Birding Africa












Trip Report

18 March to 1 April 2006


Participant: Alan Brown
Michael Mills and Etienne Marais
458 species (18 heard)

With many forest-dwelling species already under the belt, it was time to start filling in the gaps. With this goal we left Graskop at dawn, stopping at a nearby forest patch to notch up Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher just as it was getting light enough to see in the forest under-storey. Bush Blackcap called from nearby thickets, but sat tight and out of sight. Further along the way we spotted an African Goshawk perched on a dead tree beside the road, and in the surrounding grasslands, Wailing Cisticola and Lazy Cisticola. Soon we arrived at Mount Sheba, where the forest was eerily quiet. Yellow-streaked Greenbul and Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler were the only conspicuous forest birds, although we enjoyed excellent views of a confiding trio of Olive Woodpeckers. Our main target took some effort to track down, as we finally located an Orange Ground Thrush feeding inconspicuously in the leaf litter, only its faint contact call giving away it presence. On our way back for a hearty breakfast we added Knysna Turaco, Grey Cuckooshrike and White-starred Robin. After breakfast we ascended the steep valley, pausing at the forest border to admire a bold male Greater Double-collared Sunbird as we started to make our way to Kruger. Taking a shortcut along one of the back roads, we lingered at several river crossings with the hope of finding Half-collared Kingfisher. Every stream was flowing strongly, the white waters charged by the recent good rains. The kingfishers were no-where to be found, at least until our very final crossing, where high pitched piping calls from the riverside thickets eventually led us to our quarry. The only other noteworthy bird before Kruger was a handsome male Cape Rock Thrush.

We entered Kruger through Orpen gate. With little time to spare we headed straight for Skukuza, concentrating on roadside birds. Our first stop was for a prized pair of Double-banded Sandgrouse, followed by our first of many Swainson’s Spurfowl and a single Coqui Francolin. A short detour to Leeupan revealed excellent conditions, with both Lesser Gallinule and Lesser Moorhen calling from the rank growth in the centre of the pan. But it was getting dark, so this would have to wait until tomorrow.

With the prospect of seeing Lesser Moorhen, we headed north towards Tshokwane at sunrise. One stop en route revealed a surprise flock of Retz’s Helmetshrike, in unusually open woodland. Once back at Leeupan we settled into position and scanned the edges of the wetland. Comb Duck and Saddle-billed Stork were conspicuous, but the undoubted highlight was a
smart Dwarf Bittern, which flushed from the marsh and landed on the outer branches of a large Leadwood tree. After our patience had worn thin, we decided to cut our losses on the moorhen and concentrate on finding Burnt-necked Eremomela and Olivetree Warbler which we had heard nearby. Both obliged, the latter species giving particularly good views whilst singing it harsh jumble. With breakfast beckoning at Tshokwane, we paused only briefly for a pair of Mosque Swallow collecting nesting material in the road. At Tshokwane we confirmed that the Sabie River crossing at Lower Sabie was still open, and between bites of toasted bacon-and-egg sandwich, lifted our binoculars to admire Kurrichane Thrush and Southern Boubou.

The start of our journey southward was met by a single Southern Ground Hornbill, pacing purposefully down the road. At a lookout a little further on, a pair of Mocking Cliff Chat almost joined us under the thatch roof. Next were White-throated Robin-Chat and Acacia Pied Barbet, attracted to the calls of Pearl-spotted Owlet. The grasslands just to the north of Lower Sabie were rank and bird activity high. With the early morning drizzle having cleared, Burchell’s Coucals were out sunning themselves, while Fan-tailed Widow and Croaking Cisticola displayed over the green plains. The best find, however, was a Black Coucal, rare in Kruger. On the approach to Lower Sabie, the habitat becomes more treed, and we added to our list a pair of Rufous-crowned Roller, Hooded, White-headed and White-backed Vultures, Common Ostrich, Brown-headed Parrot and Southern Carmine Bee-eater. From Lower Sabie we followed the river westwards back to Skukuza, stopping at Nkuhlu to spot a distant pair of White-crowned Lapwing, still present despite the flood waters. At the high level bridge, White-fronted Bee-eater entertained us while we waited for African Finfoot that failed to materialise. Before reaching Skukuza we notched up several other goodies, including Senegal Lapwing and Martial Eagle. Lunch at Skukuza was followed with Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Terrestrial Brownbul and a smart Eastern Bearded Scrub Robin. The road to Pretoriuskop was rather quiet, although we spotted our first of many Pale Flycatchers, a shy pair of Bushveld Pipit and a calling male Purple Indigobird, mimicking it’s host, Jameson’s Firefinch. We were welcomed to Pretoriuskop by a fancy Purple-crested Turaco, and soon headed out on a night drive, which produced the much-desired Bronze-winged Courser and several owls, including Marsh Owl.

