Birds of Bumi Hills
At 280km per hour we flash passed eagles and vultures soaring over the rugged and verdant Whambira Hills, too fast to identify anything but a few White-backed Vultures. These tantalising glimpses awaken our interest and as we slip over the Zambezi escarpment the magnificent blue expanse of Lake Kariba draws our gaze, the mountains abruptly giving way to the flat spread of the Kariba basin. As we drop down over the Gachegache River details start to appear; brown lozenges resolve into hippos snoozing in the turbid water, a big elephant bull strolls along the river side, great ears flapping, and wheeling white flashes can be recognised as Great and Cattle Egrets.
But this is only a brief interlude in our flight from Harare. We pick up passengers and wing our way over the eastern basin of the lake; below I recognise Bed Island and the much bigger Spurwing Island as the sinuous eastern foreshore of Matusadona National Park approaches. It’s a magnificent view as we fly over the park, roads I haven’t travelled in decades loop around bays dotted with elephant and hippo with specks of birds flighting over the waters. In vain I hope to spot the Grey Crowned Cranes that sometimes habituate the Mukadzapela bays while off the left wing a big thunderstorm debouches its load over the Ume River and west edge of the park and suddenly we have arrived; scooting below Nongo Hill we flash down the airstrip to chase off the impala, a tight turn over Bumi Lagoon and a smooth landing.
Celesta and I have arrived at Bumi Hills on a mission; she is armed with a camera to do lots of clicking and me with a pen to do lots of ticking as we work up a bird list of the area. We are met by Student, one of the guides of the Safari Lodge and quickly pick up one of the specials, Meves’s Starling, a bird restricted to this part of Africa, along with a few other typical bush birds like the African Golden Oriole that proves to be very common over our stay. The plane departs for Harare, the impala flood back onto the airstrip and we wend our way up the hill, a prominence that sticks out into Kariba like a hitchhiker’s thumb. But not to be outdone by mere birds the first of the Big Five, in the form of three lionesses, put in an appearance – they are lolling on the very edge of the road a mere 150m from the Safari Lodge gate and we gently squeeze passed them! We are soon settled into luxurious rooms 100m above the lake with a magnificent view over the blue immensity of Lake Kariba and after a brief rest and refreshments we are off on an afternoon game drive with Student. We take in Bumi harbour bay, picking up waterbirds like Glossy Ibis, Black Heron, Great Egret and various waders like Blacksmith Lapwing and of course the ubiquitous and noisy White-crowned Lapwing – he may be common but he’s another special nonetheless. We cut around the bottom of the bay and pass Kalundukakubi Hill into the mopane-Combretum-Terminalia bushland to cut across the peninsular, and the purpose of the tall odd looking Diospyros ‘aerial’ attached to the front bumper becomes apparent. It’s another bumper year for Golden orb-web spiders and the large and somewhat ominous looking females, harmless though they may be with their enormous webs spanning the roads, are better knocked down there than in our laps! Open areas of scrub mopane look just right for Three-banded and Bronze-winged Coursers though we didn’t find them on this trip.
We emerge onto the Panicum foreshore of the next bay and Celesta spies a Black-bellied Bustard, a bird I was hoping to see. The Panicum is quite variable over the course of a year as the lake level rises or falls and it produces all sorts of birds. At the moment it is lush and green and feathery-topped from the rains are just right for the bustard and Secretarybirds. Monotonous Larks are somewhat sporadic and I’ve seen them in this area before at this time of the year but they evaded us today, whilst one of only two known spots for the very special Rosy-throated Longclaw in the Zambezi valley is on the foreshore around Bumi. When the lake is high there can be no foreshore at all and in droughts or the end of the dry season the only grass to be found is growing under water at the edge of the lake. This can be a very interesting time too and the dropping water level, when it coincides with the ‘wader season’ of roughly September to April can bring in all sorts plus oddities such as African Pygmy-goose, Lesser Jacana and Long-toed Lapwing in shallow weed exposed areas west of Bumi.
The next day we explored some of the foreshore around the airstrip and the beach running in front of the hotel. Our luck was in with a nice herd of 130-odd buffalo replete with both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers, a goodly total of 50-60 of the former and about 15 of the latter clambering and flying about the herd was most entertaining. Ruffs were the commonest wader at these little mud wallows… and everywhere else for that matter. We had fun trying to get shots of a Kittlitz’s Plover and her two chicks, which eventually hid under dry elephant droppings. A little further on was a Common Ringed Plover but this individual was eclipsed on our last morning when we walked the beach and flushed 12 birds, a very good number of this migrant on northward migration. But the most exciting wader was a Common Whimbrel we flushed from the same beach. This inland rarity is seldom recorded on return migration so we had the double whammy of a good bird on a good date!
