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Sesheke district, tucked away in Zambia’s arid southwest, is one of the country’s over-looked birding hotspots. With a potential bird list of around 500 species, this area supports a diverse range of bird communities and forms the meeting point for some major bird groups, such as dry west specials (Red-billed Francolin, Violet-eared Waxbill, Black-chested Prinia, Shaft-tailed Whydah), southern woodland endemics (Natal Francolin, Double-banded Sandgrouse, Southern Black Tit) and birds restricted to south-central Africa (Arnot’s Chat, Racket-tailed Roller, Sharp-tailed Starling).

The most accessible entry by road into southwestern Zambia is through Wenela Border Post at Katima Mulilo. This joins the Sesheke-Mongu Road, the only access road west of the Zambezi River. It is also possible to drive in from Livingstone to Sesheke and then cross the river by ferry, but this road has been hailed as one of the worst tarred roads in Africa. Between the Sesheke-Mongu Road and Angola stretches the 500 000 hectare Sioma Ngwezi National Park, a wilderness of vast teak woodlands and open grassy plains. This is one of the last true wilderness areas in south-central Africa. Access is restricted to a few 4X4 tracks, but much good birding can be done from the main Sesheke-Mongu Road.



Vegetation in southwestern Zambia is dominated by tall, broad-leafed teak woodlands growing on deep Kalahari sands, making exploration quite an adventure. Birding can be productive if mixed feeding parties are found, otherwise it can end up hard work. Specials include Arnot’s Chat, Racket-tailed Roller, Sharp-tailed Starling (the most common “glossy” starling), Slender-billed Honeyguide, Bradfield’s Hornbill, Pale-billed Hornbill (very similar to the abundant Grey Hornbill), White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Golden-backed Pytilia, Coppery Sunbird, and, if you are lucky, Sousa’s Shrike. Large raptors are scarce, but check the skies for White-backed, Hooded and White-headed Vultures, Brown and Black-breasted Snake Eagles, Tawny and Martial Eagles, and Bateleur.

Termitaria thickets in the woodlands attract skulking species such as Stierling’s Barred Warbler, Grey-backed Bleating Warbler, Brown Firefinch, Terrestrial and Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, Schalow’s Lourie, Trumpeter Hornbill and Tropical Boubou.

Narrow grassy valleys (“malapos” or “dambos”) run from west to east through the Park, supporting a unique bird community including Tinkling Cisticola, Broad-tailed Paradise and Eastern Paradise Whydahs, Flappet Lark, Purple and Steelblue Widowfinches (okavangensis race with white bill), Quail Finch, Buffy Pipit, Double-banded Sandgrouse, Golden Bishop, Little Bee-eater, Grey-rumped Swallow, Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes in summer, Rufous-bellied Heron (when flooded), Natal Nightjar, and Palearctic warblers on passage, including Whitethroat, Garden, Icterine and Willow Warblers. The ecotone between woodland and malapo is especially good for small raptors, including Gabar and Little Banded Goshawks, Black and Ovambo Sparrowhawks, African Hobby Falcon (scarce) and Western Banded Snake Eagle.

Some of the larger dambos support dense thorn thickets dominated by Acacia trees, making for interesting birding. Dry West birds such as Violet-eared and Black-cheeked Waxbills, Red-eyed Bulbul and Burnt-necked Eremomela occur alongside East Coast specials such as Yellow-bellied Bulbul and Crested Guineafowl.

In the northeastern corner of Sioma Ngwezi National Park is a complex of open plains and, dense teak woodlands, the most well known being the Ibale Plains. Tall Northern Lala Palms Hyphaene petersiana attract Palm Swift, Dickinson’s Kestrel and Red-necked Falcon. The open plains are sandy and short-grassed and birds to look out for include Temminck’s and Bronze-winged Coursers, Black-winged Pratincole, Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, Grassveld, Plain-backed and Buffy Pipits, Denham’s Bustard, and Capped Wheatear. The habitat looks good for several other species such as Natal Nightjar, Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Caspian Plover, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers, and Fülleborn’s Longclaw. Much remains to be discovered here and the area is begging to be explored ornithologically.

Small stretches of tall riparian forest can still be found along the Zambezi, mainly on islands. The mosaic nature of riparian vegetation results in the highest diversity of birds in the area, and a 2- to 3-hour walk in the morning can comfortably produce 100-120 species. Check the dense undergrowth for Yellow-bellied and Terrestrial Bulbuls, Tropical Boubou, Heuglin’s Robin, Grey-backed and Stierling’s Barred Warblers, Red-billed Francolin, Grey-headed Parrot, Schalow’s Lourie, Ross’ Lourie (near Maziba Bay), Trumpeter Hornbill, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Honey Buzzard, Yellow White-eye, Yellow-bellied and Collared Sunbirds and Fan-tailed Flycatcher. The early morning and evening chorus rings with owl calls, including those of African Barred, Wood, Giant Eagle, African Scops, Pel’s Fishing and Barn Owls.

One of the best ways to go birding here is on boat. The three lodges at present operating in the area all offer boat rides. Birding habitats along the Zambezi River include rocky rapids, sandbanks, flooded malapos, papyrus marshes, tall reedbeds and overhanging forest. Rapids are good for Rock Pratincole and sandbanks attract African Skimmers (June-December) and White-crowned Plover. Reedbeds and papyrus beds are home to a host of birds including Lesser Gallinule, Lesser Moorhen, Chirping Cisticola, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Swamp Boubou, Coppery-tailed Coucal and Olive Bee-eater.



Accommodation in the area is limited. At present three lodges operate along the river, two of which offer game drives into Sioma Ngwezi NP. Entry into and camping in the Park is possible only if accompanied by a Department of Wildlife & Tourism game scout who can be located at Kalobolelwa and Sioma villages. However, in the more remote areas it is possible to pull off the road and set up camp in the middle of nowhere. Mutemwa Lodge and Maziba Bay Lodge have an agreement with the Department and do take overnight safaris into the park. Southwestern Zambia is a destination for the adventurous birder and much remains to be discovered. If you are going to be camping, come well prepared, bringing all supplies, petrol, water, etc. The main dirt road is accessible by sedan in the dry season only, and 4X4 vehicles are strongly recommended, especially to get into the Park.

Warren McCleland

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