Zimbabwe Eastern Highlands – Trip Report

We recently returned from a whirlwind trip of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. This trip report is not going to be a laundry list of the birds we saw and the routes we drove but rather a description of some of the experiences we had (along with the obligatory mention of the good species we went for). My travelling companions were Paul Lewis and Simon Peile (two mates from Cape Town) and we had asked Ian Riddell, a resident guide in the Harare area, to join us. One of the main reasons that Ian was asked to accompany us was due to the last minute disappointment we had experienced as a result of a previously organized trip falling through. We felt we needed some local knowledge along with us to help with some of the birding as well as to give some pointers in local custom should we have needed it.

My birding companions on the Aberfoyle golf course

My birding companions on the Aberfoyle golf course

Notwithstanding the fact that Ian was great to have along we discovered along the way the logistics turned out to be easier than we had thought as well as the fact that we used two separate local guides who were both excellent and indispensable in their special patches.

The trip we did was unfortunately tightly squeezed into 5 intensive days with an itinerary of midday arrival in Harare on Friday, straight to Leopard Rock hotel that night with a stop for the afternoon at Gosho Park in Marondera, two nights at Leopard Rock followed by two nights at Aberfoyle and then back home on the Tuesday.

I had spent a few days in the Vumba about 20 years ago but I had always wanted to return. It is truly a majestic and mystical place and having missed the Honde Valley many years ago it remained as a supposedly legendary spot on my “one day I’ll get there” birding itinerary.The Easter weekend proved to be a good time to go with each of the three of us getting the necessary “pink tickets” from our respective wives. If the truth be told, I won a bet (an expensive one for my wife) but I won’t even begin to guess how Simon and Paul convinced their wives about a 5 day boys-only weekend over Easter. Anyway, I digress.

Red-faced Crombec - 20100404As mentioned above our first stop was Gosho Park. Having been uninitiated in the special nature of Miombo birding I would have to admit that I was not quite prepared for the deathly silence that greeted us on that first Friday afternoon. While we were approaching Harare during our descent my excitement levels were rapidly rising thinking about the birds we were going to see during that first afternoon in the Miombo. I was hoping for bird parties to be rushing in front of me whilst ticking all the Miombo specials in no time at all. It was very different to what I had expected.

We spent a cumulative of approximately 9 or 10 hours in the Miombo during our trip and not once did we get a busy bird party coming through. We saw almost all the specials in the end (Miombo Tit (photo below), Miombo Rock Thrush, Whyte’s Barbet, Cinnamon-breasted Tit, Red-faced Crombec (photo left), White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Cabanis’s Bunting, Wood Pipit and Green-capped Eremomela) but it was very, very hard work.

miombotit-20100404-1.jpgWe missed two important species, the most significant being Spotted Creeper, closely followed by Green-backed Honeybird (we all had a brief glimpse of a Honeybird flashing through the trees but it never perched and will always remain as an uncertainty) but we still wanted to experience that whirlwind of activity. Time of day and time of year probably plagued us but those hardened Miombo birders probably know that we needed to pay our dues before we get the easy ticks. The Miombo birding was slightly below our expectations but I am not one to dwell on that and the forest birding in the Vumba and at Aberfoyle more than adequately compensated.

img-0069.jpg

After a comfortable night at Leopard Rock (Seldomseen was fully booked and it would probably have been preferable to stay there) we met up with Bulawesi for our much anticipated walk through the grounds of Seldomseen. Bulawesi’s (foreground in photo above) name is well known in birding circles and he truly is an essential guide in that area. He took us slowly through the forests while ensuring we got all of our species.

singingcisticola-20100405.jpgThe list is long but included Swynnerton’s and White-starred Robin, Yellow-streaked and Stripe-cheeked Greenbul, Chirinda and Bar-throated Apalis, Robert’s Prinia, Eastern Saw-wing, Orange Ground-thrush, Gurney’s Sugarbird (photo below), Singing Cisticola (photo above), Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Miombo Double-collared, Variable, Collared and Malachite Sunbird. I was fortunate enough to see Blue Swallow as well.

gurneyssugarbird-20100403.jpgSeldomseen is certainly the highlight of the area but there is a nice patch of Miombo on the way down to Burma Road via what used to be known as the Tom Hulley Road. It was typically quiet at mid-morning but we eked out Miombo Rock-thrush (photo below), Miombo Tit and we heard Cinnamon-breasted Tit calling but were frustrated in not getting a sighting. Between the Miombo and the forest there are degraded farmlands and tangled hillsides which deliver good species including Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Singing Cisticola and Yellow-bellied Waxbill.

