TRIP REPORT: SOUTH AFRICA – 2007 January – Cape to Kruger
PRIVATE TOUR OPTION
This tour is available as a private trip for any size group. The tour cost will vary with the number of people and any custom requests.
Trip report by Adrian Binns
Day 1 / Jan 5 – Table Mountain NP – Silvermine section; Constantia Greenbelt; Kistenbosch Botanical Gardens; Strandfontein Bird Sanctuary (Cape Flats Sewer Works)
Our first stop was for the amazing view of Table Mountain National Park and overlooking Cape Town including False Bay, this as it turned up was just a taste of the beauty that would accompany us throughout the trip. In this location, the Silvermine section, we found the gorgeous Orange-breasted Sunbird, a few Cape Siskins and a very confiding Karoo Prinia, which we would encounter many times turned over the coming days.
At Constantia Greenbelt our target was the very secretive Knysna Warbler that took us the best part of an hour to locate and then we had to endure its antics, hiding in the vines only feet away and continuously calling for what seemed like ages before we all managed to get glimpses of its body and finally the whole bird! Meanwhile a female Cape Batis put in appearance over our heads and on the Klaasenbosch Trail a family group of beautiful African Paradise Flycatchers flitted about.
Next it was onto the beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens set at the base of Table Mountain. We walked from the main entrance to the Protea Garden at the top of the gardens where we located a pair of Cape Sugarbirds feeding on a protea, first the female which is stunning in itself then the male with a spectacular long tail. Cape Francolin could be found throughout the gardens and other endemics here included Cape Bulbul occasional seen but more often heard, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Forest and Cape Canary. Amongst the surprises were close encounters with a Burchell’s Coucal feeding its begging youngest and a pair of Levaillant’s Cistocola. Even though clouds covered the tops of the mountain range we managed a couple of raptors including African Harrier Hawk and a pair of displaying Peregrines.
No birding trip can do without a visit to the sewer works and we drove straight in on our first day! At Strandfontein Sewage Works, better known as the “bird sanctuary” or affectionally as the ‘stinks’, there were an incredible number of duck species including Maccoa Duck, Southern Pochard, South African Shelduck, Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler and a surprising Fulvous Whistling Duck which is extremely rare in the Western Cape province. Greater Flamingo were seen in huge numbers as were Pied Acocets. Swift Terns were relatively common flying back and forth to the ocean. On leaving the ‘stinks’ we found a perched Black (Great) Sparrowhawk which gave us tremendous views and along the very long white False Bay beachfront we saw African Black Oystercatchers and a great many Cape Gulls along with the endemic Hartlaub’s Gull.
Day 2 / Jan 6 –Pelagic Trip out of Simon’s Town; Boulders Penguin Colony; Rooiels;
About 20 of us split up into 2 boats for our pelagic. Our group was assigned the larger of the two, a 30 foot catamaran with Captain Dave at the helm and Barry as our spotter. The seas were supposedly calm and at least first thing in the morning the skies were clear, so our hopes were high that we would not all be ‘chumming’. The first 12 miles we hugged the rugged coastline getting views of Cape Gannets as we sped towards the Cape of Good Hope. By the time we reached Cape Point the last of the suns rays lit up this scenic point and we got an idea of what the swells on this ‘calm’ day were really going to be like! For the remainder of the journey, faces turned blue, everyone held onto what little there was to hold onto, those on the outside got soaked from spray and rain, and most of us provided a days worth of chum. The birds were happy and there certainly were many on this calm day! Our first clue that we were going to be bouncing a great deal came when we saw the size of the boat, followed by a spotter without optics. There really was little opportunity for us to use them in this type of seas and with the birds getting so close to the boat. Highlights of the trip, especially once we found a few trawlers some 19 miles from Cape Point, though they were not catching anything, included 4 albatross species – Shy, Black-browed, Indian and Atlantic Yellow-nose; Flesh-footed Shearwater and Great-winged Petrel, Sub-antarctic Skua, 3 species of jaegers, Wilson’s and European Storm Petrels, Great and Cory’s Shearwater, Arctic and Common Terns and many Sabine’s Gulls along with a Cape Fur Seal flaying away at an octopus. On the way back everyone was relieved to get within the protection of the cape mountains and we stopped to look at nesting Bank Cormorants on an island boulder.
Once back on land (hooray!) we immediately went just up the road to Boulders where there is one of only 3 mainland African Penguin colonies, two of which are in South Africa (the other being in Namibia). Apart from seeing hundreds of penguins we had excellent views of African Black Oystercatcher and Crowned Cormorant in full breeding plumage.
Following a shopping spree where everyone picked up various bargains we made a brief stop at our B&B before heading out to Rooiels. The drive around the eastern side of False Bay was nothing short of spectacular with the mountains coming right down to the sea with rugged scenery and coastal inlets. At Rooiels we had excellent views of Cape Rockjumper including adults feeding young; Rock Kestrel, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Neddicky, Familiar Chat, White-necked Raven, Gray-backed Cisticola and Cape Sugarbirds kept us entertained while looking for the rockjumper. We came across our first terrestrial mammals, Baboons. These were followed by a couple of Klipspringer on our way out just before having amazing looks at a singing Victorin’s Warbler, which capped a stunning day – all those pelagic bird and fynbos endemics!
Day 3 / Jan 7 – Chapman’s Peak Drive; Hout Bay; Table View; Tinie Versfeld Wildflower Reserve; West Coast NP
We began this morning heading north and taking another scenic drive along Chapman’s Peak which included many cyclists on this Sunday morning. We had low flying African Black Swifts, Rock Martins along with a few Alpine Swifts and a couple of Greater Striped Swallows, and good looks at soaring Verreaux’s Eagles. A Cape Grassbird was singing its heart out as we located a pair of close Southern Boubous preening in a shrub.
We wound past the beaches and down to Cape Town heading north to Table View were we stopped to take photos of Table Mountain and found a few good birds in the process such as Kittlitz’s Plovers and Cape Canaries, before entering the wide open Strandfeld “beach vegetation” where we found the first of many Steppe Buzzards, Yellow-billed Kites, Black-shouldered Kites and Common Ostriches.
We the visited the Tinie Versfeld Wildflower Reserve where we were greeted by a Parrot-beaked Tortoise and in spite of encountering strong wind we managed to see Cape Longclaw, Long-billed Lark, Red-capped Lark, Capped Wheatear and a African Stonechat and finally the western cape sub-species of Cloud Cisticola. There was great excitement when a 4+ foot Mole Snake appeared out of the small pond and proceeded up the bank.
