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Eastern South Africa in Autumn - 11 Day Trip report

This was an 11-day trip which covered the major birding areas of Eastern South Africa. The participants were Herb and Nancy Meier, of Washington State USA.

Autumn in South Africa is often considered a sub-optimal birding time, but as this trip report and the final trip list shows, superb birding is possible at this time of year. Overall nancy and Herb saw 362 species and a further 21 species were heard only. An HTML list of all birds recorded can be downloaded here.

Day 1: 15 April 2005, Highveld and wetlands

After meeting up at Johannesburg International we headed to the excellent wetland at Elandsvlei. There we saw a variety of waterbirds, including White-backed Duck, Cape Shoveller and Fulvous Duck. At the main pan a wonderful display of gulls, terns and hirundines was on show and we had excellent comparative looks of Whiskered and White-winged Terns. Swallows included a number of migrants such as Barn Swallow, White-throated Swallow, Common House Martin and Greater Striped Swallow, while four species of swifts, including African Black Swift completed the exciting autumnal show.

We also had good looks at Orange-breasted Waxbill, Swainson's Spurfowl and Black-throated Canary, before heading northwards towards Bronkhorstspruit. The gravel road northwards provided a massive flocks of birds, including huge numbers of lapwings, bishops, whydahs and swallows. We stopped in at Ezemvelo, where we saw the first of our Bulbuls, Familiar Chat and Greater Striped Swallow. We arrived at Luiperdskloof in the mid-afternoon, and Nancy and Herb retired for a well-earned rest after their long flight. After the rest we did a short drive and saw White-fronted Bee-eater and African Wattled Lapwing. We walked along a stretch of the beautiful Elands River, where magnificent stone formations meet a quiet river with overhanging vegetation. Here we saw Arrow-marked Babbler, Tawny flanked Prinia and Black Cuckoo-shrike. We walked some way down the river and headed along he path across a flat section to where fine looking cliffs are seen- some streaked with interesting looking whitewash. On the return walk along the riverbank, we saw Crested Barbet, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Bar-throated Apalis and Cape Grassbird.

We enjoyed a fine dinner at Luiperdskloof and despite a massive thunderstorm, were able to get a really good nights sleep.

Day 2: 16 April 2005, Dinokeng Grasslands and woodlands.

We left at about 6:30 and after picking up our packed breakfast, headed out the grasslands north of Bronkhorstspruit. Our first birding stop was at an extensive wetland where Marsh Owl, Black Crow, African Pied Starling and many other birds were seen. After some effort, saw no less than 3 African Rails at close range.

Soon afterwards we stopped again - for even better views of a Marsh Owl patrolling the grasslands. Further on, an area of excellent Themeda Triandra grassland provided Melodious Lark, as well as Eastern Clapper Lark and Spike-heeled Lark, along with plenty of other grassland birds like Desert Cisticola, Southern Ant-eating Chat and Banded Martin.

On to Crake Dam, and here we recorded African Jacana, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and were lucky to obtain excellent flight views of Both Ovambo and Black Sparrowhawks.

A field which usually offers large numbers of Red-capped lark and Quail Finch, did not disappoint, and was also being patrolled by several of the wonderfully elegant Temmincks Courser.

After a light lunch we left Luiperdskloof and headed westwards in steady, soft rain. As we arrived in the Seringveld the rain stopped, and we were treated to a display of our first "bushveld" birds which chased flying ants which were swarming. Here we saw our first hornbills, go-away birds, as well as species such as Pearl-breasted Swallow, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Striped Kingfisher and Streaky-headed Canary. After two hours of birding in this excellent area, we headed northwards towards our lodging near Rust de Winter. En route, we saw our first Rollers, Southern Red-billed Hornbill, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Magpie Shrike and other common bushveld species like Rattling Cisticola and Long-billed Crombec.

Day 3 17 April 2005, Rust de Winter to Memel

Early morning found us driving through mist to reach our first birding locality - on the Zaagkuildrift road. The road was very muddy, but this did not detract from the quality birding in prime acacia thornveld habitat. New birds came thick and fast and included Southern Pied Babbler, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Red-billed Firefinch, Black-faced Waxbill and Marico Flycatcher. Also seen was a trio of spectacular whydahs - all in full breeding plumage (Pintailed, Shaft-tailed and Eastern Paradise Whydah). We spent several hours birding on a cattle ranch further west and here recorded species such as Bennett's Woodpecker, Burchell's Starling, Acacia Pied Barbet, Pearl-spotted Owlet and Green-winged Pytilia.

