South Luangwa Game Drive Morning #1

I have a ridiculous number of photos so I will be breaking up this series into 4 parts and selecting a few key birds to profile.  In this post, I will be writing about the 1st morning game drive the day after we arrived at Marula Lodge.

We had a 5am wake up call, then served a light breakfast at 5:30.  At 6am, we were off to the park!

The sun was coming up as the driver/guide pulled up to the gate and we each paid $25 for the entry fee.  You are advised to keep your ticket as you can use the same one for the full day but you have to buy a new one each day.  Cash only so be prepared!

We drove slowly over the bridge and into the park, stopping for all creatures great and small.

Helmeted Guinea-fowl

African Fish Eagle

There are quite a few of these little guys.  While I do have the checklist made with the guide, putting a name to a photo is a bit harder!

Grey-headed Kingfisher

Hornbill

Probably an eagle nest

Meves Starling

Lions were fairly common, we saw at least 1 on each drive.

Mid-morning snack

Perspective of how close we were in an open vehicle

Hammerkop

Hornbill

Southern Cordonbleu

Red-necked Francolin

Monitor Lizard

Giraffe with a hitch-hiker

Grey Go-away Bird

We returned to the lodge around noon-ish in time for lunch, then time to rest or swim or whatever until the afternoon.

Expedition To Machile IBA, Zambia – Part 3

In this final installment of my series on Machile IBA (Part 1 & Part 2), we enjoy a leisurely birding drive back along that smaller road to the main road which is the road between Livingstone and Kazangula.  Since I got my target bird, the Black-cheeked Lovebird; it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy seeing some of the other beautiful birds in the area!

Lilac-breasted Roller

Crowned Lapwing

African Openbill Stork – there’s a slight gap and he can’t close his beak completely.

Crowned Lapwing

Malachite Kingfisher

The White-fronted Bee-eater is blurred out but you can see the bright blue of the Malachite Kingfisher in the swamp.

Goshawk??

Crested Barbet

Just a cool angle, not sure what this is but looks like it is half dragon!

Crimson-breasted Shrike trying to hide from the paparazzi!

I was especially happy to see the lovely, elegant Meyer’s Parrot which I had not seen since Tarangire in Tanzania.

Blurry flight shots!

Last look at a local house.

I’ve always admired how African ladies carry these huge things on their heads!

It wasn’t long after reaching the main road that the sun set on our wonderful adventure! 

If you want to visit this area and see these fabulous birds, please contact Chiinga at Savannah Southern Safaris, he’s an amazing guide who found all these gorgeous birds for us!

 

Expedition To Machile IBA, Zambia – Part 2

Continuing on from Part 1, we will now visit the Machile IBA (Important Bird Area) and meet the target bird, the charming little Black-cheeked Lovebirds and a few other birds that were in the area.

We stopped at an office to get permission, then set up in a privately owned farm to look for the lovebirds.  Other birds were in the area as well of course!

Our first sighting, I didn’t get good photos, lucky we saw them again later!

African Harrier Hawk

Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Sunbird

I know I am going a bit overboard with pics of the Black-cheeked Lovebird but considering how rare and endangered they are it’s worth it!

Cardinal Woodpecker

Scarlet-chested Sunbird

Expedition To Machile IBA, Zambia – Part 1

Visiting the Machile IBA which is the stronghold of the lovely little Black-cheeked  Lovebird was one of the highlights of our trip.  Although it seems to be about 130-ish kms from Livingstone and therefore an easy commute, it is anything but easy.  This is not a trip you want to DIY as it involves convoluted little back roads with no signposts.  Thankfully Chiinga from Savannah Southern Safaris and his driver, Ken know how to get out there although even they had to stop and think about a  couple of the forks in the road!

Part 1 will cover the journey to get to Machile IBA.

We were picked up at Fawlty Towers very early, like around 3 or 3:30 am.  The road is in terrible condition and it took around 3 hours to get to the place where we picked up Brian  who was assisting in the conservation project.  This is where we stopped for breakfast.

Just because we were eating breakfast doesn’t mean we stop birding!

