Trip Report: Herpetological Tour – HERP 2021

Trip Report: Herping Tour 23 February – 6 March 2021

(text and photos by Sean Braine)

Guide: Sean Braine

After an almost decade-long drought, large parts of Namibia received above-average rainfall and the area was looking more lush and green than it had looked in years including the arid South of country. Due to Covid-19 restrictions we were limited to do night work after 10:00pm every evening which limited our species list a bit. Nonetheless we accomplished a feat that will be difficult to replicate in the future, by managing to find and photograph every Bitisspecies in Namibia in less than 10 days. We had a very fluid group who got along very well and made for an unforgettably epic trip.

 DAY 1:

Clients arrived in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, and we spent our first night at a lodge situated on the city’s outskirts.

We spent the first day walking the surrounding rocky outcrops and managed to get our first Elapid in the form of the notorious Zebra Cobra (Naja nigricincta nigricincta). Another was seen shortly after, but made an escape under a large boulder. Along the way we found Namibian Rock Agama (Agama planiceps), Western Rock Skink (Trachylepis sulcata), Kalahari Tree Skink (Trachylepis spilogaster) and Variable skink (Trachylepis varia). Several Plain Sand Lizards (Pedioplanus inornata) and Western Sand Lizards (Pedioplanus undata) were also seen along the way.

We spent the afternoon with the local herpetologist Francois Theart who is currently busy with a Zebra Cobra tracking project as well as working on an effective antivenin for this species.  He does rescues in the capital city and had a few good species for us to photograph and release. The exceptionally rare and localized Anchieta’s Dwarf Python (Python anchietae) was one of the species we released and only the second Francois had rescued before in Windhoek. Other species included South African Python (Python natalensis) and Zebra Cobra (Naja nigricincta nigricinta). We also found a Wahlberg’s Striped Skink (Trachylepis wahlbergii) near the release site. Some rock flipping produced a Burrowing Scorpion (Opistophthalmus carinatus) and several large Red-headed Centipedes (Scolopendra morsitans).

A quick walk after dinner produced some Fischer’s Gecko (Chondrodactylus laevigatus). 

DAY 2:

After an early breakfast we collected lunch packs and did some last minute shopping before heading south toward the town of Keetmanshoop. Today is essentially a travel day and stops were made en-route for lunch and refreshments. It was exceptionally hot and not many herps were seen until just before Keetmanshoop where we had a pair of Southern Rock Agama (Agama attra) along the roadside.

We decided to have an early dinner and use the little time we had to road cruise out of town. This proved quite successful and produced our first Bitis for the trip: a Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis). We added a few new geckos to the list in the form of Giant Ground Geckos (Chondrodctylus angulifer angulifer) and Spotted Barking Geckos (Ptenopus garrulous maculatus).  An unknown Burrowing Scorpion (Opistophthalmus sp.) was also on the road and posed well for a photograph.

DAY 3:

Due to the heat already starting late morning we decided to take breakfast packs and depart before sunrise to use the cooler hours herping some hillsides en-route south. Our first stop was along a large cliff face where we photographed another exceptionally difficult species to find as well as our second Bitis sp. for the trip, the elusive Desert Mountain Adder (Bitis xeropaga).  Spirits were high on the way down the hill and we found several Ground Agama (Agama oculeata) and Namaqua Sand Lizards (Pedioplanus namaquensis) before having breakfast.

Some large animals like Springbok, Oryx and Common Ostrich were seen along the way.

Getting closer to the coast the temperature cooled enough for us to try looking for the rare and endangered Nama Padloper (Chersobius solus) and eventually after a couple of hours with no luck we continued to the south coast of Namibia. We encountered several Spotted Desert Lizards (Meroles suborbitalus) en-route.

Nearing the coast we had a strong south westerly wind which made herping difficult in the sandy environment. After checking into our hotel Bryan decided to brave the south westerly and managed to find a Meyer’s Blind Legless Skink (Typhlosaurus meyeri) before dinner.

