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.

Birding The Ghion Hotel’s Garden

I was really hoping this would be a better experience but the weather was against me for most of the afternoon I had free to explore the Ghion Hotel’s beautiful gardens.  Here is a glimpse of the birds I managed to find.

Tacazze Sunbird

Abyssinian Thrush

Abyssinian Slaty Fly-catcher

Speckled Mousebirds

Wattled Ibis in flight

Speckled Mousebird

Wedding party arrives for a photo shoot, they barely missed being rained out!

 

Bird Walk With Hakim At Hara Langano

For serious birders hoping to see as many species as possible, you really need to book Hara Langano’s resident bird guide, Hakim.  He is an expert on the the local birds and knows all the calls and can ID all the birds.  He helped me fill out my bird list, unfortunately my photos didn’t come out as well as I hoped.

We started quite early and headed out past a small village.  The weather was drizzly and gloomy and we were wearing rain ponchos.  We did attract a lot of attention and some kids kept following us around.

My husband, Ina meeting locals.

Hakim (red jacket), Ina and some locals.  We did cop some rain and were wearing ponchos to protect the cameras.

The tiny endemic Black-winged Lovebird came fairly close, just couldn’t get them in good light due to the weather.

Some of these photos are so dark I can’t identify the birds.  If you go, I hope you get better pics!

White-cheeked Turaco

Bare-faced Go-away Bird

Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike

Grey-headed Kingfisher

Von der Decken’s Hornbill

The next morning we had some time before we had to get the transport to the main road and hung out near the gate.  The weather was better and I was able to get some better pics, especially of the gorgeous little Black-cheeked Lovebirds!  Indulge me while I post some (finally) good pics!

Hakim had been booked by others in the lodge for a village walk but he came and sat with us while waiting for them to finish breakfast.  We set out on a short walk in the same direction as the day before.  Hakim soon caught up with his group in tow and was happy to point out some birds to all of us.

Bruce’s Green Pigeon

Not sure about this little guy

Hoopoe

Blue-breasted Bee-eater

Silvery-cheeked Hornbill

Violet-backed Starling

 

I saw a LOT more birds than I got photos of, my full list is on eBird.  I do highly recommend Hakim as a guide, I wouldn’t have seen half those birds without him!

Birds, Hippos & Monkeys At Hara Langano Lodge

You don’t have to go far to start seeing birds and even the elegant Colobus Monkey, a walk around the Hara Langano Lodge grounds or even just sitting by the lake will do!

Weaverbird nests are everywhere!

Those are flamingoes beyond the horses.

Egyptian Geese are common.

This Bare-faced Go-away Bird didn’t tell us to go away, the slacker!

These hippos stayed in the lake but they are known to come into the lodge grounds.

The beautiful Colobus Monkeys stayed in the trees, they don’t try to steal food like other monkeys I have seen around the world.

Planning A Birding Safari In Ethiopia

I have to admit that when “birding” and even “safari” is mentioned, Ethiopia is not the first African country to come to mind.  Most tourists come here for the ancient churches and culture.  However to those in the know, Ethiopia has 924 species of birds, 23 of which are endemic.

Ethiopia is the hub of one of Africa’s largest airlines and is very easy to get to with airline miles, especially for Star Alliance members.   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.

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 was a bit nervous about visiting Ethiopia as there were some riots in Oct 2016 and the lodge I was planning to stay at, Bishangari had been burned to the ground.  I decided to keep the visit to the minimum I would need to see my two target parrots, the Yellow-fronted Parrot and Black-winged Lovebird.  Both were usually seen at Bishangari and hopefully also at the nearby lodge which we booked called Hara Langano.  Then I wanted to make a day trip to Menagesha Forest for another chance at the same two parrots and also have time to explore the gardens of the Ghion Hotel where most birders stay in Addis Ababa.  I was prioritizing parrots knowing that plenty of other bird species would be in the same habitats so chose these locations:

HARA LANGANO LODGE

Yellow-fronted parrot, Poicephalus flavifrons

Black-winged lovebird, Agapornis taranta

GHION HOTEL

Black-winged lovebird, Agapornis taranta plus many other endemics.

MENAGESHA FOREST

Same as Hara Langano.

Here is a map showing the locations.

 

HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR OWN BIRDING SAFARI

In Ethiopia, it’s very rare for tourists to self-drive cars and you will have to use some kind of transport with a driver included. These drivers probably won’t know anything about birds so you will also need a guide at each park/reserve you visit. There are usually guides hanging around national parks waiting for customers so this won’t be a problem. You may decide that it’s more convenient to just join an organized tour such as those whom I mentioned above if you can afford it.

When I booked Hara Langano Lodge, they offered minibus transport for $50 per person shared among whoever was traveling that day.  It turned out that we were the only ones.  For the return I planned to save money by using public transportation.

For the day trip to Menagesha, I planned to use a hired car and driver from the hotel and find a guide at the park.  This didn’t work out quite so well as we got lost trying to find the entrance to the park and ended up on the wrong side.  We did find some birds but not as many as if we had entered the park proper.

VISA FOR ETHIOPIA

Visas are issued on arrival to most nationalities on payment of a $50 fee in cash.  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. In my case, since we were going to other places in Africa we went in the moderate rainy season (April/May 2017) but it wasn’t too bad.  Hara Langano was nice and we got a few evening showers in Addis Ababa.

 

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.