Kingfisher

Common Scimitarbill

Heading back down the road to Machile IBA, the roads are basically like these:

Some king of family memorial iirc.

We passed several tiny villages and houses.

Chiinga was standing in the back of the truck and banged the roof to get the driver to stop so I could take photos.  We did see quite a few birds along the way but my photos didn’t turn out so well.  I got better shots on the way back though, so patience!

Zambezi River Sunset Cruise – Lady Livingstone

A must for any tourist in Zambia is a sunset river cruise whether you are a birder or not.  But birders can take full advantage of being in the middle of the river with excellent views over both Zambian and Zimbabwean sides of the river to spot some cool birds!  There are several cruise boat operators in Livingstone, I suggest checking with the reception of your lodge for any current specials they may have.  Fawlty Towers had a $10 off deal on the posh Lady Livingstone and we were able to book it with a few hours notice!

They picked us up about half an hour before the cruise and brought us to the luxury David Livingstone Lodge where we paid for the cruise and waited to board.  This is where we made a mistake, you have to sign in before they let you board and we almost didn’t get seats on the top tier of the boat (best for birders) but luckily I managed to drag a chair over to the rear for stunning views.

Welcome aboard with wine.

Birders want to be on that 3rd deck at the rear.  If you are lucky, one of the crew may know something about birds and join you but I am not sure of crew staffing.  It’s not designed to be a birding cruise.  It’s a sunset cruise with snacks and drinks included.  There is live music on the bottom deck. 

While waiting you can watch other tourists flying overhead in helicopters and light aircraft.

Off we go!

I will try to identify the birds we saw, I do have a check list but can’t match them all to the photos (my bad photography).  I have tons of shots that are even blurrier than these, some of which were Hail Mary’s at the Grey-headed Parrots but no luck!

We saw lots of other boats passing by, none as nice as ours though!  Drinks and snacks are brought around and you can have all you want.  I stopped drinking when it began to affect my ability to hold the camera somewhat straight!  These sunset cruises can also be referred to as “booze cruises” with good reason!

I did one of these ultralight trips back in the mid 90’s from the Zimbabwe side, they have gone way up in price since then!

Sun is beginning to set.

Musicians on the bottom deck, even this shot was blurry but I didn’t have the flash out.

After the cruise, they returned us to Fawlty Towers.  Although it’s not a dinner cruise per se, I found the snacks were filling enough that we weren’t hungry and didn’t need to eat dinner afterwards, more savings!

Visiting Victoria Falls & Mosi-oa-Tunya NP, Zambia

You can choose to see the magnificent Victoria Falls from either Zambia, Zimbabwe or both.  If you want to visit both sides, be sure to get the KAZA visa which is $50 at the point of entry.  Most accommodations have shuttle buses to get you to the park entrance but in our case, we had to go to the National Art Gallery first to pay for our birding trip so we had to hire a taxi from Fawlty Towers to the gallery, then to the park.  We settled a time for the driver to come back and pick us up again.  I forget the actual cost but it was very reasonable.

There is a view point on the Mosi-oa-Tunya Road to see the mist rising above the falls.

You enter the grounds and the taxi will drop you at the place you pay your entrance fee, $10 USD or the equivalent in Kwacha.

You have been warned!

Car park and shopping area, some people choose to have their taxis wait here.

All the trails are very well marked.  Most people will go direct to the falls, get drenched, then walk around the park while they dry off.  That’s what we did!

The closer you get, the wetter you get.  If you don’t have rain ponchos, you can rent or buy them at several kiosks.

The falls are very powerful from this angle.  You can walk across the bridge but I only went as far as the entrance because I was worried about my camera gear.  Even with the ponchos, we were hard pressed to protect the cameras……………and take pictures!

I think these are Egyptian Geese but I only saw them from the rear.

You have to look twice to see which restroom to use!

Nice butterflies!

Signs point the way to the various trails.

Baboons are everywhere so don’t even carry food, they will steal it!

Cordon-blue Waxbill

Helicopters were frequent, birds less frequent but we were there around mid-day so that was probably the reason.

This trail looked interesting but too steep for us.

