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Highlands, Highveld and Forest Endemics - 7 Day Trip Report

This was a 7-day trip designed to focus on the highland and forest endemics of eastern South Africa. The trip was run for Jonathan Angliss, of the UK.

Day 1 - 22 Feb 2005

I met Jonathan at the airport and headed north to Pretoria. We went west of Pretoria into beautiful hilly country, which offers grassland and wooded birding in a scenic, rugged setting. Here we looked at Rufous-naped Larks, and admired two Northern Black Korhaans, which were engaged in a standoff on the grasslands. A riverine area produced sparkling White-winged Widows, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and a variety of swallows and swifts. The rugged, hilly country of the Schurveberge is adorned with large aloes, patterned rock formations and beautiful native trees. Here we located the prize bird of the area, Short-toed Rock Thrush - (race pretoriae), which may be a separate species. A young male and juvenile were seen. Close by we also had great views of Striped Pipit and Lazy Cisticola. After this birding interlude we headed south past Johannesburg and commenced the long drive southwards towards Durban. Several stops were made, most notably for a large flock of Amur Falcons, which adorned a power line- possibly 400 birds! This species is concentrated in large feeding flocks at this time of year. We arrived in Underberg well after dark and after a hearty dinner at the Himeville Arms, turned in at our accommodation at Tumble Inn, between Underberg and Himeville.

Day 2 Feb 23

Stewart Mclean - who was to take us up Sani Pass, collected us at the B&B. Stewart is a really enthusiastic birder and excellent guide. The weather was beautiful and after stopping for more of many Amur Falcons, we spotted a single Red-footed Falcon amidst the group. Grey Crowned Crane, Giant Kingfisher and Steppe Buzzard were seen before we started the ascent of Sani Pass. This trip is a delight as the mountain unfolds in stages - each turn and valley offering seemingly more spectacular scenery than the last. 28 Hairpin bends must be negotiated, but our first stop was well before the first hairpin bend, and here in the thickets of Ouhout we saw Bush Blackcap, Swee Waxbill and African Dusky-Flycatcher. Jacobin Cuckoo and Yellow Bishop were also seen in the same area. Further up the pass, Cape Rock Thrush were plentiful, and a short pursuit produced excellent close-up views of Wailing Cisticola. We also saw a number of the regal Gurney's Sugarbird and dozens of splendid Malachite Sunbirds. At the border post we saw several Drakensburg Prinia, and further on, enticed a singing Barratt's Warbler to show itself in the sunlight. Higher up, one enters several switchbacks and after enjoying a hunting Red-Breasted Sparrowhawk, we saw flocks of Drakensburg Siskin, Yellow Canary, and a Drakensburg Rockjumper, which bathed in a mountains stream. Another excellent bird here was African Rock Pipit, which flew overhead and sat out nicely. Once into Lesotho, the world turned into a brilliant array of water, green bogs and yellow flowers, and here we saw numbers of Sickle-winged Chat, Sentinel Rock Thrush and Mountain Pipit - the latter apparently feeding young. We headed somewhat deeper into Lesotho and on the flats, a large number of Southern Bald Ibis probed the fields. At least one third of the 60 or more birds on view, were juveniles. The boggy plains were also dotted with White Storks.

Above soared a group of Cape Vulture, which were joined by a single young Lammergeyer on falcon-like wings.

Scrub habitat a few kilometers into Lesotho, produced a number of "Karoo" birds, including Layard's tit-babbler - and as is usually the case in these parts, it was accompanied by the pretty Fairy Flycatcher with its dark cheek and beautifully pink-tinged plumage. Also seen here were a pair of Grey Tits. Having seen most of our target species, we turned around and on the way back to the border post were rewarded with excellent views of a family of Ground Woodpeckers. Here we also saw plenty of Drakensburg Crag Lizard and more of the charismatic Sloggott's ice Rat.

On the way down the pass, we had excellent views of a family group of Buff-streaked Chats, as well as more Ground Woodpecker and still more Cape Rock Thrush.

We then visited Sani Valley Lodge - which is a private trout-fishing and game lodge. Here we saw herds of Black Wildebeest. Red Hartebeest and Blesbok. We saw Common Reedbuck and pondered over yet another aberrant Steppe Buzzard.

