Birdwatching in Malawi

By Dominic Couzens

It was late afternoon at a guest house in one of Africa’s less well-known capital cities, Lilongwe. I was sitting opposite my guide, Abasi Jana, reviewing the day’s birding with cup of tea in hand. The last of the sunlight twinkled on the garden pool and a gecko roused itself from slumber to scuttle across the wall. Our attention was caught by a small bird in one of the garden shrubs.

“Collared sunbird,” called Abasi after the briefest scan with his binoculars. “That’s a new one for the day”.

He was right, it was yet another. Much as I always think it’s rude of a new bird to appear when you are actually tallying your day-list, this intrusion was, in a way symptomatic of the happy profusion we had experienced in the last few hours. Collared Sunbird was species 109, on a curtailed day – we hadn’t even started at dawn.

Malawi, you might say, was showing off.

Perhaps, though, it needs to. This small republic in south-central Africa, a third submerged under the eponymous Rift Valley lake and its southern half surrounded by Mozambique, is far from a famous birding location, seemingly outshone by the safari centres of neighbouring Zambia and Tanzania.

Yet it punches above its weight bird-wise, 650 species cramming into a country smaller than Greece, owing to a rarefied mix of different habitats and a high number of localised species that make even hardened Africa-philes salivate.

As to this opening salvo of birds, it happened that we had seen most of them in relatively unusual circumstances – in miombo woodland, a well-defined habitat made up from modest-sized trees without much understory, on poor soils.

Miombo hosts a profusion of birds, seeing them can be far from a doddle. Success depends entirely on finding roaming bird flocks that come and go as they please. At Dzalanyama Forest Reserve there’s 100,000Ha of the stuff, plenty in which to hide.

In the end it took all of fifteen minutes to find our first flock. Just beyond the entrance gate, Abasi stopped the car and declared “Pale-billed Hornbill”.

Seeing a Souza's Shrike

A scramble led us to a clearing and a great view of this decidedly scarce species; it was perched resplendent on a treetop and making a sound like a very panicked green woodpecker.

Within seconds we were distracted by a movement in the greenery a few metres away at eye level, and were amazed to see one of Dzalanyama’s most sought-after species, a Souza’s Shrike.

In contrast to our own shrikes, which are generally birds of open areas, this small grey and olive-brown shrike specialises in feeding low down in the shade of the woodland, making it easy to overlook.

Souza’s Shrikes habitually join bird parties and, sure enough, the sunlit canopy was soon alive with flitting shapes.

This is always a thrilling spectacle, eliciting a wholesome mix of excitement and panic, and here in the heart of Africa exotic names came thick and past – Yellow-bellied Hyliota (like a colourful Pied Flycatcher), Green-capped Eremomela (yellowish, warbler-ish), Black-eared Seedeater (sparrow-like) and African Paradise-Flycatcher (caramel brown, opulent long trailing tail). My notebook was hot for half an hour, before the feeding party ghosted out of sight.

“Good start,” I remarked to Abasi.

“Stierling’s Woodpecker!” he replied, eyes fixed behind me. This was another “mega”, hardly found anywhere else in the world. It looks like a cross between a Great Spotted and a Green Woodpecker, with a bold black stripe through the eye, and two of them pecked away at close range, adjacent to a plain-faced Cardinal Woodpecker.

The woodpeckers were part of a new flock, and we were rapidly immersed again in shifting shapes. Several species, including the Hyliotas, had disappeared, while new ones appeared such as Southern Black Flycatchers - no flock in miombo woodland is exactly the same.

The variety kept up: we clocked the scarce and smart Rufous-bellied Tit (African tits are languid creatures, seemingly robbed of the family effervescence by the heat), plus Black-throated Honeyguide, the bird that leads people to bees’ nests and waits for the comb to be extracted as its reward.

Flock three turned up about forty minutes after that (with one of my favourites, Spotted Creeper, one of the few land birds that inhabits both Africa and India), and flock four just before lunchtime (with Violet-backed Starling, a bird of salivating gorgeousness).

By the time we were settling into what was packed-lunch enough for eight, it seemed had seemed almost every top quality bird – except one.

“We should see Anchieta’s Sunbird by the dambo,” Abasi reassured me. But I was twitchy. You see, Anchieta’s Sunbird is to Malawi what a completely gorgeous actress or actor might be to a film – worth the entire spectacle.

I remembered seeing the plate in Birds of Africa depicting this gem, years before, and taking a sharp intake of breath. The bird has a glittering blue head and a brilliant yellow breast, but it looks as though somebody has taken a dagger to the latter and there is a splash of vivid crimson flowing down the front.

Birding in the dambo

The dambo, a wet area within the forest, delivered, of course, with a male sunbird in a flowering Protea. And this being Africa, a habitat shift offered another spike of new species, including Scaly-throated and Pallid Honeyguides, Flappet Lark and, presumably embarrassed by the plenitude, both a Red-faced Crombec and a Red-faced Cisticola (tiny warbler-like birds).