Beaded bird, I already have one like this from a previous trip.

There are several souvenir shops near the entrance, good place to kill time while waiting for your taxi or shuttle back to town.

This was a pretty brief visit to the falls and there are so many other ways to experience Mosi-oa-Tunya NP such as helicopers, light aircraft, rafting and the traditional Zambezi River cruise………………more on that coming soon!

Livingstone National Art Gallery

This was a lucky coincidence as I hadn’t been researching galleries or museums thinking we wouldn’t have time to visit either.  But I needed to pay for the birding trip with Savannah Southern Safaris (wait for the separate post) and they happen to be located in the lobby of the National Art Gallery.

We had taken a taxi out there and the driver was waiting as I thought it would be a quick run in, put the credit card through the machine and back off to the Victoria Falls waterfall area.  It actually took quite awhile as the girl tried again and again to process the credit card and couldn’t get a connection.  This gave me plenty of time to look around the art gallery.  They have an amazing variety of artwork for sale and I highly recommend coming out here both to see the art and book Savannah Southern Safaris!

Here’s some of what you can expect!

I was quite tempted by that one with the birds in the trees but it was over my budget and too big for the backpack.

Happily the credit card finally went through and I not only paid for my birding trip but bought these two bird drawings by Alec Lishandu which are now on my living room wall!

Planning A Birding Safari To Zambia

Zambia is one of the fastest growing destinations for Africa safaris.  The parks here are much less crowded than those in surrounding countries and the Big 5 can be easily seen.  Birders can look forward to seeking 779 species of which one is endemic.

Zambia’s airports are smaller and they don’t have as many airlines as other safari destinations but careful planners can still use their miles to get here.  Star Alliance and SkyTeam have the most options via Addis Ababa, Johannesburg and Nairobi.   If you have limited time and finances you will really have to make some tough decisions on how many parks to visit. It really helps if you know what species are your priority. For some people this may be raptors or trying to check off all the endemics. For me it’s always parrots first, then songbirds, then other birds and mammals.

Lillian’s Lovebirds at South Luangwa NP

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see. I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that. Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.

I always check bird sightings on eBird, you can see my full guide on locating bird species .

I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more. The trip reports will show you which parks you need to concentrate on. Once you have this, you can start contacting birding tour operators or safari companies that are well-recommended for quotes.  If you are traveling on your own, it’s worthwhile to note when the birding groups will be in the area as they will have the best guides already reserved and you may not even find accommodation.

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

I had 2 definite target birds (Black-cheeked Lovebirds and Lillian’s Lovebirds) and a third maybe target (Grey-headed Parrot).   My research revealed that the Black-cheeked Lovebirds had a stronghold in the Machile area, Lillian’s Lovebirds were regularly seen in South Luangwa National Park and Grey-headed parrots had been reported from the Zambezi River cruises.  Meyers Parrots are seen all over Zambia.  I was prioritizing parrots knowing that plenty of other bird species would be in the same habitats so chose these locations:

LIVINGSTONE:  ZAMBEZI RIVER CRUISE, VICTORIA FALLS WALK & DAY TRIP TO MACHILE IBA

Grey-headed parrot, Poicephalus suahelicus

Meyers Parrot, Poicephalus meyeri

Black-cheeked lovebird, Agapornis nigrigenis

SOUTH LUANGWA NP/MFUWE

Lillian’s lovebird, Agapornis lilianae

 

Here is a map showing the locations.

 

 

HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR OWN BIRDING SAFARI

In Zambia, it’s very rare for tourists to self-drive cars and the rates are very high as they all have a per kilometre charge and Zambia involves great distances.   Domestic flights are operated by Proflight Zambia and they are not cheap but could be a good option if your time is limited.  They do not partner with any airline alliances so you would be up for the cash.

Buses between major cities are very cheap and reasonably comfortable.  If the bus has a 2 x 3 configuration, I recommend buying 3 seats so you can be more comfortable and keep your bags with you.  I will have a separate post on the Zambia bus experience.  We used buses for all travel between Lusaka, Livingstone and Mfuwe.

