a trip report by 
Don Roberson & Rita Carratello
all photos by Don Roberson
Top & then clockwise: Gemsbok at dusk on a Kalahari ridge; our guide Richard White and his usual tour vehicle (a Mercedes Benz), at Spitzkoppe in nw Namibia; male White-quilled Bustard in Etosha Nat'l Park, Namibia; albatrosses and other pelagics following trawler off Cape Town; mother & calf Black Rhinoceros at Okaukuejo waterhole, Etosha Nat'l Park
This is a report on what turned out to be a private Rockjumper Birding Tour through much of southwestern Africa. Initially planned as a trip for us plus one or two other couples, I had asked Adam Riley of Rockjumper to suggest drivers we could use to get to the major game reserves. This evolved into an itinerary outlined by Adam, and the hiring one of Rockjumper's professional bird guides as our guide/driver. Richard White, a very personable and knowledgeable Durban birder, took over from there and guided us through this fascinating corner of the globe. When the couples we had planned to travel with had to back out, it became quite unintentionally a private tour. Wild Dog Safaris arranged the Nambia/Botswana portion of the trip, and were to have provided a small photo van, but when our colleagues had to back out, Richard became our guide throughout the entire 28 day trip.

My highest priorities were to observe two new Africa bird families, so we structured the trip to do so, plus to emphasize endemic birds, focus on a list of wanted mammals, and allow time for extensive photography [Rita did digital video while Don used his new digital Canon camera]. In western South Africa we used Adam's car (a small Honda) but when the Kalahari dust proved too much for it, Rockjumper booked us a new rental vehicle in Windhoek, Namibia. This turned out to be again, quite by accident an exceptionally comfortable Mercedes Benz. Suddenly we got a lot more respect everywhere we went!

The trip was a fabulous success from the perspective of objectives obtained. Here is a short set of photo highlights:

Cape Rockjumper
Chaetops frenatus

This represents a much-wanted new bird family (see also its family page). Although traditionally placed near thrushes, the two rockjumpers of South Africa actually evolved at the base of the passerine tree of life, closest to Picathartes (Rockfowl), and very far removed from thrushes. They separated from the rockfowl ~31 million years ago (Beresford et al. 2005). They are completely unique, not to mention elusive and spectacular.

Cape Sugarbird
Promerops cafer

The other planned new family for the trip; there are two species in South Africa, and this one is endemic around the Cape. They rely heavily on flowering Protea plants. The sugarbird proved to be reasonably widespread within range and habitat, and we encountered small numbers daily during the first week of the trip. Recent biochemical evidence (Beresford et al. 2005) suggests that the Spot-throat (Modulatrix) and Dapple-throat (Arcanator) of eastern Tanzania may be members of the sugarbird family [Promeropidae]

Snowy Sheathbill
Chionas alba

A totally unexpected vagrant representing yet another new family were two sheathbills that had just appeared in Cape Town harbor. Through the help of Richard White's connections and local Trevor Hardaker, we connected with local birder Eugene Fourie who had first found one bird on 24 June, and two on 27 June. We missed them our first try on 30 June but with lots of non-public access provided by Eugene on 2 July, saw both birds at a distance and this one close up. It was very skittish and flew across the harbor just after this shot. This is the nesting species around the Antarctic Peninsula and Falklands but the population disperses from April-June, when vagrants reach coastal South America. The few South African birds may be ship-assisted but the records are limited to June-July, consistent with the dispersal pattern. There is no evidence this bird was captured or transported against its will, and it could (and did) fly vigorously and was very wary.

After a week around Cape Town and the coast, we saw much of the spectacular interior of southwestern Africa on a 6000 km driving tour outlined on the map (right). A very general itinerary follows; more detailed daily logs appear on a separate page (see links below):
Days 1-5   Cape Town & vicinity, including a pelagic trip and a Great White Shark trip
Day 6   West Coast NP & Lamberts Bay
Day 7   Lamberts Bay to Brandvlei
Day 8   Brandvlei vicinity (and a night drive)
Day 9   Brandvlei to Augrabies Falls NP
Day 10   Augrabies Falls NP (and a night drive)
Day 11   Augrabies Falls to Kalahari-Gemsbok NP
Days 12-14  Kalahari-Gemsbok NP (2 night drives)
Day 15   Kalahari to Fish River Canyon
Day 16   Fish River Cyn to Anib Lodge (night drive)
Day 17   Anib Lodge to Windhoek
Day 18   Spitzkoppe & Erongo Mts.
Day 19   Erongo Mts to Etosha via Uis
Days 20-22   Etosha NP
Day 23   Etosha to Rundu on Caprivi Strip
Day 24   Caprivi Strip woods to Okavango Delta
Day 25   Okavango Delta
Day 26   Mahango Game Reserve & back to Namibia
Day 27   drive to Waterbueg NP
Day 28   Waterberg NP & on to Windhoek
Day 29   Daan Viljoen Reserve in a.m.; fly to London in p.m. for a 4 day visit
Here are just a few more highlights:

MAJOR HIGHLIGHTS

Beyond the three new families (actually five new families for Rita who also added Penguins and Penduline-Tits), and the fine boat trip,