With a bit of luck the wind lulled and we did a night walk into the dunes which produced a Namib endemic the Namib Web-footed Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei).  Our main target is a largely nocturnal species and would be exceptionally difficult to find during the day but with some shadow play and a keen eye we managed the impossible and found a Namaqua Dwarf Adder (Bitis schneideri) during the night. Having found a third species of Bitis on the third day of the trip was unimaginable. Bitis schneideri are considered the smallest vipers in the world and only reach a maximum length of 20-25 cm and so we were off to a dream start.

DAY 4:

We decided to take breakfast packs again and have an early departure to focus on getting good images of the smallest Bitis in good light. As it warmed we found a few local lizard species.  Knox’s Desert Lizard (Meroles knoxii) was seen as well as the endemic Small Scaled Desert Lizard (Meroles ctenodactylus).

A few stops along the way produced more previously-seen Pedioplanus and Trachylepis sp. but it was getting too hot for any activity so we continued northward onto the edge of the Namib. Arriving at our lodge in the heat of the afternoon we decided to wait out the heat and do some night work instead.

After dinner we used our curfew time to do some road cruising and due to a number of trucks on the road we found a few freshly killed Horned Adders. We found Bibron’s Gecko (Chondrodactylus bibronii), Namib Giant Ground Gecko (Chondrodactylus angulifer namibensis) and a number of Spotted Barking Geckos (Ptenopus garrulous maculatus). We continued back to the lodge where we obtained permission to work after curfew and did some walking on the hillsides. Many Jameson’s Red Rock Rabbits kept us busy as well as a few previously-seen geckos. We added a new gecko species, Weber’s Thick-Toed Gecko (Pachydactylus weberi) before retiring for the evening.

DAY 5:

Leaving with breakfast packs once again we had an early start and had another go at finding Nama Padloper (Chersobius solus). We worked a few areas I had seen them before with no luck. We did manage to get a Karoo Girdled Lizard (Karusasaurus polyzonus) in the hand and get some good images of it. As it was warming up we decided to abandon our search and continue into the Namib toward the south coast. Entering the Namib we searched in some sandy habitat for any Psammophis sp. but only produced several Merole suborbitalus.

Nearing the coast we decided to start trying for our next target in our quest to see all the Bitis in Namibia. Our first stop produced a few already-seen Meroles lizards and a couple of Ground Agama (Agama oculeata).

We checked into our guesthouse and decided to continue herping the late afternoon. On the first stop we decided to work hard at our target and after about 30 minutes of searching we hit potluck and found our target and fourth Bitis species for the trip, the Many-horned Adder (Bitis cornuta). We also encountered the pitch black nigra subspecies of Trachylepis sulcata. After getting what felt like millions of photos of the Many–horned Adder we decided to return again in the morning as one of the team members didn’t join in the afternoon as he was not feeling well.

We decided to retire after dinner as it was getting close to curfew.

DAY 6:

After a well-earned sit down breakfast we spent the day exploring the surrounding area.  We returned to the Bitis cornuta and took a few more images and decided to work on finding a Psammophis sp. We were quite lucky and saw a large pod of Heaviside’s Dolphins (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii) as well as the highly endangered African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus). A new scorpion species was added, a coastal Namib species, Parabuthus stridulus.

We had lunch at a quaint little coffee shop nearby and afterwards searched some coastal hummock sand and managed to get a very pretty Karoo Sand Snake (Psammophis notostictus), which posed nicely for some images.

We also found Small-scaled Desert Lizard (Meroles microphilodotus) while covering some very otherworldly terrain.

After an enjoyable dinner at a local seafood restaurant we did a road cruise but did not manage to find any new species. Several different colour forms of Web-footed Geckos (Pachydactylus rangei) and Giant Ground Geckos (Chondrodactyus angulifer namibensis) were seen before heading back to catch curfew. A few Black-backed Jackals were seen on our way back.

DAY 7:

We had an early sit-down breakfast and departed with lunch packs back into the interior of the Namib. Reaching the escarpment we found a very freshly killed Coral Shield Cobra (Aspidelapslubricus lubricus), which dampened our spirits somewhat.

