Malawi – One for the birds!

Jan 25, 2012 |  Birding
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Birding expert, Martin Benadie, led a 12-day birding expedition through some of Malawi’s most diverse and wildlife rich areas, aimed at finding some of the country’s key species – as it covered a great diversity of ecosystems from grass plains to miombo woodland to riparian thickets. This inaugural Africa Geographic trip to Malawi was a resounding success and much enjoyed by all participants. The final bird tally amounted to 359 species and good mammal viewing was also enjoyed, at Nyika and Liwonde National Parks in particular.

This safari showcased the extraordinary montane area of Nyika National Park with its wide range of birding habitats, from miombo woodland, wetlands and montane forest to picturesque rolling grasslands. The region affords visiting birders some incredible birding opportunities and is home to several Southern Rift endemics and many species restricted to south-central Africa. Other than Nyika, the main trip also visited the Viphya Plateau, Malawi’s second largest plateau and the central Lake Malawi area of Chintheche. The extension paid homage to the Zomba massif and the lush lowlands of Liwonde National Park for added bird diversity.

04 December: Lilongwe to Luwawa Forest Lodge, Viphya Plateau
We arrived in Lilongwe around midday and headed straight out to our first destination, Luwawa. We did have a quick leg stretch at a dam just before Kasungu where the highlight was Lesser Jacana together with other common waterbird species. Our scenic drive continued north, initially through rural Malawi and eventually onto the first slopes of the Viphya Plateau – part of the second largest montane complex in Malawi.

Although much of this region has been given over to commercial plantations there are still some wonderful tracts of miombo and mixed woodland as well as open wetlands and forest at Luwawa itself. We arrived at the lodge with enough time for an afternoon walkabout. The gardens of Luwawa were just alive with tantalising species such as Bronzy Sunbird, Red-rumped Swallow, Olive Woodpecker, Forest Double-collared Sunbird, White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, Tropical Boubou, Bertram’s Weaver and Yellow-bellied Waxbill. The wetland area below the lodge was just as productive and we quickly saw African Marsh Harrier, White-headed and Eastern Sawwing, Evergreen Forest Warbler and Dark-capped Yellow Warbler while Red-chested Flufftail called from the reed beds.

We overnighted at Luwawa Forest Lodge – it is scenically located overlooking a large wetland and has comfortable en-suite rooms.

05 – 08 December: Chelinda Camp, Nyika National Park
A pre-breakfast walk afforded us better views of species already mentioned with the addition of Chapin’s Apalis, Comb Duck, African Olive Pigeon and fleeting views of Cabanis’s Bunting. Our birding was cut short by a rain storm so we decided to have breakfast earlier and hit the road for the drive to our next destination – the stunning Nyika National Park, centrepiece of this exciting Malawi itinerary. On the drive out of Luwawa we managed to pick up Broad-tailed Warbler and Short-winged Cisticola, with a lucky find on the turn-off to Rumphi being a perched Red-necked Falcon in remnant palm savannah. A first-class packed lunch was enjoyed near Rumphi where we added the likes of Half-collared Kingfisher, our first Augur Buzzard, Lesser Striped Swallow and Common Sandpiper.

We entered Nyika at Thazima Gate and got to Chelinda Lodge in the late afternoon, excited at the birding prospects ahead of us in this impressive high-altitude park. Three full days were available to explore the delights of Nyika covering all the main habitat types – and the weather was, thankfully, very obliging.

Notable summer grassland species that we recorded included: Montane Widowbird, Black-lored and Churring Cisticola, Yellow Wagtail, Caspian Plover, Wattled Crane, Denham’s Bustard with Montagu’s and Pallid Harrier quartering gracefully over the grasslands. On night drives we saw serval twice, a female Pennant-winged Nightjar, Ruwenzori Nightjar and Eurasian Nightjar – with a Grass Owl thrown in for good measure!

