Mozambique Birding - Limpopo Floodplain, Panda & Unguane Hot

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Pale Batis by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick.jpg

Imagine being able to have the chance to add Eurasian Bittern, Malagasy Pond-Heron, Allen’s Gallinule, Olive-Headed Weaver, Southern Hyliota and as an added bonus the Green Tinkerbird to your life lists all while exploring amazing countryside within a diversity of habitats. 

When I was asked to join a birding trip through southern/central Mozambique, all of this became a reality and by the end of a five-day trip, that was part of a longer exploration, we had tallied up well over 200 species with at least 10 of those being lifers!

Mozambique is generally only thought of as a beach holiday destination but it certainly also has to be one of the last un-explored frontiers when it comes to birding in southern Africa. BirdLife South Africa has been working hard with the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund to promote Mozambique as a birding destination and they have assisted in founding the “Associação Ambiente, Conservação e Educação Moçambique”. AACEM is a bird conservation orientated organization that is based in Maputo, Mozambique. By focusing on birds, and the sites and habitats on which they depend, AACEM is working to improve the quality of life of birds, biodiversity and people.

Whiskered Tern by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

1 of 11: Whiskered Tern flying over the Limpopo Floodplain.

The target areas for this trip focused around the vast wetlands of the Limpopo River Floodplain, the miombo woodlands of Panda with their stunning trees that extended into the skies and the coastal thickets around Unguane. The real beauty of this trip was that all our destinations were easily reached via short detours off the main E1N1 highway that is the main tar road artery through Mozambique and which links the South African border town of Komatipoort with Maputo and Beira. Where we did deviate from the tar road, all gravel roads were in good condition and there was no need to even engage in diff-lock, let alone full 4x4.

malagasy pond heron by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

2 of 11: Malagasy Pond Heron found en-route to Panda.

After crossing the Lebombo border post between Komatipoort and Ressano Garcia the drive to reach the Limpopo River Floodplain is around 320kms and although this distance may seem short, it must always be remembered that travelling through Mozambique takes far longer than initially anticipated. We set our first nights stopover to be the Honeypot Camp that is located within a stones throw of the start of the floodplain and which would allow us an easy early morning start from where we could begin the days birding. In the case of all of our chosen overnight stopovers, the accommodation was rustic self-catering that was always clean and comfortable and all had electrical power points available for the charging of camera batteries, laptops, cell-phone etc. Driving into the Honeypot Camp, one of the first things that is immediately noticed is the sign that clearly states “Malaria!” Mozambique is well known for this terrible sickness and preventative measures should be taken at all times to avoid it.

Eurasian Bittern by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

3 of 11: Eurasian Bittern found in the wetlands en-route to Panda woodlands.

Birding around the Limpopo River Floodplain is largely dependent on water levels and during the winter months, thick mist may also be present during the early mornings between the ox-bow lakes, marshes and open bodies of water. The people that live around the area are extremely friendly and through a happy wave and a smile will eagerly engage with you, though the language barrier remains a problem unless you are fluent in Portuguese.

Panda woodlands by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

4 of 11: Miombo Woodlands around Panda.

Lake Sacativa on the southern end of the floodplain lies within half an hours drive from Honeypot Camp and as our first stop amongst the marshy areas, birding was excellent with Ballion’s Crake, Allen’s Gallinule, Lesser Jacana, African Pygmy Geese and numerous African Reed Warblers and Rufous-winged Cisticolas being quickly seen amongst the marshy areas. Whiskered Terns, African Openbills, African Spoonbills, Purple Herons, Squacco Herons and Fulvous Whistling Ducks constantly flew overhead adding to the impressive birding spectacle. A short wander down the road took us to open water where subsistence fishers polled their way through the waterlogged vegetation in a variety of rather un-seaworthy dugout canoes, all the while laying out their nets to trap fish.

Lizard Buzzard by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

5 of 11: Lizzard Buzzard are commonly found in the miombo woodlands around Panda.