Our last stop of the day was driving through the extensive West Coast National Park where we saw two Black Harriers, 5 or 6 Southern Black Korhaans including the male displaying in flight; three coveys of Grey-winged Francolins; a large group of twenty-some Cape Penduline Tits and 4 White-backed Mousebirds. We found our first White-throated and Yellow Canaries, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler and Karoo Scrub Robins along with Pied and Wattled Starlings. Steenbok and Common (Grey) Duiker were also new. At the Geelbek hide, we looked out onto the southern end of the Langebann Lagoon, which happens to be the furthest point from the mouth. Here we had African Fish Eagle, Caspian and Sandwich Tern, Eurasian Curlew, many Whimbrel along with Black-bellied (Grey) Plovers, Common Ringed Plovers, Kittlitz’s Plover, a Greenshank, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and many Curlew Sandpipers and surprisingly few Little Stints.
Day 4 / Jan 8 – Columbine Peninsula; Cerebos Salt Works at Veldrif; Kransvlei Poort; crossed the Cederburg Mts into the Tanqua Karoo; Tanqua B&B
On the Columbine Peninsula we found our targets quiet easily – Cape Long-billed Lark and Sickle-winged Chat together with other species including Large-billed and Red-capped Larks. We then continued to the town of Veldrif where we briefly birded the Cerebos Salt Works were we found White-fronted Plover and the stunning Chestnut-banded Plover along with many Caspian Terns, Greater Flamingos, a Black-necked Grebe and where we saw a number of shorebirds such as Ruff, Little Stint and Curlew Sandpipers.
We then headed due east, inland through the wheatfields, picking up Namaqua Doves, Yellow Canaries and Common Swifts before heading into the Cederburg Mountains were we got good looks at European Bee-eater. Our lunch stop was rather exciting as we picked a spot in the Kransvlei Poort which is very reminiscent of a southwestern canyon. Here we got to see Protea Seed-eater, Streaky-headed Seed-eater, White-throated and Cape Canary, Layard’s Tit-babbler, Fairy Flycatcher, Mountain Wheatear, Cape Batis and a pair of Ground Woodpeckers. Leaving the site we did not get very far as we found ourselves stuck in sand along the edge of the track! After trying to negotiate our way out of our dilemma we found ourselves deeper in trouble. No sooner had we realized this than we were able to flag down a 4 wheel drive vehicle that just happened to have a keen owner who was dying to try out his brand spanking new tow rope! It worked! And in no time we were on our way.
As we continued to cross the mountain to the east we found a family of Spur-winged Geese, a small flock of European White Storks and had our first good looks at Jackal Buzzard and a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk. We then ascended Katbakkies Pass where two Klipspringers bounded up the rocky slope with amazing agility before heading down towards the Karoo Plains stopping for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Familiar Chat and more Mountain Wheatears. At the campground a pair of Pririt Batis showed well and we picked up Southern Masked Weaver.
The Karoo plains is very similar to the low scrub semi arid desert of the southwest and here we were able to find Karoo Chat, Karoo Karhaan, Tractrac Chat, our first Rufous-eared Warbler and a Greater Kestrel. On the way to the Tanqua B&B beside the road we found a Double-banded Courser and at the windmill three Ludwig’s Bustards. The B&B is this extraordinary fort like structure in the absolute middle of nowhere. Following dinner we ventured out into the night under an incredible celestial display that included the Southern Cross. Our hour long night drive produced a family of Bat-eared Foxes, a couple of Steenbok and very good views of a calling Rufous-cheeked Nightjar that flew just like a moth and on at least one occasion flew into Mary.
Day 5 / Jan 9 – Tanqua B&B; drove south through Tanqua Karoo; drove through Little Karoo; Tradouw’s Pass; Honeywood Farm; Grootvadersbos Nature Reserve
We woke up early before dawn to take advantage of the Karoo around the B&B. We had large numbers of Namaqua Sandgrouse coming into the drink from various water pools and as many as 2 dozens sightings of Ludwig’s Bustards many of which were in flight, along with a small group of Lark-like Buntings and scattered Grey-backed Sparrow-larks. Birding the riverine acacia for Namaqua Warbler we had great success seeing several of them along with Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler before looking for some of the remaining larks we needed to pick up. We did managed to find a displaying Karoo Lark, many Large-billed Larks, and while looking for Karoo Long-billed Lark which was only heard in the distance we came across a Lanner Falcon and several Dusky Sunbirds as well as a Smith’s Red Rock Rabbit around the wall of the dam.
At different sites after the leaving the B&B we came across 3 Burchell’s Coursers seen exceedingly well in flight and as many as 8 Karoo Eremomela’s before heading through the Little Karoo. Here along route 62, which hosted extensive orchards, we encountered many small ponds and bodies of water of various sizes, which held good numbers of South African Shelduck and 3 African Spoonbills. Raptors along these roads included a rufous morph Booted Eagle, quite close views of a second Lanner Falcon for the day, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk and a Jackal Buzzard along with a few Rock Kestrels and the ubiquitous Steppe Buzzards. We managed to finally locate Black-headed Canaries but the views were brief. We had better luck with Southern Red Bishops!
Late in the afternoon we went over Tradouw’s Pass on the southern side of the Langeberg Mountains which are covered in moist Fynbos vegetation before reaching Honeywood Farm where we were greeted by Greater Double-collared Sunbirds bathing on the sprinklers! Our after dinner excursion was very brief as we found a calling African Wood Owl within 10 minutes at the entrance to Grootvadersbos, which means Grandfathers Forest.
Day 6 / Jan 10 – Grootvadersbos Nature Reserve; Honeywood Farm; Suurbraak; Agulhas Plains; De Hoop Nature Reserve;
We returned at first light to the Grootvadersbos Nature Reserve where we had a calling Knynsa Warbler as soon as we parked. Outside the forest we found Forest and Brimstone Canary and Swee Waxbill which showed itself very well on top of the grass stalks. Along with quite a number of other common species we found our first Fiscal Flycatchers and in the forest highlights included a Grey Cuckooshrike and an African Goshawk being mobbed by Blue-mantled Crested Flycatchers. A Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler was heard close by but never showed while we had a couple of African Olive Pigeons fly over with one seen perched, and finished up with a male Amethyst Sunbird.
Back at Honeywood Farm, a quick stroll around the grounds produced Southern Boubou, Cape Robin Chat, African Hoopoe, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, Red-necked Spurfowl, Cape Weavers and Fork-tailed Drongos.
We then descended as we traveled eastwards to the village of Suurbraak where we stopped to look at over-flying swallows and swifts. We saw 4 species of swift, the highlight being Horus and 5 species of swallows the highlight being Pearl-breasted Swallow. A little further up the road we made a brief stop at a large water lily covered pond where amongst the lilies we located our target, the White-backed Duck.
