SOUTH AFRICA AND LESOTHO: 27 OCTOBER - NOVEMBER 21, 2000
Eric & Lorna Salzman, Roland van der Vliet, John & Elize McAllister
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Full Bird List
October 27 - Arrival at Cape Town. Drive through the Hottentot's Holland Mountains to Bredasdorp and De Hoop Vlei Nature Reserve on the coast east of Cape Town. Overnight at Martha's Guest House on a farm near De Hoop Vlei.
October 28 - Morning at De Hoop Vlei. Afternoon drive to Northern Cape and Bushmanland with overnight at Die Tuishuis in Calvinia.
October 29 - Morning at Akkerendam Nature Reserve. Afternoon drive through Brandvlei and Kenhardt to Upington. Overnight at De Eiland Resort, Upington, on an island in the Orange River.
October 30 - Morning at De Eiland Resort and Spitzkop Nature Reserve on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Afternoon to Augrabies National Park on the falls of the Orange River where we overnight.
October 31 - Morning in Augrabies National Park. Afternoon drive to Pofadder and Aggenys near the Namibian border and then south on back roads to the Red Lark site and on to bed and breakfast at the isolated Diepvlei ranch or farm.
November 1 - Red Lark road and vicinity in the morning. Afternoon drive to Springbok and Port Nolloth on the Atlantic Coast. Overnight at McDougall's Bay Chalets on the coast.
November 2 - Morning at Port Nolloth and coastal road north through the diamond dunes. Afternoon to Springbok and Goegap Nature Reserve near Springbok. Overnight at Goegap.
November 3 - Early morning at Goegap. Early departure for long trip to Simonstown on the Cape Peninsula with one stop in the Kamieskroon area on the way. Visit to The Boulders penguin colony near Simonstown. Overnight in the British Hotel, Simonstown, opposite the boat dock.
November 4 - Pelagic trip from Simonstown off the Cape of Good Hope. Late afternoon birding on the Cape Peninsula with Richard Grant (with whom we spend the next four days) in the Cape Town and Western Cape area.
November 5 - Cape Town area fynbos including Sir Lowry's Pass and Old Wagon Road area, Rooi Els on False Bay, Helderberg Nature Reserve, and Paarl Sewage Works/Nature Reserve. Overnight at the Villa Fig, Constantia.
November 6 - Morning at De Hel Reserve in Constantia, Koeberg wheat fields and Tienie Verster Flower Reserve near Darling, and on to the West Coast National Park, Berg River estuary at Laaiplek, Aurora and the Piketberg Mountains. Overnight in Mountain Mist cabins, Piketberg Mountain Natural Heritage site, above Aurora and above the clouds.
November 7 - Morning birding around the Mountain Mist cabins. Afterwards to Karoopoort Pass, Karoopoort Picnic Area and Tierkloof where we stay. Afternoon visit to Katbakkies.
November 8 - Karoopoort Picnic Area, Paarl Mountain Park, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and Strandfontein in Cape Town. Overnight back at the Villa Fig.
November 9 - Early morning flight to Durban in the state or province of KwaZulu/Natal. Drive to Eshowe and visit to local forests and to farming and wetland areas in the vicinity. Overnight in the Dew Drop Inn, Eshowe.
November 10 - Morning in Dlinza and Ntumeni Forests. Drive to Richard's Bay and the resort of St. Lucia. Overnight in the Sea Sands Lodge, St. Lucia.
November 11 - Morning in the St. Lucia area including the Cape Vidal Road. Drive to Bonamanzi Private Game Reserve where we overnight.
November 12 - Morning in the Bonamanzi Private Game Reserve. Afternoon drive to nearby Mkhuze Game Reserve where we overnight.
November 13 - All day in Mkhuze with second overnight.
November 14 - All day drive from Mkhuze through the double provincial park of Umfolozi-Hluhluwe. Overnight back at the Dew Drop Inn, Eshowe.
November 15 - Morning at various forest areas near Eshowe (Mtunzini, Ongoye, Dlinza). Afternoon drive to Underberg. Overnight at Robin Guy's farm in Underberg.
November 16 - After early morning stops in the Underberg area, the day is spent in Robin Guy's 4x4 on the Sani Pass and in the independent country of Lesotho. After the descent back into South Africa, early evening birding in the Underberg area. Overnight at Robin Guy's farm.
November 17 - Morning birding in the Underberg area. Afterwards we meet Malcolm Gemmell at the Xumeni Forest. Overnight at Smithfield, the Gemmell family farm near Creighton.
November 18 - Morning birding with Malcolm Gemmell in the Creighton area. Afternoon drive through grasslands to Ladysmith. Overnight at Blanerne, the Mitchell-Innes family farm near Ladysmith.
November 19 - Morning birding on the Mitchell-Innes property. Afternoon drive to Wakkerstroom with a visit, in heavy rain and wind, to local grasslands and falcon roost at Volksrust. Overnight at the Beautiful Just Bed and Breakfast of John and Elize McAllister in Wakkerstroom.
November 20 - Morning birding in the Wakkerstroom grasslands in bad weather. Afternoon drive past Johannesburg and Pretoria to Nylsvley Nature Reserve. Evening birding in the Nyl River floodplain. Overnight at the Boekenhout Guest Farm near Nylsvley.
November 21 - Morning birding at Nylsvley. Afternoon drive (with one detour) to the Johannesburg International Airport.
South Africa (including Lesotho) is a major birding destination with c. 800 species and close to 150 Southern African endemics or near-endemics. South Africa is an active birding country, its avifauna is well known and there are excellent field guides. It is a beautiful and highly scenic place with many protected natural areas and, in addition to the birds, a good representation of the African megafauna with many large mammals, some of which are endemic or rare elsewhere. Infrastructure is excellent with good roads and comfortable places to stay. The perception that the crime rate is high is probably of little consequence to visitors who avoid the inner cities and take reasonable precautions. In all other respects, South Africans are very friendly and welcoming to visitors.
