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The Great Escape, Namibia. (2 Viewers)

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Popa Falls & Mahango. 29 December 2020 - 1 January 2021.

The Okavango Pan Handle, magical stuff. Due to Covid issues, not very practical to pop over the border for the short hop down to Shakawe for the near guaranteed Pel's Fishing Owls and White-backed Night Herons (done that before anyhow), but the Namibian side is pretty amazing too - a cocktail of habitats, centrefold the Mahango floodplains teaming with birds and large mammals, backed by adjacent open savanna also rich in wildlife, then topped off with thick acacia scrub pushing inland. A few kilometres up the road, Popa Falls adds yet more variety with semi-tropical riverine forest and easy access to the Okavango itself, here braided into a series of rapids tumbling over exposed rocks, these often dotted by Rock Pratincoles.

A very enjoyable four days here, camping at Popa Falls, travelling into Mahango each morning, some evenings too. All very relaxing, all very nice, generally concentrated on birds and mammals at the two ends of the day, butterflies in the middle part.

Popa Falls.
Though a moderately small slither of riverine forest, dotted by chalets and secluded campsites, Popa is a most pleasing experience - between campsites, African Paradise Flycatchers, Hartlaub's Babblers and Dark-eyed Bulbuls, while for the more leasure-orientated, the camp swimming pool and associated recliners made a perfect place to while away a midday hour, African Fish Eagles calling yonder, African Openbills drifting overhead, Hammerkop and Giant Kingfisher on the adjacent streams. Top of the billing however, as I grovelled around photographing the Common Dotted Border butterfly on a damp patch nearby, a call from Little One - slithering right under her sunbed, one gorgeous Anchieta's Python! Carefully removing it to nearby tangled undergrowth, managed a couple of photographs before it decided enough was enough, retreating into the greenery.

Just beyond, a small island with overgrown trails allowed a little more exploring - Terrestrial Brownbuls and Yellow-bellied Greenbul common, plus Thick-billed Weaver, Golden-tailed Woodpecker and both White-browed Robin-Chat and White-browed Scrub-Robin. A few butterflies too - 20 species, highlights Large Striped Swallowtail, at least ten Autumn Leaf Vagrants, one African Leopard (butterfly, not mammal), several Azure Hairstreaks and both Common and Tailed Meadow Blues. Quiet tracking also had one further reward - one cracking Cape Clawless Otter on the river bank. One Crocodile too, plus Pied Kingfishers and several Rock Pratincoles on boulders mid-channel. Come night, careful wanders in this area, rather alert for Hippos, failed to find any owls other than Barn Owl, but did see several Lesser Bushbabies and Gambian Equaletted Fruit Bats.

One of Namibia's true jewels, 25,000 hectares of paradise, meandering tracks along the western side of the Okavango River, broad floodplains lush and green, small vleis and open grasslands immediately adjacent, studded by acacia woodlands and scrub.

All nicely accessible to a standard 2WD car, trundled in daily, the mixed grassland and acacia savanna supporting herds of Common Impala and Plains Zebra, occasional Giraffe, Wildebeest and Kudu, plus assorted others including three Roan on one occasion and six Tsessebe, both new for the trip. Many birds in this mixed habitat too, ranks of Carmine Bee-eaters and Little Bee-eaters on dead trees and snags, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters overhead, quite a number of Woodland Kingfishers, one Grey-headed Kingfisher, a superb Broad-billed Roller, flocks of Green Wood-Hoopoes, one European Golden Oriole, two flocks of Temminck's Coursers and a pair of Yellow-throated Sandgrouse. Abundant passerines too, four species of starling (Greater Blue-eared, Meve's Long-tailed, Burchell's and Violet-backed Starlings), Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on the game animals, assorted shrikes (migrant Red-backed Shrikes very common) and cuckoos (Black, Diederick and Jacobin Cuckoos), various swallows, a rich range of weavers and waxbills, plus a few more scarce birds too, not least a Dusky Lark, two Locustfinch and, a vagrant to southern African, one Northern Wheatear. Thicker wooded areas also added two Meyer's Parrots, Wood Pipit and three species of sunbird (Scarlet-chested, White-bellied and Amethyst Sunbird).