From here it was short drive to the Agulhas Plains between Buffeljags River and Malgas where the golden colored wheat, barley and canola fields cover the rolling landscape. Blue Cranes, the national bird of South Africa became a common sight often seen in small groups including several with young ones. The cape sub-species of Cloud Cisticola was often sighted and many White Storks dotted the landscape. As we approached the Potberg section of De Hoop Nature Reserve we encountered several Eland and many more Bontebok as well as 5 Cape Vultures, an increasingly rare sight in the cape. In the main section of De Hoop we had Cape Mountain Zebra, Grey Rhebuck, a large troop of Chacma Baboons and several Yellow Mongoose. We walked around the extensive Vlie (wetland) where there were a great many water birds but the bird we most wanted to locate was Southern Tchagra and after trying all along the Vlie’s edge we finally had one come flying in to perch in the open for us. From here we settled in for the long haul back to Cape Town, coming across a massive flock of Southern Red Bishops and more Blue Cranes before going through the main apple growing region and over Sir Lowry’s Pass before dropping down onto the Cape Flats and along False Bay with its long white beach before reaching the enchanting Afton Grove B&B.
Day 7 / Jan 11 – Flew from Cape Town to Durban; Creighton
After a pleasant 1 ¾ hour flight to Durban we headed south west ascending in altitude through lush rolling green hills of the Natal Midlands, which was in stark contrast to the Cape landscape. We made one stop as soon as we were able to locate a Long-crested Eagle and for ¾ of an hour observed 4 species of raptor including a Wahlberg’s Eagle; 3 cisticola’s with great views of Croaking and Zitting while Cloud was heard; a Rufous-naped Lark, our first of many Dark-capped Bulbuls; a couple of Fan-tailed (Red-shouldered) Widows were displaying and we had a large colony of Village Weavers, under which Barbara found of all things Warthogs, which seemed totally out of place in this hilly landscape! Vervet Monkeys all the while entertained us.
Before reaching Creighton the skies turned very dark. As a storm was approaching we encountered a flock of about twenty Amur Falcon’s perched on telegraph wires besides the road. Even more spectacular was when our host from the Smithfield Guesthouse (Button Birding), Malcolm Gemmel, took us between dinner courses, at precisely 7:20pm, to watch the falcons coming into roost in large trees on the edge of a cricket field in the village. We estimated approximately 250 birds as we watched small flocks from every direction fly in to join the expanding group and circle above us before dropping in to roost in the canopy. Once most had settled in, for the first time we heard them calling, a sounding similar to swifts chattering. Within 15 minutes it was all over. A most incredible experience.
Day 8 / Jan 12 – Underberg; Himeville; Sani Park; Dieu Donne Pond; Drakensburg Mts / Sani Pass; Lethoso
We spent the day with the animated Malcolm driving us to Lethoso in his 4 wheel drive vehicle. Because the South Africa border crossing closes its gates at 4pm he kept us on a tight schedule so that we were not left stranded in the desolate Lethoso mountains. At 5:15 we were on our way, on what turned out to be as nice a day as anyone could imagine, driving passed preening Amur Falcons, Grey-crowned Cranes and Southern Bald Ibis. At a view point just before Underberg we had a singing Bokmakerie and found our first Drakensburg Prinia, this being one of the Drakensburg endemics. From here the spectacular Sani Pass that ascends from this point up the Drakensburg escarpment to the mountain Kingdom of Lethoso is a famed route for finding the Drakensburg endemics that occur at different altitudes up to the summit at 9400’. A quick stop at Sani Park produced many bishops, some water birds such as the diminutive Malachite Kingfisher. At the beginning of the dirt road up Sani Pass a shallow field pond held several Wood Sandpipers and a pair of Three-banded Plovers.
As we began our ascent we came across a singing Dark-capped Yellow Warbler and a Bushbuck in the distance. At 8:15 we stopped at a Protea overlook where we had our breakfast in the field along with Gurney’s Sugarbirds and Malachite Sunbird’s feeding all around us, with a Wailing Cisticola performing admirably beside the road. A couple of Ground Woodpeckers showed themselves as we were watching a Drakensburg Crag Lizard. As we pulled into the South African border post a pair of Bush Blackcaps were perched in front of the vehicle as was the first of a great many Barrett’s Warblers, of which were only heard, with the exception of a brief view. By the time we had descended everyone had seen the bird – even Malcolm, who swore this was the mother of all buggers! Cape Rock Thrush also revealed itself here and again a few more times over the next few hours. As we pressed on Malcolm heard a Brown-backed Honeybird, but it never materialized and as we wound our way around the final hairpin bends we stopped for Drakensburg Siskin and here found a Drakensburg Rockjumper which was chasing another male.
We reached the Lethoso border at 11:30 and stopped next door at Sani Top Chalet with hosts the highest pub in Africa. A cute rodent with an odd name, Sloggett’s Ice Rat was a common sight around the buildings and Basotho rock dwellings. Sentinel Rock Thrush replaced Cape Rock Thrush at this elevation and Drakensburg Siskins along with Cape Sparrows could also be found amongst the buildings as Southern Bald Ibis in large numbers were combing the short grassy meadows. The scenery on this plateau with a backdrop of mountain peaks was extraordinary with wet meadows of various heights dotted with alpine plants. We paused along a stream to look for African Black Duck and no sooner had we put our bins to our eyes than one flew down the watercourse towards us. We did not give this bird as much attention as we should have done because a Lammegerier came into view, though unfortunately flying away from us. We followed it for a short distance and decided to have lunch in a small quarry which looked more like a pull off. No sooner had we gotten out of the car one flew right overhead showing is yellow head and beard – beautiful. While having our field lunch in 60 degree weather at nine and a half thousand feet , Cape Vultures were overhead and across the road in the low shrubs, Fairy Flycatchers, Layard’s Tit-Babbler, Cape Buntings and Yellow Canaries flitted about. Mountain Pipits were located beside the road and we had a couple of White-naped Ravens on our way out. On time, we left Lethoso just after 2pm and snaked our way down the winding 8km to the South African post in an hour and 10 minutes.
Malcolm had a few more surprises up his sleeve, the first being a Broad-tailed Warbler and then after many tries Hannah spotted a Buff-streaked Chat, finally! From here it was a mad dash to the Xumeni indigenous forest to await Cape Parrots coming into roost. On the way a brief stop at a small stream crossing produced many swallows including Wire-tailed and South African Cliff Swallow. On the edge of the forest we were rewarded with sighting of two pairs of parrots on separate occasions screaming past us where we were able to clearly see their golden heads and fast wing beats.