Due to the favourable exchange rate for the dollar and other western currencies, costs are reasonable. Excellent information about where to bird is easily available and knowledgeable local birders and/or bird guides are easy to find and extremely helpful. The regular pelagic trips out of the Cape Town area past the Cape of Good Hope are among the best in the world.
There are basically two areas with high endemism: Cape Town and its back country and the state or province of KwaZulu/Natal. The Cape peninsula itself and the Western Cape hold many of the birds of interest and include both fynbos and karoo, the dry, rangeland habitats that are unique to this part of the world. The Northern Cape continues the karoo habitat north, through Namaqualand and Bushmanland, to the Orange River, the Namibian border and the Kalahari Desert; many additional endemic species can be found here. The coastal and maritime areas along the Atlantic coast and in the Cape Town/Cape of Good Hope region are also very birdy and of high interest.
The Western and Northern Cape form one of the six described floristic regions of the world and the one with the highest species diversity and endemism. There are spectacular blooms in the spring and floral richness throughout much of the year. Good winter rains in 2000 helped to produce extensive flowering in the spring and the evidence of this was still visible at the time of our visit in late October/early November, already considered summer in these parts.
KwaZulu/Natal, on the Indian Ocean, is wet and subtropical. Although much of it has been converted to sugar cane and eucalyptus plantations, some of its coastal forests are protected and, in its northern reaches, there are typical East African savannahs which have been preserved as classic African "game parks" (which, by the way, can only be visited in and inside a vehicle). To the south-east, the imposing Drakensberg range surrounds the independent kingdom of Lesotho and provides scenery and habitat for many endemics and other speciality birds. The central and northern part of the province contains extensive and distinctive high grasslands known as Highveld. Each of these habitats contains many endemics, some highly localised and threatened.
Other areas, mostly not covered in this trip report, include the southern coastal forests in the Eastern Cape and extensive savannah and wetlands areas to the north (represented here only by a short visit to the Nylsvley Reserve). Most of the endemics that can be found in the southern forests can also be found in the Western Cape and/or in the KwaZulu/Natal forests. The large part of South Africa north of Johannesburg and Pretoria, including the famous Kruger Park (not visited), has an East African avifauna and fewer endemics.
Day 1, 27 October: Our flight from London to Cape Town is met by Elize and John McAllister. Our original plan was to bird KwaZulu/Natal with John but we have expressed a desire to visit the Northern Cape--Bushmanland and Namaqualand--and John and Elize have offered to join us even though it means a major drive from their home in Wakkerstroom. The dry rangelands known as karoo (this part is sometimes referred to as the Great Karoo), the desert environs near the Botswana and Namibian borders and the coastal areas of the Northern Cape are all prime territory for endemics which are principal objects of our chase.
After a long stop at the bank for the purpose of cashing travellers' checks (in the local vernacular, "cheques") and fitfully extract Rand from a cash machine, we head east to De Hoop Vlei Nature Reserve. Our route takes us through Sir Lowry's Pass in the Hottentot's Holland Mountains (a small group of Orange-breasted Sunbirds), the Cape wheat-fields (Blue Cranes) and Bredasdorp (Black Goshawk, female Southern Black Korhaan), the southernmost point of our trip. Evening at Martha's Guest House on a farm near the Reserve.
Day 2, 28 October: De Hoop Vlei consists of scrub- or fynbos- covered hills sloping down to wetlands enclosed by a barrier beach system of dunes on the Indian Ocean. There is a pair of Fiscal Flycatchers nesting at the park entrance, Stanley's Bustard is in full display and we see our first mousebirds (the species here is the Speckled; we will eventually find all three South African species). Many of the best birds are well inside the reserve in a small, deep, wooded ravine that descends a short distance and opens out onto a wetlands. A pair of rare Knysna Woodpeckers (a Red Data book species and a new bird for the McAllisters as well as for us) are hiding inside a tree, Southern Boubou is walking around on the ground, and the Little Rush (or African Sedge) Warbler is also uncharacteristically out in the open. Although this is one of the best and most active birding countries in the world, this is the only time, apart from the pelagic trip, that we run into South African birders; the lure is the rare woodpecker which they help us to find. Also seen at De Hoop Vlei is the first of many unusual South African larks; Agulhas Long-billed Lark is a spin-off from the recent six-way split of Long-billed Larks and a highly localised species.
South African birds are relatively well-known and documented but they are subject to all the usual contemporary taxonomic upheavals. A big additional complication is that many of the common names are being revised in order to bring local English usage into line with the rest of Africa and the world. This creates a lot of confusion which can be exemplified by the Little Rush Warbler (formerly African Sedge Warbler) and its wetlands companions, African Reed-Warbler (formerly African Marsh Warbler) and Lesser Swamp-Warbler (formerly Cape Reed Warbler). Sometimes it seems as though every book, every reference, and every birder has a different set of names.
After breakfast at the farm, we embark on the long drive to the Northern Cape and Bushmanland passing through farm lands, wine country and the Great Karoo. This takes us from the land of the Stanley's (or Denham's) Bustard into the territory of Ludwig's. We spend the night in Calvinia in Die Tuishuis, a picturesque old town house from the Voortrekker or Afrikaans pioneer period.
Day 3, 29 October: Morning in the Akkerendam Nature Reserve in a striking mountain valley (South Africa is much more mountainous than one thinks) where we hear Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and chase it without success. There are, however, some successes including Black Harrier, Cape Bunting, Karoo Long-billed and Karoo Larks, and no less than five chats: Sickle-winged, Karoo, Tractrac, Familiar and Mountain.
