The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Africa (and its islands)

SOUTH AFRICA SPECIALITIES – The Ultimate South African Endemics tour

Saturday 18th November – Sunday 10th December 2023

Leader: Simon Mitchell

23 Days Group Size Limit 6
Pelagic Pre-Tour Extension:

Friday 17th November – Saturday 18th November 2023

2 Days Group Size Limit 6

SOUTH AFRICA SPECIALITIES: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s South Africa birding tours surely deserve the epithet ‘ultimate’. Many birdwatching holidays feature this marvellous country, which hosts an extraordinary concentration of endemic birds, not to mention some great mammals, but for the most comprehensive coverage of the South African endemic and near-endemic birds, our South Africa birding tour is the tour to take. Modern roads combined with good accommodations, food and wines, and of course fabulous birds: what more could anyone want?

Over 180 species are endemic or virtually endemic to Southern Africa, the region south of the Zambezi River, representing by far the highest concentration of endemics on the African continent. The great majority of these are to be found inside South Africa itself, which hosts around a hundred strictly endemic species. Many Southern African endemics are confined to the arid and semi-arid western regions of Southern Africa or to the unique ‘fynbos’ and ‘karoo’ habitats of the Southwestern Cape. Others have evolved in isolation in remote mountain and upland regions, whilst a few are relict species found only in tiny restricted areas in out-of-the-way places, virtually unknown until recently. Not only is South Africa extremely rich in endemic and near-endemic birds, but there is a host of more widespread species and also a surprisingly diverse selection of large mammals.

Not surprisingly, South Africa is nowadays one of the world’s top birding destinations. Many tours to the country are rather general birdwatching trips, but this special tour focuses on the many endemic and near-endemic birds of the country. It does not focus on widespread African species or indeed try to cover long distances to find species that are more easily seen in Namibia and other parts of Southern Africa. With good roads, accommodations, food and wine, and a quiet, rural atmosphere over much of the country, South Africa offers some of the most exciting and most comfortable birding experiences in Africa, yet at a very reasonable cost compared to most African countries.

Our South Africa birding tour begins in Cape Town, justly famous for its dramatic mountainous scenery, including the famous Table Mountain that dominates the city. From the lofty sea-cliffs near the Cape of Good Hope, the sight of the South Atlantic meeting the Indian Ocean in all its seabird-thronged turbulence is something truly memorable. To make it even more memorable, there are often a few Southern Right Whales present at this time of year.

Along the rugged coastline, or at small wetlands, we can expect such specialities as African Penguin, Cape Gannet, Cape, Bank and Crowned Cormorants, South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveler, African Oystercatcher and Cape and Hartlaub’s Gulls.

Countless thousands of seabirds occur in the waters off the Cape and a pelagic cruise to the fishing grounds off Cape Town is one of the birding spectacles of Southern Africa. Here we can marvel at several species of albatrosses, attractive Great Shearwaters and Cape Petrels, and many other seabirds. There is even a slim chance for Spectacled Petrel. This pelagic features as an optional pre-tour extension.

We will also spend time in the strange fynbos, the macchia-like, Mediterranean-style vegetation characteristic of the Southwestern Cape which holds many endemic or near-endemic birds, including Jackal Buzzard, Cape Francolin, Cape Bulbul, Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Cape Batis, Southern Boubou, Bokmakierie, Cape White-eye, the spectacular Cape Sugarbird, Southern Double-collared and Orange-breasted Sunbirds, Cape Sparrow, Cape Weaver and Cape Canary, as well as the more difficult Knysna Warbler and Cape Siskin.

Further afield, we will pass through the Hottentots Holland range, with its superb Cape Rockjumpers and secretive Victorin’s Warbler, and then the Overberg, with its elegant Blue Cranes, stately Denham’s Bustards and Cape Clapper and Agulhas Long-billed Larks, before we explore the attractive coastal reserve of De Hoop. Here, the localized Southern Tchagra will be high on our want list, while we shall also want to see Acacia Pied Barbet, Fiscal Flycatcher and White-throated Canary. This beautiful coastal reserve also holds an interesting selection of large mammals. At Grootvadersbosch the uncommon Knysna Woodpecker and the skulking Knysna Warbler will be our main targets.

We will then head north up the Atlantic coast before turning inland into spectacular mountain scenery, looking for such spectacular birds as Black Harrier and Southern Black Korhaan, as well as Cape Clapper, Cape Long-billed and Karoo Larks, Grey Tit, Mountain Wheatear, Cinnamon-breasted, Layard’s and Chestnut-vented Warblers, Fairy Flycatcher, Cape Penduline Tit and the uncommon Protea Canary, until we reach the arid plains of the Karoo.

Amidst the starkly beautiful scenery of the Karoo, in the region surrounding the remote town of Calvinia, we can expect a host of arid country specialities, including Karoo Korhaan, Namaqua Sandgrouse, White-backed Mousebird, Sickle-winged, Tractrac and Karoo Chats, Karoo Scrub-Robin, Grey-backed Cisticola, Namaqua and Black-chested Prinias, the handsome Rufous-eared Warbler, Chat Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, African Pied and Pale-winged Starlings, Dusky Sunbird, Black-headed and Yellow Canaries, and Cape and Lark-like Buntings. We will also be hoping to find Ludwig’s Bustard and the elusive Karoo Eremomela.

The Karoo also has a splendid aggregation of larks, including Red, Sabota, Spike-heeled, Large-billed, Karoo Long-billed, Sclater’s and Stark’s Larks, and Grey-backed and Black-eared Sparrowlarks.

