NORTH EASTERN SOUTH AFRICA 2010: 24 - 25th October

Jon Hornbuckle

I arranged to spend two days birding in NE South Africa with Neil Bostock after our Angola recce trip with Rockjumper. Sue Anderson, Office Manager at Rockjumper, was very helpful, in booking our accommodation at Backpackers Lodge near Johannesburg airport, the Budget hire-car and Selwyn Rautenbach, our excellent guide for Grass Owl Additional help beforehand was gratefully received from Adam Riley, Ian Merrill and Lisa of Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge,,, who gave us a good deal in a delightful Forest Lodge cabin.


As we had both birded extensively in South Africa before, we decided to concentrate on a few key birds in the limited time available, namely African Grass Owl, Taita Falcon, Short-clawed Lark, and Cape Parrot for me, plus African Rail and Lesser Moorhen for Neil. Having failed to find the Owl myself before, we booked Selwyn to help us. Then we undertook the long drive to the one and only “public” Taita Falcon site, and spent the night at Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge, almost on site for my other two birds. After birding around there, we made our way back to Johannesburg for the 19:05 flight home, with a stop at the wetlands of Nylsvley Nature Reserve. We achieved our aims, except for the Moorhen, without too much time on the road thanks to the excellent road network and relatively light traffic.


Selwyn arrived on time at 5am, accompanied by Moly a keen birder from Adelaide, Australia. The only problem was we could not get out of the locked gate, but eventually someone came to unlock it! After a 30 min drive to private farmland where Selwyn had permission to roam, we waited by a tree while he walked in the brownish grass favoured by the owl and soon flushed a large dark Tyto towards us. It flew past twice giving great views. Then he took us to a large vlei (flooded area) where there were numerous water and grassland birds including Spur-winged Geese, White-faced Ducks, Southern Pochard, Greater Flamingoes and displaying Long-tailed Widowbirds in breeding plumage. Next stop was to have been the grounds of a prison, a good site for Red-chested Flufftail and African Rail, but the guard on duty was not familiar with Selwyn so would not let us in. We had to make do with a lesser site along a railway, but eventually saw both birds there thanks to Selwyn making a short track through the reeds. It was at this point we discovered we had met him in 2002 on the 17 day trip to the Antarctic pack-ice on the S.A. Algulas!


As we had a long way to go, we bade farewell to Selwyn and Moly at 10.15 and sped off to Dullstroom and on to Lydenburg. We took a short diversion along a dirt road north from the R540, said to be a good area for Blue and Wattled Cranes. The road was rough so we didn’t go far and only saw African Wattled Lapwing, Pied Starling, Cape Canary, Yellow Bishop and Mountain Wheatear. We pressed on along the R36 to the spectacular Abel Erasmus Pass, stopping just before the J G Strijdom Tunnel at the site for the very rare Taita Falcon. No sooner had we parked at 1.15pm when curio stall-holder Michael hailed us and as he was showing us the Falcon roosting sites, he spotted the male was flying high overhead. It soared above us then dived with folded wings into a cave in the cliff-face, hovering briefly, probably trying to catch one of the many Red-winged Starlings. This was repeated several times before he landed on a ledge, near the invisible nest, where we were able to scope him. After a few mins he took off and flew a long way down the valley with rapid wing-beats until out or sight. We decided to wait for his return as this was likely to be the only time we would see such a special bird. Many Cape Vultures flew along the top of the escarpment – there was a nesting colony nearby, according to Michael. Other birds there included a pair of Verraux’s Eagle gliding together over the valley, Alpine Swift, Cape Rock-Thrush, Mocking and Southern Ant-eating Chats, Collared Sunbird and Cape White-eye. We waited till 4pm then had to leave, thanking our lucky stars that we hadn’t arrived 15 mins later! Michael told us that 3 or 4 other birders had missed it a few days earlier despite a 4 hour wait.


We headed for Tzanzeen, with no time to visit the scenic Blyde River Canyon unfortunately, seeing a few hornbills on the way. We stopped to buy hot pies and baked beans for supper, then followed Lisa’s directions to Kurisa Moya. This was a bit tricky as it was tucked away along winding roads in the hills close to Magoebaskloof Forest, and it turned dark with thunder and lightening overhead. At the end of a narrow dirt road deep within the forest we were relieved find the Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge complex. David Letsoala, the Manager, met us and took us back to our very nice rustic cabin of split-level design with a high timber roof, central fireplace and stone chimney stack, solar-powered lights and a gas cooker and fridge. By now it had started hailing with hail-stones as big as golf balls! I waited in the cabin for it to abate before returning to the car to fetch the rest of my essentials, but the hail started again. Although I had an umbrella, the storm was so strong that a few stones got through, almost knocking me over and out, as I waded along what had been a dirt path but was now a raging torrent. I rested in the car, listening to the deafening noise of the hail hammering on the roof and when it slowed, ran back to the chalet for my pie and beans. I then discovered my clothes were covered in brown dust! In the morning we found the ground was still carpeted in hail-stones and the car severely dented all over. David’s wing mirror was cracked and various other items on the property were damaged.


