GORONGOSA MOUNTAIN, SOFALA PROVINCE:
This famed site lies just to the north of the Gorongosa town, in central Mozambique. Held in high esteem by the local people, this mountain is deemed sacred to the locals, and permission must be sought before accessing the mountain. The monolith that is Mt. Gorongosa, stands sentinel over the lowland plains of central Mozambique, and the brilliant Afromontane forest located on the lower slopes is reminiscent of the eastern Zimbabwean highlands. The birding is truly brilliant all-round, with the farmlands and cultivated areas en-route containing numerous highly sought-out species such as Black-winged Bishop and Moustached Grass-Warbler. The wooded patches that stand serve as mere reminders of the woodland that once gripped these lower slopes, but they too play host to a different suite of birds and some of the specials to be sought in these patches are Pallid Honeyguide and Blue-spotted Wood-Dove.
One is then presented with the magnificent Afromontane forest, where of course the ultimate special is the isolated population of Green-headed Oriole that persists here. Many other species occurring in the Zimbabwean Eastern Highlands occur as well. The tall canopy here makes for some rather strenuous birding, and the slippery and at times steep pathway leading up through the forest forces one to be aware. Due to the difficulty of accessing the mountain, and the numerous complex of rough tracks and trails leading up, it not advised that one should go birding here alone, and in a vehicle that isn’t a 4x4. Two organisations, mentioned below, arrange day trips up the mountain, and it is highly recommended that you visit this site with them. The summer period can sometimes prove tricky as rains make the tracks largely impassable at times. The dry season is a less ‘risky’ time to visit in this regard. As regards the birding, the specials are resident throughout the year.
Birdwatching in the Gorongosa Mist-Belt Forest.
Mist-Belt Forest on the slopes of Gorongosa Mountain.
The farmlands, cultivated areas and remnants of open grassland on the lower slopes hold an incredible number of species. These range from widespread species including Red-necked Spurfowl, Blue-spotted Wood-Dove, Broad-tailed Warbler (patches of moist grass), Singing and Short-winged Cisticola’s, Variable Sunbird, Black-winged Bishop to more localised specials such as Anchieta’s Tchagra, Moustached Grass-Warbler, Red-winged Warbler, Red-throated Twinspot, Orange-winged Pytilia, Broad-tailed Paradise-Whydah, Lesser Seedcracker and Twinspot Indigobird.
The wooded patches that still persist should be searched for Pallid Honeyguide, Blue-spotted Wood-Dove, Green-backed Woodpecker, Red-winged Warbler (where there is a grassy understorey), Anchieta’s Tchagra (on the verges) and Tropical Boubou. Similar mountains further north in Mozambique, with similar wooded patches have yielded Blackcap, and this species should be searched for. Eastern Saw-wing flit rapidly over the clearing in the woodland, and along the lower slopes. Raptors too, pass overhead regularly, and those may include Ayres’ Hawk-Eagle, Augur Buzzard, Eurasian Honey-Buzzard, Western Banded Snake-Eagle, Martial Eagle along with the likes of Lanner and Peregrine Falcons, and Dickinson’s Kestrel.
Lastly we come to the Afromontane forests, where the species resemble those of the Eastern Highland forest in Zimbabwe. However, the undeniable special here is the Green-headed Oriole, which has an isolated population here on Mt. Gorongosa. This is of great interest to birders within a southern African context as it is the only site where it can be seen. The nearest population lies further up in Mozambique. Other specials of the upper canopy of the forest are; Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Grey Cuckooshrike, Stripe-cheeked Greenbul, White-tailed Crested-Flycatcher, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon and Livingstone’s Turaco. Birds of the mid- and lower-strata include Chirinda Apalis, Cape Batis, Green Twinspot and Swynnerton’s Robin. The Swynnerton’s Robin is another highly prized bird, and is best sought in ‘outbreaks’ of dracaena plants, and the forest floor.
Directions to the Reserve
It must be reiterated that before one sets off to bird Mt. Gorongosa, permission must be sought and granted for you to access the mountain. Two organisation, which will be mentioned below, organise trips up the mountain, and it is recommended that do these trips with them. A 4x4 vehicle is a necessity.
The entrance track to the start of the mountain is located some 12km north of Gorongosa town (M-02). From here, take the very rough track to the right (towards the mountain) and stay on the main track. The network of small tracks that bisect the lower slopes of the mountain are complicated, and without prior experience on which tracks to drive, it is very easy to get lost. This too, is another factor enforcing the use of the local organisations as it eliminates this facet entirely. Regardless, follow the main track as you amble slowly along and where village huts abate, and natural bush springs up, stop and bird these areas. Rank grass holds Moustached Grass-Warbler and Red-winged Warbler. The majority of the specials however, are most prominent higher up the mountain, further away from the majority of the locals, and closer to the forest. One such area to search for the warblers is at point (M-03).
The track winds steadily up the mountain side, and passes through many more areas of rank grasslands. Where these areas converge on the edge of a settlement, and thick bush is formed, it is worth keeping an eye out for Lesser Seedcracker. The best method of seeing this species is to watch for them feeding in the road, and them dashing off from cover next to the road when driving past. Zambezi Indigobird and Short-winged Cisticola sing from perches at the tops of the trees, and listening for their distinctive songs will surely lead you to them. As mentioned in the ‘Birds’ above search all the different niches present along the track for the different specials. Anchieta’s Tchagra occurs in damp depression, and often in a mix of habitats from the edge of wooded clumps, to within the confides of marshy vlei’s. Along with the Lesser Seedcracker, this is one of the most sought after specials occurring on the non-forested sections of the Mountain. Blue-spotted Wood-Dove regularly dash off the road in front of vehicles, and can take lots of patience to get good views of. Keep an eye out in the sky for whatever raptor may be passing through, as a large number of possibilities exist.
