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South African in 15 Days - a summary of highlights

This was a rapid, fast paced trip organised for Peter Roberts and his group of US birders (8 people in all). These trips are truly exhilarating, they highlight the wonderful contrast and variety in birds, landscapes, habitats and people across our wonderful country. This was a fast-paced “whole country” trip, which focused on seeing a high proportion of South Africa’s specials. What does one leave out of a report like this? T here are just so many memorable birds to comment on, that even the “summary report” omits some cracking endemics!

Some comments on birding in the different regions. Suikerbosrand is as usually the case, full of birds, and must be one of the most underrated birding localities in the country. We got there too late for optimal birding, but Cloud Cisticola gave a good show, as did Red-throated Wryneck and most of the widows and bishops. Wakkerstroom seems to have received close to normal rains, and although the veldt seems a little dry for this time of year, provided a full house of endemic larks, including great views of Botha’s and Rudd’s. Both Blue and Grey Crowned Crane were seen with young, and Wakkerstroom also provided good views of birds such as Wing-snapping Cisticola, Denham’s Bustard, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Blue Korhaan and Secretarybird. Local guide Norman, who can be contacted via Toad Hall or Weavers Nest was excellent in pinpointing the position of the Rudd’s Lark after it had finished it’s display flight.

Mkhuze bird numbers still seem low compared to what might be expected – due to the drought last year which might just have been broken. However Nsumo Pan was full, and breeding by Pink-backed Pelicans in full swing. A large assortment of herons, storks and waders were also seen at the pan, which is also an excellent spot for raptor watching. Large numbers of Pratincoles were in evidence both here and at Lower Mkhuze/Mosi Pan. The dry periods which have gone before do not seem to have affected the number of Pink-throated Twinspot or Neergaard’s Sunbird, both of which offered several great views. (listen for the Twinspots in the Sand Forest before you get to Kumasinga Hide) At Mosi Pan, we were assisted by Bheki Nyandeni and this “excursion” is highly recommended and when the Mkhuze River is dry, can be done via the “back entrance” of Mkhuze, which makes it just 35 minutes from Mantuma Camp – ask Mkhuze Guide “Angel” for assistance in this regard, or speak to the manager at Mkhuze. Alternatively the sight is easily reached via Hlhuhluwe from the N2 - ask the Zululand Birding Route folks for directions. Mosi Pan had a host of waders, herons and storks in attendance, and Bheki then led us to the Lower Mkhuze area, where great views of Pel’s were had. I have now seen this bird 3 out of 4 times here, which suggest that this might be the best place in the region for this star bird.

From Lower Mkhuze the road to St Lucia provided a flock of Black-winged Plover around some soccer fields, and the compulsory detour via the Bushlands always seems to deliver on Lemon-breasted Canary, which frolic in the seed grasses in the road verge just past Bonamanzi. Pausing briefly to admire a Black Indigobird, we reached St Lucia, with time to spare to examine the estuary mouth – one of the few spots, which proved dissapointing on this trip – perhaps due to the fact that the estuary mouth was still closed.

At St Lucia, we stayed at the superbly appointed Wetlands Lodge, and a pre-breakfast session around Iphiva produced cracking views of Woodward’s Batis, Livingstone’s Turaco and the coastal form of Brown Scrub-Robin (tongensis), along with a host of bird typical of the coastal dune forest – Grey Sunbird, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher etc,

Next stop was Thulasikela Pan, which is now served by a range of superb hides – the highlight being the first of two “conveyer belt” hides, which seat one way above the wetland. The brand-new hide built over the water also proved very good – with superb close up views of Little Bittern and Purple Heron – as well as Brown-throated Golden Weaver and Rufous-winged Cisticola. Congratulations to the Zululand Birding Route for this innovation and development. A stop in Mtunzini was mainly aimed at finding Palm-nut Vulture, and here we had an African Grey Parrot (when will they appear on the SA List?), sitting out on a tall branch at the Palm Monument. Meantime, a lone Palm-nut Vulture appeared to be teasing us from it’s perch happily on a tall bluegum behind the Mtunzini Bottle store – so much for Raffia Palms!

