Trip Report: South-Central Mozambique, October 3-6, 1998

Faansie Peacock, Moreleta Park, Pretoria, South Africa;

Route: Gauteng - Komatipoort - Maputo - Panda - Ponta da Barra - Xai-Xai - Magul - Komatipoort - Gauteng

Observers: Selwyn Rautenbach, Bernard Bronn, Faansie Peacock, Rihann Geyser, Riaan Marais, Vanessa Marais, Peter Bijlmakers, Yvonne Bijlmakers, Peter Carnell, Murrie Slotar, Howard Rayner, Magui Rayner, Gloria Heffer, Ilmary Keddy, Johann Grobler, Lizet du Plessis

Number of Species: Approx. 170

Main Target: Olive-headed Weaver

Specials: Olive-headed Weaver, Red-faced Crombec, Black-eared Canary, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Boehm's Spinetail, Red-necked Francolin, Brown-headed Parrot, Broad-billed Roller, Mashona Hyliota, Mozambique Batis, Purple-banded Sunbird, Gorgeous Bush Shrike, Yellow White-eye, Mangrove Kingfisher, Brown Robin, Collared Palm Thrush, Black-backed Cisticola, Wattle-eyed Flycatcher, Green Twinspot, Red-winged Pratincole, Pin-throated Longclaw, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Pink-backed Pelican, Tawny Eagle, Rufous-bellied Heron, Pied Mannikin, Bar-tailed Godwit.

Introduction and Road

At 12:30 sharp my father and I departed for Ilmary house after attending the necessary social events on a Friday evening. We arrived there along with Murrie and promptly packed her 4x4 for what promised to be a most rewarding birding trip.

Some 5 hours later, a bit stiff, but very excited we arrived at the busy Komatipoort border post. More than 2 hours later we were all through, and after meeting up with the rest of the party we tackled the road to our first and foremost destination - the Brachystegia forests of the Panda region. However, the long wait at the border post did offer opportunities to those who could still keep their eyes open to do some typical "lowveld" birding: Green-backed Bleating Warbler, Scarlet-chested and White-bellied Sunbirds, Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bush Shrikes, Green Pigeon, Palm Swift, Striped Kingfisher, Sombre Bulbul, House Sparrow, Lesser Masked and Spectacled Weavers, Blue Waxbill and Red-billed Firefinch were spotted around the border post and at the nearby garage.

The owner of the abovementioned garage also informed Rihann and party of an injured White-faced Owl which had been hurt in a hailstorm the previous day. Rihann rung the bird and after some excellent aggression displays with open wings and clicking noises, they freed the Owl. The road to Panda is one of the better roads in Mozambique, but still the potholes and especially the "dreaded white stone road" on the last few kilometers to Panda persuaded us to stop frequently to look for local specials (amongst other things). These were always around where you stopped, as were the local children who appeared from the undergrowth and groves as if from nowhere.

The first stop yielded two tiny Purple-banded Sunbird fledglings, being fed by both parents at the top of some Mango trees. The chicks had a loud, penetrating begging call, but the male Sunbird wasn't as interested in his parental duties and frequently sang from the open, highest twigs it could find. Also around here we found Coqui Francolin and Rattling Cisticola in the shrubs.

Some way further we stopped in a patch with almost sandforest-like conditions. Gorgeous Bush Shrike was heard (not seen), and jogging after some potential Pied Mannikins, Rihann spotted a snake poised motionlessly on the surface of the tar. Bernard had passed within centimeters from the reptile, but fortunately it was a Bird- or Vine Snake (Thelotornis capensis capensis) which relies on its camouflage for protection. This individual kept 1/3 of its body raised at an angle, and even kept its tongue out, gently swaying in the light breeze! After everyone inspected the beautiful creature we helped it off the road.

Panda and Surrounds

Selwyn arranged for Mike Rees and his wife Penny to act as our guides in the area to look for Olive-headed Weavers. Unfortunately Mike had Malaria at the time, but his wife met us, and informed us of a local inhabitant named Nelson who knows the area and the birds. Another local, Sam, helped us locate Nelson, but this was very hard, and after the longest 14 kilometers ever, we decided to pitch camp in one of the fallow Mielie fields. Selwyn and Johan continued to look for Nelson until they found him at 24:00 that evening, with lots of patience and "Fanagalo".

