Birdwatching Trip Reports from South Africa

Wakkerstroom, South Africa - a weekend par excellence  

After a pretty hectic February taking birding trips to KZN and Zimbabwe (over 500 species for the month in spite of the wettest weather for somewhere around 50 years)  I'm now back in Wakkerstroom and what a wonderful birding welcome back I had.

Bob Funston, Shane Woolbright (both from Oklahoma) and I paid a brief and wet, overcast visit to Bonamanzi and Mkuze - where the best birds were Lemon-breasted Canary, Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd's Apalis, African Broadbill, Yellow-spotted Nicator, Lesser Moorhen, Dwarf Bittern (heard only), Lesser Black-winged Lapwing and a magnificent Crowned Eagle. The various hides and pans were largely disappointing with most waterbirds presumably dispersed to smaller water holes throughout the Reserve. Retreating from the wet we spent a beautiful sunny Saturday and Sunday 4th and 5th March birding in the Wakkerstroom area.The birding started off rather auspiciously with a pair of Southern White-bellied Korhaans flying up out of the roadside grassland between Pongola town and Piet Retief on the way from Mkuze to Wakkerstroom. After a great dinner at Weaver's Nest Country Lodge we drove back the few kilometres back into town and got our first real Wakkerstroom bird - a Spotted Eagle Owl feeding on a small prey item at the roadside.

We were down at the wetland before dawn on Saturday Morning listening to the sounds in the early morning mist - always a very evocative experience for me.. It was too misty to see much but we heard Grey Crowned Cranes starting up their day along with very vocal African Rails and the ubiquitous African Reed Warblers and Le Vaillant's Cisticolas. Waterbirds have dispersed widely here as a result of the excessive rains and other waterfowl were essentially limited to Yellow-billed Ducks. A Red-chested Flufftail obligingly called deep in the reed beds at around a quarter to six, but no White-winged Flufftails unfortunately. Other birds included White-throated Swallows, South African Cliff Swallows and Greater Striped Swallows - all new species for Bob and Shane.

Up, on to the high-lying ground to the south of the town to escape the mist around the wetland and we soon had Southern Bald Ibis, Wing-snapping Cisticola, Southern Ant-eating Chat and Sentinel Rock Thrush followed in quick succession by an adult Jackal Buzzard and a Lanner Falcon. 

"What's that large black bird sitting on a rock up the hill?" asked Bob.

It was a very obliging Black Harrier who allowed itself to be scoped and immortalised on Bob's video camera. We later had equally great views of it quartering the hillside above Wakkerstroom. After a quick, but fruitless search for a Yellow Bishop (isn't this a daft name for a Yellow-rumped Widow?) we took a walk over the Yellow-breasted Pipit field which was still quite wet with the early morning dew. After seeing two displaying birds in the distance we walked slowly up to the area where they had landed. One birded posed very obligingly on a rock for us giving us wonderful views of its brilliant yellow breast and beautifully marked back with hints of yellow among the dark blotches. On the way back to the "truck" (a VW Microbus to us non-Americans) we saw at least four more displaying pipits as well as the usual assortment of Red-capped Larks and African Pipits.

After some welcome coffee, sandwiches and sausage we descended to the now mistless wetland. Still no Hottentot Teals, Cape Shovellers or Southern Pochards although we did see Grey Crowned Cranes and found a lonely African Snipe trying its best to find a muddy patch in the very full marsh. Out in to the grasslands "where the real birds are" and Long-tailed Widows, Red Bishops, Orange-throated - er sorry, Cape - Longclaws, Hadedas and Golden Bishops apart our first "serious" grassland species was a Mountain Wheatear.

The next stop was at the Uys farm where we walked across the fields (with Mr Uys' consent of course) in search of whatever larks we could find. In March I thought we may find Red-capped and Spike-heeled Larks but not much else. What a wonderful surprise lay in store for us! Just as I was becoming despondent about finding even these two larks up flew a group of seven Botha's Larks giving their characteristic trilling "chiree" call - incidentally has anyone ever heard this call on the ground as suggested by Roberts V? I always hear it in flight and it is nearly always the feature that alerts me to their presence.

Shortly afterwards Rudd's Lark started giving periodic calls from the ground. After 15 minutes or so after following the call across the field we saw a bird in flight. While not exactly a display flight the bird was doing all the right things, just at around 15 m above the ground instead of 50. With wings fluttering furiously the bird was almost stationery in the air and giving it's "purple jeep" call. I often wonder if these late "semi displaying" birds are not young birds "practicing" for next summer.

After pointing out to the Americans how thin the tail was ("looks like a 1950 Studebaker - you can't see whether it's going backwards or forwards" is my usual line) we watched it plummet to earth and were rewarded with wonderful views of the bird on the ground. The median stripe and bulbous head were clearly seen.