After lunch on the ranch, we headed south towards Memel, and once through the traffic of Gauteng, traveled the open roads of southern gauteng and Free state, with fields of maize and roadsides ablaze with the pink, white and purple Cosmos flowers.

The day tally of 133 species (seen) was the highest on any single day on this trip.

Day 4 18 April 2005, Memel to Underberg

The high hills to the north of Memel provide crystal-clear air and breathtaking views. A beautiful early morning session provided several new birds in the form of Eastern Long-billed Lark, Long-billed Pipit and Southern Bald Ibis. We then spent several hours birding on private land and enjoyed wonderful sights of Denham's Bustard, Black Harrier, several Blue Korhaans and a number of Yellow-breasted Pipits.

Two Grey Crowned cranes were observed performing a remarkable "mourning rite" over a dead bird, which they had apparently just spotted. We first observed them in a field, and they then took off and flew in a south-westerly direction. They were then heard calling and suddenly swooped down and landed in a field some 30 yards from another dead crane. The two birds then approached the dead bird very slowly, one with wings held outstretched, the other with neck craned upwards. The bird with wings held open eventually went into a kneeled position, about 5 yards from the fallen bird and the other continued it's "craned" posture for some 10 minutes.

Other species seen in the Memel area included Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk, Wailing Cisticola, Wing-snapping Cisticola and Cape Crow.

In the afternoon, we headed south, our progress being delayed somewhat by two punctures. Fortunately Jimmy Saunders of Mahem Guesthouse helped us out by ferrying tyres to a repair shop in Memel and we were able to continue on our original itinerary. We did however arrive in Underberg somewhat later than planned, and went straight to dinner at the Himeville arms hotel, where we enjoyed a sumptuous meal accompanied by a bottle of good red wine.

Day 5: 19 April 2005, Sani Pass

Today, we undertook the trip up Sani Pass with Stuart McLean, who provided the 4X4 vehicle and some additional local expertise. The day started well as we recorded Fan-tailed Widow-bird, Cape Weaver and a big flock of Grey Crowned Cranes. Before we reached the start of the pass, we had excellent views of Red-throated Wryneck, Bokmakierie and also saw two more Denham's Bustard. Once into the pass proper we added a host of new birds to our list over breakfast, including Bush Blackcap, Cape Rock Thrush, African Dusky Flycatcher and Streaky-headed Canary. Higher up the pass one enters protea veld, and here we saw Gurney's Sugarbird, Ground Woodpecker, Wailing Cisticola, Buff-streaked Chat and Long-billed Pipit. Here we also saw at least two Horus Swift, along with several African Black Swifts. Higher up the pass we encountered fierce winds, and felt we should seek the protection of the valleys in Lesotho. This strategy seemed to work as we had good views of Grey Tit, Large-billed Lark, Southern Bald Ibis, Drakensburg Siskin, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Sickle-winged Chat and Yellow Canary. We travelled all the way down into a valley and were rewarded by the sight of 2 superb Lammergeier. Here we also recorded Karoo Prinia and many more Cape Bunting and Rockjumpers.

On the way back down the pass, we had superb close up views of a covey of Grey-winged Francolin, and excellent views of a pair of Drakensburg Prinia, and were able to compare them with the Karoo Prinia of the dry country on the other side of the watershed.

Day 6 20 April 2005, Xumeni to Eshowe

We left the B&B early to be at Xumeni Forest at dawn, and this proved rewarding as we saw several good birds on the road on the way in. First was a superb Lemon Dove, drinking at a roadside pool in the headlights. We also saw several Olive Thrush, and two Orange Ground Thrush, which were a little more skittish than the dove. Taking up our position at the edge of the forest, we soon heard Cape Parrots approaching, with their noisy, conversational chatter. We were treated to a spectacular aerial display as several groups of parrots came in and swooped around. Eventually two birds shared a dead pine tree with several African Olive Pigeons and we were able to scope these rare parrots (only about 1000 birds exist in the wild). Instead of clearing, the early morning mist persisted, and birding in the forest proved difficult. We were able to see Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, African Dusky Flycatcher, Olive Woodpecker and the endemic Forest Canary.

