warbler in a dense tree canopy – a great find and nice treat! At the Platz Am Meer waterfront, we strolled a new-looking rock jetty, finding Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, and the expected Hartlaub’s and Kelp Gulls, Cape and White-breasted Cormorants.

Damara Tern

Morning light was brilliant on the thousands of flamingos, cormorants, terns, and shorebirds at the Swakopmund salt works, our second visit there. We moved more quickly than yesterday, photographing and scanning the spectacular bird scene. Damara Terns hunted up and down the channels, while thousands of Common Terns clustered on the same dike as yesterday. The Common Redshank continued in the same pool, and today we managed some photos, though the bird was constantly foraging in motion.

 

Reluctantly we left this amazing bird oasis and continued north up the coast. We stopped a few minutes to see the Zeila wreck, grounded in 2008 when it was being towed to India for scrap and the tow rope broke! The ship now served as a nesting spot for about a hundred White-breasted Cormorants perched comfortably on the rusted structure.

By late morning we detoured briefly into Henties Bay, a growing fishing town, for restrooms and coffee, then turned inland on route C35 east. Cool shore breezes gave way to the hot desert landscape, dotted with interesting hills, gullies, gravel plains, and scrub vegetation. Birds were few and far between, though we noted Sabota Lark, Pale Chanting Goshawk, Chat Flycatchers, Mountain Wheatears, Namaqua Sandgrouse, and several Ruppell’s Korhaans shading under a shrub. We reached the crossroads of Uis in time to enjoy a delicious lunch at the “Montis-Usti” restaurant. By chance, another small group of birders arrived after us, supporting the small local economy on an otherwise quiet day.

With several hours of driving still ahead, we made just a few short stops in the afternoon heat. Bokmakierie was a delightful treat to find near a rocky hillsides, along with Dusky Sunbird, and White-browed Sparrow-Weavers actively building nests. The picturesque Damaraland landscape featured regional euphorbias and rocky mountains cut by broad winding riverbeds. Brandberg Mountain, Namibia’s highest peak at 2,573 meters, arose in the distant mountain range. We slowed for drive-by sightings of Southern Fiscal, Cape (Long-billed) Crombec, Black-fronted (Red-eyed) Bulbul, Gray Go-away-bird, and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill. Strong winds buffeted our heavy vehicle, and the final kilometers seemed to pass slowly. We noticed the activities of local Namibian tribes people along the way. Herero women wore colorful dresses, with hats shaped like cattle horns. By contrast, Himba women embraced ancient cultural traditions, appearing bare-breasted with hair coated in ochre-colored paste. All beckoned us to stop and buy their wares from creatively-decorated roadside stands, though we kept moving.

Sunset at Doro Nawas

It was after 5pm when we reached the Doro Nawas Wilderness camp, where staff greeted us with cool cloths, cold drinks, and a lively welcome song. We appreciated the hour to shower and relax in our beautiful spacious tented units before dinner. We enjoyed stunning sunset vistas from the main dining area set on a knoll with panoramic 360 views. Dinner was delicious and complete with a staff song and dance after our meal. We retired early for another early morning start in the Namibian desert.

Day 7 / Monday December 9 – Doro Nawas, Twyfelfontein, and Environs

Immanuel discussing the endemic welwitschia plant

We arose early, eager to explore Doro Nawas and environs. The main lodge sits atop a rugged rocky hill, offering stunning views of the dry Aba-Huab River floodplains, and Damaraland landscape. We enjoyed breakfast on the open balcony, accompanied by bold Pale-winged Starlings and a Mountain Wheatear eyeing crumbs. We embarked in a safari day vehicle with driver-guide Immanuel, who shared great knowledge of local natural and cultural history, with an engaging personality and excellent communication skills. Our first stop highlighted desert plantlife, where we examined Welwitschia, a remarkable species endemic to the Namib desert in Namibia and Angola. Welwitschia plants may live a thousand years in harsh arid climates, subsisting on moisture from fog, and deep roots extending down 30 meters. We learned about mopane trees, used by local people in building structures, as they are durable and termite resistant, smelly shepherd’s tree (really a bush), and thorny acacias. We looked but did not touch Euphorbia damarana, regionally abundant and highly toxic; only Rhinos and occasionally Gemsbok nibble on it, and Bushmen hunters used its milky sap to tip darts and kill prey.

We continued on a slow-paced drive through the Aba-Huab riverbed. The wide channel was bone-dry, but functions as an important linear oasis, supporting all desert wildlife and acting as a highway corridor for traveling creatures. Huge Ana trees and scrub vegetation grow along the edges, providing shade and food for birds and animals.

Stunning landscapes showed at every turn. Rocky mountains protruded in the distance, reflecting a rainbow of earth-tone colors – pink, burnt-orange, sage green, olive brown, soft purple, slate blue. A fascinating geology of micah-schist, granite, and sandstone was evident in multi-colored layers.

We pondered large “fairy circles” in the gravel plains – round patches where nothing grew. Nobody knows exactly what causes these… perhaps it is dead euphorbia that have poisoned the soil so nothing else may grow, or termites tunneling beneath the surface. It is anyone’s guess!