On these open bodies of water, it is not uncommon to see a birding feeding frenzy, where flotilla’s of Great White and Pink-Backed Pelicans have encircled and trapped a shoal of fish in the shallow waters. This in turn attracts Black Herons, Marabou Storks, Saddle-Billed Storks, Yellow-Billed Storks, Goliath Herons, Great Egrets and African Sacred Ibis’s to the bonanza of food on offer and even the numerous African Fish Eagles will try and cash in by making low swoops in the hope of stealing a fish from an unwary heron or stork. The short marshy grasslands around the verges of the wetlands hold roosting flocks of Southern Pochard, Hottentot Teal, Red-Billed Teal and Collared Pratincoles and for the lucky, good sightings of Rosy-Throated Longclaws may also be had.

Male Southern Hyliota in flight by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick 

6 of 11: Male Southern Hyliota flying from the miombo woodland canopy.

In order to fully maximize the birding potential of the area, it easily possible to spend at least two days exploring the Limpopo River Floodplain, but in our case, time was sadly limited and we left the area around midday to travel the 160kms northwards through the towns of Chissibuco and Quissico. This was so as to reach the good quality bush thickets that are reminiscent of northern Zululand at our next overnight destination. The Caju Afrique camp is set alongside a large open lake system where fishing Dhows crisscross over it and the wooden chalets placed along is banks each have their own walkway down to the lakes sandy shores. The thickets around the lodge are worthwhile exploring and as late afternoon approaches, they come alive with Purple-Banded Sunbirds, Grey Sunbirds, Gorgeous Bushshrike, African Broadbills, Rudd’s Apalis, Pink-Throated Twinspots, Tambourine Doves and Livingstone’s Turacos. In amongst the fever trees, Burnt-Necked Eremomelas, Grey-Penduline Tits, Dark-Capped Yellow Warbler and Chinspot Batis are regular sightings and as dusk begins to fall the resident African Wood Owls give away their presence by calling.

Gold-banded forester butterfly by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

7 of 11: Gold-banded Forester butterfly near Unguane.

On this trip, we always arose way before the sun even thought of awakening and so as to make sure that we reached our chosen locality as the dawn chorus of birds began. This was to prove critical in our attempt to locate the Eurasian Bittern as this is when they are most likely to be heard “booming” from deep within the marshy wetlands that they inhabit. Between Chacane and Panda, a vast swampland is one of the best areas to locate this extremely shy bird and surprisingly, at our first stopping point, a bittern was heard booming within minutes of our arrival and even more surprisingly, it then took off and flew directly past us, allowing brilliant views of these beautifully marked birds, before it dropped down again into the thick reeds. While driving between the sections of wetland the area is also good for locating Southern Banded Snake Eagles, Dickenson’s Kestrels and Collared Palm-Thrushes that inhabit the tangled thickets where stunted palms grow adjacent to the road. The Malagasy Pond-Heron is another highly sought after rare species that may be found in these wetlands and that is a winter visitor to Mozambique from Madagascar. It is slightly larger than the similar looking Squacco Heron and also has a heavier bill and darker streaking on the throat and breast.

Green Tinkerbird by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

8 of 11: Green Tinkerbird at Unguane.

The miombo-woodlands that lie just beyond and to the east of the town of Panda are the prime reason for visiting this area. Sadly, these woodlands are shrinking rapidly due to slash and burn farming practices and one of the hopes of promoting birding in the area is that the tourism value of these woodlands will eventually warrant their protection and support by local communities. We reached these woodlands during early morning and after parking our vehicles, we wandered slowly through the stands of tall trees. Birds in these woodlands are not overly plentiful and most birding is done with necks craning high up into the treetops and in the hope of locating a passing birding party. When one of these parties is located, the jackpot is definitely struck with Olive-Headed Weavers, Pale Batis’s, Red-Headed Weavers, White-Breasted Cuckoo-Shrikes, Southern Hyliota, Neergaard’s Sunbirds and Red-faced Crombec’s being expected. In the skies above, Mascarene Martins should also be looked for during the winter months.

Little Bee-eater Pair by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

9 of 11: A pair of Little Bee-eaters.

