HWANGE NATIONAL PARK - JANUARY 2016

by John and Jenny Brebner
(Bulawayo )

We have just had a phenomenal birding trip up to Hwange for a week, mainly to conduct the African Waterfowl Census which is carried out each January and July. During our time in the park, we managed to record 222 species! It is a wonderful time in the park to study the migrants, particularly the large and smaller raptors. We saw so many European rollers but the other rollers were out in numbers too as were the bee eaters, with plenty of juvenile Carmine bee eaters flitting about. Although most of the places we travelled have had some rain and in some places the bush is thick and lush looking, it is obvious that rain has been sparse and not nearly as much as in previous years. January is usually a glorious time in the park, especially when there has been rain, with the natural rain water pans all full, hosting a myriad of waterbirds and sometimes, the puddles in the road may even have a paddling duck or two. Not so this year, sadly. All the people we spoke to who are involved in some way in the park commented on the poor rains so far this year.

We started off with two nights at Sinamatella and once settled in our lodge, we took off for a drive along the Salt Springs road to begin our waterfowl counting. As usual, we didn’t get to see much and water along the vlei was pretty sparse. Closer to the Mandavu turn off, we stopped to admire a male knob billed duck that had waddled out of the grass at the side of the road and were also trying to identify one of those large migrant raptors perched in a tree, when, looking down, we spotted two cheetah heads peering out of the long grass! Lovely creatures who didn’t stick around to be admired when we tried to get a better view. We stopped off briefly at the Mandavu picnic site below the wall before returning to camp and while watching an osprey quartering the dam, we had a wonderful sighting of it dropping at speed and with its rather ungainly splash down into the water, it emerged with a fairly large fish between its talons. Having handed over several water bodies to Stephen and Sue Long to monitor, we spent the whole day in the Robins Camp area starting off at a fairly dry Salt Pan. On our way there, we came across a spotted hyena peering round a bush at the side of the road, and after giving us a baleful glare, it scampered across to road and slunk off into the bush. While there were plenty of waterbirds to count at Salt Pan, numbers were very much down compared to previous years and because of the small body of water, it was easier to count the far side through the telescopes without having to move around and disturb the birds too much. There were plenty of small waders that kept us busy but very few pratincoles this year - in fact we only saw about five or six – and only two avocets. We then moved on to Deteema and spent a few happy hours in the Mike Edwards hide. There were plenty of Egyptian geese - almost outnumbering the Blacksmith’s Lapwings! Here again, the dam was quite low for the time of the year so it became difficult at times to identify the various waterfowl dabbling around in the long grass and water weed sticking up out of the muddy flats. On our way back to Sinamatella, we stopped off at the Mandavu camping site to see if we could pick up some more species as Mandavu had been monitored by Stephen and Sue so phew, fortunately, we didn’t have to do the counting there! While there we spotted an unusual large tern like looking bird scaring flocks of white winged and whiskered terns and eventually managed to identify it as a Caspian tern. Great excitement and although it landed a long way off, we did manage to get a passable photo of it to prove its existence! During our entire time in the park, there were always brown/black blobs flying high or low, and many trees festooned with kites, lesser spotted eagles, tawnys, steppe eagles and buzzards. We are sure there were some unusuals amongst them but some of those raptors are difficult to identify and we did see quite a few we pretended we hadn’t seen! Vultures, too, were very visible and we saw plenty of them including some very handsome white headed ones. There were several occasions during the trip when there was obviously a flying ant hatching and a spectacular aerial display would ensue with birds of all sizes and shapes, swooping and swirling, catching the insects on the wing while others, particularly the Abdim and woolly necked storks, the hornbills, starlings and hooded vultures, darting around the veld and along the roads picking up their share.

On our way through the park to Main Camp, monitoring all the other pans we came across, we were, once again, saddened by the lack of water. Shumba is looking great and holding good water thanks to the solar unit but Dwarf Goose pan only had a muddy puddle. Besides three Blacksmith lapwings, three Spurwinged geese and a lone jacana, there wasn’t anything else there. Water along the sides of the road was very sparse and several of the natural pans were dry. Arriving at Nyamandhlovu, we caught a huge herd of buffalo just walking off after having drunk and watched an enormous, gnarled old daggaboy trying to have a rather ungainly roll in a muddy depression. There was plenty of other game around - zebra, kudu, impala, two roan and four waterbuck, with two of the young waterbuck rams having a tussle. The veld around Nyamandhlovu was incredibly dry and there is hardly any grass to speak of although the trees are fully leafed, making the place look a bit greener. The following morning we waterfowl counted along the White Hills road and were again seriously disheartened by the lack of water. Pans covered were the Ngwenyas, Tshebe Tshebe, Kaoshe, Garakamwe, Mabuya Mabema, Bembi, White Hills and Guvelala. We stopped off at the Bembi picnic site for some late breakfast and were astounded at the unbelievable number of amethyst sunbirds feasting amongst the teak flowers. Guvelala held reasonable water and there was quite a big puddle in the natural pan to the left of the platform with lots of grass hiding plenty of small waders, mostly ruffs that we could make out. While there we watched a beautiful African Marsh harrier quartering the pan, putting the woolly necked and Abdim storks to flight and upsetting the Blacksmiths lapwings which also took wing, objecting loudly, while the little grebes and some of the red billed teals ducked under the water. Later, sitting quietly at Nyamandhlovu pan having a sundowner before returning to camp, we were privileged to see two beautiful lionesses emerging from the bush followed by two male lion – Seduli and Mopani. There was a notice up in the Main Camp office warning visitors about Mopani who has a penchant for chasing vehicles and he is, apparently, a very aggressive lion! Once the lions had settled down by some logs, we set off to get a closer view as they were lying very close to the road. Unfortunately, we lost sight of Mopani as he had moved off into deeper blue bush so we were understandably a little nervous! The other three stunning creatures were not in the least bit perturbed by us and in fact, Seduli was courting one of the females so we observed them mating several times.

The following day we did counting at Dom, Nyamandhlovu, Dopi and Caterpillar as well as Livingi. It was decided to leave out Jambile and the Mangas as reports of the condition of the road were not good and with the lack of rain, we didn’t think there would be much water either. We did hear later that water at Manga Three, being monitored by African Bush Camps, is holding good water so that was good news. We had a day venturing down to the Kennedys and Ngweshla, stopping off at the Kennedy One picnic site to cook up a late breakfast. Yet again, there has obviously been patchy rain, with Ngweshla being a particularly dry area for the time of the year. The two solar units there are doing a good job and the pan next to the camp was delightful. Round and about there were some depressions filled with water and one particularly pretty one hosted a gang of Egyptian geese, three Spurwings, four knob billed ducks, a few red-billed teal, a noisy bunch of Blacksmiths lapwings and two wood sandpipers. Plenty of Abdim storks along with a few woolly necked storks could be seen and four kori bustards were also stalking around the vlei.

While our bird counting partners returned to Bulawayo, we were fortunate enough to be heading on down to Somalisa for a night. Having unexpectedly won a night for two, we decided to take up our prize. While the story of our stay is for another day, suffice to say, we had a marvellous time, treated like royalty and were astounded at the sumptuous luxury of the new camp. The friendly staff were extremely welcoming, the food was excellent and plentiful and our guide, Mike, did us proud. Thank you, African Bush Camps.

All in all, another fabulous trip but we need to keep in mind that the park is in for a very hard season. Not only will keeping up with game water supplies going to be a mission but food shortages will more than likely take a toll on the animals. There have been many changes in staff throughout the park, particularly the hierarchy, so we hope that perhaps “new brooms will sweep clean”.

John and Jenny Brebner.

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