After chasing after two very distant birds which turned out to be nothing more exciting than Crowned Lapwings (we were hoping for Black-winged Lapwings) we came across two very surprising birds (for me at least) - a pair of Eastern Long-billed Larks and not a rock in sight. I guess this is where they hide out when not displaying from rocks. Finally we came across a group of Spike-heeled Larks which rounded off the total that I felt could be found in this field at present. I have found Pink-billed Larks in this field as well but I think that conditions are just too wet for them at present.

Between the Uys farm and Fickland Pan (a "pan" is a small lake to you non South Africans) there were hundreds (thousands?) of Amur Falcons, but despite our scanning no Red-footed Falcons or Lesser Kestrels. Fickland Pan was very full and quite disappointing. None of my confidently predicted White-backed Ducks - there had been nearly 40 here three weeks ago when I last birded in the Wakkerstroom area. No Black-necked Grebes or Whiskered Terns either. Although these wouldn't have been life birds for the Americans they would have been trip birds nevertheless. We did manage to find Cape Shovellers, Maccoa Ducks and Great Crested Grebes, however, although even they were few and far between among the couple of thousand Red-knobbed Coots on the water.

A short, rough drive up a farm track gave us Red-throated Wryneck, Ground Woodpecker, Red-winged Francolin, Buff-streaked Chat, Montagu's Harrier and Blue Korhaan. From here we decided to head for the distant Vaalpoort Pan. While the waterbird population here, like at Fickland, was almost entirely comprised of coots we did get a couple of life birds for Shane and Bob - Red-billed Teal, Grey-winged Francolin, Pin-tailed Whydah, a lone female Cape Sparrow and a very exciting Pallid Harrier, together with a new trip bird - a group of around 20 Ruff.

We decided to hightail it back to Wakkerstroom in order to try and find Grass Owl at the wetland. On the way we stopped to film a group of Suricates (Meercats to you Disney and Attenborough fans). "What are those birds across the valley?" queried Shane. BLUE CRANES I shouted with great relief. We were almost going to dip out on them. A lovely pair of these birds which were once plentiful in the Wakkerstroom area. While the local population seems to be recovering from misguided poisonings in the past they are by no means common here. After spending five minutes or so watching these graceful birds I started up the car to resume the journey to the Wakkerstroom wetland. No sooner had I started off when I came to as abrupt a halt as I could - only Hollywood can get tyres to screech to a halt on a dirt road! Stanley's Bustard! A lone bird feeding in the grassland with four or five Southern Bald Ibis. Off we set once again sure that such a day could only be rounded off with a Grass Owl. We stopped at a vantage point overlooking a patch of ideal habitat next to the wetland, but alas no owl even though we waited until it was virtually too dark to see the bird even if it did come up.

That evening at dinner Shane decided he wanted to sleep "late" and that he would meet us at the breakfast table at 7 a.m. Bob and I decided we would go out around 6 and look for a Bokmakierie in the town gardens. We quartered the town on Sunday morning desperately trying to turn every Common Myna, every Laughing Dove, every Common Fiscal into a Bokmakierie, but to no avail. Finally we despondently decided to head home for one of Elize's great breakfasts. Just short of the house we spotted Shane walking up to the Post Office to phone his wife in Oklahoma City. As we stopped to talk to him a dueting pair of "Bokkies" started shouting at us from a nearby conifer. After some great views we went of to really enjoy breakfast and discuss the programme for the rest of the morning.

My suggestion was that we should bird around Wakkerstroom until around 10:15 and then they should leave for some final birding in the picnic site at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve near Johannesburg before going on to the airport for their flight to Atlanta in the early evening. There they could perhaps pick up a few new species like African Red-eyed Bulbul, Cape Robin, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler and Black-chested Prinia.

Before leaving Wakkerstroom I suggested that we make a short detour from our route to the Slang River and cross the wetland via the Volksrust bridge on the off-chance that we could find an African Marsh Harrier. Sure enough there they were - two African Marsh Harriers quartering the wetland! They crossed the road virtually over our heads giving us wonderful views. Not quite a southern African harrier full house, but four of a kind in two days is not too shabby I think.

Off we went to the Slang River bridge below Zaaihoek Dam. Almost immediately we picked up a pair of Mocking Cliff-Chats. Things then got very quiet indeed and I was on the point of suggesting that we try somewhere else when three African Black Ducks flew over. From then on things started picking up considerably. New birds for the visitors included Drakensberg Prinia, Cape Rock Bunting, Cape Rock Thrush, Horus Swift, a fleeting glimpse of a Cape Robin and much better looks at the Mountain Wheatear which we only seen from a great distance yesterday.

A quick look at the wetland confirmed that the Hottentot Teal were still absent from their usual haunt so it was back to Beautiful Just for Bob and Shane to finish packing and get on the road. The Wakkerstroom portion of the weekend ended with lots of talk about a future trip to South Africa and how Elize and I might try and get a trip to Alaska - an area where Bob (who is one of the top listers in the American Birding Association's North American Region) has had extensive guiding experience - together at some time in the not too distant future.

All in all a great Wakkerstroom weekend aptly summed up by Shane's comments in our Visitor's Book - "Found everything."

Regards to all:

John McAllister