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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

South Africa: The East

Birds & Mammals

November 2024
with Ethan Kistler as leader
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Martial Eagle Photo: Ethan Kistler

South Africa has long been considered a prime birding destination and our Eastern South Africa tour offers an incredible experience of one of Africa’s most ecologically diverse countries. Our route will draw us from sea level at the Indian Ocean coast to above 9400’ along Sani Pass in the Drakensberg escarpment, a route which will provide us with a sampling of a host of habitat types and bird communities.

The tour begins in Johannesburg, where we will head north and bird the savannas of the highveld and will likely to be serenaded by Short-clawed Larks and a selection of Kalahari species including the gaudy Crimson-breasted Shrike. Shortly thereafter we will embark upon the world-renowned Kruger National Park, home to the ‘Big 5’ — Lion, Leopard, African Bush Elephant, Cape Buffalo, and White or Black Rhinoceros — and a host of other mammals as well as an impressive diversity of birds. We will stay in two regions of this expansive park, offering us the chance to experience the highly diverse and mammal-rich southern section as well as the more open savanna of the central section favored by Kori Bustards and Cheetah alike. Beautiful Afromontane forest will paint our birding pallets with deep green as we search for forest specialties such as Black-fronted Bushshrike, Orange and Spotted Ground-Thrushes, Knysna Turaco as well as the more widespread but no less impressive Narina Trogon. This tour will also offer a dramatic change in elevation, drawing us from the vast biodiverse coastal wetlands of the Indian Ocean coast, which will offer us the opportunity to scour through hundreds of shorebirds and waterbirds and a host of localized species including Rudd’s Apalis and the elusive Brown Scrub-Robin, where we may also find ourselves sharing roadways in town with the likes of Hippopotamuses; to the vistas of the Drakensberg escarpment where we will revel at the dramatic views of this rugged landscape while admiring Drakensberg Rockjumpers bounding between boulders and Gurney’s Sugarbirds adorning the tops of proteas — members of two of South Africa’s endemic families. High elevation grasslands will offer us the opportunity to sort through cryptic but incredibly range-restricted larks as well as bustards and francolins, whose emphatic voices can fill the morning air, and the vulnerable Blue Swallow.

Our Eastern South Africa tour will provide you with an exciting experience of the biodiversity offered by the country while also enjoying spectacular accommodations, mouth-watering food, and hospitable and friendly people. This tour perfectly complements our South Africa: The West - Kalahari to the Cape tour for complete coverage of South Africa. 

Day 1: The tour begins in the afternoon once all of the morning arrival flights have landed. We’ll depart Johannesburg and head north out of the city, working our way towards Zaagkuilsdrift Road.  This quiet gravel road offers exceptional ‘bushveld’ birding and we’ll spend some time this afternoon and tomorrow morning slowly birding along the way. White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Gray-backed Camaroptera, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, and Burchell’s Starling are common and we will have a great chance at picking up Southern Pied Babbler, Barred Wren-Warbler, Crimson-breasted Shrike, White-throated Robin-Chat, African Firefinch, Ashy Tit, and several species of bee-eaters to name a few.

Being late summer, we’ll target several palearctic migrants before they head back north including Thrush Nightingale and Olive-tree, Icterine, River, and Marsh Warblers. If there have been any heavy rains, the floodplains may produce Dwarf Bittern, Lesser Moorhen, Allen’s Gallinule, Greater Painted-Snipe, and several species of crake. We’ll spend the night at the Zaagkuilsdrift Bird Sanctuary and Lodge, which means we will be in the heart of this prime birding region for dawn chorus. Night at Zaagkuilsdrift.

Day 2: After breakfast, and perhaps some birding around the lodge grounds, we’ll begin working our way back towards the main road slowly birding along the way. It’s not difficult to record over 100 species in a morning here so we are bound to pick up a good number of new species if not hitting this mark. Being summer, we may find some of the several species of cuckoos and flashy bee-eaters that can be present.

Continuing north, we’ll work our way towards Polokwane and, if it has been a wet year, we may stop just before at Nylsvley Nature Reserve. This ephemeral floodplain can be remarkable if water is present and can host a variety of species from Dwarf Bittern and Allen’s Gallinule as well as uncommon to rare crakes. If we’re lucky, we may even stumble upon a Black Coucal, Eurasian Bittern, or even a Streaky-breasted Flufftail.

