Working for birds in Africa


Fri, 01/18/2013 - 19:43 -- abc_admin

Likhubula Valley, Mount Mulanje Malaŵi

Image Credit: 
Stewart Lane

Nyika Wildlife Reserve with 3,134 km2 of Brachystegia woodland, montane grassland and rainforest patches in the far north is about eight hours drive from Lilongwe. The climate is cool and the scenery is spectacular. Commonly seen mammals include Leopard Panthera pardus, Roan Antelope Hippotragus equinus, Burchell's Zebra Equus [quagga] burchelli, Southern Reedbuck Redunca arundinum and Bush Pig Potamochoerus larvatus.

Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus may now be absent from Nyika due to human disturbance but Denham's Bustards Neotis denhami stanleyi are fairly common there and Secretary Birds Sagittarius serpentarius are occasional. Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk Accipiter rufiventris often hunts along dirt roads in front of vehicles, and in the rainy season, four harrier species may be found quartering the valleys. However the real specialities are the passerines. Of the sunbirds, Bronzy Nectarinia kilimensis, Yellow-tufted Malachite N. famosa and Montane Double-collared Cinnyris ludovicensis and are fairly common whilst Scarlet-tufted Malachite N. johnstoni is less so. The local race of Rufous-naped Lark Mirafra africana isolata is endemic to the Nyika and there are plenty of cisticolas to identify, including the nominate race of Wing-snapping Cisticola Cisticola ayresii. The Nyika plateau seems a safe stronghold for Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea.

The Nyika Plateau forests are the best for Olive-flanked Robin-chat Cossypha anomala, White-chested Alethe Alethe fuelleborni, African Hill Babbler Pseudoalcippe abyssinica, and Fülleborn's Boubou Laniarius fuelleborni.

Liwonde Wildlife Reserve has 548 km2 of river, marsh and mopane woodland in the Shire Valley. Ignoring (if you can) the countless crocodiles, hippos, antelope and elephants, one of the most impressive day's birdwatching anywhere in the world must be from a boat trip on the Shire River.

Mopane woodland in Malaŵi is mostly restricted to Liwonde National Park. This deciduous woodland is less exciting ornithologically than others although it is the only location for Lilian's Lovebird Agapornis lilianae (common in flocks): Racket-tailed Roller Coracias spatulatus is not uncommon and Meves's Long-tailed Glossy Starling Lamprotornis mevesii is ever-present. It is also the only site in Malaŵi for Brown-breasted Barbet Lybius melanopterus.

It is also excellent for night-time trips to find Pel's Fishing-owl Scotopelia peli and White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus. In all, eighteen species of herons and egrets, eight storks, fifteen plovers and nine kingfishers have been recorded.


Lengwe Wildlife Reserve has 887 km2 of thicket and mixed open woodland in the far south. It is hot and dusty but has great birdwatching and is home to the rare Nyala Antelope Tragelaphus angasi. A dawn watch from the hide at the main waterhole is a magical experience and can be rewarded by anything from Cape Buffalo Syncerus caffer to the rare Madagascar Pond Heron Ardeola idae.

The best examples of acacia savanna are in the Monkey Bay area and Lengwe National Park. The most obvious birds, as a result of their abundant nest colonies, are White-browed Sparrow-Weavers Plocepasser mahali. Family parties of Green Wood-hoopoe Phoeniculus purpureus entertain, and loose flocks of Southern Carmine Bee-eaters Merops nubicoides often hawk overhead outside their breeding season. Competitors for food and nest-sites, Dickinson's Kestrels Falco dickinsoni and Lilac-breasted Rollers Coracias caudatus are common. In contrast, Southern Ground Hornbills Bucorvus leadbeateri mope around the grassland in search of anything edible.

The only extensive area of thicket in Malaŵi is restricted to Lengwe. It is excellent for a wide variety of species scarcely found elsewhere including Crested Guineafowl Guttera pucherani, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill Tockus leucomelas, Black-and-White Flycatcher Bias musicus, Woodward's Batis Batis fratrum, the elusive Gorgeous Bush-Shrike Telophorus viridis and the minute but elegant Livingstone's Flycatcher Erythrocercus livingstonei. A surprising number of rainforest species share a liking for this habitat, e.g. Square-tailed Drongo Dicrurus ludwigii and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird Pogoniulus bilineatus.

See Lengwe Photo Gallery for photographs of some of the species which inhabit Lengwe National Park (Chikwawa District).

Nyala Park on the Illovo sugar estate at Nchalo near Chikwawa is an excellent birding site for acacia woodland, grassland and marsh species. Most of the avian species found in Lengwe are more easily accessed here. The park contains what is almost certainly the world’s largest breeding population of Boehm’s Bee-eater Merops boehmi and has resident populations of Marsh Tchagra Tchagra minuta, Red-headed Quelea Quelea erythrops and Eastern Bearded Scrub-Robin Cercotrichas quadrivirgata. Nyala are ubiquitous and Giraffe, Zebra, Red Hartebeest, Bushbuck, Impala and other herbivores are present. The park is privately maintained by Illovo and there is a modest entry charge. Enquiries should be made to Pat Whitbread, Illovo Sugar Company, P O Box 578, Limbe, Malaŵi.

Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve contains the only substantial fully-protected  area of montane evergreen forest in southern Malaŵi. It is the best place to see the endemic subspecies of Cape Batis Batis capensis dimorpha (some authorities consider this to be a full species Malaŵi Batis Batis dimorpha) and Bar-throated Apalis Apalis thoracica flavigularis (some authorities consider this to be a full species Yellow-throated Apalis Apalis flavigularis) and the only place to see the endemic subspecies of Olive-flanked Robin-Chat Cossypha anomala anomala. The subspecies of Eastern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris mediocris fuelleborni is very common (some authorities consider this to be a full species  Forest Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris fuelleborni). Verraux’s Eagle Aquila verrauxii, Evergreen-Forest Warbler Bradypterus lopezi, Cinnamon Bracken-Warbler Bradypterus cinnamomeus, Olive Bush-Shrike Telophorus olivaceus, Red-faced Crimsonwing Cryptospiza reichenovii, Cholo Alethe Alethe choloensis, Bar-tailed Trogon Apaloderma vittatum and many other evergreen forest species are relatively common. African Pitta Pitta angolensis visits on its way south.

Information about climbing the mountain and information and bookings for accommodation on top and nearby can be obtained from [email protected] mw or by writing to Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust, PO Box 193, Mulanje.

Lake Malaŵi Wildlife Reserve has sandy beaches, snorkelling, lakeshore hills and islands. There are extensive wetlands along the shore and the southern end of the lake holds the greatest population density anywhere in Africa of Malaŵi's national bird, African Fish Eagle Haliaeetus vocifer, with pairs holding territory and nesting every half kilometre or so along the shore.

Viphya Forest Reserve has mainly pine plantation with some montane grassland and riparian rainforest. The Viphya Mountains host an endemic race of Scaly Francolin Francolinus squamatus doni. Surviving ribbons of riparian forest are easily accessible and are good for Olive Woodpecker Dendropicos griseocephalus and Red-faced Crimsonwing Cryptospiza reichenovii.

Nkwadzi Forest Reserve has lakeshore rainforest and this is the best location for the local race of East Coast Akalat Sheppardia gunningi bensoni. Nkwadzi usually turns up Yellowbill Ceuthmochares aereus and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher Trochocercus cyanomelas.

Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary has dense acacia woodland with a river in the heart of the modern capital, well worth visiting at the beginning or end of a trip. It supports a tremendous variety of species and is useful for catching up on those missed elsewhere. Typical of the canopy are Eastern Black-headed Oriole Oriolus larvatus, Sulphur-breasted Bush-Shrike Telophorus sulfureopectus, African Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone viridis and Chinspot Batis Batis molitor.

From Lilongwe, Ntchisi and Dedza Mountains are in easy reach: the former is as good a place as any for the magnificent Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus, Bar-tailed Trogon Apaloderma vittatum and Chestnut-throated Apalis Apalis porphyrolaema, whilst Dedza can usually be relied on to provide Olive Bush-Shrike Telophorus olivaceus.

Dzalanyama Forest Reserve has an extensive range of miombo-clad hills only one hour from Lilongwe. The many miombo specials include White-tailed Blue Flycatcher Elminia albicauda, Olive-headed Weaver Ploceus olivaceiceps, Stierling's Woodpecker Dendropicos stierlingi (almost unknown outside Malaŵi), Swallow-tailed Bee-eater Merops hirundineus, Miombo Rock Thrush Monticola angolensis and two hyliotas, Southern Hyliota australis and Yellow-bellied H. flavigaster. Miombo also has its own endemic (or nearly so) sunbirds including Anchieta's Sunbird Anthreptes anchietae, Shelley's Cinnyris shelleyi and Amethyst Chalcomitra amethystina. In the breeding season (Sept-Oct), several species of nightjar, including Pennant-winged Macrodipteryx vexillarius, are fairly common along roads at dusk.

In the far north, the Misuku Hills are capped with three forests, the only location in Malaŵi for the enigmatic Spot-throat Modulatrix stictigula and Forest Batis Batis mixta. Relatively unspoilt and a long way off the beaten track, the Misukus are the best place for finding Silvery-cheeked Hornbill Bycanistes brevis, Oriole-Finch Linurgus olivaceus and Shelley's Greenbul Andropadus masukuensis.

Sadly, the forest on Thyolo Mountain no longer exists and that on Soche Mountain exists as a remnant only. Some important species such as Black-fronted Bush-Shrike Telophorus nigrifrons and Green-headed Oriole Oriolus chlorocephalus still exist in riverine patches preserved by the tea estates on the slopes but the fate of the subspecies of Green Barbet Stactolaema olivacea belcheri, nearly endemic to Thyolo Mountain itself, is unknown.

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