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Malawi's Miombo Wonderland: Dzalanyama Forest Reserve


As my birding adventure into Malawi, fondly dubbed ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’, began to take shape, I researched some of the country's premier birding destinations. Dzalanyama Forest Reserve stood out among them. Spanning 100,000 hectares near the Mozambique border, this reserve is often hailed as one of the finest Miombo spots globally. As the journey to the reserve approached, I couldn't shake off a sense of apprehension. Bold claims are frequently made about such places, yet reality often falls short of expectations.


Following a brief stopover in the capital city, Lilongwe, we embarked early the next morning on our journey to this forest, where indigenous trees are rumored to contain the spirits of the ancestors. Dzalanyama Forest Lodge would serve as our base during our time in the reserve. Despite its proximity to the capital—only 58 kilometers away—extra travel time is essential. The roads can be challenging, and birdwatchers must allocate time for bird sightings along the way.


As a South African, the trip to the lodge offered me a glimpse of Malawi beyond the familiar landscapes of my homeland, enhancing my overall enjoyment. For me, visiting a country is more than just checking off bird species—it's an opportunity to immerse oneself in its culture.


Our journey showed the importance of having a local guide in Malawi. Road signs to destinations are often ambiguous, making navigation difficult without guidance. Moreover, guides possess invaluable local knowledge, leading us to hidden birding gems en route. Abasi Jana, a guide from Blue Zebra Safaris, accompanied us on the trip. En route to the reserve, he introduced us to a small wetland area, where we encountered some of our first lifers—a Coppery-tailed Coucal among them. Amidst familiar species like the Red-faced Cisticola, African Pied Wagtail, Lizard Buzzard, and White-bellied Sunbird, we also spotted a Variable Sunbird and Southern Citril.


Variable Sunbird - Jandre Verster

As soon as you enter Dzalanyama Forrest Reserves' entrance, the Miombo magic unfolds, promising campfire stories for years to come. Miombo birding can be difficult. Long stretches of quiet can be punctuated by bursts of activity – exciting "bird parties" teeming with diverse species.


We drove slowly through the reserve listening and watching for bird parties. Our first encounter with a bird party treated us to species like the Yellow-fronted Canary, Amethyst Sunbird, Brubru, Chinspot Batis, and a cooperative Striped Kingfisher. Though exciting to see our first birds in the reserve, these were species that we had seen before.


Continuing our leisurely drive towards the lodge, Abasi suggested a stop to search for the Boulder Chat. While I'm no fitness fanatic, I can usually handle hikes. But the higher altitude (compared to my KwaZulu-Natal home) left me winded and thirsty. Part of me wanted to see the bird. Part of me wanted to shrivel up and donate my body as a meal for the vultures. Here, I learned a valuable lesson—always be prepared.


Pushing on, the persistent calls of Bolder Chats led us to a pair finally giving us good views. The "torture" (read: hike) was worth it! We also spotted Cabanis's Bunting perched high in the trees. A late-morning shower signaled a retreat, but not before adding Reichard's Seedeater to the list amidst my struggle for breath and desperate search for water.


Boulder Chat - Jandre Verster

Back at the lodge, the friendly staff greeted us with warm smiles and showed us to our rooms. I was fortunate to stay in one of the chalets, nestled amidst the Miombo treetops. The chalet is a comfortable haven with mosquito nets, an en-suite bathroom, and a veranda overlooking the Miombo canopy. Imagine sipping a drink here while a bird party erupts in the trees! These chalets, seamlessly integrated into the forest, allow complete immersion in the sights and sounds.



The lodge also offers rooms in the house (some en-suite) and a campsite with eco-toilets and hot showers. Meals were a delightful surprise – not fancy, but delicious, home-cooked fare infused with Malawian love. The tasty coffee was a highlight! No matter what your group's requires – the lodge has you covered!


Here, we met Jumi Katengu from Land and Lake Safaris, who joined Abasi as our bird guides. Their local expertise would prove invaluable in navigating this Miombo paradise.


After lunch, the hunt for reserve specialties continued. Böhm's Flycatcher remained elusive, but another "dumbo" (shallow wetland) area treated us to a lively bird party. We were ecstatic about the White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, but capturing a decent photo proved challenging. Other party members included Little Bee-eater and Green-backed Woodpecker (another lifer). Photography throughout the reserve was often tricky, but the birding itself was phenomenal – more than enough compensation.


