14 March 2024

North to Zimbabwe

26 November 2023 - Harare and Monovale Vlei; Day 1

My good friend Richard Crawshaw dropped the idea of a mouth-watering, bucket list trip to see the African Pitta in the Lower Zambezi Valley, earlier in the year, to a small group of his close friends and birders. Of course, we were all in!

As all birders know, there is a really small window of opportunity to try for the Pitta from mid-November to mid-December in either Zimbabwe or Mozambique when they come down from further north, to breed in the Zambezi Valley before the summer rains arrive. 

We agreed to spend a few days in Harare, before the Pitta Tour, to do some birding at the well known sites in and around Harare. 

The last time I was in Zimbabwe I was still shooting with a SLR (Nikon F3, if memory serves me, together with a bag full of 36 Exposure Slide Film) - so I was really looking forward to re-acquainting with many species that had been decades since I last saw them and to also capture as many as I could, digitally. Harare had obviously changed a lot since my last visit and USD is the preferred currency for obvious reasons.

Richard and Shirley had arrived in Harare yesterday and I flew up this morning on a SafAir flight together with Glynn Harrington and Billy and Gayleen Gray. The SafAir plane was relatively spartan, but departed and arrived on time which is more than we could ask for. Our driver Lionel who would be with us for our few days in Harare met us at Arrivals and took us to Malcolm's Lodge, our B&B in Harare for 2-nights.

Glynn and I bunked together and it didnt take us long to unpack and explore the open garden of the B&B while we waited for Mike K and Rory to arrive. Variable Sunbird's were the common Sunbird in the garden

Female Variable Sunbird (Cinnyris venustus)

Immature Variable Sunbird (Cinnyris venustus)

Whilst this one had us scratching our heads for awhile, but we concluded it was a female White-bellied

Female White-bellied Sunbird (Cinnyris talatala)

There was a small flock of Bronze Mannikin's roosting in the same tree the Sunbird's were feeding in

Bronze Mannikin (Spermestes cucullata)

In the neighbours property, a Red-billed Firefinch visited the bird bath

Red-billed Firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala)

Once Mike K and Rory had arrived and settled, Lionel arrived in the bus together with Richard. We were all ready and left to pick up Ian Riddle, our local guide for the next few days. We had decided to head to Monovale Vlei for some late afternoon birding, despite the ominous rain clouds. The Vlei was pretty dry, as the rains were late - we were all in the middle of the Vlei when we had to hot foot it back to the bus to avoid getting drenched in a heavy afternoon shower that came at us at speed. We waited for about 30-minutes for the storm to pass and were back out on the Vlei. 

This walking and shooting kind of photography is tough and you have to use all your fieldcraft to adapt to the birds you are seeing to get the best angles, backgrounds etc for the end result. So, it is kind of like hip-shooting, but much more proactively. The dark clouds above made shooting conditions difficult, but it is what we had to adapt to.

We found small flocks of Yellow-mantled Widowbird, but they were all still transitioning to their breeding plumage, so looked quite tatty. Back at home, all the Bishops and Widows were already in breeding plumage - so, it seems the further north you go the later the males transform into their full breeding plumage

Male Yellow-mantled Widowbird (Euplectes macrourus)

I picked up a Cuckoo Finch and managed to get most of the group onto it under a grey sky

Cuckoo Finch (Anomalospiza imberbis)

A Yellow-fronted Longclaw flushed and landed in a tree, not great against the grey sky

Yellow-throated Longclaw (Macronyx croceus)

Glynn and I followed this Cistic and it turned out to be a Rattling. In a new country, you kind of expect most species to be different or something new, so it can be a let down when they are not

Rattling Cistocola (Cisticola chiniana)

There were a few small flocks of Orange-breasted Waxbill, but were pretty skittish - as they are in the south

Orange-breasted Waxbill (Amandava subflavus)

We spotted a raptor in a big Blue Gum and once we got closer saw it was a drenched Lizard Buzzard trying to dry out before it got dark

Lizard Buzzard (Kaupifalco monogrammicus)

It flew off, so Glynn and I followed it and saw it dive to the ground and catch a small snake - so, that was a real bonus

Lizard Buzzard (Kaupifalco monogrammicus)

It was starting to get gloomy, so we headed back to the bus but had a detour for a pair of Senegal Coucal's to end off our first day

Senegal Coucal (Centropus senegalensis)

The Vlei was still too dry for the other species that are normally present; Black Coucal, Rosy-throated Longclaw and Streaky-breasted Flufftail - maybe in a few weeks time once the rains arrive. But, it was now time for the Pitta Party to get together for a Braai and a few cold ones with an awesome group of friends, toasting to a great time in Zim and with one common objective - the pitter (pitta) patter in the leaf litter later in the week.....

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