Fledgling Birders | Lochinvar National Park, Zambia

Wattled CranesWattled Cranes

Lochinvar National Park in south-central Zambia once held the world record for the most number of bird species spotted in one day, 428. As fledgling birders, we didn't break any records, but birds we saw a-plenty. And, by the time we left, we could even name a few.

The Kafue Flats

Of the 7 000 square kilometres called the Kafue Flats, 3-5 000 square kilometres is flooded annually, making it one of Africa's most important wetlands. A geological fault runs through the Flats causing the welling up of hot springs, home to Whydahs and Palm Thrushes. The Kafue Flats has the largest concentration of water birds in Zambia with up to 3 000 Wattled Cranes having been recorded. Waterbirds of practically all of south-central Africa can be found here.

Lochinvar National Park

Part of the Flats is bounded by Lochinvar National Park which is both a Ramsar and World Heritage wetland site. Good gravel roads carry us through the deciduous woodland and savannah of the park. Lechwe Plains Tented Camp is perched on the high floodwater edges of the 300 hectare, Chunga Lagoon. Approaching through the dry and bare winter woodlands, the green banks and watery horizon is like arriving at the sea.

Chunga Lagoon

Grey crowned crane in flight428 species of bird live in the channels and islands of the Chunga lagoon and the surrounding diverse habitats: Redbilled Hornbills dip and glide over the munga woodlands on the edge of the Flats. Migrant populations of Great Snipe and Marsh Warbler call the grasslands of Lochinvar their holiday home.

As we set off for the fishing village in the banana boat, the lechwe are breakfasting, thigh deep, in the watery margins and the lily-trotting African Jacana are perfecting their walking-on-water routine. Hippos wallow in the shallows among the reeds. We pass the villagers on their way to the harbour to trade the last few days catch with trucks from Lusaka and further afield. Their row-boats are laden with freezers of fish.

It's not the best morning for launching one's birding career as the wind picks up and we putter into it, spray drenching those on the starboard side. Nonetheless, greyheaded Gulls and Yellowbilled Ducks are conscientiously added to my ever-growing checklist. A Maribou Stork steps ponderously through the shallows, bent over like an old man. A solitary pelican fishes among the Pygmy Geese and Hottentot Teals. As we make our way home, the fishermen are also returning, their boats now laden with sacks of oranges. They row into the teeth of the wind which hasn't let up.

What a Lark!

Later, out on a woodland game drive with Amon, our Zambian guide and guests Julie, a Zimbabwean guide and her American tour operator partner, it was soon apparent, despite our Roberts' field guide, that we were new to the birding game. We gave ourselves away immediately by the fact that we had no binocs.

Trying to distinguish a Red-capped Lark from a Rufous-naped Lark, at distance, even with the aid of my 300 mm camera lens, proved unconvincing. We did however, have the tape-recorder as committed twitchers do, I understand, for using taped bird-call to entice birds into their camera lenses. Sounds like canned birding to me. The Rhino girls' experience showed and they were soon dubbed the Bino girls.

Thanks to them we checked off both the Red-capped and the Rufous-naped and felt like we were getting the hang of the thing. Kingfishers ignite blue sparks across our path. Seven out of the nine Kingfisher species are found here. We saw four. Unaided, we manage to distinguish the Pied from the Malachite, however, a Brown-hooded Kingfisher stirs up some contention over whether it is a Woodland or a Grey-hooded or Brown-hooded. A Striped Kingfisher flashes electric blue across our path.

A White-backed Vulture takes off from the top of a baobab tree, leaving its shade to the baboons below. We stop for a moment of vulture culture to observe a lesser known side of their nature - the maternal. Big Mama sits watching over two chicks in a nest high up in the naked branches.

Rain Birds

Dry weather migrants like the Capped Wheatear which is partial to nesting in termite mounds and the Crowned Plover are dutifully ticked off although I must confess to seeing them better in my bird book than in the flesh. However, the Red-capped Robin and Narina's Trogon must wait for the summer rains. The Brown-headed Tchagra announces the rainy season's imminent arrival with his call. Hopes of a good harvest are evident in his local name which is loosely translated as 'now we are going to eat beans.'

Plains Birds

Grey crowned cranesAs we get out onto the plains, the American with us exclaims that it looks like Kansas with its wide-open prairies. Indeed, the huge swarms of Redbilled Quelea resemble mini tornadoes streaking the horizon in coils and swirls; forming and reforming, whirling and unfurling in smoky clouds.

Lechwe Plains Tented Camp

The small and exclusive Lechwe Plains is the only accommodation within the park and comprises six tents sleeping twelve people. The tents are tucked amongst the thorn bush and strung along the water frontage which rises and falls according to the rains. Lochinvar floods seasonally about two to three months after the onset of the summer rains in December.

Furnished with wicker writing tables, old-fashioned brass lamps and black lacquered tray-tables, the en-suite tents are bigger than most hotel rooms. A wooden floor and gum pole frame supports the heavy khaki canvas, softened by white calico curtains hung from wrought iron railings. You feel as if you should be recording the day's field observations by the light of a paraffin lamp.

Colonial Comfort Under Canvas

Lechwe Plains tented campAfter a couple of beers had settled the dust, we adjourn to the canopied dining area. Opening out onto a view of the lake, wrought-iron sculptures of flamingos and secretary birds unite the exterior with the interior. Couches swaddled in leather cushions, lamp stands covered in fur, ostrich feathers in copper urns and animal skins underfoot create the expectation of a khaki-clad Robert Redford materialising for dinner.

The long table is dressed in white linen on which is served butternut soup with lots of cream, promptly followed by roast chicken and potatoes, squash and julienned carrots. Dessert is peach tart and custard accompanied by a good red wine to which justice is done around the fire.

We retire to our beds under mosquito nets and a capacious palm-printed canopy reminiscent of a ballooning big top. When the wind blows it's like being at sea, with all the creaks and groans of straining rope and canvas. The generator precludes all chance of sleeping in, but the premature awakening is worth it to see the sun rise from the veranda of the tent, a great red ball behind the thorn trees.

The lake is placid and glistens delft blue in the first light of morning. And behind the rumble of the generator swells the tintinnabulation of the birds for which Lochinvar is deservedly renowned. We'll be back. With our binocs.

Copyright 2003. Laurianne Claase. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited
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