High points included
  • A trip total of ~390 birds an excellent number for mid-winter that included 9 of 10 "most wanted" chosen before the trip
  • Ticking my 5000th world bird Jackass Penguin
  • Excellent success with interior Namibian specialties, including Rockrunner, White-tailed Shrike, Herero Chat & Hartlaub's Francolin
  • Good success with Cape specialties, including (beyond the new family representatives for rockjumper, rockfowl, and penguin), Knysna Warbler, Black Harrier, Forest Buzzard, Cape Grassbird, Protea Canary, and Swee Waxbill
  • Seven bustards, including highly-prized Ludwig's and Rueppell's
  • 15 larks, including major locally targeted Red, Sclater's & Starke's, and 3 of the 5 recent splits in the Long-billed Lark complex
  • 5 or 6 hornbills (depending on your taxonomy), including much desired Monteiro's and Bradfield's
  • Wattled Crane & White-backed Night-Heron
  • Pel's Fishing Owl, plus 7 other owls, nearly all at day roosts
  • 57 mammals, including these heart-stoppers
    • Aardvark!
    • Aardwolf!
    • Ratel, Cape Fox, and Springhares
    • Sitatunga, the rarely seen swamp antelope
    • African Wild Cat snatching a baby hyrax
    • Up to 11 Black Rhinos visiting waterhole in one evening, including mother and very young baby
    • Damara Dik-Dik marking territory within arm's reach
    • assorted Lions, Elephants, Giraffes in interactions
  • Close views of Great White Sharks!
Not to mention a spectacular array of scenic wonders, washing down each evening by a bottle of good to quite excellent South African wine. We also stayed in some very fine lodges (see daily log).

MAJOR DIPS

Every trip has some dips. No one sees everything possible in a single trip, excepting visits of small islands with a limited set of a dozen or so endemics. Here where the possibilities ranged into hundreds of species the only serious 'dips' or disappointments were:
  • Birds that we had a reasonable chance to see but missed
    • Cinnamon-breasted Warbler we tried tapes at a good variety of regular sites but they just weren't responding in winter
    • Burchell's Courser a nomadic bird that we just flat missed
    • Slaty Egret the only "top 10 wanted" bird missed; the locals say it arrives at our Okavango Delta site about a month later than our visit
    • Cape Griffon & Black-eared Finch-Lark both long shots for different reasons. We didn't have time to visit the vulture nesting site in South Africa, and the finch-lark is exceedingly nomadic [we missed a few other birds that we didn't spend any effort on because we'd seen them elsewhere before perhaps Ground Woodpecker is the only significant name in that category]
  • Mammals missed
    • Brown Hyena we had scheduled extra time in Kalahari-Gemsbok NP in hopes for this, but were just not lucky enough. A night drive a week before our arrival had seen one.
    • other than 3 lions, we saw no other big cats. This is not east Africa where encounters with leopard & cheetah are more regular (but other visitors to Etosha or Kalahari-Gemsbok had both of those cats during our visit; these were a very small minority of visitors to the parks; we chased one 'leopard-in-a-tree' report but missed it)
In perspective, these 'dips' were not very significant. The only one that hurt at all was the hyena and we did what could be done.
Because this was a 'private' tour, we could structure it as we liked, and we allowed lots of time for photography. I'm pleased to say we did very well in finding birds and mammals of interest, but obtaining photos or video of them was almost as important. You'll find many examples of photography from the trip on these pages. Here is one of my favorites:

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater pair
11 July 2005
Kalahari-Gemsbok Nat'l Park, South Africa
photo © Don Roberson

We rate this as a very successful trip. Here's the two of us (above in a photo by Richard White) in the very arid landscape of Augrabies Falls Nat'l Park in South Africa, with nothing but the vastnass of Namibia behind us. This is about as far away from our 'usual' life as we can get one of the major benefits of travel.

This trip report continues with a daily log including a photo-heavy overview of the major regions visited and annotated trip lists. Follow the links below:

CLICK HERE for DAILY LOG (part one) covering CAPE TOWN TO KALAHARI, SOUTH AFRICA
CLICK HERE for DAILY LOG (part two) covering northern NAMIBIA (Spitzkoppe to Etosha)
CLICK HERE for DAILY LOG (part three) covering the OKAVANGO DELTA (Botswana) & WATERBERG (Namibia)
CLICK HERE for an ANNOTATED TRIP LIST of BIRDS for the July 2005 trip
CLICK HERE for a photo intensive ANNOTATED LIST of MAMMALS for the July 2005 trip
CLICK HERE for a photo intensive ANNOTATED LIST of HERPS for the July 2005 trip
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PHOTOS: All photos on this page are © 2005 Don Roberson; all rights reserved. Many other shots from this trip are scattered about this web site. Check particularly bird families, mammals, and herps listings.

Literature cited:

Beresford, P., F.K. Barker, P.G. Ryan, and T.M. Crowe. 2005. African endemics span the tree of songbirds (Passeri): molecular systematics of several evolutionary 'enigmas'. Proc. R. Soc. B 272: 849-858.
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Page created 8-22 Aug 2005