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Birding Africa pt. 14 - The Bushbuck River House, Zambia

posted by Tim Avery at
on Monday, November 11, 2013 

The alarm went off at 3:30am--it was pitch black in our room, and freezing.  We had a 6:30am flight to Johannesburg so we wanted to be at the airport by around 5am, and still had to pack a few items, get ready, and drive the 45 minutes to the airport.  The early morning drive through Cape Town went off without a hitch and we were soon at the airport in line waiting to check-in.  Everything went smooth at the airport and 2 hour flight went quickly, as did the 2 hour layover, before we boarded our flight to Livingstone, Zambia--we were headed to the heart of Africa.  Flying in Africa was actually a pleasure, the planes were nice and clean, and the attendants were polite, and helpful.  It beats flying in America and Europe any day.  The planes here also seemed to have more leg room, which for a 6'4" guy is really helpful.  Before we knew it we were over Zambia and could see the Zambezi River winding through the Savannah.  It was a bumpy couple of minutes while we circled waiting to land, and the landing was pretty jarring as well.  I enjoy flying into small airports like Livingstone, where you exit the plane on the single runway and have to walk into the terminal--for me it just makes for a fun experience.

Leaving the plane on the tarmac at Livingstone Airport

After making our way through customs, and exchanging some some currency for the local Kwacha we found our ride--Alan the owner of the bed and breakfast we we were staying at along the Zambezi River, the Bushbuck River House.  Alan and his wife Oriel were from the UK and had been guides in Africa for decades--in the last few years they opened Bushbuck and based off the reviews on Trip Advisor it seemed like THE place to stay in Livingstone.  We had to wait for 4 other guests to get through customs, before heading to the old-school Land Rover, for the 20 minute drive up the highway to the lodge.

Along the way we stopped briefly to enjoy a GIRAFFE right along the road.  While we were watching I looked up and a pair of MARABOU STORK were circling maybe 70-80’ above the car..  I didn’t have my telephoto lens on so was only able to snap a shot with the 55mm lens--enough to make out what the bird is at least.

Marabou Stork soaring above the highway

A few minutes later and we were turning off the main road onto a dirt road headed towards the Zambezi.  After a short and bumpy drive we pulled through the gate at the Bushbuck River House and were parked, welcomed and given a short tour of the house and property.  Alan took us on a walk around the perimeter talking about the wildlife, warning us to watch out for Puff Adders, crocodiles, and hippos.  He also pointed out the trees where Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls typically roost, then spoke briefly about a special bird that nests on the island just out from us--the Pel’s Fishing Owl.

The Zambezi River from the Bushbuck River House

This was my number one target bird for Africa, and it was potentially just a few hundred feet from where I stood--I couldn’t wait to go look for it.  As Alan talked about the flora and fauna I noticed some WHITE-FRONTED BEE-EATERS flying out over the river above, and a pair of RED-EYED DOVES perched in the trees right above us.  An AFRICAN DARTER sat in the river--the mighty Zambezi, which wasn’t overly mighty at the moment.  Otherwise it was quiet on this hot  and humid spring afternoon.

Red-eyed Doves along the river

After the tour we settled into our room and then relaxed at the pool for a little before Sam decided to take a nap--queue my chance to stroll the property for birds.  I walked a loop around the property--it was just too hot for anything to be overly active. I did find one really cool lizard though.

Beautiful lizard on the property

I ended up heading to the hide overlooking the river where I could sit in the shade and scan the water.  There was a herd of ELEPHANTS moving between the island and the shore to the northwest, and a few local fisherman coming in from the river.  Bird-wise there was a MARSH SANDPIPER foraging on the near shore, along with several COMMON SANDPIPER.  Further out among the rock were a half dozen or so CROWNED LAPWING.

Marsh Sandpiper foraging in the river

Eventually a few song birds move past through the trees.  There were a both SCARLET-CHESTED and WHITE-BREASTED SUNBIRDS, as well as CHINSPOT BATIS, YELLOW-FRONTED CANARY, and BLUE CORDONBLEU.  I spotted a small flock of tiny finches that looked to be VILLAGE INDIGOBIRDS.  At least that's what I think they were!

Pair of Village Indigobirds at the Bushbuck River House

After a while a BLACK-SHOULDERED KITE flew in and landed in a dead snag nearby.  At the same time a CRESTED BARBET flew into the tree and set off rattling.  Eventually the kite either got sick of the sound or just wanted to move and took off.  As I watched the kite fly off I noticed a large raptor circling the trees on the opposite edge of the property--it was a BANDED SNAKE-EAGLE.  When I finally got my camera on it, trees were obscuring the shot, and the bird circled out of view!  This had been my luck with the Snake-Eagles on this trip.  Looking back towards the river, a YELLOW-BELLIED GREENBUL came through stopping just long enough for a shot before it disappeared too.