Afterwards, we have another long drive north passing through Brandvlei and Kenhardt (Bradfield's Lark, a split from Sabota Lark; Rufous-eared Warbler; and the first of many Sociable Weaver colonies with their huge, communal nests). We arrive after dark in Upington on the Gariep or Orange River where we stay at De Eiland Holiday Resort on, appropriately enough, a large island in the river.
Day 4, 30 October: Early morning birds at De Eiland include a flock of Wattled Starlings and the dark local subspecies of Olive Thrush with a distinctive dawn song which the McAllisters do not at first recognise. After breakfast in town, we decide to return to De Eiland but the guardians of this gated resort don't want to let us back for more than a few minutes without paying a new fee. Even so, in the short time allowed, we chalk up Lesser Honeyguide, African Palm Swift, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and Pririt Batis.
Spitzkop Private Nature Reserve is a private semi-desert grassland park on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Here we have our first glimpses of some African mega-mammals and good desert birds including Kalahari Scrubrobin, a small Scaly-feathered Finch flock and big flocks of Gray-backed Sparrow- or Finch-Larks; also Common Buttonquail, Double-banded Courser, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Fawn-coloured Lark, Black-chested Prinia and Red-headed Finch.
Afternoon to Augrabies National Park on the falls of the Orange River where we stay in cabins.
Day 5, 31 October: Morning in the park. Acacia Pied Barbet is nesting by the park headquarters, Pale-winged Starlings steal food from the restaurant deck and an Ashy Tit is found working a nearby acacia. Namaqua Warblers are singing as are numerous White-throated Canaries. The tame Cape Francolin or Spurfowl pose for photos and the even tamer Cape White-eyes of the distinctive Gariep/Orange River pallidus subspecies insist on landing on our sneakers, perhaps trying to call attention to their bid to become a full species. In many ways, the best bird of the morning was a less tame, rather out-of-range, incessantly calling Greater Honeyguide.
After breakfast, we drive to Pofadder and Aggenys near the Namibian border. The birds on this stretch include a Verreaux's Eagle perched on a rock by the roadside and a flock of 14 Rosy-faced Lovebirds. Many of the sparse telephone poles and isolated small trees have enormous Social Weaver nests built on and around them. A confusing detour takes us to an isolated farm which features Pygmy Falcon, Common Scimitarbill, White-browed Sparrow-Weavers and a friendly farmer who is somehow both laconic and loquacious. Later his son comes after us, not to chase us but to offer help. Father and son are both quite cognisant of their birds and encourage us to look around.
Eventually our exploration of local roads takes us to the Red Lark site which consists of several ancient lines of hills or dunes in an open, semi-desert environment. These dune areas are the habitat for this globally threatened species but at the moment they appear quite Red Lark-less. As we arrive at Diepvlei farm towards evening, we pass three Spotted Dikkops or Thick-knees, seven Greater Kestrels, two Cape Eagle Owls (untypical habitat but very well seen in good light with orange eyes, bold breast/belly barring and large size), two Spotted Eagle Owls (smaller size, yellow eyes and more delicate barring) and a Marsh Owl right at the entrance to the farm (apparently Marsh Owls occur in dry as well as wet habitat).
Diepvlei is a remote farm or ranch south of the Pofadder-Springbok Road in deep karoo country; it is a remarkably comfy, even luxurious place but incredibly isolated. The karoo grasslands have a beauty of their own and they are surprisingly birdy but it is an incredible feeling to stand at this homestead and look around to see 360 degrees of a vast rolling nothingness. Perhaps there are places in Texas that are as empty but much of the American West feels positively overcrowded compared to this. We have the sense that some of the farm families run their B&Bs as much for the company as for the money!
Day 6, 1 November: Spotted Eagle Owls are nesting in one of the outbuildings at Diepvlei and we are greeted by two hissing young birds and one very upset adult. We backtrack to the Red Lark site to find some of the larks now in full display above the sand hills or dunes. There are other good birds around as well including Karoo and Northern Black Korhaans as well as single Stark's and Pink-billed Larks.
In the afternoon we drive to Springbok in Namaqualand and Port Nolloth, a curiously depressed fishing/resort town on the Atlantic where we overnight in some seaside cabins. The cool, grey overcast gives a gloomy atmosphere to the place but doesn't interfere with the birding which is excellent. Shore birding at Port Nolloth includes a pair of Damara Terns, virtually the first birds seen on the beach and, as it turns out, our only sighting of this species. Also present are good numbers of African Black Oystercatchers and White-fronted Plovers, many European migrant waders, Grey-headed and Hartlaub's Gulls, all four coastal cormorants, and a single Jackass (or African) Penguin.
Day 7, 2 November: After morning birding at Port Nolloth, we drive north along the shore through dunes and scrub-land to find Barlow's and Cape Long-billed Lark. This coastal road is lined with barbed wire fences and threatening "KEEP OUT!" signs; these dunes are one of the country's principal diamond mining areas!
We retrace our tracks to Springbok and go up to the nearby Goegap Nature Reserve. Goegap is notable for its outdoor museum of Cape plant life. The Western and Northern Cape provinces form one of the major botanical regions of the world and one of the richest, with the highest diversity of flowering plants anywhere. This includes a very large number of succulents and some of the world's most exotic flora: plants that look like stones (lithops or stone flowers), aloes that look like cacti, bird-pollinated proteas, the Joshua-tree-like Quiver Tree and thousands of others. Namaqualand's spring burst of wildflowers is a major tourist attraction but even in early November (full summer in these parts), the floral variety is astonishing.
A drive up a rocky road into the mountains of the reserve turns up a colony of Hairy-footed Gerbils and a number of birds including Southern Grey Tit, Karoo Chat, Karoo Eremomela (a lifer for all of us including the McAllisters), a flock of Black-headed Canaries and Long-billed Crombec.