One last try for the rare Nama Padloper (Chersobius solus) proved unsuccessful and after a combined search time of around 6 hours we spent searching for this diminutive tortoise, we eventually gave up. We saw several already-seen Meroles and Pedioplanus sp. on the search.

A few kilometers further we found our first and only Knobel’s Agama (Agama knobeli) on the roadside. We were keeping our eyes open for another target and unfortunately, as with the Coral Shield Cobra, we found it freshly killed on the road, a beautiful very dark form Cape Cobra (Naja nivea). After checking every Sociable Weaver nest en-route with no luck, we had lunch in the shade of an Acacia tree.

 Another very hot day in the Namib and 10km before our destination we had a flat tyre which we repaired in the heat and checked into our lodge for a swim to cool off.

An early dinner and a quick road cruise produced several already-seen gecko species as well as a new scorpion, Parabuthus granulatus. A lone Cape Fox (Vulpe schama) was added to the mammals list.

We did a night walk around a rocky outcrop around the camp, which produced only several already-seen Chondrodactylus laevigatus and three new scorpion species Ophistophthalmus wahlbergi, Parabuthus raudus and Uroplectus planimanus.

DAY 8:

Another pre-dawn start saw us heading into the red dunes of the Namib Desert. There are several species endemic to the dunes and most of the species are only active from when the temperatures rise until they need to seek shelter from the heat again. After a few photo stops and taking in the breathtaking scenery we searched for the sand sea endemic Peringuey’s Adder (Bitis peringueyi). A long walk through the dunes produced Wedge-snouted Desert Lizard (Meroles cuneirostris), a red colour form of Pachydactylus rangei and finally a fresh Peringuey’s Adder track which we easily followed to where it was buried, busy caudal luring for any passing unsuspecting lizards. Our fifth Bitis species had the group elated with the possibility of getting every species in Namibia.

It was getting unbearably hot so having found our target some of the group had a look at the famous Deadvlei and Sossusvlei, which had water for the first time in ten years.

We returned to camp for lunch and a rest through the heat of the day.  After an early dinner we road cruised a new stretch of tarmac road and managed another two Horned Adders (Bitis caudalis) and three previously-seen gecko species before turning in for the evening.

DAY 9:

After spending the early morning photographing the two colour variations of Bitis caudalis we released them and had a late breakfast. Continuing northwards along the Namib we stopped at several sites with a few previously-seen lizard species.  Being on the top of most of the teams list was Namaqua Chameleon, so I decided to head toward the coast where I regularly find them.

Arriving just after lunch we stopped at my first stop and within 5 minutes we managed to find a large male Namaqua Chameleon (Chamealeo namaquensis) as well as the coastal paler form of Peringuey’s Adder (Bitis peringueyi). After photographing both specimens we had a stroke of luck and found a juvenile Dwarf-beaked Snake (Dipsina multimaculata) on the way back to the car. It was a lucky afternoon, which also included both colour variations of the Peringuey’s Adder.

We headed into the coastal town of Swakopmund and checked into our hotel.  This evening I got some take-away dinners and we drove out to the desert for a sundowner dinner followed by a night walk in search of some of the localized endemic geckos. We had a successful walk finding both Carp’s Barking Gecko (Ptenopus carpi) as well as Koch’s Thick-toed Gecko (Pachydactylus kochii). We found a few more Web-footed Geckos (Pachydactylus rangei) and saw how varied the central coastal Namib forms are. A few large Dancing White Lady Spiders (Leucorchestris arenicola) provided some nice images. We drove back to town to catch curfew.

DAY 10:

The game plan for today was to finish off the Namibian Bitis list with the largest of the genus in Namibia, the Puff Adder (Bitis arietans). Francois Theart was in town and joined us for the search. The area I decided on working is probably the easiest for tracking the species in Namibia. We had hardly stopped and found the first fresh tracks of an arietans. These led to a dead end and so Francois and I decided to search a wider area and managed to find another fresh track zigzagging between the bushes. After about 30 minutes of looking for this snake Francois spotted it in a gerbil hole. And there it was the final Bitis species, a beautiful greenish Puff Adder (Bitis arietans). This was history in the making, no one has managed the 6 Namibian Bitis species within 10 days and it will be a record that will be tough to repeat.