Other specialities include Redwinged (endemic sub-species) and Hildebrandt’s Francolin, Rufousnaped Lark, Jackson’s Pipit, Angola Swallow, Tree Pipit, Whinchat, Red-tailed (Isabelline) Shrike, loads of Tree Pipit, Scarlet-tufted Sunbird (one sighting), Malachite Sunbird, Ludwig’s Double-collared Sunbird, Variable Sunbird, Blackcap and White-winged Black Tit.

Walks from Chelinda Lodge itself yielded Yellow-browed Seedeater, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Dusky Turtle Dove, Yellow-crowned Canary, Cinnamon Bracken-Warbler, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Baglafecht Weaver and tree hyrax as an interesting mammal.

Speaking of mammals, amongst all the birding, common sightings were Crawshay’s zebra, eland, impressive numbers of roan antelope, common reedbuck, bushbuck, warthog, red duiker, samango monkey, grey and red duiker.

Birding the forested pockets of Chowo and Zovo-Chipolo added Bar-tailed Trogon, Sharpe’s Greenbul, Southern Mountain Greenbul, Moustached Tinkerbird, Fülleborn’s Boubou, White-chested Alethe and Olive flanked Robin-Chat (for some), Forest Double-collared Sunbird, Mountain Thrush, Evergreen Forest-Warbler, Malawi Batis, Crowned Hornbill, Lemon Dove building a nest, and Schalow’s Turaco to mention a few! A particular waterfall had nesting Slender-billed Starling, another top bird, while Waller’s Starling was seen over the forested areas. Hirundines were also everywhere – from Blue Swallow in good numbers to the striking White-headed Sawwing.

Many botanical stops were also made while we were at Nyika – the diversity of orchids and other floral gems was staggering at times.

Our accommodation was upgraded to the remarkable Chelinda Lodge – spacious log cabins with sweeping views of the Nyika grasslands. The catering and personal attention from the staff was another highlight for us all.

09 and 10 December: Chintheche Inn, Lake Malawi
After the heady heights of Nyika we travelled down to the central lakeshore of Lake Malawi – one of Africa’s Great Lakes – and the pristine beaches of Chintheche. We left Nyika very early on the day as we had several key birding stops to make before reaching the Lake.

Our first stop was a patch of flat-topped acacia woodland where we quickly found Brown Parisoma. A forest pocket yielded Brown-headed Apalis and much better views of Fulleborn’s Boubou. Further along a patch of miombo produced Trilling Cisticola, Cabanis’s Bunting, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher and a pair of Brown-backed Honeybird overhead.

Our next stops were patches of miombo just outside the Park. This was to be our only time spent in this special habitat type and we made the most of it. New for the list was Orange-winged Pytilia, Redwinged Warbler in the grassy undergrowth, Miombo Blue-eared Starling, Pale-billed Hornbill, Green-capped Eremomela, Miombo Pied Barbet, Arnot’s Chat, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Rufous-bellied and Miombo Tit. The highlight for some was finding nesting White-winged Babbling Starling.

We arrived in the afternoon – enough time for all just to settle in and go for a swim. Bird watching in the grounds of Chintheche and in the nearby lowland forest was productive for Blue-spotted Wood-dove, East Coast Akalat, Yellow Weaver, Palmnut Vulture, African Barred Owlet, Northern Gray-headed Sparrow and Purple-banded Sunbird. After pretty full days at Nyika one afternoon was simply spent relaxing on the lakeshore – a welcome reprieve just to take it all in…

We overnighted Chintheche Inn, which consists of comfortable rooms with en-suite bathrooms – all set in extensive gardens. Each has its own ‘beach’-view veranda overlooking the panoramic shoreline of Lake Malawi.

11 December: Back to Lilongwe
We drove back to Lilongwe – the end of the main trip had unfortunately arrived – initially along the southern lakeshore before heading inland. On one notable stop we added Fan-tailed Widowbird and the tricky-to-find Moustached Grass-Warbler. We said our goodbyes to two of the guests at the airport and then headed on to Heuglin’s Lodge in Lilongwe for lunch. Set in scenic gardens, this guesthouse had a definite ‘home from home’ feel, just perfect for the night.