For the day trip to Machile IBA, I was recommended to Savannah Southern Safaris and the excellent birding guide Chiinga.  They organized the 4×4 to Machile IBA as well.

South Luangwa NP has many options for all budgets which usually include the accommodation, food and game drives into the park.  We went for a backpacker package with the beautiful Marula Lodge.

VISA FOR ZAMBIA

Visas are issued on arrival to most nationalities on payment of a $50 fee in cash or credit card.  It was very straightforward and smooth, didn’t take long at all.

BEST SEASON TO TRAVEL

There’s a couple things to consider, the weather and potential crowds.  I always check the weather on Weather2Travel.  Zambian weather was a priority as I knew the places we were visiting would be difficult to reach if it were raining.  May is in the dry season and we enjoyed good weather throughout the trip.

If you have “must-see” bird species, always check eBird to make sure the birds are being seen that time of year by other birders.

OTHER HELPFUL RESOURCES

WhatsApp:  I am not on this app but if you are, look up a group called ‘Birds of Interest’ which comprises professional birders such as my guide Chiinga and amateur birders based in Livingstone.
Birdwatch Zambia – can refer you to guides.

BOTTOM LINE

Zambia is by far the best safari experience we have had in Africa and I have been going to Africa since the mid ’80’s!  The game drives (which will be covered in detail) were amazing, the best I had ever been on!

The only thing that would have made the experience better would have been to self drive between major cities and then use the guides/drivers we already did.  The buses just took forever and we spent way too much time on them.  Most Zambians seem to speak English, some more fluent than others and we had no trouble communicating.  The tourist infrastructure is very good.  Guides are very well trained and I was amazed at how well they spot birds and animals even in dense bush!

As this report progresses, you will see just how amazing Zambia is, and if you can only afford to visit one country in Africa and want an all-round birding and Top 5 animal experience, you can’t go wrong in Zambia!

Getting Lost Near Menagesha Forest & The Addis Ababa Merkato (Market)

This was a big miscalculation on my part.  I knew that many birders stay at the Ghion Hotel so I assumed they would have birding guides on call who would be able to take us out to Menagesha Forest.  They didn’t, or at least  the staff on duty the evening we arrived didn’t.  The manager did manage to line up a car and driver to take us out there and I knew roughly where it was from Google maps and eBird.

The driver showed up promptly in the early morning and off we went.  It took a while to escape Addis Ababa because of traffic but we finally got out into the countryside.  It was interesting to see some of the transport options the local people have!

An Ethiopian Airlines plane made into a restaurant.  I wish we would have had time to check it out!

Getting out into the forest areas, we started seeing baboons on the road.

This is where we turned and we did end up in a section of Menagesha Forest after a long drive but it wasn’t the main entrance.  We never did find that, a shame as we possibly could have found a guide there.

I heard something that sounded like parrot screeches so we stopped and went for a walk.

The driver (white shirt), my husband and a boy who just happened to be near the stream.

Yellow-fronted Parrots flying overhead

Blue-fronted Bee-eaters near a small stream

Speckled Mousebird

Common Waxbill

We happened to pass the Born Free Sanctuary so stopped in hoping that there would be people knowledgeable about birds.  There weren’t any birders but one of the guards showed us the lions for a small donation.

Heading back to Addis Ababa, we saw some roadside markets.

The last place I wanted to see was the Merkato, the largest market place in Africa.  I had heard it was full of pick-pockets and thieves and we had expensive cameras with us so we opted for a slow drive around the market with photos out the window.  It was still interesting to see people going about their daily business!

We had been in a minibus like this one for the trip from the Lake Langano turn-off to Ziway, where we changed to a normal bus.

There were some pretty traditional dresses.

Amazing what some people can carry!

All in all, it was a very interesting excursion, though I think we would have had more success with the birding if we had had a qualified birding guide.  I probably should have emailed the hotel and tried to set one up well in advance but I had gotten used to hotels popular with birders having guides on call.  I paid the driver around $70 in a combination of USD and Birr and it was worth it for a half day excursion.  He was a nice guy, I forgot his name but his photo is above.