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Illustrated Trip Report - Memel 26-28 March 2004 with BirdLife Gauteng North, led by Etienne Marais

Posted 10 April, 2004
Participants: Rynetta Coetzee, Andrew and Ruth Pike, Philip and Amanda Calinikos, Gerda de Bruin, Emmie Ackerman, Elize Venter, Rene Ehlers. Leader: Etienne Marais

10 Members of the BirdLife Gauteng North (Pretoria Bird Club) took part in a special "fund-raising" weekend from 26 to 28 March. Although not the optimal time for birding, late rains had left the country in superb condition and the wonderful scenery was complimented by some great birding highlights, and quite a few lifers for most of the group. The weekend was supported by Mahem Guesthouse, where Jimmy and Sylvia Saunders looked after us superbly. Mahem has good, comfortable accommodation, extensive "birdy" garden and a stately dining room and lounge. Jimmy was a lot of help, particularly as regards arranging access to private land (which is a must in this area), and his irrepressible enthusiasm added substantially to the whole experience.

March in Memel is Cosmos time - and some areas offered the most incredible fields of these flowers.

The first afternoon was taken up with a visit to the superb Seekoeivlei Wetlands. En-route we were detained by a covey of Greywinged Francolin and a family party of Spike-heeled Larks. The lookout at Waterval, must be one of the most beautiful sundowner spots anywhere. The scopes came out and with the warm sun on our backs we enjoyed the challenges of scanning the oxbows below - revealing South African Shelduck, African Snipe, Grey Crowned Crane, Southern Bald Ibis, and many other birds. The Ibis started to come in to roost, just as we were about to leave, and one large tree eventually seemed to hold about 60 of these birds! We moved northwards and flushed a group of Blue Korhaan. Another viewsite further up the wetland provided a most remarkable collection of birds coming into roost.
One tree was chockablock with African Darters, while flocks of Glossy Ibis joined huge number of Cattle Egrets a short distance away. What was interesting here was that a vast number of Pied Starlings were seen arriving, together with a few substantial flocks of Indian Mynahs - at a roost with no human habitation in sight! Several Crowned Cranes appeared to gather in a tree before coming down into the vlei in front of us, where they were heard uttering that other Crane call - the one that sounds just like the track on Guy Gibbons sounds for White-winged Flufftail! We arrived back at Mahem well after dark, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner prepared by Sylvia.

The next morning, we headed out South of Memel, and despite a brief brain lapse on the part of the leader, were soon experiencing a fine cracking views of first a Black Harrier, which sailed over our heads, and shortly afterwards of a group of Denham's Bustard, which were seen at unusually close range for this shy and splendid bird. Minutes later we encountered a pair of superb Lanner Falcons, which seemed oblivious of our presence. Soon afterwards we had good scope views of Blue Korhaan and Sentinel Rock Thrush, and then enjoyed the challenge of sorting out a host of swifts in a mixed flock which included Horus and African Black Swift.
The Rudd's Lark which had been calling just two days earlier, had apparently gone underground, and attempts to find this bird in one of the fields in which they breed proved unsuccessful.

Next up was a pair of Blue Crane, with a young bird in tow - this in a wide valley, where carpets of cosmos provided extraordinary colour to one of the most scenic places imaginable. We then headed down a valley and stopped to scan boulder-strewn hillsides and mini-scarps on the edge of the valley. Shortly afterwards we had an excellent patch of birding as a Ground Woodpecker was disturbed from its perch on a fence post. Several more ground Woodpeckers offered good scope views, and in the same area we saw both Mountain Wheatear, Buff-streaked Chat and African Pied Starling. Shortly afterwards we had wondrously close views of Southern Bald Ibis.
The elusive Rudd's Lark - one of the specials of Memel.
We then headed up towards the edge of the escarpment, where the landscape changes once again, as one skirts steep-sided valleys decorated with patches of ouhout forest. Our lunch spot is close to the top of Normandien Pass - and what a spot this is! Despite a day full of wonderful landscapes, this spot still had the capacity to take ones breath away.

One stands on the edge of the escarpment and can see a wide panaroma of the escarpment, while just below tall yellowwoods reach up as if to invite one down into the scarp forest below, where we saw Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, African Olive Pigeon and Bar-throated Apalis, while also hearing Cape Batis, and other forest birds.
A picnic spot like no other!
The drive back followed the Klip River valley, which offers many wetlands, bridges, ponds and hillsides. One area, adorned with Cosmos provided views of no less than 5 Euplectes species (bishops and widows). We then headed back to a delicious "tea" in the wonderful garden of Mahem, before the group were eager to get out and do some more birding. This second trip of the day was in the direction of Vanger Vlei - a national heritage site near Mullers Pass and Ncandu Forest. The drive up to Vanger vlei produced some more superb scenery, more cranes and a few more species for our list. As we arrived at a little bridge across the vlei, those in the front vehicle had cracking views of a Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk, which perched on a fence post. The bird then took off and provided adequate views to everyone else in the group. The vlei was full of warblers, good views being had of African Reed Warbler. We then headed up towards the escarpment, and took a brief detour into the area around Moorfield, where access to Ncandu Forest is possible. A short way down the pass, another lookout offers nice views into another kloof filled with fine scarp forest.
The Garden at Mahem - not a bad spot for a bit of relaxation after a hard session of birding!

We then rushed back to Vanger Vlei for sundowners, and what sundowners they proved to be as we encountered a very large Barn Swallow roost in the process of coming into roost! Opinions varied as to the actual numbers of birds present, but at times virtually the while sky seemed to be filled with birds. Given the size of the reedbed and the degree of focus adjustment, which still produced the same result, the higher estimates of one million birds seem quite plausible. The flock also included a large number of Sand Martins.

The drive back was dedicated at looking for Cape Eagle Owl, but apart from a large looking owl, which we did not adequately see, the other two owls we encountered were both Spotties, the last of which was hunting from a telephone pole just a stones-throw from Mahem.
Sunday saw another early start - this time focussed on the area more to the SE of Memel, towards Kranskop. Here we birded on a private farm, where misty conditions hampered our efforts to see an African Rock Pipit which called from a tantalising distance along the edge of a mini-escarpement. Here we saw Drakensberg Prinia,. Malachite Sunbird, Wailing Cisticola and Yellow Bishop.

We then searched the road verges a bit further up and were rewarded when a Yellow-breasted Pipit flushed from the road. Soon afterwards we found two birds next to an interesting looking vlei, which flew off some distance, allowing for only fleeting looks by some of the group.

The last bird that we recorded together as a group was Redbilled Quelea, although individually several of the group saw new species like Secretary Bird, as they made there way home by various interesting routes. We all left with the feeling that the Memel area has more to offer from a birding point of view, than it is ofen given credit for - we would all like to do it again in high spring - and would unreservedly recommend Mahem Guesthouse as a place to stay.

Overall the group saw 114 species and a further 10 species were "heard".
To download the list of birds seen (excel file, 24KB) CLICK HERE

Text © Etienne Marais, Indicator Birding CC

All images © the following:
  • Black Harrier and African Pied Starling courtesy Pat Adams.
  • Rudd's Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit Courtesy Andy Swash.
  • Cosmos and evening sky © Andrew Pike
  • Seekoeivlei, Mahem Garden © René Ehlers
  • Scenery collage: René Ehlers and Andrew Pike
For more information on Memel, contact Memel Getaways is the local tourism information centre for Memel and its district on tel: 058-924 0400 or
. Or visit the web-site at Alternatively contact Jimmy Saunders at Mahem Guest House

Web Site Updated 19 April 2004 © Indicator Birding