From the Karoo, we head still further north to the harsh, Skeleton Coast-like coastline of the Northern Cape, home to the little-known Barlow’s Lark and the endangered Damara Tern, and then explore an area of spectacular red sand dunes. In this desert region we will be looking in particular for the uncommon Burchell’s Courser, Bradfield’s Swift, the dune form of the Red Lark, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Karoo Thrush, Short-toed Rock Thrush, Orange River White-eye and Red-headed Finch, as well as the magnificent Southern Oryx (or Gemsbok).

Next, our South Africa birding tour heads northeast to Johannesburg. Beyond that great city we will be looking for the poorly-known Melodious Lark at a favoured spot or two before heading onwards to Magoebaskloof in the north of the country. Here the dry grasslands hold the endemic Short-clawed Lark, as well as other good birds such as Swainson’s Spurfowl, Ashy Tit, Marico Flycatcher and the stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike, while one of the most productive forest areas in the country gives us our best chance for the rare endemic Cape Parrot. Black-fronted Bushshrike will also be high on our agenda in this beautiful area and we will have a first chance for some of the specialities that also occur in the Drakensberg, such as Barratt’s Warbler, Chorister Robin-Chat, Olive Bushshrike, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and Swee Waxbill. There is even a slim chance for the rare Taita Falcon.

Our next destination will be the rolling grasslands of the southern Transvaal (now known as Mpumalanga province) around Wakkerstroom. One of the most threatened habitats in Southern Africa, the endemic bird species that live there, including Blue and Barrow’s Korhaans (the latter split from White-bellied Bustard), Eastern Long-billed, Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks, and Yellow-breasted Pipit, are now in a precarious situation. This beautiful area of rocky ridges, pristine grasslands, small lakes, marshy meadows (with delightful Long-tailed Widowbirds bounding over them) and forest-choked gullies is rich in birdlife and offers a taste of what the whole region must have looked like a century ago.

Next, we cross the border into Kwazulu-Natal and the bird-rich bushveld, lakes and papyrus swamps of Mkuze (or Mkhuze) Game Reserve. Although we will already have seen a number of impressive mammals during the tour, Mkhuze is a mammalogist’s paradise, with White Rhinoceros, the beautiful Nyala (a relative of the Kudu) and Hippopotamus being among the more spectacular creatures. Yet more avian delights await us at Mkhuze too, including two specialities, Neergaard’s Sunbird and the delightful Pink-throated Twinspot, as well as many other additions to the tour list.

Eventually, we reach the Indian Ocean coast at Saint Lucia. Here, the lagoons and almost impenetrable, liana-choked forests of the Lake St Lucia area hold such specialities as Brown Scrub-Robin, Rudd’s Apalis and Woodward’s Batis. As we leave the coastal lowlands behind, on our way to the fabulous Drakensberg, we will pause at Eshowe to take in the endangered Spotted Ground Thrush.

Our visit to the mighty Drakensberg range will surely be a fitting finale to a fantastic tour. We will climb high into these magnificent mountains to the Sani Pass and enter the Kingdom of Lesotho. This small, mountainous country, most of which lies over 2000m (or roughly 6600ft), possesses truly spectacular scenery. Situated amongst the peaks of the lofty Drakensberg range, southern Lesotho is reached by only a few roads that climb over breathtaking mountain passes and the winding road that we will take reaches an altitude of nearly 3250m (10,663ft). In the higher reaches of the Drakensberg, we can expect a suite of montane specialities, including the strange Southern Bald Ibis, the endangered Cape Vulture, the enigmatic Bush Blackcap, Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrushes, the beautiful Buff-streaked Chat, the superb Drakensberg Rockjumper, Mountain and Yellow-tufted Pipits, Gurney’s Sugarbird and Drakensberg Siskin.

At lower altitudes, we shall visit the ‘mist forests’ and rolling grasslands of the Natal Midlands where the special birds include the spectacular Wattled Crane, the colourful Knysna Turaco, Blue Swallow, the gorgeous but elusive Orange Ground Thrush, Drakensberg Prinia, Cape Longclaw and Forest Canary.

By the time we come to the end of our South African odyssey we will have explored the whole range of this extraordinary country’s diverse habitats and seen a remarkable variety of birds, including many of the most sought-after in Africa.

Birdquest has operated South Africa birding tours since 1989.

Aardvark & Black-footed Cat Extension Option: For those with a keen interest in mammals, it is possible for us to arrange a two nights pre-tour extension to a private game reserve in the Kimberley area of northern South Africa. During your visit, you will go out on two different night drives (if you stay more than two nights, more drives are possible). As well as the bizarre but delightful Springhare, a mammal that behaves more like a small wallaby than a rodent, you should also see Bat-eared and Cape Foxes, Small-spotted Genet and perhaps South African Porcupine and Aardwolf (a hyaena). At this locality, there is a good chance of seeing the strange, pig-like Aardvark and, with a bit of luck, the delightful little Black-footed Cat. There is also a chance for Rufous-cheeked Nightjar and, if we are very fortunate, Cape Eagle-Owl. In the daytime, Orange River Francolin is a possibility, although it is uncommon. The reserve also holds such mammals as Black Wildebeest and Roan and Sable Antelopes. Please contact us if you are interested in this extension. You will be guided by the reserve staff.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels/lodges are of a good standard throughout. Road transport is by minibus and the roads in South Africa are good. There are some long drives on this tour.