The late afternoon was spent birding some spots in and around Lilongwe city itself. First up was the Lilongwe Sewage Works where quite a few shorebirds were around such as Little Stint, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and a single Grey Plover – the latter a good record for Malawi. What was also incredible was the number of Yellow Wagtails seen here – at least 10. Next up was the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary – a patch of woodland right in the city – where we added very obliging Red-throated Twinspot and Schalow’s Turaco, a female African Emerald Cuckoo, large flock of migrating Amur Falcons overhead, and Black Cuckooshrike.

12 December: Lilongwe to KuChawe Inn, Zomba Plateau
We continued southward to the old colonial capital city of Zomba, with Zomba Mountain, a huge granite outcrop rising to over 2000 metres with several highly localised and endangered species, the focus of our birding. On the ascent we quickly ‘had’ to make a stop for Livingstone’s Turaco, Little Greenbul, Brimestone Canary, Black-headed Apalis, Southern Citril, and a photographable troop of samango monkeys.

The afternoon was spent exploring small remaining pockets of forest and tranquil streams where we had some of the best birding of the entire trip. Worthy additions were Grey Wagtail, Mountain Wagtail, Olive-headed Greenbul, Placid Greenbul, the stunning and range restricted Yellow-throated and White-winged Apalis, Olive Bush-Shrike (ruddy form), White-starred Robin galore, Eastern Sawwing, Evergreen Forest Warbler, Malawi Batis, White-tailed Elminia and Garden Warbler.

Overnight Ku Chawe Inn –this inn commands spectacular views, which on clear days stretch all the way along the Shire Highlands and Mount Mulanje.

13 – 15 December: Mvuu Camp, Liwonde National Park
Before leaving Zomba we visited a local birder in town who showed us his nesting White-winged Apalis and who has done much to conserve this charismatic species. We thought we could not get better views of this cracking bird. We were wrong. Just after we arrived a pair of this birds were actively nest building – a few metres from the porch! What a sighting! We left Zomba, content with all the good birds we have seen but a bit dismayed at the rampant loss of forest habitat here. Hopefully what remains can be protected.

The finale, undoubtedly another top birding spot in Malawi, was Liwonde National Park. Two full days were allocated to explore the tapestry of habitats and ecotones found here including the languid Shire Rive with its extensive floodplains, deciduous thicket, riverine forest, seasonal wetlands and mopane woodland – over 350 bird species to find!

We were simply amazed at the bird diversity and recent rains had the left birds tripping! Activities include walking, birding and game viewing drives in open 4X4 vehicles and boat trips on the Shire River itself.

Over the course of our stay, specials we notched up included Lilian’s Lovebird, Brown-breasted Barbet (what a bird!), White-backed Night-Heron, Spur-winged Lapwing, Red-necked Falcon, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Pel’s Fishing-Owl, Gull-billed Tern, Speckle-throated Woodpecker, Collared Palm-thrush, a surprise flock of Magpie Mannikin, Grey-headed Parrot, Western Banded Snake-eagle, Böhm’s Bee-eater, Green Sandpiper, Southern Brown-throated Weaver, Racket-tailed Roller and Livingstone’s Flycatcher.

This Park also offered good mammal opportunities whilst birding and we saw African elephant, waterbuck, sable antelope, buffalo, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, yellow baboon, warthog, thick-tailed bushbaby and smaller mongoose species. Not to mention the dense population of hippo in the Shire River and monstrous Nile crocodile found lazing on the sandbanks…

Upgraded to Mvuu Lodge – spacious tents, each with en-suite bathroom facilities and a private viewing platform looking out on the lagoon.

16 December: Back to Lilongwe
After our last breakfast we reluctantly returned to Liwonde town by boat for our drive back to Lilongwe for onward flight back home.

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By Martin Benadie

Martin is our birding expert and shares his wealth of avian knowledge with us, as well as tips on photography, safari optics and environmental news.

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