Birding the Abu-Huab riverbed

Bird activity was excellent along the Abu-Huab riverbed route, and we stopped several times for better looks. A pair of Carp’s Tit moved through trees, along with Black-chested Prinia, Green-backed (Grey-backed) Camaroptera, Acacia Pied Barbet, Chat Flycatcher, Scaly Weaver (Scaly-feathered Finch), Red-headed Weaver, Black-throated and White-throated Canary. Adrian spotted a pair of Double-banded Sandgrouse calmly foraging close to the track, and Ruppell’s Korhaan, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, and Rock Kestrel were seen well.

Twyfelfontein rock art

We made our way to Twyfelfontein by mid-morning, to use restrooms and take a cultural walk through this unique world heritage site featuring ancient rock engravings. Our guide Mona Lisa was of the Damara tribe, from Khorixas, about 100km away. The site employs many Damara people, supporting the community economically and socially. Mona Lisa provided efficient commentary on the red stone rock etchings dating from the Stone Age 2000-6000 years ago, depicting animals and watering holes. Hunter-gatherer tribes made the carvings to serve as signs and information to fellow Bushmen. The site protects one of the most extensive, high-quality collections of ancient petroglyphs, a reminder of enduring human activity, ingenuity, and communications. Temperatures were hot in the open area, and the tour trail was rocky and rugged. Part of the group decided to check-out the flowing natural springs where Chacma Baboons cavorted, while others climbed up and over the boulder-strewn steep trail to see the furthest carvings.

Throughout the morning, animals showed well – Black-backed Jackals, Springbok, South African Ground-Squirrels, Striped Tree Squirrel, Dassie Rat, Dassie (Rock Hyrax), Damara Dik-dik, and several lizards.

From Twyfelfontein, we took a different track along the riverbed back to the lodge, and added several new species to our list: Ruppell’s Parrot, White-tailed Shrike, White-crowned Shrike, Bare-cheeked Babbler, and Red-crested Korhaan. We saw numerous Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, two Damara Red-billed Hornbills, Common Scimitarbill, Red-billed Francolin, and more.

We returned late to lunch, savoring delicious, healthy dishes of vegetables, salad, fish balls, cold beet soup and ice-cold drinks.

Three-banded Plover

After a relaxing midday break, we ventured back out to explore more and enjoy sundowners in the bush. Driving across gravel plains, we flushed a handsome Double-banded Courser which stayed close for excellent views. Atop a stretch of rocky cliffs, a family of African Hawk Eagles circled slowly in rising drafts, giving great looks against the clear blue sky. We turned onto the main Huab Riverbed which flows west to the Atlantic Ocean. It was dry, but still contained green vegetation and signs of animals. Tamarisk trees grew ever-thicker along our track – hardly believable until we rounded a bend and saw an eternally-flowing natural spring feeding a lush riverine corridor. Vibrant-green grasses and shrubs lined the fast-flowing stream, which attracted Wood Sandpiper, Three-banded Plover, and improbable African Jacana and Great Egret in the middle of the desert. We crossed the creek several times on the winding dirt track, continually-amazed at such water flowing in the arid landscape. Animals depend upon this drinking source, but tonight there was only a herd of grazing cattle, and their herder urging them home for the night.

At a picturesque stream spot, Immanuel set out drinks and snacks for us to enjoy delightful sundowners in the bush. It was truly a great experience to relax in such an extraordinary setting with new friends. And even more special when Martin heard Madagascar (Olive) Bee-eaters, and we all got great, up close views. Adrian spotted a Benguela Long-billed Lark which unfortunately ventured out of sight before most of the group got on it.

Our last dinner at Doro Nawas was delicious as ever, with meats sizzling on the grill, and vegetable dishes steaming with flavor. We were the only guests that night, and we greatly appreciated the warm, generous hospitality of the staff.

Day 8 / Tuesday December 10 – Doro Nawas to Hobatere

Cape (Long-billed) Crombec

On our last morning at Doro Nawas, we got out early for a few hours of pre-breakfast birding. We returned to the natural spring area, anticipating active birds around the water. Four Egyptian Geese were clustered on rocks overlooking the stream, and two Hamerkop circled low and landed on the grassy streambank. Rattling Cisticola vocalized incessantly from atop shrubs, adding to the songs of other acacia-scrub birds – Cape (Long-billed) Crombec, Pririt Batis, Bokmakierie, and Dusky Sunbird. We found an Augur Buzzard perched on a high ledge in the cliffside overhead, looking handsome in the scope. White-backed Mousebirds glided through trees, mixed with Southern Masked Weavers. A sizable group of Chacma Baboons loped across the base of the mountains, with some of their young ones riding on the backs of adults. As always, time flies in the field, and soon it was time to return for breakfast and checkout.

We said goodbye to Immanuel and the wonderful staff at Doro Nawas, then set a course east-northeast, to Hobatere, just west of Etosha National Park. Several early short stops were quite productive, highlighting brilliantly-colored Violet-backed Starlings, male and female Short-toed Rock-thrush, and Karoo Chat.