Before first light we made our way to Shabeni, where a presumed Freckled Nightjar approached close to us but disappeared again before we could confirm its identification. As the sun rose we made our way to the nearby Gabro grasslands, where we spotted no fewer than three Broad-tailed Warbler performing their aerial display above the tall grasslands. This was a very rare find for Kruger. The rest of the morning was spent on a large loop via Afsaal, and ending up at Pretoriuskop for lunch. Highlights included displaying Flappet Lark, a noisy pair of Bennett’s Woodpecker, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, an African Crake that flushed from the roadside, several African Green Pigeon, Red-headed Weaver, an African Barred Owlet that hid well among the leaves of a Jackalberry tree, Yellow-bellied and Green-capped Eremomelas, the latter very rare this far south, Icterine Warbler and River Warbler, yet another Kruger rarity. After lunch we drove our last couple of loops, finding Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Little Bee-eater, Ground-scraper Thrush, Black Sparrowhawk, Dark Chanting Goshawk and African Hawk Eagle, before heading for Kaapschehoop. Between White River and Hazyview constant rain set in, ending birding for the afternoon.

With Edward having seen Blue Swallows on his last outing, we were hopeful of seeing the rarity before the last birds left for the great lakes of central Africa. At sunrise we made our way out onto the nearby escarpment grasslands, and positioned ourselves near the main feeding area of the swallows. While we waited patiently, we amused ourselves with Cape Grassbird, Orange-throated Longclaw and Secretarybird. Regrettably the swallows never showed, presumably driven way by the previous day’s bad weather. Still, excellent views of the mega-skulker Striped Flufftail made the outing more than worthwhile, and we happily headed back to town for breakfast. Here we quickly tracked down the resident Red-throated Wryneck and Gurney’s Sugarbird, before heading for Wakkerstroom. Again the weather was poor, with rain falling intermittently for the entire journey. For most part there were few birds, but several termite irruptions drew large flocks of Amur Falcon (more than 2000 seen during the day) and a trio of striking Blue Korhaans. Near Volksrus a small flock of Southern Bald Ibis foraged at the roadside. Once at Wakkerstroom we quickly settled into our accommodation before making our way to the famous lark field. A couple of stops for our first Cape Canaries, Grey Crowned Cranes and Spike-heeled Larks, slowed us down, although not nearly as much as the poor road conditions. Stretches of 100m or more had been converted to quagmires, putting our little Golf’s road handling skills to the test. Nearly getting stuck a couple of times, we finally made it to our destination with just enough time to notch up several Botha’s Lark and a pair of Blue Cranes with their nearly-adult chick, before light faded and we slipped and bounced our way back to town.

With yesterday’s poor weather now history, we wound our way up into the highlands above town. Barely out of town and two groups of Buff-streaked Chat were at it over a territorial dispute. Once at the top of the pass we scanned the roadside for pipits and larks, finding two partial-plumage Yellow-breasted Pipits in the road, with a third bright yellow individual glowing in the sun’s rays as it flew by. Further along the road we came to a rapid halt as a pair of Red-winged Francolin and their three young scurried along the roadside. Before heading back to town we found six Black-winged Lapwing among a larger flock of Crowed Lapwings, Eastern Long-billed Lark, a striking male Sentinel Rock Thrush and gorgeous Bokmakierie. After a quick breakfast we decided to return to the lark field, where a long walk produced flight views of a single Rudd’s Lark and a pair of Pale-crowned Cisticolas in a nearby marsh. In the afternoon we headed for lower altitude grasslands to the east of Wakkerstroom, where the star bird was Barrow’s Korhaan, which shared its field with several displaying Cloud Cisticolas and a pair of active Buffy Pipits.