Dhlinza Forest seemed rather quiet – and according to Hugh Chittenden, has suffered from several low-rainfall seasons, although Delegorgues Pigeons showed plenty of activity in the half-hour after the walkway opened. Spotted Ground Thrush are also thin on the ground, but we did manage to get good views of a pair foraging in company with Olive Thrushes in an area pointed out by the boardwalk guides. Other good birds here included two Scaly-throated Honeyguides, Green Pigeons, Cinnamon Dove, a calling Green Coucal and plenty of Olive Sunbirds.

A quick visit to the Amatikulu Nature Reserve under the guidance of Sibusiso produced cracking views of Swamp Nightjar, along with Croaking Cisticola, Long-crested Eagle and others. Once again a very accessible and worthwhile addition to any trip along the KZN North Coast!

Then a complete change of scenery as we headed up to the midlands, where a quick search for Wattled Crane in the Karkloof area produced a pair of cracking Half-collared Kingfisher. Onto Underberg and into thick mist. But have no fear: Sani Pass never seems to have a bad weather day, and Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Drakensburg Prinia and Bush Blackap all obliged early on with excellent views. Gurney’s Sugarbird also seemed very co-operative, but the accolade to the most birder-friendly individual bird of the trip must surely go to a Barratt’s Warbler, which sat up on the top of an Ouhout bush and pretented to be a Bulbul!

Luckily the the drive up Sani Pass took us up above the gloom, into one of the most beautiful days I have experienced in this exquisite place. The top has had good rains and and the birds co-operated too – with Drakensburg Siskin, Rockjumper and Sentinel Rock Thrush showing off as if choreographed. Deep in Lesotho we were treated to a superb aerial show as a pair of Lammergeier harried a young Verreaux’s Eagle, which was watched over by a seemingly unperturbed parent. Perhaps flying school for young Verreaux’s Eagle in this area is to tease the Lammergeiers, although it could have been deadly serious – I am not sure if one can tell! Fairy Flycatcher, Yellow Canary, Large-billed Lark and plenty of Grey Tit add a karoo flavour to these highlands, while Ground Woodpecker, Mountain Pipit and Rock Pipit were all relatively easily found – the latter carrying food near the Lammegeier nest site.

At Xumeni Forest fears of deep mud were unfounded, as the forestry people seem to have fixed the road up. In any event a group of 17 Cape Parrots were scoped as they perched and wheeled about, approx 1km before the Donnybrook end of the forest (as opposed to the tree farms). If you do visit this place for Parrots, make sure you get there at sunrise, because they disperse to feed and don’t seem to sit in dead pine trees much after 6:00 am.

One that “got away” just outside Xumeni was a very long-winged looking large Falcon, which might have made it onto our list (Eleonora's Falcon) But alas, it was just too far and the sighting too brief for one to rule out the possibility of human error and birders imaginalitis. Xumeni is a gem of a forest patch and always produces good birds. In only half an hour we had added species like Knysna Turaco, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Forest Canary, Orange-ground Thrush and Swee Waxbill to our list.

A great spot for Blue Swallow is “High Over” at the top of the Hella Hella valley, north of Creighton. Here one can easily get high on the smell of pristine grassland and a very birder-friendly place to boot. We did a “game drive” across the grasslands where several pairs of Blue Swallow breed. Apart from the Swallows, we saw Red-necked Francolin and Broad-tailed Warbler in the area, and if we had had more time, we might have searched for the Striped Flufftail, for which this is a very good locality.

Then it was onto a plane and across the country to Cape Town. A few hours later, we were ticking Cape Bulbul, Cape Sugarbird and Cape Francolin on the way to Stony Point, near Rooi-els. This “other” mainland penguin colony is a good stop if one is focussed eastwards of Cape Town, and also offers all the endemic Marine Cormorants - usually at close range!

The day out to the Aghulhas Plains turned out well, as we had crippling views of Aghulas Long-billed Lark (best views about 600m beyond the 4.3km reading in C and C’s “Essential” book) as well as in fallow lands near the Horus Swift cuttings described on page 64 in C&C. We also saw Denham’s Bustard and Karoo Korhaan, as well as Southern Tchagra (in the thickets behind the education centre) at De Hoop. Other nice birds on this route included Horus Swift, Grey-backed Cisticola, Grey Tit, Pearl-breasted Swallow (the migratory cape form, which occurs in northern Gauteng as a passage migrant), and wonderful views of the streaked tetrix race of Cloud Cisticola – which must surely be a good candidate for a split from the northern form.