We spent a good time photographing it as it was the most relaxed arietans I have ever encountered not puffing or striking once.

A dune endemic Shovel-snouted Lizard (Meroles anchietae) finally gave us a good look at his adapted features. We also managed to photograph a Fitzsimmon’s Burrowing Skink (Typhlacontias brevipes) as well as a rescued large Bug-eyed House Snake (Boaedon mentalis) that had started laying eggs just before being released. She would eventually lay eight eggs, all of which seem viable and are being incubated by a capable person. We celebrated the day’s success with a braai (barbecue) at my house.

DAY 11:

We packed up after breakfast, collected some lunch packs and photographed a few scorpions before heading to an area where I was hoping to find a Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis). Another Peringuey’s Adder was found and a little bit later we managed to find a juvenile Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis) who gave us a bit of a run around.  Everyone was very happy as this was our last shot at this species. We also caught up with Common Namib Day Gecko (Rhoptropus afer), another Namib endemic.

Leaving the coast we went back toward the escarpment and stopped in at an abandoned zinc mine where we had lunch and saw our first Bradfield’s Namib Day Geckos (Rhoptropus bradfieldi). It was stupidly hot so we aborted the herping and moved toward the interior. Reaching the escarpment it became lush and green once again due to the recent good rains.  The granites hold large rock pools which provided some Marsh Terrapins (Pelomedusa subrufa) and two frog species: Dwarf Puddle Frog (Phrynobatrachus mababiensis) and Tandy’s Sand Frog (Tomopterna tandyi). We also foundmany Agama planiceps on the granite outcrops.  Some very fresh Leopard tracks were found on the pathway toward the vehicle making everyone look around carefully.  We found several Boulton’s Namib Day Geckos (Rhoptropus boultoni) on the granite boulders. We made our way back after an amazing sunset and went straight to dinner. After dinner we found some Marbled Rubber Frogs (Phrynomantis annectens) in the swimming pool at the lodge. While photographing the Phrynomantis, Jay discovered a Namaqua Worm Snake (Namibiana occidentalis) around the pool area.  We got permission from the landowner to do a road cruise after dinner, which unfortunately, did not produce anything new except a few mammals like Angolan Giraffe, Scrub Hare and Springbok.

On the way back to the rooms Bryan discovered a great find on the wall, a Western Tiger Snake (Telescopus semiannulatus polystictus). It was obviously after all the geckos that were hunting insects around the lights.

DAY 12:

A pre-dawn walk to a nearby dam produced nothing new and we returned for breakfast. We did a quick photo shoot of the Telescopus and released it before departing for Windhoek. As we left the gate we saw a Jordan’s Girdled Lizard (Karusasaurus jordani). I decided to use a detour and stop at a spot which had previously produced a Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis). We found several Agama planiceps and managed to catch an exceptionally large Giant Plated Lizard (Gerrhosaurus validus), which had Jay and Bryan working hard before getting him caught.

Continuing onward it started getting a little hot so we stopped in for lunch at a nearby town. We continued on a largely unused road giving us our best chance at finding a Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis), which just as everyone was falling asleep in the car, made an appearance. It was our first tortoise for the trip so there was quite a bit of excitement.

We reached Windhoek in the late afternoon and checked into the hotel and did a last walk after dinner which produced a Bibron’s Stiletto Snake and a few previously-seen geckos as well as a new endemic species, the Windhoek Gecko (Pachydactylus reconditus).

All in all it was an amazing trip with a great team of people that participated and with an amazing array of species seen in a short period of time.

 

Puff Adder Horned Adder Many-horned Adder Desert Mountain Adder Desert Mountain Adder Namaqua Dwarf Adder Oryx antelope in Dunes Anchieta's Dwarf Python Namib Giant Ground Gecko Jordan's Girdled Lizard Karoo Girdled Lizard Koch's Ground Gecko