Overnight in a picturesque cabin in the Reserve. Our bird list to date is just under 200 species and a little less than half of them are endemics.
Day 8, 3 November: An early-morning look around Goegap is more notable for rabbiting than birding (the rare and localised Smith's Red Rock Rabbit is the Catch of the Day). Afterwards, we undertake the long drive to the Cape Peninsula, broken only by a stop at a pass up from Kamieskroon to Leliefontein in another vain search for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler; there are Pied Barbets, Yellow Bishop, and Long-billed Crombecs but, as usual, no C-b (or is it G-d?) Warbler.
In picturesque Simonstown on the Cape, we take temporary leave of the McAllisters. Overnight is in the so-called British Hotel, directly opposite the dock from which our pelagic boat leaves tomorrow morning. This hostelry turns out to be a sumptuous old-fashioned Victorian residence with wood panelling, polished brass, flowering courtyard, superb views and huge spaces. Our flat has two wide and lavishly furnished floors, its walls covered with pictures of Winston Churchill and the Queen. Other features are a bathroom bigger than many New York apartments and a balcony overlooking the harbour. This is easily the most palatial place any of us have ever stayed in and, because the Rand is low, it all goes for a very modest rent. It is still early in the afternoon and we have time to walk down the coast road to The Boulders, site of a good-sized colony of Jackass or African Penguins (one of the very few mainland colonies of any species of penguin) and also, as we have heard, host to a Greater Sheathbill visiting from the Antarctic. In the event, there are plenty of close-up penguins but no sheathbill.
Day 9, 4 November: As we walk onto the dock in Simonstown, preparing to board the boat that will take us on our pelagic trip, Roland and Eric are astonished to see Martyn Sidwell, their British birding mate in The Gambia two years ago. By the sheerest of coincidences, he is visiting South Africa with his family and is booked on the same pelagic trip out of Simonstown!
This pelagic is not a major ocean voyage but the passage can be rough. Or so we are told; today it is perfectly calm. The boat passes quickly out through False Bay and past the Cape of Good Hope, somewhere near the junction of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The practice here is not to chum but to find active fishing boats which attract clouds of birds. This is one of the most productive spots in the world for pelagics. Today, although there is nothing truly rare, there are literally thousands of birds including three species of albatross (dozens if not hundreds of Shy, Yellow-nosed and Black-browed), Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, many Pintado and White-chinned Petrels, several species of shearwaters and storm-petrels, many Sabine's Gulls, Antarctic Skua and other skuas/jaegers (including Arctic Skua which translates into American as Parasitic Jaeger). One large white-backed albatross gives everyone a start (the big guys, Wandering and Royal Albatrosses, are white-backed while the others are not) but it is apparently just a large, aberrant Shy (photos of this bird by both Roland and Martyn later turn up on the South African Zest for Birds web site together with some hints about a breeding island off Australia where the bird might have originated). The calm weather allows superb looks at all 16 species that are around but is also blamed for the lack of rarities. [Later we find out that two forms of the Yellow-nosed Albatross, the common Atlantic and the rarer Indian, were reported but, at the time, we were not aware of the split nor did we hear the call.]
On our relatively early return, Richard Grant is waiting for us at the dock and we have time to revisit the nearby penguin colony and check another coastal area looking for the sheathbill and any lingering Antarctic Terns that may still be around. Alas, no sheathbill, no lingering terns. We plan the next few days over dinner at a popular seafood restaurant on the dock before returning to the British Hotel.
Day 10, 5 November: Today is spent in the Cape Town area birding with Richard Grant in the fynbos (pronounced "FAINE- bowss"). This is the local equivalent of chaparral or maquis (the name means "miniature woods") and it is as flowery and as birdy as the karoo. The trail near Sir Lowry's Pass partly follows the Old Wagon Road, formerly the main approach to Cape Town but now merely a dirt track. The road is notable for its cannons (which were used to signal the arrival of the postman and, perhaps, also of enemy troops) and also its superb endemics. It takes a little work to pull out the birds. Victorin's Warbler is skulky in dense fynbos but eventually shows. We scramble up the rocks chasing Cape Rockjumper and, as usual, after we have, with great effort, located a couple of them, they start to turn up all over the place. Other endemics include Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird and Cape Siskin and there are even some species that Richard says are rare this close to Cape Town (notably Martial Eagle and Fork-tailed Drongo).
Later, we drive to Rooi Els on the rocky east shore of False Bay (Cape Rock Thrush; better views of Cape Rockjumper and Cape Siskin), to Helderberg Nature Reserve (Levaillant's Cisticolas feeding young on a nest; several species of waterfowl), and to Paarl Sewage Works/Nature Observatory (Little Bittern, Water Dikkop or Thick-knee, many waterfowl and a mixed-species heronry).
Overnight in the Villa Fig, Constantia.
Day 11: 6 November: Today's birding with Richard Grant starts at De Hel Reserve in Constantia which allows good looks at Red-chested Cuckoo and the elusive Knysna Warbler (which comes out of its usually dense shrubbery to scold us from a tree!). It also features singing European Chaffinch, an introduced bird which Roland declines to even look at (along with Willow Warblers, Chaffinches might be the most common native birds in northern Europe). We are then joined by Richard's wife, Ria, and head out to the Koeberg wheat-fields (Wattled Starling flock, Cape Long-billed Lark) and Tienie Verster Flower Reserve near Darling where we find the distinctive, streaked Western Cape subspecies of the Cloud Cisticola, a good candidate for a split.