Day 9 / Jan 13 – Creighton vicinity; Xumeni Forest; drove to Eshowe
We began early this morning with coffee before going only a short distance from the farm where White-winged, Long-tailed, Red-collared and Red-shouldered Widowbirds were displaying in their spectacular breeding plumages. We then arrived at a site where our target bird was Black-rumped Buttonquail. Here we quickly flushed two Common Quail followed a few minutes later by two separate sightings of our target bird. From here we went to a small farm dam where we found half a dozen Red-headed Queleas and picked up Red-billed Queleas on the way. Our next target was Denham’s Bustard which meant scanning the rolling green hillsides, first finding 5 or 6 Black-bellied Bustards including one doing its aerial display before finding a group of three distant Denham’s. We did manage to find a route to get closer. A new mammal was an Oribi, a small endangered antelope of the grasslands, seen very well. We then ascended to a patch of high altitude grassland to look for the extremely rare Blue Swallow. We became very pessimistic when we realized that the whole area was covered in fog; however when we arrived at the site the fog lifted slightly and we actually watched three foraging Blue Swallows for about 20 minutes. On the way back to the farm we noticed a Red-throated Wryneck on the edge of town; stopping we had cracking views of a pair of these stunning birds. This capped off an outstanding 4 hours of birding before brunch.
After packing up, loading the van and saying our farewells to Gail and Malcolm, we returned to Xumeni Forest to catch up on some high altitude forest species. These included African Emerald Cuckoo (seen very well), Black Cuckoo and Red-chested Cuckoo all of which at one point were calling at the same time; we found Olive Woodpecker and had two other woodpecker species, Golden-tailed and Cardinal within the space of 10 minutes; Terrestrial Brownbuls were calling and showed well, as did a Sombre Greenbul; we had good views of Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Black-backed Puffbacks and Collared Sunbird. Species that eluded us, though we could clearly hear them, were Narina Trogon, Knysna Turaco, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Olive Bush-Shrike.
By 3pm we called it a day and headed along the mist covered roads via Durban to the village of Eshowe and our B&B getting there at dusk.
Day 10 / Jan 14 – Ongoye Forest; Mtunzini “Place in the Shade”; Raphia Palm Nature Monument; Umlalazi Nature Reserve “Siyay Coastal Park; Eshowe B&B; Farm near Entumeni
We meet Jotham, one of Bird Life South Africa’s excellent local guides, at 5am and headed towards Ongoye Forest Reserve passing through rolling hills of sugar cane for as far as the eye could see. Woolly-necked Storks were our first species followed by Brown-hooded Kingfisher and a couple of Red-billed Firefinch that flew across the road. We stopped here and had a good half hour of new species that included Red-faced Cisticola, Spectacled Weaver, Lesser Striped Swallow, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Yellow-fronted Canary and heard Black-crowned Tchagra and Purple-crested Turaco. It was a short drive from there passed hillside Zulu villages comprising of a few round huts with thatched roofs to the entrance to Ongoye Forest Reserve. This is an indigenous Afro-montane forest that grows in the valleys creating fingers of vegetation encircled by short grassland. Standing on the grasslands overlooking the forest we found a Zitting Cisticola and a Croaking Cisticola. At the entrance way to the forest itself we had a Grey Cuckooshrike and walking up the road and through the grassland we found Black-bellied Starling, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Eastern Olive Sunbird and an Ongoye Red Squirrel (an endemic subspecies of Red) before entering the forest where a Purple-crested Turaco was feeding on figs as were a pair of Green Barbets. Chorister Robin-Chat was located in the underbrush while Mountain Wagtail could be found on the small stream. Green-backed Camaroptera, Cape Batis and Southern Black Tit were seen well while a Yellow-streaked Greenbul proved more elusive. Here we heard Tambourine and Lemon Dove as well as Yellow-breasted Apalis, all this within 50 yards of the forest edge. Coming back out we located Black-backed Puffback, Square-tailed Drongo and Dick found us a male Narina Trogon showing extremely well. We made it back to the entranceway for a picnic breakfast. While having our coffee, quiche and muffins we had a couple of very obliging species entertain us including a Lemon Dove, Chorister Robin-chat, Bronze Mannikin nest building, White-eared Barbet and Dark-backed (Forest) Weaver and some of us caught up with a Yellow-streaked Greenbul.
By 9:30 we were back on the road to Mtunzini – also known as “A Place in the Shade” – we needed it, this was by far the warmest (and most humid) day to date. Here we located a Lesser Honeyguide while looking for Palm-nut Vulture, which we found at the Raphia Palm Nature Monument. By now the heat had become very unpleasant and being so close to the coast we nipped into the Umlalazi Nature Reserve for a dip in the Indian Ocean, a new tick for most! On the way out we had Burchell’s Zebra grazing in one of the campgrounds; Yellow Weavers crossing the road in front of us and a Trumpeter Hornbill flying past.
Upon returning to our B&B we had a picnic lunch which was followed by a pair of Black-collared Barbets displaying in the trees above us. We then took it easy for the rest of the afternoon until 5pm when we drove a short distance out of town to look for African Crowned Eagle. Our journey took us past miles of sugarcane, with one field hosting a few zebras with sweet teeth that had apparently escaped from Entumeni Nature Reserve, before the dirt road finally got the best of our tyres – one in particular! This occurred in a eucalyptus forest, and as luck would have it we had it changed in no time at all. Continuing, it was only a short distance to a spot that Jotham had an almost fully fledged African Crowned Eagle on a clearly visible nest that we looked down upon. Having enjoyed that moment we headed back and amongst the eucalyptus Jotham spotted a pair of Spotted Eagle Owls which we all got to see very well especially through the scope.
Day 11 / Jan 15 – Dlinza Forest (including the Aerial Walkway), St. Lucia Estuary
We entered Dlinza Forest at 6 am with Jotham, looking for our first target bird, Spotted Ground Thrush. We obtained excellent views of this species after about half an hour. We then walked to the top of the Aerial Walkway, from where one gets a canopy-top vista across the beautiful Dlinza Forest, which borders the town of Eshowe. We scoped several Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeons, quite common this season and calling a great deal from all over the forest canopy. The walkway also allowed us excellent views of African Green Pigeon, Grey Sunbird, Eastern Olive Sunbird, Black-headed Oriole and Black-bellied Starling. We also got more distant views of African Emerald Cuckoo, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Trumpeter Hornbill, Purple-crested Turaco and many other excellent birds.
