AFRICAN BIRDLIFE | Conquering the Coutadas

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Birding Mozambique

Long ago, before the civil war, Mozambique had a well-deserved reputation as a hunting destination and the Coutadas (from the Portuguese word for hunting concession) in the centre of the country were the place to go. With peace restored, the hunters have returned – as have binocular-toting ‘hunters’ like Richard Flack.

In Mozambique’s Zambezi Delta, the Coutadas are a collection of ‘wildlife utilisation areas’ that are operated as hunting concessions on leases of five to 10 years. Some are in the region of 2000 square kilometres in extent, others are well over double that. They all include diverse habitats and a wide array of game animals – and of birds.

Of the nine official Coutadas, two – Coutada 11 and Coutada 12 – are of particular interest to birders. They aren’t easy to get to, but once you’re there and navigating your way through dense forest or sky-scraping miombo woodland towards stunning open pans, all travel difficulties are forgotten. The scenery becomes a tonic for the soul and the pristine wilderness conjures up all the romance encapsulated in ‘Africa’ – the promise of adventure, the sense of remoteness and undiscovered landscapes, and the anticipation of encounters with wildlife.

But there’s hard reality too. The sheer beauty of the Coutadas is counterbalanced by obvious signs of poaching and uncontrolled veld fires. The biodiversity may be spectacular, but the climate is harsh and the mosquitoes and tsetse flies are persistent. Sometimes you’ll be lost in the wonder of the natural world around you; and then you’ll look around and speculate whether that wonder will still be there on your next visit.

You’re here for the birds, though, and the species on offer are the stuff of dreams: robins that you’d forgotten are robins, thrush-like birds they call ‘ghosts’ and winged jewels with names that suggest they belong in a foreign restaurant. For a first-time birder here, the list of potential new species combined with the difficulty of finding some of them can seem overwhelming. Do you try to see them all in one trip? Or do you prioritise key species and hope to come across the others by chance? The answer depends on what attracts you to birding and what your personal ambitions are. For myself, being both a birder and a keen photographer means that I am torn between wanting to see new species and getting a decent photograph. If pushed for an answer, I prefer to spend quality time in good habitat with the birds I encounter. I therefore plan carefully before the trip, deciding which species I want to focus on and which I would love to see but would be happy to come back for if I’m not lucky this time.

From this perspective, there are three ‘cracker’ target species in the Coutadas’ lowland forests that stand out from the rest: East Coast Akalat, Whitechested Alethe and African Pitta. For the best chance to see all three, it is often recommended that you go to the Zambezi Delta in late November and December, after the rains have arrived and when the pitta is calling. I agree completely, but this is not necessarily the best time for photography or saturated views because the forest is denser, some of the birds are more secretive than usual and the weather can be disruptive.

The African Pitta is notoriously difficult to locate and given its unobtrusive nature, natural camouflage and dense surroundings, you have little chance of finding it unless you hear its call. Visiting in December, its prime breeding time, will therefore give you your best chance of success.

Before visiting the Coutadas I had heard many stories too about how hard it is to find and photograph akalats and alethes. I am sure that this is the case, but I think that the time of year and how long you can spend in good habitat are important factors too. October may not be the best season for pittas, but it seems to be for akalats. The vegetation is less dense than in December and the birds are not yet paired up or sitting on their nests, so they appear to be far more confiding than their reputation had led me to believe. By spending time in suitable terrain (nearly impenetrable tangles of vegetation in the heart of thick patches of forest) and keeping my eyes about one metre off the ground, I was able to find a number of adults and all were willing to pose for photographs.

I am no expert, but after a few years of experience as a bird photographer I believe that certain months are better than others for some species. For example, I have discovered that the best time to photograph Green-headed Orioles in the Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique is March, when many of the trees are fruiting and the birds are lower in the canopy, giving eye-level, out-inthe-open views. I suspect that we still have a lot to learn about the optimum times for the different birds in the Coutadas.