Afterwards, we drive to the West Coast National Park whose blinds or hides feature shorebird viewing that includes Kittlitz's and Mongolian or Lesser Sand Plover. The Park also has a lot of very tame Cape Francolin or Spurfowl and a party of birders from Finland. Heading north from the Park, we pass the Berg River Estuary at Laaiplek (Greater and Lesser Flamingos and many shorebirds) and then inland to Aurora and the Piketberg Mountains. After a long climb up on a bad road, we reach the Piketberg Mountain Natural Heritage Site and the Mountain Mist cabins, literally perched above Aurora and the clouds.
Day 12: 7 November: Morning birding around the Mountain Mist cabins. The principal object of our visit here is the rare Protea Canary and both mountain mist and canary are co-operative, the former by going away and allowing us to view the latter. Afterwards we drive down into the karoo through the Karoopoort Pass and the Karoopoort Picnic Area (Layard's Tit-Babbler) which provides us with still another chance not to find Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. Also in this area are a dead aardvark or anteater and a very live Black-backed Jackal, loping along the side of the road seemingly looking for a break in the fencing.
We drive across another long stretch of wide-open karoo to the base of a line of hills and a farm- or ranch establishment called Tierkloof or Animal Valley, The building where we will stay, a curious, whitewashed structure, is owned by the eccentric Mr. Rudd who drops by to pay a courtesy call. John Rudd is the great grandson of Charles Rudd, an early gold and diamond mining magnate who commissioned a couple of nineteenth-century ornithological expeditions and thereby obtained immortality with a lark and a warbler (or, to be precise, an apalis) named for him. The building is said to be an old fort although exactly what there was to defend here is not very clear. At any rate, Mr. Rudd has fixed it up as a rather picturesque, somewhat primitive but not uncomfortable B&B and added a shady (but windy) covered picnic deck, a trail up into the karoo and, yes, a swimming pool. There is no electricity.
As it is still early, we drive to a little ravine with water which carries the curious name of Katbakkies. Once again we hear the Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, this time calling from the top of a rather steep rocky escarpment. Roland is determined not to let it get away yet again and scampers right up after it like a mountain goat with Eric puffing on up behind. Miraculously, the bird comes out in the open and perches on a rock, displaying its cinnamon breast in full sunlight.
Back at Tierkloof in the gloaming, Clapper Larks clap away in their scrub display and a distant Rufous-cheeked Nightjar calls. This is Our Blue Karoo Heaven ("When Whip-poor-wills call..." etc).
Day 13: 8 November: We wend our way back to Cape Town with stops at the Karoopoort Picnic Area (Chestnut-vented AND Layard's Titbabbler; Fairy Flycatcher) and the attractive Paarl Mountain Park (Forest Buzzard, African Dusky Flycatcher, Black Saw-wing, Swee Waxbill, Bully Canary). We finish the day in Cape Town walking the back slopes of Table Mountain at the handsome Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (Rameron or African Olive Pigeon, Cinnamon or Lemon Dove) and driving the dikes of the less handsome but very birdy sewage-works reserve of Strandfontein (Maccoa Duck, Purple Swamphen, White-winged Tern, good numbers of waterfowl and waders).
Overnight again at Villa Fig.
Day 14: 9 November: Early morning flight from Cape Town to Durban where we are once again met by John McAllister. This is a very different world. The back country in the Western and Northern Cape is dry, semi-desert and thinly populated; KwaZulu/Natal is wet and green with the population spread out across the countryside. The farms in the Karoo are huge, empty cattle ranches with livestock numbers strictly limited to prevent overgrazing and preserve the natural vegetation. In KwaZulu/Natal much of the native vegetation has been cleared for sugar cane cultivation and endless dreary eucalyptus plantations. Only in a few places--mountain and shore areas and in the northern Natal game parks--has the original forest and savannah vegetation and the local animal and bird life been preserved relatively intact.
There are other unique features. The city of Durban, surrounded by Indian Ocean resorts, has a large Indian population and, as we drive through on our way to Eshowe, we see many Hindu and Sikh temples. The common weed birds here are Indian Myna, the indicus or Indian race of House Sparrow and House Crow which seems to have crossed the Indian Ocean from India by boat. Durban has the look of an unfinished city surrounded by extensive rich and poor suburbs.
Eshowe, back a bit from the coast, is an attractive country seat with forest coming right up into town. We pick up Hamish McLaggan, the senior birding maven of north-east Natal, and get to work. Almost all the birds here are new and many of them are Afrotropical, quite different from what we have been seeing. Right in town we see Abdim's Stork, Purple-crested Lourie or Turaco, Trumpeter Hornbill, White-eared Barbet, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Southern Black Flycatcher, Black or Amethyst and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, and the local race of Cape White-eye. The Dlinza Forest has Narina Trogons, singing Emerald Cuckoo, a pair of Crowned Hornbills, Square-tailed Drongo, Black-backed Puffback, the ruddy morph of the Olive Bushshrike, Eastern Olive and Collared Sunbirds, Thick-billed and Forest Weavers, and, at a small, baited hide inside the forest, Red-backed Mannikins. Later, we drive out of town to investigate a local dam and its lake (Mountain or Long-tailed Wagtail; Giant Kingfisher) as well as farm areas with wetlands, cut-over sugar cane and birds (Black Crake; Natal Spurfowl; Red-shouldered and Red-collared Widows; Yellow-fronted Canary). In one place, as we try to enter a local cattle farm, the car has to be sprayed underneath for hoof-and-mouth disease which is endemic here.
Overnight in the Dew Drop Inn (sic) in Eshowe.
Day 15: 10 November: After visiting the Dlinza and Ntumeni Forests in and near Eshowe (Delagorgue's or Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Chorister Robinchat, Brown Scrubrobin), we drive to Richard's Bay and St. Lucia with Hamish McLaggan. Richard's Bay is an ugly industrial area but it is full of birds and provides our only sightings of several species including African Pygmy Goose and Brown-throated Weaver.