After a picnic lunch in the shade, we decided to bird a bit at the Khorixas sewerage treatment facility, a little ways down the road. No birding trip would be complete without stopping at one! Walking carefully down a litter-strewn dike, we picked out several shorebirds in the first pool – Black-winged Stilt, Three-banded Plovers, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers apparently didn’t mind the smell or muck. Madagascar (Olive) Bee-eaters darted by while Alpine and African Palm-swifts circled overhead. An assortment of dragonflies zig-zagged over the pond. Even fetid water supports life in the middle of the desert.

The drive was long and hot, but we perked up during the late-afternoon approach to Hobatere, ascending steadily in elevation. With Namibia’s five-year drought ongoing, we were pleased to see broader swaths of green vegetation in the brown landscape, thanks to much need recents rains. We saw our first Rufous-crowned (Purple) Rollers, and Steppe Buzzard perched a few poles away from a Pale Chanting Goshawk. A herd of Black-faced Impala grazed through trees, and a huge Southern Giraffe crossed ahead of us, then carefully hop-stepped over a low wire livestock fence that paralleled the road for many miles.

Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra

We traveled the final kilometers in an open safari vehicle driven by Hobatere Lodge guide “King” Martin, a nickname so there was no confusion with “our” Martin! We enjoyed afternoon breezes and good sightings along the long winding entrance road through mopane woodland. Three species of hornbills traded trees: Damara Red-billed, Monteiro’s, and Southern Yellow-billed. King pointed out Double-banded Sandgrouse walking down a sandy track, and a pair of Crowned Plovers on open grass. Meve’s Starling, with long streaming tail and dark eye, was the common starling here. King stopped to point out a Ruppell’s Parrot, and our first owl of the trip – a beautiful little African Scops-Owl snoozing in the fork of a tree, perfectly blended against shaggy gray bark.

Behind the Hobatere Lodge reception area, we saw a half-dozen Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra walking away from the watering hole. We ate a late dinner as darkness descended while watching Rufous-cheeked Nightjars hawking insects over the spot-lit scrape of mud.

Day 9 / Wednesday December 11 – Hobatere Conservancy

We awoke to a wonderfully refreshing morning, with temps a fraction cooler than previous days, and a light breeze. Those who arrived early to breakfast saw the Violet Wood-hoopoes flying around two large trees just beyond the boundary fence, along with African Hoopoe, cackling Helmeted Guineafowl and Red-billed Francolins.

After breakfast, we climbed into the big open safari-watching vehicle to explore more with King. The expansive Hobatere concession, situated just outside the western edge of Etosha National Park, is a conservancy managed by the community.  Wildlife is protected inside the designated lands, though lions, zebra, kudos and many other animals roam at will, of course. Conflicts with Damara farmers arise when lions prey upon vulnerable, free-roaming cattle and goats. The non-profit “AfriCats” organization engages with community farmers to help balance relationships between human and predators. It’s complicated work, especially during droughts. Tourism contributes heavily to community economies, and Hobatere’s wildlife, including pride of 9 lions are important assets.

Damara Red-billed Hornbill

We drove slowly, stopping frequently for wonderful looks at a great variety of species. The watering hole held Three-banded Plovers, Blacksmith Lapwing, Pearl-breasted Swallows, Lark-like and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings. Rufous-crowned (Purple) Rollers, along with Swallow-tailed and Madagascar (Olive) Bee-eaters posed on snags. We disembarked to walk among a small grove of trees at the base of a rocky cliffside. Willow Warblers, Rosy-faced Lovebird, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Spotted Flycatcher, Brubru, and Groundscraper Thrush were seen or heard. A Rockrunner was heard high in the boulders, and after some effort, we found it singing away in a commiphora tree; the scope allowed distant but solid looks at this attractive bird. A Pearl-spotted Owlet whistled its rising single notes, and we tracked it down by the mobbing of other upset birds. Two pairs of African Hoopoes chased each other through trees, passing a number of Damara Red-billed and African Grey Hornbills. Black and African Cuckoos were heard. King’s keen eyes spotted a pair of Spotted Thick-knees next to our track, and the eggs she was sitting on in a scrape.

After lunch and a relaxing mid-day break, we set-out for an afternoon wildlife drive again with King. It started quietly in the heat, but it was still a pleasure to be out in the wide open safari vehicle, enjoying the landscape. We passed Namaqua and Double-banded Sandgrouse, Crowned Lapwing, Lesser Gray Shrike, a Pearl-spotted Owlet flying into it’s hole, and a majestic Martial Eagle circling low over an expanse of scattered termite mounds. King Martin setup a lovely sundowner spread in the shade, with G&T’s, and a snack tray with biltong (dried meat), cheese cubes, olives, and nuts.

