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Trip Report: Birding the Eastern Endemics Circuit in Winter

Dinokeng, North-west arid woodlands, eastern escarpement, Soutpansberg and Kruger: 25 June to 3 July, 2006

Day 1: 26 June - Luiperdskloof to Khaya Guest House.

In the crisp early morning air of the Bankenveld, the birds were surprisingly active, and we soon saw species like Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mocking Cliff-chat, Cape Robin-chat, Lazy Cisticola and Cape Grassbird, which sat out in the open and showed it's delicate markings in the early morning light.

Nearby in more open habitat, we located Familiar Chat, Wailing Cisticola and Rufous-naped Lark, while Orange River Francolin came alive about 30 minutes after sunrise in a chorus of calls across the hills - at least 3 covies were heard. Along the wilge river Black Duck were active, several Cormorants and Darters flew up and down the river, while Brown-throated Martins patrolled the valley. After breakfast we travelled west into more open grassland, where large flocks of mixed seed-eaters and widows provide a more celebral challenge to the winter birder - these included: White-winged Widow, Long-tailed Widow, Red Bishop, Red-collared Widow and Pin-tailed Whydah, the latter in a large flock.

On the plains were many African Stonechat, and we found several Southern Ant-eating Chat, White-browed Sparrow-weaver and the handsome African Pied Starling. An area of dry patchy grassland produced a calling Desert Cisticola we then headed down to a large wetland north of Bronkhorstspruit. The wetland produced a number of Orange-breasted Waxbill, Sacred Ibis, Intermediate and Little Egret, Malachite Kingfisher and 2 African Rail. Burned areas of veld had large flocks of small birds and in this area we also saw several of the handsome Capped Wheatear, a beautiful Rufous-naped Lark, Wattled Starling and several Red-capped Lark. Predictably the burn had also brought in a number of those rodent specialists - the Black-headed Heron. Another small dam had several Little Rush Warbler, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Black Crake, Purple Heron, Burchell's Coucal, White-fronted Bee-eater and a smashing Black Sparrowhawk - much maligned because a sparrow could only ever be an appetizer for this powerful accipiter! Here we also saw the first of several pairs of the resident Pearl-breasted Swallow, which are at surprisingly high altitude here - perhaps as a result of the mild winters the region has experienced over the last few years.

Nearby, and close to the edge of the Gauteng Border, we located a pair of Southern Bald Ibis, and as is often the case with this species, they were also associated with Cape Crow. Not far away a beautiful Greater Kestrel sat on a pole and gave us a cold stare with it's pale eyes.

We then headed north into the bushveld and soon picked up a cracking Northern Black Korhaan, before seeing a number of more typical bushveld species such as Lilac-breasted Roller, Grey Go-away Bird, Magpie Shrike and Red-billed Hornbill. Two other good birds we saw in the Rust de Winter area included a pair of classic Buffy Pipits, and a family party of the chunky Southern White-crowned Shrike.

The afternoon was mainly taken up with the rather easy drive up to Makhado and the Soutpansberg area - a total drive of about 4 hours. Little birding was done en-route, except in the Polokwane area, where the cold and windy weather prevented us from seeing Short-clawed Larks. We did however see a number of other birds here including more Greater Kestrel, Marico Sunbird and Pied Barbet.

Overnight Khaya Guest House

Day 2: 27 June - The Soutpansberg and Punda Maria

In the dark pre-dawn gloom, an African Broadbill produced it's characteristic whirring wake-up call, with a splendid sound backdrop of Nicator, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, Ashy Flycatcher and African Goshawk. We did not manage to see the Broadbill, but had eye-popping, close-up views of a Gorgeous Bush-shrike, which had forgotten that it was supposed to stay in thickets and sat out on an open branch in all it's glory. The weather was cold and a little windy, but we still recorded a nice variety of the birds of this stunning area including Cape Batis, Southern (Lesser) Double-collared Sunbird, African Firefinch, African Crowned Eagle, Tambourine Dove, Green Twinspot, Yellow-bellied and Sombre Greenbuls, White-throated Robin-chat and Golden-tailed Woodpecker.