Walking: The walking effort during our South Africa birding tour is mostly easy, occasionally moderate.

Climate: Rather variable. In the Cape, conditions range from cool to warm (or hot in the Karoo and northern Cape) and a mix of sunny and overcast conditions are typical, perhaps with some rain (most likely at the coast). In the east conditions range from warm to hot at lower altitudes, cool to warm at higher altitudes or even cold in the high Drakensberg. Again a mix of sunny and overcast weather is typical, and some rain is likely.

Bird/Mammal Photography: Opportunities during our South Africa birding tour are good.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Taking part in 'The Ultimate Southern African Endemics' adventure!
  • Seeing unique rockjumpers hop across boulder-strewn slopes
  • Visiting the wonderful African Penguin and cormorant colonies along the southern Cape Coast
  • Gazing in awe as our boat is surrounded by albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters off Cape Town.
  • Finding tricky rarities such as Damara Tern, Knysna Woodpecker, Southern Tchagra, Victorin’s and Knysna Warblers and many more!
  • Exploring the fabulous fynbos with its wonderful Black Harriers and Southern Black Korhaans
  • Investigating the glorious Mkuze and St Lucia Game Reserves with their impressive mammals and avian highlights including Neergard's Sunbird and Pink-throated Twinspot
  • Going into the Highveld grasslands for stunning Blue Korhaans, stately Blue, Grey Crowned and perhaps Wattled Cranes and fabulous Blue Swallows
  • Enjoying a magical day trip up into Lesotho, with fabulous Drakensberg scenery, Lammergeiers, Southern Bald Ibises and much-wanted endemics
  • Seeing the rare Spotted Ground Thrush and Cape Parrot in the eastern forests
  • Enjoying colourful Orange Ground Thrushes, bushshrikes and turacos amongst the great variety of forest species on offer
  • Getting to grips with South Africa’s amazing selection (more than twenty species!) of larks
  • Having a decent chance of actually seeing a flufftail!
  • Seeing a great number of bird species, including a vast majority of the South African endemics and specialities
  • Admiring the fabulous flowers and landscapes of the Western Cape
  • Enjoying the great hospitality, food, wine and infrastructure that South Africa has to offer
  • Coming across an amazing variety of mammals
  • An option to include chances for such rarely-seen critters as Aardvark and Black-footed Cat

OUTLINE ITINERARY

  • PELAGIC PRE-TOUR EXTENSION
  • Day 1: Evening tour start at Cape Town.
  • Day 2: Cape Town Pelagic.
  • MAIN TOUR
  • Day 1: Evening tour start at Cape Town.
  • Days 2-3: Cape Town region.
  • Day 3: Drive to De Hoop.
  • Day 4: De Hoop and Grootvadersbosch reserves. Overnight at Grootvadersbosch.
  • Day 6: Grootvadeesbosch, then drive to Ceres.
  • Day 7: Drive to Calvinia in the Karoo.
  • Day 8: Calvinia region of the Karoo.
  • Day 9: Drive to Springbok. Visit Goegap reserve.
  • Day 10: Visit Port Nolloth. Overnight at Springbok.
  • Day 11: Koa River area, then drive south to Clanwilliam.
  • Day 12: Return to Cape Town and fly to Johannesburg.
  • Day 13: Drive via Polokwane to Magoebaskloof.
  • Day 14: Magoebaskloof region.
  • Day 15: Drive to Wakkerstroom.
  • Day 16: Wakkerstroom region.
  • Day 17: Wakkerstoom, then drive to Mkuze.
  • Day 18: Mkuze Game Reserve.
  • Day 19: Mkuze, then drive to Saint Lucia.
  • Day 20: Saint Lucia, then drive to Eshowe.
  • Day 21: Drive to Underberg in the Drakensberg Mountains.
  • Day 22: Drakensberg Mountains, including visit to Lesotho.
  • Day 23: Karkloof hills, then drive to Johannesburg airport for evening tour end.

To see a larger map, click on the square-like ‘enlarge’ icon in the upper right of the map box.

To see (or hide) the ‘map legend’, click on the icon with an arrow in the upper left of the map box.

To change to a satellite view, which is great for seeing the physical terrain (and for seeing really fine details by repetitive use of the + button), click on the square ‘map view’ icon in the lower left corner of the ‘map legend’.

PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for accommodation/restaurant staff.

We also include the following flight: Cape Town-Johannesburg.

Deposit: 20% of the total tour price. Our office will let you know what deposit amount is due, in order to confirm your booking, following receipt of your online booking form.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates)






2023: £5520, $6990, €6500, AUD9990. Cape Town/Johannesburg.
Pelagic Pre-Tour Extension: £380, $490, €450, AUD700. Cape Town/Cape Town.

Single Supplement: 2023: £380, $490, €450, AUD700.
Pelagic Pre-Tour Extension: £30, $40, €30, AUD50.

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

SPECIALITIES OF SOUTH AFRICA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

South Africa: Day 1  Our Specialities of South Africa birding tour begins this evening at Cape Town, where we will stay for three nights.

South Africa: Days 2-3  Cape Town is famous for its fine natural setting close to the magnificent scenery of Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope. This wind-swept area at the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans has an interesting avifauna with a high proportion of endemic species.

The area is famous for its botanical richness (indeed, the Cape Floristic Kingdom comprises a unique floral region with a diversity far in excess of temperate regions in the Northern Hemisphere). A family of plants characteristic of this region are the proteas, and, wherever there are concentrations of their beautiful and spectacular flowers, we should find Cape Sugarbirds, one of two members of a Southern African endemic family which resemble gigantic sunbirds, and gorgeous endemic Orange-breasted Sunbirds.

