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Eastern South Africa Tour, April 2013

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Itinerary: Drakensberg Highlands, Underberg area, Marutswa Mist Forest, Eshowe and Ongoye Zululand Forest, Lake St Lucia and iSimangolisa Wetland Park, Mkhuze Game Reserve, Wakkerstroon district with high altitude grasslands.

Total number of species recorded: more than 300 bird species

White-crested Helmetshrike seen on a Birding Africa tour (c) Lyn Hunt
White-crested Helmetshrike © Lyn Hunt

Detailed Trip Report

Monday – 25 March 2013

We all met up at Johanneburg airport, flew to Durban and proceeded to Underberg. Rainy weather prevented late afternoon birding, so we checked in to our hotel. But before we headed off to dinner, we enjoyed a treat: we watched Amur Falcons fly back to their roost on this beautiful Summer's evening.

Amur Falcons coming into roost, seen on a Birding Africa tour © Joe Grosel
Amur Falcons coming into roost © Joe Grosel

Tuesday – 26 March 2013

The day wasn’t ideal for birding with overcast, windy conditions and sporadic showers. We however did manage to do an early drive through the farmlands towards the Bushman’s Nek area. We returned for breakfast and after purchasing groceries for light (picnic) lunches did more birding in the Pevensey area. In the late afternoon we enjoyed spectacular numbers of Amur Falcons coming in to roost in Himeville before enjoying dinner. Special birds seen during the drives in the Underberg area included South African Shelduck, Southern Bald Ibis, Cape Vulture, African Marsh Harrier, African Harrier Hawk, Grey Crowned and BlueCranes, Horus Swift, Red-throated Wryneck, Drakensberg Prinia, Malachite Sunbird and an estimated 5000 plus Amur Falcons at the Himeville Roost. Black-backed Jackal, Common Reedbuck, Blesbok and Black Wildebeest were some of the mammals seen. It was a good birding day despite the intermittent wet weather.

Cuckoo Finch seen on a Birding Africa tour (c) Lyn Hunt
Cuckoo Finch © Lyn Hunt

Wednesday – 27 March 2013

This morning we headed up Sani Pass. The weather was overcast and cold but fortunately ‘dry’. Several birding stops were made on the way up and at least two walks were conducted within Lesotho. We paid the customary visit to the Sani Top Hotel before the descent. Most of the Sani Pass specialties were seen including Bearded Vulture, Bush Blackcap, Ground Woodpecker, Wailing Cisticola, Buff-streaked Chat, Drakensberg Siskin, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrushes and excellent views of Drakensberg Rockjumper. In Lesotho: Mountain Pipit, Lanner Falcon, Sickle-winged Chat, Layard’s Tit-Babbler, Fairy Flycatcher, African Black Duck, Large-billed Lark and Southern Grey Tit. Other interesting bird sightings for the day were – a Cuckoo finch chick being fed by its Levaillant’s Cisticola host, several Brown-backed Honeybirds along the lower part of the pass and large mixed feeding flocks of swifts. Sloggert’s Ice Rat, Chacma Baboon and Mountain Reedbuck were three of several mammals seen while Crag Lizard and Southern Rock Agama were two of the reptiles recorded on the day.

Birding up Sani Pass © Joe Grosel
Birding up Sani Pass © Joe Grosel

Olive Pigeon at Sani Pass © Joe Grosel
Olive Pigeon at Sani Pass © Joe Grosel

Birding up Sani Pass © Joe Grosel
Birding up Sani Pass - it's still a long way down! © Joe Grosel

Thursday – 28 March

A pre-dawn departure for the Marutswa Forest outside Bulwer with the aim of seeing Cape Parrot (before they leave the forest) was the first priority of the day. At least five Cape Parrots were seen (three flying and two roosting in dead Eucalyptus trees on the forest edge). A walk in the forest produced good sightings of Knysna Turaco, Olive Woodpecker, Cape Batis, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Black Sparrowhawk, Terrestrial Brownbul, Chorister Robin-Chat and Forest Canary. A packed breakfast was enjoyed at the ‘deserted’ visitor’s centre in the forest reserve. The journey to Eshowe continued via the King Shaka airport. Once we reached our accommodation, we unpacked, enjoyed a light meal and a walk along a nearby stream. The highlight of the walk was seeing a sub-adult Palmnut Vulture flying over.

