Publisher: Langmead &
Baker Ltd. Managing Editor: Margaret Thompson.
An article written by Peter Leonard (email@example.com) for ZOS in January 2002
The other team members were Carl Beel, Paul van Daele and Bob Stjernstedt. Virtually every species was seen by all four of us and only a small handful was missed by one member. Anything that was not seen or heard by at least three of us was not counted. Thanks to Danny and Bruce for being there just in case. So whos going to try next? You can see above many of the birds we missed. Only the previous day we had recorded Red-necked, Natal, Shelleys and Coqui Francolins, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Brown-backed Honeyguide and Purple-banded Sunbird. Add to that things like Gymnogene, Shikra, Coppery-tailed Coucal, Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher, Bearded Woodpecker, White-rumped Babbler and Bully Canary and anyone can see that there is potential for an even bigger score
Perhaps I should count sheep; lazy white lambs hopping over a gate. Surely that would send me to sleep? One, two, three, four, wait a minute, theyre flying - Cattle Egrets possibly? Have we got that? No, no, no - sheep, sleep, sheep, sleep... Blimey its hot. One, two, three, got to get to three hundred, four, five, six, three hundred or nothing. Aaarrgghh! No just forget three hundred, forget birds, forget lists and numbers. Just sleep or youll be sorry.
I didnt sleep. Not even for a minute. Carl and Paul both managed a little, and Bob was snoring like the Livingstone Express but no matter how hard I tried I could not escape the irritating swarms of birds and numbers inside my head. We had gathered in Choma for an attempt at the Zambian Big Bird Day record. We had often talked about it, but now we had made the plan, the hour was close and I was wound up like an industrial spring.
As you will have read in a recent edition of this newsletter, the record we had to beat was set in 1974. Dylan Aspinwall, Tim Osborne, Paddy Bruce-Miller and Bob Dowsett logged 273 species in 24 hours and set a new world record in doing so. We had read the account and in days gone by we had talked to each team member and the only piece of advice that kept recurring was planning. Lochinvar was clearly an essential ingredient in any attempt. Nowhere else in the country could produce so many waterbirds so quickly. We also needed a second locality that was a) nearby, b) well known and c) as different as possible to the Kafue Flats. Again, like our predecessors, we could not do better than the Bruce-Millers farm in Choma. It was my home, it had a tremendous range of habitats and it was close to Lochinvar. So with our itinerary set, we just needed to do some homework, some staking out and some praying that the weather would be kind.
My alarm rang at 01.15h, but I was wide awake. Relieved to escape the turmoil of insomnia I jumped into my clothes and went to put the kettle on. I was surprised to find Bob, Paul and Carl were already up and looking tense and this made me feel a little less neurotic. Each armed with a large cup of black coffee, we ventured on to the veranda and heard the call of an African Scops Owl. Number one. We were off. Only 299 to go. Of course, we only needed another 273 to beat the record, but in truth, 300 was the grail we all sought. A Wood Owl was next followed by some distant Helmeted Guineafowl and baboons disturbed in their roost. The sky was a carnival of stars and the previous days drizzle was gone.
After a final check that binoculars, telescopes, food and water were all in place, we climbed into the car for a nocturnal farm tour. Some Crowned Plovers flew up from a field and at a nearby dam we ticked Painted Snipe, Common Moorhen and a calling Giant Eagle Owl. Other night birds were proving difficult though and things moved slowly until the moon rose at 03.00h. This in itself was a fantastic sight as it appeared to hang between the clouds. The first Red-chested Cuckoo called and a Barn Owl flushed from its usual perch and then we were off to look for Freckled Rock Nightjars. After a frustrating half hour whistling their calls, they finally put in an appearance. Pennant-winged and Fiery-necked Nightjars were next, followed by a Spotted Eagle Owl and a call which we guessed to be Spotted Dikkop - though it remained a frustrating question mark on the checklist. Incredibly, we didnt see or hear a single Gaboon Nightjar.
Fork-tailed Drongos announced the approach of dawn and we were not yet on 20. No coursers and several other night birds missing, but we consoled ourselves with the thought of a second night session at the end of the day. Our spirits were soon lifted by the sounds of several newly arrived migrants that had not been found the day before. Narina Trogons called in several places and an Emerald Cuckoo promptly joined in. Other good birds included Pygmy Kingfisher, Schalows Turaco, African Broadbill, Eastern Bearded Scrub Robin, Red-throated Twinspot and Trumpeter Hornbill.