(Endemic as used here refers to Southern Africa rather than South Africa alone, as so many of the regional endemics overlap a national border or two.)

Amongst the other endemic or near-endemic species that we should find while exploring the scrubby vegetation around Cape Point, at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens or in the woodland at the foot of Table Mountain are the attractive Jackal Buzzard, Cape Francolin, Cape Bulbul, Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, the attractive Cape Batis, Southern Boubou, Bokmakierie, Cape White-eye, Southern (or Lesser) Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Sparrow, Cape Weaver and Cape Canary. Two of the more difficult Cape endemics are Knysna Warbler and Cape Siskin, the former because it is so secretive, the latter simply because it is scarce and a bit unpredictable.

Species of wider distribution include Hamerkop, Black-headed Heron, Hadeda Ibis, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed and Black-shouldered Kites, Steppe Buzzard (sometimes split from Common), Rock Kestrel, Helmeted Guineafowl, Speckled and African Olive Pigeons, Ring-necked, Laughing and Namaqua Doves, Spotted Eagle-Owl, Alpine, Little and African Black Swifts, Speckled Mousebird, Rock Martin, Greater Striped Swallow, Black Saw-wing, Sombre Greenbul, Olive Thrush, Cape Robin-Chat, Familiar Chat, Pied and House Crows (the latter a relatively recent arrival), Common Fiscal, Red-winged Starling, Malachite Sunbird, Southern (or Vitelline) Masked Weaver, Southern Red and Yellow Bishops, and Brimstone Canary.

A highlight of our time at the coast will be a visit to a colony of African (or Jackass) Penguins, and as these dapper endemics wander unconcerned around us we will come to appreciate the appropriateness of their vernacular name as they give their braying calls. We also have an excellent chance of finding a huge Southern Right Whale loafing offshore in False Bay and, whilst looking offshore, we will see a number of Cape Gannets and may well be able to pick up a few pelagic seabird species such as White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater or even Shy Albatross. We will also be searching the coastline for Bank Cormorant, a Southern African endemic that has declined in numbers by over 60% in recent years, as well as endemic Cape and Crowned Cormorants.

Along the coast, or in nearby wetlands, we should also find the endemic South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveler, African (Black) Oystercatcher and Hartlaub’s Gull, as well as Little Egret, Glossy and African Sacred Ibises, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, Cape and Red-billed Teals, Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Cape Gull (sometimes split from Kelp), Common, Sandwich and Greater Crested Terns, Levaillant’s (or Tinkling) and Zitting Cisticolas, and Little Rush, African Reed and Lesser Swamp Warblers.

On our second full day out of Cape Town, we will explore the coastal ‘fynbos’ (heathland) and we shall also explore open areas and some coastal wetlands. We will be looking in particular for such endemics as the superb Black Harrier, the stunning Southern Black Korhaan, Cape Clapper, Cape Long-billed and Karoo Larks, Grey Tit and Cape Penduline Tit (the region’s smallest endemic).

Other likely new species include Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Grey Heron, Common Quail (as usual, hard to see), Spotted Thick-knee, Common Ringed, Kittlitz’s, Three-banded, White-fronted and Grey (or Black-bellied) Plovers, the exquisite Chestnut-banded Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Eurasian Whimbrel and European Bee-eater. From time to time we may come across Steenbok and Grey Duiker feeding amidst the low scrub.

South Africa: Day 4  This morning we will leave Cape Town and head eastwards into the Hottentots Holland Mountains, a dramatically rugged, windswept range that receives the brunt of the southeasterly gales that are so frequent in the Cape during the winter months. Here we will be looking in particular for the superb endemic Cape Rockjumper and the colourful but shy endemic Victorin’s Warbler, and we are also likely to find White-necked Raven and Neddicky (or Piping Cisticola).

From here, we continue eastwards into the rolling grasslands of the Overberg and on to the De Hoop area for an overnight stay.

As we head east, we will be delighted by the large numbers of elegant endemic Blue Cranes, South Africa’s national bird, in the roadside fields, and we will visit some areas of grassland and cultivation to search for the localized endemic Agulhas Long-billed and Agulhas Clapper Larks, and the streaky Cape form of the minuscule Cloud Cisticola, a bird that seems to vanish into the heavens during its song flight!

South Africa: Day 5  We will explore the scenic and productive De Hoop Nature Reserve, which is home to the skulking Southern Tchagra. Whilst looking for this rather secretive endemic, we are likely to come across some other new species for the trip, such as Common Ostrich, Great Crested, Black-necked and Little Grebes, Long-tailed Cormorant, African Darter, Great White Pelican, Crowned and Blacksmith Lapwings, White-rumped Swift, Giant Kingfisher,  the near-endemic Acacia Pied Barbet, Red-capped Lark, Pearl-breasted and White-throated Swallows, Capped Wheatear, Bar-throated Apalis, the shrike-like, endemic Fiscal Flycatcher, Cape Wagtail, African (or Grassveld) Pipit and the stocky, near-endemic White-throated Canary.

In the surrounding grasslands, we should find stately Denham’s Bustards (with their spectacular ‘chrysanthemum’ display) and we also have a fair chance of encountering the rare Hottentot Buttonquail, which is perhaps Southern Africa’s most difficult endemic!

We will also spend time admiring the mammals of the reserve, which include the attractive Bontebok, the endangered Cape Mountain Zebra and if we are fortunate the shy Cape Grysbok.

