Monday, 13 May 2013

Mozambique - May 2013 [ Finding Green Tinkerbird]

Getting through the Lebombo [RSA] / Ressano Garcia [Mozambique] border is not usually difficult. We speak Portuguese which helps, obviously. Notwithstanding the language constraints and whenever possible avoid the touts who 'assist' tourists with their cross-border formalities. Those who do decide to use a tout should note that the going rate is 50 meticais for this service. Pay more than that & you're being cheated; usually a joke shared openly with peers and enjoyed by all, officials included. Never hand your passport or original certification to anyone other than a uniformed officer behind the counter. Non-SADC domiciled travelers may require a visa. Self-drive travelers are obligated to buy 3rd-party insurance, reflective safety jackets (2 if there are more than two passengers in the vehicle) and a set of red warning triangles (in the event of a puncture etc.) which we usually acquire in Johannesburg prior to departure. In need, the insurance, jackets & triangles can be acquired at the BP fuel station situated on the South African side of the border near Komatipoort. Although fuel is readily available in Mozambique (Visa is accepted in the larger towns for fuel) we advise topping up on the South African side of the border prior to crossing.

Construction on the N4, adjacent to the BP fuel station, channels two-way traffic, for a short distance, onto a single shared lane which necessitates one of South Africa's infamous 'stop & go' procedures ie: traffic from either side is halted and filtered through the single lane in small groups. Waiting your turn to proceed through the stop can be trying. Our delay cost us an additional 3 hours in travel time. On this point, avoid traveling through the border on weekends & in early mornings whenever possible.

Meticais , rands & US dollars are accepted currency in Mozambique. Border fees and sundry purchases in the smaller towns are paid for in meticais (Mozambique's currency of exchange - the traded rate on the formal currency market is 3.29 MZN for 1 ZAR[SA rand]). Purchase meticais by ordering currency in advance from any of the major banks in Johannesburg or buy from the Bureau de change (at a significantly poorer rate) in the same BP complex referred to herein above. Don't buy currency from the 'currency-vendors' who descend on likely targets. You will be cheated. New notes have replaced the old meticais currency and it is these notes that are usually sold to unsuspecting travelers.

Many self-drive tourists to Mozambique have, in the past, claimed excessive bullying by traffic officials and other local authorities alike. That simply is not true. Obey the speed limits clearly indicated on roadside signage. Be civil & sensitive to custom. The speed-limit in all urban areas, however small the village, is always 60 kph which is rigidly enforced. You will be asked to pay a spot fine in the event that you are caught speeding. Ensure that one of the reflective jackets is visible to officials at the many road-blocks and avoid unnecessary delay and or repetitive inspection.

If you're after the tinkerbird and one or two of the other south/central specials then, like us, most people spend their first night somewhere north of Maputo (Mozambique's capital city & a city of considerable chaos). Depending on how far north of Maputo your itinerary takes you two routes are available to the self-drive traveler. The first is via Maputo [initially along the EN4 & later on the EN1 headed north out of the city]. Both the EN4 & the EN1 are well-maintained tarmac for which a toll is levied. Carry cash for the tolls. The other route north avoids Maputo, which is a good idea generally and rejoins the EN1 near Xinavane. It's not an easy drive, even for Mozambique. This road via Moamba (left off the EN4 heading east and some 40 km from the SA border) to Sabie and then onto Magude is, in places, treacherously eroded. Expect the 125 km [approx] to take at least 3 hours. The short section between Magude & Xinavane is, however, mostly good tar. If time is no object then this 'short-cut' north is obviously the more scenically attractive. Travelling via Maputo to the same spot in the north might be longer on the map but is, perhaps, the faster route all things being equal & largely dependent on time spent traversing Maputo's chaos.

The first point of interest along the EN1 north, for birders at least, are the dambos (wetlands) near Xai Xai. A Pond-Heron [Malagasy] was reported from here recently and a bird which we looked for, one or two days later, without success. A small stand of alien trees on the 'south' side of the bridge is usually good for E. Honey Buzzard which we found this time and which we managed to photograph. Even this late in the season & on the assumption that the dambos have some water, all the more common wetland birds found in typical habitat can be expected, including Lesser Jacana. We would usually spend more time searching these wetlands but given the delay at the border and the 550 km we had to travel from the border to our first night's accommodation in Praia da Barra, we moved on quickly.

Heading north expect to see unusual aggregations of Pied Crow & not much else. Notwithstanding, occasionally at this time of the year, less common species can be recorded from a fast-moving vehicle. We considered ourselves lucky to see a single Dickinson's Kestrel [on one of many Coconut-palms] near Jangama early next morning en route Unguana for the G. Tinkerbird. Avoid mistaking the commonly seen Lizzard Buzzard for the rarer Dickinson's.