After getting two tyres replaced, we then embarked on the 2 hour drive to the village of St. Lucia at the mouth of the giant wetland that encompasses Lake St. Lucia. A walk from the Kingfisher Lodge where we were to spend the night, to the edge of the estuary, produced fantastic birds such as the localized Rudd’s Apalis, Livingstone’s Turaco, African Pied Wagtail, Diderick’s Cuckoo, several Red-capped Robin-chats (including some immature birds) and Tambourine Dove (finally seen after being heard at previous sites). At the water’s edge, we had great fun watching breeding males of three weaver species show off their nests: Yellow, Lesser Masked and Thick-billed Weavers. We also saw African Fish Eagle and Pink-backed Pelican.
Day 12 / Jan 16 – Gwala Gwala Trail in St. Lucia Village; Cape Vidal, St. Lucia Estuary; Bonamanzi Game Reserve.
We started the day at 5am on the stunning Gwala Gwala Trail adjacent to the B&B. We easily found one of our main target birds, Brown Scrub Robin, and also heard a Buff-spotted Flufftail (sounds like a foghorn) very close to the trail but after spending some time trying to coax this spectacularly elusive skulker we moved on. We found our first Purple-banded Sunbird, and a few Collared Sunbirds. With great excitement and anticipation, we then entered the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park and started driving between the lagoon and the sea towards Cape Vidal. Both mammal and bird viewing was spectacular. We saw many antelope species including Bushbuck, Common Waterbuck, Common Reedbuck, Greater Kudu, Red Duiker, Common (Grey) Duiker and others. A pair of Bushveld Pipits allowed quick but close views just after entering the reserve, and we got close-up views of a Spotted Flycatcher. There were many Rattling and Croaking Cisticolas, Yellow-fronted Canaries and lots of Brown-hooded Kingfishers on the power lines. Raptors were excellent, and included Gabar Goshawk, Brown Snake Eagles and a Black-breasted Snake Eagle. We saw an Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, but only managed to hear a Gorgeous Bush Shrike.
On reaching Cape Vidal, we found Red-backed Mannikin, the localized Woodward’s Batis, Samango (and the ever-present Vervet) Monkeys, and more.
Driving the loop road on our way back towards St. Lucia Village, we found Hippopotamus, our first Goliath Herons, and saw lots of lovely scenery made up of a habitat mosaic of wetlands, grassland, savannah and forested dunes.
After lunch, we returned to St. Lucia Village, where we stopped at the bridge crossing the estuary, and had some spectacular birding (once again!). We obtained good views of Goliath Heron, a Lesser Crested Tern, Southern Brown-throated and Thick-billed Weavers nest building, a pair of African Pygmy Geese, Lesser Swamp Warbler and others, plus we heard African Purple Swamphen.
Eventually, we left St. Lucia and drove to Bonamanzi Game Reserve, where we quickly found some new mammals such as Impala and lots of the beautiful Nyala. After a Bush Braai (a BBQ in the middle of the forest) with tasty impala on the menu, most members of the group opted to go on a night drive. Amongst the abundant wildlife spotted on the 2 ½ trip in the northern section of the park were new mammals including giraffes and a likely Serval crossing the road and two new nightjar species, Fiery-necked and Square-tailed.
Day 13 / Jan 17 – Bonamanzi Game Park; Mkuze Game Reserve
We meet Jerom, who took us the previous night on the night drive in the landrover, at 5am and he drove us on what is known as the Floodplain Drive along the Hluhluwe floodplain where the river joins Lake St. Lucia. We passed through sand forest, thornveld (dense acacia bush) to the wide open grasslands that cover an extensive amount of the floodplain. On numerous occasions we were accompanied by the tropical call of the very well named Gorgeous Bush-shrike who eluded us, managing to stay in the densest section of vegetation only meters away from us. Only on one occasion, did it briefly show as it flew from one shrub to another, but justice was never done. Emerald Spotted Wood-doves would fly off the dirt tracks as we approached; Rattling Cisticolas became a common sight alighting atop the bushes as were Yellow-throated Longclaws; by the end of our morning drive we had probably counted over 30 Burchell’s Coucals, most with their wings draped as they dried them out from the very light drizzle; a number of small groups of Red-billed Queleas in breeding plumage exploded off acacia bushes; a pair of White-throated Robin Chats were new birds as was White-browed Scrub Robin, Crested Francolin, Pale Flycatcher and 3 Red-billed Oxpeckers. Upon reaching our first body of water – a small mud hole – we had a small group of about 15 Collared Pratincoles, many of which were youngsters. Also in this area was a lone Wood Sandpiper and a Common Sandpiper as well as a Malachite Kingfisher and a Little Bittern perched at the edge of the small reed bed. Exiting the reserve we quickly picked up Great Reed Warbler, two Black Crakes and a Rufous-winged (Black-backed) Cisticola before reaching a different part of the floodplain. Here we got our second longclaw species, the Cape, also known as Orange-throated, and made an extensive search for Rosy-throated, before locating a pair of this beautiful species. Our reward was tea, coffee, rusks and muffins, much to Jerom’s delight, in the field! Several raptors were seen here including Black-chested Snake Eagle, Black-shouldered Kite and Steppe Buzzard, to add to the Amur Falcon we saw earlier. It was then back to the Lalapanzi Camp for brunch. After brunch a quick check around the grounds yielded Black Cuckooshrike, a distant White-backed Vulture and a short walk away, a Lemon-breasted Canary.
From here it was onto Mkuze Game Reserve, only about an hour and a half away. We made a few stops, firstly for a Grey Go-away-bird and Bateleur, then for a Striped Kingfisher. We were now driving into a new kind of bushveld that included Fever trees along with other acacias and heading towards the western ridge of the Lebombo Mountains. A roadside pond was very productive with Comb Duck, White-faced Whistling Duck, Spur-wing Goose and Little Grebes on the water. The dead trees next to the pond held a Woodland Kingfisher nest hole with both birds perched nearby and a number of White-winged Widows were amongst the quelea flocks frequenting the low bushes.
By 2pm we had reached Mkuze Game Reserve and decided to make a quick stop at the campsite just within the park boundaries. This turned out to be a very fruitful stop that lasted longer that we expected. Cape Glossy Starlings replaced the Black-bellied’s that we had been seeing the last few day in Kwazulu-Natal; two Golden-breasted Buntings and a couple of Yellow-throated Petronias showed well; a pair of Long-billed Crombec flitted about in the canopy of the open trees; a Brubru responded immediately to the tape and posed nicely; Bearded Scrub Robins worked the edge of the campground; a calling Grey Tit-flycatcher was located on top of an acacia tree as was a Red-fronted Tinkerbird and just as we were trying to leave we caught up with a pair of Blue Waxbills on the grass next to the van.
As we took the short drive to the office and our chalets we encountered 3 hoopoe species, an African Hoopoe and a group of Green Wood-hoopoe along with a pair of Scimitarbills. A nice find was our last mousebird species, the Red-faced, sitting upright at the top of a tree.