The thick mist eventually forced a coffee break at Donnybrook Inn, and we then headed for Highover, on the Hella-hella Pass. En-route we encountered a flock of some 26 Grey Crowned Cranes, and further on, a loose flock of some 40 Black-winged Plover. In the spectacular valley at Hella-hella we were treated to a spectacle of a big flock of large swifts - mostly Alpine, but with some African Black, swooping low overhead.

The Hella-hella valley offers a mosaic of woodland and forest edge habitats, and here we saw a number of good birds, including Redfronted Tinkerbird, Brown-backed Honeybird, Emerald Cuckoo and Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher. After lunch we headed northwards, via Pietermaritzburg, to Durban and northwards to Umtunzini. Birds recorded here included Bronze and Redbacked Mannikins, Yellow Weaver, White-eared Barbet, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Green Twinspot.

We then headed inland, to the cooler town of Eshowe. We visited the local sports club, which offers the best fare in town.

Day 7: 21 April 2005; Dhlinza, Mtunzini and Richards Bay

Dawn found us at the Dhlinza Forest Boardwalk, which provides a spectacular vantage point over the forest. A gloomy morning dampened the dawn chorus, but we nevertherless obtained good views of Trumpeter Hornbill, Black-bellied Glossy Starling, Crowned Hornbill and Little Sparrowhawk. We were able to scope birds like Collared Sunbird, White-eared Barbet, and also saw a soaring African Harrier-Hawk. We then descended down to forest floor level, and went in search of the rarer and more elusive Spotted Ground Thrush. Not only have numbers apparently declined, but many of the thrushes may have left for the warmer coastal forests, where they spend the winter months. However we managed to locate a single bird, which was viewed as it preened on a low perch. Other forest species seen at ground level, included Chorister Robin-chat, Cape Batis, Square-tailed Drongo and Olive Sunbird.

We went back to Mtunzini and after searching the village for perched Palm-nut Vultures, proceeded to the Mangrove swamp on the Umlalazi Lagoon. Here we saw African Fish Eagle, Dark-backed Weaver, Cape Teal, and a stunning Black-throated Wattle-eye.

Next stop was Thulasikhela Pan, with its excellent hides. Highlights here was Goliath and Purple Heron, Little Bittern, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Lesser Jacana.

After lunch in Richards Bay, we headed up northwards to St Lucia, where we were to stay for two nights. A visit to the estuary mouth produced Great White Pelican, White-fronted Plover and several other birds.

Day 8: 22 April 2005: St Lucia Wetland Park (World heritage site)

We left the lodge at about 6:08, and headed out to Iphiva Campsite in gloomy conditions. It was rather overcast and we first walked a bit of the open grassland just north of the campsite. Here we saw our first Woolly-necked Storks and Yellow-throated Longclaw. In the wooded areas of the campsite itself, we saw Livingstones Turaco. Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, White-eared Barbet, Crowned Hornbill, Woodward's Batis, Rudd's Apalis, Grey Sunbird and Yellow-breasted Apalis. On the way back to the Lodge we saw a Grey-rumped Swallow, sitting on a telephone wire. A quick look at the marshes near the estuary produced a nice African Marsh Harrier.

We sat down for a hearty Breakfast and then after popping into town for some banking, headed down to Cape Vidal. The rehabilitation of old Pine farms is proceeding well, and the drought has also been somewhat broken, although the wetlands are not as extensive as in some previous years. We saw more Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, and several pairs of eagles - Black-breasted, Brown-snake, African Fish and African Crowned Eagle. Mammals seen included White Rhinocerous, Burchell's Zebra, Waterbuck, Samango Monkey and Banded Mongoose.

On the "Game loop" we saw several Little Bee-eater, Rufous-naped Lark, Water Thick-knee and a host of game, including Waterbuck and Common Reedbuck.

We opted for a late afternoon walk in the forest, adjacent to St Lucia Town itself. Here we saw Brown Scrub-robin, Red-capped Robin Chat and enjoyed good views of another Livingstone's Turaco. Once again we located Woodward's Batis and Green Twinspot.