On the way down Denham's Bustard was seen close to the road. We then went out into the farmlands to the east of Himeville and here we located displaying Pale-crowned Cisticola, which sat on fence only yards from us. Here we also saw quartering African Marsh Harrier and on the way back a farm dam yielded South African Shelduck.

On returning to Tumble Inn we collected our baggage and headed down to Bulwer to stay at the Avondale Guest Farm. Here parrots called in the distance - and a host of distant forest sounds floated up from the large patch of forest below the guest farm.

Day 3 Thur 24 Feb

We made an early start and reached Xumeni Forest in time to be sipping coffee when the first rays of the sun touched the tall trees on which Cape Parrots come to sit in the mornings.

A while later (Just after a young crowned Eagle had tried to land in a tree), 5 parrots came over us and landed in the tree allowing brief but good scope views before they hurtled away in apparent alarm, wheeling and diving away from some apparent danger.

In the forest proper, we saw many African Olive Pigeons, Black-backed Puffback, Olive Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Woodland-warbler and Knysna Turaco. Tambourine Dove and Blue-mantled Flycatcher were heard.

An interesting sighting was that of a pair of Dark-backed Weavers, which are somewhat out of range here. We also heard Southern Ground Hornbill booming in the distance.

We the headed straight for Hella-hella - where we walked the patch of pristine grasslands, somehow saved from the rampant timber-farming which has destroyed much of this precious habitat. Here we soon saw several superb Blue Swallows flying about. The spot was excellent for Cisticolas, and we saw Wailing (doing a display flight), Croaking, Pale-crowned and Wing-snapping). A likely looking patch of bracken and produced what appeared to be two calling Striped Flufftails, and we spent over an hour attempting to get views of these birds - but as is often the case with Flufftails, our efforts were not rewarded.

We then traveled northwards, initially via Pietermaritzburg, and reached the Wakkerstroom area in the late afternoon and went straight on to Dirkiesdorp, where we managed to locate some White-bellied Korhaan, and soon afterwards, heard a Black-rumped Buttonquail calling.

Day 4 Friday 25 February.

We left Toad Hall at dawn and headed out into the grasslands north of Wakkerstroom. The weather and birding were superb! First up were some Blue Korhaan up against the hill. After negotiating large numbers of widows, pipits and red-capped larks along the road, we reached the "soccer-pitch" site. A walk flushed a couple of red-capped larks, and we picked up a few Botha's lark going past. After chasing these about for a while we got cracking views of a pair of Botha's lark with their smallish heads, buffy underparts with whitish centre and thick long streaks on the flanks. We could hear snatches of the wonderful Rudd's Lark call, and the sky was full of the songs of Wing-snapping and Pale-crowned Cisticola, African Pipit and even African Snipe. Further walking in the fields brought us to where a Rudd's Lark displayed way up in the sky above us. In the distance 9 Blue Cranes, three parties of Blue Korhaan and many White Stork were also visible as we tracked the Rudd's display. We were soon rewarded with excellent views of a Rudd's lark perched on a tuft of grass, including views of it singing from the ground.

During the walk back we saw several more pairs of Botha's and a single pair of Pink-billed, which got away before we could get decent views. At the Utrecht side of town, we walked the field in the direction of a singing Yellow-breasted Pipit, and eventually spotted the bird on the ground.

Near to Amersfoort we visited a good site for Pink-billed Lark, and here many pairs were seen from the ground.

Then it was a long drive up to Luiperdskloof Game Lodge, where a walk along the river produced a Female African Finfoot, and 4 Bald Ibis. Freckled Nightjar called from the rocky hills after dark.

Day 5 Saturday 26 February 2005

Up at 5 and we headed out of Luiperdskloof and into the grasslands north of Bronkhorstspruit. Our first stop produced Eastern Long-billed Lark and a nice male Buff-streaked Chat. After a while we also saw two Red-winged Francolin and a large number of Wing-snapping Cisticola. Other birds recorded included Long-billed Pipit, Rufous-naped Lark etc.