With Rudd’s Lark classified under ‘better view desired’, we decided to head for the lark field one final time. En route we spotted several pairs of Mountain Wheatear, strangely absent during our two previous visits, and a trio of Ground Woodpeckers sunning themselves on a low ridge. Finally at the lark field, Rudd’s Lark continued to tease us with tantalising flight views before we finally spotted one on the ground and managed to keep pace with it for at least 15 minutes, studying in detail each feather through the scopes. We couldn’t resist a final peak at Botha’s Lark, sharing the same field, before heading back to town for breakfast and then on to Mkuze. We arrived with two hours of light to spare, and headed straight for the sand forests where a striking male Pink-throated Twinspot dazzled us with his beautiful plumage.

We all know that birds are less vocal and more secretive after breeding, but this day was perhaps the best illustration I have ever experienced of this. At dawn, an uncharacteristic silence persisted in the sand forest of Mkhuze. It was going to be a hard day of birding. A large group of Crested Guineafowl clucked in the distance, but refused to come any closer. Pink-throated Twinspots called from the dense, grassy under-storey around every corner, yet we only saw one bird. Slowly we accumulated species: at least Gorgeous Bush-Shrike was still noisy, and we watched a fiery-throated individual singing from the edge of a thicket. Rudd’s Apalis was very inconspicuous, but we finally spotted one confiding individual. With time and patience we found also an agitated White-throated Robin-Chat, a male Greater Honeyguide with unwavering enthusiasm to lead us to a bee hive, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, and a Bearded Woodpecker drumming on a large dead tree. Towards Nsumo Pan we eventually caught up with a pair of diminutive Grey Penduline Tit. The pan itself was quiet: a couple of young Grosbeak Weavers begged in the reed-beds and several Yellow-billed Storks casually hung about. On our way back to camp we were surprised to find a party of five Lemon-breasted Canaries in an area of open Acacia grassland. Certainly the biggest surprise was finding a white-billed, pale pink-legged Indigobird mimicking Pink-throated Twinspot. We will have to wait and see whether this is an unknown population of Purple Indigobird parasitizing an unknown host, or a species new to science!

In the afternoon we visited Mkhuze’s infamous Fig Forest. To start with it was hot and quiet, with only a couple of Trumpeter Hornbills moaning from the treetops and a spotty juvenile Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher skulking in the under-storey. As the temperature dropped, activity slowly picked up. Ashy Flycatcher, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Black-throated Wattle-eye and Square-tailed Drongo fell in quick succession. To end with, we found a colossal Sycamore Fig, frequented by chattering flocks of Black-bellied Starling, Violet-backed Starling and shrieking White-eared Barbets.

An pre-dawn start saw us flushing Square-tailed and Fiery-necked Nightjars off the road as we left Mkhuze. By 7h00 we were at Muzi Pan, where we met up with Bheki and headed to a nearby river. We hadn’t gone far when a pair of Lemon-breasted Canaries landed in the road, the male’s bright yellow chest glowing in the sunlight. A short distance further we found a flock of 30 plus. This was obviously a good time for this scarce species. At the river, Bheki led us as we scanned the large riverside trees for Pel’s Fishing Owl. Intensive scanning turned up a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and spectacular views of a Southern Banded Snake Eagle. Yellowbill called from dense cover, a lone Broad-billed Roller sat on a dead snag and several Grey-rumped Swallows flitted over the nearby grassland. Regrettably high water levels meant that our main target had too many choices for fishing holes, and had moved from all its regular roost sites. At midday we left for Hluhluwe, by which time the weather had turned cold and windy. We spent the rest of the afternoon driving through Hluhluwe Game Reserve, watching Elephants, White Rhinos and Buffalos.