Lion cubs

Returning via the deep, dry riverbed channel, we ogled steep banks with bee-eater nesting holes. All of a sudden King stops and we see two lions lying on the bank next to us! King explained these adult sisters are collared for monitoring, and raising 7 cubs between them, probably hidden nearby. We watched them for a while, then moved a few meters on. King stopped again, and pointed out the cubs crouched in a dark, dense thicket; only keen eyes and years of experience could’ve spotted them! The lionesses called softly, a signal for the cubs to join them, as they walked up the track towards us. We were delighted when the cubs scampered out and ran towards them – unforgettable experience with ample time for photos. A few meters on, two Verreaux’s Eagle-owls peered at us from a tree right next to our vehicle. One flushed, but the other stayed for excellent views. It was a great afternoon!

Southern White-faced Scops-Owl

We hurried through dinner to maximize time on a night drive. King guided yet another wonderful experience in the Hobatere conservancy, spotlighting extraordinary nocturnal creatures. We saw two Small Spotted Genets, multiple Springhares and African Scrub Hares, and a Black-backed Jackal. King’s spotlight picked-out Flap-necked Chameleons well camouflaged amongst mopane leaves, as well as Southern White-faced Owl, another Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, and African Scops-Owl. Pulling back into the lodge complex, our headlights revealed a Western Barred Spitting Cobra slowly consuming a small monitor lizard on the road. Staff were visibly disconcerted to see this very venomous snake, and we moved on.  We had enjoyed many amazing experiences and sightings during our visit to Hobatere, a special place in Namibia.

Day 10 / Thursday December 12 – Hobatere to Etosha National Park

We departed Hobatere Lodge early, for a long drive east into the center of Etosha National Park. Having all day, we took our time traveling about 250km, with multiple stops along the way. As expected, the 16km track out of Hobatere was birdy, but we paused only for “special” birds – African Grey Hornbill, White-crowned Shrikes, Short-toed Rock Thrush, a pair of close Cinnamon-breasted Buntings, and a Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, which was new for the trip.

A little ways down the road, at Hobatere-Etosha campsite (closed for renovations), we spent 20 minutes looking for Chestnut Weavers. Construction workers mostly ignored us as we walked a bit, scanning trees and scrub bushes. We saw 4 Rosy-faced Lovebirds and Monteiro’s Hornbills, but little else. Just as we were driving away, Martin spotted a flock of birds alighting on a nearby shrub – our target! He was pleased to “get them in the bank.” A pair of soaring Verreaux’s Eagles that Deb spotted was seen shortly after.

Namib Rock Agama, female and male

We entered the western-most Galton Gate of Etosha National Park at 8:30 am. While Martin completed paperwork for park entry, the group took opportunity to use restrooms, ogle Namib Rock Agamas and Western Sand Lizards on rock piles, and scan for birds. A Black Kite soared low over our heads, and a few Cape Starlings chattered near tables.

For the next 10 hours we traversed the western half of Namibia’s largest and most popular National Park. We passed only a handful of vehicles the entire time; most people visit the eastern side. The landscape was wild, rugged, beautiful, and desolate. The sun beat down with piercing bright light and heat. We appreciated having ample water jugs, and an open-air raised roof that provided expansive views and ventilation, even if the wind was hot and dry.

A remarkable number of birds and animals are adapted to live in Etosha’s harsh desert conditions. Sabota, Spike-heeled, and Stark’s Larks flushed constantly from road edges. Spotted Thick-knee and Crowned Lapwing moved from shrub to shrub. A Red-crested Korhaan leaped into the air displaying to an unseen female. Near the Dolomite Camp, about two dozen Burchell’s Coursers moved around the flat sandy pan; much of the world’s population breeds in this area of Namibia. We saw multiple Double-banded and 3 Temminck’s Coursers. Our first vultures soared into view – a beautiful male Bateleur and several White-backed Vultures. Unfortunately, vulture numbers are plummeting around the world due to various factors, and we were surprised not to see any earlier in the trip. Southern Pied Babbler, Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Scaly Weaver, Red-headed Finch, Golden-breasted and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings were all seen well.

Bull Elephant spray bathing

By lunchtime, we were ready to stretch our legs and eat a picnic at the Oliphantstrus rest stop. A small interpretive center memorialized an elephant cull that occurred at the site in the mid 1980’s, when increasing populations threatened to decimate the natural resources of the park. The powerful exhibit described a very difficult and emotional undertaking, whereby 500 elephants were culled to restore balance to the fragile ecosystem; the process was never repeated. A large elevated blind overlooks a park-managed watering hole. From this vantage, we were thrilled to see a huge old bull lumber over to drink and bathe himself. We were barely 30 feet away, gazing through open second-story windows, watching the elephant in awe for a long while before he finally sauntered away.

We continued eastward, stopping at multiple named watering holes along the way. The park maintains these lifelines for animals, especially during droughts like the current 5-year one. Some were devoid of animals, others more lively. At the Sonderkop watering hole, two Tawny Eagles stood near a Bateleur on the muddy edges, providing good looks. The M’Bari watering hole attracted some water birds – Egyptian Goose, Black-winged Stilt, and Black-headed Heron. Two White-backed Vultures stood by a giraffe carcass.

