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Birding Trip Report: South Africa
Eastern Endemics: Drakensberg, Zululand and Wakkerstroom
7-16 January 2010

Looking for Darkensberg bird endemics at Sani Pass, South Africa.
Looking for Drakensberg endemics at Sani Pass, South Africa.

Overview:
This was a 10-day tour in January 2010, with focus on birds.
Areas visited: Drakensberg, Zululand and Wakkerstroom.
Total number of bird species: 411 species seen plus 18 heard.
Mammals seen: 33 species; reptiles: 2 species.

Summary
: This jam-packed, 10-day birding tour focussed on the endemic-rich habitats of the highlands and north-eastern coastal plain of South Africa, with a day around Gauteng thrown in for good measure. We visited in sequence, Palmiet Nature Reserve in Durban, highland grasslands and forests at Hella-Hella Pass, montane forest at Xumeni Forest, high-altitude grassland and mountains at Sani Pass, mid-altitude forest at Entumeni and Dlinza Forests, coastal wetlands at Richard’s Bay, riverine forest at Enseleni Nature Reserve, coastal dune forest at St Lucia, gallery forest and coastal wetlands at Musi Pan, sand forest and lowland bushveld at Mkhuze Game Reserve, highland grasslands at Wakkerstroom and, in Gauteng, Acacia bushveld at Zaagkuilsdrift and wetlands at Cullinan near Pretoria. Top birds seen included Blue Swallow, Denham’s Bustard, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Southern Bald Ibis, Red-throated Wryneck, Ground Woodpecker, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Chorister Robin-Chat, Orange Ground Thrush, Spotted Ground Thrush, Southern Brown-throated Weaver, Red-headed Quelea, African Finfoot, Rudd’s Apalis, Livingstone’s Turaco, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, Woodward’s Batis, Brown Scrub Robin, Gorgeous Bushshrike, Lemon-breasted Canary, Pink-throated Twinspot, Neergaard’s Sunbird, Crested Guineafowl, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Blue Korhaan, Barrow’s Korhaan, Black-rumped Buttonquail, African Grass Owl, Red-winged Francolin, Orange River Francolin, Cuckoo Weaver, Southern Pied Babbler, African Rail and Red-chested Flufftail. Besides the number of specials seen, we saw an impressive list of 411 species, with a further 18 heard. Mammals of note were white Rhino, Nyala, Suni, Red Duiker in Zululand and Meerkats at Wakkerstroom!

Detailed report: Arriving in Durban in the late afternoon we made best use of the remaining daylight, birding at the Palmiet Nature Reserve adjacent to our accommodation. Amongst our first birds seen were the colourful Purple-crested Turaco, and only Black Sparrowhawk, Red-backed Mannikin and Mountain Wagtail of the trip. Early the next morning we headed west towards the Drakensberg Mountains, stopping en route to look for the threatened Blue Swallow in the Hella-Hella area. Whist ascending the mountain pass we found a pair of co-operative Olive Bushshrike and a relaxed Knysna Turaco at the roadside. Arriving in the high grasslands in dense mist we were concerned about our birding prospects, although we did see Wailing Cisticola and the first of many Cape Longclaw, and managed to lure a Pale-crowned Cisticola very close for exceptional views. Fortunately our concerns soon evaporated with the mists, and we found ourselves watching several Blue Swallow flitting along the forest edge and directly over our heads. On our way out, the grasslands produced Common Quail, and as we continued towards Lesotho we enjoyed roadside views of Denham’s Bustard, Drakensberg Prinia, Long-tailed Widowbird and Red-collared Widowbird. Our last stop for the day was in search of another threatened species, Cape Parrot. During the afternoon at Xumeni, bird activity was low, although not without its highlights. These included Olive Woodpecker, Bar-throated Apalis, and a pair of Barratt’s Warbler feeding a juvenile African Emerald Cuckoo, allowing for exceptional views of this typically-skulking species. The forest edge was more active, and we quickly notched up a smart Bush Blackcap, Lazy Cisticola, Cape Grassbird, Forest Canary and Swee Waxbill, before we watched several pairs of Cape Parrot flying into roost, one pair perching on top of a large dead tree and allowing prolonged, although fairly distant scope views.