From Panda, the drive to Morrungulo is 160kms and passes through the towns of Maxixe, Morrumbene and Massinga. Morrungulo itself is not a great birding destination and the main purpose of stopping here is that it is an easy launching pad to what is probably the highlight of this leg of the Mozambican adventure, the thicket vegetation around Unguane. In January 1958, a small non-descript greenish bird was collected as part of a museum collection from near the town of Chicomo in central Mozambique. The label on its preserved skin read “Green Tinkerbird” and for the next five and a half decades, the species was not recorded again and many actually believed that the museum specimen had been mislabeled! At least, that was until January 2012, when a group of South African ornithologists relocated a small population of these birds near the village of Unguane. This find, caused a wave of excitement amongst the birding fraternity and placed the previously unknown village firmly on the map as a priority to visit. To date, this non-descript bird has probably been seen by less than 150 people!

seed pods by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

10 of 11: A vast diversity of trees and plants in dense woodlands are the key to attracting numerous bird species in Central Mozambique.

We made sure that we left Morrungulo extremely early in order to be in the area of the tinkerbirds just before dawn. On our arrival, the dawn chorus was extremely worthwhile in locating Red-Throated Twinspots, Plain-Backed Sunbirds, Chestnut-Fronted Helmet-Shrikes and Livingston’s Flycatchers. To locate the tinkerbirds, it is best to wander the numerous dirt trails and tracks where giant knarled baobab trees can be seen. These ancient trees attract both Bohm’s and Mottled Spinetails and Grey-Rumped Swallows are also often encountered in the skies above. The tinkerbirds are easily overlooked and it is best to listen for their soft but fast series of eight to ten “pop” calls. Should you choose to make use of a playback call to try and attract them, please use this sparring and play back softly, as it must be remembered that this will cause stress to the birds who will believe that there is an intruder within their territory. In our case we spent several hours traipsing through the network of pathways before we heard a distant call that had us quickly scurrying down a sidetrack. Panting from exertion, we could barely hold our binoculars when we found a Green Tinkerbird in all its diminutive glory sitting high in a dead tree calling.

Red succulent flowers by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick

11 of 11: Succulents and aloes with bright coloured flowers may be found within the Panda woodlands attracting numerous sunbirds of several species.

Mozambique is a vast and incredible country that offers globally exciting birding and this article only describes a mere fraction of what is actually available. It is hoped that this will excite you enough to want to support ACCEM and help in making birding a viable tourism opportunity for the areas described herein.

 Season and weather: Summer is the hot and wet season, when afternoon thunderstorms can be expected. Temperatures sore into the 40 degrees plus, so always have plenty of drinking fluids available. Winters are cooler and vegetation is drier and easier to see through. Be aware that Mozambique is a malaria area.

Habitats:
River floodplain Swamps and wetlands Miombo Woodland Coastal scrub forest Coastal Bush Thicket

Specials:
Eurasian Bittern, Malagasy Pond Heron, Green Tinkerbird, White-Breasted Cuckoo-shrike, Pale Batis, Southern Hyliota

Accommodation & Activities:
Indicator Birding arranges guided birding tours through southern and central Mozambique. The Honeypot camp comprises several comfortable chalets. The camp allows easy access to the Limpopo Floodplain. Caju Afrique provides comfortable wooden chalets that lie on the banks of a large lakeshore. The camp is the ideal launching point to explore the surrounding floodplains and Panda Miombo woodlands.

Reservations & Contacts:

Associação Ambiente, Conservação e Educação Moçambiqu. http://www.mozambiquebirds.com

Indicator Birding Etienne Marais Web: http://www.birding.co.za Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Honeypot Camp Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Caju Afrique Tel: 083 784 4393 Ponta Morrungulo Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Peter Chadwick
Author: Peter ChadwickWebsite: http://www.peterchadwick.co.zaEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
About
As a dedicated conservationist, Peter Chadwick has 30 years strategic and operational conservation experience in terrestrial and marine protected area management. He has worked within all of the major biomes in southern Africa as well as having provided expert conservation advice at a global level. His conservation and wildlife photography is a natural extension to his conservation work where he has numerous opportunities to capture photographs that showcase the beauty and complexity of the outdoors. Peter’s photography is internationally recognized, with this work appearing globally in a wide range of print and electronic media.