For all the riches of the savanna, it was however the Okavango floodplain that was the real attraction - allowed to depart vehicles, it was a joy indeed to settle beneath an ancient baobab and just take in the atmosphere - Vervet Monkeys in the trees above, expansive open wet meadows in front choc-a-bloc with Lechwe grazing in huge herds, groups of Buffalo ambling by, plus occasional lumbering Hippos taking time out from channels of the river and the obligatory Nile Crocodiles quietly cruising the waterways. And then there were the birds, plenty to occupy for a few days - a total of 12 Wattled Cranes, no less than ten species of heron (including Goliath Heron and Black Heron), a trio of storks (one Saddle-billed Stork, 25 African Openbills, seven Yellow-billed Storks), umpteen Spur-winged Geese and White-faced Whistling Ducks, plus smaller numbers of Pygmy Geese and Comb Ducks, and a good bunch of waders, these including abundant Long-toed Lapwings, one Collared Pratincole and three Water Thick-knees. In among these, plenty more too - Reed Cormorants and African Darters, Pied Kingfishers, African Jacanas on lily-filled channels and meadow, African Fish Eagles, both Senegal and Coppery-tailed Coucals and, in phagmites, Fan-tailed Widows.

Superb place all in all, recorded about 125 species of bird at this spot, plus 20 species of mammal. Quite happy with that.
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Jon Turner

Well-known member
Velvet or Vervet Monkey? ;)

I haven't read this for a while - have you been to the Tsodilo Hills? West side of the Okavango, and covered in the most brilliant rock paintings. Worth a visit.

Andy Adcock

Well-known member
Pool at Poppa now, I wonder when they put that in? It was a disappointing site when we were there, very small and once you'd seen tha Pratincoles there was little reason to hang around.

A few bits that we missed, Wattled Crane, Locust Finch, Dusky Lark, must be a mega there, not Quailfinch?

Any plans to look for Souza's Shrike?
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Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Sounds magnificent! By coincidence I'm just scoping a project to work on the environmental management of Namibian airports. Unlikely there will be any site visits, given COVID, but you never know...

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
A few bits that we missed, Wattled Crane, Locust Finch, Dusky Lark, must be a mega there, not Quailfinch?

Any plans to look for Souza's Shrike?
Locustfinch , Locust Finch :)

No plans to look for Souza's Strike, been more and more concentrating on butterflies since the New Year - numbers and diversity at their best after the good rains

Mike Richardson

Formerly known as Skink1978
Enjoying the report Jos. I agree that Mahango is a magical place, especially as other visitors can be few, and you're free to leave the vehicle when safe . The monkeys in this part of Namibia are actually Malbrouck’s Monkey (Chlorocebus cynosures). Vervet Monkey occurs slightly further south.

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
. The monkeys in this part of Namibia are actually Malbrouck’s Monkey (Chlorocebus cynosures). Vervet Monkey occurs slightly further south.
(y) That's interesting to know, didn't even consider this - using 2007 edition of Chris & Tilde Stuart guide, this species doesn't even exist :) Just shows Vervet for the whole area, many thanks for the update

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Mahango - Rundu. 1-2 January.

Day One.

Cracking way to start the year - dawn at Mahango, mentioned above, then a 220 km drive back to Rundu, stopping several times in better-looking patches of forest habitat west of Divundu. Not bad this was - while some patches were pretty quiet, others were excellent with frequent mixed flocks of birds. Among the species seen, a half dozen Meyer's Parrots, two African Golden Orioles, several Bearded Scrub-Robins, Southern Black Tit, Pale Flycatcher, African Yellow White-eyes, Yellow-throated Petronia and more commonplace species such as Kurrichane Thrush and Golden-breasted Bunting. Good for raptors too - not only African Cuckoo-Hawk, African Harrier-Hawk, Bateleur and five Gabar Goshawks, but also two European migrants in the form of Booted Eagle and Honey Buzzard.