Gabar Goshawk, Pale Chanting Goshawk and Lesser Kestrel perched on acacia trees. A Black-chested Snake-eagle soared overhead. A Fawn-colored Lark was found amongst abundant Sabota Larks. A pair of Burchell’s Starlings were seen – larger with broader tails than Cape Starlings.

Animals roamed throughout the journey, accustomed to and generally unfazed by any vehicle. Herds of Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, and Gemsbok moved across the landscape. Springbok were most numerous, constantly in view. Occasional Giraffes towered over stunted acacia bushes. South African Ground-Squirrels used their bushy tails as sun parasols while digging for food. A family of Banded Mongoose crossed the road in front of us, pausing behind low bushes to hide.

The Okaukeujo lodge in central Etosha was a welcome sight at 6pm. We checked-in, unloaded, then spent a few minutes at the famous watering hole before sunset. A large flock of 50+ Helmeted Guineafowl cackled and pecked around the perimeter. Blacksmith Lapwing, Three-banded Plover, and Black-headed Herons stood on the water’s edge. A dozen European Bee-eaters hawked insects over the water, along with Little and African Palm Swifts. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the spectacle, but dinner beckoned to our hungry bellies and tired bodies. Walking to the dining area, an African Cuckoo called then flew over our heads, and a Cardinal Woodpecker was found in trees.

Black Rhinoceros and Southern Giraffe at Okaukeujo waterhole

We returned to the watering hole after dark, where powerful spotlights revealed 3 Giraffes and 9 Black Rhinos at the water’s edge! Ever-cautious of lions, they were alert and wary. Some of the rhinos stepped into the water to bathe, while the giraffes splayed their long front legs wide, to get low enough to drink. Several Rufous-cheeked Nightjars zig-zagged over the water, along with a small bat. A stone wall lined with benches separated us from the scene, and a number of other visitors quietly enjoyed the spectacle as much as we did. Our attention was drawn to a group of people excitedly looking down at something on the other side of the wall near a spotlight. We walked over and saw a 6-foot long Rock Python slithering just a few feet away! We had experienced a long but amazing day in Etosha, and slept soundly all night.

Day 11 / Friday December 13 – Central Etosha National Park

This morning we met up at 6:15 am for a pleasant pre-breakfast walk around our lodge grounds. We started at the watering hole where a large mixed flock of Chestnut-backed and Gray-backed Sparrow-Larks provided good comparisons. Red-headed Finches, Lark-like Bunting, and Shaft-tailed Whydah also came to the water’s edge to drink. An unexpected Dusky Lark popped into view, starting an impressive lark list for today. Trees held a lively assortment of species, including Icterine and Willow Warblers, Grey Go-away-birds, Fork-tailed Drongo, Crimson-breasted Gonolek, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Lesser Grey Shrike, White-crowned Shrike, Rattling Cisticola, Spotted Flycatcher and White-browed Sparrow-Weavers. Southern Masked Weavers were busy building their iconic basket nests in trees.

Spike-heeled Lark

We ate breakfast then departed for a morning drive. We covered relatively few kilometers, but ticked many new birds exploring north to the edge of the vast Etosha salt pan. We focused on larks and pipits, getting familiar with numerous Sabota, Spike-heeled, and Stark’s Larks, along with many African Pipits. We added Red-capped and Pink-billed Larks, along with Capped Wheatears. Eastern Clapper Lark was heard clearly near the salt pan, but we could not locate one. Desert Cisticola sang from a shrub. We spent long minutes under a twin set of large acacia trees straddling the road. On one side, a Spotted Eagle Owl eyed us from his roost in the center of the tree. At the same time, a huge Rock Monitor Lizard crossed the road and climbed halfway up the tree on the other side, draping across on a thick branch. Two such different, exciting creatures!

We noticed a small kettle of White-backed Vultures circling low, and drove to that spot to find a relatively fresh carcass attracting interest. Four Black-backed Jackals were present, along with two Lappet-faced Vultures and about 20 White-backed. The vultures were all standing around watching a jackal tear-off bits of meat. The big birds had already had their fill, and were too heavy to fly-off.

Springbok foraged everywhere this morning, looking spry and healthy. As the morning wore-on, and temperatures climbed in the hot sun, they took shade under trees. Numbers of Zebra, Gemsbok, and Blue Wildebeest congregated around the natural spring.

We returned for lunch followed by a restful midday break. Most napped, a few strolled the grounds, noting many butterflies and some now-familiar species: Acacia Pied Barbet, Groundscraper Thrush, Black-throated Canary, Fork-tailed Drongo, Willow Warbler, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, and more.

Double-banded Courser

At 5pm, we headed back into the bush for an afternoon wildlife drive. It was still quite hot, and animals remained hunkered in the shade at this late hour. We saw a half dozen Scrub Hares and several pairs of Steenbok resting under shrubs. Sabota, Stark’s, and Pink-billed Larks stalked around, along with Capped Wheatears. We ogled and photographed a female White-quilled Bustard at close range, right next to the car. A few minutes later, we saw two more, then even more. We tallied 28 White-quilled Bustards by the end of the drive! Crowned Lapwing, Double-banded Courser, Greater Kestrel, Pale Chanting Goshawk, Namaqua Sandgrouse all showed well. At the first watering hole, numerous Springbok and a few zebras grazed calmly nearby. Martin excitedly called out, “Pallid Harrier!” and we watched it cruise over the water then land. A Little Grebe paddled in the middle, being eyed by a jackal that approached to drink.