miomborock-thrush-20100404.jpgFor me the most disappointing aspect of the morning was a return visit to the Vumba Botanical Gardens. I had last been there at least 20 years ago and I remembered it being an extremely well kept location with excellent facilities. It is now run down and totally overgrown. Most of the paths through the forested section are unpassable and the remainder of the areas around the dam are covered in weed. It is not all bad though and it produced some good birds including Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Chirinda Apalis, Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Stripe-cheeked and Yellow-streaked Greenbul, White-browed Robin-chat and the usual array of Sunbird species. We did not see Bronze Sunbird which was a little disappointing. The regular Tree Pipits were also notably absent.

silvery-cheekedhornbill-20100404.jpgOur afternoon was spent back at the hotel where we had one of the highlights of the trip with a pair of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills (photo above) spending at least an hour in a tree in front of the hotel balcony. We also strolled around the spectacular golf course where species such as Crowned Hornbill, Ashy Flycatcher, African Golden Oriole and Dark-backed Weaver were common.

broad-tailedwarbler-20100404a.jpgThe next morning required an early start and a drive through the mist to Mutare to “clean up” on some of the Miombo species at Cecil Kop and then the laborious drive through to Aberfoyle. We were a little delayed in getting to Cecil Kop with a diversion to the wrong side of Mutare but the diversion proved fruitful with additional species such as Broad-tailed Warbler (photo above) and Red-collared Widow in the damp grassland surrounding the Miombo. Cecil Kop was undoubtedly our most successful Miombo experience with plenty of Miombo Tits, Common Scimitarbill, African Cuckoo Hawk, Streaky-headed Seedeater, Redfaced Crombec and a glimpse of a very probable Green-backed Honeybird. Notably we saw all four possible Bunting species (Cabanis’s, Cape, Cinnamon-breasted and Golden-breasted) in a space of about 10 minutes. The true highlight was a pair of skittish Cinnamon-breasted Tits which spent a few fleeting moments around us and then disappeared.

We replenished at the Spar which was remarkably well stocked, paid a visit to the local Nandos (whoever would have thought!!) and then hit the road for Aberfoyle. We had plenty of good birds under our belts and aside from a battle for the front seat for the winding road down into the Honde Valley we were all in good spirits. In between bouts of motion sickness and the occasional screeching to a halt for the suspected Blue-spotted Wood-dove exploding from the road margin we made one or two stops as we hit the valley floor. I had read about the Honde Valley in many trip reports and the occasional site guide but I didn’t have a good feel for what it would look like.

img-0109.jpgHonde Valley looking south from near Aberfoyle

The drop into the escarpment is truly spectacular although densely populated. Once on the valley floor and travelling in a general northerly direction the escarpment looms very obviously on the western side with the impressive Matarazi Falls cascading down from Inyanga whilst on the eastern (Mozambican) side there are beautiful granite domes and inselbergs rising from amongst the maize fields and tea estates.

img-0077.jpg

black-wingedbishop-20100405.jpgThere was a well timed stop for the Black-winged Bishops (photo left) amongst the subsistence maize crops and one of the best lunch time stops I have ever experienced on any of my birding trips alongside the Pungwe River. The lunch stop was not only good because of the beautiful surroundings but equally for the cold Nandos burger that had kept so well since leaving Mutare. I was also finally given credit for my ingenious cooler “bucket” system when I hauled out an ice cold Zambezi for my fellow travelers.

The mid afternoon was spent in fairly comical circumstances. Anyone worth their salt in Southern African birding circles will know about the classic spot for Anchieta’s Tchagra. I must have read over 20 times about the well known turning at the Wamba Factory and the fact that all the locals seemed to “know” about the Wamba Bird (“Ask the locals where to find the Wamba Bird” the bird guide describes so simply). We certainly found the right spot and I made sure I asked at least two locals the right question (which I might add was greeted with completely blank looks) but we were fairly confident that we were going to nail this one first time. I might also add that I had been well advised to get some help from Wisdom (the guide at Aberfoyle) before heading into the marsh. Well, we thought we knew better. We walked through the tea crop and headed straight into the 10 foot high elephant grass without hesitation. We found a reasonably clear path which quickly dwindled into a seething mass of sharp grass and steadily deepening swamp water. Within a few minutes I was waist deep in the swamp and getting deeper. After narrowly avoiding several birding equipment disasters with the deepening water, we felt we were at the right place and scanned for about half an hour with no luck. It was then that we decided that we may actually have got it all wrong and opted to place our trust in Wisdom when we got to Aberfoyle. We tried a short cut out of the marsh and it turned into an absolute nightmare – the wall of reeds and elephant grass was almost impenetrable and we eventually emerged with cuts and abrasions on all parts of our uncovered anatomies. We were all soaked from toe to waist and in the baking sun we had gained absolutely nothing.

