SOUTH AFRICA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
South Africa: Day 1 Our South Africa birding tour begins this evening at Cape Town, where we will stay for two nights.
South Africa: Day 2 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.
South Africa: Day 3 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 Swellendam 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!
We will also explore the scenic and productive De Hoop Nature Reserve, which is home to the skulking Southern Tchagra and the secretive Knysna Woodpecker. Whilst looking for these two rather secretive endemics, 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.
We will also spend time admiring the mammals of the park, which include the attractive Bontebok, the endangered Cape Mountain Zebra and if we are fortunate the shy Cape Grysbok. In the surrounding grasslands, we should find stately Denham’s Bustards (with their spectacular ‘chrysanthemum’ display). We also have a slim chance of encountering the rare Hottentot Buttonquail, which is perhaps Southern Africa’s most difficult endemic!
South Africa: Day 4 After some final birding in the De Hoop area we shall return to Cape Town for an overnight stay. We will stop at one or more sites along the way if we are still missing any of the specialities.
South Africa: Day 5 Today we shall drive northwards to Langebaan for an overnight stay.
We will stop for long periods in 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 6 We will head northwards into the Karoo today, our destination the small town of Calvinia where we will spend two nights.
Along the way, after skirting the impressive Cedarberg mountain range, we will stop at a good site for the uncommon and localized endemic Protea Canary, while other endemic or near-endemic additions here may well include 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) during the day.
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 7 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. 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, and Karoo Scrub-Robin. 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. The handsome Springbok is also present in the area.
South Africa: Day 8 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 9 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.
South Africa: Day 10 Early 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 continue eastwards, making a short detour to Augrabies National Park. At the Augrabies Falls the river is forced through a dramatic series of gorges where, as well as the falls themselves, there are turbulent, boiling rapids over a distance of several kilometres. The strip of cultivation on either side of the river is rich and luxuriant but just a short distance away begins a stark and arid landscape. All in all a scenic feast.
Here we should encounter such endemic or near-endemic specialities as African Red-eyed Bulbul, Short-toed Rock Thrush (uncommon), Pale-winged Starling, Orange River White-eye, Karoo Thrush and Red-headed Finch, as well as the pretty Swallow-tailed Bee-eater. Peregrines breed within the national park and a Verreaux’s Eagle may sometimes be seen hunting Rock Hyraxes over the canyon, where near-endemic Bradfield’s Swifts wheel overhead.
From Augrabies, we travel onwards to the Kimberley area for a two nights stay.
South Africa: Day 11 Birds we are likely to find in the Kimberley area of South Africa include such endemics and near-endemics as the stunning Northern Black (or White-quilled) Korhaan, Eastern Clapper Lark and Southern Anteating-Chat, as well as Double-banded Courser and Desert Cisticola. If we are lucky we will find the highly localized and elusive endemic Orange River Francolin. Black Wildebeest are also present in the area.
During our visit we will go out on a night drive on a private reserve and, as well as the bizarre but delightful Springhare, a mammal that behaves more like a small wallaby than a rodent, we could also see Bat-eared and Cape Foxes, Small-spotted Genet, South African Porcupine, Aardwolf (a hyaena) and even if we are in luck, the strange, pig-like Aardvark or the delightful little Black-footed Cat. There is also a chance for Rufous-cheeked Nightjar and, if we are very fortunate, Cape Eagle-Owl.
[Two supposed new pipit species, ‘Kimberley Pipit’ and ‘Long’-tailed Pipit’, described from the Kimberley region have more recently been found to be misidentifications of other pipit species.]
South Africa: Day 12 After some final birding around Kimberley we head northeastwards to the Johannesburg area for an overnight stay. We will have our first chance for the endemic Melodious Lark today. The birds tend to be hidden in the grass unless they are singing, which in turn depends on rainfall.
South Africa: Day 13 We will stop early this morning at a grassy area that offers another chance for Melodious Lark and also at a diamond mine where we should find White-fronted Bee-eater and have a second 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, 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 notoriously difficult, endangered endemic Cape Parrot and we have a fair 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 here 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 bird-rich area has some exciting endemic species, in particular, Blue and Barrow’s Korhaans, Eastern Long-billed, Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks, 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.
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), together with African Broadbill (probably easier to see here than anywhere else in Africa, but nevertheless hard to find at times).
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 perhaps the cantankerous Black Rhinoceros.
Birding here is very enjoyable and amongst the large number of widespread species we may well encounter 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 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, 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, Pin-tailed Whydah and Golden-breasted Bunting.
We should also encounter one or two of the reserve’s scarcer or more elusive species, such as African Cuckoo Hawk, Lizard Buzzard, Grey Penduline Tit, Kurrichane Thrush, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Bushveld Pipit and Grey Waxbill.
South Africa: Day 19 After some final birding in the Mkhuze area we will head southwards to Saint Lucia for an overnight stay.
During the journey, we shall stop in an area of bush and farmland to search for the near-endemic Lemon-breasted Canary amongst the much commoner Yellow-fronted Canaries, and we may also see Arrow-marked Babbler and Red-billed Firefinch.
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. We will make a special effort to find all of these.
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 are also prominent and 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 should 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, passports in hand, 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 (a bird widely distributed but very 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, probably in the Karkloof hills, we will head for Durban airport, where our South Africa birding tour ends this afternoon.
PELAGIC PRE-TOUR 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 cold 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), Subantarctic Skuas, Arctic Terns and dainty Sabine’s Gulls. The major speciality off Cape Town is the restricted-range Spectacled Petrel, but the chance of seeing this unusual-looking species on a single trip is slim.
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.
This evening we will meet up with those arriving for the main tour.