And then I got to Rundu. On the eastern fringes of the town, abutting the Okavango floodplain, the Rundu Water Treatment Pools can be found. Had never visited these before, but what a treat they turned out to be - even before arriving, flocks of stunning Carmine Bee-eaters dotted roadside wires, Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters also present, Little Bee-eaters adorning adjacent shrubbery. At the treatment plant itself, a compact series of a half dozen fairly large reed-fringed pools, I recorded over 75 species, including quite a few local specialities. Among many ducks (predominantly Hottentot and Red-billed Teals) and a dozen wader species (mostly Ruff, but also Marsh Sandpiper and Three-banded Plover), also plenty of Little Grebes and a selection of galliformes - many Red-knobbed Coots and Common Moorhens, several African Purple Swamphens and one Allen's Gallinule. Also ten African Jacanas and one Lesser Jacana. Not a bad haul.

In the reedbeds, as well as numerous Red Bishops in full display mode, also one Coppery-tailed Coucal, one Malachite Kingfisher and a bunch of African Reed Warblers and Lesser Swamp Warblers, one Great Reed Warbler also seen. Giant Kingfisher nearby, one Glossy Ibis flying over, two more Booted Eagles adjacent. Stayed till dusk, masses of Reed Cormorants, African Darters and Cattle Egrets dropping in to roost, several Night Herons clambering out from their daytime roosts. At the reed edges, Purple Herons and Squacco Herons emerged from the vegetation, the Lesser Jacana picked its way past several Black Crakes. Ending the day in style, I then inadvertently flushed a Painted Snipe, what a cracker. 165 species for the day, I think my best ever 1 January tally.

Day Two.

Rain at dawn, that put paid to chances of crakes at the treatment plant! Instead had a relative lie in, visiting the water treatment pools only at 8.00 am, the air still damp, some light drizzle lingering. No less than four Painted Snipe this morning, plus near a dozen Black Crakes, two Purple Swamphens and one Allen's Gallinule. Also Osprey and European Hobby overhead, a couple of Golden Weavers on the edge of the reeds. Otherwise, a lot of very long and very wet grass to trudge through, soggy Senegal Coucal sitting up on a clump and even the bee-eaters looking a little bedraggled. As rain returned at 10 am, I decided it time to leave and begin the journey south.

Covered 470 km during the day, stops around Grootfontein adding Red-billed Hornbill to the trip's tally, plus a reasonable selection of butterflies flying in the post-rain greenery - many Velvet-spotted and Thorntree Blues, large numbers of Brown-veined Whites, a couple of Spotted Jokers, one Yellow Pansy and three African Ringlets. Reached Omaruru early evening.
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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Omaruru. 3-8 January.

Return to Omaruru, return to remote working. Still hot, still mostly sunny, but occasional downpours marked the approaching rainy season, this also bringing a modicum of greenery and increasing numbers of acacias bursting into leaf and flower. And with the change of season, a notable rise in raptors sonce my earlier visit, especially Yellow-billed Kites, flocks circling roadside and over the town. Likewise more Purple Rollers, more Violet-backed Starlings and, even better, increasing numbers of butterflies. Shuffling work, managed a few excursions to the ever superb Erongo Mountains, these producing the usual goodies, some of the highlights of the week being another covey of Hartlaub's Francolins, an African Hawk Eagle, a Pearl-spotted Owlet, several White-tailed Shrikes and a flock of Southern White-crowned Shrikes (as well as Giraffes, Baboons et al).