We weren't finished with snakes, and I discovered (with some surprise and without a torch) a hissing Shield-nosed Snake (Aspidelaps scutatus fulafulus) in the middle of the sand road. Again after examination we released the specimen far off in the fields, but a little while later when we tried to catch some nocturnal birds, it was back and mad as ever! Fiery-necked Nightjars, Spotted Eagle and African Scops Owls called throughout the night, and they were replaced in the early hours of the morning by Red-necked Francolin and Fawn-coloured Lark. We didn't have an alarm clock in our tent, so I woke up to the raucous calls of the Francolins, and although I was more asleep than awake, I realized that I had never seen them, and I was up. I informed Rihann about this, and he was still a bit sleepy, but at the next song (Fawn-coloured Lark) he was up and at them! Both birds were seen, the Lark running around on the typical sandy ground between the mielie stems and the Francolins (race swynnertoni) scratching in the tall grass.

Olive-headed Weavers

Selwyn asked Nelson to meet us at 06:00 the next morning, but Nelson replied that 07:00 is better for the Olive-headed Weavers. A bit skeptical, we were all waiting anxiously under a tall Brachystegia tree in which one of the unique, lichen nests was located. At 07:00 exactly, Nelson made some excited "tsk-tsk" noises and pointed to two yellow birds that had just alighted in the tree above us. We looked up and everyone present instantly got a lifer, and one of Southern Africa's rarest and most restricted birds in its natural habitat! Rihann looked up but put his binoculars on a Yellow White-eye. He asked me, I verified that he was looking at a Yellow White-eye and explained to him where the Weavers were. He literally switched from one lifer to the next!

The Weavers proceeded to forage around the tree trunks, clinging on like Woodpeckers or Creepers, pecking at the bark and at loose Usnea lichens hanging from the tree. The male tore off a piece of lichen for building the nest, and the pair flew off with soft, indistinct "tsssp, tsssp" calls very unlike the typical harsh weaver "chuk" we are all familiar with. The pair bond is apparently very strong, and we never saw them singly or in larger groups, even when they were foraging in the treetops in a mixed bird party a bit later.

They fly into the nests at an amazing speed, for which the loose strands of lichen is especially accommodating. One female remained in a nest for an extended period of time, indicating the presence of eggs or very young chicks. All the trees that had had active nests in them last year were marked with orange tape and numbered by Nelson. These counted more than 30! Nelson's tape has run out unfortunately, so now he has to memorize the positions of the nests.

Other Miombo Specials

After feasting our eyes on the Olive-headed Weavers, we took up some Miombo woodland birding. This was very enjoyable, and it was not strange to hear: "Mashona Hyliota pair in the upper canopy of the second tree, near the Black-eared Canaries" followed by: "Near the Broad-billed Rollers or closer to the Mozambique Batis?". The Miombo woodland bird community was amazing, and all the commoner bushveld birds were replaced by their more exotic cousins. Johan located a nest of a pair of Mashona Hyliotas, and through his telescope we had great views of the birds incubating and feeding tiny chicks. Their nest is a bowl of lichens in a fork in the upper canopy of one of the Brachystegia trees. All these excellent sightings and the pressure not to miss anything led to a lot of joking about Rihann's smoking habits.

Three vocal Broad-billed Rollers were also seen through the scopes while a single pair of White-breasted Cuckooshrikes entertained some. Black-eared Canaries were the most common Serinus species, followed by Yellow-eyed. Jameson's Firefinch and Melba Finch frequented the undergrowth, while Golden-breasted Buntings walked around on bare patches. Spectacled, Spotted-backed and Redheaded Weavers added some colour, as did Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Kurrichane Thrush and Black-headed Oriole. As is often the case, the drabber birds were the most interesting, and leaf-gleaners such as Yellow-breasted Apalis, Southern Black Tit and Long-billed Crombec were common. After much controversy and fiery discussions, we definitely did locate a number of Red-faced Crombecs between the commoner Long-billeds.

Raptors were quite common, and we found Gymnogene, Black-shouldered and Yellow-billed Kites, and many Bateleurs.

All three of the "black similarities" were common, in the forms of Fork-tailed Drongo, Black Cuckooshrike and Black Flycatcher. Mouse-coloured (Pallid) Flycatcher, Brubru, Puffback, Little Bee-eater, Cardinal and Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, White-browed Robin, Black-crowned Tchagra, White Helmetshrike are also worth mentioning, as are Green-spotted Dove, Green Pigeon, Crowned Hornbill, Scimitarbill, Yellow-fronted Tinker and Black-collared Barbets.