Alethes are more difficult to pin down – they are not called ‘ghost birds’ for nothing – and I am not sure that any particular time of year is good for photographing them. These thrush-like birds are found in the densest part of the lowland forest, where only small specks of light break through the canopy. The low-light conditions and the alethes’ unobtrusive behaviour mean that blurred images and long-distance views are the order of the day. Your best chance is to sit still in perfect habitat and listen carefully for their eerie calls. In my experience, albeit limited, I have found that the forests of Coutada 11 are far more alive with akalats and alethes than are the forests of Coutada 12, which is where most birders focus their efforts. It is worthwhile to find a guide who has good knowledge of the area, both on and off the road. Even with all the tips in the world, I would not have seen an alethe had it not been for the excellent guiding of Sakkie and Gerbré van Zyl. We worked the hardest to find this species, yet our efforts were rewarded with glimpses that were only fleeting compared to our sightings of the other birds. Assuming that you have been lucky enough to find all three of these cracker species, there is still no reason to hurry home. There are many other exciting birds in the lowland forests and with luck you’ll get to see Black-headed Apalis, Tiny Greenbul, African Broadbill, Eastern Nicator, Livingstone’s Flycatcher, Woodwards’ Batis, Plain-backed Sunbird, Vanga Flycatcher, Livingstone’s Turaco, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo and Silvery-cheeked Hornbill.

And then there’s the miombo woodland. Venture into the tracts of this aweinspiring woodland interspersed between patches of forest and you can brace yourself for a stiff neck and tough but exhilarating birding. As any experienced miombo birder will tell you, patience and perseverance go a long way in this difficult biome. For a couple of hours you’ll see nothing, but then you’ll come across a bird party that will bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened birder.

My experience was no different, though I did stay in the hunting camp of Coutada 12, which lies in the heart of mature miombo woodland and made persevering a little easier. It helps when your ‘garden birds’ are White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Tropical Boubou, Green-backed Woodpecker, Southern Hyliota and Western Violet-backed Sunbird. In fact, a Green-backed Woodpecker was nesting no more than 200 metres from my bedroom window (and a boomslang had taken up residence in my hut).

If you can memorise the calls of just two miombo bird groups, I would suggest woodpeckers and helmet-shrikes as they often give away the location of a bird party. Given that all three helmet-shrike species occur in the Coutadas and that the Chestnut-fronted is the most common, just coming across these colourful birds is a highlight in itself. The fact that they often lead you to a mixed-species party is a bonus – and what a bonus! Southern Hyliota, Red-faced Crombec, Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Miombo Blue-eared Starling, African Golden Oriole and Stierling’s Wren-Warbler are likely to be just some of the party members.

In between bird parties and as you move from one habitat to another, there are good chances that you’ll see other sought-after species; Red-throated Twinspot, Red-winged Warbler, Olive Beeeater, Bat Hawk, Southern Ground Hornbill and Pale Batis were just a few of the birds we encountered. The pans in the area and the floodplains of Coutada 11 are likely to produce Greater Painted-snipe, Collared Palm Thrush, African Pygmy Goose, Saddle-billed Stork, Grey Crowned Crane and Whitebacked Duck, among many other water-associated species.

All things considered, the Coutadas are definitely not for sissies and a trip to them requires good planning and careful preparations. The mosquitoes carry malaria and the tsetse flies are relentless, and if you do manage to escape them, there’s a good chance you’ll find a tick or two on your person. Make sure that you pack insect repellent and long-sleeved shirts and long (but very light) trousers. The climate is very hot and humid, so take care not to scratch bites as they easily become infected. Check your room for unwanted guests of the creepycrawly variety before going to bed and don’t forget to knock out your boots before putting them on. Also pack plenty of patience. Travelling in African countries can be very frustrating and Mozambique is no exception. You are likely to be stopped (on the road or at the airport) and pressurised for a bribe. The best form of defence is patience and a good sense of humour; anything else will only make the situation worse and your wait longer.

Don’t be put off though. In my opinion, the Coutadas’ rewards are just too great not to plan a trip there. The scenery and the birding are some of the best I have ever experienced, and sadly there is no guarantee that they will still be there if you wait too long.