Wamba Marsh

We drove the last few kilometers to Aberfoyle looking forward to an invigorating swim and afternoon nap whereupon we were instructed by Wisdom that time was not on our side and we were to head straight back to where we had come from. I honestly thought he was joking. So we piled back into the car and headed back to the exact same spot that we had been an hour before. I might add that Wisdom knew a secret passageway into the marsh (his completely dry boots were a giveaway that he knew something we didn’t) and within 10 minutes of parking the car we were standing at the dry edge of the marsh and right on cue the male Tchagra popped out of the reeds for our 45 seconds of satisfaction. We also saw a single Wattled Starling in the reeds which I believe is quite an unusual bird for that area (why would I possibly think that would be noteworthy in the same paragraph as the Anchieta’s Tchagra?).

.IMG 0107

Scanning for Anchieta’s Tchagra in the Wamba Marsh

A few words of advice for those looking for the Tchagra – don’t expect it to be a guaranteed tick (we visited the same spot three times and only saw it for a very brief 45 seconds) and don’t spurn the absolutely vital local knowledge that is offered by Wisdom (his painless route through the grass and reeds certainly justifies any fee that he earns!!)

It is necessary to mention here that Aberfoyle is an absolute jewel. It is very well equipped with very comfortable accommodation, beautifully set amongst the tea plantations and the service from Herbert (the chef) and Sundae (the manager) was exceptional. Sundae has a great sense of humour and takes enormous pride in the way the estate is run. Wisdom requires special mention as he is the man to show you the birds and that he does with great skill and enthusiasm. We had a long day of birding but he was always available and willing to keep going despite the ongoing requests.

gorgeousbush-shrike-20100405.jpgOur early morning was spent doing a fairly stiff hike up to the beautiful forests. It is not necessarily a long way to go up the mountain but the path is steep and the constant stopping makes for a long morning of intensive birding. We had a very special morning with a bird list that I had only ever dreamed of. I promised I would avoid lists but who can avoid such an auspicious laundry list as this: Red-throated and Green Twinspots, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Gorgeous (photo above) and Black-fronted Bush-shrike, White-tailed Crested, Blue-mantled Crested, African Paradise and Ashy Flycatcher, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Green-backed Woodpecker, White-eared Barbet, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Stripe-cheeked (photo below), Yellow-streaked and Sombre Greenbul, Livingstone’s Turaco, Chirinda and Bar-throated Apalis, African Emerald and Klaas’s Cuckoo. Not only was the birding excellent but the forest was truly beautiful. Our only disappointment (which was more than compensated for by the successes) was missing Red-faced Crimsonwing. I have a firm belief that this bird does not really exist and that it is all damn lies if anyone tells you otherwise.

stripe-cheekedgreenbul-20100405a-2.jpgThe rest of the day was spent walking leisurely around the gardens, a repeat visit to the Wamba Marsh and a vigil for a Pallid Honeyguide on the first green on the Aberfoyle Golf Course. We spent some time at a large fruiting tree which was a hive of activity where we added Orange-breasted Bush-shrike and had improved views of Green-backed Woodpecker, Klaas’s Cuckoo and African Emerald Cuckoo.

white-breastedcuckooshrike-20100402.jpgOur flight out of Harare was at 12:30 pm the next day and having assessed our lack of success in the Miombo we decided we would need a stop at Gosho on the way back. It required a 4am departure from Aberfoyle which was a little sado-masochistic given the pace of the previous few days but we had some bird parties to see and we wouldn’t be stopped. We had nice sightings of two separate Civets on the way out of Aberfoyle and we arrived at Gosho at just about the predicted time. We were ready for some hot Miombo action and nothing could have dampened our spirits more than yet another deathly silent greeting from that damned habitat. Gosho was every bit as quiet as it had been 4 days previously (I did promise not to dwell on this but I am only trying to warn those that follow us). We had such limited time and this was certainly a contributory factor and once again we had to work so very hard for any reward at all. We flushed a number of Wood Pipits (photo below) which were a new addition to the list and we had repeat sightings of Whyte’s Barbet but once again the Creeper eluded us and we had to pack it in with a few hours to spare to make sure we caught our plane.

woodpipit-20100406.jpgIt paradoxically goes without saying that no birding trip is complete without leaving something behind so we felt we had to have a few birds in store for our next visit to Zimbabwe. The trip was too short, probably too expensive and at the wrong time of year but it was just perfect for us. We found the conditions in this most beautiful of countries to be far better than we had expected with far more necessities available than we would have thought. We also dreaded the road blocks but not once were we asked to stop or treated with anything other than respect. We also could not believe the warmth and friendliness that exists amongst the humblest of people and nothing brought it home more than the SAA check in clerk for our flight to Cape Town who greeted us with absolutely no warmth, sense of humour or desire to make our lives any lighter. I marvel at how the people have survived such hardship but perhaps it is less evident in the areas that we visited.

It seems that more and more people are doing the exact trip that we have just done with a hugely important addition being a day or two in Harare for the vlei birding and some better spots for Creeper. Zimbabwe is certainly back on the birding map. If anyone has any questions about our trip they are welcome to mail me on mike@prescient.co.za.

Mike Buckham