Zimbabwe – In the search of the African Pitta
What a special trip!!! We were a party of 5 with two guides – Gary & Jono – charming, “Duracell Bunnies” at their best, enthusiastic, engaging, knowledgeable and fun. Incredibly, they are able to ID every blade of grass, every tree, every butterfly, every bug and every bird. If the Springbok rugby team had their lateral vision when it comes to picking up a peripheral bird on a distant flank, we would be World Champions.
It is no wonder that they have an enviable clientele of famous overseas clients who return over and over again as well as pulling them in to guide in far off places where even their lack of local knowledge is overcome by their share ability to locate and identify different components of this wonderful planet we live on.
We touched down in Harare at lunchtime on 3 December to be met by the irrepressible pair. After a light lunch we set off for one of their favourite Miombo Woodlands.
The excitement was apparent immediately with Gary finding our first new bird a Tree Pipit within the first minute or so. We had barely had an opportunity to enjoy it when there were shouts from Jono that he had spotted a Creeper in a nearby tree (The Spotted Creeper was definitely one of my most sought after hot numbers). We had the enviable opportunity of pursuing a pair for quite a while before it became obvious that that they were nesting as they became a little agitated. We immediately decided to move away from them so as not to upset them any further. These two were then followed by Miombo Blue Eared Starling and most beautiful Green Capped Eremomela. White’s Barbet was also a first for some along with Red Faced Crombec. In amongst these were a host of more common Southern African birds. Virtually the whole team enjoyed a plethora of new sightings. We then moved on to a new area where we searched for Boulder Chat without success although many more familiar birds were spotted, White and Retz’s Helmetshrike were seen together while a Retz’s mother tended anxiously to her chick. There was a veritable bird party and more Green-capped Eremomela were found together with the usual dose of more common birds. After an exciting afternoon in the field there was a serious need to whet the whistle and we retired to our digs for a beautiful home-cooked meal and lots of good red wine.
For those with an appreciation of good wine, my party carried their own up as you are allowed 5 litres per person and we had a week of magnificent Chablis and some truly magnificent French and South African Reds.
5 o’clock the next morning we were safely on our way to the Zambezi Valley in our quest for the African Pitta. It was a long haul that took up most of the day and we arrived at our destination at five in the evening. However, we had stopped frequently along the way as we passed different biomes with different offerings. We were able to pick up the beautiful Miombo Rock Thrush as well as a very productive vlei walk which yielded all three Longclaws, Yellow, Orange and Rosie Throated as well as Pale Crowned Cisticola. Rosie throated was a new sighting for many of the team. The drive was interspersed with a wide range of Raptors which included European Hobby. A further stop yielded a wonderful sighting of an African Broadbill which entertained us for a considerable period. The day was also marked by a very tasty hamburger lunch washed down with some good Zimbabwe beer and a further stop close to a bridge yielded a host of different Bee-eaters which included Blue Cheeked, European Little, Southern Carmine and White Fronted apart from an array of Swifts, Swallows and Martins. The Zimbabwean version of the Sawwing, the Eastern was also added to the list. We finally arrived at our comfortable but Spartan lodgings. It even had a little plunge pool but most of all, lots of ice and cold water and drinks.
After another delicious evening meal – these guys can cook!! -we awoke the next morning at 5 o’clock in keen anticipation and immediately pursued our target the African Pitta. We were soon into a Collared Palm Thrush, a first for many of the party and the day proceeded with further efforts to find the elusive bird in its previously demarcated favourite places. A lack of rain led to it maintaining a strict silence which is the principal way of finding these birds. The next few days were spent in continued pursuit of our quarry but to no avail. Another experienced party of birders operating reasonably close to us had a similar frustrating experience and both parties got no more than what is termed a flash which is the sighting of the blue iridescent markings on the side of the bird as it moves rapidly usually away from you. The search was interspersed with really great bird sightings which included Livingstone’s Flycatcher, Orange Winged Pytelia – what a special, Lesser Honeyguide Brown-backed and Green-backed Honeybirds, various woodpeckers a further African Broadbill, all three Orioles in the area, Black Headed, European and African, Brownbuls, Greenbuls Robins, various Warblers including Icterine, various weavers, Apalises, Cysticolas, Flycatchers, Green Sandpipers, Several Owls and Owlets, Tchagras, various Sunbirds including the Miombo Double Collared, a host of different Eagles and other Raptors / Accipiters including Dickinson’s Kestrel and Red Necked Falcon, various Francolin, Guineafowl including Crested, Three Banded Courser, various Cuckoos, Swifts, Swallows and Spinetails, Kingfishers, Rollers and Hornbills. Another great sighting was a small group of Lilian’s Lovebirds as was Red Throated Twinspot, always nice to bag.