This time we skipped De Mond because of unfavourable tides and rather opted for a stop at the beautiful beach at Struisbaai Plaat for Damara Tern. We then headed back towards Kleinmond and went in search of Hottentot Buttonquail, which was seen without too much trouble, along with Cape Clapper Lark, and some White Pelicans. On to Hangklip for Cape Rockjumper, and on the eastern side of False Bay at least one of the group got to see a Victorin’s Warbler from close range.

Next morning we went birding with Callan Cohen, and with his expert assistance, most of the group got more than one good view of a Knysna Warbler – pretty good going for this time of year. An excellent raptor watch at near Kirstenbosch and at Tokai produced Black Sparrowhawk, cracking views of a Juvenile Forest Buzzard and a very nice pale-phase Booted Eagle. We then spent a little time looking at Cape Dwarf Chameleons at Callan’s house, before heading up north to the West Coast. Geelbek hide offered a good variety of waders – including goodies like Chestnut-banded Sandplover, Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwit. Other birds in the area included Osprey and the superb Black Harrier. Lunch at the upgraded Geelbek Restaurant was pretty good too, albeit a bit slow for a birding group! Perhaps there is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to develop special “birders menus” which are sms’d to the restaurant ahead just as one finishes the third “last try” for that non-co-operative special!!

We then headed up to Veldrift, seeing several Southern Black Korhaan on the way. A group of 6 Red-necked Phalaropes were the star birds here, along with a pod of Black-necked Grebes and many more waders and flamingoes.

The Riviera Hotel is well-situated and affordable, and next morning we headed out to Cape Columbine, where after a short chase, Cape Long-billed Lark showed beautifully and called from a fence post only feet away from us – (2.6km along the Stompneusbaai Road from Paternoster).

We then visited the good Strandveld 10km S of the Velddrift where pale-form Karoo Larks showed beautifully and plenty of other strandveld birds were seen (C&C page 54). After a good breakfast at the Riviera Hotel, we headed northwards toward Lamberts Bay via the Coast Road – a permit can be purchased at the Elandsbay Hotel to use the Private Toll Road and this is a great road for Strandveld Birding – if you have the time. The top bird here was Black-headed Canary – a flock of them about 56km north of Veldrift. Plenty more Chestnut-banded Plover and regular Pale-chanting Goshawk along this route too. The Gannet Colony at Lambert’s Bay is a wonderful spectacle, but hope the wind is seawards, as the stench can require some fortitude! Birds seemed to be at all stages of the breeding cycle, and there is also a very big tern roost on the island – the walkway having been repaired completely. The number of Cape Fur Seals hanging out just off the island was staggering, and I wonder if they might at some stage threaten the Gannets. We did see some seals feeding on a gannet in the water nearby.

After a brief and successful stop at Kransvlei Poort for Protea Canary, where most missed a group of fast moving Cape Siskin, we took a fairly long drive northwards to Calvinia, with plenty of Pale Chanting Goshawks along the way. The Calvinia area is very dry at present, although the nearby Akkerendam NR did produce a few new birds, including Pale-winged Starling and cracking views of Karoo Long-billed Lark. The Karoo Lark seen here is a very red coloured bird, compared to that seen in the Strandveld near Velddrift.