At Nebrowni, our last watering hole, we were excited to see 10 lions lounging nearby. Several zebras intently watched the predators from a safe distance. A few other vehicles were watching them too, as we joined the lineup. One by one, the big cats got up and slowly sauntered away. We stayed until the last possible minute, then raced the setting sun to get back to the lodge gates with 3 minutes to spare before they closed. Our lodge watering hole provided spectacular backdrop for sunset photos before dinner.

We ended a wonderful day at the watering hole after dark, but the only animals there were Rufous-cheeked Nightjars and a lone Black-headed Heron.

Day 12 / Saturday December 14 – Central to Eastern Etosha National Park

After an early breakfast, we checked out of Okaukeujo lodge in Central Etosha, and began another long drive to the eastern edge of the park. We paused at the Nebrowni watering hole, where there were no lions this morning, but a beautiful pair of Red-necked Falcons perched on a snag, the female markedly larger than the male. More than 20 White-quilled Bustards showed on “Bustard alley,” before we turned onto a new road. We added several new species to our trip list: Rufous-eared Warbler, Rufous-chested Swallow, Rufous-naped Lark, and a distant Secretarybird that Margie spotted.

Lappet-faced Vulture

Vultures circling overhead caught our attention, and we rounded a bend in the road to find a very fresh Springbok carcass. We probably missed the kill by minutes, but the back half of the animal was clearly visible, and 20+ White-backed Vultures, three huge Lappet-faced Vultures and a Marabou Stork were descending rapidly out of thin air. A few nearby jackals scattered when the large birds lunged into a feeding frenzy. Within 10 minutes, they had reduced the entire carcass to bones. A Black Kite and Yellow-billed Kite circled low overhead. The entire experience was quite amazing to watch.

We spent time at Rietfontein, where hundreds of Black-faced Impala grazed all around us and Common Swifts swooped ceaselessly. A number of water birds foraged in the lush natural spring. A Greater Painted-Snipe hunkered under a log, near Cape Teal, Red-billed Duck, and Egyptian Goose.

Lunch at Halali provided a welcome break in the midday heat. We enjoyed close views of interesting birds: Violet Wood-hoopoes, Red-billed Buffalo-Weavers, Bare-cheeked Babblers, White-crowned Shrikes, and Rufous-crowned (Purple) Rollers. We took a quick detour to the Moringa watering hole at the back of the compound, finding it quiet and empty, except for several dragonflies.

Continuing eastwards, we stopped at the Goas watering hole to enjoy a nice variety of birds, including Little Grebe, Ruff, Common Sandpiper, a pair of Black-winged Stilts on a nest, and a Gabar Goshawk drinking on the edge. A Tawny Eagle perched in a tree, while a Booted Eagle circled overhead.  We ogled a group of 9 Temminck’s Coursers clustered together under a tree.

Southern Giraffe

Along the Okerfontein loop road, a major highlight was discovering 3 lions lounging under shade trees quite close to the road. We ogled them a long while – a lioness laying next to a young male, and another young male nearby. The female yawned, stretched, scent-marked a bush, and sauntered across the road in front of us, and out onto the plains. Her companion stood up as if to follow, before deciding to lay back down again; the other male got up smelt where the female had spray-marked before returning to his favoured spot. After watching for a long time and snapping many photos, we finally moved on. A White Rhino was a wonderful treat; they are uncommon at Etosha, outnumbered by Black Rhinos – both are globally endangered species. Giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, impala were plentiful, and beautiful to see. The Klein-Namutoni watering hole hosted a wonderful assortment, including Kittlitz Plovers, Ruff, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, and Egyptian Geese. A Western Yellow Wagtail bobbed along the edges, and Adrian picked out a Cutthroat from an active flock of Red-headed Finches moving across the gravel plains.

We exited Etosha’s eastern gate around 6:15 pm, and checked into the Mokuti Lodge minutes later, located just outside the park boundary. We enjoyed dinner in the outdoor patio area, watching Peter’s Epauletted Fruit Bats leave their daytime roost, flying out of nearby trees.

Day 13 / Sunday December 15 – Eastern Etosha National Park

White-quilled Bustard (Northern Black Korhaan)

We took breakfast early, aiming to get back inside Etosha National Park promptly at its opening. On the short drive between the lodge and park gates, we stopped to watch a family of Banded Mongoose cross the road, with some very small ones scampering close to the adults. We noticed a shy Duiker browsing among trees, and a Lilac-breasted Roller near the entrance. This morning we explored the northeast side of the park – Fishers Pan loop and Andoni Plains. We enjoyed many of the now-familiar species of Etosha: Spike-heeled, Sabota, Rufous-naped, Red-capped, Stark’s, and Eastern Clapper Larks, White-quilled and Kori Bustards, Temminck’s Courser, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Scaly and Chestnut Weavers. Raptors included a Lanner Falcon posing on its perch, Black-winged Kite, African Hawk-eagle, Bateleur, and a Greater Kestrel. A pair of Chinspot Batis flitted in trees near a rest stop, and a female African Stonechat was a surprise find. More than two dozen Burchell’s Sandgrouse nervously alighted near a muddy depression, skittishly eluding photos.

