South Africa 2019

Mark Finn
December 2-15

South Africa is an excellent destination for birding with its many nature reserves and stunning scenery. This was our first tour to the country for a few years which was dominated in part by unseasonal weather for the first week. This had an adverse effect at high elevations with mist and fog in the Drakensburg Mountains which resulted in us missing a few key species despite our best efforts. I am grateful for Norman and his excellent knowledge of birds in and around Wakkerstroom and without his help this would have been a difficult task. A large range of larks and pipits were welcome to the birdlist and resulted in many lifers for many of us. Kruger was as always a delightful place to visit and we were fortunate to witness two parties of the highly endangered Wild Dog, Leopard and many other mammals (a list of these is on the bird list). The finale was at Mount Sheba with its remote montane forests. Interesting species included Knysa Turaco, White-starred Robin and other range restricted species.

I am sure the following trip report will bring back many happy memories of an enjoyable tour. The next tour to this region is in 2021.

December 2nd/3rd: Heathrow, Johannesburg, N3, N74, Witsieshoek
Daily 55 New 55 Running 55
Weather: Warm and sunny with late afternoon storms and rain on a N wind 35C

The group assembled at Heathrow for the overnight flight down to Johannesburg. Due to problems at Heathrow we arrived around 40 minutes late. After passing through customs and picking up the minibuses we set off towards Durban on the N3. On the outskirts of the city a wetland area attracted Reed Cormorant, Glossy Ibis, Western Cattle and Little Egrets. The N3 runs through vast, flat fields with the odd stand of trees. Common Ostrich, Helmeted Guineafowl and the occasional Steppe Buzzard were noted. A stop at a service station was productive for Red-eyed Bulbul, Southern Masked and Village Weavers, Cape Sparrow and Southern Red Bishops. A short walk to another area added Blacksmith Lapwing, White-browed Sparrow Weaver and a Red-throated Wryneck. WE continued on our journey to Harrismith and joined the N74.  One more stop proved to be good for Mountain Wheatear and Cape Starling. A wrong turn proved to be productive as the fields held displaying Long-tailed Widowbirds and a few Collared Widowbirds. The best was to come with a pair of Secretarybirds walking around in a field hunting for prey. The weather started to close-in which brought Alpine Swifts to lower levels. Our journey through Qwa Qwa was uneventful and eventually arrived at our lodge for two nights.

December 4th: Witsieshoek, Golden Gate National Park including Protea Corner, Glen Reenan, Langtoon Dam, Oribi Loop
Daily 60 New 32 Running 87
Weather: Cloudy and overcast with frequent rain showers on a N wind 8-15C

Overnight rain and mist persisted which meant a change of plan for today. I decided to head down the mountain and visit Golden Gate NP and area of montane grassland, cliffs and stands of protea. Near the gate a pair of Buff-streaked Chats were a good find plus three Southern Bald Ibis and Red-winged Starlings on the buildings. Our journey through Qwa Qwa was uneventful apart from African Sacred and Hadada Ibis feeding in a small marshy pool. Our first stop in the park was at Protea Corner although the area had suffered from recent fires, The weather was cold and rainy but despite this the group located Cape Weaver, Cape Bunting, Sentinel Rock Thrush and Cape Longclaw. At Glen Reenan I picked up the permits for the park. By the petrol station Southern Masked Weaver, Southern Red Bishop and groups of inquisitive Red-winged Starlings. The hotel further down the road was visited for lunch. The grounds were productive for Cape Robin Chat, Cape White-eye, Collared Widowbird and Olive Thrush. In the surrounding cliffs parties of African Black Swifts and the occasional Alpine Swift. Back to the campground where a short walk produced close views of Cape Grassbird. In the camp itself Ground Woodpecker, Greater Striped Swallow and brief views of Bokmakerie. Next was Langtoon Dam which was excellent for Yellow-billed Duck, Red-knobbed Coot, Common Moorhen and Cape Wagtail. We ended the day by a stand of reeds on the Oribi Loop which produced sightings of Banded Martin, African Reed Warbler and Levaillant's Cisticola. Back to the main road and a finale of Grey-crowned and Blue Cranes a fitting end to the day.