Despite the wonders of miombo woodland, to many birders the biggest joy of Malawi is in its remaining patches of highland forest. Continent-wide, this is now a very scarce habitat, and the feathered gems associated with the Afro-montane biome seem to be diminishing by the day.

You could actually see this at two of our next destinations, on the Zomba Plateau a few hours south of Lilongwe and further south at Thyolo, where the vegetation is almost completely denuded, leaving only remnant patches to hint at the riches of the past. 

We saw a number of woodcutters even during our short visit to Zomba. Admittedly it does make forest birding easier, and over the next few days we caught up with almost all the specialities, including such sought after species as Bar-tailed Trogon, White-starred Robin, African Broadbill, Square-tailed Drongo and a host of sociable thrush-like birds called Greenbuls, bewitchingly difficult to identify.

We also scored a hat-trick of gorgeous mini-finches: Red-faced Crimsonwing and both Green and Red-throated Twinspots, each of which has white dots on the underparts that appear to be painted on.

Several inhabitants of these forests are rare even within Afro-montane biome, and are currently confined in this small corner of Malawi and neighbouring Mozambique.

Arguably the two biggest stars are the colourful White-winged Apalis, a small, long-tailed canopy species with bold yellow, black and white colouration, and the Thyolo Alethe, which is a chunky, oversized Robin-type bird that feeds on or just above the forest floor, lapping up its favourite food, ants.

The triumph for us of finding the latter species was tempered by the fact that some of its more assertive prey found their way up our trouser legs and effected a seriously painful bite. Another favourite, although slightly more widely distributed, is the Green-headed Oriole, which I actually spotted before Abasi (equivalent to getting the ball off Lionel Messi once in five days).

Another species to make Southern African birds literally go weak at the knees, this oriole has, as you can guess, a moss-green head and mantle.

If Malawi itself is off the tourist radar, then what of its highest mountain, Mount Mulanje? Apparently it is a well-known peak among globetrotting trekkers, but I confess I had never heard of it.

It is actually an inselberg rising from the surrounding 700m plain, with several peaks topping 2500m and one, Sapitwa peak, at 3002m. In between are deep forested ravines with plunging waterfalls and fast-flowing streams.

Here there is enough luxuriant forest to give you hope that some of the Afro-montane specialities will survive. We spent an intoxicating afternoon hiking one of the trails, admiring a whole hillside thick with forest, obtaining magnificent views of Silvery-cheeked Hornbill and a little flycatcher-type gem known as a Blue-mantled Elminia, while Scarce and African Black Swifts rode the updrafts on the cliffs high above. What a place!

There could hardly be a greater contrast between the high mountain forests and our next location, Liwonde National Park. Lying on the plain next to the Shire River that drains Lake Malawi, it provides a dose of what any tourist would think of as “wild Africa”.

Only 540 square kilometres in area, Liwonde apes its host country in miniature by encompassing a network of different habitats, including marshes, savannah and a type of tall woodland known as mopane.

Within this rich mix, game animals are everywhere – indeed, from the restaurant of my accommodation, the luxurious Mvuu Lodge, you could see Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Impala and Warthogs every time you glanced up from your ice-cold beer. (At night we saw a Pel’s Fishing Owl from the dinner table, a common experience here).

Malawi wildlife

The river froths with Hippos, living in one of the highest densities in the world. Together with a more than healthy population of Nile Crocodiles, and 900 Elephants, this is not a place to go swimming, or indeed wandering off.

The chalets are set away from the reception area and, adding a definite frisson to your visit, you are not allowed to walk anywhere after dark without a guard, and to summon a staff member in time of need you beat a drum in your bedroom. For lack of dangerous predators such as lions or leopards, the main problem is elephants.

At the beginning of the wet season they routinely wander around camp and can be unpredictable.

The richness of Liwonde extends to its birds, with over 400 species recorded in this relatively tiny area (one of the highest totals in southern Africa). This means that you can hardly go anywhere without seeing a glittering away of colourful, iconic and – frequently – unusual birds. For example, you can enjoy such African staples as bee-eaters, rollers, woodhoopoes, hornbills, weavers and sunbirds around the camp while you’re enjoying a cup of tea, or on a short daytime walk (a treat in wild Africa).

But you can hardly avoid coming across delights such as Böhm’s Bee-eater, a small, dainty species that frolics around the chalets here, but is actually pretty rare everywhere else in the world.

On the boat trips to enjoy the hippos (and the elephants which often swim across the Shire River), it is quite easy to see African Skimmers and White-backed Night Herons. The many palm trees host Dickinson’s Kestrels and Red-necked Falcons, and the mopane woodland just drips with birds, including rarities such as Lilian’s Lovebird (a tiny parrot) and Racket-tailed Roller.

The variety is dazzling, and indeed we again saw 100 species in a single day here, neatly topping and tailing the trip.

Malawi is fabulously rich in wildlife, safe, genuinely friendly (its tagline as “The Warm Heart of Africa” rings true) and small, meaning that the distances between sites are easily manageable. The only thing that Malawi seems to lack is visitors – and they are missing a treat.

With thanks to Central African Wilderness Safaris and Malawi Tourism.