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Illustrated Trip Report - Luonde Mountain Lodge and the Soutpansberg 19-22 February 2004 led by Etienne Marais

Posted 19 April, 2004
Participants: Robert Cliff, Stephanie Webber, Hans and Isobel Schouwink, Rob and Leone Williams, Christy Cook. Leader: : Etienne Marais, ably assisted by Rob Gradwell of Luonde Mountain Lodge.

This was a special trip, designed to enable participants to sample some of the birding highlights of the wonderful Luonde Mountain area - it was also run as fundraiser for the Pretoria Bird Club (Now BirdLife Northern Gauteng.)

As leader I had the privilege of going up a bird earlier than the rest of the group, and managed to get in a full day of birding, including two visits to Roodewal Forest, before the rest of the group arrived on the Friday Afternoon. Rob Gradwell who runs Luonde Mountain Lodge is an enthusiastic birder and arranged access to quite a few areas, which are not accessible to casual visitors.
The main building at Luonde Mountain Lodge - which is becoming something of a birders mecca!

Thursday 20 February

White-browed Sparrow WeaverThe first area that Rob arranged access to was a private Macadamia estate, which has a series of nice dams, and macadamia plantations edged by forest patches and some alien trees. Despite the fact that it was close to midday, we had some nice birding on Thursday afternoon, and found Horus Swift, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler and the first real find of the trip, a Blue-spotted Dove - which flitted off into the owners garden just as we got the binos onto it.

After search the dams for Lesser Jacana and Pygmy Goose which where recorded in prior weeks, we headed back to Luonde Mountain Lodge. The Lodge itself is set on a 400ha estate, which offers an excellent diversity of open savannah, acacia woodland and riverine thickets.

The rest of the afternoon was spent birding in the area, and a number of interesting birds were recorded including Red-faced and Croaking Cisticola, Yellow Bishop and large numbers of European Sedge Warbler. The mix of birds at Luonde is somewhat unusual - where else do you find Gorgeous Bush-shrike in close proximity to Cape Grassbird and White-browed Sparrow-weaver? Also seen was a displaying male Purple Indigobird, and a Lizard Buzzard. One of the objectives was to try and find the African Hobby, which has recently been recorded there, but patient watching of the lakeshore towards dusk revealed only the presence of a Northern Hobby, which swooped past.

Friday 20 February

Friday Morning dawned wet and cold, and the rain delayed the early-morning excursion to Roodewal Forest by an hour or so. When we got to the forest, the rain was just stopping, and along with two birders from Wits Bird Club, we went exploring in the dense bush. Roodewal consists of sub-tropical thickets, rather than true forest, and the splendid calls of Eastern Nicator and Gorgeous Bush Shrike could be heard from several directions. Two Honey Buzzards briefly appeared through the mist, and after some searching, we eventually found a nice mixed bird party, which included an African Broadbill.

Swee Waxbill - a common species at RoodewalWe then headed on to the Macadamia Estate, where we searched for the Blue-spotted Dove. However while we were doing this the sight of a small falcon distracted us. It was perched high in a Eucalyptus Tree. This falcon immediately stood out due to its very clean, extensive hood and long wings. It was an immature Sooty Falcon, and possibly the first record for the region! We spent some time getting better views of the bird, and as a result had to scrap plans to go down to Entabeni Forest as well.
The rest of the group arrived during the course of the afternoon, and given the superb weather, Rob suggested that we do the boat trip that evening.

The group was keen to get birding, and given that we only had hour or so, we birded the Luonde Mountain Lodge area itself. We saw a variety of bushveld birds including Purple Indigobird. The other participants arrived and we cut short our birding to get ready for the boat ride.

In perfect weather the "booze-launch" slowly moved away from it's mooring spot in a deep cut bay of Albasini Dam. The boat proved to be an excellent platform from which to watch birds, as well as take in the sheer splendour of a late afternoon cruise on an African lake. We were treated to the sight of Malachite and Pied Kingfishers, Water Thick-knee , numerous waders, Cape Grassbird, Yellow Bishop, Black Duck, African Fish eagle and a number of Greenbacked Herons. We spent a while sailing quietly past an area where dense vegetation comes right up the shore. This patch of reedy vegetation was literally crawling with Sedge Warblers, and everyone eventually got reasonable views. A couple of drinks turned the afternoon into sheer magic as we headed past a field of dead trees towards the top end of the lake, where we aimed to try and find the African Hobby which had been seen here recently. As the sun set, the hobbies came out to play, and excitement would greet the sight of each new hobby that swooped by, However all were Northern Hobbies, and we returned to a sumptious braai in Luonde's very fine lapa.

Northern Hobby is quite common in this area in summer.
Saturday 21 February

As leader I had the privilege of checking the weather to determine what time the wake-up call would be. Fine weather: 4:15, overcast weather 5:15 was the agreement. The starry early morning sky got the group up and going nice and early, and we headed northwards in two vehicles. However by the time we got to the mountain at about 6:00 , steady drizzle had set in, and the group was a little less chirpy than usual. Although the rain had quietened things down a lot we could still hear the wonderful sounds of Gorgeous Bush Shrike and Eastern Nicator.
We spent the next 3 hours walking and working various sections of the Roodewal forest, where despite the intermittent rain and wet conditions, we saw Olive Bush-shrike, Southern Boubou, Terrestrial Bulbul, Swee Waxbill, African Firefinch, Amethyst Sunbird and Blue-mantled Flycatcher.
On the way out we saw a group of Crested Guineafowl and stopped for a cracking view of a Long-crested Eagle.

