Mozambique! The word conjures up images of long white beaches, palm trees and warm tropical waters teaming with life, however, this massive country has so much more on offer and the vast interior is still extremely wild and largely unexplored. From a birding perspective, Gorongosa and the Zambezi River floodplain provide some of the best birding.
When I was recently offered the opportunity to visit Mozambique on a dedicated birding tour, I leapt at the opportunity and was soon putting kilometres of tarmac behind me en-route to some of the best birding locations in central Mozambique. Our group consisted of a party of six that was ably led by Etienne Marais of Indicator Birding. I travelled with Martin Taylor from BirdLife South Africa, who has spent much effort in supporting the development of avi-tourism in Mozambique. Martin has also been working hard with his Mozambican colleagues in founding the “Associação Ambiente, Conservação e Educação Moçambique” or AACEM for short. 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.
1 of 12. Entrance signage to the Gorongosa National Park
Arriving late at our first overnight destination at Nhambita Camp, which is only three kilometres from the entrance gate to Gorongosa National Park, we settled into our safari tents in eager anticipation of the next day and were quickly drifting into sleep against the sounds of hooting African wood owls and spotted eagle-owls. Hot cups of coffee and home made rusks tore the sleep away from our eyes long before the sun thought of awakening and as the gates of the national park opened, we were already eagerly searching the rank grasslands and large trees for our first birding party. A green-spotted woodpecker was the first “special” to be seen and in the undergrowth, red-throated twinspots could be heard. A juvenile bateleur sunned itself in a large dead tree and in the stands of palm trees, collared palm-thrush pairs hopped in and out of view.
2 of 12. Male Tambourine Dove hidden in the dense undergrowth
The Urema River Floodplain was our main destination and after a quick walk through the main tourism camp, where we found red-winged warblers, purple-banded sunbirds, grey-headed parrots, trumpeter hornbills and green-winged pytilia’s, we drove through the extensive palm savannahs to reach the open grasslands around the floodplain. Thousands of waterbuck, oribi, impalas, common reedbucks, bushbuck and warthogs grazed around the shoreline making this one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles that I have ever had the privilege of viewing. The skies above were filled with several pairs of African fish eagles, hundreds of circling white-backed, hooded, white-headed and lappet-faced vultures and countless storks and pelicans.
3 of 12. A quite side stream that flows into the Urema floodplain within Gorongosa National Park
These flocks of yellow-billed storks, great-white and pink-backed pelicans and African openbills all landed in a shallow backwater and were quickly joined by pairs of saddle-billed storks, goliath herons, black egrets and little egrets to feed in a frenzy on masses of small fish that had become trapped in the muddy waters. Grey crowned cranes, collared pratincoles, long-toed plovers, wooly-necked storks and a family of ground hornbills either walked or rested along the waters edge, adding to this mind-blowing avian display that kept us enthralled for a good couple of hours.
4 of 12. Oribi, along with common reedbusck and waterbuck occur in large numbers on the Urema floodplain within Gorongosa National Park
With time moving on, our return to Nhambita Camp in the afternoon added black-bellied bustard, knob-billed duck, eastern nicator, bearded scrub-robin, grey-backed cameroptera, brown-headed parrot, greater honeyguide, white-breasted cuckoo-shrike, red-faced crombec, pale batis, purple indigobird and lemon-breasted canary to a growing list of more commonly viewed birds.
5 of 12. Long-toed Lapwing on the Urema floodplain
After another fitful nights sleep and a day of rising early, we drove out of camp before sunrise and were soon turning off the tar road and onto a bumpy dirt track. The impoverished kraals and laughing waving children that lined our route soon gave way to impenetrable sugar cane and rank vegetation that towered over the ever upward winding and slippery track. Driving higher, a blanket of thick mist closed down over us, further adding to the mystery of our destination. At a rough parking spot we left our vehicles, shouldered our packs and began with a slow upward slog until the blurred forms of giant trees emerged from out of the mist. Here, finally, I was fulfilling a life-long dream of standing on the slopes of Gorongosa Mountain deep in central Mozambique. The swirling mist allowed occasional views of Livingstone’s turacos, variable sunbird males with their bright yellow bellies, moustached grass warblers and orange-breasted waxbills. These species were only the appetisers to what specials lay ahead for us in the treetops of the mist-belt forest.