St. Lucia is a resort town and the heart of a large, protected coastal area which we explore to a limited degree, failing to find either the Palm-nut Vulture or the Black-throated Wattle-eye, and getting only poor looks at Livingstone's Lourie or Turaco in flight. We do find the Yellowbill or Green Coucal hiding in the dense centre of a leafy tree; this can be a difficult bird.
Overnight in the Sea Sands Lodge, St. Lucia.
Day 16: 11 November: Birding in the St. Lucia area--Yellow-breasted and Rudd's Apalis (thank you, Mr. Rudd), Woodward's Batis, Yellowbill again--and on the nearby Cape Vidal Road looking for hawks (Long-crested Eagle and a disputed Snake-Eagle). There is a blind here overlooking a large body of water with our first hippos.
Afterwards we drive to the Bonamanzi Private Game Reserve where we have good looks at Eastern Nicator (often heard but reputedly difficult to see), Mouse-coloured or Grey Sunbird and Green-backed Camaroptera or Bleating Warbler, the last-named regarded as a good species in South Africa but as only a subspecies of the Grey-backed Camaroptera by others). We pursue one of the more obscure dirt tracks on the Reserve to Dinizulu Camp which will be our home away from home. A drenching tropical downpour lasts a quarter of an hour or so but clears off by the time we go to dinner at the nearby Lalapanzi Camp. Afterwards, a night drive produces a pair of African Wood Owls and the rare Red Duiker but not the hoped-for Swamp or Natal Nightjars.
The Dinizulu Camp accommodations suggest a charming, slightly run-down sub-tropical resort. The cabins or chalets are by a lake (Striated Heron) and face a central swimming pool with an apparently involuntary resident: a Platanna frog that has jumped in and does not seem to be able to find its way out up the slippery slope of the pool edge. We leave him to his fate and retire to our accommodations. We had to share dinner and the night drive with a busload of Dutch tourists but, except for the frog, we have the sleep-in camp to ourselves.
Day 17: 12 November: Morning in Bonamanzi with, among other things, Crested Guineafowl, Tambourine Dove, Kurrichane Thrush, Red-capped Robinchat, Chinspot Batis, Yellow White-eye, Lemon-breasted Canary (a localised endemic) and various weavers.
Afternoon drive to Mkhuze Game Reserve. This is the "big game" portion of our trip--we are now seeing Hippopotamus, Giraffe and Zebra in some numbers. As in most of the African "game parks," we are not supposed to get out of our vehicle; in fact, we bend the rule on occasion but, overwhelmed by guilt or prudence or both, never venture far. However you are allowed to park, get out and walk to the strategically-placed hides and our first stop in Mkhuze is a hide that overlooks a waterhole and the grassland beyond. Lesser Striped Swallows perch right in front of us on the lip of the structure, tortoises stack up on top of each other on rocks in the pond, while on the other side a Secretarybird, strutting its stuff in the grassy savannah beyond, majestically saunters by. Our second stop is by the side of the road for a good look at the bizarre Crested Barbet. Savannah birdlife, typically East African, is abundant. Most of the species here are more widespread than those in the fynbos or karoo but three of them, Southern Yellow- billed Hornbill, Neergaard's Sunbird and White-throated Robinchat, are good local endemics.
Our cabins in Mkhuze come with a resident and incessantly-calling Red-fronted Tinkerbird. A night drive produces several Spotted Eagle Owls and Fiery-necked Nightjar as well as Bushbaby and Genet.
Day 18: 13 November: All day at Mkhuze. The once seriously endangered White Rhino is now quite common here and reason enough to stay inside your vehicle. This is the best area in Africa for both rhinos but we never manage to find the Black, which is now the rarer of the two. A Mozambique Cobra offers us still another reason to stay inside the vehicle; as we almost run it over, it rears up, flattens its head and threatens the van.
Savannah birds include Lilac-breasted and Broad-billed Rollers; African Hoopoe and Green (or Red-billed) Woodhoopoe; three different hornbills; Crested, Black-collared and White-eared Barbets; Southern Black Tit; several bulbuls; White Helmet-shrike; various starlings (including oxpeckers or, rather, giraffepeckers); five different sunbirds (Purple-banded, Neergaard's, White-bellied, Eastern Olive and Scarlet-chested); and various finch types including Golden-breasted Bunting.
Wood Owls are calling around the cabins as Hamish organises a "real South African braai," an all-the-meat-you-can-eat style barbecue.
Day 19: 14 November: We spend a full day driving through Umfolozi-Hluhluwe Game Reserve. This double park is full of big animals and includes our first and only African Elephant, a truly gigantic bull who entirely blocked the road (when he finally moved, the driver of the car ahead of us literally skidded past in his anxiety to get by). Other animals of note were Buffalo and a rare daylight sighting of a Spotted Hyena trotting along right next to the vehicle. The birds here are similar to Bonamanzi and Mkhuze but included Wire-tailed and Red-breasted Swallows and our only Black Cuckooshrike; also good looks at both Orange-Breasted and Grey-headed Bushshrikes (no bushshrike is easy to see) and a Black-crowned Tchagra. A major miss was the Southern Ground Hornbill, a bird that eluded us entirely on this trip.
Overnight back at the Dew Drop Inn in Eshowe.
Day 20: 15 November: An early-morning return to Mtunzini near the coast produced the heretofore missing Palm-nut Vulture. The rest of the morning was spent in Ongoye Forest where we saw the endemic Woodward's Barbet at its only site (it is either a subspecies of the rare but more widespread Green Barbet or an isolated endemic of very restricted range) and Yellow-streaked Bulbul or Greenbul. We pay a last, brief visit back to the Dlinza Forest in Eshowe trying for a few missing birds, notably the Green Twinspot which is supposed to come to the hide but apparently only does so when we are not inside.