Afterwards, we will move on to the Grootvadersbosch reserve, which is a good place for both the uncommon endemic Knysna Woodpecker and the secretive endemic Knysna Warbler and a locality which also offers a first chance for the endemic but uncommon Forest Buzzard. We will spend the night in the Grootvadersbosch area.

South Africa: Day 6  After some final birding at the Grootvadersbosch reserve we shall head northwards to Ceres for an overnight stay.

South Africa: Day 7  We will head northwards into the Karoo today, our destination the small town of Calvinia where we will spend two nights.

Along the way, we shall be making stops for such endemic or near-endemic additions as Mountain Wheatear, Layard’s Warbler (or Layard’s Tit-Babbler), Chestnut-vented Warbler (or Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler) and Fairy Flycatcher. We will also have our first opportunity to find Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, which runs like a mouse amongst the scree slopes and boulder piles.

Part of the day will be spent exploring the Karoo plains and we are sure to have seen quite a number of dry country specialities by the time we reach Calvinia.

South Africa: Day 8  Calvinia is situated deep in the desert region of the Northern Cape. Here, we will focus our attention on the starkly beautiful northern Karoo where arid, stony plains, bisected by sandy wadis dotted with thorn trees, give rise to shimmering mirages during the heat of the day. We will explore the area surrounding Calvinia out as far as the tiny settlement of Brandvlei, even deeper into the desert.

These harsh landscapes hold some very interesting endemics and near-endemics. Here we should find Karoo Korhaan, Namaqua Sandgrouse, White-backed Mousebird, Grey-backed Cisticola, Black-chested Prinia, the handsome Rufous-eared Warbler, Chat Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, African Pied Starling, Dusky Sunbird, Black-headed and Yellow Canaries, Cape Bunting, the undistinguished Lark-like Bunting and, with a bit of luck, the elusive Karoo Eremomela, Orange River White-eye and Pale-winged Starling. Larks and chats are well represented here and we will be looking for the restricted-range Red Lark, Sabota Lark (here of the form sometimes split as Bradfield’s Lark), Spike-heeled, Large-billed, Karoo Long-billed and Sclater’s Larks, Grey-backed and Black-eared Sparrowlarks, Sickle-winged, Tractrac and Karoo Chats, Karoo Scrub-Robin and Ant-eating Chat. Less predictable are two nomadic near-endemics, the splendid Ludwig’s Bustard and the diminutive Stark’s Lark, although we have a good chance of seeing both. We will also visit a small reedy patch that holds the shy and furtive endemic Namaqua Warbler.

Other species we may well find in the Calvinia region include Booted Eagle, Southern Chanting Goshawk, Greater Kestrel and Yellow-bellied Eremomela. Double-banded Courser is also possible. The handsome Springbok is regularly encountered in the area.

South Africa: Day 9  We will have time for some final birding in the Karoo today before we continue northwards to Springbok for a two nights stay.

As we approach Springbok, the huge communal nests of the endemic Sociable Weaver, built around and smothering trees and telephone poles alike, are a characteristic feature of the area and we are likely to come across the bane of these weavers, the delightful little Pygmy Falcon.

We should arrive in time to visit the very scenic Goegap Nature Reserve. This reserve is a superb place for mammals, featuring the wonderful Southern Oryx (or Gemsbok), the charismatic Springbok, Steenbok and Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra.

South Africa: Day 10  To the northwest of Springbok we will once more reach the Atlantic coastline, but this time not far to the south of the Orange River mouth.

Port Nolloth is situated in the diamond mining area of the Northern Cape, a desolate area reminiscent of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and home to the little-known and highly localized Barlow’s Lark (a species found only in a tiny area of coastal northwest South Africa and adjacent Namibia). We should have no trouble finding our target species and, with luck, we will also find the endangered Damara Tern along the shoreline. Cape Crows (or Cape Rooks) are common in this area, which also provides us with further chances for Stark’s Lark, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and Karoo Eremomela. We also have a good chance of finding the uncommon Damara Canary, sometimes split from Black-headed. If we are fortunate we will encounter the near-endemic Burchell’s Courser, either in this area or somewhere else in the Northern Cape. Other new birds today are likely to include the near-endemic African Red-eyed Bulbul and Karoo Thrush.

South Africa: Day 11  This morning we will explore the Koa River area. The backdrop to this wild habitat is weathered, flat-topped mountains with scree, boulders and giant desert aloes. The flat, open gravel plains are covered in stunted desert shrubs and succulent euphorbias and the wadis have a slightly thicker growth of acacia shrubs and trees. Scattered over this vast area are bands of bright red, rolling sand dunes, some covered in short scrub, and it is here that we will look for the dune form of the Red Lark, a thrush-like bird with upperparts that match the colour of the sand dunes in which it lives.

Afterwards, we will head southwards to Clanwilliam for an overnight stay.

South Africa: Day 12  We have a good chance early this morning for the tricky Protea Canary. Afterwards, we will head for Cape Town Airport and take a flight to Johannesburg for an overnight stay.

South Africa: Day 13  We will stop early this morning at a grassy area that offers a good chance for Melodious Lark (the birds tend to be hidden in the grass unless they are singing, which in turn depends on rainfall). Other birds of interest are the stunning Northern Black (or White-quilled) Korhaan, Eastern Clapper Lark. If we are very lucky we will find the highly localized and elusive endemic Orange River Francolin.