Friday - 29 March 2013

Woke up to thick, low mist over Eshowe but continued on with the plan to do the Dlinza Forest aerial boardwalk in the hope of picking up Bronze-naped Pigeon. The dense mist persisted for several hours so with poor visibility above the canopy it was decided to take a walk through the forest. Birds were hard to come by but several interesting mammals were seen including close-up views of a pair of Blue Duiker, several troops of Samango Monkey and a Zululand Golden Mole that was forced to the surface due to the waterlogged soil in the forest. After breakfast we made our way to the Ongoye Forest for the sole purpose of seeing the Green Barbet. Fortunately the mist had cleared by the time we reached the forest and great views were had of the target species. Then it was on to Bonamanzi via the N2 and Hluhluwe. After checking in we opted for a late afternoon walk around the lodge gardens which produced several interesting birds and mammals. Dinner was enjoyed in the lapa followed by a night walk along the lodge perimeter during which great views of Large Spotted Genet and African Wood Owl were enjoyed. Other interesting sightings for the day: White-eared Barbet, Olive Sunbird, Trumpeter Hornbill, Ashy Flycatcher, Bearded Scrub-Robin & Black-bellied Starling. Mammal sightings worth mentioning were of Greater Cane Rat, Red Duiker, Greater Kudu and Nyala while two large reptiles in the form of Nile Monitor and Nile Crocodile were also recorded.

Nyala seen on a Birding Africa tour (c) Lyn Hunt
Nyala © Lyn Hunt

Saturday – 30 March 2013

A short early morning walk along one of the Bonamanzi trails turned up a good diversity of birds with Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Black-breasted Snake Eagle, African Goshawk, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Crowned Hornbill, Scarlet-chested Sunbird and Rudd’s Apalis. After breakfast we opted for a guided boat cruise, which was a relaxed affair with intermittent sightings of amongst others Black Crake, African Green-Pigeon, Black-crowned Night- Heron, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Yellow-billed Stork and several Kingfisher species. We then departed for St Lucia. After settling into our accommodation we took a walk along one of the iGgwalagwala trails along the St Lucia estuary. Birds were plentiful with notable species being Eastern and Holub’s Golden Weavers, Square- tailed Drongo, Thick-billed Weaver, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Grey Sunbird, Brown Scrub-Robin and Caspian Tern. A local restaurant provided an excellent value seafood dinner.

Woolly-necked Stork seen on a Birding Africa tour (c) Lyn Hunt
Woolly-necked Stork © Lyn Hunt

Sunday - 31 March 2013

An early departure for the Isimangolisa Wetland Park proved to be a good decision as we made it through the entrance gate before most of the Easter weekend holiday goers. On the way to Cape Vidal several interesting bird and mammal species were spotted including Croaking Cisticola, Long-crested Eagle, Black Sparrowhawk, Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, Hippo, Cape Buffalo, Common Reedbuck, Waterbuck and Burchell’s Zebra. After enjoying our packed breakfast at one of the impressive new hides in the park we had a quick walk on the beach but the hoards of holiday goers soon drove us to one of the quieter forest patches where we would look for Woodward’s Batis. The Batis didn’t disappoint and we got excellent views of this localized species. The drive back to St Lucia was uneventful and after a coffee in town the iGgwalagwala trails were once again visited with a comical flock of Crested Guineafowl and an equally entertaining troop of Banded Mongoose being the highlights.

Monday – 01 April 2013

One last quick pre-breakfast visit to the thickets along the estuary produced sought-after birds such as Livingstone’s Turaco, Red-backed Mannikin and Black-throated Wattle-eye and a mammal in the form of a Red Squirrel, while a short walk along the estuary mouth added a few coastal and shorebird species to the list. After breakfast we proceeded to Mkuze Game Reserve, but not before stocking up on groceries. Before entering the reserve a stop at the Muzi Pan (which was completely inundated due to heavy rains) provided a host of waterfowl, storks and waders. On arriving at our accommodation, we were allocated and upgraded to a large family cottage. A short evening drive to one of the nearby hides was fruitful with great close-up visuals of White Rhino and Fiery-necked Nightjar being the most memorable. The day ended with a traditional braai prepared at our chalet.