Following dinner we left a little earlier than last night for our game drive, but spent about the same amount of time. Amos was our driver and between us we had three powerful spotlights. The mammals were a little sparse other than a White-tailed Mongoose and a possible small cat and we did very well with the birds. We began with a family of Crested Guineafowl roosting in a tree and followed that with Square-tailed Nightjars which were very common in certain sections; a Spotted Eagle Owl on the dirt track and three Spotted Thick-knees spread out over a half mile stretch.
Day 14 / Jan 18 – Mkuze Game Reserve – Mantuma Camp, Airstrip, Nsumu Pan (lake), Kamasinga (hide); transfer to Wakkerstroom
A pre breakfast walk around the camp generated a couple of groups of calling Pink-throated Twinspots, with these really proving difficult to see properly, though one did cooperative to a small degree. A mixed flock included a pair of Chin-spot Batis, Long-billed Crombec and a family group of Black-backed Puffbacks, Chris’ favorite.
Following an extended breakfast that included many extra sandwiches (who ordered those?) along with a flooded room (Chris) we spent the remainder of the morning driving through the thornveld on the eastern side of the reserve picking up a few new species. These included an incredibly gorgeous Long-tailed Paradise Whydah perched next to the road; our first Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill and we finally caught up with great views of a Black-crowned Tchagra. At the airstrip a pleasant surprise was the diminutive Small Buttonquail that we flushed as we drove through. It cooperated very nicely walking back and forth along the edge of the airstrip a few meters away from us. At a small pond we spotted a Water (Nile) Monitor in the water (where else!) and had a juvenile Black Coucal in a bush on the bank. Here Hannah spotted a Dwarf Bittern, a great find, foraging very close to the road, before it walked down into the rushes where we continued watching it as it preened. We then stopped at the very large Nsumu Pan and found Pink-backed Pelican, Reed and White-breasted Cormorants, African Darters and a lone Whiskered Tern.
After lunch we popped in to the Kamasinga hide, where we got to see Blue Waxbills, Emerald Spotted Wood-doves, Yellow-fronted Canaries, Golden-breasted Buntings, Red-billed Queleas along with a Long-tailed Paradise Whydah coming in to drink at the watering hole, as did Nyala’s and Impalas. An African Paradise Flycatcher was splash-bathing in front of the hide while a Dusky Indigobird was singing close by and a Kurrichane Thrush was feeding only the waters edge.
The journey to Wakkerstroom which took us up in elevation into the highveld grassveld took up the remainder of the afternoon. About 60 km from Wakkerstroom the green hills and landscape turned dark as the skies blackened all around us and lightening became more frequent. For 15 minutes we got caught in a tremendous torrential downpour that culminated with a beautiful rainbow. It did get even more surreal for a moment as we found ourselves driving through the hills and being covered in an orange-colored mist.
Day 15 / Jan 19 – Wakkerstroom, Amersfoort Road north of Wakkerstroom – Daggakraal; Wakkerstroom Wetlands; Dirkiesdorp Plains
In the daylight the small town of Wakkerstroom reminded me of towns in the American southwest. One could easily picture cowboys on horses riding the streets, wide streets with people doing their business along the roadside. Actually that is exactly what people were doing except there were no horses.
It was an exciting 4 hours of early morning birding as we drove the many dirt roads that wind their way through the rolling highland grasslands north of Wakkerstroom. We met our local guide Norman at 5:30 and tried to find areas where the morning fog had lifted. Cape Longclaws, African Pipits and displaying Long-tailed Widowbirds were a common sight and in the hilly areas we would come across small parties of Southern Bald Ibis. Some of the species were similar to those we encountered in the Drakensberg, such as Buff-streaked Chat and Sentinel Rock Thrush. On the power and fence lines Amur Falcons were perched in good numbers as was a wide assortment of swallows, including Greater Striped, White-throated, Barn and African Cliff while Banded Martins and three swift species, Black, Little and White-rumped were flying around. No matter where we drove cisticolas were present and these included many Zitting and Wing-snapping, a Levaillant’s or two, a Pale-crowned and Clouds. We also found a few new birds, these being the common roadside grassland bird the Southern Anteater Chat; the very brilliant Yellow-crowned Bishop (along with Red Bishops); Blue Korhaan, one of which was seen very well and the very uncommon Cuckoo Finch. A Mountain Wheatear, two Black Ducks and many Cape Canaries were also seen as was a Diderick’s Cuckoo feeding a young Diderick’s, something of a rare occurrence given that they are parasitic egg layers. It was the larks and pipits that these grasslands are famous for. A couple of Yellow-breasted Pipits could be seen flying a good distance from us and we had a little more luck with Spike-heeled Lark, and in the same field in the Daggakraal both Rudd’s and Botha’s. Pink-billed and Eastern Clapper Lark along with a few Quail Finch rounded out the morning’s birding. We did very well on mammals too, seeing a party of a dozen or more Suricate’s standing to attention at their burrow and two Yellow Mongoose.
Following a late breakfast and some in town shopping it was off to the Wakkerstroom Wetland Reserve on the edge of town. With this variety of habitat in the surrounding hills it is easy to see why this is a birders mecca. We began by scoping a pair of Grey Crowned Cranes and then watched three species of bishops in one glass view – Red, Yellow-crowned and Long-tails displaying with Fan-tails also seen. Little Rush-warblers were calling throughout the cattail, sedge and rushes while several African Rails could be heard in the distance as was a Red-chested Flufftail. With the vegetation so thick and tall it made it impossible to locate either of these. To give you an idea of how tall, we did manage to see the head of an African Purple Swamphen peer through in a low spot. Shame there was not more of those. A juvenile Purple Heron showed well as did Whiskered Terns and we found a bright Malachite Kingfisher perched near the road and had a signing Levaillant’s Cisticola on a post near the blind. The large open body of water held the usual suspects, these being Yellow-billed Ducks, African Darters, Black-headed Heron, Red-knobbed Coot, Sacred Ibis and a Great Egret.
The late afternoon hours were spent in the Dirkiesdorp Plains about ¾ hour east of Wakkerstrrom at a slightly lower elevation looking for bustards, in particular White-bellied Korhaan, in the tall grasslands. We did find several Black-bellied Bustards and had a wonderful view of a Denham’s Bustard in flight, but could never locate our target. However we did come across two new species, 5 Wattled Lapwings and 3 Swainson’s Spurfowl.
