Zimbabwe is last in the alphabetical atlas of countries of the world. And, given the unstable political situation (slightly improved since the unified government of 2009), paucity of fuel, high crime-rate and dire poverty, it is probably last on the list of many traveling birders. But eastern Zimbabwe is an almost mythical place and a highly productive birding destination. Just be prepared for well…almost anything.
I have had the privilege of birding Zimbabwe on a handful of occasions. Due to the large number of specialty and range-restricted species it is a must-visit destination for any South African birder who wants to surpass the 800-mark of a Southern African life-list. It is also breathtakingly beautiful and chock-full of adventure.
Typical Zim scenery by Adam Riley (Rockjumper Birding Tours)
Zimbabwe, or simply “Zim” as we like to call it, is a landlocked country that has recorded close on 700 bird species. And although the country has no true endemics, Robert’s Warbler, Chirinda Apalis and Swynnerton’s Robin (all found in the eastern part of the country) are unlikely to be seen anywhere else. The country is also famous for its regular sightings of that most wanted of birds, the African Pitta. The tapestry of habitats throughout the country makes for a very interesting and varied birdlife. The granite kopjes (outcrops) of much of Zimbabwe, interspersed with miombo woodland, are home to many species endemic to this range-restricted habitat. Birds like the mysterious and taxonomically unclear Boulder Chat and Southern Hyliota.
Boulder Chat by Adam Riley (Rockjumper Birding Tours)
Southern Hyliota by Adam Riley (Rockjumper Birding Tours)
Zimbabwe is also blessed with some wonderful game-rich national parks, the world-renowned Victoria Falls and the relaxing atmosphere of Lake Kariba, all of which provide some welcome distractions to the excellent birding. In this post I am going to cover four of the most productive areas in the specialty-rich eastern part of the country: The Honde Valley, The Bvumba Highlands, the Nyanga Highlands and the Haroni-Rusitu Confluence. These areas, as well as being famous for the afore-mentioned near-endemics, are also home to long isolated populations of birds otherwise only found in East Africa to the north and South Africa to the south.
We’ll start with Haroni-Rusitu first as this is the least accessible and most remote site but it is also one of the last examples of lowland evergreen forest left in the country. Situated slap-bang on the Zim/Mozambique border, this used to be one of the most productive birding sites in the country. Unfortunately only a small remnant patch of forest remains here and I last visited in 2004 so I’m not sure how much of this remnant patch has fallen victim to the axe. I can speak from experience that this place should only be accessed by a 4 x 4 vehicle. On my last trip myself and a mate tried to access Haroni along the 25 mile treacherous stretch of road and managed to put a hole in our engine block. This forced us to abandon the vehicle and walk the 15 miles to the nearest village where a bush-mechanic walked back with us at night to our vehicle and temporarily patched the hole. End result – precious birding time lost and 43 adopted African kids. On the two occasions that I have visited Haroni-Rusitu I have camped in the forest but I’ve heard that some birders have been relieved of their possessions there so perhaps that’s not a good idea anymore. And, if you plan to bird the Mozambique side beware of old landmines, souvenirs from the brutal civil wars.
On one of my two trips to Haroni we were driving along the road when we came across a Serval, a medium-sized and beautifully marked cat. We stopped, wound down the window and started making squeaking sounds by rubbing our fingers over our teeth. The cat brazenly approached our vehicle to within 6 feet of us hoping for an easy meal. An incredible close encounter with this magical cat species.
Whilst birding one of the more open patches along the river I remember hearing this blood-curdling screaming. Preparing for the worst, I quickly rounded the corner to find my birding companion, Richard, naked and writhing in the mud next to the river. I’ll never forget the sight. He had mistakenly walked into a nice clump of buffalo bean whilst chasing a Singing Cisticola. Buffalo bean will make grown men cry and literally drives you insane for hours. The more you rub and scratch, the deeper the barbed hairs penetrate your skin. So, if you happen to find yourself in Haroni-Rusitu, its always a good idea to be polite and let your birding companion go ahead of you at all times!
But, for all the trials of this little exquisite birding patch, the birds seldom disappoint. African Broadbill are surprisingly common and display all year-round here. Listen for the bizarre whurring sound of their display especially early in the morning. Specialty species include the enigmatic and highly sought-after Black-and-White Flycatcher, African Pitta, Green Malkoha, Southern Banded Snake-eagle, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, Black-fronted Bush-shrike and the near-endemic Chirinda Apalis.
