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Trip Report

"A quiet March still offers some superlative birding in Eastern South Africa!"

This brief report covers a trip which Indicator Birding Organised for Paul Murgatroyd of Washington DC. The trip focuses on Paul's specific (and rather limited) hit list. The areas covered were acacia thornveld north of Pretoria, a Highveld Pan near Bapsfontein, Sani Pass and high Lesotho, Xumeni Forest, Donnybrook, Dhlinza Forest and Coastal dune forest at St Lucia. While March is by no means the recommended time for the localities visited, this trip report gives a sense of the huge bird diversity on offer - even in the low season!

Day 1

The late start, did not allow for much birding, but a stop at a small pan near Bapsfontein in the late afternoon, made for a superb ambience as a series of glossy Ibis came hurtling in to land on the pan Good views were had of Zebra Waxbill and a host of waterfowl, including a big group of Cape Shoveller and a single South African Shelduck.

Day 2

Early morning in the dry thornveld north of Pretoria was productive as we picked up a host of waxbills and whydahs. We saw male Shaft-tailed, Eastern Paradise and Pin-tailed Whydah's, within 15 minutes, and also had excellent views of Kalahari Robin, Ashy Tit, Barred Warbler, Southern Pied Babbler and Acacia Pied Barbet, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill and Steel-blue Widow-finch. Many migrants were still present in this area and we saw Blue-cheeked, European and Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, European Roller, Eurasian Hobby and Lesser Grey Shrike. A stop in the rain at a small dam, produced a male Painted Snipe and Lesser Moorhen - both adult and juveniles being seen.

We left the area towards midday, and on the way out saw several raptors, including Black-breasted Snake Eagle and a lone Steppe Eagle - the latter very unusual for this area.

After a short stint of birding in the Schurveberge west of Pretoria produced Lazy Cisticola, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting, Blackbacked Puffback and Mountain Wheatear.

We then took a long drive to Underberg, this being the base for a foray up the Drakensberg for select montane and karoo specials.

Day 3

We were out early to catch the birding on Sani Pass at it's best. The first bird of the morning was a pair of Wattled Crane engaged in a courtship dance. Most of the usual endemics obliged and we saw Ground Woodpecker, Gurney's Sugarbird, Bush Blackcap and several others on the way up.

In Lesotho, we encountered Large-billed Lark, and flocks of birds that were sheltering in the valleys from the strong wind. One such party included Ground Woodpecker, Orange-breasted Rockjumper, Bokmakierie, Fairy Flycatcher, Cape Rock Thrush and no less than four Southern Grey Tit. We also had excellent views of Lammergeier, Yellow Canary, Cape Griffon (feasting on a dead sheep), Drakensberg Siskin and Jackal Buzzard.

An evening to find Cape Eagle Owl was successful as the bird called in the dimming light. We were nevertherless able to get it in the scope for what is a rather uncommonly good sighting of this elusive species.

Day 4

Xumeni Forest provided the stage on another fine morning. No less than 14 Cape Parrot's were the main actors, but we also caught a fleeting glimpse of Orange Thrush, and saw Barratt's Warbler, African Goshawk, Rameron Pigeon, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler and Forest Canary.

Arriving in Eshowe in the afternoon, we checked into our accommodation, and then made our way to the Dhlinza Forest, which was very quiet - not atypical of this time of year, possibly only a few Spotted Thrush remain at this altitude, and the search for this species was in vain. Birding was very quiet after the cold snap, but we managed to record a handful of forest species such as Olive Thrush, African Crested Flycatcher, Grosbeak Weaver, Yellowbill, Square-tailed Drongo,Emerald Cuckoo, Terrestrial Brownbul, Purple-crested Turaco and Olive Woodpecker, African Firefinch and Yellow-rumped Tinker Barbet. Towards dusk, we were treated to a superb view of an African Wood Owl, in duet with it's mate, both of which were eagerly mobbed by Thrushes and White-eyes.

Day 5

A dawn start in the dune forest near the town of St Lucia offered a subdued dawn chorus - as is characteristic in March. We took a trail and headed quietly through the beautiful dune forest. As the forest received it's first morning warmth, birdsong increased dramatically, and we heard the chatter of yellow-bellied Bulbuls, the sweet melody of the Brown Scrub-Robin and the distant hooting of Woodward's Batis. Excellent views were had of African Crested Flycatcher, Dark-backed Weaver and a female Narina Trogon. A party of Livingstone's Turaco landed in the tree above us, but not all birds were this easy to see. We worked hard to locate the seemingly shy Brown Scrub Robin, and patience was required to see a stunning Gorgeous Bush Shrike, accompanied by a drap juvenile. Another highlight of the morning was Cuckoo Hawk sailed low over the forest, and we then heard some interaction as two birds called to each other.

Other species seen included a pair of Rudd's Apalis, which are common in more open patches of forest with thorn trees, several Red-capped Robin Chat and a host of Collared Sunbirds.

Near the village, we searched in vain for Green Twinspot which called from the thickets, and saw Yellow Weaver, Orange-breasted Bush Shrike, Yellow White-eye and Black-bellied Glossy Starling. At the estuary mouth we identified four species of tern, including Lesser-crested and saw Woolly-necked Stork and Osprey.

Overall Paul saw 225 species, and moved his very substantial African list onwards with the addition of 28 species! The bird of the trip? Most probably the scope-viewed Cape Eagle Owl hooting from it's perch on a small cliff.

Etienne Marais

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