Finding suitable accommodation in Mozambique isn't too tricky. Most travelers who have been to Mozambique's Inhambane area before [which we consider an ideal base from which to strike either north for G. Tinkerbird or south-west to Panda for Olive-headed Weaver] have a favourite lodge they return to whenever possible. Our favourite is Flamingo Bay Water Lodge located in Inhambane's tidal bay. We also, when pressed, recommend Bali Hai to anyone who hasn't been here before. All told, accommodation in Barra is diverse, usually well-appointed, generally well-priced and tailors for most people & pockets. Avoid the prawns sold on the side of the road... You don't want to know! Buy the freshly-baked bread. It's good and costs about 10 meticais (60 US cents) for ten bread-rolls of variable shape & size.

At this time of the year most of the shorebirds Barra is renowned for are generally absent. The walk along the beach from Barra Lodge to Tofu's lighthouse, usually pleasant, is now dominated by large half-washed / half-filled sand-bags; a levee, in principle, against what I can only assume was unusually high seas in the not too distant past. White-fronted Bee-eaters are plentiful in the sand-banks nearer the lighthouse. Mascarene Martin, Plain-backed Sunbird (photographed) & Mangrove Kingfisher were reportedly seen in the general vicinity. We failed to find any of these specials during the time we spent either traversing the area around our accommodation or en route elsewhere.

One of the better travel-disciplines, if you like, for self-drive travelers to foster, particularly when traveling alone, is the enforced topping up of fuel tanks whenever possible, wherever possible. As a rule I never travel anywhere in Africa with less than a half-tank of fuel for many reasons the most important of which are quality & availability. Fuel stocks can be erratic, generally. Fuel quality can & does vary dramatically especially in the more remote areas and fuel consumption, in rough terrain, can be surprisingly poor.. We filled up with fuel in both Inhambane & Maxixe where Visa is readily accepted. Be aware of pedestrians & school-children who use the road-infrastructure to travel to & from work or school.

As an aside you'll note that small children & babies are carried in a side-sling under the care-giver's [either an older sister or the child's mother] left arm, as opposed to the more readily seen method on the care-giver's back. Sadly, like anywhere else, poorer communities occasionally resort to what we would consider ecologically destructive practices in an effort to make ends meet. Brown-headed Parrots & other wild birds are caught and sold in markets & usually to misguided tourists even to those with good intentions. Don't buy any! Support local communities in either the fresh-produce or craft markets instead.

Whilst we were comfortable with the distance from Barra to & from the EN1, it isn't for everyone. The 60 kilometers to and fro can be testing, especially in poor light. The condition of the road [tarred] is also poor at best. There are, of course, other more geographically convenient accommodation options further north & up the coast but I can't speak for any. On this point Morrungulo, a short drive from Unguana [G. Tinkerbird site] and on the coast, is an option that has been considered by others.

Finding the G. Tinkerbird itself is a touch more tricky than is first envisaged. There are three well publicised routes, all in close proximity of Unguana, a small semi-urban settlement north of Massinga. For reference the site is a measured 185 kilometers from Praia da Barra via our selected [considered the more direct route of the three] route to the site, On a point of departure and as a rule we don't travel in darkness in rural Africa, anywhere. We have seen too many tragedies that could / should have been avoided. As a consequence, leaving Barra for Unguana in daylight, a journey of a little under three hours, seems a contradiction of the birder's rule that earlier is better. Despite this fact, we found our birds in late morning. Time of day, therefore, in this instance, might not play too big a part.

Some 2.3 kilometers north of Unguana [23 02 37.8 S & 35 15 37 E] a small track leads off the EN1 and to the left. We used this recommended route rather than the two alternatives. In that context & from the outset it soon becomes apparent that most vehicles will suffer some paintwork damage from encroaching vegetation. Visitors should be aware of this fact or try one of the alternative routes in its stead, the efficacy of which I cannot confirm, either way. Stay on the broader track, heading westwards [inland] for approximately 7.4 kilometers [as suggested but which measured 7.2 km on my odometer] and turn right [23 04 00.9 S & 35 15 37 E]. We found our first bird approximately 1.1 km further along this track & on the left-hand side in woodland bordering on an open patch of regrowth. Should you miss this point use the cultivated land /rural settlement [1.5 km from the aforementioned right turn] as a reference and head back to the clearing as suggested. A small, well-used foot-path leads off inland along the woodland's edge & on the east side of the clearing. Some 150 paces along the aforementioned footpath & on the left-hand side is a fairly conspicuous leafless tree in which we sighted our first of two birds. The other bird, a little more tricky to map accurately, we found further along the track nearer the cultivated land referenced earlier.

Other birds of interest at the site included, among others, Grey Waxbill, Bohm's Spinetail, African Cuckoo-Hawk & Neergaard's Sunbird.

In closing, when using call-playback do so with some sensitivity & always sparingly. The birds respond immediately but actively avoid repeatedly loud playback. We observed the immediate & patently aggressive response of Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird to the played G. Tinkerbird call rather than by the Green Tinkerbird itself which in turn approached, fleetingly, a short while later & largely unannounced.

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