Yellow-bellied Greenbul passing the hide

I headed back to the lodge, where several BLACK-COLLARED BARBETS were making a raucous in the trees above.  Sam was still resting and it was getting near sunset--and Alan was going to take me and two other guests onto the island to look for wildlife--and specifically the owl!  I got my gear ready then headed back out to the yard where there were now 3 LITTLE BEE-EATERS flycatching from a small sapling in the middle of the grass.  The lighting was excellent, but the others were waiting on me so I only snapped a few shots before we headed out.

Little Bee-eaters posing in the yard

Alan led us through the bush to the rivers edge and then across what during high water would be under 3-6’ of water, but now was merely a trickle on the far north edge of the river.  We hopped across small pools, and stepped on rocks through the areas where water was still flowing--it was hard to imagine what it would be like in a few months.  Once on the island we started seeing some wildlife--first flushing a STRIATED HERON, and then another.  We then came across a BUSHBUCK--the namesake of the lodge, which stood broadside on a bank in perfect light before disappearing into the woods.

Bushbuck on the island on the Zambezi River

After the buck took off we headed towards the heart of the island, but not before spotting an AFRICAN OPENBILL on the shore facing the main channel of the river.  I had seen just one of these in South Africa at a great distance on the Olifants River, and now one was less than 100’ away.  It let us approach rather close, and unfortunately our path took us close enough that it flew as we walked by.  One of the more interesting storks--with the opening between the two bills…

African Openbill on the Zambezi River

Alan told us where to look for the owls, and we started walking the perimeter of the island hoping to catch a glimpse.  He mentioned that several times he would miss the birds only to have them fly as he got near--which actually allowed him to watch where they land and then get better looks at them.  Just a few days before we arrived he had seen one, so we had high hopes.  Making our way east along the north shore we didn’t find any owls.  We worked around the east end and then slightly to the south--no owls.  It was tough searching through the enormous trees.

Trees on the island on the Zambezi River

After getting to a turn around point Alan told us there were trees along the north end where we still had a good chance to find them, so we headed that way.  As we walked I was looking up and spotted a pair of turacos flying through the trees--I asked Alan if they were Purple-crested Turacos, to which he told me no, they would be SCHALOW’S TURACOS!  Schalow’s was another target bird, that I had hoped to see--I put Knysna and it as an either/or, just hoping to see one species, and I already had the Knysna--so this would just be a bonus.  I didn’t think I would get to see this species as I had tried to get information on seeing them before my visit, and everyone I talked to said it was just a matter of luck if you had one fly by at Victoria Falls.  But here 20 miles up river, after a few minutes of searching I spotted them, high in the trees, hidden in the canopy.  I snapped 3 shots before the birds flew--and got lucky enough to get one of the birds sort of visible.

Lifer Schalow's Turaco hiding in the canopy

I tried to to follow them, but any time I got within 100’ they took flight.  I opted to leave them alone and get back to searching for the owls.  It was a great find, so I was stoked regardless of how the owl search turned out.  We made our way along the north edge, on the mud flats outside of the island looking back along a swampy area with a lot of overhangs over pools that were now disconnected from the river--perfect habitat for the owls.  No owls were to be found tonight, but a bull HIPPOPOTAMUS in the river was making a fuss about where we were.  We passed within about 40’ and he let us know he was unhappy about it.  Splashing and barking, while opening his mouth all the way and hitting the water, he showed his long teeth, and let us know who was boss.

Mad Hippopotamus in the Zambezi River

As we headed back towards where we could cross the river the sunset--it was incredible.  The combination of the smoke, humidity and whatever other particulate was in the air made for a pink sky, with the sun so muted you could look right at it without any problems--it was a magenta and pink orb floating against gray as it neared the horizon.

Sunset over the Zambezi River

With the sunset a few creatures emerged from the surrounding areas, including several bats of varying sizes and shapes--but more importantly a very cool bird--and one that I wouldn’t see again, the ROCK PRATINCOLE.  There might have been 10 of them flopping around over the river, they were like a mix between a nighthawk and gull and were fun to watch.  I stayed behind to try and get some photos while the others continued back to the house.

Rock Pratincole flying over the Zambezi River

It was getting pretty dark so I managed what I could before heading in myself.  It had been a long day, but had a few awesome sightings.  The day was capped with an excellent dinner prepared by the chef, a local who made incredible meals each night.  Soon after dinner we were in bed, getting a great night sleep.

7 life birds this day / 315 total trip life birds / 337 total trip species

photos from Bushbuck River House, Zambia:

eBird Checklist for the afternoon and evening

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Anonymous Maureen said...

Lovely photos. My husband and I traveled to Vic Falls about 10 years ago during the wet season. It was liek nothign we've ever experienced.

November 14, 2013 at 12:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Nice Africa fishing & lodge , World class charter fishing trips with all the facilities of Zambia Fishing Lodges and all the training of fishing.

November 15, 2013 at 5:02 AM  

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