Zambia: Miombo and Mushitu Endemics

Zambia has a long list of selling points: it has huge variety of habitats, many localized species, stable politics, very friendly people, and good infrastructure. It holds the most productive and diverse miombo (tall evergreen woodland) in the world with pulse-quickening bird parties and opportunities to seek virtually all the species restricted to this fascinating habitat. Farther north are the moist evergreen forests known as mushitus, featuring species more typical of the Congolese rainforests. South of Lusaka lies a matrix of mopane woodland, savanna, and riparian forest, which contains the large fig trees favored by the Zambia’s only endemic, Chaplin’s Barbet, and the localized Black-collared Lovebird.

Day 1: Lusaka. After arriving in Lusaka, where we overnight, we’ll bird some nearby miombo woodland.

Days 2-3: Lusaka to Mkushi. We’ll spend two nights in the Mkushi area, which provides some of the best miombo birding on the tour. One of the most sought-after specialties here is the superb Black-collared Eremomela, which often occurs in small groups. The localized Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Weaver can be remarkably inconspicuous, so is best located by its high-pitched, penetrating trills, while Sousa’s Shrikes often perch quietly on the smaller shrubs and trees. Both Yellow-breasted and Southern Hyliotas occur, providing a nice opportunity to compare these similar birds. Bird parties may include Red-capped Crombec, Rufous-bellied and Miombo Tit, Violet-backed Sunbird, Spotted Creeper, White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher, Miombo Barbet, Little Spotted Woodpecker, and Scaly-throated Honeyguide. Denser vegetation, such as that on termitaria, often holds Miombo Scrub-Robin. As we walk, we will keep watch at the edges of the path for feeding Orange-winged Pytilias and Cabanis’s Bunting.

Days 4-5: Mkushi to Kasanka NP. After a final morning near Mkushi, we’ll head towards Kasanka NP for a two-night stay. Kasanka is a jewel, with a variety of habitats ranging from mushitu to marsh and miombo, with all its subtle variations. Our accommodation is perched where we can enjoy beautiful sunrises over the marsh that teems with hippos, Coppery-tailed Coucals, and African Pygmy-Goose. The most fascinating and special areas of Kasanka are the mushitus – strips of moist woodland. The normally scarce Bohm’s Bee-eater is partial to the edge of these, and the beautiful Bocage’s Akalat thrives in their moist depths. Kasanka’s miombo is different from that of the Mkushi area, and gives us chances for Anchieta’s Sunbird, and Pale-billed Hornbill.

Puku are abundant in Kasanka National Park
Puku are abundant in Kasanka National Park (Ken Behrens)

Days 6-8: Kasanka NP to Mutinondo. We will spend the morning birding Kasanka before departing for Mutinondo, where we spend two nights. Many birders who have been there agree that Mutinondo is the most beautiful place in Zambia, if not in all of Africa. Its singular landscape is dominated by huge granite inselbergs that preside over a picturesque arena of clear streams and lush woodlands. There is something otherworldly about this place, and it evokes a feeling of wilderness that harkens back to the days of Livingstone and Stanley. Despite its remote setting, the lodge here is remarkably comfortable. The food is excellent, and a fully stocked bar in a scenic spot stands ready to meet all of our sundowner needs. In addition to its great scenic value, Mutinondo is a superb birding venue. Reichard’s Seedeater is common, as are a variety of sunbirds. Our biggest avian target is Bar-winged Weaver, a tricky and strange nuthatch-like weaver. The miombo here holds the full range of specialty species including Steirling’s Barred Warbler, and Miombo Double-collared Sunbirds, Anchieta’s, Whyte’s, Black-backed, and Miombo Pied Barbets. If we are lucky, the seasonal swampy marshes (dambos) will be wet, and will give us a chance at a variety of difficult species including flufftails, Black-rumped Buttonquail, and Locustfinch.

Day 9: Mutinondo to Lusaka. This will largely be a travel day, returning to Lusaka to overnight, perhaps with opportunistic stops for roadside birds.

Days 10-11: Lusaka to Choma. This morning we will bird our way to Choma, where we’ll spend two nights. Choma is in the core of the tiny range of Chaplin’s Barbet, Zambia’s only endemic. The barbet is tied to large figs that occur in a savanna setting. Other possibilities of the area include Racket-tailed Roller, Parasitic Weaver, and Rosy-breasted Longclaw.