Next on the agenda was the scenically spectacular Sani Pass. Before arriving at the foot of the pass we found Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Amur Falcon, Black Cuckoo, Cape Weaver and a bright Bokmakierie. The lower sections of the pass produced the first of many Jackal Buzzard, Buff-streaked Chat, breeding Horus Swift, Cape Rock Thrush, the popular Red-throated Wryneck, several Ground Woodpecker, Fan-tailed Grassbird (Broad-tailed Warbler) and many Protea-loving Gurney’s Sugarbird. As the gradient of the pass increased, so did our bird list, with the switchbacks producing a distant, singing  South African Rock Pipit, active Drakensberg Siskin, flyover Bearded Vulture, Cape Bunting and, best of all, a confiding pair of striking Drakensberg Rockjumper feeding a recently-fledged chick on the verge of the road. Once through the Lesotho border we continued across the plateau towards the Black Mountain, finding several displaying Mountain Pipit, Sentinel Rock Thrush, a sizeable flock of Southern Bald Ibis feeding in the pastures, Cape Vulture overhead, Sickle-winged Chat at the roadside, and, in the more shrubby areas, the dainty Fairy Flycatcher and Layard’s Warbler (Layard’s Titbabbler). Rain interrupted our afternoon birding, but we did find time to watch Amur Falcon coming into roost by the hundreds.

Starting our journey eastwards we paused again at Xumeni Forest, where birding was slow once again. However, over several hours of we had excellent views Red-chested Cuckoo, Chorister Robin-Chat, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, and brief views of Orange Ground Thrush, which sang a lot but showed little. The drive to Eshowe was a long one, but memorable for African Firefinch alongside its brood parasite Dusky Indigobird, and several spectacular Long-tailed Paradise Whydah. A short stop at Entumeni was rewarded with Lemon Dove, a juvenile White-starred Robin fed by its parent, and Croaking Cisticola. At Eshowe we focussed our attention on the bird-rich Dlinza Forest. Some concentrated searching resulted in excellent views of Spotted Ground Thrush, and a stint on the canopy tower resulted in prolonged scope views of Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, all too fleeting flashes of Green Twinspot, fly-past views of Little Sparrowhawk, noisy Trumpeter Hornbill and Crowned Hornbill, and our first White-eared Barbet, Black-collared Barbet, Square-tailed Drongo, Black-bellied Starling and Olive Sunbird. Back at ground level we found Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, enjoyed much-improved views of Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon and were frustrated by several nearby Green Twinspot which refused to emerge from the dense tangles they hid in. After this a short detour to Richard’s Bay produced a full Thulazihleka pan with few waterbirds, although we watched breeding Red-headed Quelea, Southern Brown-throated Weaver and Yellow Weaver in the swamp-side reeds. Our final stop before St Lucia was the Entumeni Nature Reserve where a Grey Sunbird sat singing in the open, an Osprey fished over the river and the much-desired African Finfoot was spotted. 

The coastal dune forests and wetlands of St Lucia were as productive as ever. Most of the special birds were found in the densely-tangled dune forests. Woodward’s Batis was particularly obliging, greeting us as we alighted from our vehicle. Soon to follow were Livingstone’s Turaco, Dark-backed Weaver and smart Rudd’s Apalis, although it took a little longer to tease the secretive Brown Scrub Robin from its thicket, spot Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and lay eyes on the gaudy Gorgeous Bushshrike. The grasslands were home to European Nightjar, chunky Red-breasted Swallow, a very obliging Southern Banded Snake Eagle, migrant Lesser Spotted Eagle and the scarce African Cuckoo Hawk

Next on the itinerary was the bird-rich Mhkuze area. En route we successfully searched for the scarce Lemon-breasted Canary, finding a male singing from its road-side perch. The two main foci of this area were lowland gallery forest and east coast sand forest, with some time spent birding around wetlands and in savanna bushveld. Perhaps the most specialised species were to be found in the sand forests, and we were fortunate to find no less than four pairs of Neergaard’s Sunbird, two pairs seen at very close range. Pink-throated Twinspot proved more tricky than normal given the dense growth of grass, although most of the group had reasonable views on at least one of the three occasions that we saw this handsome near-endemic. Other species in this habitat included a tame flock of 30 or more Crested Guineafowl, with young of all sizes, Grey-headed Bushshrike, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, secretive Eastern Nicator, Bearded Scrub Robin (heard only), Black Cuckooshrike and Grey Tit-Flycatcher. The gallery forests were more diverse, although Pel’s Fishing Owl was not found on any of its normal roost sites. However, this was more than compensated for (at least in the opinion of some) by a bright male Narina Trogon, Tambourine Dove, a pair of Brown-headed Parrot, a very smart and obliging Green Malkoha, Black-throated Wattle-eye, several Broad-billed Roller and African Yellow White-eye. Brief visits to several wetlands produced Yellow-billed Stork, in-flight Lesser Jacana for some, Black Heron, a breeding colony of Pink-backed Pelican, Rufous-winged Cisticola and a pair of smart African Pygmy Goose perched in a tree! Finally, the bushveld added several more widespread species to our list, including Bateleur, Lizard Buzzard, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Acacia Pied Barbet, Crested Barbet, Grey Penduline Tit, Stierling’s Wren Warbler which sang out of view, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Kurrichane Thrush and Yellow-throated Petronia. We were also fortunate to flush one Kurrichane Buttonquail and see another cross the road a couple of metres in front of our vehicle.