Northwards into Bushmanland, and some signs of very recent rain. A few km out of Calvinia a waterhole on the right of the road was visited by large numbers of Namaqua Sandgrouse. The area was certainly more lively than on my December trip, and we encountered Karoo Long-billed Larks, Yellow-bellied Eremomela and Rufous-eared Warbler at our first stop, some 70km before Brandvlei. A stop for a Martial Eagle about 46km S of Brandvlei produced Karoo Eremomela and in this area we saw plenty of Karoo Chat, Chat Flycatcher and Lark-like Bunting. Around Brandvlei we added Tractrac Chat to the list, but I bet on Poffadder as a better bet for the lark specials. En-route to Poffadder we took the Loop 10/Granaatboskolk road recommended by John McAllister. Before the railway line, there is a crossroads, with the bigger road turning right. We continued on for 31km and then turned right at the next crossroads (at Granaatboskolk) to head north back to the better maintained road. Along this road there had been good rains and numbers of Black-eared Sparrowlark along with plenty of Grey-backed Sparrowlark and more Karoo Eremomela were seen. One then reaches the main Loop 10-Aggenys road, which is in fair condition, because the mine at Aggenys use it to connect with the railway line. 59km along this straight road and then left towards Poffadder. A further 22km (from the junction), Starks Lark were very much in evidence as were more BE Sparrowlarks, Double-banded Courser, Karoo Korhaan, Chat Flycatcher etc. This area had also obviously had good rains. 35km from the Loop 10/Poffadder junction one sees the first Sociable weaver nests, and a few 100m further on, a “Double-decker” nest on the left played host to a family of Pygmy Falcon.

Poffadder is a great place to base some Bushmanland birding. An early start down the tar towards Aggenys found us at the red dunes, 1km beyond the “tyre-kraal”. The Red Larks were in full cry not long after sunrise, as were Fawncoloured Larks, Namaqua Sandgrouse and Pale-chanting Goshawk. Scoping out a couple of mammals (Gemsbok) led to the spotting of Ludwig’s Bustard near the road at the end of the dunes, and Northern Black Korhaan displayed here too. We then worked our way back towards Poffadder, being a little frustrated by an unco-operative Cinnamon-breasted Warbler close to the road. Dusky Sunbird and more Stark’s Lark were seen along this road, as were the thick-billed form of Sabota Lark, while Sclater’s Lark provided for a great show at the drinking trough about 3km from Poffadder.

Up to Onseepkans, where Rosy-faced Lovebird played hide and seek in the palms adjacent to the Police Station, and hordes of Orange-river White-eyes, frolicked around a canal. Next stop was Augrabies, with reasonable accommodation and plenty of dry heat! We had time for a swift watch – just before sunset, and picked out both African Black and Bradfield’s Swift among the hordes of Alpine and other swifts. Best place to watch swifts seems to be at the very last lookout west (below) the falls, although I suspect it is even better if you get further down the gorge.

A morning birding around Augrabies produced better views of Namaqua Warbler, plenty of African Reed Warblers, Pririt Batis, Grey Tit, Karoo Longbilled and Sabota Lark, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Verreaux’s Eagle and Peregrine. Our last stop in this region was at Spitskop NR just north of Upington, which is a nice spot if you have a couple of hours. Here we had superb views of Eastern Clapper Lark, Southern Ant-eating Chat, Namaqua Sandgrouse and Kalahari Scrub-Robin. Stark’s Lark were still in evidence here.

A 1 hour flight to Johannesburg brought us into a much wetter world, and our first birding stop was near Hammanskraal north of Pretoria, where the bush is lush and full of birds. Here we quickly added new birds to the list, including Golden-breasted Bunting, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Shaft-tailed Whydah and others.

The last day was dedicated to the woodlands and wetlands of Zaagkuildrift and the Seringveld Conservancy. Despite a list of about 470 we managed to add over 40 new birds here, including many species which closed off specific groups of birds: These “group-closers” included Purple Indigobird, Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Green-capped Eremomela, Black-throated Canary and Long-tailed Paradise Whydah. Other new birds included Barred Wren-warbler, Lesser Honeyguide, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Black-faced Waxbill, Southern Pied Babbler, Tinkling Cisticola, and Flappet Lark. The Kgomo-kgomo Floodplain is looking very good indeed, and here we saw Greater Painted Snipe, Red-headed Finch, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and a flock of 25 Black Herons – the lateness of the hour, meaning that we missed a lot of other things on offer here, including Baillon’s and African Crake and Allen’s gallinule. The Warblers are most definitely in, and Whitethroat was only not seen, because it was very low priority. Thrush Nightingale was heard calling at exactly the same spot as last year – some 200m before the Oppermans Gate, about 13km along the Zaagkuildrift Road.

The final stop was at Elandsvlei – another gem of a place with mining threatening. Maccoa and Fulvous Duck, Orange-breasted Waxbill and Marsh Owl where the last birds added to the trip list, taking it up to about 505 species, with 146 SA or Southern African or near endemics being seen.

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