Day 16 / Jan 20 – Wakkerstroom to Kruger NP; Kruger NP, Malelane Gate to Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie
Due to the long drive that we had ahead of us to get to Kruger, we spent little time birding along the way other than necessary stops. A Black-backed Jackal was one of those stops, as was a pair of roadside foraging Red-winged Francolin. This gave us an opportunity to have our packed breakfast. On the outskirts of Chrissie a few Mallards were on a large pond and shortly after a pair of Secretarybirds were spotted in a field close to the road. We watched them for a while as they foraged. As we descended from the highlands, the rolling grasslands were replaced by Pine and evergreen forests, courtesy of the paper industry, for as far as the eye could see. As we neared Kruger this monotonous faux-landscape was turned into the native lowveld.
By noon we had reached the flagship of South Africa’s parks and the anticipation of what was to come eagerly awaited us. At the Malelane Bridge we got looks at some of the big mammals, namely Elephants and Hippo’s along with a Nile Crocodile that we watched get out of the water and walk onto a small sand island. The stunning White-fronted Bee-eater was common as they flew sorties over the Crocodile River from the edge of the reed beds. Goliath Heron, Water Thick-knees, Green-backed Herons, Black Crake and an African Harrier Hawk were also sighted. Once we officially entered the park we were not allowed to get out of our vehicle, but that did not stop us from having great looks at groups of Giraffes, Impala’s, a few Warthogs, a large herd of Elephants that crossed the road in front of us including several very young ones and a pair of White-Rhinoceros. At one point near the Hippo pool we had 3 of the “Big 5” within view at once – Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo. The birding was also excellent with many new species seen including Cinnamon-breasted Buntings, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Red-billed Hornbill, Natal Francolins, Eurasian Hobby, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Grey Hornbill, Magpie Shrikes, Black Kite, Burchell’s Glossy Starlings, Golden Oriole, Marsh Sandpiper, Lappet-faced Vulture, Crested Barbet, Red-crested Korhaan, Double-banded Sandgrouse, European Roller, a Pearl-spotted Owlet sitting in perfect light besides the road, along with many Lilac-breasted Rollers. We caught sight of 3 Banded Mongoose crossing the road and had 2 snake species, a 7 foot Southern African Python on the sandy river bed and a baby (1 plus foot) Puff Adder near the Lower Sabie reception building.
Day 17 / Jan 21 – Kruger NP: AM Lower Sabie, H4-1, S28, Crocodile Bridge; PM H4-2 & H10, H1-3 Tshokwane to Satara
The night serenade consisted of hippos and hyenas, and at 4am we heard one of our tent neighbors panicking as her whiny southern twangy voice kept calling out “Hell-looo, hell-looo, I think there’s a hippo on my porch. Hell-looo, hell-looo”. I don’t know if she ever made it out her room. Quite hilarious really!!
The road system in the park was first class, with paved roads between the main sites and many high quality loop roads coming off of them. Maybe it was the time of the year, just after the end of the summer holidays, but it was awfully quiet with very few vehicles encountered and not many people at each of the camps we stayed at.
Errol joined us in the park and we split up into two vehicles. The camp gates opened at 4:30, three-quarters of an hour before sunrise, but just light enough to see Marabou storks roosting and hear what seemed to be one White-browed Scrub-Robin after another singing along H4-1. Natal Francolin’s preferred the roadside edges and were pretty common as were many Swainson’s; an Elephant was heard trumpeting and what must surely be one of the highlights of the trip. We encountered a lone Cape Hunting Dog trotting down the road and once it passed right by us we turned around and followed it, driving at 20kmp with it besides us for a good distance. This lean, slim and multi color-patched mammal was covering a great distance with amazing ease seemingly exhorting very little effort. We left it 10 minutes later and many kilometers south of where we first found it having experienced one of the wild kingdoms extraordinary encounters. We made it as far as Nkuhlu Picnic Site along the Sabie River before turning back to Lower Sabie. Crested Barbet, Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, Grey Go-away-bird, Southern Black Tit, Lesser Masked Weavers and Red-billed Buffalo Weavers were all seen, the later at their huge stick nests on a dead tree in a small lake with hippos in the water and croc’s basking on the banks as a herd of Impala’s came to drink. We encountered a Spotted Hyena, basically doing the same thing as the Hunting Dog, but without all the grace or speed. It was later seen at breakfast crossing between the deck and the Sabie River.
Following breakfast we headed south and at the intersection with S28 a group of 7 vehicles alerted us to our first cat sighting, a female Leopard in a tree. With the main trunk at 45 degrees she could never get completely settled and every few minutes she would move about hoping to find a more comfortable position to rest. For half an hour we watched this majestic beast in awe not believing our luck before continuing on our way. Meanwhile we could not get a hold of Errol by phone, and though they missed this cat they did have a thick-maned male Lion walking along the road besides them. Magpie Shrikes were becoming a common sight; we found our first Lesser Grey Shrike and a few Bateleur could be seen cruising the skies. Before reaching the southeastern corner of the park we encountered a large herd of Cape Buffalos, scattered Burchell’s Zebra, a Bennett’s Woodpecker, Sabota’s Lark and Tawny Eagle while at a small pool of water along a relatively dry stream bed Open-billed Stork, Goliath Heron, Grey Heron and Green-backed Heron along with Black Crakes and Water Thick-knees.
It was a long drive after lunch from Crocodile Bridge to Satara, but we managed to find a number of goodies under the (most welcomed) cloudy skies. Saddle-billed Stork’s where in the same location as we briefly glimpsed them yesterday, but this time in full view; a Martial Eagle gave us an idea of its imposing power even if it was only perched; Southern Carmine Bee-eaters with their long tails and outrageous colors stood out; Brown Snake Snakes were becoming a common sight and Brown-headed Parrots made their first appearances.
We took a brief break from being in the vehicle when we alighted at Tshokwane Picnic Site where we found many African Mourning Doves, a few Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starlings along with Tree Squirrels and Chacma Baboons. Continuing, and before reaching the Baobab Tree, Senegal Lapwings were located besides the road and after checking out the unique tree, a small group of roosting Hooded Vultures were spotted as was a Black Stork. Nearing Satara another gathering of cars, this time only 2 or 3, could only mean there was another cat. There was one, but it was pretty much out of sight, and only at Barb’s insistence did we stay to confirm that what she was seeing was indeed a cat – a lioness we presumed ….we would never know for sure as we only saw a paw go up, an ear and a tail flick over the top of the grasses as it lay on its back under the shade of a palm.
The night drive was very successful with Black-backed Jackal, White-tailed Mongoose, an uncommon African Civet, 2 African Wild Cats including a small one hunkered down in the grass, seen very well. A number of Scrub Hare’s, the first of which I was reminded by our driver-guide that they do not have Rabbits here in this part of South Africa, and a Small-spotted Genet which most of us got looks at before it hid under a large shrub. A few Square-tailed Nightjars were spotlighted and a Small Buttonquail was found on the tarmac road, allowing us all the time we wanted to look down on it.