Further specials included a female Pennant-Winged Nightjar, not once but several times (and the wretched male just lay low).
After 5 idyllic days, we departed for the long trek home, devoid of the African Pitta, Barred Long Tailed Cuckoo and Thickbilled Cuckoo, 3 of the birds which I continue to pursue. But you know what? Our party were all experienced birders, we learned more about the challenges of pursuing this wonderful bird and its elusiveness and we are all on for next year.
There are two major migrating populations of African Pitta: one in coastal West Africa and the other in the area from the DRC to Mozambique, extending marginally into Southern Africa. It is scarce and localized, with scattered populations in northern Mozambique and parts of Zimbabwe, with a few vagrants recorded in Limpopo Province, KwaZulu-Natal and even the Eastern Cape. It usually occupies evergreen forest or dense thickets, often on the banks of rivers or streams. It is a ground feeder who prefers thick fallen leaf cover under shady bows. It is normally found roughly during the first two weeks of November after the first rains when it goes into breeding mode and calls infrequently. Until the rains come, it pretty well remains silent. Its habitat is also compromised by a lack of shade so it is very much a question of getting your timing exactly right. The search process is often one of finding the perfect habitat and sitting and patiently waiting. It apparently flies up to an upper branch as you approach and after a while of silent waiting, flops down again and continues it’s feeding. There are a few nuances to this behaviour but that’s pretty well the approach. The Thickbilled and Barred Long Tail tend to follow a similar weather approach before becoming particularly vocal.
On to the trip home, punctuated once again with many exciting stops to pursue various specials. The first deliberate stop was to find a Northern Grey Headed Sparrow in a passing village. Most memorable perhaps was a stop specifically to see the Cabanis’s Bunting in the grounds of a small lodge. It obliged pretty quickly. This was followed by more great Raptors, the most memorable being a beautiful Augur Buzzard who plied the thermals just above us. Further stops produced Boulder Chat, White Breasted Cuckooshrike (a goody – I missed it), Southern Hyliota.
Back in Harare and so to our final morning, off to an early start and off to one more of Gary & Jono’s favourite places which included a great vlei area. Action once again was thick and fast with a couple of birds that had escaped the net so to speak, on the outward bound. These included Yellow Mantled Widow as well as a great sighting of Broad Tailed Warbler. A female Copper Sunbird was also present but regrettably, the real catch, the male had obviously slept in. As we started to think of our flight home, the unimaginable happened. As if in compensation for the Pitta, the much rarer Blue Quail flushed in front of us only to dive into the grasslands.
Apparently they seldom flush a second time but we were in luck, the male and female broke one after the other giving us a memorable sighting. What a wonderful closure to my best birding trip ever. We left with a special glow surrounding us and certainly a strong desire to return and take up the challenge again.
Less birds than expected overall but a creditable 265. As experienced bird watchers, we were more interested in concentrating on the real specials rather than chasing numbers. Many new lifers, my favourite 5 perhaps were the BLUE QUAIL, Spotted Creeper (which I am still convinced I first saw in the Okavango 15 years ago but couldn’t put it down as it was seriously out of range), Cabanis’s Bunting, Livingstone’s Flycatcher (chased it often enough in the past)and Orange Winged Pytelia.
If you have any interest in such a trip next year, please give me a call.