Zimbabwe (“stone houses” in the Shona language), the former Southern Rhodesia (Africa’s breadbasket), is a landlocked country in southern Africa. It is best known for its capital Harare and the spectacular Victoria Falls.
It is rarely visited as a vacation destination, partly because the country is economically isolated and critical due to internal conflicts. So the adventure is even bigger, of course. If you have some experience in Africa, the country offers several dream destinations like the natural parks that are still really “wild”.
Here you can observe the approximately 670 native bird species in peace and quiet, about 50 migratory bird species, and about one third of the world’s eagle species. But interesting birds are not limited to the National Parks: swallows, rails, finches and even the large ostriches can be found throughout Zimbabwe’s vast natural regions, some of which extend right up to the edge of towns and villages.
As always, I have two good Leica glasses with me on such trips, which I choose according to the purpose. This time it was the APO-Televid 82, a spotting scope I use from a tripod or from the half lowered car window. I also use it for taking pictures with a mobile phone or a camera – this is primarily a memory aid, since unknown birds can often only be reliably identified in the evening in the tent after a long study of literature. But that’s one thing I love about birding. The Televid 82 offers high brightness for its magnification, allowing great sightings until well after sunset, into the “gray hour”.
This trip took me to Chizarira National Park and to Lake Kariba – the Zambezi River reservoir – both located in the northwest of Zimbabwe. The area is well over 490,000 acres (200,000 square kilometers), isolated, not even exactly mapped in places. I saw only a few locals here, no other tourists. Rangers describe it like this: “It is one of the least developed and accessible national parks in Africa, visited only by real nature enthusiasts who are not afraid of dusty dirt roads and bring their own tent and sleeping bag.”
What is particularly exciting: In all of Zimbabwe’s parks, you are allowed – after obtaining permission at the gate – to leave the vehicle and stalk the animals, which is otherwise strictly prohibited in most major destinations. Walking safaris without a guide are also possible here. But you should know what you are doing, and know your limits. Speaking of limits: Always keep a distance of three meters from water – no matter how shallow. Crocodiles are lurking everywhere and are quick as lightning, you would have no time to react.
On foot I always approached fixed points: high trees, preferably standing alone, often dead and covered with bird droppings. Both to orient myself (also to find the way back) and because I know that bigger birds often fly to these places. One old branch particularly captivated me; every 10 minutes another large bird perched there. Herons, hawks and eagles seemed to take turns. Lightly camouflaged I could observe them all. They also used the high point to see enemies in time or to find food. Sometimes I even got the serious impression that they look around “just for fun” and enjoy the beautiful view.
My travel time was at the end of October, just before the rainy season there, which lasts from November to April. The vegetation was parched; most of the grasses, bushes and trees had a beige tone, letting me spot the birds at great distance. For this I used my second Leica, the Geovid 8 x 42 HD-R, which is indestructible, especially thanks to its armoring. As on all my travels, I let the locals have a look and they are always astonished and excited by what they see.
The Geovid is available in 8x and 10x magnification, and most people think that “higher is always better”. But don’t be fooled: While you can hold an 8x glass calmly in your hand, this is hardly possible with a 10x glass, unless you have had a lot of practice, or use a support such as a stalking stick.
The other features of this glass also won me over: the rangefinding function has many uses in birding, e.g. for setting a fixed point in order to later determine the (approximate) size of the bird. One can calculate escape distances or – as we did with “my branch” – measure the gliding flight characteristics when a bird departs from a high point without a wing beat. Of course, thermals and weather conditions play a major role in this, which is why you can also measure temperature and altitude with the Geovid. I now use the winter months to evaluate all of the data I wrote down, reminiscing about Africa and dreaming of further adventures.
No avian species are unique to Zimbabwe, but some are almost exclusively found here:
Observing them and ticking them off them “inner bucket list” is a fantastic experience. I succeeded with the Melodious Lark (Mirafra cheniana).
Scientific literature describes it as follows: Its body length is nearly 5 inches (12 cm), of which about 40% is the tail. The beak is about half an inch (1.3 cm) long. The bird’s eyestripe runs from the base of the beak to far down the neck. The mantle is beige to reddish brown, the wattle and throat are white and the breast is rusty brown with dark brown streaks and spots. The remaining underside of the body is light brownish. The wings are black-brown, with rusty-brown edges on the primaries. The short tail is dark. The beak is dark horn-colored, the flanks are buff, the iris is brown. The Melodious Lark eats seeds and arthropods, and is a ground-breeding species. Its population is considered ‘near threatened’.
This lark can be easily confused with the Monotonous Lark (Mirafra passerina), but M. passerina has a white belly and flanks, as well as a longer tail. The Melodious Lark is much rarer than the Monotonous Lark.
The most distinctive characteristic, however, is its song: The Melodious Lark imitates the calls of up to 57 other bird species from 20 different genera and combines them melodically. It performs this in flight or – much more rarely – from a perch, such as the high branches mentioned above. The male, with puffed-up plumage, rapidly beats his wings to climb 20 to 30 meters into the sky, then draws wide circles about 50 meters in diameter. He sings for up to half an hour and then drops back down to the ground.
One must hear this little natural spectacle to believe it. That alone is worth a trip.