Overnight, steady rain had set in, which continued on-and-off all day. We started off at False Bay Park, where a few hours of slow birding produced a party of elegant Grey Waxbills, several Pink-throated Twinspots and a very confiding young Eastern Nicator, showing off its spotty wing coverts. The afternoon was spent mainly in the dune forests near St Lucia, where highlights included scope views of Woodward’s Batis, a silky Brown Scrub Robin singing its tuneful song, several Red-capped Robin-Chats feeding in the road and gaudy Livingstone’s Turacos bouncing through the dense forest canopy. This was a day of quality, not quantity.

A pre-dawn start saw us drive northwards towards Cape Vidal. A nightjar feeding over the adjacent grassland created first excitement but turned out to be European Nightjar. Just before dawn we located a singing male Swamp Nightjar, which fluttered around the car in the spotlight, too close to focus on! Once light, we continued to Cape Vidal, carefully watching the roadside for uncharacteristically elusive Crested Guineafowls, but without luck. Our return journey produced a roadside Black-chested Snake Eagle and Crowned Hornbill, and to our great delight, a 20-strong flock of Crested Guineafowl, clucking nervously beside our car windows.

After breakfast we continued south along the Zululand coast, passing through endless fields of sugarcane and plantations of pine and eucalyptus. At Richardsbay we popped in at Thulazihleka Pan, scouring the reedbeds and adjacent vegetation for weavers. At first we found only Yellow Weavers, but eventually found small flocks of Southern Brown-throated Weaver, with partial-plumage adults feeding young and bathing in the road. A pleasant surprise was a female Eurasian Honey Buzzard, circling low over our heads, presumably on her way north.

In the afternoon we visited the Enseleni River, where we watched the river banks for African Finfoot. After scanning from the bridge and walking along the river banks for three hours, we eventually decided to cut our losses and head for Eshowe. Alan suggested a last scan from the bridge. Success! First a male African Finfoot, and then a female crossed the breadth of the river just upstream of the bridge. With broad smiles on our faces, we completed our journey to Eshowe.

Famous for its population of Spotted Ground Thrush, Dlinza forest was our primary site for the day. At first light we entered the forest, tip-toeing along dimly light paths, straining our ears for high pitched contacts calls of ground thrushes. After about half an hour, we heard a pair calling just to our left. Perched low on a branch, the bird gave brief but unhindered views before disappearing into the rank undergrowth. We followed calls into the forest interior, but the birds always kept just ahead of us and finally vanished all together. Half-pleased we returned to the entrance, where, just as we were about to leave the forest, a young bird begging in the undergrowth caught our attention. Patient scanning turned up a juvenile Spotted Ground Thrush, being fed by its mother, while its father sang nearby. After about 15 minutes we decided to leave the ground thrush in peace and head for Entumeni forest where we hoped to find Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon. The forest was quiet and the birds unresponsive, so we soon returned to Dlinza, this time ascending the canopy tower. Here, a silky Grey Cuckooshrike sunned on a treetop, as several White-eared Barbets darted about, but not a peep from the pigeon, so we opted for a short bout of tape playing. Not a minute later and a pigeon flew straight towards us, landing distantly across the valley. I trained my scope on the branch, where I could just see a head protruding from behind the green leaves. After a few seconds the bird walked out onto the bare branch; it was a female Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon! We watched with great satisfaction as she sunned herself, spreading one wing at a time to absorb as much warmth as possible, her purple and green nape catching the sun all the while. Eventually we decided it was time for breakfast and tore ourselves away.

After breakfast we headed for the hills, or at least the foothills of the Drakensberg. En route we spotted a Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk circling overhead. We spent the last hour of light at Xunemi forest, waiting for Cape Parrots to come a roost. While we wandered along the forest border, small groups of Swee Waxbill and Forest Canary kept us entertained until the first screeches echoed through the valley. Two Cape Parrots flew along the distant ridge, landing out of sight. We changed position to try and see where the birds were, but no luck. Soon however, we could hear parrots from behind us, and a large flock, 25 strong, flew directly over us, later joined by another three birds. For the next half hour we were frustrated by occasional but distant flight views, until finally four birds perched within view, sunning themselves atop a colossal emergent forest tree. As it got dark we returned to Underberg, pausing on the way to watch a trio of Orange Ground Thrushes bathing in the headlights of the car.