By 06.00h we were at Masuku Lodge to explore the garden and dam. Green-backed Heron, Giant Kingfisher and several Hamerkops were all welcome additions, but a Western Banded Snake Eagle was a great surprise and a terrific bonus being a major rarity in Choma District. Other good birds here included European Grey Cuckoo, Red-breasted Swallow and Short-winged Cisticola. Into the thickets again briefly for an African Goshawk, some Crested Francolin and a Red-capped Robin or two before the serious session in the miombo. This is undoubtedly a vital stop on such a day, but it takes patience and it can be frustrating. Good miombo holds great diversity, but the birds often come at a trickle.
We started at the spot where Id heard Racket-tailed Roller on several occasions. Not a squeak. Whats more, the sky was clear and bright and the wind was beginning to stir. This is the miombo birders worst enemy as the tiny canopy movements and noises that your eyes and ears search for are disguised by several trillion dancing and rustling leaves. A Black-eared Seed-eater was little compensation for missing the rollers, but we carried on to the next stake out and thankfully walked into our first bird party. Miombo Grey Tit and Spotted Creeper were quickly dealt with and Tree Pipit, Southern Hyliota and Green-capped Eremomela were hot on their heels. A White-breasted Cuckoo-shrike played games for a while and then we picked up a beautiful Collared Flycatcher. Another bonus bird and an efficient morale-booster. Soon the staked-out Miombo Pied Barbet was performing and then our attention switched to a magnificent male Miombo Rock Thrush - our momentum was up again.
The previous day, we had found a good bird near the track and had marked the spot with a cairn of rotting logs. Scoffing at our optimism, we pulled up at the marker only to gape in disbelief at the Sousas Shrike that had apparently remained stationary for the last 24 hours. An African Hawk Eagle was chased out of the trees by a Broad-billed Roller, both Groundscraper Thrush and Bennetts Woodpecker appeared in the predicted spots and at last the whole group caught up with Cabaniss Bunting. It was time to move on. We couldnt really complain as wed picked up some excellent species. Then the Racket-tailed Rollers called. Perfect! Lets go
By now our technique was quite polished. We could leap out of the car as one, identify something overhead and be back in our seats almost before the car had stopped rolling. I commented on how this reminded me of a cheesy seventies TV show and Paul promptly branded us The Ducks of Hazard. The drive to the other side of the farm was punctuated with skid stops and soon we were at the garden of the main farm house. Our main quarry here was Coppery Sunbird which we had located in seconds the previous day. After ten minutes it had still not appeared amongst the myriad Scarlet-chested so we pressed on. This proved yet again that there is no such thing as a guaranteed stake-out, though we had picked up several other new ones such as Senegal Kingfisher. We had also met up with our back-up vehicle manned by Danny Green and Bruce Danckwerts. They would tail us for the rest of the day just in case there were technical hiccups.
Namakuni dam gave us several waders and ducks, Yellow-billed, Black and Abdims Storks and a much needed Sacred Ibis. I knew from a recce the previous weekend that these were very scarce in Lochinvar at present. Sadly our Fülleborns Longclaw site had burnt, but up the hill both Chaplins Barbet and Sooty Chat were ticked on their favourite perches without us having to leave our seats. Magpie, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes were all on duty and the last was particularly numerous through the day. A Lanner Falcon and a Gabar Goshawk overhead and we were at Lake Meg. Another flurry of waterbirds included Rufous-bellied Heron, Saddle-billed Stork, White-backed Duck and African Pygmy Goose and then a young Martial Eagle flew up from where it had been drinking. A small thicket held Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Garden Warbler and Lead-coloured Flycatcher and then we were at another swampy dam with a big typha bed. The resident Stonechat obliged, but we could forget most swamp-dwellers. The wind was fairly strong now and any sensible rail or rush warbler was not going to show in such conditions. Nevertheless, both Striped Crested Cuckoo and White-fronted Bee-eater appeared and a lone Parasitic Weaver flew over calling.
I felt a little happier about the next stake-out, but Id learnt not to assume by now. However, as we approached the cluster of palms at full tilt and immediately saw an adult Dickinsons Kestrel perched near the nesting tree (in which I knew there were three chicks with rings on). One clap beside an adjacent palm then brought out a feathered bullet that I knew to be a Red-necked Falcon, also at its nest site. With spirits refuelled by another small success, we aimed for the road out. It was just past 11.00h, our tally was 215 and as if we needed a send off, another Chaplins Barbet appeared, flying beside the car at a good 60km/h.