After the morning's birding, we packed up camp, but we were frequently interrupted by irritating birds like Black Sparrowhawk, Boehm's Spinetail, Brown-headed Parrot, Greater Blue-eared Starling and Bearded Woodpecker...

En Route to Ponta da Barra and Barra Lodge

We departed for the coast along an alternative route, also stopping at Panda for a drink. In the village, we were quite surprised to find Wire-tailed Swallows flying around above the houses, far from their normal aquatic habitat. They flew into a building being built, so we suspect that they could also be breeding in these man-made environs.

Bernard spotted a Lizard Buzzard perched on a roadside tree, but furthermore the road was pretty dull, except for a quick stop in Inhambane(?) where Turnstone and Common Sandpiper were spotted on a small fishing boat anchored in the harbor, and Grey-headed Gull flying around.

We reached Ponta da Barra, and Barra Lodge at nightfall, after some troubles with Rihaan's 2x4 bakkie, but the moonlit beach, white sand, palm trees and calm sea, made up for it and we ended off the evening with a swim for refreshment.

Mangroves Stands

The next morning early, we were up and inspected the extensive Mangrove stands on the side of the lagoon. We heard a strange Kingfisher call, and on inspection found it to be a Brown-hooded and not a Mangrove as we hoped. However we played the tape for Mangrove to refresh our memories, and within a few seconds a bird flew up into a tall Mangrove tree and started calling. The pure red bill and vibrating tail were clearly seen when it called. We later called up another individual and heard a number calling from the Mangrove stands - It indeed seemed to be the commonest Halcyon Kingfisher as found by Irwin in December.

The Mangroves were full of waders - mostly Whimbrels and Common Sandpipers with the occasional Wood Sandpiper or Greenshank. The grasslands and croplands were full of Canaries, Weavers and Red-billed Queleas as well as Red-backed and Bronze Mannikins. Johan, Lizet, Rihann and Riaan also found some Pied Mannikins in a mixed flock of all three species, but try as we might, all the birders couldn't locate them again.

A Honeyguide calling from a lone tree in the lands turned out to be Lesser, and not Eastern as we had hoped, but still gave us good views, even sliding right around a twig. The marshes were full of Red-shouldered Widows and Black-backed Cisticolas, while White-fronted Bee-eaters and Arrow-marked Babblers stuck to the hillside.

Collared Palm Thrush

Upon arrival at the Lodge, after an exhausting walk, Peter B. calmly informed us in his rich accent about the presence of a Collared Palm Thrush outside Murrie's chalet. Bernard and I suddenly got renewed strength, and sprinted off the place where it had been seen. Within 3 minutes we could watch the bird hopping around in the sand, on a parked motorcycle, in the palms and singing. This sighting is a couple of hundred kilometers south of its presently known distribution, and there might be a whole population in the coastal palms in Mozambique as there have been sightings of this species at another coastal site not far from Barra Lodge. The record at Shinwedzi in Kruger National Park might indicate that this bird is in fact widespread in south-central Mozambique, eastern Transvaal lowveld and south-eastern Zimbabwe. Vincent Parker's Atlas of Mozambique Birds will definitely shed some light on this issue.

Coastal Waterbirds in Xai-Xai

En route to the camping spot near Xai-Xai we stopped at the coast to look at some waders on the lagoon edges. By far the most common species was the Whimbrel, followed by Sanderling and Curlew Sandpiper. Other species seen were Ringed Plovers (on the dryer flats near the edge of the Mangroves), Three-banded and White-fronted Plovers, Grey Plover in breeding plumage, Whiskered and Caspian Terns, Little Egret and Reed Cormorant.

Coastal Forest at Xai-Xai

Although the coastal forest at the campsite was pretty good, it is very much like that on the Natal coast. All the typical coastal species were seen and heard, with Green Twinspot and Yellow-spotted Nicator probably being the most exciting. Brown Robin, Tambourine Dove, Black Sawwing Swallow, African Black Swift, Paradise Flycatcher, Grey and Collared Sunbirds, Thick-billed Weavers, Yellowbellied Bulbul, Golden-rumped Tinker Barbet, European Bee-eater and Klaas's Cuckoo were common.

Wetlands on the Way Back

All too soon, we had to depart for Gauteng again, so we packed up our camp for the last time and headed home. The bakkie I rode in was right at the back of the convoy, and so we lost the others when Selwyn instructed us to a spot next to the road where he had found Pink-throated Longclaw about 4 years ago.