Waterbirds are naturally one of the features of Kariba and one or more boat trips are essential. We did venture out of Bumi’s usual area and down the Ume and Sibilobilo rivers. The African Darter breeding colony in the Gubu had all sizes of chicks and we saw all the typical waders, herons, egrets and storks. Marabou Stork were flying across the Ume from the crocodile farm to their old breeding site in the National Park and at least three White-backed Vulture nests sites were in operation along the Shenga River shoreline (this is also a good area for Arnot’s Chat!). We had the good fortune to spot a leopard coming down to drink in the late morning, well at least I did, but it jumped into the dense Combretum thickets before Celesta could get a view or any shots and spots and a white tipped tail waving in the gloom were mostly what she had to be satisfied with. The Musango River near Bumi was very picturesque, full of hippos, Malachite Kingfishers and fantastic rock-clinging fig trees full of invisible African Green-pigeons. The Sibilobilo gave us a Green-backed Heron on the nest with at least 2 eggs and a Senegal Coucal nearby with a fledgling in a bush, plus a pair of Saddle-billed Storks on the top of a baobab tree; I wonder if they are thinking of nesting up there? Further up we flushed Black-crowned Night-herons from their roost and experienced the added excitement of an Ayres’s Hawk-eagle overhead. We also cruised around the front of Bumi, visiting Twin Sister’s Island jam packed with a cacophony of about 400 screaming Grey-headed Gulls. March should be too early for breeding but I did wonder about some of the birds sitting… More Ruffs and waders and ibis on Starvation Island were augmented by a lovely pair of Saddle-billed Storks.
It was too early for the large raptors to be breeding but the resident pair of African Hawk-eagles put in an appearance on a number of occasions. Our rooms and the dining deck were great for fly-bys; Bateleurs were regular and over lunch we once watched one tussle with an African Fish-eagle. A couple of Brown Snake-eagles became quite frequent and 4 Eurasian Hobby seemed to enjoy the slopes and beach in front of the hotel for hunting. At the airstrip it was unusual to see a Black-chested Snake-eagle and even a Verreaux’s Eagle, not at all common here, put in an appearance on our last morning. The Martial Eagle is a spectacular raptor and I had hoped to also see the more unusual African Crowned Eagle that frequents the hills in the area.
The bush around the hill is quite thick and green at this time of the year and must be full of little secretive jobs. We did find a few Broad-tailed Paradise-whydahs one afternoon and surely the Orange-winged Pytilia must be lurking there too, as well as the Red-throated Twinspot. Bearded Scrub-robins and Eastern Nicator sing their lovely songs from the thickets. Both Black-crowned and Brown-crowned Tchagra are common and in the bushes below the rooms we could watch a White-browed Coucal and fledgling foraging most days. Retz’s Helmet-shrikes were daily visitors to the gardens and we spent an entertaining half hour or so getting shots of a Red-billed Hornbill feeding his family walled up in an African Wattle in the gardens before those little black ants gave us a serious case of ants-in-the-pants!
Bumi is a great place to bird – so much to see and not enough time is often the case with birders. But we got a good list of 143 in their wildlife area with another 20 outside and lots of pics. There are probably about 400 species in the area which is a good reason to come again in another season!
Text by Ian Riddell and pictures by Celesta Von Chamier
Ian - A former National Parks ranger whose first posting was Matusadona National Park in 1979-1980. In those days his special interest was reptiles and amphibians (did you know that the commonest snake in Tashinga Camp, the headquarters for the Park, was the Boomslang) but gradually the ‘birding bug’ took hold. He left National Parks in 1986 and joined Shearwater in 1987, worked as a canoe guide on the Zambezi River and Ruckomechi Camp in Mana Pools National Park, and obtained his Professional Guides licence in 1989, eventually free-lancing for safari companies throughout the Zambezi Valley, Kariba, Chizarira and Hwange areas.
Celesta von Chamier - Originally from Orlando, Florida. In 1993 she married a German diplomat, Jörg von Chamier and since then has been traveling the world. Her life in Africa began with a short stay in Ivory Coast, followed by five years of Mozambique. 2010 she moved to Harare, Zimbabwe. Celesta is an active member of BirdLife Zimbabwe www.birdlifezimbabwe.co.zw and supports reforestation in Mozambique, see www.life4sofala.org A passion for birds and wildlife has led Celesta to photography.