Three more stake-outs before the tar worked smoothly. Our African Yellow Warbler site also gave us a Klaass Cuckoo, a Little Swift was a bonus as we watched Wire-tailed Swallows and as we pulled up to some nesting African White-rumped Swifts, two Mosque Swallows came over. Sadly, the White-winged Black Tits wed heard the previous day didnt materialise, but four ticks had become six so we couldnt complain. The Fiscal Shrikes were not on the wires in their favourite place and despite watching every inch of wire between Choma and Monze, this species was not destined to make the list. We later found out that the back-up vehicle had seen them less than a minute after wed passed.
We were into pure travelling time. The growth of the list slowed to a lame crawl, but we knew this sacrifice was necessary. In 100km we added only four species, Red-faced Mousebird, Little Bee-eater, Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Black Cuckoo. Things didnt get much better on the dirt road to Lochinvar, though we did chance upon a posse of Southern Ground Hornbills, several Southern Long-tailed Starlings and a pair of Buffy Pipits. Once into the park, things began to pick up again. Red-billed Hornbill was first, quickly followed by Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, White-headed Vulture and European Roller. At Bwanda Hot Springs a Lappet-faced Vulture soared overhead and a fine male Montagus Harrier quartered the plain but apart from occasional Collared Palm Thrush calls, the area was hot and quiet. Further out onto the plain the odd Yellow-crowned Bishop and Quailfinch zipped past and then we were treated to a magnificent aerial display by clouds of acrobatic Caspian Plovers.
It was now 15.30h and we had to keep moving towards the floodplain. We didnt need to stop to identify the Long-crested Eagle, though a closer look at both Pale-crowned and Greater Black-backed Cisticolas was needed.
A quick detour though some thick grass flushed an early African Black Coucal and nearby as we stopped for some Wattled Starlings we heard, at long last, our first Cardinal Woodpecker of the day. As we approached the floodplain edge a male Pallid Harrier looked a lot more relaxed than we felt. The late Cardinal had simply reminded us of some of the ridiculous gaps in our list. We hadnt yet seen a Black-shouldered or even a Yellow-billed Kite, but more to the point, our last chance for woodland and thicket birds was gone. Wed have to write off Bearded Woodpecker, Green Pigeon, African Grey Cuckoo and Yellow-billed Hornbill to name but a few. Our anxiety continued to grow as the sky began to blacken. We were now racing against the weather as well as the clock.
Two Namaqua Doves flew up off the road, and there was a temporary sigh of relief as another silly gap was filled. Some Yellow-throated Sandgrouse beside the track were very nearly missed, but Yellow Wagtails were everywhere. Burnt-necked Eremomelas calling in the Mulindi Tree were our last taste of arboreal birds and we were out onto the floodplain. It was 16.00h and we were on the final straight. Red-capped Lark, Richards Pipit and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark were all crossed off as Carl skimmed his eyes over the list. Were just over 240 he announced as we approached the water. We need about 30 to break the record, and another 30 to hit 300. There was a collective gulp, and our morale teetered along a cliff edge. We were all well aware that our list already held many of the wetland species from Choma.
As expected, our first stop brought an avalanche of waterbirds in a frenzy of telescope swivelling. White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Black and Yellow-billed Egrets, Goliath Heron, Openbill Stork, Glossy Ibis, African Spoonbill, Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese, Hottentot Teal, Southern Pochard, Red-knobbed Coot, Southern Crowned Crane, Long-toed Plover, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Grey-headed Gull, Whiskered, White-winged Black and Caspian Terns. Our first Slaty Egrets were also quick off the mark, but was it enough?
Back in the car to the next scan point. That was about 20 said Carl and we all knew that the easy ones were over. Numbers whirled in our heads. Breaking the record should be possible, but 300? It seemed further than ever. Could an hour and a half of daylight and another nocturnal prowl really yield another 40 species? We doubted it. Still, dont think about it. Keep going, concentrate on getting past the first barrier - 273.
A Yellow-billed Kite over the fishing village produced not much more than a mumbled about time too though the next stop began well with a fly-by Curlew. However, the only other additions we could manage were African Marsh Harrier, Wattled Crane and a couple of lonely Kittlitzs Plovers. The following stop also began with a good wader, a Turnstone, but again, things were slow. A distant Lesser Jacana was foraging in the water weed and some Fulvous Whistling Ducks flew past.
We were still missing a couple of swallows and thankfully, some determined swallow scrutinising got us both Banded Martin and White-throated Swallow. The rain was holding off, but the clouds made the whole scene gloomier than ever. It was getting on for 17.30h.
Come on, lets try the next spot. The spring in our step had long gone. Darter called Carl. We were all just in time to see the distant bird in flight. Well, I think weve probably broken the record by now said Carl. So Bruce offered to count up as we drove to our final scan point. Im sure were there, uttered Paul as we bumped across the plain. But in our minds we were all mourning the loss of the magical 300.
