The following days were spent in a blissful haze of birding, game viewing and soaking in the stark scenery. Thornveld produced the handsome Shaft-tailed Whydah, the quirky Kalahari Scrub Robin and finally my long-time bogey bird, Barred Wren-Warbler. Exploring the plains yielded the ghostly pale local race of Red-capped Lark, as well as Ant-eating Chat, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Northern Black Korhaan and Desert Cisticola.
ABOVE: I finally managed to catch up with a Barred Wren-Warbler! In this case a beautiful breeding male with its brown chest.
Johné was determined to get the perfect shot of a Double-banded Courser, so we spent some time with them along Ngobib Loop. Suddenly two larks joined the party as well. Perched on a piece of elephant dung, the birds raised their straggly crests. “Stark’s Lark!” I exclaimed. I suspect the non-birding folks were a bit baffled at my excitement about this anaemic-looking LBJ though.
ABOVE: Stark’s Lark is highly nomadic in arid regions. At times super-abundant, but then disappears for years. Note the white underparts, virtually unmarked breast, straggly crest and curved bill.
A visit to the Andoni Plains revealed various waterbirds. While trying, unsuccessfully, to string a Ruff into a Redshank, several big shadows fell across the ground. I immediately suspected some raptor but the accompanying call suggested otherwise. As I looked up, a flock of ten Blue Cranes descended gracefully, as if parachuting. With an estimated population of 60 birds in Etosha (the only Blue Cranes outside South Africa) this flock theoretically made up 17% of the local population.
ABOVE: Parachuting Blue Cranes.
We took the Okerfontein road back towards Namutoni and had great raptor sightings. Pale Chanting Goshawks, Greater Kestrels and Lesser Kestrels were present in abundance, while he had a quick fly-by of a Red-necked Falcon back at Namutoni. We enjoyed the sunset with a herd of ellies at Klein Namutoni.
A seasonal pan close to Springbokfontein en route to Halali was a magnet for waterbirds. It remains incredible how the birds can locate such temporary water sources in this inhospitable region. A flock of Lesser Flamingos were showing off, flying graciously over the pan while Wood Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Little Stint, Pied Avocet and Cape Teal were wading around in the shallows. We also managed to pick up five Chestnut-banded Plovers, with Etosha being one of the few inland localities for this species.
ABOVE: A Chestnut-banded Plover explores the salty margins. This appears to be a male with a hint of black on the forehead and chest-band.
All birding intentions on our first early morning drive from Halali got highjacked by a stunning male lion on territorial patrol and a Bat-eared Fox digging after termites. Just outside Halali a Bronze-winged Courser was whiling away the daylight hours in the shade of a mopani. We headed in the direction of Rietfontein, and encountered flocks of hundreds of Grey-backed Sparrow-Larks on the Salvadori Plains.
ABOVE: Male Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark.
The afternoon was reserved for birding in Halali Camp, which is arguably the best birding spot in the park for classic Namibian targets. First up was Damara Red-billed Hornbill. This is not always the easiest ID to make as Halali falls in a hybridization zone with the widespread Southern Red-billed Hornbill. We quickly managed to find the resident family of Bare-cheeked Babblers sitting in the shade of a table outside one of the rondavels. They are incredibly accommodating and approached too close for my lens’ minimum focal distance.
While on my stomach next to a babbler, I heard a deep hooting not too far off: a male African Cuckoo! At least we don’t have to worry about bill colouration or tail barring—he told us who he was! A family of Violet Wood Hoopoes loudly announced their arrival in the trees in front of the restaurant; a small raptor eyeing the cabal turned out to be stunning Shikra. A quick break in the swimming pool to recover from the Namibian heat, and we headed out on our afternoon drive. Rietfontein waterhole revealed a male Greater Painted Snipe and enjoying interactions between a Cape Fox and her sub-adult pups. We headed back to Halali just in time to catch the resident Black Rhino for sundowners while an African Wild Cat was in hot pursuit of the Double-banded Sandgrouse coming in for a drink after sunset.
ABOVE: African Cuckoo.
ABOVE: Violet Wood Hoopoes appear darker and less glossy than the overlapping Green Wood Hoopoe. In fact, much of their body plumage looks matt black in the field.
ABOVE: Shrikes are predominantly lizard-eaters.
The one Halali target that was conspicuous in its absence was Carp’s Tit. This little black phantom was really starting to work on my nerves. Since I started birding, we’ve been to Halali on three occasions before and I simply couldn’t find one. I shared my frustrations with Jo Balmer, who suggested that we search in a different spot in the camp. Of course, within five seconds of arrival at Jo’s magic spot, a Carp’s Tit appeared out of nowhere. Success at long last! I was on a high like no other!
ABOVE: Carp’s Tit – finally!
Our final destination in Etosha was Okakeujo Camp. We opted to drive via Gemsbokvlakte with Burchell’s Courser in mind. On previous occasions, I’ve seen multiple birds on the plain around the waterhole. The area also delivered Caspian Plovers for me in 2019. Luck was not on our side this year, but a pair of decidedly pale Pink-billed Larks was a great consolation prize.
That Facebook report was still on my mind, and now that we were at Okakeugjo, Mission Northern Grey-headed Sparrow was on! While the rest of the family relaxed in the pool, Johné and myself voluntarily tendered for heatstroke. We meticulously verified EVERY. SINGLE. GREY. HEADED. SPARROW. We did get excited a few times just to confirm yet another odd looking Southern individual. Something strange happens when you start looking so intensely. You start noticing minute individual differences, until every sparrow starts looking odd.
An Ashy Tit and Brubru provided some distraction whilst searching for a needle in a haystack, while massive swarms of Red-billed Queleas were our constant companions. We had to call it a day after two hours of scanning and met up with the family to go and enjoy some Lions at Nebrowni Waterhole. Our sparrow quest was a hot topic for discussion in the car. Questions like “so there’s only one of them here?” and statements like “nothing actually keeps it inside the camp grounds” did not lift my spirits. The Lion cubs and Black Rhinos helped somewhat.
The next morning the mission continued. Today we could not even find a Southern Grey-headed Sparrow! This was starting to feel personal. A pair of Pririt Batises and Shaft-tailed Whydahs kept us motivated and another African Cuckoo provided great photo opportunities. Time was running out: the car was packed and our companions were ready to hit the road. One last patrol still yielded nothing, and we headed to the car, beaten. But hold on, what’s this chirping above the car?
And there it was—Northern Grey-headed Sparrow! You might wonder how we confirmed so quickly that is was the Northern? Well, if you’ve looked at the amount of Southerns we did, then you’ll just know it when you see it. The Northern appears plumper with a heavy bill and a clear white throat framed with a darker border. A sigh of relief, and we put the car in gear. Coastwards.