December 5th: Witsieshoek, Harrismith, Van Reenan, Ladysmith, Wakkerstroom
Daily 81 New 22 Running 109
Weather: Early fog followed by a cloudy day with showers on a N wind 7-15C

A frustrating start today as the mist and fog lingered around the lodge. Despite this we recorded Cape Canary and the commoner species. After breakfast I decided the weather was not to improve which resulted in us abandoning the higher altitudes. The first stop down the road was an area of woodland dotted with trees. A Red-chested Cuckoo was calling from an exposed tree. Careful searching resulted in sightings of Dark-capped Bulbul, Streaky-headed Seedeater, Cape Longclaw, Sentinel Rock Thrush and Rock Kestrel. The route passed through Qwa Qwa and onto Harrismith where the road to Durban was joined. Our next birding stop was a small wetland surrounded by fields near Van Reenan. The open water held Red-knobbed Coot, White-breasted and Reed Cormorants, Yellow-billed Ducks with many ducklings and Little Grebes. On the edges of the reeds Grey Heron, African Snipe, Common Moorhen, African Purple Swamphen, Cape Weaver and Common Waxbill. Over the water White-throated and Greater Striped Swallows and Banded Martins. In the grass fields good numbers of Southern Bald Ibis, Cape Crow, Swainson's Francolins and a pair of Crowned Lapwings. The remainder of the day was spent travelling through Ladysmith, Newcastle and Volksrust all towns which have seen better days with mining industries. Along the way high numbers of Southern Red and Yellow-crowned Bishops, Pin-tailed Whydah and Pied Starlings. Birds of prey included Cape Vulture, Black-winged Kite and Steppe Buzzard. Picked up supplies in Volksrust and onto Wakkerstroom. On the final leg a Western Barn Owl was hunting along with Amur Falcons a fitting end to the day.

December 6th: Forellenhof, Wakkerstroom, Utrecht Road, D673, Groenvlie
Daily 110 New 44 Running 153
Weather: Overcast with frequent rain showers on a N wind 8-23C

Overnight rains had made the roads into a skating rink which resulted in a delayed departure from our base. About an hour late we reached the first birding stop at Wakkerstroom. In the extensive reedbeds the calls of African Rail, Black Crake and Red-chested Flufftail. More visible birds included African Reed, Little Rush and African Marsh Warblers, Levaillant's Cisticola, and in the more open areas Cape Shoveler. On the main lake Squacco, Black-headed, Grey and Black-crowned Night Herons, African Spoonbill, Little Grebe, Malachite Kingfisher, and hundreds of hirundines - Barn, and White-throated Swallows, White-rumped and Common Swifts. Back to base for breakfast with sightings of African Wattled Lapwing, Intermediate Egret and a Red-throated Wryneck inspecting a fallen log. Whilst having breakfast Amethyst and Malachite Sunbirds, Red-billed Quelea and Southern Red Bishops were seen. Next birding stop was a sand quarry along the Utrecht Road where the group located Mountain Wheatear, Buff-streaked Chat and Cape Bunting. Further up the road we connected with displaying Yellow-breasted Pipits and calling Common Quail. The habitat changed to montane grassland where we found Eastern Long-billed Lark and Sentinel Rock Thrush plus a hunting African Marsh Harrier. A few kilometres along the road a wetland area with adjacent fields attracted Grey-crowned and Blue Cranes, White Stork, South African Shelduck, Red-billed Teal, coots and the commoner ducks. A sheep holding area had Spotted Thick-knee, Yellow-crowned Bishop and the uncommon Pale-crowned Cisticola. A diversion along a remote road running through grassland with isolated mature trees produced four Blue Bustards and Red-winged Francolins. At the end of the day the top of a rocky valley had Wailing Cisticola, Long-billed Pipit and Black-throated Canary.