It is worth spending time birding in the area around the lodge. When we got back, a Mountain Wagtail was flying along the stream. While around the lodge, we added White-browed Robin-Chat, Green Twinspot, Ashy Flycatcher, and Half-collared Kingfisher to our list. If Red-throated Twinspot photos are on your wishlist, spend time here – we managed close-up views on the path in front of the main house.


Red-throated Twinspot - Jandre Verster

Meal times were punctuated by the calls of nearby birds, encouraging us to keep our cameras and binoculars close at hand.


The following morning, bright and early, we ventured out once more, our senses finely tuned for the slightest rustle or chirp signaling a bird party. Once again, the elusive Böhm's Flycatcher eluded us, but our disappointment was quickly overshadowed by the discovery of a Miombo bird party. Among its members was a bird that was fascinating to overserve —an African Spotted Creeper, hopping from trunk to trunk in search of insects. Capturing its elusive movements on camera proved challenging, but Jandre worked his magic, capturing an astounding shot. Accompanying our star attraction were the delightful chirps of the Southern Yellow White-eye and a Yellow-bellied Hyliota.


African Spotted Creeper - Jandre Verster


Continuing along the path toward the dumbo (wetland) area, a Wood Pipit strolled along the road, prompting us to snap some close-up photos as it moved gracefully in front of us. High above in the treetops, an Eastern Miombo Sunbird flitted about, offering us yet another lifer to add to our growing list. Venturing into the high grass of the wetland area, we hoped for a glimpse of the Lesser Seedcracker, but alas, it remained unseen. Nevertheless, our efforts were rewarded with sightings of Common Cuckoo, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Holub's Golden Weaver, and a Scaley-throated Honeyguide calling in the distance. On our return journey for breakfast, an Ayres's Hawk-Eagle soared majestically overhead.


Stierling's Woodpecker - Jandre Verster

After a hearty breakfast, we set off in the opposite direction, with our main targets being Pale-billed Hornbill and Souza’s Shrike. As our vehicle slowly drove along the road, the calls of hornbills caught our attention. Soon, a sizable flock of Pale-billed Hornbills emerged from the treetops, offering a spectacle of flight overhead. Once we were out of the vehicle, we headed down a path. Ever alert, Jandre spotted a group of Böhm's Flycatchers bustling among the trees. Among them, we also caught sight of the Stierling's Woodpecker, a species that is renowned for being best observed in this reserve. Although we heard them calling a few times in the reserve, the elusive Souza’s Shrike remained unseen, but we managed fleeting glimpses of the Red-capped Crombec on our return to the vehicle.


Böhm's Flycatcher - Jandre Verster

Upon headed to a higher area to get cell phone signal, we returned to camp to relax and refuel before embarking on an afternoon birding session. My plans to photograph the Red-throated Twinspot were thwarted when Abasi excitedly announced the sighting of an Olive-headed Weaver. In my rush to catch a glimpse, I forgot my binoculars. Jandre was able to see and photograph the bird, sadly, I was a bit too slow and dipped on the bird.


Olive-headed Weaver - Jandre Verster

Our afternoon outing proved less fruitful than previous sessions, with only a White-tailed Blue Flycatcher being the only highlight.


We did one more walk the next morning before breakfast before taking a slow drive out of the reserve to head to our next destination on the trip.


It's challenging to determine whether Dzalanyama Forest Reserve reigns as the ultimate Miombo birding destination. What's certain, however, is that this place is a haven for birders. While there may be moments of quiet, the thrill of encountering a flock reminds us of the surprises nature holds. My advice for exploring the reserve: don't underestimate a flock, even if it appears to comprise only common birds; hidden gems may lurk within.


To optimize your experience, I highly recommend arranging a guide through the lodge before your visit. Their expertise of the reserve's nooks and crannies ensures you won't miss out on any species. While the accommodation may not boast luxury like other spots, it offers a unique opportunity to deeply connect with the forest, almost on a spiritual level.


Dzalanyama is a must-visit for any serious birder, at least once in their lifetime.


 

To find out more or to book your stay at Dzalanyama Forest Lodge, visit their website https://www.dzalanyama.net or email info@landlake.net













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