Day 9 23 April 2005 St Lucia - Mkhuze

We left at 05:30 and headed to Bonamanzi, to visit the Hluhluwe River floodplain on the western side of Lake St Lucia. The drive takes about 45 minutes, and not the 30 minutes suggested by Bonamanzi. On arrival we were met by our Bonamanzi guide, Jerome. En-route to the floodplain we saw some good birds including Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, Blue-grey Flycatcher Yellow-throated Longclaw, Burchell's Coucal and Golden-breasted Bunting. The floodplain was great and after some driving around we located a pair of cracking Rosy-throated Longclaw - we ended up seeing about 6 birds. A number of cisticolas flew up out of the grass and while most were undoubtedly Zitting, several looked like Cloud Cisticola to me. We then went down to the waters edge where a massive flock of Great White Pelicans roosted on the bank, close to another big flock of African Spoonbill. Here we also saw African Wattled Lapwing, Kittlitz Plover and new waders in the form of Marsh Sandpiper and Little Stint. About 50 Greenshank were also visible. On the way back we saw two Jacobin Cuckoo's - one of the "all black" and "normal" forms. We spent some time walking around near Lalapanzi Camp where the waterholes looked inviting. Here we saw Water Thick-knee, Green-backed Heron, Red-backed Mannikin and Paradise Flycatcher.

After leaving Bonamanzi we searched the road for Lemon-breasted Canary and were soon rewarded, here we also added Pale Flycatcher to the list.

En-route northwards, several African White-backed Vultures were seen, and we arrived at Mkhuze for lunch. Herb and Nancy opted for their first siesta break of the trip, and afterwards, we went for a drive in the park. We saw a fair number of mammals and several interesting birds, including Violet-backed Starling, Golden-breasted Bunting and a flock of Indigobirds, including about 6 male Variable Indigobirds (probably some Purple too), We found a dead Bronze-winged Courser along the road.

Day 10 24 April 2005; Mkhuze Game Reserve

We started the day in the Sand Forest at Mkhuze and here we saw Pink-throated Twinspot, Eastern Bearded Scrub-Robin and White-crested Helmet Shrike. We then headed to the Nsumo Pan, which is now full and has attracted large numbers of breeding storks and Pink-backed Pelicans. Other birds seen here included African Openbill, Goliath Heron and Great White Egret, Whiskered Tern, Redbilled Teal and in the woodland adjacent to the pan, Green-backed Camaroptera, Red-capped Robin-chat and a number of other birds. An extended drive around the reserve produced ahost of new birds, including African Firefinch, Malachite Kingfisher, Comb Duck, Black Indigobird, White-winged Widow and Gorgeous Bush-Shrike.

In the afternoon we visited two of the hides in the reserve, Kumasinga being the most productive. Here we saw Orange-breasted Bush Shrike, Tambourine Dove, Yellow-throated Petronia, Grey-headed Bush-shrike and Red-billed Firefinch.

In the evening Nancy and Herb participated in a night drive, during which Spotted Eagle Owl, Fiery-necked Nightjar and a number of interesting nocturnal mammals such as White-tailed Mongoose and Lesser Galago were seen.

Overall the day produced some 123 species, the second highest total of the trip.

Day 11 25 April 2005 Mkhuze Game Reserve - Zulu Nyala Game Lodge

This morning we joined Angel on a walk in the Fig Forest. The forest was alive with typical lowland species such as Black-bellied Glossy Starling, Trumpeter Hornbill and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird. We also saw Violet-backed Starling, Green Woodhoepoe and Red-capped robin-Chat. New birds included Yellow White-eye, African Broadbill, Narina Trogon and Green Malkoha.

Then it was time to bid Mkhuze fair well and for the Meiers to start the second leg of their South African adventure. En-route to Zulu Nyala Game Lodge, we did however see a superb Martial Eagle. In the reserve itself, we saw no less than 3 Kurrichane Buttonquail in the track ahead of us - the third time on this trip that we had seen this normally elusive species on the ground!

Summary Statistics:
Species seen: 362
Total Species Recorded: 383 (21 Species heard only)
Endemics and near endemics Seen: 77 Species

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