We stopped for 10 minutes only, and made our way to the wetland. Bernard and I found out the hard way that Fever Trees aren't very accommodating to psyched up birders who try to make their way underneath them to see all the good birds that Selwyn and Riaan could see from the higher dam wall!

Having reached the vantage point I instantly got my 600th bird - Red-winged Pratincoles perched on the mud. Also around was a single Rufous-bellied Heron, Spur-winged Geese, an immature African Fish Eagle and a Glossy Ibis. We went down into the grass to look for the Pink-throated Longclaw.

At each Longclaw that flushed up our hearts stood still, but they were all Yellow-throated. When we had made our way through the marsh, and returned back to the car, a single large Longclaw with a white wingbar and white outer tail feathers flushed up and landed a bit further. When it landed and turned towards us, we were stunned by the brilliant deep crimson colouring of the throat and flanks! The bird has the habit of flushing away, and then stopping turning around at its leisure and mounting some perch in the form of a low tree or clod of earth to inspect the intruders, so we had great views of it. Unfortunately we couldn't locate a female or juvenile, and the male didn't call or sing, but the sighting was still unforgettable.

After about 30 minutes, we made our way back to the bakkie where Vanessa was waiting. Just before we reached the road, I recognized the soft, almost inaudible song of the male Pale-crowned Cisticola, and surely there he was - perched on one of the giant anthills in the grassland, singing his little heart out! This was a breeding male, because the pale crown and dark lores were very clear.

When we reached the convoy again, we informed everyone of the great birds, and they asked us to go back and show them the birds we had seen. After a quick scan for Long-toed Plover which only yielded Cape Reed Warbler and Purple Heron we turned round and went back to the Longclaw spot.

When we reached the spot again, a local black farmer had just led his cattle into the marsh, and we were afraid that he might have chased away the Longclaw and other specials. However he took his cattle out of the way, except for one poor beast that got hopelessly stuck in the deep mud. Selwyn explained to him in Fanagalo what we were doing on his land, and I played some bird sounds to him from my tape recorder, which he found very amusing. After this he joined us and helped flush out the birds.

Red-winged Pratincole Nesting Habits

Johan and I took some time to study the Pale-crowned Cisticolas, while the others looked for Pink-throated Longclaw. They walked the whole length of the marsh and again couldn't locate anything besides Croaking Cisticola and Marsh Owl. While they were at this, I tried to find the nest of the numerous Red-winged Pratincoles, because they kept flushing from the same general area. I moved closer to the spot where they flushed, and one bird landed near me, cautiously walked around and then settled on the ground, watching me intently. I suspected that she (?) might have been false-brooding, so I mentally marked the spot where she sat and investigated. It turned out that she was sitting on two cryptic eggs in a shallow scrape between the dried cow dung and dry grass.

I called Johan and Bernard to come and see the nest, and Johan was able to photograph the Pratincole, walking and incubating at 5.6m away from the nest. They are extremely tame, but we didn't want to put any unnecessary pressure on the birds, so we left them in peace after a few minutes. Interestingly, the female (?) opened her mouth and started panting, as soon as she settled on the nest. She never turned her back on us, and watched us the whole time. At one stage, a flock of 10 Pratincoles were circling high above us calling.

At last the Longclaw flushed up again, and everyone was able to get great views of this magnificent bird.

General Comments About Mozambique

What was very obvious and even more depressing about Mozambique was the bad condition that the country is in. One drives for hours without seeing any natural vegetation except regenerating scrub. The three dominant tree species are Palms, Nuts and Mangos.

Most of the Brachystegia trees, where the Weavers live, have already been ring-barked and are on a sure way to their downfall, as will be the associated result with the Olive-headed Weaver, and local Miombo endemics.

Conservation in Mozambique is of cardinal importance at the moment, and of course one understands that the people are poor and need to survive (unfortunately at the cost of their local environment) but something has to be done to save Mozambique.

We never encountered any open coastal grassland as we should have for example, and the coastal forests were deteriorated and restricted to small pockets owned by holiday resorts on the dunes. All open plains were overgrazed and eroded.

Tourism is one way of increasing the income of the locals and making them aware about conservation. We did try to explain the situation to the locals as best we could, and we gave out money and food on occasion to help the people survive and create a positive image of visitors, especially naturalists.

Apart from the saddening conditions mentioned above, the trip was very enjoyable and I'm sure all the birds and experiences will remain with everyone who attended for a long time. Riaan and Johann who almost set themselves on fire on the last night especially.

Thank you to everyone who attended for making this a great trip!

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; January 12, 1999