Next, we will visit a diamond mine where we should find White-fronted Bee-eater and have a chance for the near-endemic Short-toed Rock Thrush.

By late morning we should be at Polokwane. Our main reason for visiting this area of northern Transvaal is to look for the little-known and localized endemic Short-clawed Lark, which is present here alongside the more common Rufous-naped Lark. As we scour the dry scrubby grasslands we will be listening for the drawn-out whistle which will alert us to our quarry as it performs one of its acrobatic display flights.

Whilst searching for the lark, or while inside the Polokwane Game Reserve, we will come across a number of species associated with more arid areas, such as the near-endemic Swainson’s Spurfowl, Grey Go-away-bird, African Palm Swift, Red-faced Mousebird, African Hoopoe, the near-endemic Sabota Lark, Fork-tailed Drongo, the near-endemic Ashy Tit, Rattling Cisticola, the near-endemic Marico Flycatcher, Magpie Shrike, the stunning, near-endemic Crimson-breasted Shrike, the introduced Common Myna, Burchell’s Starling, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Southern Grey-headed and Great Sparrows, Red-billed Quelea, Green-winged Pytilia, Violet-eared and Black-cheeked (or Black-faced) Waxbills, the near-endemic Red-headed Finch, Scaly-feathered Finch and perhaps Cut-throat Finch.

Afterwards, we continue northwards to Magoebaskloof for a two nights stay.

South Africa: Day 14  The lush and misty Afromontane forests around Magoebaskloof, which we will explore today, mark the northern edge of the range for several Southern African endemics. They are arguably the most bird-rich forests in South Africa and hold almost a full suite of eastern forest birds. In particular, it is an excellent area for the rare and endangered endemic Cape Parrot and we have a fairly good chance of encountering a party flying over the forest, attracting attention with their raucous calls. This area is also home to a good population of the gorgeous Orange Ground Thrush. In addition, Yellow-streaked Greenbul and the colourful Black-fronted Bushshrike, two species that we will not come across in the Drakensberg, can also be found here.

Other species likely in this area include Red-chested Cuckoo, the stunning African Emerald Cuckoo, Olive Woodpecker, Dark-capped Bulbul, the skulking endemic Barratt’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, the endemic Chorister Robin-Chat (a species which can produce near-perfect imitations of almost any other, causing some confusion at times), Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Black-backed Puffback, the endemic Olive Bushshrike and the endemic Greater Double-collared Sunbird. During the afternoon we may return to the forests or revisit the Polokwane area.

South Africa: Day 15  This morning we head southwards to Wakkerstroom for a two nights stay.

En route, we will visit some mountainous country where dramatic cliffs tower over the road. Previously, the spectacular Taita Falcon was regularly recorded here, but in recent years it has been irregular. Although widespread (ranging from Kenya to South Africa) this rare species is very seldom seen anywhere in its range and this is its sole known South African locality. Although small, Taita Falcons have the stocky build of a large falcon and an incredibly fast and acrobatic flight, allowing them to catch prey as fast as Alpine Swifts on the wing.

We should encounter our first endangered endemic Cape Vultures in this area and we may well also find the localized Striped Pipit, as well as Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Mountain Wagtail, Mocking Cliff Chat and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting.

South Africa: Day 16  Of all the diverse habitats we will have travelled through, the upland grasslands of the central plateau of South Africa are the most threatened, and as a direct consequence its endemic birds are now endangered. The area we will be birding in is one of the few extensive stretches of this ‘highveld’ habitat left and is typified by small wetlands (‘vleis’) surrounded by lush, marshy meadows, rugged, rocky peaks and open stretches of pristine grassland. This interesting area has some exciting endemic species, in particular, Blue and Barrow’s Korhaans, Eastern Long-billed, the endangered Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks (both are in severe decline owing to habitat loss), Yellow-breasted Pipit and Cape (or Orange-throated) Longclaw.

Other birds we should see in the Wakkerstroom region include Hottentot Teal, Southern Pochard, White-backed Duck, Secretarybird, African Marsh Harrier, Lanner, Red-winged and Grey-winged Francolins, African Swamphen, Grey Crowned Crane, African Wattled Lapwing, African Snipe, Spotted Thick-knee, Whiskered Tern, Banded Martin, Pink-billed and Spike-heeled Larks, South African Cliff Swallow, Wing-snapping Cisticola, Fan-tailed Widowbird, African Quailfinch, Common Waxbill and perhaps also Maccoa Duck, African Rail or Orange-breasted Waxbill. At dusk, we will spend some time overlooking a grassy wetland where we may see hunting Marsh Owls or perhaps a Spotted Eagle-Owl.

South Africa: Day 17  After some final birding in the Wakkerstroom area we will head for Kwazulu-Natal for a two nights stay at Mkuze (or Mkhuze).

South Africa: Day 18  Mkuze (or Mkhuze) Game Reserve has the highest recorded number of bird species for any area in Kwazulu-Natal. On entering the reserve the reason for this faunistic diversity becomes obvious, for one can then appreciate the wide range of habitats that exist within a comparatively short distance of each other. Rocky ridges covered in flowering aloes give way to grassland dotted with trees and then to thick acacia woodland and specialized ‘sand forest’, as well as areas of lakes and swamps. However, we will be focussing on the two or three specialities found in the reserve rather than the many widespread African species.

In particular, the special ‘sand forest’ habitat is home to the most prized birds in the park, namely the highly localized endemic Neergaard’s Sunbird and the delightful endemic Pink-throated Twinspot (both of which are quite easy to see).