Back to Khaya Guest house, for a superb breakfast, we then went with Erina to the "Skaap-kraal" which is a restored Sheep-fold, perfect for a self-catering stay in paradise. (see Web-link here) We had excellent birding from the verandah, including Eastern Black Headed Oriole, Red-faced Cisticola, Southern Boubou, African Olive-Pigeon and the special of the morning, a flock of Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters. We then , travelled further eastwards and stopped off at Muirhead estates. Right next to the sign which says "Blue-spotted Trail" sat an Emerald-spotted Wood-dove, and in fact this area has all three "mournful descending" doves, which makes it a good place to practise your bird sound recognition skills! We immediately got onto a couple of Yellow Bishop's and larger numbers of Thick-billed Weavers.The Dam produced African Jacana, Black Crake, Little Grebe, Comb Duck and five of the stunning little Pygmy Geese. Here we also picked up Black Flycatcher, Golden Weaver, Scarlet-chested Sunbird and much to our surprise, a Purple-banded Sunbird - way out of range here. A search around the dam produced a nice Blue-spotted Dove, several more sunbirds and another Green Twinspot.

We left for Punda Maria and soon after entering the park, encountered a nice Grey-headed Parrot perched in a tree near a Black-shouldered Kite. The rest of the afternoon was spent birding around the camp at Punda Maria where species such as Bearded Scrub-robin and Eastern Nicator were recorded.

Overnight Punda Maria (Parks Board Chalets)

Day 3: 28 June, Pafuri and Punda Maria

We left as soon as the camp gates opened and headed for Pafuri. The first bird we saw in the headlights was a Double-banded Sandgrouse. A detour to Klopperfontein produced a cracking Senegal Coucal, a full house of spurfowls and francolins and surprisingly on the main tar road, a number of Harlequin Quails, apparently juveniles with several males and female adults. En route to Pafuri we were delayed by the sight of 6 Wild Dog in the road. En route we saw a variety of woodland birds including Chinspot Batis, Black-crowned Tchagra and Southern Black Tit. At Crookes Corner we had cracking close up views of Tropica Boubou and a number of White-crowned Lapwings, while several of the riverine race of the White-fronted Plover were in evidence on the river, as were Giant Kingfisher. We watched a Hooded Vulture collecting nesting material and had cracking views of Meve's Starling and a Lizard Buzzard, not far from where a Brown Snake-Eagle perched. A number of Grey-rumped Swallows patrolled the air low down above the open areas near Crooks corner, and here we started to see quite a number of White-backed Vultures as well - some perched in trees. We headed for the picnic areas at Pafuri where we met up with Ben and Lisa from Kurisa Moya who had seen a Bat Hawk at the bridge. In and around the Picnic area we saw White-browed Robin-chat, Paradise Flycatcher, Village Indigobird, African Yellow White-eye, Marico Sunbird, White-crested and Retz' Helmet Shrike and eventually after Franks assistance, a cracking pair of Black-throated Wattle-eye. Waterbirds were few on the river and we had to compensate with great views of a foursome of Red-faced (blushing) Cisticola, Dusky Flycatcher, Wire-tailed Swallow, Orange-breasted Bush-shrike and Bateleur.

We headed back towards Punda Maria and at the 27 milestone had great views of a Dickinson's Kestrel perched on a Baobab. We also had White-headed and Lappet-faced Vulture in flight. We then went out and before sunset, did part of the Mahonie Loop which produced even better views of another Dickinson's Kestrel, a Tawny Eagle and a juvenile Martial Eagle.

Overnight Punda Maria (Parks Board Chalets)

Day 4: 29 June Punda Maria to Mopane.

In the early morning, African Goshawk were heard calling. The Mahonie Loop produced a host of new birds, including Pearl-spotted Owlet, Brown-crowned Tchagra, several Burchell's Coucal, Crowned Hornbill, Striped Kingfisher, a large flock of Mosque Swallow and a young Bateleur stretching it's wings on the nest.

Just outside the gate of Punda Maria we were treated to the sight of two Burchell's Coucal displaying to each other, which involved each bird in turn calling with arched back and lowered head - the call vibrating the whole body as the tail is held slightly outstretched. The birds called quietly - almost intimately in turn, and we hoped we could see the culmination of this interaction, but of course this was disturbed by a typical Kruger yobbo, who believes that no-one has the right to look at anything smaller than a Leopard.

The mopane woodland about 8km from Punda Maria was particularly productive and we saw 4 Arnot's Chat, a pair of Bennett's Woodpecker and heard Stierling's Barred Warbler.

From Shingwedzi we headed to the very full Kanniedood dam, which produced Spoonbill, African Openbill and Yellow-billed Stork. The Tropic of Capricorn loop and Nshawu area produced Ostrich, Rock Kestrel, Sabota Lark, Cape Shoveller, several magnificent Elephant bulls and two Roan Antelope.