Once in Polokwane, we’ll spend the remainder part of the day birding the game reserve, home to the highly localized Short-clawed Lark. The acacia thickets and surrounding arid thornveld is also home to Burnt-necked Eremomela, Chestnut-vented Warbler, Marico Flycatcher, Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Shaft-tailed Wydah, Violet-eared Waxbill, and Great Rufous Sparrow. Night in Polokwane.

Day 3: We’ll have the morning to target any species we may be missing from Polokwane before heading east into the mountainous region around Magoebaskfloof and Tzaneen. At the northern edge of the Drakensberg Escarpment, this area has a wide diversity of species, and we’ll have the rest of today and all day tomorrow exploring the Afromontane forests and surrounding habitats.

Much of the area is covered in plantations, but one site in particular hosts a breeding pair of Bat Hawks and we’ll make a special stop to see this uncommon species. We’ll also bird around Tzaneen targeting a few more scarce species such as Magpie Mannikin, before checking into our accommodation near Magoebaskloof. Night at Magoebaskloof.

Day 4: Waking up to the sound of the dawn chorus right out our windows, we’ll spend the morning enjoying arguably the best forest birding South Africa has to offer. The main targets we’ll be after are Black-fronted Bushshrike, the endangered Cape Parrot, and a whole host of forest species including Orange Ground-Thrush, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin, Gray Cuckooshrike, Barratt’s Warbler, Green Twinspot, and we may even hear a Buff-spotted Flufftail. With the full day devoted to forest birding, we should be able to clean up on our targets and perhaps have some extra time to bird some surrounding areas as well. Night at Magoebaskloof.

Day 5: After breakfast we’ll head to a cliff face, which is home to a Taita Falcon eyrie. This species is very rare throughout its range, especially in South Africa, where this remains the only area to find it. We may also pick up Mountain Wagtail, Striped Pipit, and Half-collared Kingfisher along the way. Heading east we’ll descend from the escarpment and work our way towards the famous Kruger National Park. Covering over 7,500 sq miles, Kruger is world renowned for its mammal and bird diversity. Mammals include the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo) along with a large assortment of other mammals. On the bird front, over 500 species have been recorded within the park boundaries. We’ll enter the Orpen Gate and do a quick walk around Orpen Camp where we can get a taste of the widespread species in the park including Crested Barbet, Brown-headed Parrot, several species of hornbills, Chinspot Batis, White-breasted Sunbird, and Arrow-marked Babbler.

Between Orpen and Satara Camp, the latter being our home base for the next two nights, is a prime area for Lions and we’ll try to track down some along the way. The camp itself has a watering hole just outside the fence and at dusk we can watch hundreds of Double-banded Sandgrouse come to drink along with the occasional Black-backed Jackal. Within the camp we may even stumble upon one of the resident African Wild Cats that call the camp home. Night at Satara Camp.

Day 6: On this morning, those who are awake early enough may spot a Honey Badger, which does its rounds visiting all of trash bins around camp before dawn. We’ll depart early and spend the day birding the more open savanna to the north, which is home to some of the larger species to be found such as Common Ostrich, Kori Bustard, Secretarybird, and the largest hornbill in the region, Southern Ground-Hornbill. This open habitat is also home to Gray-backed Sparrowlark, Temminck’s Courser, palearctic shrikes such as Red-backed and Lesser Gray, and in some years, Harlequin Quail and Common Buttonquail.

Further north we’ll divert our attention to two bird-rich riverine systems, the Olifants and Letaba Rivers. Here we can expect Saddle-billed and Yellow-billed Storks, African Openbill, Collared Pratincole, African Fish-Eagle, and White-crowned Lapwing. We’ll also see crocodiles and hippos along with various mammals coming in to drink during the heat of the day.

After dinner, we’ll join a night drive where we hope to see Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, perhaps a courser or two, and with luck one of the big cats: lion, cheetah, and leopard. Night at Satara Camp.

Day 7: Today we’ll travel south from the central region of Kruger to the more densely forested and scrubby habitats of Southern Kruger. With this change of habitat comes new birds and higher mammal densities. A short distance from Skukuza Camp, our base for the next two nights, is a productive bird hide on a small lake. Here is an excellent location for photographic opportunities where we may see Water Thick-knees, kingfishers, Black Crakes, Striated Herons, weavers, and other birds right up close along with Nile Crocodiles. Nearby is a native plant nursery which doubles as an excellent place to walk around where White-browed and Red-capped Robin-Chats, Collared Sunbird, and Spectacled Weaver can be found.