Days 12-13: Victoria Falls. For these three days, we’ll be based in Livingstone, a short way from the dramatic Victoria Falls, locally referred to as Mosi-a-tunya, meaning “the smoke that thunders!” Though we have all seen hundreds of photos of the falls, there is simply no substitute for seeing it for real. Birds here include African Crowned Eagle, Schalow’s Turaco, Mocking Cliff-Chat, Rock Pratincole, White-crowned Lapwing, and many others. We’ll make a special excursion out of Livingstone to an area of mopane woodland to search for the rare Black-cheeked Lovebird. A whole set of Okavango specialty species also occurs in this area, including Coppery-tailed Coucal, Swamp Boubou, Greater Swamp-Warbler, Bradfield’s Hornbill, Luapula and Chirping Cisticolas, and Hartlaub’s Babbler.

Nothing can prepare you for the splendor of Victoria Falls in person
Nothing can prepare you for the splendor of Victoria Falls in person (Josh Engel)

Day 14: Departure from Victoria Falls. Today we will head to the small but busy Vic Falls airport to connect with outbound international flights. Those taking the African Pitta will fly to Harare, Zimbabwe.

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EXTENSION OPTION

Zimbabwe African Pitta extension

Despite having a fairly large range, the African Pitta is an extremely difficult bird to locate anywhere in Africa. The Zambezi Valley has proven to be a reliable place to find it in recent years, and the best spot for it currently is in the Zimbabwean portion of that mighty valley. This extension also offers chances at a select suite of desirable birds that we won’t see on the main Zambia tour.

Day 1: Victoria Falls to Harare to the Zambezi valley. After flying to Harare, we drive down into a portion of the Zambezi river valley favored by African Pitta, one of the most difficult and sought-after birds on the continent. Our base for this quest is a simple lodge in the bush.

Days 2-3: Zambezi Valley. An early start will maximize our chances of encountering the near-mythical African Pitta. This poorly-understood bird migrates large distances across tropical Africa, and has even been known to pop up in parking lots and other bizarre locations. The riparian woodland of the Zambezi valley is one of the few reliable places where they breed year after year, during a short window between December and January. We will have to be there early and listen for their strange “buuuuurrruuup” call, which we’ll chase down till we clamp eyes on this multi-colored jewel of the undergrowth. Other species we may find during our pitta hunt include African Broadbill, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Livingstone’s Flycatcher, Bohm’s and Mottled Spinetails, and Eastern Nicator.

Day 4: Zambezi Valley to Harare. If needed, we’ll try again for African Pitta, before driving back to the capital of Lusaka for the night.

Black-throated Wattle-Eye prefers moist mushitus.
Black-throated Wattle-Eye prefers moist mushitus. (Guy Upfold)

Day 5: Departure. We transfer to Harare international airport for our flights home.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to Intense. Early starts are necessary on most days (5 am) and sometimes the best birding seems to coincide with the hottest part of the day. We are likely to take a break during the heat of the day (noon – 3pm) because the humidity gets quite stifling, but we will be at again in the late afternoon, and there will be several owling sessions. So this tour is for those who like it busy. There is quite a lot of driving, including several days with long drives (Day 2: Lusaka-Mkushi, 4–5 hours; Day 9: Mutinondo- Lusaka, 6 hours; Day 10: Lusaka-Choma, 4 hours). However, getting around means we end up seeing a lot of species. To bird Miombo effectively we will drive through it, listening for parties and then jump out and stay with them as long as possible.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy-Moderate. Provided you can walk up to 3 km (around 2 miles) a day you should be fine. Of course, birding requires standing up, but locating many of the birds is done by vehicle.

CLIMATE: Zambia is likely to be warm (mostly 62°-80°F, 17°-27°C), and humid (over 65%). The Zambezi Valley can get sweltering (up to 104°F, 40°C), but that is an extreme. It is the wet season and we can expect some rain, particularly afternoon thunderstorms that have a duel effect: cool the afternoon a little; and make the birds active again.

ACCOMMODATION: Moderate, some places are a little more rustic than others, including Mkushi and Mutinondo, but all have private, en-suite bathrooms, hot water when needed (some places on generators).

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have some opportunities to photograph birds, after all it is Africa, and bird photography is quite easy here. However, Miombo birding parties can move quickly, and this is probably one of the hardest African tours for bird photography. Serious bird photographers may wish to check out our South Africa and Namibia Photo Journeys.

WHEN TO GO: This tour is best run January to March. This is when the Miombo is at its best after the rains.

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, India, China and most European countries. Visas are currently not required by only a few nationalities including South Africa and Singapore. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.