We say good-bye to Hamish McLaggan and drive to Underberg to overnight at Robin Guy's farm. A group of Swedish birders had booked the guest cottage, so we are billeted in the main house and enjoy the warm hospitality that is a special feature of staying in the South African B&Bs.
Day 21: 16 November: Robin Guy's garden turns out to be a notable birding spot. Robin not only puts out seed to attract birds but smears peanut butter on the bark of a tree, a convenient alternative to suet that attracted a number of birds including the only Olive Woodpecker of the trip. Other birds seen in the garden included the endemic Drakensberg Prinia, Pin-tailed Whydah, Cape Robinchat and flocks (!) of African Hoopoes on the lawn.
After an early morning stop in Underberg for Grey Crowned and Wattled Cranes (the latter Globally Threatened), we are treated to one of the great experiences South Africa has to offer: a hair-raising drive up the Sani Pass into Lesotho in Robin Guy's 4x4. Lesotho is a fairy-tale mountain kingdom guarded by the huge escarpments of the Drakensberg. The Afrikaans name means Dragon Mountain so "Drakensberg Mountains" translates literally as "Dragon Mountain Mountains." The isiZulu name is "Barrier of Spears". It certainly appears that giants and ogres have built these barricades and, not surprisingly, a nearby tourist site is called Giant's Castle.
The Sani Pass Road is anything but touristic; it is a miserable switchback affair with sheer drop-offs at every turn and a surface that is mostly just rock and rubble. At one point, an ancient stalled bus blocks most of the road leaving barely enough room for us to squeeze by the precipice with mere millimetres to spare. At the top we are greeted by a lowering cold mist, by the reputedly highest pub in Africa (a miserable looking affair but the only place to stay for many, many miles), by a high, rocky/grassy plain and, a bit further on, by a long, deeply cleft valley or ravine with eagles and lammergeiers. The only visible inhabitants besides the birds are grazing semi-wild horses with a few attendant Basutho horse herders wrapped in heavy blankets (the country is Lesotho and the language is Sesotho but the people are Basutho!).
Hair-raising or no, the pass and the highlands of Lesotho are birdy. Red-throated Wryneck, Bush Blackcap, Gurney's Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Rockjumper, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and a pair of Drakensberg Siskins at a nest are highlights of the ride up. At the top are Sentinel Rock Thrush, Southern Grey Tit, Mountain Pipit (a recent split from African or Grassveld Pipit), Cape Vulture (several soaring birds of this globally threatened species), Lammergeier and the elusive Rock or Yellow-tufted Pipit which takes a considerable effort to pry and spy out of the rocks. On the way back, just before the descent, a Lanner Falcon and a Southern Bald Ibis appear on the ground near the road; the latter is the only individual of this globally threatened species to cross our path.
We arrive at the South African border control just a few minutes before 4 p.m. at which time the border closes (if you don't make it, you have to sleep in your car or try for a room at "the highest pub in Africa"). On the way down, Robin regales us with stories about people trapped in Lesotho by sudden blizzards and found, dead or alive, days later. There is still time and light enough to bird under the berg, so to speak, and stops on the way down and in area wetlands and grasslands produce, among other things, African Snipe and Broad-tailed Warbler. Also seen on the way back is the superb Long-tailed Widow, a male widow who will accompany us in the next few days with his astounding vertical, hovering, open-field display designed to impress female widows and visiting bird-watchers alike by showing off his megacodaical tail! South Africa is a country of birds with big tails: Namaqua Dove, many turacos and cuckoos, mousebirds, woodhoopoes, Red-breasted and Blue Swallows, Paradise Flycatcher, Magpie or Long-tailed Shrike, Malachite Sunbird, and various wagtails as well as whydahs and widows.
Second overnight at the Guy's farm.
Day 22: 17 November: Some early morning birding in an old quarry near Underberg produces African Yellow Warbler and a bankside colony of Horus Swifts. Afterwards we drive up a dirt track into the Xumeni Forest where we meet Malcolm Gemmell. Here we are able to get good looks at Black Cuckoo, Grey Cuckooshrike, Forest Canary and, after a good bit of effort, the elusive Barratt's Warbler, a bird that calls loudly but insists on remaining hidden inside its favoured dense shrubbery. We also hear the spooky, ghostly hoot of the Buff-spotted Flufftail but, unlike the warbler, this bird does not make an appearance and we have to be content with the haunting call (flufftails, a distinctive group of African rails, are some of most difficult birds in the world to see). The Knysna Lourie or Turaco is calling and flying around here but no one can get a good look at it.
After the forest, we head to a grassland island in a sea of eucalypt and pine plantations to search for the threatened Blue Swallow. This beautiful species nests only in burrows in a few relatively undisturbed high-altitude grasslands from South Africa to Malawi; here its nest holes are in aardvark or anteater holes (in other areas it nests in old mine shafts). A pair of these birds are circling the small grassland area, a happy sight indeed. In the surrounding eucalypt forests, a pair of Forest Buzzards are in residence; this buteo, although sometimes lumped with the widespread Common (locally, Steppe) Buzzard, has a distinct nesting habitat and is regarded as a separate species in Africa.
We drive to Smithfield Farm near Creighton where Malcolm and Gail Gemmell run a B&B. On our arrival, we are greeted by Black Widow-finches, a.k.a. Variable Indigobirds, in the garden. Afternoon birding in the Creighton area includes a tramp through a rough field trying to flush Black-rumped Buttonquail (we put up some three dozen Common Quail and one Common Buttonquail but no Black-rumped). After dinner at the Gemmells' farm, we sit out on their porch and watch Spotted Eagle Owls cavorting in their garden.