With the likes of Drakensberg Rockjumper and Siskin awaiting us, we made an early start towards Sani Pass. Our first roadside stop produced a pair of smart Bokmakierie. At a fast flowing mountain river we scanned the thickets on the opposite bank for Bush Blackcap, spotting a pair preening and sunning in the warm morning sunlight. A blue bullet shot low across the water and disappeared around the next bend; typical of Half-collared Kingfisher. As we began to climb, rocky areas hosted Cape Rock-Thrush, Long-billed Pipit, and in areas with Proteas, many Malachite Sunbirds nd Gurney’s Sugarbirds. As the views improved, road conditions deteriorated. We crawled around hairpin bends, a breathtaking view unfolding beneath us. As if this weren’t enough, we spotted our first very handsome Drakensberg Rockjumper, casually foraging by the roadside. Once at the top and into Lesotho the habitat changed dramatically, with open short-grass fields and low shrub dominating, and with it a suite of new birds. Flocks of Southern Bald Ibis dotted the valleys. More careful scanning revealed unusually large numbers of Large-billed Lark, Yellow Canary, Cape Bunting, Sentinel Rock-Thrush and Sickle-winged Chat, their numbers boosted by the recent breeding season. Shrubby areas produced a trio of Karoo specials, showing off their smart black, grey and white plumages: Southern Grey Tit, Layard’s Titbabbler and Fairy Flycatcher. Further into Lesotho, we stopped to admire a pair of Lammegeier near their nest, while Drakensberg Siskin drank at a nearby stream, many more Drakensberg Rockjumpers bounded from boulder to boulder, and the typically elusive South African Rock Pipit sang occasionally from the ridges, giving only fleeting glimpses. After a hearty lunch we turned, satisfied with the day’s work, and carefully descended back into the grasslands of Underberg. A final loop along some of the back roads produced a pair of regal Wattled Cranes and, on a farm dam, White-backed Duck.

Our final day called for an early start: at 4h30 we drove out of Underberg with the hope of finding Cape Eagle Owl along a particular stretch of road. After half an hour a large dark shadow appeared on one of the roadside telephone poles. Not wanting to flush it we continued and turned well down the road, returning cautiously. Our spotlight beam hopped from pole to pole, until it found the orange-glowing eyes (not always a good field feature) of our quarry. It pondered its circumstances for a minute before deciding they were undesirable and flying to a nearby rocky slope. By 5h00 our work was done, so we continued slowly, hoping to find other owls before the skies lightened. Once the sun was up we looped back to Underberg for a hearty breakfast. On our way we spotted a pair of Denham’s Bustard foraging in a distant field, a pair of Lanners having their breakfast, a smart male Mountain Wheatear, a family of Buff-streaked Chats, and several Banded Martins perched on the farm fences. Breakfast was enjoyed with a pair of Olive Woodpeckers licking peanut butter off the trunk of a tree, before we headed for Durban, with a brief stop at Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve.

Practical tour information

Focus For keen birders and mammal enthusiasts. Designed to see as many as possible endemic birds, but while on the walks we spend a lot of time looking for other aspects of wildlife such as mammals, chameleons, geckos, butterflies and interesting plants, such as Welwitschia and Hudia. We can also customise any itinerary to suit to the keen birder, the wildlife enthusiast or both.
Photography Many participants on our 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 Please enquire as this depends on the exact tour.
Timing The best timing varies per region; please enquire.
Climate Cool in the Cape and highlands Drakensberg hot in the lowlands.
Comfort A good standard of accommodation in guest houses, lodges and small hotels.
Transport We travel by minibus or four wheel drive vehicle.
Group Size This depends on the specific tour. Please enquire.
Top birds Several near-endemics in a spectacular setting
Top mammals African elephant, lion, cheetah, Sable, Roan, Bontebok, Cape zebra, Meerkat
Booking Please email us if you wish to book. 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, and combining interests in mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, plants and other natural history. Our guides know the continents birds like few others; we've written two acclaimed guide books on where to find Southern Africa's and Madagascar's best birds and will guide you to Africa's and Madagascar's most diverse birding destinations. 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.

For feedback from our guests, please see our tour information pages. For trip reports, please see our Trip Reports page.

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Black Harrier photograph courtesy of Keith Offord.
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