The radio in the car crackled. What was that? I asked. Dont know. The radio crackled again, I turned the volume up and Bruces voice emerged loud and clear. Two eight nine and counting. There was a seconds silence as this golden nugget of news sank in. Then the car erupted with shouts, gasps, cheers and whoops. TWO EIGHT NINE?!?! TWO EIGHT NINE??!! None of us could believe it. Surely we couldnt be on 289? Our spirits soared, our adrenal glands exploded, the bumps on the plain had vanished and the sun was coming out!
WE CAN DO IT!! Three hundred was within sight - but only just. GULL-BILLED TERN! came the next shout. Of course - the birds - concentrate - focus. Two Ninety. Who needs bungee jumping and white-water rafting with a hobby like this?
Just like a sportsman on a roll with the psychological advantage, suddenly our birding rose to new levels. Our eyes and ears became tuned to the tiniest calls, the slightest movements. We stopped again, the glorious evening sun on our backs. Ringed Plover. Two nine one. Look at this harrier In the telescope was a distant, large, dark harrier feeding on something in the flooded grass, its head in shadow. Head up. Pale head. European Marsh. Two nine two. There were more waders in the direction of the harrier so we jumped in the car and drove on for one very last scan. Two hundred metres on we piled out again.
Two nine three.
Sanderling - there are two!
Ive got a Black-tailed Godwit!
SKIMMERS GOING RIGHT!
OK - QUICKLY - ONE MORE SPOT!
The sun was hitting the horizon as we baled out again. It was getting tricky and our purple patch seemed to be over. We still needed a Black-headed Heron and Carl would have dearly loved a Pacific Golden Plover.
Have a look at this heron.
Well, its not a Black-headed. Looks like a Goliath.
No, that cant be a Goliath - its not chunky enough.
No look, its preening now, you can even seen some colour - its a Goliath
Its not preening. Hey - where are you looking, no over here!
Its a PURPLE!
I thought so
But what about this one though?
Let me look in your telescope.
Well its not a Goliath.
No, no - that was way over there.
This is a Black-crowned Night Heron.
What are we on?
It was getting dark rapidly and wed lost count so we decided to drive across the dry floodplain looking for Marsh Owls, Secretary Birds or Denhams Bustards, and, of course, Black-headed Herons. But all we found were Caspian Plovers. We parked near the waters edge again. Perhaps we would hear something. Out came some food and drink. This was the first time wed actually stopped for refreshments. Carl counted. Well, its either 298 or 299 - I keep getting different answers. Lets call it 298 to be on the safe side. We lay on the damp grass and fresh lechwe dung in the dark listening for a rare wader. Two more. Please. Nothing. Well, its just a matter of spot-lighting and a bit of hard work now.
We set off once more across the pitch black plain. Ten minutes later, the track we were aiming for hadnt appeared. Thats odd. Ten more minutes and we were officially lost. We needed to go west. Thankfully the clouds had pulled back, so we lined up Scorpio and drove in a straight line. After a surprisingly long drive, filled with doubt, we hit a track and at last we were back on course and into the termitaria. We continued with the searching beam sweeping our surroundings.
Oh, look down here
Almost under the car were a pair of very sleepy Three-banded Coursers. Two nine nine. 20.00h. Genet. Spring Hare. Oribi. Duiker. Kalulu. NIGHTJAR! The car swerved off the road, dodging termite mounds and sink holes. The nightjar sat tight. Watch the tail, watch the tail, it must be a .
GABOON! THREE HUNDRED! WEVE DONE IT!
Come on then - lets get to 310, there are still gaps.
But suddenly our energy drained. What a day. We stopped at Bwanda again for a beer to celebrate. The bush was silent. We strained our ears for owls, but it was as if the birds were exhausted too. A quick stop at the airstrip gave us a definite tick next to Spotted Dikkop but that was to be the last. We reached the gate at 22.00h and began the journey back to Choma as we all had to be at work on Monday morning. Once on the farm road again we stopped for a last listen. Nothing. Then the car refused to start. Someone, somewhere, was telling us to go to bed. Carl, Paul and I put our shoulders to the back bumper. My watch alarm sounded. 01.15h. Im not sure if Ive ever been up for 24 hours before mentioned Bob casually as he expertly got the car going again. We must have completed the last 10km, parked, gone inside and gone to bed after this, but to tell the truth, its a rather cloudy memory now.
A few hours later, we were up again. And, apart from strong black coffee, there was one priority.
We each counted and recounted and at last we were all agreed on 302. (So it had been 299 and not 298 after all.) Again and again it was said: What a day!
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