December 7th: Forellenhof, Amersfoort Road, Fickland Pan, Vlakfoort Road, Daggakraal, Road to R573
Daily 113 New 20 Running 173
Weather: Cloudy with late afternoon rain on a NE wind 9-23C

After breakfast we headed out towards another area of grasslands on the Amersfoort road. The commoner species were well represented with the addition of a pair of Blue Bustards, Amur and Lanner Falcons. The next birding stop was at Fickland Pan an area of grassland surrounding a shallow lake complex. A walk in the grassland produced sightings of the rare Rudd's Lark which favours feeding in small bare areas of grass and shrubs. Overhead a Wing-snapping Cisticola was observed giving its bizarre display flight before plummeting down and out of view!! An elevated viewpoint into the pan allowed us to locate Southern Pochard, Marsh, Curlew and Wood Sandpipers, Black-necked Stilt, Pied Avocet, Little Stint and Kittlitz's Plover. Back on the road towards Vlakfoort with an added bonus in four Denham's Bustards and an Eastern Clapper Lark which gave us the run around before giving us good views. At Daggakraal the rather wet fields added Botha's and Red-capped Larks. Birding after lunch was rather subdued until reaching a rocky escarpment. This was excellent as the group located the uncommon Cuckoo Finch, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Cape White-eye, Common Waxbill, Drakensburg Prinia and a few Yellow Bishops in breeding plumage. The weather started to close in as we descended to the lowlands. Luck was with us as Southern White-bellied Bustards were recorded along with Rufous-naped Larks. Rain started to fall heavily as we headed back to base after another great days birding around Wakkerstroom.

December 8th Forellenhof, Road 11 to Middleburg, Berg-en-Dal
Daily 101 New 24 Running 197
Weather: Rain with cloudy periods on a NE wind 7-19C

We left Forellenhof for the long journey north to Kruger National Park. A stop at Wakkerstroom added nothing new so I pressed on northwards through a landscape of fields and trees. A stop at a roadside marsh had a heronry which included Black-headed Heron and African Spoonbill. On logs resting Yellow-billed Duck and Cape Shoveler. In the distance a few Whiskered Terns were hunting for insects. The weather was poor as I headed eastwards towards Mozambique with Giant Kingfisher and Hamerkop en route. Picked up supplies en route and entered Kruger National Park at the Malelane Gate. The river was busy with birds including a Saddle-billed Stork. On entering the park we located Cape Starling, Red-backed Shrike, European and Lilac-breasted Rollers, Steppe Buzzard and best of all a Leopard resting near the entrance gate to the camp. It was good to get to Kruger after a challenging drive.

Lilac-breasted Roller

December 9th: Kruger including Berg-en-Dal, Road 110, Crocodile River, H3 to Skukuza
Daily 119 New 53 Running 250
Weather: Overcast with rain showers on a NE wind 22C

The group met up at 0600 hours for a walk around the camp grounds. Overnight rains had subsided a little which was a great relief to most of us. Interesting birds within the grounds included Black-collared Barbet, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver and Jacobin Cuckoo. By the dam we located Natal and Coqui Francolins, Water Thick-knee and Common Sandpiper. Near the main car park a Gabar Goshawk was chasing Brown-headed Parrots whilst Violet-backed Starlings were feeding on fruiting trees. Back to base for breakfast with sightings of Southern Red-billed Hornbill and Laughing Dove. At 0900 hours on the road again with our interest on Route 110. The first section held Southern Ground Hornbill, African Green Pigeon, White-fronted Bee-eater, Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, Yellow-throated Petronia and several singing Rufous-naped Larks. A rather productive area near the road end added Wahlberg's Eagle, White-browed Scrub Robin, Arrow-marked Babbler, Southern Black Tit and Golden-breasted Bunting. I decided to head towards the gate and visit the Crocodile River bridge. Before arriving Crested Barbet, Southern White-crowned Shrike and European Bee-eater were added to the list. Permission was granted to exit the park and bird from the bridge. This was a good move with sightings of Goliath, Grey, Purple and Striated Herons, Yellow-billed and Saddle-billed Storks, Glossy, Hadada and African Sacred Ibis, African Spoonbill, Black Crake, Great and Little Egrets. In the distance a Lesser Honeyguide was noted inspecting holes in a fallen tree trunk. Time was running as I headed north on Road H3 with a stop at a road bridge. This proved to be a productive spot with Brown-headed Parrot, African Green Pigeon and Coqui Francolin attending the same area. Also present were Black Stork, Crested and Swainson's Francolins and singing Green-backed Camaroptera. The journey north was fairly uneventful apart from a tree with African White-backed and a single White-headed Vulture. The weather started to close in with a party of Wild Dogs near base. Arrived at our camp for the next two nights.