Closer to town, I also had the 'honour' of discovering the small sewage treatment plant on the western side of the town - four or five very small pools surrounded by the town's rubbish tip, singly the most disgusting site I have visited in Namibia - highly pungent and full of assorted bits of rubbish and plastic bags! And in contrast to the very pleasant water treatment plants in Walvis Bay and Rundu, very few birds too. Still, five Painted Snipes and an African Jacana did offer a modicum of compensation for the assault on the senses, as did adjacent Great Spotted Cuckoo and Pearl-breasted Swallow.

Far nicer was a walk along the still dry Omaruru River in town - not so much for birds, though Purple Roller and Violet Wood-Hoopoes were not bad, but for butterflies. Another sign of the onset of the rainy season, among now hundreds of Brown-veined Whites and dozens of African Migrants, a total of 15 species, including no less than three new species for the trip - one Black-striped Hairtail, one Otacilia Hairstreak and one smart Damara Copper. Also many Velvet-spotted Blues, quite a few Common Diadoms and at least 15 Citrus Swallowtails.

Brandberg. 9-10 January.

Namibia's highest mountain, an arid set of peaks rising to about 1800 metres. Hadn't planned to visit this locality, but with rain threatened over much of central and northern parts of the country, decided an excursion into this desertscape would be a safe bet. And indeed no rain, while much of Namibia was devastated by extensive flooding, just wall to wall sunshine here and temperatures around 32 C. Among the detritus and droppings of Desert Elephants, camped on the edge of the dry Aob Valley, a starkly beautiful setting. Namaqua and Double-banded Sandgrouse seen shortly after arrival, relatively few other birds in the heat of the day. Far better at dawn however - as well as several hundred Namaqua Sandgrouse dropping in to drink at a waterhole, an excellent stroll up the dry river valley added plenty of birds, not least two Verreaux's Eagle Owls, four Carp's Tits, a pair of Bennett's Woodpeckers and two Damara Hornbills. Also several Brubru Shrikes, one Bokmakiere and a range of other typical desert birds.

On the butterfly front, as expected for an arid desert, a fairly scant diversity - only seven species seen, but this did include the absolute highlight of the weekend, four stunning Dusky Sapphires, a new species for me. Also present, Topaz Arab and Purple Tip were both common, plus a handful of Brown-veined Whites, a few African Migrants, one Black-striped Hairtail and several Velvet-spotted Blues.

Added one new mammal for the trip too - a pair of Striped Tree Squirrels. Also seen, one Small Spotted Genet and one Black-backed Jackal.

Omaruru. 11-15 January.

Quite a bit of rain, even the Omaruru River showing brief hints of flow! And with it, further influxes and continuing bursts of life - among the week's highlights, unusual in central Namibia, a fantastic flock of about 250 Amur Falcons hawking and hunting dragonflies around a small flood pool, quite a number of stunning males in their midst, plus several Red-footed Falcons for good measure. In addition, quite a number of Black Kites among arriving Yellow-billed Kites, plus one Steppe Eagle, several Grey-headed Kingfishers and a mini-influx of Great Spotted Cuckoos.

Also a continuing emergence of butterfles - among many Common Diadoms new on the wing and hundreds of Brown-veined Whites, a splendid Bowker's Sapphire (another new species for me), a Black Pie (new for the trip), another Otacilia Hairstreak and a couple more Black-striped Hairtails.

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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Waterburg Plateau