Large mammals are common in the reserve and we are likely to encounter Nyala, Kudu, Common Duiker, Impala, Blue Wildebeest, Burchell’s Zebra, Warthog, Giraffe and Hippopotamus. We should also see the magnificent White Rhinoceros and possibly the cantankerous Black Rhinoceros.

Amongst the large number of widespread species that we may well encounter at Mkuze are Intermediate Egret, African Openbill, Yellow-billed Stork, Spur-winged Goose, White-faced Whistling Duck, White-backed and Lappet-faced Vultures, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Tawny and Wahlberg’s Eagles, Bateleur, Black-bellied Korhaan, the comically bizarre Crested Guineafowl, Water Thick-knee, Common and Marsh Sandpipers, Ruff, Common Greenshank, White-winged Tern, Red-eyed Dove, Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, Purple-crested Turaco, Diederik and Black Cuckoos, Burchell’s Coucal, African Pygmy and Striped Kingfishers, Little Bee-eater, Lilac-breasted Roller, Green Woodhoopoe, Common Scimitarbill, the near-endemic Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Black-collared Barbet, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Cardinal and Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, and Lesser Honeyguide.

Passerines include the near-endemic Lemon-breasted Canary as well as Lesser Striped and Barn Swallows, Black Cuckooshrike, Southern Black Tit, Eastern Nicator, White-browed and White-throated Robin-Chats, White-browed and Bearded Scrub-Robins, Long-billed Crombec, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green-backed Camaroptera, Red-faced Cisticola, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Ashy and Pale Flycatchers, African Paradise Flycatcher, Chinspot Batis, Arrow-marked Babbler, African Pied Wagtail, Brown-crowned Tchagra, White-crowned Helmet-Shrike, Gorgeous Bushshrike (which certainly lives up to its name), Grey-headed Bushshrike (almost as good), Violet-backed, Wattled and Cape Glossy Starlings, Purple-banded, White-bellied and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, Yellow-throated Petronia, Spectacled, Village, Lesser Masked and Yellow Weavers, White-winged Widowbird, Blue Waxbill, Red-billed Firefinch, Pin-tailed Whydah, Yellow-fronted Canary and Golden-breasted Bunting.

We should also encounter one or two of the reserve’s scarcer or more difficult-to-see species, such as African Cuckoo Hawk, Lizard Buzzard, African Broadbill, Grey Penduline Tit, Kurrichane Thrush, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Bushveld Pipit and Grey Waxbill.

South Africa: Day 19  After some final birding in the Mkuze area we will head southwards to Saint Lucia for an overnight stay.

South Africa: Day 20  The estuary mouth at Saint Lucia is full of hippos and crocodiles, although fortunately they rarely wander into the village itself! Where Lake Saint Lucia enters the Indian Ocean there is an area of dense coastal forest. We will wander along the trails through the coastal forest, looking for roving bird parties and the more skulking inhabitants of the area.

The prime specialities here are the endemic Brown Scrub-Robin and the near-endemic Rudd’s Apalis and Woodward’s Batis, as well as the more widely distributed Green Coucal (or Green Malkoha, which keeps itself remarkably well hidden in the canopy) and the secretive Green Twinspot.

Amongst the other species that we may well find here are African Green Pigeon, the beautiful Narina Trogon, Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbills, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, White-eared Barbet, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Square-tailed Drongo, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Black-bellied Starling, Eastern Olive Sunbird, Dark-backed and Thick-billed (or Grosbeak) Weavers, and Red-backed Mannikin.

The estuary, lakes and damp grassy areas hold Pink-backed Pelican, Purple and Goliath Herons, Great Egret, African Spoonbill, Woolly-necked Stork, African Fish Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle, Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey-headed Gull, Caspian Tern, Pied and Malachite Kingfishers, Brown-throated Martin, Red-breasted Swallow, Rufous-winged and Croaking Cisticolas, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Southern Brown-throated Weaver and, with luck, Southern Banded Snake Eagle. At dusk, we can look for Swamp (or Natal) Nightjar.

Mammals include such species as Common Waterbuck, Kudu, Eland and White Rhinoceros.

Later we will drive to Eshowe for an overnight stay, stopping en route at a small nature reserve which is excellent for a variety of drier country species, including Natal Francolin and Crested Barbet.

Virtually in Eshowe is the small Dhlinza Forest reserve, which is an excellent site for the globally endangered, restricted-range and elusive Spotted Ground Thrush, which we have a good chance of finding this evening. We may also see African Goshawk, Tambourine Dove and Scaly-throated Honeyguide here or in another forest area.

South Africa: Day 21  We have a second opportunity for the thrush if we missed it yesterday, but otherwise we will head straight for the Underberg area in South Africa’s spectacular Drakensberg range for a two nights stay. We will arrive in time to start our explorations this afternoon.

South Africa: Day 22  During our time in the Drakensberg we shall explore grasslands, small lakes and marshes, alpine scrub and high altitude woodland. The high peaks of the magnificent eastern Drakensberg (rising to over 3000m or 9800ft), with their massive craggy spikes and rock buttresses, form an impressive backdrop as we look for such special birds as the strange endemic Southern Bald Ibis, the huge endemic Cape Vulture and the rare and endangered Wattled Crane.

We will have to transfer to four-wheel-drive vehicles in order to ascend a precipitous and scenic mountain pass amongst the loftiest peaks of the high Drakensberg and then continue into Lesotho. Known as the Sani Pass, at nearly 3250m it is the highest road in the eastern Drakensberg.