December 10th: Skukuza, Lower Sabie
Daily 113 New 21 Running 271
Weather: Persistent rain on a NE wind 19C

The day dawned with leaden skies and rain showers which was to stay with us all day. Around the camp and adjacent riverine habitats we recorded Woodland and Pied Kingfishers, Black-bellied Starling, Jameson's Firefinch and calling Red-chested Cuckoo. After breakfast a slow journey down towards Lower Sabie a rest camp along the river of the same name. Just beyond the camp boundary a dead tree attracted an immature Martial Eagle and a White-headed Vulture. Other birds in the vicinity included Chinspot Batis, Southern Black Tit, Southern Red-billed, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Red-backed Shrike, Arrow-marked Babbler and Brown-headed Parrots. A diversion down a side-road was productive for Black-backed Puffback and Bearded Woodpecker. Back towards the main road with another stop adding Long-billed Crombec, Southern Black Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Bar-throated Apalis and a pair of Burchell's Coucals. The best birds of the morning were a group of Verreaux's Eagle Owls perched in a dead tree which allowed excellent views. On the road towards Lower Sabie dead trees attract perching birds which today included Brown Snake Eagle, Hooded Vulture, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur and several Mosque Swallows a scarce bird in Kruger. The heavy rains attracted birds to the road itself with sightings of Spectacled Weaver, Green-winged Pytilia, Common and Blue Waxbills and White-browed Scrub Robins. At Lower Sabie an elevated position at the restaurant allows views into the river. The commoner birds were present along with White-crowned Lapwings, Thick-billed Weavers and a showy Dideric Cuckoo. The journey back to base was rather uneventful due to heavy rains although the group located Steppe Eagle, Kurrichane Thrush and a female Black-throated Wattle-eye.

December 11th: Skukuza, Satara
Daily 121 New 19 Running 290
Weather: Early rain giving way to sunny spells on a W wind 27C

Today dawned with rain showers again but thankfully these eased to give us a sunny day. Before breakfast Collared and Marico Sunbirds were added to the list. Checked out and started the journey north to Satara, just outside the gate a Lizard Buzzard and Red-billed Woodhoopoe. The usual birds were present until an area of older trees attracted Cardinal Woodpecker and a rather skulky Brubru. The habitat started to change with a seasonal pool luring Greater Painted Snipe and Wood Sandpiper. Older trees attracted Black Scimitarbill and a pair of White Helmetshrikes. The habitat started to change with areas of grassland dotted with bushes and stunted trees. Our birding changed with sightings of Croaking and Ratting Cisticolas, Black-crowned Tchagra and Common Waxbills. Along the route lakes added a few waterbirds species including the scarce Knob-billed Duck. A flock of White-winged Widowbirds was a good addition to the list. On entering the road to Satara recently burned grassland attracted Temminck's Courser, Senegal Lapwing and a Kori Bustard. The finale however was a Black-bellied Bustard displaying from a mud mound a fitting end to a remarkable days birding.

December 12th: Satara, Timbavati, Sweni
Daily 99 9 299
Weather: Sunny with SW winds 32C

This morning the group travelled in a northerly direction towards Timbavati. Our first new bird of the tour was a group of Greater Blue-eared Starlings feeding by the roadside. The commoner species were observed en route including a showy Jacobin Cuckoo. On arrival at Timbavati a party of Red-faced Mousebirds were located a catch up bird for many. Overhead great views of the localised Black-breasted Snake Eagle and Bateleur. The drier parts of the area added Monotonous and Sabota Larks, Namaqua Dove and a juvenile Pallid Harrier perched in a large tree. On the return to Satara for lunch further species were added notably Lappet-faced Vulture, Lesser Spotted Eagle and a party of African Wattled Starlings feeding around game animals. An African Openbill in flight was located by Sheila. After lunch I headed south towards the Sweni River area with a party of Southern Ground Hornbills and another Black-bellied Bustard. The river area had a few birds before going back to base with a Kori Bustard being the best bird. An early dinner was arranged and then a night drive into the park. Highlights included at least two Verreaux's Eagle Owls, Water and Spotted Thick-knees and several Square-tailed Nightjars.