We then headed eastwards, towards a private macadamia estate. However the journey was interrupted by the sight of a bird perched on a tall dead tree in a small valley south of the main road. Sensing something special, I slammed on the brakes and had the scope on the bird in question as quick as possible. WOW! It was an African Hobby, which perched out in the Open eating a prey item, which looked like a small bird. This is a very rare bird in South Africa, and although it's presence on Albasini is now well-established we had not expected to see it along the main road at mid-morning.

Black IndigobirdQuite flushed with excitement, we arrived at the Macadamia estate a good deal later than was expected. This estate has a wonderful mosaic of forest patches, overgrown gullies and farm dams, with a variety of wetland habitats. Green Backed Heron

We spent some time watching a male African Jacana, which carried a youngster tucked under it's wing and also saw Cape Batis, Purple-crested Turaco, White-fronted Bee-eater, Thickbilled Weaver and Horus Swift. Several doves called in the area, and we were able to track down the most interesting one and hit the jackpot as we had cracking views of a Blue-spotted Dove, which sat and called from an obvious perch.

We also had a distant and inconclusive view of the Sooty Falcon, which had been spotted the day before. Other raptors in the area included a soaring African Crowned Eagle and several Long-crested Eagles. After a healthy breakfast, set out by Rob, we went in search for Dwarf Bittern, but to no avail. We did located a beautiful Black Indigobird (Widowfinh) and then headed towards Letaba to visit Jacana Dam - where lesser Jacana had been present for some time.
We were not to find any Lesser Jacanas, but enjoyed the view of several Little Bitterns that seemed to be playing hide 'n seek among the reeds, before heading back to Luonde Lodge for some well earned rest.

On the afternoon schedule was another boat trip on Lake Luonde (seems a more fitting name than Albasini Dam!). This was to be a longer trip and we were able to search the lake more thoroughly for birds. We got much better views of Northern Hobby roosting on a dead tree on the lake, and also saw a wide variety of ducks, herons and waders, as well as African Fish Eagle and three kingfisher species.

One of the more interesting sightings was that of seven little egrets which fished together in the shallows and appeared to be blowing bubbles into the water to attract fish!! I had a good close look and was not sure if it was bubbles being blown, or whether the birds where just vibrating their bills in the water. Rob assured us that they had had better and closer views previously and that these birds were definitely blowing bubbles!! Whatever the exact process being followed this seems to be a fairly unique mode of fishing!

Once again the sunset saw the arrival of the hobbies, but once again, we only recorded Northern Hobby. This was a special evening trip and once the sun had gone down we spent a magical two hours on the boat, while Rob and Charmaine treated to an excellent braai. The Luonde boat was well equipped for a superb evening - probably the best floating birding pub in all of Africa! Sunday 22 February

Sunday morning saw us getting out a little later than Saturday. The focus of this morning was on a visit to Entabeni Forest. This is a temperate mistbelt forest, and Entabeni is one of the wettest places in South Africa. On the way there we stopped only once - for a fantastic view of yet another Northern Hobby. We went almost straight away to a spot recommended by Rob for Orange Ground-Thrush, which was the main target bird of the day. As we arrived at the spot an Orange Ground Thrush was heard singing close to the track, and a few of the party managed to get glimpses of this bird. We spent quite a while searching, but not everyone saw this bird, which seemed to have been replaced by a Choristor robin-Chat,. We then spent some time working a nice patch of canopy forest, where Knysna Turaco and Cape Batis where heard calling. Another Orange-ground Thrush was calling from a deep gully and Rob led us down a small track, which came in from the other side of the stream, and from that spot we were able to get absolutely stunning scope views of the Thrush in full song. We then walked further into the forest and for a while played cat and mouse with a group of Green twinspots, which were just too quick for everybody to get onto them easily. Most of the group eventually had satisfactory views of this little gem, before we moved on to look at Yellow-streaked Bulbul, Olive Woodpecker, Lesser double-collared Sunbird and Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler

We then headed back towards Luonde, birding a lower patch of forest, where Cinnamon dove and Mountain Wagtail were also seen.

We got back to the Lodge in time for a hearty brunch, and went through the birdlist so far, which stood at over 150 species for the group as a whole. After brunch, most of the group split up to do their own thing, and Christy Cook and myself went on drive to visit Spies Dam some 20km west of Makhado (Louis Trichardt).

Kittlitz PloverAs one heads west of Makhado the road takes one through brooding hills, before getting onto flatter country as one skirts the southern edge of the Soupansberg. It is drier here, and we found the habitat around Spies Dam really interesting. The Dam itself had plenty of waterbirds, including herons, spoonbills and a number of Abdims and White storks as well. Here we also recorded Kittlitz Plover, Comb Duck and Spurwiing Goose. A flock of Common Swift swooped about, and bush birds included Long-billed Crombec, Orange Breasted Bush-shrike and Common Whitethroat, while neighbouring open country had Desert Cisticola and Rufous-naped Lark.

At sometime after 13h00 on Sunday everyone was on their way home - some via Magoebaskloof to try and see the Grey Wagtail which had taken up residence at Debengeni.

All in all a very successful weekend with the highlights being African Hobby, Blue Spotted Dove and Sooty Falcon, with African Broadbill and Orange Ground Thrush coming a close second.

Luonde Mountain Lodge is an excellent base to explore the birds of the Soupansberg and Albasini Dam area. We recorded 196 species in about 3 days, and an early summer visit, would undoubtedly be even more productive.

Text © Etienne Marais, Indicator Birding CC

All images © the following:
  • Flying Heron, Swee Waxbill, Greenbacked Heron © Pat Adams
  • Long-crested Eagle Courtesy Andy Swash.
  • Scene photos at Luonde Mountain Lodge © Rob Gradwell
  • Black Indigobird, Northern Hobby, Kittlitz Plover, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver© Etienne Marais

Web Site Updated 05 May 2004 © Indicator Birding