Day 18 / Jan 22 – Kruger NP: AM, S90; Satara Camp; S126 & S36; PM, H7 & S106; drive to Tracker’s Guest Farm
We left at 5am driving north of Satara in very similar habitat to yesterday, finding our first Purple Rollers, Chestnut-backed Sparrowlarks, Sedge Warbler, a male Montagu’s Harrier, a Jacobin Cuckoo and an amazing Secretarybird. Errol’s vehicle did locate a Kori Bustard along the same track later in the morning.
After breakfast at Satara a roosting African Scops Owl was quickly located in the car park thanks to one of the local guides and the extensive grounds held many African Green Pigeons feeding on figs; Brown-headed Parrots; and Chris and Barb tracked down Grey-headed Bush-shrike and Groundscraper Thrushes.
Our mid to late morning drive produced 4 or 5 solitary bull Elephants resting in the shade under large acacias; a few Giraffes including a youngster that we watched gallop to its mother; a large troop of Chacma Baboons including a baby riding upright on the back of her walking mother, and a distant Rhino that we thought we could catch up to, but it eluded us. By now the temperatures were rising fast and well into the low 90’s and one got the feeling that all activity was slowing down. We finally stumbled across 3 adult and a juvenile Southern Ground Hornbills as we came around a bend in the track. These large birds ignored us and kept on sweeping across the grassland occasionally being seen to flick an insect up and catch it in their bills. We got our best looks at Trumpeter Hornbill and many of the smaller Red-billed and Yellow-bills along with a few Grey’s. A pair of Levalliant’s Cuckoo’s posed long enough to see the difference between them and Jacobin Cuckoo. A Dark Chanting Goshawk was perched in a shaded part of a tree overlooking the landscape and a small kettle of vultures turned out to be a mixed group of White-headed and Hooded.
Having failed to find any cats we returned to Satara for lunch and to check on the sighting board. Lion and Cheetah were seen along the road to Orpen, so that worked out nicely as we were to rendezvous with Errol at the Orpen gate at 4pm. Alas the heat kept wildlife to a minimum with only a Black-backed Jackal mad enough to be wondering about in this conditions. Two new bird species were added, these being Jameson’s Firefinch and 5 beautiful Temminck’s Coursers.
One could spend an eternity in Kruger, with countless kilometers of roadways to explore, so it was sad that our stay was so short, though surely one of the highlights. It was a short drive once out of the park to the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains and Tracker’s Guest Farm, arriving as the last rays of sunlight left a warm glow on the exposed mountain top sandstone. On the way we dodged a tortoise, had a large snake cross in front of us and stopped for the mother of all kingfishers, a Giant.
After settling into our rooms, we kept watch at dusk outside Mary and Hannah’s room for Lesser Bushbabies. Slowly one by one they appeared firstly their gremlin like faces looking at us, then the whole body as they clung to the wall below the eaves. Then when they decided it was time to head out to forage, with amazing speed and agility, in two or three leaps they had bounced onto the porch hand rail, into a nearby small fruit tree, onto the top of a concrete pit and out into the forest. If one blinked, one missed the whole sequence, which is how quickly it all happened!
Day 19 / Jan 23 – Tracker’s Guest Farm; Drakensberg: Taita Falcon site nr. J. G. Strijdom Tunnel; Transfer to Kwa Ndaba nr. Rust de Winter
Tracker’s is set on the lower reaches of the northern Drakensberg’s Mountain slope but high enough to overlook the lowveld for miles around to the south. To the north the exposed red and green sandstone layers of the mountains – what a view.
The birding first thing this morning was slow with Laughing Dove, Blue Waxbills, African Palm Swifts, Amethyst and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds seen and Barb had a flock of White-crested Helmet-shrikes, which we all got a view of as we left the farm later on. There was also a calling (think tinamou!) Grey-headed Bush-shrike; a Golden-breasted Bunting bringing insects to her nest, and Red-headed Weavers nest building at a power pole with the occasional appearance of a Cutthroat Finch likely looking for nesting material.
By mid morning we had reached the upper cliffs of the very scenic Drakensburg Mountains near the J. G. Strijdom Tunnel. Curio stalls were located all along this stretch and some of us made the most of this last shopping opportunity. We meet the eager Michael, the local Taita Falcon guide, and sure enough he already had it staked out for us. It was perch high on the cliff feeding on a small bird. This is surely one of, if not the most beautiful falcon, along with being one of the rarest. The steep cliffs and in particular the vegetation below the road produced White-bellied Sunbird a Yellow-throated Barbet and many Cape White-eyes and Red-winged Starlings, but the Mocking Cliff Chat was only heard.
From here it was a long journey westwards with planned and unplanned stops finally ending up north of Pretoria at dusk. As we dropped out of the mountains and into the lowveld we would pass Amur Falcons, Black-shouldered Kites, White-winged Widows and a foraging flock of White and Abdim’s Storks. One unscheduled stop was for a fast leaking tyre which turned out to have a screw in it. Once repaired and back on the road, we encountered many miles of another monoculture landscape, this time maize (corn) fields, for as far as the eye could see.
Kwa Ndaba is set in the middle of a 600 hectares game reserve with beautiful buildings of stone and mortar, wooden posts and beams and thatched roofs, with a three story structure doubling as a bar and lookout tower. Following dinner we piled into the back of a 4×4 and headed out for an hours night drive in the hopes of Leopard or Caracal. We saw neither, only a few wildebeest, Scrub Hares and Red Hartebeest with the usual birds, Spotted Thick-knee and Feiry-necked Nightjars once again seen well on the tracks.
Day 20 / Jan 24 – Kwa Ndaba Game ranch; Zaagkuilsdrift Road ;Transfer to Jo’burg Airport
We started the morning birding the acacia grounds of the Kwa Ndaba Lodge, where we had several close encounters with the stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike. We also had splendid views of a small group of Burnt-necked Eremomelas. Marico Flycatcher, with its silvery underparts, was common, and we also found a couple of Black-chested Prinias.
We then proceeded for a short drive along Zaagkuilsdrift road, where we wanted to sample some other habitats, most notably open grassland. In the grassland, we encountered Northern Black Korhaan, Desert Cisticola, and others. In open savannah, we quickly located a few new birds for the trip: a beautiful Shaft-tailed Whydah, good numbers of Scaly-feathered Finches and White-browed Sparrow-weavers and their untidy nests. Following an early lunch we then drove to Johannesburg airport for the flight back to New York.