Bat-eared Fox

At the Andoni watering hole, we observed a variety of shorebirds foraging on the muddy edges: Kittlitz’s Plover, Ruff, Little Stint, Common Greenshank, and Marsh Sandpiper. A number of Cape Teal mixed with South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveler, and Red-billed Duck. We were thrilled to see 4 Blue Cranes fly-in and set down; most of the world’s population lives in South Africa, but Namibia hosts a small number of this globally vulnerable species. Four lions stalked nearby, their presence noted by herds of zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, springbok, and a few steenbok. Giraffe loped the plains, along with jackal, warthogs, and Yellow Mongoose. A large Leopard Tortoise crawled rather quickly across a mud hole. We were most excited to pull-up close to a Bat-eared Fox curled up on top of it’s den. Unconcerned with our cameras clicking, it continued half-snoozing, while it’s mate hunkered lower in a den a few yards away, only its ear tips visible.

A Crested Francolin was seen right before the park exit, and a diminutive Gabar Goshawk was drinking from a mud puddle at the Mokuti gate. The harsh arid climate hosts a remarkable diversity of desert-adapted wildlife; we logged more than 60 bird species before lunch!

We enjoyed a leisurely-paced evening wildlife drive, visiting Namutoni Camp, Koinachas and Klein-Namutoni watering holes. We encountered a good variety of birds, including Mariqua and White-breasted Sunbirds, Southern Cordonbleu (Blue Waxbill), and Yellow-breasted Apalis. We saw European Honey-buzzard, Brown Snake-eagle, and a beautiful Little Sparrowhawk perched roadside next to the Etosha gate. The last watering hole was most relaxing, with Marabou Stork, and a Grey-hooded Gull sticking out amongst foraging shorebirds.  Our final hours in Etosha National Park were wonderfully memorable; we understand why this expansive park is among the most visited and beloved by Namibians as well as tourists!

Day 14 / Monday December 16 – Etosha to Erongo

Violet-backed Starling

This morning we explored the grounds of Mokuti lodge, finding a delightful assortment of species behind buildings and around patches of dense vegetation. Light overnight rain turned everything bright green, and newly-arrived migrants were singing on territory, and focused on breeding. Black-backed Puffback and African Paradise-Flycatcher were seen on nests. Weavers breed in colonies, and we watched dozens each of 4 species – Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Chestnut Weaver, Lesser and Southern Masked Weavers – flying back-and-forth to their respective trees, gathering nesting material to create remarkably-complex and sturdy structures. Caterpillars were abundant, and we saw many birds feasting on them – Great Spotted Cuckoo, Pied Cuckoo, Black Cuckooshrike, Crimson-breasted Gonolek, and Yellow-bellied Greenbul. Mariqua and White-breasted Sunbirds showed well.

We departed after breakfast, heading south to Erongo, the last leg of our Namibian adventures. We stopped several times to enjoy excellent looks of Cardinal and Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Violet-backed Starling, Black-faced Babbler, Red-backed Shrike, and Lanner Falcon.

Our progress was steady on hard-surface roads. We enjoyed lunch in the outdoor patio of the Kameldorn Garden restaurant in Otjwarongo, then continued on.

We arrived at the Erongo Wilderness Lodge in late afternoon, with several hours to relax before dinner. Surrounded by a stunning landscape with towering granite rock cliffs, and breath-taking views, this location is a perfect place to end a wonderful tour around Namibia. Each of our tent units was nestled among unique boulders, providing privacy and beautiful views. A pair of Rock Kestrels perched high on a mountain crevice, and the melodious song of a Rockrunner echoed across the chasm.

Erongo

Dinner was a delicious experience, with a double-rainbow spanning the mountains after a short afternoon shower. The sun set brilliantly while we sipped drinks next to open, glass-less windows. As darkness descended, we heard Freckled Nightjars chirping, and Marbled Rubber Frogs droning from the visitor pool, a pleasant evening serenade. A Barn Owl’s screech was heard as we fell asleep in this piece of African paradise.

Day 15 / Tuesday December 17 – Exploring Erongo

Hartlaub’s Spurfowl

We began birding before breakfast this morning, eager to find Hartlaub’s Spurfowl, which are most active at dawn. We soon heard them calling in the boulders around our tents, and moved as quickly as we could, for a good vantage point. Rocky, uneven boulders were a bit of a challenge to navigate, but we all finally saw the birds well (on both mornings here). Our leaders sighed in relief at getting this target quickly, after which we could take a more leisurely pace. Birds were lively, busy singing and nest-building. Red-billed Francolins screeched atop boulders, and a calling Peregrine Falcon swooped low overhead. We enjoyed good views of Carp’s Tit, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Common Scimitarbill, Black-chested Prinia, Lark-like and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings.  Families of Rock Hyraxes scampered nimbly around cliffside crags.

