December 31st – Out of Africa – Malawi (Birding)

Saturday morning bird club members checking out the local birds. A minute after this picture was taken the tallest boy pointed out a “lifer” to me: Orange-winged Pytilia.

I spent 18 days in Malawi, most of it in the far south just outside the town of Bangula, not far from the border with Mozambique. We flew into Blantyre, which is up on an escarpment with fairly moderate temperatures. There’s a long descent to a lowland plain on which sits Bangula. It’s hot – temperatures reached 45 degrees on a number of days – and humid, which makes the heat even more difficult to deal with. But….it is what it is.

I was there primarily to do two things: bird and band. Like Kenya (and several other African countries) Malawi is trying to develop a map of the birds in the country. It generally follows the same protocol used in Kenya (developed in South Africa): the country is divided up into approximately 10-km squares – referred to as pentads. An observer spends at least 2 hours in the pentad recording the species encountered in the order they are encountered – you can spend more than two hours but that is the minimum. Over the next 4 days previously unrecorded species can be added to the list. After 5 days, you can start a new pentad count. I like the format and it gives me a focus to my birding searches. The Iris orphanage where I stay is at the junction of 3 pentads so it is relatively easy to do counts in these pentads. The data I collect is sent to Tiwonge Gowa who is associated with the National Museum in Blantyre.

When I was there in February I was able to do these counts starting at about any time of the day – the heat was bearable and, as long as I had a bottle of water, it was comfortable walking even during the middle of the day. So I was often able to get two counts done in a day. But this time birding during the middle of the day was not a good idea….a time meant only for mad dogs and Englishmen….I understand that now. I learned this lesson early. I banded first thing one morning and then headed out for a 10-km pentad count, leaving around 10:30. What a mistake – for two reasons: first of all I was out under a blazing sun that pushed the temperature to 45 degrees and sucked the moisture right out of you. And then I ran into the local Dande school lunchtime when all the younger students went home – so I had a retinue of 40 kids, very loud talkative kids, accompanying me for 3 km to the next village. Between the heat, the kids and the noise I turned up only 19 species – even the birds were avoiding the middle of the day. Interestingly a week later under cooler cloudy skies and when the kids were in school I turned up 66 species on the same route.

I feel pretty comfortable simply wandering through the countryside, on dirt roads and tracks well away (at times) from any habitations – although herds of goats and cattle were common travelling companions.

The Mozambique Road looking south toward Mozambique. A great place for interesting birds.

My favourite walking route was along the “Mozambique Road”, a dirt track, often bisected by washout gullies, that runs due south toward the country of the same name. The farther you got from Bangula the wilder it got with the forested hills of Mwabvi Game Reserve to the west. I got many “lifers” along this route.

A “lifer” – White-crested Helmet-shrike….another treat from the Mozambique Road.

As well as birds I got a chance to see African culture unfold each day, people eking out a meagre existence in a very difficult land. Everything depends on the rain. Most African countries have a fairly predictable set of rainy months. In Malawi I arrived just before the major rains were to fall. In fact, they started shortly after I arrived – a little early. But they don’t always fall; or there’s too much rain (this past March a big typhoon blew in off the Indian Ocean and the Shire River – which is close to Bangula – flooded stranding 1000’s and killing…??? no one seems to know) or not enough falls and starvation stalks the land.

In Kenya, the students were on vacation but here in Malawi they were still going to school, although the kids in the younger grades got to go home around noon (and could accompany me on my way….). Malawi, like all African countries, has a population that is 75% under the age of 25 – so LOTS of school children. As I started my birding walks early (after the first debacle) I ran into many of them – often in their colourful school uniforms. Many had to walk between 5-10 km one way to school and so had to start early.

These two students I met at 6 in the morning on their way to school in Bangula – still 7-8 km away. School starts at 7:30.

Students with sprays of flowers from an Acacia.

Students from one of the public school that doesn’t require uniforms. The little girl on the right let me take a look at her notebook: “excellent!” was the comment from her teacher on a page of math answers.

Schools can be distinguished by the unique colour combinations of their uniforms.

And while they were heading to school their parents and older siblings were getting an early start in the fields trying to get seed in the ground ahead of the rains. Except for the huge sugar cane plantations I never saw ANY mechanized farm machinery. Fields of many acres were all divided into individual plots of varying size and belonged to individuals and/or families. All the tilling was done by hand. In rural Kenya where I stayed farmers often used sets of 2 to 4 oxen to pull single-furrow ploughs but here, in Bangula, all was done with an adze. The main crops were corn and sorghum (with a few plots of rice in low-lying areas). Hard work. Almost everyone I met was pleasant and many wanted me to take their picture – mistaking my binoculars for a camera; I often had to let them take a look through them so they could understand.

A woman using an adze to till her field.

I’m just pulling the data from my daily counts together now so I’m not certain how many species I saw but it was well over 125.

Part of the daily, continuous train of firewood leaving Mwabvi Forest and headed for the cooking fires of Bangula (as much as 10-12 km away for some women).

One of my major concerns both here and in Kenya (and for most African countries) is the denuding of the countryside of wood. I witnessed a constant daily stream of firewood and/or charcoal running from the forested areas of Mwabvi (or just the general countryside) to the markets in Bangula. People need fuel for cooking and purifying water – I get it. But there is no attempt to replant the trees taken out. (And, quite likely, any seedling replanted would be eaten by the huge herds of goats – I counted several groups of well over 125 – that range over the countryside and eat everything right down to the routes. [I know that there are a number of charities that you can donate to and which offer goats as a possible donation. I would advise you NOT to do that.] I can’t see how this can end up well for the ecology of an area and thus for the people and animals within it.

Something of a rarity – usually it’s just men that take their bundles of wood/charcoal to market on a bicycle.

Two hefty bags of charcoal and two mats wend their way to market.

These saplings are for making fences.


A pair (or maybe two pairs) of Collared Palm-thrushes hung out around the guest house buildings. We often heard them late into the night squabbling up in the rafters.

Crowned Hornbill – another interesting bird along the “Mozambique Road”.

At the end of the dry season ponds have dwindled to almost nothing or dried up.

Before the rains the heat and sun has decimated what the goats haven’t been able to eat. The ground looks parched.

Life-giving rain!!

The same pond after a heavy rain – a source of water for people and livestock alike.

After a heavy rain the land springs into a profusion of green. One of the hills of Mwabvi Game Reserve is in the background.

The countryside greening after a rain.

Little Bee-eater hawking insects from its perch.

Male Long-tailed Paradise Whydah in breeding plumage.

Pin-tailed Whydah in the foreground and a Village Indigobird moulting into breeding plumage to the rear.

Southern Ground-hornbills – as large (or larger) than our Wild Turkeys.

Flashes of colour – Woodland Kingfisher.


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