BOTTOM LINE

Although Ethiopia isn’t the top birding destination in Africa, it is growing in popularity and becoming easier to access.  We had no major problems when we were there other than attracting some curious teenagers at the bus stop on the road to Addis.  This was the most challenging country to “wing it”  as outside the hotels hardly anyone spoke English and they aren’t used to seeing tourists not in groups.  We did get the target birds although the Yellow-fronted Parrot didn’t come out in the open to be photographed which was disappointing.  The Black-winged Lovebirds did make a few quality showings!

 

Day Trip To Mpanga Forest, Uganda

Although the weather wasn’t the best, this day trip to Mpanga Forest about 90 minutes from Entebbe was still a pleasant trip.  It was one I could relax and enjoy since I had already found my target birds in the Entebbe Botanical Gardens.

I negotiated a full day rate with the driver, Robert from the Shoebill Safari (they can put you in contact with him) for 300,000 UGS.  We left very early to try to get to the forest as early as possible.

We went past lots of small markets and villages.

Turn off to the forest.

A bit muddy from the rain.

There are some cabins you can rent at the Mpanga Forest and this is where you pay the entrance fees and hire a guide.  There are official prices for everything, cash only.

The outhouse

Setting off on the trail with the guide.

Lots of pretty butterflies

Dug out tree roots, not sure what critter did this.

Trails are well marked but dark due to the overhead canopy.

Mousebird

Pied Kingfisher

We left after an hour as it was getting drizzly and not many birds around.  We were sitting around the picnic area for awhile to relax and see if the weather got better but it didn’t.  We drove back to the nearest town – Mpigi to get some lunch.

The restaurant had local food which was ok, not really to my taste but it was…………..ok.  The rice was good but the meat was too tough to eat.  Definitely cheap!

Heading back to Entebbe we passed more small markets and roadside stalls.

All in all it was an interesting trip though not the best for birding.  Maybe in a different season.  I had also considered Mabiri Forest  but that seemed too far for a day trip but it would make a nice overnight trip.

Entebbe Botanical Gardens – The Birds

If you’ve been to most botanical gardens around the world, you may be expecting lots of flowers in organized garden plots. That’s not what the Entebbe Botanical Gardens is like.  It’s more like a large city park or small nature reserve with lots of trees-which of course attract lots of birds!  It’s also one of the most reliable places to see wild African Grey Parrots which was why I planned this visit.  Even if you are headed elsewhere in Uganda, it’s well worth a visit.

If you want to see as many birds as possible you need 2 things.  A vehicle (because this place is HUGE and you have to chase the birds if they fly off) and a guide.  Most hotels can organize a car for a set number of hours.  I paid around 100,000 UGS for 2 or 3 hours, I forget what it was.  You can pick up a guide at the gate, there will be several waiting and they seem to have their own rostering system.  Just make sure the one you get knows birds, maybe test them on a few photos first.  We got a guy named Bright who was excellent in both bird spotting and identification.  The standard fee is 20,000 UGS and I gave him a bonus of 20,000 UGS for finding the Grey Parrots because he really worked hard to find them.

Cool sculpture along the road.

Entrance to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, this is where you pay the entry and hire a guide.

Monkeys were all over the place.

The shores of Lake Victoria is where you see a lot of water birds.  We were driving back and forth so the same birds were seen on different passes in this area.

Weaverbird

Pied Kingfisher

Little Egret

Red-chested Sunbird Now we’re in a more wooded area as Bright heard the Ross’s Turaco calling and quickly spotted him.

Wicked looking spider!

Great Blue Turaco

This one is too obscured, if anyone knows what it is, please comment.

Woodland Kingfisher

Fish Eagle

Bad shots of random birds, if anyone can help with these, let me know.  I do have a bird checklist on eBird.

Black and White Casqued Hornbill

Colobus Monkey

Saving the best for last-the wonderful African Grey Parrots!  There were around 10-12 frolicking in the trees but not all of them came into view.  Thankfully a few did!

Notable birds that I didn’t get pics of were the Meyers Parrot that flew overhead that Bright couldn’t find perching and the Red-headed Lovebirds we spotted on our last visit (no guide available as it was late) who were flitting around the flowered bushes near the lake.

Mabamba Shoebill Safari

One of the highlights for anyone visiting Entebbe (even before or after a gorilla safari) is the canoe ride through Mabamba Swamp to see the prehistoric looking Shoebill Stork.  I booked with Mabamba Shoebill Tours based in the Sunset Hotel in Entebbe on Church Road which was just down the road from Lake Heights Hotel.  The manager, Olive was very friendly and helpful as were all her staff.  It’s great how they involve the local community, eco-tourism in action!  The price was very reasonable at $150 for both of us.

The driver picked us up early and we drove through the town to the boat dock.

My husband Ina, the driver and Vincent the guide

Red-eyed Dove near the dock

Fishermen at work

Bird making use of floating junk as a fishing launch!

Entering the Mabamba Swamp

Vincent on the lookout for Shoebills

Beautiful Malachite Kingfisher Weaverbirds

At last we spot our target bird, the amazing Shoebill Stork!

The Shoebill flew away and we tried to follow but the water was too low and we ran aground.  I was nervous until they pushed us free and headed back to the main waterway.

US Air Force plane flying overhead as we head back to shore.  I have no idea why it was there, I didn’t even know what it was until I got the pic uploaded!