6 of 12. Mist shrouded forest on the slopes of Gorongosa Mountain
Wandering deep into the forest, we found a resting spot amongst a jumble of boulders and then while seated, craned our necks skywards towards the canopy of the forest and strained our ears for the slightest sound of a calling bird. Our vigil was soon rewarded with a birding party that in one go added several “lifers” to my list. The first and most sought after special was the green-headed oriole that only occurs in Mozambique on this single mountain. Black-fronted bush-shrike, Chirinda apalis, white-tailed crested flycatcher and grey cuckoo-shrike where all new species to me and it took a long while to keep the grin off my face after a spectacular mornings birding that also produced moustached warbler, black-winged bishop and singing cisticola on the walk back to the vehicles.
7 of 12. Male Green-backed Woodpecker
From Gorongosa, we headed north to the Zambezi River, made famous by David Livingstone and where his wife’s remains still lie. Our base from which we explored the area was Mphingwe Camp that in its own right was an incredible birding hotspot. Birdbaths have been placed around the camp and a few hours spent quietly sitting next to these drinking spots not only provided me with brilliant views of red duikers but also bathing red-throated twinspots, tambourine doves, red-capped robin-chats, sombre and yellow-bellied greenbuls, African paradise flycatchers and scaly-throated honeyguide.
8 of 12. Livingstones Turaco
In the vast lowland forests of Catapu, within half an hours drive of the camp, our outings were accompanied with light pattering rain that did little to stem the magnificent dawn chorus of singing birds. As the light improved, we located numerous bird parties with black-headed apalis, African broadbills, square-tailed drongo, Livingstone’s flycatchers, chestnut-fronted helmet-shrikes, tiny greenbuls, yellow-streaked greenbuls and blue-mantled crested flycatchers. In the undergrowth with careful searching we were fortunate in locating east-coast akalat and some in our group were even luckier to view a shy and very elusive white-breasted alethe. Above the canopies, grey-headed parrots could be heard shrieking and silvery-cheeked hornbills flew alongside their far noisier trumpeter hornbill cousins. Raptors were particularly plentiful with the highlight being repeated sightings of southern-banded snake eagles.
9 of 12. Male Red-Throated Twinspot bathing in one of the many birdbaths found in Mphingwe Camp.
Sadly, for me, time was against us and our ventures into this incredible area were way too brief. I came away with having visited places that I had long dreamed about and had added bird species to my life list that to me had only been pictures in a guidebook. The Mozambican bug had definitely bitten me and without a doubt, I will be back to further explore this wild and truly un-tamed area of our special Africa.
10 of 12. Scaly-Throated Honeyguide
Habitats: River floodplain, Lowland forest, Swamps and wetland, Grasslands, Mist belt forest
Specials: Long-Toed Lapwing, African Pitta, Green-Headed Oriole, White-Breasted Alethe, Livingstone’s Flycatcher, Chestnut-Fronted Helmet Shrike, Red-Throated Twinspot
11 of 12. Collared Palm Thrush
Getting There: Both Gorongosa and the Zambezi River floodplain, near Mphingwe and Caia lie in the central Mozambique province of Sofala and may be easily reached via the EN1 tar road
Accommodation & Activities: Indicator Birding arranges guided birding tours through southern and central Mozambique. The Nhambita camp on the border of Gorongosa National Park is a rustic bush camp comprising several safari tents that are placed under reed awnings. The camp allows easy access to the National Park and the owners also arrange guided tours up the Gorongosa Mountain with an expert bird guide. Mphingwe Camp provides comfortable chalets with restaurant facilities. The camp is the ideal launching point to explore the surrounding lowland forest and to make day trips into the Zambezi River floodplain.
12 of 12 Eastern Nicator