Day 23: 18 November: Morning birding in Creighton area takes us to a high vantage point or overlook near some indigenous forest. This is one of the last strongholds of the Cape Parrot, the local and highly endangered form of the Brown-necked Parrot (if it is a separate species, as many think it ought to be, it is the most endangered in South Africa with fewer than 500 individuals remaining). Our early arrival at the site pays off when we hear the birds calling from the cliffs above and watch a pair of them fly off to their feeding grounds (ironically, Roland and Eric had more or less the same view of its Gambian cousin in 1998). Other birds seen here include an African Goshawk, Gurney's Sugarbird, African Yellow Warbler and an incessantly calling and displaying Black-headed Oriole at the top of the trees below us. Inside the forest, Roland gets a look at a perched Knysna Lourie or Turaco and everyone gets to see a White-starred Robin but we fail to find Orange Ground-Thrush.
The afternoon drive from Creighton to Ladysmith is largely through grasslands (this is the grassland segment of our trip) and produces Swainson's Spurfowl, Southern White-bellied Korhaan, the endemic Melodious Lark, Yellow-crowned or Golden Bishop and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting.
Overnight at Blanerne Farm, home of the Mitchell-Innes family.
Day 24: 19 November: Groundscraper Thrush, in the garden of Blanerne Farm, hops on the lawn like an American Robin or European Blackbird. The morning is spent on the vast Mitchell-Innes holdings in the Ladysmith area: Swainson's Spurfowl, Red-winged Francolin (alas, no Shelley's) and African Quail-finch. Driving through grasslands on the way to Wakkerstroom we notch Blue Korhaan and Ayres' or Wing-snapping Cisticola.
The weather, which is threatening, holds off for most of the day but things take a turn for the worse as we approach Wakkerstroom. In spite of the weather, we head up to the famous Wakkerstroom Highveld and Roland and Eric manage to flush a pair of endangered Yellow-breasted Pipits and two Eastern Long-billed Larks, thus completing our sweep of the four South African long-billed larks.
We are having trouble with the van so we make a stop at the nearby town of Volksrust for repairs after which there is just enough time to visit the local falcon roost; the "wintering" Amur Falcons have not yet arrived but, in the driving rain, with available light fast disappearing, we watch dozens of Lesser Kestrels coming into to the roost by the Volksrust railway tracks. This is a threatened bird that is fast disappearing from Europe and it is astonishing to see them hurtling through the storm by the dozen to get to their roost site.
Overnight at the Beautiful Just B&B run by the McAllisters in Wakkerstroom.
Day 25: 20 November: Morning in the Wakkerstroom area in cold, wet, windy weather. High winds and driving rain make the birding extremely difficult, not to say hazardous. The main routes near Wakkerstroom are completely flooded and, with continuing van problems, it is not clear that we are going to be able to see anything at all. But somehow, miraculously, the van is restored to health and John finds passable back roads back up to the Highveld. We find the endangered Botha's Lark and Pale-crowned Cisticola but, alas, great-grandfather Rudd's Lark eludes us completely.
There is nothing to do but drive out of the Highveld and leave the bad weather behind. Our route takes us north-west past Johannesburg and Pretoria into classic savannah country which surrounds the highway on both sides. Giraffe and zebra are quite common here and easy to see from the van. John spots Magpie or Long-tailed Shrike by the road and, as we pull off onto the shoulder, we also find a cluster of two beautiful waxbills, Black-faced and Violet-eared. Male and female Eastern Paradise Whydahs are also seen on the highway fence along this stretch.
Nylsvley means "Nile marsh." A very prominent pyramid-shaped hill--a landmark for miles around--was apparently responsible for the name. The Voortrekkers, moving north, are supposed to have thought they had reached the pyramids and that therefore the local river had to be the Nile! The highway exit for the Nylsvley reserve seems to have disappeared but eventually we find our way and manage some good evening birding from dirt roads in the area and on the Nyl River floodplain (Red-headed Weaver, Greater Painted Snipe, Lesser Gallinule and a "flight" of at least four Marsh Owls, this time really in a marsh).
Overnight is at the charming Boekenhout Guest Farm outside the Nylsvley Nature Reserve. Our rooms are in one of the old farm buildings and a candlelight dinner is served in our charming little dining room. A night drive produces African Grass Owl, a Tyto owl that is not a Barn Owl!
Day 26: 21 November: All day birding at Nylsvley. The guest farm itself is full of birds with African Green Pigeon, noisy Grey Go-Away Birds, a flock of Arrow-marked Babblers, and both Marico Flycatcher and Marico Sunbird right on the premises. But all of Nylsvley appears to be birdy. This reserve is at or near the southern limit for many central and East African birds (Magpie Shrike, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Black-faced Waxbill) and a few endemics confined to the northern parts of southern Africa (Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Marico Flycatcher, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Burchell's Starling, Violet-eared Waxbill). Also here is the grey-backed form of the Grey-backed Camaroptera which the South Africans are about to split off from the Green-backed version we saw in Natal. In short, we augment our list substantially.
On the way back to Johannesburg International Airport, we have some
time left and we have been promised a stop for Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver. But
John, who is suffering from the effects of a spider bite he received on his
big toe (he habitually birds in shorts and sandals), forgets to exit at the
proper place and, when we finally decide to retrace our steps, we have lost
more than an hour travelling in the wrong direction. We turn around but, by
the time we have returned to the proper exit and begun to negotiate the back
roads of the savannah, it starts to become clear that finding this site may
take a while. Finally, with the clock running out, the decision is made to turn
back. We get a Lesser Grey Shrike as a consolation prize and head for the airport
and our flight back to London. We have seen an astounding and undisputed 496
birds (132 endemics or near-endemics) with another 13 introduced, disputed or
indisputably heard but not seen (or not seen well) plus over 50 mammals and
a dozen reptiles and amphibians.
Full Bird List Beatiful Just Birding
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