At dusk a Freckled Nightjar was heard calling from the koppie near the entrance gate to the camp, but a dark night with almost no moon limited the number of calling nightbirds. However our evening walk in Mopane Camp did produce cracking spotlight views of both Barn and Verreaux's (Giant) Eagle Owl.

Overnight Mopane Camp (Parks Board Chalets)

Day 5: 30 June Mopane to Makgobaskloof

At 6:30 we set out to bird the camp area and did the in-camp trail which starts at the restaurant. We saw a variety of bush birds, Lesser Swamp warbler, Wire-tailed Swallow, African Pied Wagtail. Grey-headed Bush-shrike hooted from the far bank and Little Rush Warbler churred from the extensvie reedbeds where previously sand banks were to be seen.

At 8:30 we headed south towards Letaba in cool, overcast conditions . Along the way we encountered a calling Red-crested Korhaan, several Southern Ground Hornbills, Martial, Bateleur and the usual array of regular Rollers along the road. Mammals included elephant, Steenbok and a magnificent Cheetah which appeared to be hunting in a grassland area along the road.

At the bridge across the Letaba River, we saw more of the "riverine" White-fronted Plovers, which really look completely different from the larger, paler, more angular coastal race, and must surely be a good candidate for a split!

We stopped off at the Matambeni Bird Hide which overlooks the Engelhard Dam, and immediately picked up an Osprey - certainly a young bird (which are the ones over-wintering in South Africa). We also saw a a variety of herons, Lesser Striped Swallow, Little Swift, and surprisingly, a Horus Swift too. A large herd of Buffalo moved through the reedbeds on the other bank and careful watching produced good scope views of Yellow-billed Oxpecker.

Letaba Camp birding is always excellent, and this time did not dissapoint. Close up views were had of Bearded and Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Red-headed Weaver, African Mourning Dove, Speckled Mousebird and Scarlet chested Sunbird. From the deck at the Restaurant we saw Marabou Stork and a variety of swallows, including Grey-rumped Swallow, and several different species of Starling and firefinch. A walk in the camping area produced a Scops Owl and several Ashy Flycatchers.

After lunch we headed westwards towards Phalaborwa finding some majestic Secretarybirds along the way, before leaving the park and heading westwardsa across mopane and knobthorn dominated bushveld. and then travelled up the escarpement to Magoebaskloof. We stayed at Kuhestan Farm and were treated to an excellent meal by hosts Sharhzad and Brett Hone. The rain came down during dinner and it looked gloomy for the morrow!

Accomodation: Kuhestan Farm

Day 6: 1 July Makgobaskloof to Dullstroom

A damp and gloomy start saw us watching for the Cape Parrots at Kuhestan, but the mist was too thick to see the two parrots that engaged in several fly-pasts in front of Kuhestan, which overlooks an extensive expanse of indigenous forest. The Knysna Turacos which came to the edge of the forest at the cottages were seen through dim light. Eventually two Cape Parrots emerged and did several fly pasts before we got good views. Kuhestan ( is very well situated for birding visits to the area and offers top quality accomodation at a very affordable price. Then it was off down into a damp and misty forest drive, where we managed to see a variety of forest birds, including Forest Canary, Lesser Double-collared Sunbird, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Olive Thrush, Olive Woodpecker, Olive Bush-shrike, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Cape Batis, African Olive-Pigeon, White-starred Robin, Tambourine Dove and more Cape Parrots. Barratt's Warbler, Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Scaly-throated Honeyguide and Choristor Robin-chat were heard.

A short stop at Debengeni Falls produced excellent close up views of that most delicate of birds, the Mountain Wagtail. Then we proceeded to Rooikoppies and were able to assist David Letsoalo in showing his clients a pair of Bat Hawk, while Red-backed Mannikin, Red-faced Cisticola and Yellow Bishop were also recorded at this site.