Male Swynerton's Robin.
Open grasslands persist is small remnant patches up a plateau just before the forest, and it is here were Broad-tailed Warbler should be sought, along with an isolated population of Croaking Cisticola (M-04). It is also around here that the first of the truly wooded areas are passed (M-05). Such areas should be searched for Pallid Honeyguide and Blackcap. The numerous maize fields passed en-route are home to countless Black-winged Bishops. The vehicle is normally parked before the forest (M-07), and a walk of roughly 3km is needed to reach the forest. Along the length of the walk, it is important to be aware that all of the above mentioned agricultural/grassland specials can be seen up to the forest. This means searching rank growth areas for Moustached Grass-Warbler, Red-winged Warbler and Anchieta’s Tchagra; listening out for Short-winged Cisticola singing from the tops of trees, and looking for Broad-tailed Warbler in the moist grasslands. Also to note, a prominent line of trees protrudes out the forest following a stream down into the cultivated areas for a few hundred metres (M-08). This brings a steady flow of birds from the forest down to this more open area, and can allow for better views than what one is given within the forest. Species to be seen here include Livingstone’s Turaco, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler and Pallid Honeyguide, which is very reliable here!
After you have negotiated this very productive line of trees, you can continue into the forest, entering at this point (M-09). You will see a small footpath heading into the forest, and this can be followed for some distance. Please note that the forest is regularly shrouded in mist, making the uphill ascent rather slippery at times. The forest birding can begin in earnest literally 10m in – with bird parties rapidly feeding in the high canopy. Black-fronted Bush-Shrike and Grey Cuckooshrike are definitely the main species to watch for, as they normally indicate a party moving through. These parties feeding in the high canopy must be searched for Green-headed Oriole, which favour the high branches. Livingstone’s Turaco’s bound from branch to branch, and watch for Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeons flying in the canopy. Pleasingly, a large population of the Pigeons still persist here. The orioles themselves regularly give their liquid call, and following the call will normally produce the bird, but do not expect the birds to come down any lower than the high canopy. Do not ignore the mid- and lower-strata portions of the forest, for they too hold many exciting denizens. These range from the noisy Stripe-cheeked Greenbul, to the very active White-tailed Crested-Flycatcher (here and in the canopy) to the often inconspicuous Chirinda Apalis. Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Cape Batis and Stripe-cheeked Greenbul normally signal parties moving through down at these levels. Watch as well for Green Twinspots and Red-faced Crimsonwings rapidly moving through the forest, and listen for their insect-like trilling call. Wherever you come across Dracaena plants, there is a strong likelihood that there will be Swynnerton’s Robin in close association. Listen for their soft, three-note call, and then closely watch the undergrowth for quick movements.
Traditionally, you arrive in the forest mid-morning, due to the birding drive through the cultivated areas, and then bird the forest for a few hours, when in the early afternoon, you begin the walk back to your vehicle, and then the birding drive back down the mountain.
Male Red-Throated Twinspot.
The Gorongosa area has been uprooted by political strife over recent years, and is often the cause of some tension with the locals. Generally, the area is considered safe, but caution must be advised, and all visitors to the area must be aware when moving through. The mountain is best done with one of two organisations, Gorongosa Adventures, or the Gorongosa National Park, as they have ties with the local chief on the mountain, and you do not have to go through any of the ceremonial procedures to gain access to the mountain. In addition, they know the best routes up to the top, and speak the local language – which always helps a great deal. The track going up can be impassable after heavy rains, and it can be easy to get stuck on the mountain. The closest town is Gorongosa, some 10km to the south, and here you can find food, fuel, ATMs amongst others.
Male Variable Sunbird.
Recommended accommodation options include
This rustic campsite is set within productive miombo woodland, on the entrance track to Gorongosa National Park, some 70km from the start of the mountain track. It is run by Sakkie Van Zyl (along with his family), and he has a partnership with the local Nhambita community that helps promote avitourism in the area, as well as educate the locals about the importance of conservation. They pre-arrange trips up the mountain, and have much experience in birding in the general area. The woodland in the immediate vicinity of their camp hosts some top birds, such as Speckle-throated Woodpecker, Southern Hyliota and White-breasted Cuckooshrike.
Tel: +258 82 994 4048
GPS: 18°58'48.0"S 34°10'36.3"E
Chitengo Camp, Gorongosa National Park:
Chitengo is the main camp located within the Gorongosa National park, slightly further along the track than Gorongosa Adventures. It is not as rustic as Gorongosa Adventures, and has numerous chalets and bungalows to choose from. The park itself is a good birding destination (and discussed on a different write-up). The Gorongosa National Park too, can be contacted about arranging a trip up the mountain.
Tel: +258 82 308 2252 or +258 235 30122
GPS: 18°58'46.4"S 34°21'04.4"E
- M-01: Gorongosa Town. GPS: 18°40'57.7"S 34°04'14.3"E
- M-02: Access road to mountain. GPS: 18°35'56.1"S 34°02'01.1"E
- M-03: Rank grassland spot. GPS: 18°35'17.3"S 34°02'27.0"E
- M-04: Grassland section. GPS: 18°29'08.6"S 34°02'57.5"E
- M-05: First of the wooded areas. GPS: 18°30'36.0"S 34°02'47.9"E
- M-06: Second wooded area. GPS: 18°29'41.9"S 34°02'49.8"E
- M-07: Parking area. GPS: 18°28'45.1"S 34°03'03.5"E
- M-08: Line of trees. GPS: 18°28'02.6"S 34°02'49.2"E
- M-09: Entrance to forest. GPS: 18°27'58.4"S 34°03'00.6"E