16 January.

A few weeks into the rainy season, now a lush green oasis, the plan for this warm sunny day was to concentrate on butterflies - and totally amazing it proved to be, massive numbers of butterflies on the wing, both along the lower access tracks and along the wooded edges adjacent to the escarpment. Clouds and clouds of Brown-veined Whites, many thousands flying, and alongside them, many dozens of Zebra Whites and a dizzying array of other Pierids to sort through - not all too easy to identify, but in all of the following in varying numbers: Veined Orange, Bushveld Purple Tip, Queen Purple Tip, Red Tip, Banded Gold Tip, Common Orange Tup, Kalahari Orange Tip, Bushveld Orange Tip, Yellow Traveller and Broad-bordered Grass Yellow! Plus too, hundreds of Yellow Pansies, dozens of African Monarchs and a super abundance of blues - as well as hundreds of the ever present Velvet-spotted Blues, also hundreds of Topaz-spotted Blues and a couple of dozen Thorntree Blues, plus a nice range of others too - Dotted Blues, Common Zebra Blues, Dusky Blues and Sooty Blues. On top of all of these, a number of Wandering Donkey Acraeas, two Spotted Jokers, several Purple-brown Hairstreaks, three Bush Scarlets and both Black-striped and Otacilia Hairtails. And finally, both new for the trip, a couple of skippers - at least six of the chunky Striped Policemen and about ten White-branded Swifts (though some may have been Black-branded Swifts).

In total this day, 35 species of butterfly, my highest day total of the trip to that point. Far more memorable however was the simple sheer abundance of individuals, a sight to see.

Peering up from the butterflies on occasion, regular Verreaux's Eagles and African Hawk Eagles along the lip of the plateau and a few mammals, including abundant Baboons, several Rock Dassies and both Banded Mongoose and Black Mongoose. Completing an excellent day, an after dark wander added five Lesser Bushbabies, a couple of Acacia Tree Rats and one very fine Small Spotted Genet. Mother of all storms broke not long after dark, absolutely hammering it down with rain! Fortunately we were staying inthe luxury of a chalet, not our tent. :)

17 January.

Had intended a few hours of birding at dawn ...heavy rain put paid to that, downpours from the previous nights continuing through to morning. And then, attempting to depart at 9.00 am, a surprise - where there had been no rivers the day before, there were now two major rivers in full flow across the gravel exit road! Waded across the first, 40 metres across, not far off waist deep. Even worse was the second a few kilometres further - perhaps not quite as deep, but a raging torrent with a plunge pool to the side of the track! No chance of getting my standard saloon car across the first, let alone second ...my entire wheels would be underwater, engine flooded and car likely shunted sideways. Along with some nice South African folk, we were trapped. The only other alternative was apparently 150 km of dirt roads that would also be crossed by rivers, so with more rain forecast, it was entirely possible we could be there for days! Well, with sun now out for at least a few hours, we decided to wait, measure the water levels and I would go look for some butterflies. Two hours passed, water level dropped 15 cm, butterflies seen included Silver-spotted Grey and a profusion of whites and blues. Two more hours passed, another 10 cm drop in water levels, plenty of butterflies now 'puddling', taking salts from the rapidly drying muds aside the floodwaters. Mid-afternoon, dark clouds began to brew, signs of more rain to come. We had hoped water levels would continue to drop and maybe, with some luck, the crossings would be manageable by evening, but with the prospect of more rain, it seemed a now or never moment. Waded across the first river, below knee level now, above hubs of wheels, but engine might stay dry. A high wheelbase 4x4 made the crossing, much debate whether we should try. 'Oh well, let's go for it', said I, totally unconvinced we would make it. Slow and steady, somehow managed to get across. Second crossing was heartstopping, one misjudgement here and the car would be lost. A confident driver of a high 4x4 made it look easy, my little car plunging into the water looked less impressive. Amazingly we made it, phew!

And with that, finally departed Waterburg and, many hours later than planned, headed for Walvis Bay, a drive of more than 500 km. One more surprise on route, albeit a rather more welcome one - just south of Omaruru, an emergence of termites had attracted a totally amazing collection of birds, all hawking around one particular termite mound. Stopping to admire, no less 150 mixed Black Kites and Yellow-billed Kites, three Lanners, about 15 Amur Falcons, about 10 Red-footed Falcons and one Red-necked Falcon! For added appeal, also about 130 Abdim's Storks circling above.

Got to Walvis Bay early evening, checked into accommodation.
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