We met David at 5am pre-dawn and drove to Woodbush Forest, early to be sure of seeing Cape Parrot. This a very scarce bird with only 75 of this isolated population left - conservation measures have increased numbers a little but lack of suitable nest sites is a serious constraint. The main population in the Cape is only a few hundred now and declining due to a feather virus. We were hoping for a pair to perch on a nearby isolated snag, as they do according to david, but the snag was soon occupied by an Olive Pigeon. The calls of Cape Parrots were heard and eventually a pair flew over giving good views but that was it – a further wait proved fruitless. We birded along the road in superb montane forest, seeing Swainson Francolin, Narina Trogon, Knysna Turaco, Olive Woodpecker, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Chorister Robin-Chat, Barratt’s Warbler, Bar-throated Apalis, Dusky Flycatcher, Square-tailed? Drongo, African Emerald Cuckoo and a Black Goshawk calling in display flight.


We had to drag ourselves away from this bird-rich forest to drive for some 30 mins to the Mamabolo Grasslands, an area of over-grazed grassland, the preferred habitat of the Short-clawed Lark. This is another scarce endemic with a very limited Southern African range, the better known site being not far away in Pietersburg (Polokwane) Game Preserve, Limpopo. We found at least two pairs with males singing a little from bush-tops. We flushed a quail only 2 metres away and also saw Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Crested Francolin, Marico Flycatcher, Ashy Tit, Rufous-naped and Sabota Larks, Rattling Cisticola and Scaly-feathered Finch. Well-satisfied, we drove back to Magoebaskloof Forest and stopped at a conifer plantation to see a Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk nest. We did not see the occupant until we walked into the plantation, whereupon the bird flew out and perched nearby, returning to the nest as we left. The trees had been seriously damaged by the storm, with a carpet of broken-off branches mixed with giant hail-stones covering the ground. David told us where a Bat Hawk was nesting in another plantation but as it was a long way back near to Tzanzeen, we had to give it a miss. Returning to our nearby cabin, we parted company with David, an excellent, friendly and knowledgeable guide.


After a quick breakfast of Weetabix and tea, and a bit of birding around the cabin – Cape Batis, Willow Warbler, Black-headed Oriole, Black Cuckooshrike and Sombre Greenbul – we left for Jo’burg at 10.30. Two hours later we reached Nylsvley Nature Reserve and drove through the thornvelt / acacia scrubland to the reserve buildings. After paying the 15Rand entry charge, we drove around to the far side to explore the Vogelfontein wetlands for 90 mins, where combination locks gave access to several hides. Waterbirds were the main target here, and we soon saw African Shoveler, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal, Squacco Heron, Black Crake and Yellow-billed Stork but no Lesser Moorhen, with Whiskered Terns, still in breeding plumage, and White-throated Swallows skimming over the pools. Other sightings included Common Fiscal, Magpie Shrike and African Stonechat. A fast journey on expensive toll roads, from 2.15 to 4.45, took us back to the airport, with stops for fuel and pie and chips. An accident report form for the hail damage to the car was easily completed and the flight home was on time, so ending an excellent and memorable trip.

Species List

                                               SEEN                PHOTO               

Ostrich - introduced                   T                                                  

Little Grebe                               N                                                  

African Darter                            N                                                  

Reed Cormorant                        N                                                  

Grey Heron                               N                                                  

Black-headed Heron                   J                        1                         

Cattle Egret                              T                                                  

Squacco Heron                        N                       1                         

Striated Heron                         N                                                  

Black-crowned Night-Heron      J                                                  

Hamerkop                            w                                                  

Greater Flamingo                 J                                                  

African Sacred Ibis               J                        1

Yellow-billed Stork               N

White-faced Duck                J                        1                         

White-backed Duck              N                                                  

Egyptian Goose                   J?                                                 

Spur-winged Goose               J                          1                         

Cape Teal                            J?                                                

Yellow-billed Duck                 N                                                  

Cape Shoveler                        N                         1                         

Red-billed Teal                         N                                                  

Southern Pochard                     J                                                  

Osprey                                     N?                                                

Black-shouldered Kite                T                                                  

Yellow-billed/Black Kite               T                                                  

Cape Vulture                               P                                                  

Black-chested Snake-Eagle          T?                                                

Western Marsh-Harrier                  J                        1                         

African Goshawk                          KM                                               

Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk         KM                     1

Black Sparrowhawk                      KM                                               

Common/Steppe Buzzard            T                        1                         

Verreaux's Eagle                        P                        1                         

Peregrine Falcon                         P?                                                