Three-banded Plover seen on a Birding Africa tour (c) Lyn Hunt
Three-banded Plover © Lyn Hunt

Tuesday – 02 April 2013

The day was spent driving through Mkhuze reserve and visiting several waterhole hides. Due to the recent good rains the bush was very dense and the grass extremely high making game viewing difficult. The hides were far more rewarding with the kuMasinga and kwaMalibala hides in particular produced endless processions of mammals, birds and reptiles. Mammal highlights of the day included more Rhino sightings and great numbers of Nyala, Warthog, Impala coming in to drink. Woolly- necked Stork, Pink-backed Pelican, Whiskered and Black-winged Terns, Secretarybird, Bateleur, African Crowned Eagle, Senegal Lapwing, Pale Flycatcher, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah and Pink- throated Twinspot were among a long list of birds seen during the day. Another dinner prepared on the fire rounded of a very satisfying day in the bush. Unfortunately due to the excessive rains both the Fig Tree Forest and Mkuzi River walk were closed to visitors thus curtailing any hopes of finding Pel’s Fishing Owl.

Nyala at Mkuze © Joe Grosel
Nyala at Mkuze Game reserve © Joe Grosel

Wednesday – 03 April 2013

One final early game viewing drive to the southern end of the reserve produced large numbers of Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Giraffe and a White Rhino bull. After breakfast we packed and departed for Wakkerstroom. During one last walk around the camping ground at the entrance gate we were rewarded with several good birds including Grey Penduline Tit. In Mkuze village a tree containing flowering Tapinanthus attracted several Sunbird species - White-bellied, Scarlet-chested and Neergaard’s. The rest of the journey to Wakkerstroom via Pongola and Piet Retief was completed in unremitting rain. On arrival at our accommodation, we were welcomed by the friendly proprietors and settled into our rooms. Due to the continuous rain it was decided to have an early dinner. After a rather large plate of food we retired for the evening.

Thursday - 04 April 2013

The rain persisted until about 09h00 so there was time to have a leisurely breakfast. Once it started clearing up we paid the local wetland reserve a visit and were treated to good sightings of amongst others Lesser Swamp Warbler, Little Rush Warbler, African Swamphen, African Marsh Harrier and several waterfowl species. An extensive walk in short, open grassland and rocky slopes along the Wakkerstroom / Utrecht road produced Yellow-breasted and Long-billed Pipit, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Ground Woodpecker, Sentinel Rock-Thrush and Buff-streaked Chat. After a light lunch we took a drive to a dam. Bald Ibis, African Snipe, Blue and Grey Crowned Crane, Red-winged Francolin and Black Harrier were amongst the species seen en route to and at the dam. A group of Meerkat provided much excitement with the Hunt’s as this was one of their target mammals for the trip. African Rail was a welcome addition to the trip list after it was called up and seen in fading light on the way to the restaurant.

Friday - 05 April 2013

A clear day dawned as we embarked on a quick lark-searching session. Despite the slippery road conditions we were able to get to two sites where both Botha’s and Rudd’s Lark were seen. We had great views of Denham’s Bustard and Blue Korhaan near Amersfoort while en-route back to Wakkerstroom more Meerkats were seen and Yellow Mongoose was added to the mammal list. After a rather late breakfast we commenced with the final leg of the tour back to Johannesburg via Ermelo and Springs. Stops at several roadside pans turned up a few more species including Greater Flamingo, Wood Sandpiper and Glossy Ibis which helped pull the trip total to over 300 species.

A Birding Africa Trip Report by Tour Leader Joe Grosel.

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., or However you're always welcome to contact us if you're interested in a guided trip in this area.

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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Black Harrier photograph courtesy of Keith Offord.
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