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Chasing the African Pitta: A Birdwatcher's Adventure at Blue Zebra Island Lodge

The brief boat trip, skimming across the waters of Lake Malawi, might have left other passengers daydreaming of an island holiday lounging by a pool, sipping cocktails. But for us birders on board, there was only one thing on our minds.

For many birdwatchers, the bird often dubbed the ‘Holy Grail' of African Birding is either a cherished memory or species which they long to see. In the days leading up to our stay at Blue Zebra Island Lodge, we had been captivated by videos of a young African Pitta lingering behind the staff canteen. This is a species that we had dreamed of seeing for many years, and now we were just a short boat trip away from getting up close to one.

Getting ready to board the boat to Blue Zebra Lodge

Situated on Nankoma Island within Lake Malawi, Blue Zebra Lodge lies within the Marelli Archipelago, alongside Maleri and Nakantenga. Accessible via a 3-kilometer journey from Senga Bay, the island offers a prelude to birdwatching even before setting foot ashore. The launch site presents splendid opportunities to capture images of Böhm's Bee-eater as they flit through the surrounding trees, allowing for remarkable photo opportunities. The brief voyage to the island not only allows one to dream of the birds that will be seen, but also take in the beauty of Lake Malawi. Can one truly claim to have experienced Malawi without visiting its namesake lake?

Böhm's Bee-eater - Jandre Verster

Upon arrival at the island, we were warmly greeted by the staff, who provided a gave us an overview of our stay before escorting us to our accommodation in the Lake Safari Tents. These tents boasted comfortable beds draped with mosquito nets, along with shower and toilet facilities. Each tent also featured a veranda furnished with chairs and a table, offering a serene spot for relaxation. The rooms have tea and coffee facilities available in them. Hot water is brought out in a flask early every morning and placed outside your door so that you can get your morning 'caffeine fix'. Mosquito spray and insect repellent, as I would soon discover, proved indispensable during our stay.

With our rooms settled, we set out on a brief stroll in search of the elusive Pitta. Despite carefully checking the areas where it had been spotted just days before, our efforts proved fruitless. Local staff suggested the bird was most active during the early morning and late afternoon hours, prompting us to postpone our search in favor of lunch.

A tasty Mexican Bowl with beef

The food at the lodge exceeded our expectations. Breakfasts featured a buffet spread of cereals and fruit, alongside a cooked-to-order selection. Lunches comprised two courses, culminating in a scrumptious dessert, while dinners boasted three-course extravaganzas sure to satisfy even the most discerning palates. Highlights during our stay included ta mouth-watering butternut soup, its rich and creamy texture complemented by subtle curry undertones. I was also able to try Chambo, a Talapia fish species which can be caught Lake Malawi, which was very tasty. All meals were inclusive with lodge bookings, with a dedicated coffee and tea station available through most of the day. Beverages, however, were priced in US Dollars.

Following our meal, our quest for the African Pitta resumed. We divided into groups to scour different areas, though once again, the elusive bird evaded us. Nonetheless, we encountered several Black-throated Wattle-eyes and a Spotted Eagle Owl perched nearby. The owl was sitting so still as we approached that we thought it might have been a statue.

Black-throated Wattle-eye - Jandre Verster

Failing to locate the Pitta, I opted to explore the island's pathways. Long pants proved advisable to fend off the persistent mosquitoes. The paths are well marked and easy to walk. Species that can be see include Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Emerald Spotted Wood Dove, Little Bee-eater, Trumpeter Hornbill, Black-backed Puffback, and White-backed Night Heron, and the possibility of glimpsing the exquisite Livingstone’s Flycatcher if one is lucky.

The African Pitta is by far the biggest drawcard for birders to the island. A few breeding pairs come to the islands during the breeding season. I was shown the nesting site along one of the paths near the back of the island. When the pittas start breeding, if the nests are close to the path, the paths will be closed off to protect the birds. They also set up a portable photographic hide to allow birders and photographers to get close to the birds without negatively affecting them.

The African Pitta path

Although once again we didn’t get to see our target bird, we did get to take in the sights of the island. It doesn’t feel like you are in a landlocked country; it feels more like you are walking around a distant island in a faraway ocean.

The lodge is the perfect destination to relax and unwind in the middle of a birding trip to the country. Although I enjoyed spending time relaxing at the pool, it also allowed me the opportunity to see some birds. While sipping something cold from the poolside bar, I was able to tick off birds such as African Pied Wagtail, White-winged Tern, Common Sandpiper, and even photograph birds in a colony of Southern Brown-throated Weaver. The island provides the perfect balance between birding and relaxation. With the lodge offering activities such as kayaking, snorkeling, sunset cruises, and water sports, it's the ideal destination for a birder with a family. While you are ticking off birds, your family will be having lots of fun.

On the second afternoon, we embarked on an activity that will forever remain etched in my memory. We had the amazing opportunity to take a boat trip around the three islands. The goal was to see lots of birds, and even though this plan didn’t work out, the breathtaking scenery more than made up for it. I've seen many African Fish Eagles in my life, but witnessing an African Fish Eagle take off and then call from high above the lake is something truly special. It's one of my favorite moments from my trip to Malawi.

A Fish Eagle soaring above Lake Malawi - Jandre Verster

Sadly, despite making many amazing memories on the island, we didn’t get to see the African Pitta. We missed seeing the bird by just one day! Although that may sound like bad news, it simply means that we need to come back and visit this special island again.

While this may not be some remote ocean destination, it is indeed a very special island getaway. The Blue Zebra Lodge staff go out of their way to ensure that you feel like ‘royalty’ during your stay. Whether you get to see the ‘Holy Grail of African Birding’ or not, one thing is for sure – once you have visited Blue Zebra, you'll want to come back.

To find out more or to book your stay at Blue Zebra Island Lodge, visit their website or email


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