More often than not, the longer a quest takes, the more satisfying it is.
I had seen the strange and monotypic Lanioturdus torquatus (aka ‘White-tailed Shrike’) once or twice on previous trips to Namibia, but these were inadequate views of birds moving away from me and at some range. Nothing more than hasty flashes. Being the sole member of its genus this little bird has a unique appearance and behaviour to match. In recent years, taxonomists have come to regard it not as a shrike at all, but rather as a close relative of the batises and wattle-eyes in the family Platysteiridae. As it is, the generic name of Lanioturdus means shrike-thrush, so there has clearly been confusion from the start.
While preparing for a work assignment in Namibia earlier this year, I hoped to encounter this interesting bird on my travels and perhaps get to know it a little. According to the literature, it is apparently quite common in the hilly country of central Namibia, extending north into parts of Etosha and Kunene province. It is one of a suite of ‘near endemics’ that occur principally in Namibia, but also in a small part of southern Angola. As such, it is high on the wanted list for international birders traveling through southern Africa. My objective was not to tick it off any list, but rather to watch it and form an opinion of my own as to whether it was more batis than shrike.
Since one of my previous sightings was of a distant group at Okonjima, I figured that the not-too-distant Waterberg Plateau (south-east of Otjiwarongo) would be a likely place to meet Lanioturdus again. The elevation, geology and vegetation were practically the same. I arranged an overnight stop here and walked the hill slopes and valleys for several hours in the afternoon and morning but did not hear nor see these dashing little pied pipers. Damara Rockrunner, Rüppell’s Parrot and Violet Woodhoopoe were numerous, but no White-tailed ‘Shrike’.
A day or two later I found myself setting up camp at a place called Hobatere, adjacent to the western boundary of the Etosha National Park. This was not planned, but very fortuitous as this particular spot – a landscape of granite outcrops, mopane woodland and seasonal drainage lines – was apparently a good location for Namibian endemics. Unfortunately, I had very limited time at Hobatere and there was not a peep nor a glimpse of Lanioturdus during the late afternoon and early morning. Monteiro’s Hornbill, Carp’s Tit and Rosy-faced Lovebird were numerous, but no White-tailed ‘Shrike’.
Before flying home via Windhoek, I was able to spend a morning at the Daan Viljoen Game Reserve west of the capital. This, too, is another alleged ‘hot spot’ for White-tailed ‘Shrike’. I walked a couple of trails, searched the camping area and drove the road network – slowly. Short-toed Rock Thrush, Dusky Sunbird and Violet-eared Waxbill were numerous, but no White-tailed ‘Shrike’.
Fast forward to September, and I had to return to Namibia. Unsurprisingly, finding the elusive Lanioturdus had become the sub-plot for the actual purpose of the trip: installing exhibition material at Olifantsrus in Etosha National Park. Once again, I would be in the Hobatere area but this time I was going to travel home via Damaraland where a number of sites looked promising. Not only that, I have always wanted to visit the alluring landscapes of Twylfelfontein, Brandberg and Spitzkoppe.
Once I had completed the Etosha assignment, I refueled in the dusty little sprawl of Kamanjab and headed towards Khorixas. Entering a hitherto unseen landscape always gets my mojo going and this was no different. Massive, rounded blocks of granite punctuated the rolling savanna of bleached grass and dry mopane. Himba and Herero pastoralists watched over their goats. Snake-eagles sliced through the cloudless sky. The dirt track crossed numerous dry watercourses that cut through the starkly beautiful semi-desert. These watercourses, fringed with taller and leafier trees than occur on the plains, are said to be the preferred habitat of Lanioturdus.
I reached the Twyfelfontein UNESCO World Heritage Site around mid day, had lunch under a pearly-blue sky, then took the guided tour of this phenomenal outdoor gallery. Hundreds of Stone Age engravings occur on the red sandstone slabs – all were chipped into the rock several thousand years ago and the images of animals such as rhino, giraffe and ostrich have attracted great interest from anthropologists. What really caught my eye, however, was the Aba Huab riverbed that I crossed on my way in. Lined with gnarled mopane trees, this looked like ideal habitat for the bird that had become something of a minor obsession.
As luck would have it, the local community have set up a simple camp site for travelers at Aba Huab. The sun was virtually on the horizon by the time I had found my way back there. And then it happened – that thrill and satisfaction when something you’ve hunted long and hard for actually shows up. In the middle of pitching my tent in a grove of arched mopane, I heard a strange snapping sound in the foliage above me. I looked straight up into the pale amber eyes of a White-tailed Shrike! A second, then a third and fourth, flew in to join it. With the western sky now burnt orange, they were settling down to their night roost. Not only had I seen Lanioturdus up close, but I was about to spend the night in their company and I would be up before sunrise to see them start their day.
It was such a perfect night that I never bothered to put the cover on my tent, choosing to just sleep under the mosquito-gauze dome. Moonshine cast mopane leaf shadows onto my sleeping bag and illuminated the riverbed where the footprints of desert elephants mingled with those of the local cattle. Barking geckos tapped out their morse-code calls and some way off, a single African Scops-Owl uttered its cricket chirp. Waking well before sunrise, I was able to take in the full glory of the milky way without lifting my head from the pillow. Truly, it never gets better than this.
The little foursome of Lanioturdus were moving about at first light and I spent the next hour or so following them as they foraged not so much in the foliage, but on the ground. Their striking plumage of black, grey and white made them easy to see and they were far from shy. The white tail feathers – from which they get part of their name – are short and when the bird is hoping about on the ground it has the appearance of a diminutive pitta. In every other way – the movements, the eyes, the overall plumage, the calls, the bill snapping – Lanioturdus cries out: “I am a batis!”. Fallen mopane leaves were flipped over, dry seedpods and bark chips were probed. In the trees, small caterpillars were pulled off leaves and spiders were extracted from crooks and crevices. All the time, the four kept in touch with soft grating calls occasionally breaking out into a chorus of sharper buzzing squeaks.
It was not easy to pull myself away from what I like to call the White-tailed Ground-Batis, but Namibia is a big country and I had Spitzkoppe on my mind.
Aba Huab, Damaraland, Namibia, September 2014