If time allows, we’ll take a short evening driving loop returning before the camp gates close. Night at Skukuza Camp.

Day 8: With the full day to explore the southern region, we’ll depart early and bird along the Sabie River. This waterway can be very productive and can provide views of a good number of vultures including Hooded and White-headed as well as Broad-billed Roller, White-crowned Lapwing, Goliath Heron, and with luck, African Finfoot. This is also a productive area for mammals, especially elephants and leopards. We’ll eventually make it to breakfast at another camp, where we’ll constantly be distracted as we eat on a balcony overlooking the river.

The rest of the morning will be spent completing the ‘golden triangle’, a very productive route that has earned its nickname by the high number of mammals that can be seen along it, most notably cats. Perhaps we’ll stumble upon a Cheetah?

After lunch, we’ll decide what birds and mammals we still hadn’t seen yet and scheme up a plan for the second half of the day. Perhaps we’ll drive a loop to the west or take a more relaxed approach and bird around Skukuza Camp, which boasts an impressive list of birds in its own right! Night at Skukuza Camp.

Day 9: Our final day in Kruger, we’ll slowly work our way south, birding along the way. We’ll exit the park over the Crocodile River, where we’ll have lunch overlooking the river. African Black Ducks can often be found swimming in the more calm areas of the river.

In the afternoon we’ll continue driving south towards the sleepy village of Wakkerstroom, a premier birding region that is highly regarded across all of Southern Africa. If time permits, we’ll head to the Wakkerstroom Wetlands for dusk to see what rails and crakes we may hear and possibly spot from the road. Night in Wakkerstroom.

Day 10: Wakkerstroom is one of those areas that simply can’t be skipped on any birding trip to eastern South Africa. It is no wonder that it’s an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area. The region is mostly comprised of high-montane grassland, and with that, a good number of endemic and near endemic birds. We’ll pick up a local Birdlife South Africa guide, who has the latest tabs on where they may be found, who will join us for a full day birding this fabulous area.

Wakkerstroom is most famous for its larks, and we’ll devote a good amount of time focusing on Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks, two endangered South African endemics. We’ll also focus on the vulnerable Yellow-breasted Pipit, which feeds much like a rodent close to the ground.

Also possible today are Red-winged and Gray-winged Francolin, White-bellied and Blue Bustards, Southern Bald Ibis, Rufous-necked Wryneck, Ground Woodpecker, and Quailfinch. Night in Wakkerstroom.

Day 11: Today we’ll skirt the southern border of the country of Eswatini on our way to Mkhuze Game Reserve. This game reserve, located in northern Zululand, is without a doubt one of the best birding reserves in all of Southern Africa. Boasting a list that surpasses 450 species of bird and a host of mammals including both White and Black Rhino, Leopard, Nyala and even Suni… we’ll accumulate quite a list! We’ll have the second half of today to get a feel for just how remarkable this area is. Night in Mkuze.

Day 12: We’ll have a full day to explore all corners of Mkuze and will probably have our largest day list of the whole tour. We’ll visit a variety of habitats ranging form the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains down to riverine forests, sand forests, and a variety of woodlands and acacia savanna in between. We will focus primarily on birding the sand forest where we stand a great chance at finding Pink-throated Twinspot, Neergard’s Sunbird, African Broadbill and Eastern Nicator. Pel’s Fishing-Owl occurs in the park, and we may organize a trip to see it. Night in Mkuze.

Day 13: Departing Mkuze, we’ll work our way towards the coast and our destination for the next two nights: St Lucia. Along the way we’ll look for the localized Lemon-breasted Seedeater, which is partial to the Llala Palms in the region. If we have time, we may also organize a trip to see Rosy-throated Longclaw. Once in St Lucia, we’ll check into our hotel and bird the nearby Igwalagwala Trail, which translates to ‘turaco’, and indeed we’ll have an excellent chance at finding Livingstone’s Turaco. Other possible species include Woodward’s Batis, Rudd’s Apalis, and Green Twinspot to name a few. The nearby Mfolozi River mouth can be very productive with shorebirds, waterbirds, gulls and terns and with luck perhaps an Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross offshore. Vagrants turn up here all the time, almost more than anywhere else in the country! So, we’ll devote some time to see what we may find ourselves. After dinner we’ll head to a nearby spot where we will try our luck on finding a Swamp Nightjar. Night in St. Lucia.