After lunch at the Wheelbarrow we went across country towards Strydom Tunnel where we had views of a number of Cape Vulture in different poses. For once the Taita Falcon did not show itself and we had to be content with a few Rock Martins and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting in this area before heading up to Lydenburg and Dullstroom. We arrived after dark at our accomodation at Auldstone House and enjoyed a fine dinner at Fibs, one of the many excellent restaurants in Dullstroom. Accomodation: Auldstone House

Day 7: 2 July Dullstroom to Dinokeng

We were out on the highlands just after sunrise and enjoyed a beautiful, crisp winter morning. The birds were fairly active and we soon picked up several Buff-streaked Chat, Wailing Cisticola, LeVaillant's Cisticola, Cape Bunting, Long-crested Eagle, several Long-tailed Widows and a small flock of foraging Southern Bald Ibis. On a rocky outcrop on the De Berg road, we encountered a kind of montane bird party that consisted of Mountain Wheatear, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Yellow Bishop, Cape Longclaw and Long-billed Pipit. Nearby we found several Sentinel Rock-thrushes and a flock of African Pied Starling. We came across a pair of Secretarybirds and some Black Crows before heading up to the top of De Berg to look for Gurney's Sugarbird, which were found at their usual haunt a few km down the pass, together with Cape Canary and Streaky-headed Canary. On the way back to Dullstroom we had a nice Gymnogene (2000 masl), a cracking Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk and some great antelope in the form of four Oribi, a nice male Grey Rhebok and two Reedbuck.

Back in Dullstroom we saw an Olive Thrush, Cape Weaver, Speckled Mousebird and a Cape Robin-chat.

A detour to Wonderfontein Pans proved something of a disappointment, although we did see a number of Great Crested Grebe and added Red-knobbed Coot to the trip-list. We headed back towards Pretoria, turning off the N4 near Cullinan and heading up to Rust de Winter via Moloto. In the bushveld, some 1000m lower than the Steenkampsberg highlands, we made a birding stop at the Elands River Bridge, which immediately produced Giant, Pied and Brown-hooded Kingfishers, a variety of cormorants and Green-backed Heron. We checked into Buffelsdrift Game Farm and immediately went on a walk along the river in search of the resident Finfoot. Finfoot are often tricky and we were distracted by all the other wildlife on offer. Many black Crake scuttle through reeds and climb banks along the river. We saw a pair of otters silently "creep past", and further downstream disturbed a young African Rock Python from it's watching post in the low branches overhanging the river. On crossing a bridge we startled a male Finfoot which crept away (if you can creep in the water!) We also encountered a pair of African Rail, and saw a variety of birds including Pearl-spotted Owl and Arrow-marked Babbler, while 4 species of kingfisher were recorded along the river.

An early evening night-drive produced Barn Owl and a very co-operative Fiery-necked Nightjar, which fluttered above our heads. Further on we had very close up looks at Dave and Marie's two Square-lipped Rhinoceros.

Overnight Buffelsdrift Game Farm

Day 8: 3 July Rust de Winter to Johannesburg

Today we left early to reach the Zaagkuildrift area by dawn. We were rewarded with a brilliant dawn chorus and excellent mornings birding. Our first bird party included a flock of Southern Pied Babbler which came up close to investigate. Nearby Crimson-breasted Shrike hopped around and a pair of Barred Wren-Warbler foraged on the ground - which is where they are often spotted in winter. Large numbers of hornbills, wood-hoopoes, buffalo-weavers and waxbills foraged around the farm-yard at Wolfhuiskraal, and a walk in the acacia woodland produced a hive of bird activity, with species including Violet-eared Waxbill, Black-faced Waxbill, Temminck's Courser, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Ashy Tit, Lesser Honeyguide, Crombec, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Red-billed Oxpecker, Magpie Shrike and White-browed Scrub-robin. We went into a drier, more open area north of the Pienaars river and here found Scaly-feathered Finch, Burchell's Coucal, Kalahari Robin, Scaly-feathered Finch, Greater Honeyguide, Namaqua Dove and two fine Black-chested Snake Eagles.

We had good views of partial breeding plumage Shaft-tailed Whydah and full breeding plumage Village Indigobird. At Kgomo-kgomo, we had a flock of White-backed Mousebird, many Capped Wheatear and a nice pair of Great Sparrow.

At midday we headed south to Rooiwal, about 60km from Kgomo-kgomo, where a variety of ducks and other waterbirds were added to the trip list. Notable were several Cape Teal, Southern Pochard, Hottentot Teal and several hundred White-faced Ducks. We also saw two Greenshank and a fair number of Brown-throated Martin. Nearby a pall of smoke indicated a veld fire, and several white storks where seen homing in on their favourite feast of well-done rodents and insects. We were able to get close to the fire via the township of Rooiwal and saw about 25 storks in amongs the smouldering logs and shrubs.

Summary: In 8 days we recorded 337 species, with good views of 311 of them. Despite visiting the area previously, Paula managed 50 new birds.

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