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The Luangwa River is a much more direct river than its two cousins, the Kafue and the Zambezi. It rises in the Mafinga Mountains, 50km or so north of the Nyika Plateau, very close to the tripartite border of Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi. It travels, just west of due south, in a roughly straight line, until it joins the Zambezi River at Feira, site of an old Portuguese trading post. The predominate woodland type on the valley floor is Mopane woodland, though the river itself is flanked by tall, riverine trees. Huge Diospyros mespiliformis form glades along old river courses. Acacia albida and Kigelia africana are prominent in the south, while in the north, massive Khaya nyassica, one of the most beautiful of all trees here, line the dry river beds. It is for its hundreds of thousands of mammals that the Luangwa Valley is most famous, but its birdlife can be equally stunning. The Luangwa valley supports four National Parks; North and South Luangwa, Luambe and Lukusuzi. It is the largest of these, South Luangwa National Park, that is the best preserved and best attended.

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BIRDING

1. RIVER. During the dry season the character of the Luangwa is that of a typical sand river in Africa. The water level drops, sometimes to a depth of only a few inches, and becomes more a series of connected pools stuffed with Hippos and Crocodiles than an actual river. The edges are very sandy, with patches of mud, and these attract quite a lot of small waders. The general north-south direction of the valley acts as a pointer for migratory birds, and flocks of Ruff, Curlew Sandpipers and other Palearctic waders will spend a few days or weeks refuelling here, before continuing southwards. Many bat species hawk for insects over the surface of the river, and the Bat hawk follows. These birds are thinly, but widely distributed, with one of the most productive areas being about 1km south of Tena-Tena camp in the Nsefu sector.

The river is used a breeding ground by Carmine Bee-eaters, which nest in huge colonies in the steep river banks. The birds start arriving in July, and by September the colonies are in full swing. The position of the nest-sites can change from year to year, but they will never be far away, with colonies every couple of kilometres or so along the length of the river. Several other species breed here in quite large numbers. Kittlitz's and White-fronted Sandplovers nest on the sand, as do White-crowned Plovers and African Skimmers. Swift species are very well represented. From the bridge near Mfuwe Little, Horus and White-rumped Swifts can be seen together, and compared. Mottled Spinetail have also been recorded here, so care must be taken with identification. The Luangwa River is one of the most important breeding grounds for Brown-throated Martins.

2. LAGOONS. Oxbow lagoons are one of the characteristic features of the Luangwa, and will often hold quite deep water well into the dry season. Many of them are covered by a blanket of Nile Cabbage, a convenient platform for the many African Jacana and Squacco Herons here. Madagascar Squacco Heron have been seen as well. When these lagoons dry up, however, they become even more spectacular. As the water level drops the fish trapped in the shrinking pool start to flounder, and become easy prey for fish-eating birds. Sometime hundreds of White Pelicans and Yellow-billed Storks will gather, feeding until they can no longer fly. Dozens of Fish Eagles will congregate, as will Herons, Spoonbills, Marabous and Saddlebills, over 40 Saddlebills being seen together on occasion. Fishing parties can occur at any time during the dry season, but are perhaps commonest during the period August to October.

Yellow-billed Storks breed at one of the lagoons in the Nsefu sector. 10km north of Nsefu camp, Chipela lagoon hosts a colony of over 1000 nests. Active towards the beginning of the dry season, this is a truly remarkable sight. Covering 25 tall Diospyros mespiliformis the colony attracts many predatory birds. Marabou patrol beneath the trees, waiting for dropped food or chicks, while Vultures and large Eagles await their opportunities from the sidelines.

The rainy season brings great changes to the lagoons. At that time they support a wide variety of birds not seen in the dry season at all. Special birds in this habitat include; Dwarf Bittern, Pygmy Goose, Painted Snipe, Lesser Jacana, Lesser Gallinule, Lesser Moorhen, African Crake and Black Crake, with occasional records of Striped Crake.

3. WOODLAND. Allied to both of the above are the trees that surround them. The riverine woodland is dominated by Diospyros mespiliformis and Ficus species. Tall trees, crowned with thick canopies and laden with fruit, these provide not only cover for shy species such as the Pel's Fishing Owl, but also food for fruit eating birds such as Purple-crested Loeries and Green Pigeons. These trees often line dry water courses, and silted up lagoons. The grass here is very short, and this parklike scenery attracts large numbers of Crowned Cranes. Walking safaris will often accidentally disturb Pel's Fishing Owls from their roosts in these areas.

Away from the main course of the river are large areas of Mopane. With a much lower diversity of tree species, this habitat has a correspondingly low bird count. However, interesting species do occur here, particularly Lillian's Lovebird which congregates in large flocks at the beginning of the dry season. Red-billed Buffalo Weavers are common here, as are Long-tailed Starling. Racket-tailed Rollers, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters and Arnot's Chat are less common, but can be found with a little effort.

4. HOT SPRINGS. In several areas of the valley hot springs appear. The best known of these is the Chichele spring in the Nsefu sector, about 30km north of the main game-viewing area. This spring, boosted by a borehole, flows along a drainage line in the woodland, spreading out in a large open plain, forming a very marshy area. This is very much a bird magnet, and contains sizeable numbers of Painted Snipe and Ethiopian Snipe. Saddlebills are common here, and Crowned Cranes also congregate in the surrounding area. Vultures come to the seep point to drink in the afternoons, and Double-banded Sandgrouse collect at sunset.

5. NIGHT DRIVES. Designed primarily to view elusive nocturnal mammals, this is also a good method of finding night birds. Commonly seen species include; Bronze-winged Courser, Three-banded Courser, Mozambique Nightjar, Fiery-necked Nightjar, Pennant-winged Nightjar (summer), and Giant Eagle Owl. 11 species of owl have been recorded in total, though some only rarely.

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GENERAL

Getting to and from the valley is simplest by air. An international airport (Mfuwe) is half an hours drive from the gates to South Luangwa National Park, and all the lodges and camps in the area operate transfers to and from here. There are a variety of options available for accommodation, ranging from campsites, through self-catering chalets to full blown Out-of-Africa type safaris. The lodges are generally fairly small, 18 to 20 beds being average. All prices will be in dollars, and Zambia is not particularly cheap, however the Luangwa valley has some of the best game-viewing in Africa. Driving to the valley is another option, the easiest route being through Chipata in Zambia's eastern Province. Many maps show a route coming north from Petauke on the Lusaka – Chipata road, but this is suitable for four-wheel drive only, and will take longer than the road via Chipata.

Luangwa Website

Paul Bourdin


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