Pleased to leave behind the steamy lowlands we started our climb towards the cooler highveld of the Wakkerstroom area, where some of the country’s rarest birds awaited us. In the lower-altitude grasslands we spent time studying pipits, with both Buffy Pipit and Plain-backed Pipit seen nearby for comparison. Banded Martin flitted over the grasslands, Ant-eating Chat perched on the roadside fences, Cloud Cisticola displayed high overhead, African Snipe favoured the edge of a wetland, a whirring-winged Eastern Clapper Lark displayed several times and African Quail-Finch was seen in flight. However, the stars of the show were the handsome Barrow’s Korhaan and very rare Black-rumped Buttonquail, first heard booming away and later flushed for excellent flight views. The focus of the higher-altitude grasslands were Yellow-breasted Pipit, seen perched in the road and on a roadside boulder, Botha’s Lark, watched carrying food to its nest, the Critically Endangered Rudd’s Lark, first flushed and then watched scurrying through dense grass cover, and the handsome Blue Korhaan, which initially hid well in the tall grass but was finally seen very well. Almost as desirable were Grey-winged Francolin and Red-winged Francolin, both seen near or on the road, and a host of other grassland species: Southern Bald Ibis, Secretarybird, Montagu’s Harrier, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Crane, Horus Swift, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Spike-heeled Lark, South African Cliff Swallow, Wing-snapping Cisticola, Mountain Wheatear and bumblebee-like Yellow-crowned Bishop. The various wetlands also produced their share of entertainment, with an abundance of ducks including South African Shelduck, Cape Teal, Cape Shoveller, Southern Pochard and Maccoa Duck. Other noteworthy birds were Black Stork, Grey Crowned Crane and Whiskered Tern, although our best find was the seldom-seen African Grass Owl, which circled nearby in the torch beam, giving excellent views. 

Our final destination of the tour was the Gauteng area, where our first target, Orange River Francolin, took some time to track down but was eventually spotted in the road late in the afternoon. While we waited for them to show we found Desert Cisticola and bright Orange-breasted Waxbill, and Red-headed Finch was spotted en route. At our accommodation we found Karoo Thrush and Fiscal Flycatcher. Our next target, Striped Pipit, also required some legwork, but we eventually spotted a distant bird singing from its rocky outcrop. Most of our time, however, was spent on the very productive Zaagkuilsdrift road, adding many species to our list. Natal Spurfowl and Swainson’s Spurfowl were seen feeding in the road, Northern Black Korhaan, Lesser Grey Shrike, White-winged Widowbird, Magpie Shrike and Scaly-feathered Weaver favoured the more open areas, and a roadside Shaft-tailed Whydah was a very welcome addition. Denser bushveld held a plethora of species, including Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Woodland Kingfisher, two handsome Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Southern Red-billed Hornbill, the bright Crimson-breasted Shrike, Barred Wren-Warbler, neat Southern Pied Babbler, Chestnut-vented Warbler (Tit-babbler), Burchell’s Starling, White-throated Robin-Chat, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Violet-eared Waxbill and Village Indigobird. Perhaps the best find was two separate and excellent sighting of male Cuckoo Weaver, not least significant in being Stuart’s 4000th bird! Before dashing off to the airport there was one final stop to be made, at the Cullinan wetlands, where a circling Abdim’s Stork welcomed us. However, the dense lake-side reed beds demanded most of our attention, being home to two skulkers extraordinaire. Given that it was a sweltering midday we held little hope for our two main targets, Red-chested Flufftail and African Rail. Initially we drew a blank on the flufftail, but African Rail quickly obliged, giving excellent views as it crossed a gap in the reeds. Eventually we heard a flufftail calling, but only achieved millisecond-long views as it flashed through the reeds. We gave it a break and went to put up a Marsh Owl in some moist grasslands, which gave excellent day-time views. Returning to our flufftail, our second attempt was immeasurably more successful, this time a bright male Red-chested Flufftail pausing in a gap in the reeds to give tremendous views! Hoorah!

