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At 2300m the Nyika Plateau is the highest point in Zambia. It sits astride the Zambia/Malawi border, and dominates the surrounding landscape. The scenery is a strange patchwork of rolling grassland interspersed with small pockets of Afro-montane forest along drainage lines. The birds in both this montane forest, and the surrounding grassland, have a distinctly East African feel, this being the southern limit of distribution for many of them. The woodland on Nyika is not restricted to montane forest. Stands of Acacia abyssinica are scattered over the southern portion of the Zambian side of the park, and these are home to Brown Parisoma, a relative of the Titbabbler of southern Africa, and Miombo cloaks the lower slopes. On the Malawi side, Juniper forests attract a large number of birds, but the montane forest is the most productive habitat, and has some of the most interesting species. The Zambian sector has the two largest and most accessible patches of such forest, Chowo and Manyenjere, which contain relict populations of some very interesting birds. On both sides of the border this area has been declared a National Park. Visitors are permitted to walk, though some of the paths are rarely used and can be difficult to find. Several scouts are based at the rest house, and will escort visitors if required.

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BIRDING

1. ZAMBIAN REST HOUSE. 30km down the main road from the Thazima entry gate to Chelinda in Malawi, the Zambian Rest House is a small guest house situated just 1km inside Zambia. Sited in open grassland, adjacent to a tree-lined stream, and within walking distance of Zovo Chipolo and Chowo forests, it is the ideal base for a birding holiday, and is one of the best places to see grassland and Bracken-briar specialists. Special birds in this area include; Red-breasted Sparrowhawk, Common Quail, the Nyika race of Red-winged Francolin, Red-tailed Flufftail, Denham's Bustard, Pink-breasted Turtle Dove, Mountain Nightjar, Scarce Swift, Blue Swallow, White-headed Saw-wing, Red-rumped Swallow, Black-lored Cisicola, Wailing Cisticola, Churring Cisticola, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Slaty Flycatcher, Red-tufted Malchite Sunbird, Yellow-tufted Malchite Sunbird, Bronze Sunbird, Eastern Double-collared Sunbird, Slender-billed Chestnut-winged Starling, Mountain Marsh Widow, Bertram's Weaver, Baglafecht Weaver, East African Swee, Cape Canary, Streaky Seedeater.

Zovo Chipolo, a small patch of forest on the Malawi side of the border, is only a few minutes walk away, and contains many of the species found in Chowo.

2. CHOWO FOREST. Visible from the Zambian Rest House, looking southwards down the valley, this is one of the largest, and most productive patches of Afro-montane forest on the Nyika. A footpath leads there from the rest house, and there is a circular path within the forest. This is one of the best days birding available in this area, as it encompasses most of the habitats on the Nyika. The path leads one through open grassland, along tree-lined streams, through patches of Bracken-briar, before finally reaching the forest. Chowo is also accessible by road, though if you want to view forest birds you have to enter on foot. Forest birding is an exercise in patience, and long periods can go by without very much happening. However, if you are patient and stand still, using your ears more than your eyes, you will be successful. The call of the Moustached Green Tinkerbird is often the first heard, and Bar-tailed Trogon are common and vociferous. The Trogon responds well to even a rough approximation of its voice, so try mimicking the call. The Nyika race of Cape Batis is endemic, and is clearly different from the southern race. Specials include; Cinnamon Dove, Rameron Pigeon, Eastern Least Honeyguide, Mountain Greenbul, Yellow-streaked Bulbul, Starred Robin, White-chested Alethe, Olive-flanked Robin, Orange Thrush, Bar-throated Apalis, Chestnut-headed Apalis, Grey Apalis, Evergreen Forest Warbler, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, African Hill Babbler, Green-headed Sunbird, Fülleborn's Black Boubou, Many-coloured Bush-shrike, Waller's Chestnut-winged Starling.

3. MANYENJERE FOREST. This forest is opposite Chowo, on the flanks of the same valley. Manyenjere has many of the same species found in Chowo, with the addition of Red-faced Crimsonwing and Sharpe's Akalat. It is visited less frequently, but is fairly easy to get to. A small track leads there from the border road. The paths within Manyenjere are rarely walked, and are consequently overgrown and difficult to follow, a guide is strongly recommended.

4. CHISANKA FALLS. This is a small waterfall on the western side of the plateau. Reached by continuing along the border road from the rest house, it is a good place to observe some of the Miombo species present on the lower slopes of the Nyika. Miombo specials to be found here include; Miombo Pied Barbet, Black-backed Barbet, Green-backed Honeyguide, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Little Spotted woodpecker, Miombo Rock Thrush, Green-capped Eremomela, Red-capped Crombec, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Miombo Barred Warbler, Dusky Flycatcher, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, White-winged Black Tit, Spotted Creeper, Red-and –Blue Sunbird, Miombo Double-collared Sunbird, African Citril.

5. ACACIA ABYSSINICA. In the southern sector of the Zambian Nyika patches of Acacia abyssinica, or Mountain Acacia are found. Flat-topped, with a thick crown, they are quite distinctive, and are home to the Brown Parisoma. Walking in this area leads one to rock strewn slopes and outcrops, home to species such as Lazy Cisticola, Mottled Swift and Black Swift. Singing Cisticola can also be found here, along overgrown streams.

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GENERAL

The Nyika plateau can be extremely cold, particularly on winter mornings when the dew-soaked grass can make grassland birding miserable. Warm clothing is essential at this time of year. Telescopes are not really necessary, ideally binoculars should be suited to low light conditions for use in the forest.

This account does not take into consideration the Malawi side of the Nyika Plateau, which is much larger, and contains additional habitats of interest. Several dams are located near the park headquarters at Chelinda, home to numbers of Wattled Cranes. The Juniper forest in the east is also very interesting, and several birds occur in montane forest on the eastern flank of the plateau that do not reach Zambia, notably Mountain Illadopsis, Stripe-cheeked Bulbul and Oriole Finch.

The entrance to the Nyika is through the Thazima gate, on the Malawi side of the park. This is accessed by turning north from the Rumpi-Katumbi road. Once within the park there are no further border restrictions. Several tour companies operate in this area, though most are based in the Malawi sector.

Paul Bourdin



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