Taita Falcon                              P                                                  

Crested Francolin                        KM                                               

Swainson's Spurfowl                    KM                                               

Harlequin Quail                            KM                                               

Red-chested Flufftail                    J                                                  

African Rail                                 J                                                  

Black Crake                                N                          1                         

Purple Swamphen                       N                                                  

Common Moorhen                      N                                                  

Common Sandpiper                    N                                                  

African Jacana                           N                            1                         

Spur-winged Plover                     J                             1                         

Blacksmith Lapwing                   w                             1                         

African Wattled Lapwing             T                                                  

Grey-headed Gull                       J                               1                         

Whiskered Tern                         N                               1                         

African Olive-Pigeon                   KM                             1                         

Laughing Dove                            w                                                  

Cape Turtle-Dove                         w                                                  

Red-eyed Dove                            w                                                  

Namaqua Dove                            J                                  1                         

African Green-Pigeon                   KM                                               

Cape Parrot                               KM                                               

Knysna Turaco                            KM                                               

Narina Trogon                              KM                                1                         

Grey Go-away-bird                       N

African Emerald Cuckoo              KM                                               

Burchell's Coucal                         N                                                  

African Palm-Swift                       T                                                  

Alpine Swift                                 P                                                  

African Grass-Owl                    J                                1                         

Malachite Kingfisher                   N                                                  

Pied Kingfisher                           N                                                  

European Bee-eater                    T                                                  

African Grey Hornbill                    T                                                  

Olive Woodpecker                        KM                                               

Rufous-naped Lark                        KM?                                              

Sabota Lark                                  KM                                               

Short-clawed Lark                       KM                         1

Red-capped Lark                             J                             1                         

Banded Martin                                 N                             1                         

White-throated Swallow                     N                                                  

Wire-tailed Swallow                            J                                                  

Red-breasted Swallow                        ?                                                  

African Pipit R                                    KM                         1                         

Mountain Wagtail                                P

Dark-capped Bulbul                              w                                                  

Sombre Greenbul                                 KM                                               

Yellow-streaked Greenbul                      KM                          1                         

Grey Cuckooshrike                               KM                          1                         

Black Cuckooshrike                              KM                                               

Cape Rock-Thrush                                 P                              1                         

Olive Thrush                                            w                                                  

African Paradise-Flycatcher                     KM                                               

Marico Flycatcher                                   KM

African Dusky Flycatcher                        KM                                               

Chorister Robin-Chat                               KM                                               

Kalahari Scrub-Robin                               KM                          1                         

African Stonechat                                    J,N                          1                         

Mountain                                                 D

Anteating Chat                                         P                                                  

Mocking Cliff-Chat                                    P                              1                         

Rattling Cisticola                                      KM                                               

Tinkling Cisticola                                      N                             1                         

Levaillant's Cisticola                                  N                             1                         

Zitting Cisticola                                          N                                                  

Bar-throated Apalis                                    KM                                               

African Yellow White-eye                             KM                         1                         

Barratt's Warbler                                         KM                                               

Willow Warbler                                            KM                                               

Collared Sunbird                                             P                       1                         

Ashy Tit                                                       KM

House Sparrow                                              w                                                  

Cape Sparrow                                                J                                                  

Southern Grey-headed Sparrow                       w                                                      

Square-tailed Drongo                                      KM?                                             

Fork-tailed Drongo                                          T                                                  

Olive Bush-Shrike                                            KM?                                              

Cape Batis                                                      KM                                               

Chinspot Batis                                                 KM                                               

Common Fiscal                                                 N                       1                         

Magpie Shrike                                                   N                       1                         

Red-winged Starling                                            P                       1                         

Cape Glossy Starling                                          T                                                  

Burchell's Starling                                               N                                                  

Pied Starling                                                       T                                                  

Cape Crow                                                          w                                                  

Pied Crow                                                           w                                                  

Black-headed Oriole                                             KM                                               

Scaly-feathered Finch                                           KM                                               

Lesser Masked-Weaver                                         N                       1                         

Southern Masked-Weaver                                     N                                                  

Village Weaver                                                     KM                                               

Southern Red Bishop                                           J                        1                         

Yellow Bishop                                                      D

White-winged Widowbird                                       J?,D?                                           

Long-tailed Widowbird                                          J                        1                         

Green-winged Pytilia (Melba Finch)                        KM                                               

Red-headed Finch                                                J                        1                         

Pin-tailed Whydah                                                J                                                  

Cape Canary                                                        D                                                 


TOTAL species photo’d                                                                 40                       


D = near Dullstroom, J = Jo’burg region, KM = Kurisa Moya & Mamabolo Grasslands, N = Nylsvley NR, P = Abel Erasmus Pass, T = while travelling, w = widespread, ? thought we saw but cant remember for certain and my note-taking was uncharacteristically poor at the end of this strenuous trip.


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