December 13th: Satara, Orpen Gate, Mount Sheba
Daily 93 New 5 Running 304
Weather: Sunny with cloudy conditions at higher elevations on a NE wind, 13-30C

Time to leave the delights of Kruger and head west towards Orpen Gate. Nothing of note on the journey apart from the first Purple Rollers of the trip. Near Orpen Gate a roadside pool attracted a feeding Woolly-necked Stork, Senegal Lapwings, Lesser Spotted and Wahlberg's Eagles. The camp at Orpen Gate had our only Fairy Flycatcher of the trip plus Spotted Flycatcher and Violet-backed Starlings. The road up to Mt Sheba ascends quickly into a different world of fields, rocky outcrops and eventually patches of montane forests. Arrived at our remote hotel within the forest. An initial walk around the gardens added Speckled Pigeon, Cape Robin Chat, Cape White-eye, Red-chested Cuckoo and African Dusky Flycatcher.

Natal Francolin

December 14th: Mount Sheba, Ohrigstad
Daily 64 New 14 Running 318
Weather: Sunny with NE winds 27C

A pre-breakfast walk around the hotel grounds commenced at 0615 with the hotel roof attracting Speckled Pigeon, Red-winged Starling and Greater Striped Swallows. I began an exploration of the gardens near bungalow one which has dense cover and some open areas. Cape White-eyes were around and a party of Natal Francolins walked slowly across the lawn. In the bushes an Olive Bushshrike showed well with Bar-throated Apalis, African Dusky Flycatcher, Great and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds and singing Cape Robin Chats and a Sombre Greenbul by the reception area. After breakfast we spent the morning on the trail which was not good in places and tricky to negotiate. Despite this the first section gave us views of Knysa and Purple-crested Turacos, White-starred Robin, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Black-headed Oriole, Chorister Robin Chat and brief views of a Narina Trogon. The trail did not have many birds and we returned for lunch. Later in the day a visit to Ohrigstad and the dam of the same name. The entrance road produced a pair of Square-tailed Drongo, Long-crested Eagle, Forest Buzzard and a Familiar Chat. Once in the reserve and dam area the rocky landscape attracted Rock Kestrel Lazy Cisticola and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings. On and around the dam hundreds of Egyptian Geese, White-breasted Cormorants, Red-knobbed Coot, Yellow-billed Duck and an adult African Fish Eagle. The campground held a female Cape Rock Thrush, Southern Masked Weaver and the only Village Indigobird of the trip. Back to base for our last night in South Africa.

Knysa Turaco

December 15th: Mount Sheba, Marievale, Johannesburg
Daily 94 New 3 Final 321
Weather: Sunny and warm with N winds

The group met up at 0600 hours for a final walk around the grounds. Barratt's Warbler was briefly glimpsed flying between dense bushes. Checked out and made our way to the main highway with a flying Denham's Bustard en route along with African Stonechat, Common Waxbill and Yellow Bishop. The journey back to Johannesburg went smoothly with the commoner birds seen en route. I had arranged to visit Marievale Nature Reserve which is a large wetland close to the town of Nigel. The reserve is large and dotted with hides and viewpoints over open water areas and reedbeds. The first section was good for Blacksmith Lapwing, Black-throated and Yellow-fronted Canaries, Levaillant's Cisticola and three species of swallows. The open water areas held Greater Flamingo, Goliath Heron, Yellow-billed Duck and Whiskered and White-winged Terns. In the next pool Great Crested Grebes were added to the list and brief views of Little Bittern flying into cover. On the way to the final hide we caught up with a Black Heron, Malachite Kingfisher, Black-winged Kite, African Pipit and a colony of Red-billed Quelea. From the final hide a fly-by of Ruff, African Marsh Harrier, Black-headed and Grey Herons, Reed Cormorant, Sacred Ibis and a single Red-billed Duck. It was time to head back to the airport and our flight back to Europe and the end of a highly enjoyable trip to South Africa.

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