The bizarre Pel’s Fishing Owl by Adam Riley (Rockjumper Birding Tours)
Further north of Haroni-Rusitu one comes to the Bvumba Highlands. Moist air from the lowlands rises up towards the Bvumba massif and precipitates here to produce the mubvumbi (Shona for drizzle) after which the Bvumba is named. The most birded place here is an exquisite tiny reserve called Seldom-seen. This place is a little gem with excellent accommodations and the opportunity to see the near-endemic Swynnerton’s Robin, Chirinda Apalis and Robert’s Warbler. But Swynnerton’s Robin is undoubtably the star here and the birds like to nest amongst the scarily-named dragon plants Dracaena fragrans of which the reserve has no shortage of. Other great birds to be found include the shy Olive bush-shrike, Tambourine and Cinnamon Doves, Starred Robin and Orange Ground-thrush.
Swynnerton’s Robin by Adam Riley
Robert’s Warbler or Robert’s Prinia by Adam Riley
Olive Bush-shrike at Bvumba by Adam Riley
Another legendary site further up the spine of the Zim/Moz border is the Honde Valley. In particular, this site is famous for Anchieta’s Tchagra, Moustached Grass-warbler and Lesser Seedcracker.The well-known (in local birding circles) Aberfoyle Tea Estate offers modest and comfortable accommodations and a few excellent local guides are available to take birders to see the Wambabird or Anchieta’s Tchagra and the other specialties.
Aberfoyle offers a glimpse into what life was like in colonial Rhodesia before Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. The club has a golf course, billiards table, pub, well-manicured lawns and a swimming pool. Birding the grounds is productive as the 370-plus bird-list attests. Its always a good idea to keep your eyes skyward here for Eastern Sawwing, Scarce Swift and soaring Crowned Eagles and other raptors.
Finally, a trip to the eastern part of the country would be remiss without a stop at the Nyanga Highlands. The extensive grasslands here are home to the rare and decreasing Blue Swallow as well as Cape Grassbird, White-necked Ravens and other montane grassland species. Heathlands with flowering plants (reminiscent of the fynbos of South Africa) hold interesting species like Malachite and Bronzy Sunbirds and Gurney’s Sugarbird.
Gurney’s Sugarbird by Adam Riley (Rockjumper Birding Tours)
Hopefully, with the improving political and economic situation in the country, Zimbabwe will once again become a well-visited birding destination. Just make sure to carry extra fuel and watch out for buffalo bean!
Awesome post James, brings back many happy memories from birding days in Zimbabwe. Zim really is a superb country and was becoming a major birding destination until politics turned ugly 12 years ago. As soon as the political situation is remedied, Zim will undoubtably soon become a popular birding and wildlife country!
When I birder southern Africa in the early 1990ies (Namibia, Western Cape), we had plans for going to Zim. These never materialized for various reasons, mostly because we first wanted to continue travelling through Nam to do the country’s landscape and nature justice. Then, as Adam mentions, things turned very nasty very fast, and now I could kick myself for our “priorities” back then. We really should have gone there while it was safe, easy and awesome, and done the rest of Namibia later. Hopefully the (near) future will make trips possible again.
Mouth-watering stuff, James. And incredible pictures, Adam!
Zimbabwe is a very peaceful and stable country, at present – and we intend to keep it that way! There are fuel and electricity shortages even in South Africa, occasionally – not to mention xenophobic violence, etc. You are safer in Zimbabwe!
Zimbabwe Ambassador in Senegal
@Trudy: Thanks for your comments. Zim has the potential to be a super-popular birding destination once again and its encouraging to note the 5% annual growth in tourism. A bright future awaits and I can’t wait to return someday soon.
@Jochen: You won’t be disappointed so get there!
Thanks for your acknowledgement. I have friends in Harare who are dedicated birders, Peter and Jan Wood, in particular, they will be happy to see this posting.
Thanks for posting about this little visited but promising birding destination!
Sounds like that might have actually been a “Stinging” Cisticola that your friend ran into…
@Pat: I think that Stinging Cisticola is a great name for the Zimbabwean race of this bird!
Magnificent photographs and lovely article. The birding enthuiasts are many here, in Zim. Many projects going on too, but its hard work
preserving areas for birding.
@Lorna: Thanks and yes, Zim has its fair share of great birders. I have been especially impressed with the local guides who are amongst the best in Southern Africa.
I come from Manicaland area and trully speaking there are few places in Zimbabwe that are as majestic and unique. Hope the current situation changes as you can see I am writing from the future ?? and live in Australia.
Wonderful article James thank you.