On the lower slopes, we will look for the rare and localized endemic Gurney’s Sugarbird around flowering proteas, and other species we may see in this zone include Red-throated Wryneck, the endemic Bush Blackcap (a species which is variously considered a babbler or a bulbul), African Stonechat, the stunning endemic Buff-streaked Chat (surely one of the best wheatears of all), the endemic Cape Rock Thrush and Streaky-headed Seed-eater. As we climb further, stands of proteas and grasslands, which are thronged with displaying Long-tailed Widowbirds at this season, give way to crags and cliffs with open alpine meadows bisected by fast-flowing streams where endemic Drakensberg (or Orange-breasted) Rockjumpers should be seen bounding from rock to rock along the roadside.

Eventually, we will cross the border into Lesotho. It is not unusual to see snow still on the higher peaks, even at this time of year, and the local inhabitants scale these mountain passes astride small ponies and wrapped in colourful blankets. Endemic specialities are everywhere. Sentinel Rock Thrushes and Sickle-winged Chats are common, and we should also find the highly localized Mountain Pipit and the often secretive Yellow-tufted (or African Rock) Pipit, while Drakensberg Siskin is another local speciality. A few pairs of Lammergeiers (or Bearded Vultures) nest on the towering basalt ramparts of the high plateau and we may even see this magnificent raptor at the nest, while with luck we will encounter Black Stork, another cliff-nesting species with a breeding outpost in Southern Africa. Large mammals are scarce in Lesotho (most have been eaten!), but we should see one high-altitude speciality, the endearing Sloggett’s (or Ice) Rat.

During our time in the uplands of Kwazulu-Natal, we will also visit some remnant ‘mist forest’ with its tall yellow-wood and stinkwood trees heavily festooned with ‘old man’s beard’ lichens. These cool, damp forests are good for Klaas’s Cuckoo, the glorious endemic Knysna Turaco, White-starred Robin, Lazy Cisticola, the endemic Forest Canary, African Firefinch and sometimes the endemic Swee Waxbill. We also have another chance for Cape Parrot and Orange Ground Thrush here, but while we may hear the moaning calls of Buff-spotted Flufftails we shall count ourselves very fortunate if we see one of these ultra-skulking little crakes.

We will also explore some relict patches of natural mist-belt grassland where we have a fair chance of finding the migratory Blue Swallow, a supremely elegant, steel-blue hirundine that nests in Aardvark burrows in pristine grasslands and is South Africa’s most threatened bird.

Other species that we should find in this region include African Harrier-Hawk, Long-crested Eagle, Black-headed Oriole, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, the endemic Drakensberg Prinia, Wailing Cisticola, African Dusky and Southern Black Flycatchers, Amethyst and Collared Sunbirds, Red-collared Widowbird and Bronze Mannikin.

We could also encounter two or three of the scarcer species, which include Black, Little and Rufous-chested Sparrowhawks, the endemic Forest Buzzard (widely distributed but a bird that can be hard to observe), Red-necked Spurfowl, the near-endemic Natal Francolin, Black-winged Lapwing and Half-collared Kingfisher.

Large mammals regularly observed in the area include Common Reedbuck, Mountain Reedbuck, the handsome but endangered Oribi, Blesbok and Black Wildebeest.

South Africa: Day 23  After some final birding in the Drakensberg, most likely in the Karkloof hills, we will head for Johannesburg airport, where our Specialities of South Africa birding tour ends this evening.

 

PELAGIC PRE-TOUR EXTENSION

(Note: As not everyone loves pelagic trips, we have the Cape Town pelagic as an optional extension.)

Pelagic Extension: Day 1  Our pelagic extension begins this evening at Cape Town, where we will stay overnight.

Pelagic Extension: Day 2  Cape Town is famous for the concentrations of seabirds that can be found offshore. Weather permitting (there is a low but real risk of cancellation for Cape Town pelagics), our boat will take us out to the trawling grounds which lie about 30-40 nautical miles offshore in the colder waters of the Benguela Current.

Shortly after leaving port the first seabirds to join the boat will be White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater and Cape Gannet. Further from shore, an occasional albatross will inspect our wake and as we reach deeper waters they may be almost continually in view.

We may spot a long-liner before we even sight the fishing boat itself, simply from the cloud of birds following it, and once one has been sighted we will steam directly for its wake. The commonest birds associated with the long-liners are Black-browed, Shy, Atlantic Yellow-nosed and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Cape and White-chinned Petrels, Great and Sooty Shearwaters and Cape Gannets.

We should also find smaller numbers of Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm Petrels, Parasitic Jaegers (or Arctic Skuas), Brown Skuas, Arctic Terns and dainty Sabine’s Gulls.

There are literally thousands of birds around some of the boats and seeing seabirds in these numbers, with huge albatrosses repeatedly sweeping past our vessel at very close range, is an unforgettable experience.

We shall also be looking out for less common species such as Wandering Albatross and European Storm Petrel and if conditions are sufficiently windy, Soft-plumaged and Great-winged Petrels. A major speciality that is possible off Cape Town is the restricted-range Spectacled Petrel, but the chance of seeing this unusual-looking species on a single trip is slim.

This evening we will meet up with those arriving for the main tour.

ULTIMATE SOUTH AFRICA TOUR REPORT 2019

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ULTIMATE SOUTH AFRICA TOUR REPORT 2018

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ULTIMATE SOUTH AFRICA TOUR REPORT 2017

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ULTIMATE SOUTH AFRICA TOUR REPORT 2016

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