Day 14: We’ll depart early for iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which is only a few minutes from our guesthouse. This large reserve comprises of vital wetlands surrounded by coastal forests and grasslands making this one of the most important breeding bird areas in the region. We’ll work our way towards Cape Vital birding along the way where we may find Black-bellied Starling, African Pygmy-Goose, Pale-crowned Cisticola, and perhaps a Southern Banded Snake-Eagle along the roadside. At Cape Vidal, where the road ends, we’ll search for any of the littoral forest endemics we have yet to see such as Woodward’s Batis and Brown Scrub-Robin along with Rudd’s Apalis, Gray Waxbill, Gray Sunbird, and Green Malkoha. Being a large game reserve, mammals are also well represented, and we may spot more elephants, rhinos, hippos, and a few antelope too such as Common Reedbuck and Red Duiker. Night in St. Lucia.

Day 15: This morning we’ll work our way down the coast towards the small town of Eshowe. Along the way we’ll make a stop in the coastal town of Mtunzini, where the southernmost breeding population of Palm-nut Vultures can be found. African Finfoot is possible here and we may also find Trumpeter Hornbill, Yellow Weaver, Green Twinspot, and Black-throated Wattle-eye.

Once in Eshowe, we will drop our bags and head to the Dlinza Forest, which offers a series of trails along with a canopy boardwalk. Spotted Ground-Thrush is our main target here and we’ll focus our attention on this denizen of the forest floor. We also stand a chance at spotting Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeons flying by from the canopy walkway or perhaps hear one singing above one of the trails. This forest can be productive, and we may also find Scaly-throated Honeyguide, White-eared Barbet, and have another chance at Green Twinspot. Night in Eshowe.

Day 16: This morning we’ll head back to Dlinza Forest if we are missing anything. Otherwise, we’ll begin our travel towards Underberg. Along the way we’ll gain over 6,000 feet in elevation as we work our way from the coast into the Drakensberg Mountains. If we can divert our attention away from the scenery, we may spot Denham’s Bustard, Secretarybird, or Gray Crowned Cranes along the way.

The cooler temperatures around Underberg will be well received and we’ll do some birding in the immediate area where we can spot as many as three species of cranes as well as Half-collared Kingfisher, African Black Duck, Fan-tailed Grassbird, and perhaps a few early Amur Falcons. Night in Underberg. 

Day 17: One of the most exciting days of the trip, we’ll head up the spectacular Sani Pass towards the landlocked nation of Lesotho. Beginning in the lower Sani Valley, we’ll make plenty of stops targeting Brown-backed Honeybird, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Bush Blackcap, and Barratt’s Warbler along the way in the thickets along the river. Scanning the valley may also turn up a Mountain Reedbuck or Gray Rhebok. Higher up the landscape becomes rockier and near the border we start to target Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Mountain Pipit, and Ground Woodpecker.

After reaching the top at 9,500 feet we’ll cross into Lesotho where we can spot some of the endemic Sloggett’s Ice Rats, which inhabit the area around the Lesotho border checkpoint. The rest of the afternoon will be spent targeting Bearded and Cape Vultures, Fairy Flycatcher, Gray Tit, and Sickle-winged Chat to name a few. Night in Underberg.

Day 18: Our final day will find us traversing the spectacular Hella-Hella Pass through the Mkomazi River Gorge on our way back towards Durban. Our main target today is the stately Blue Swallow, a species that has suffered staggering population declines due to habitat loss. Other species present in this upland grassland include Broad-tailed Warbler, Black-winged Lapwing, and perhaps a Black-rumped Buttonquail.

Along the way we’ll keep an eye out for various raptors including Forest Buzzard, African Goshawk, Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk and Verreaux’s Eagle. Night near Durban Airport.

Day 19: Flights home.

Updated: 23 February 2023


  • 2024 Tour Price Not Yet Available
  • (2023 Tour Price: $6,550)


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Questions? Tour Manager: Stephanie Schaefer. Call 1-866-547-9868 (US or Canada) or (01) 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

Maximum group size 6 with one leader, ten with two leaders.

Single rooms may not be available at some locations.

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