While this trip focussed on birds, we also saw Nile Crocodile, Monitor Lizard and recorded 33 species of mammals:
Thick-tailed Bushbaby (heard), Chacma Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Rock hyrax, Black-backed Jackal, Cape Hare, Dwarf Mongoose, Yellow Mongoose, Slender Mongoose, African Elephant, White rhinoceros, Burchell's Zebra, Warthog, Hippopotamus, Giraffe, Blue wildebeest, Common Duiker, Blue Duiker, Red Duiker, Impala, Steenbok, Buffalo, Eland, Kudu, Nyala, Bushbuck, Waterbuck, Springbok, Blesbok, Mountain Reedbuck, Grey Rhebok, Sloggert's Ice Rat and Meerkat.

Birding Africa Trip Report by Tour Leader Michael Mills. Leader: Michael Mills, assisted locally by Malcolm, Bheki, Lucky and Selwyn

Many of the birding sites on this trip are described in detail in the Southern African Birdfinder which is widely available in South African bookshops and on the internet. (e.g., www.netbooks.co.za or www.wildsounds.co.uk). However you're always welcome to contact us if you're interested in a guided trip in this area.

Practical tour information:
South Africa Eastern Endemics: Drakensberg, Zululand and Wakkerstroom

Please also visit our tour calendar and description of other South African tours.
Focus This trip can suit keen birders as well as more general nature enthusiasts. The itinerary has been designed to see as many bird species as possible in the shortest time in South Africa. While on the walks, we can also spend a lot of time looking for other aspects of wildlife such as mammals, chameleons, geckos, butterflies and interesting plants. We can customise any itinerary to suit to the keen birder, the wildlife enthusiast or both, depending on your interest
Itinerary This trip has been designed to see the most possible bird species in the least amount of time. It starts in Durban and ends in Johannnesburg and can be extended by a few days to include the Kruger National Park.
Photography Many participants on our tours and day trips are amateur wildlife photographers. And when we get excellent views of a bird or mammal, some time is usually spent watching and photographing it. However, this is not a photographic tour and once the majority of the people have felt that they have absorbed the animal or bird to their satisfaction, then we move on in search of the next encounter. Thus, while the photographic opportunities are very good, the group will only occasionally wait for somebody who wants to spend even longer getting better photos.
Fitness This depends on the specific tour. Please enquire.
Timing Birding is generally good all year round in this summer rainfall area. September to November is best in Mkhuze, October to February at Sani Pass, October to December at Wakkerstroom.
Climate Cool in the Drakensberg highlands and Wakkerstroom grasslands. Hot in the Zululand forests, game reserves and coastal areas.
Comfort A good standard of accommodation in guest houses, lodges and small hotels.
Transport Group tours travel by minibus or four wheel drive vehicle.
Group Size This depends on the specific tour. Please enquire.
Top birds

- the Drakensberg: Blue Swallow, Amur Falcon, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Bearded Vulture, Ground Woodpecker, Gurney's Sugarbird;
- Zululand forests: Orange Ground Thrush, Spotted Ground Thrush, Livingston's Turaco, Woodward's Batis, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon;
- Zululand coastal plains: Pel's Fishing Owl, African Broadbill, Neergaard's Sunbird, Olive-tree Warbler, Green and Pink-throated Twinspot;
- Wakkerstroom's globally threatened highland wetlands and grasslands: Rudd's and Botha's Lark, Blue and Barrow's Korhaan, Southern Bald Ibis, Yellow-breasted Pipit, four species of bustard and three cranes.

Top mammals Meerkat, African Elephant, Samango Monkey, Suni, Red Duiker, Giraffe, White Rhino, Black Rhino, Sloggert's Ice Rat, Nyala, Hippopotamus, Blesbok, Mountain Reedbuck
Booking Please contact us if you wish to book a guided or self-drive tour. You will receive the booking form and conditions and a tour information pack.

About Birding Africa

Birding Africa is a specialist birding tour company customising tours for both world listers and more relaxed holiday birders.  We combine interests in mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, botany and other natural history aspects and will guide you to Africa's and Madagascar's most diverse birding destinations. Our guides' knowledge of African birds and birding areas is our greatest strength and together we have rediscovered species, shared exciting observations with the birding community and had a fun time exploring our home continent.  We've even written two acclaimed guide books on where to find Southern Africa's and Madagascar's best birds. Birding is more than our passion, it's our lifestyle, and we are dedicated to making professional, best value trips filled with endemic species and unique wildlife experiences. Since 1997, we've run bird watching tours in South Africa and further into Africa for individual birders, small birding groups and top international tour companies. We've run Conservation Tours in association with the African Bird Club and work with and consult for a number of other top international tour companies and the BBC Natural History Unit.

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