Along the pathways, we noticed hundreds of dead or dying Marbled Emperor Moths that were drawn to overnight lights. Their lives are naturally short, and they provided valuable food for hungry birds and lizards.

Breakfast was a slow affair, as we were distracted by dozens of beautiful Rosy-fced Lovebirds flitting around a small puddle near the dining area. They were joined by a Green-winged Pytilia, Great Sparrow, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, and Black-throated Canary.

After breakfast, we decided to explore the nearby Omaruru riverbed, a short drive west of our lodge. Along the way, we stopped to look for a Barred Wren-Warbler. It took a little while, but we finally saw the bird in a distant shrub, singing it’s heart out. We also saw Monteiro’s, Southern Yellow-billed, and Damara Red-billed Hornbills, a Black-chested Snake-Eagle, and more.

The Omaruru riverbed hosted an interesting variety of birds and dragonflies. We meandered slowly along the dry track, seeing Dideric, African, and Great Spotted Cuckoos, Ruppell’s Parrot, Green-backed (Grey-backed) Camaroptera, Spotted Flycatcher, Red-billed Buffalo-Weavers, and Violet Woodhoopoe. A Pearl-spotted Owlet tooted, attracting a curious Red-backed Shrike and Fork-tailed Drongo.

Amidst the bone-dry scrubland, it was somewhat surprising to come across a small pond half-filled with rushes, likely dug then abandoned by a farmer long ago. A handful of dragonflies darted ceaselessly, some coupling on reeds. We picked-out several species, including Vagrant Emperor and Black Emperor, the largest dragonfly in Africa.

Dassie (Rock Hyrax)

The group enjoyed a break after lunch, during which Debbie trekked the “Eagle Trail” with long views from the mountain ridge. Three Verreaux’s Eagles soaring overhead, a pair of nimble Klipspringers, and a young Leopard Tortoise were trail highlights.

In the sunset hour, we explored several lodge trails on foot. We saw Hartlaub’s and Red-billed Francolins, along with a distant Swainson’s Francolin, a new trip bird. A Peregrine Falcon dove repeatedly overhead, chasing birds and moths. A Klaas’s Cuckoo posed on a close tree branch, and Rock Hyraxes weren’t shy either, watching us pass just yards away.

Dinner was most memorable, as our table was set on the open deck, with broad views of the watering hole in the valley below. It was dark when we finished the checklist, and were just getting drinks when our waiter spotted an African Wildcat! It was silhouetted in the spotlight on the edge of the watering hole. We scrambled out of our seats to watch it repeatedly jump up and bat at moths at the light. Eventually it slunk out of view, and we resumed our dinner, greatly thrilled by the experience. Excitement continued when a Freckled Nightjar was spotlighted on the rock behind us, before it swooped into the night. A Spotted Eagle-Owl and Barn Owl were heard hooting after 10pm, bidding good-night after a wonderful day in Erongo.

Day 16 / Wednesday December 18 – Erongo to Windhoek

This morning we shared our last group breakfast all together as a dozen Rosy-faced Lovebirds flitted about just outside the verandah. We had enjoyed many outstanding experiences of birds, wildlife, lodging, landscapes, and laughter in the uniquely beautiful country of Namibia, and were pensively sad to be ending the trip.

Goreangab Park

It took several hours to reach the Windhoek Airport, where we dropped off Janis for her flights back to the U.S. The rest of us were staying another night in the city, so we decided to bird locally.  After lunching at the “Fresh and Wild Utopia” restaurant, we spent late afternoon at the Goreangab Reservoir and recreational park. The expansive lake showed too much trash in the shallows, but hundreds of ducks, grebes, shorebirds, and waders didn’t seem to mind. South African Shelduck, Hottentot Teal, Little Grebe, and Red-knobbed Coot were most numerous. Mixed with them were Southern Pochard, Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Red-billed Duck, Maccoa Ducks, and Egyptian Geese. A few Greater Flamingos and a Gray Heron stood out from Black-winged Stilts and Pied Avocets. A Squacco Heron and half-dozen African Swamphens lurked on shadowy edges. As expected, Ruff was the most numerous shorebird, with several Little Stint, Wood Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Three-banded Plover, and the ubiquitous Blacksmith Lapwing. A few White-winged Terns tacked up and down the channel, with African Palm-swifts overhead. We found African Reed-Warbler and Lesser Swamp Warbler moving through reeds along the water’s edge, with several Southern Red Bishops nearby. Weavers flitted near their nests, and sunbirds popped out atop shrubs. We saw more than 40 species in this city green space, adding several new ones to our trip list.

The Wildside Nature Tours trip ended with 275 birds, along with a great variety of mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and dragonflies. Howard, Doris, Janis, Margie, Debbie, Adrian, and Martin enjoyed wonderful experiences in the magical African country of Namibia.

 

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