An area further west proved very productive with a Melodious Lark singing from a fence post first up, followed by a nice Eastern Clapper Lark, which came and performed for us. Fawn-coloured called but was not seen till later. We then headed down to Crake Dam, seeing White-fronted Bee-eater and a huge collection of Zitting Cisticola on the way. Here we saw several whiskered tern in nonbr plumage, African Jacana, Coots and Swamphen. We heard Redchested Flufftail calling and spent a while trying to see them - but to no avail. A pair of Ovambo Sparrowhawks displayed above the Eucalptus and we also heard Yellow Warbler. On the way to De Tweedespruit, we had Blue Crane, and nice freshly plumaged Fawn-coloured Lark. We also saw more White-fronted Bee-eaters. The De Tweedespruit area was good for bushveld birds like Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Black crowned Tchagra and Sabota Lark, but we had no response from the Shelley's Francolin. In the afternoon, we headed northwards towards Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg) Outside Polokwane we saw many thornveld birds like Blue Waxbill, Scaly-feathered finch and Redheaded Finch, before locating a superb Short-clawed Lark which sang from the top of a smallish bush.

We got to Kurisa Moya just before 4:30 and had a relaxing afternoon. Jonathan went to his cabin and had several good bird parties from the verandah. Birds seen included Black-fronted Bush Shrike and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher. The forest lodges here are superb and are set into the forest. Before dark, Jonathan also saw Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Forest Buzzard and Redchested Sparrowhawk - the last of which appears to be breeding nearby.

Day 6 Sunday 27 Feb.

With intermittent rain, we headed down towards woodbush and into some more extensive indigenous forest. Here we saw a variety of forest birds, including Olive and Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Yellow-streaked Bulbul, Olive Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler and Chorister Robin-chat. Further down on the Woodbush Forest Drive, we saw Forest Canary, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Cape Batis and Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler. In two different places we heard Dark-backed Weaver, which is not listed as occurring here. We then went do Debengeni and searched the falls for Grey Wagtail, finding only 2 pairs of the stunning Mountain Wagtail.

In the Eucalyptus Plantations near Rooikoppies, we quickly located two Bat Hawks which offered superb scope views, which included being mobbed by several White-Helmet Shrikes. In an adjacent tree several Northern Hobby Falcons roosted.

Then onto Strydom tunnel, where we quickly located the fist of two Taita Falcon. For once, local guide Michael Khumako was on hand to talk about the birds and discuss their routine and behaviour, as the male and female appeared to jostle for perches. We arrived at Doornkop Resources Reserve in time for some birding, but did not add any new birds to our list.

Day 7 Monday 28 Feb

We were up well before sunrise and went out to try and locate the Short-tailed pipits. A vigil in very good looking habitat did not produce any short-tailed pipits but there was plenty of calling activity and we heard Wailing Cisticola, Grassbird, Red-winged Francolin, and just before dawn a distant hooting Cape Eagle Owl. Broad-tailed Warbler was heard across the river, and we also had cracking views of a perched Red-breasted Sparrowhawk.

At about 9:08 we headed out of Doornkop and headed west along the N4. After a stop for lunch, we arrived at Zaagkuildrift at 12:03 and were immediately greeted by several Southern Carmine Bee-eaters. The area had lots of warbler activity and we heard Marsh and Icterine Warbler calling.

Exploring a wetland produced African Jacana, Green-backed Heron and Squacco. We then birded Zaagkuildrift road seeing species such as Burchell's Starling, Southern Pied Babbler, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Purple and Village Indigobird and Marico Flycatcher.. A walk on a cattle ranch produced an excellent patch of birding, with Marico and White-bellied Sunbird, several Shaft-tailed Whydahs, and eventually a pair of Barred Wren Warbler - sitting out beautifully. We then headed out towards Kgomo-kgomo and here added a host of waterbirds onto the list, including Yellow-billed Stork, Great Egret, Red-billed Teal and also saw a Cuckoo-finch. With dark storm clouds gathering, we headed south to Elandsvlei, where a surprise European Marsh Harrier provided some excitement. Here we also saw Orange-breasted Waxbill, African Marsh Owl and a host of waterfowl.

Jonathan had managed to see over 50 new birds in a total trip list of just over 300 species.

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