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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

South Africa: The East

Birds & Mammals

Monday 14 October to Friday 1 November 2024
with Ethan Kistler as leader
Sunday 3 November to Thursday 21 November 2024
with Ethan Kistler as leader
November 2025
with Ethan Kistler as leader

2024 Price: $6,890

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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 Durban, our gateway 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. 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. 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. 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. Lastly, 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 before finishing the capital of Johannesburg.

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.

PLEASE NOTE: The October 14, 2024 departure runs this route in reverse, beginning in Johannesburg and ending in Durban.

Day 1: The tour begins this evening for our introductory meeting and dinner. Night in Durban.

Day 2: Our first morning will find us traversing the spectacular Hella-Hella Pass on our way towards the Drakensberg Mountains. Our main target today is the stately Montane Blue Swallow, a species that has suffered staggering population declines due to habitat loss. We’ll visit a private farm where several pairs breed in inconspicuous sinkholes in pristine grasslands. Other species present in this upland grassland include Fan-tailed Grassbird, Red-necked Spurfowl, African Yellow-Warbler, and Orange-throated Longclaw. This area also plays host to several species of flufftails, an elusive family of birds, and we’ll try our luck with Red-chested, Buff-spotted, and Striped, which all breed in the area.

Down the road the Mkomazi River bridge is an excellent spot to revel in the views and perhaps spot an African Finfoot on the river below. We’ll also watch for Knysna Turaco, African Emerald Cuckoo, Rock-loving Cisticola, and a variety of raptors namely Long-crested Eagle, Jackal Buzzard, and Verreaux’s Eagle.

Around Himeville, our base for the next two nights, we’ll spend time in the late afternoon birding some rural roads where we hope to find Denham’s Bustard, Half-colored Kingfisher, and three species of cranes – Gray Crowned, Blue, and Wattled. Night in Himeville.

Day 3: One of the most exciting days of the trip, we’ll switch over to 4x4s and 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 Wahlberg’s Honeyguide, Rufous-necked Wryneck, Buff-streaked Chat, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Bush Blackcap, and Barratt’s Warbler in the thickets along the river. Scanning the valley may also turn up a Mountain Reedbuck, Eland, 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 Vulture, Cape Griffon, Fairy Flycatcher, Gray Tit, Layard’s Warbler, Karoo Scrub-Robin, and Sickle-winged Chat to name a few. Our picnic lunch spot often hosts Yellow-tufted Pipit, which we’ll keep a lookout for.
After lunch we’ll descend back down the mountain picking up anything we may have missed along the way. If Short-tailed Pipits are around, we’ll make an effort to see this often-difficult species. Night in Himeville.

Day 4: Leaving the highlands behind, we’ll head back down towards the coast and work our way up towards the small town of Eshowe. North of Durban, coastal forest host Black-throated Wattle-eye and Southern Tchagra, and we should also see some of our first shorebirds such as Common Ringed and White-fronted Plovers and African Oystercatcher.

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 and tower. Spotted Ground-Thrush is our main target in this forest and we’ll focus our attention on this denizen of the forest floor. We also stand a chance at spotting Delegorgue’s Pigeons flying by from the canopy tower or perhaps hear one calling above one of the trails. This forest can be productive, and we may also find Scaly-throated Honeyguide, White-eared Barbet, and perhaps a Green-backed Twinspot. Aside from birds, Natal Red Duikers are fairly common in this forest and can be considerably tame. Night in Eshowe.

Day 5: This morning we’ll return to Dlinza Forest if we are missing anything before driving to Ngoye Forest, which holds an isolated population of Green Barbets. Narina Trogons are common hear and we also stand a chance at spotting Tambourine Dove, Crowned Eagle, and with luck, an Eastern Nicator. As we depart the forest, we drive through some stunning rocky grasslands, which host Croaking Cisticolas and Fan-tailed Grassbirds, before dropping down into the coastal town of Mtunzini, where the southernmost breeding population of Palm-nut Vultures can be found. The nearby Umlalazi Lagoon holds Goliath Heron, African Woolly-necked Stork, Mouse-colored Sunbird, and expressive Purple-crested Turacos.

Once in St. Lucia, we’ll check into our accommodation 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, Green Malkhoa and Green-backed Twinspot to name a few. The nearby Mfolozi River mouth can be very productive with shorebirds, waterbirds, gulls and terns. 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. In the past these have included Sooty Tern, Eurasian Oystercatcher, and Saunders’s Tern. 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 6: 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, Pale-crowned Cisticola, and perhaps a Fasciated Snake-Eagle along the roadside. Several wetlands can host a number of African Jacanas and African Pygmy Goose, and we may spot something more unusual such as Lesser Jacana or Rufous-bellied Heron. 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 and Black-tailed Waxbill. Being a large game reserve, mammals are also well represented, and we may spot our first elephants, zebra, rhinos, hippos, and a few antelope too such as Common Reedbuck. Night in St. Lucia.

Day 7: Departing St. Lucia, we’ll work our way north along the coast and our destination for the next two nights: Mkhuze. 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.

In the afternoon we’ll continue onward 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 birds 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 8: 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 from 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, the highly localized Neergard’s Sunbird, along with African Broadbill and Eastern Nicator. Pel’s Fishing-Owl occurs in the park, and we may organize a walking trip to see it. If we hadn’t caught up with African Pygmy-Goose by now, we’ll head to the nearby Muzi Pan, which usually hosts a number of these diminutive geese and perhaps something unusual like an Allen’s Gallinule or Lesser Moorhen. Night in Mkuze.

Day 9: Today we’ll skirt the southern border of the country of Eswatini on our way to the sleepy village of Wakkerstroom, a premier birding region that is highly regarded across all of Southern Africa. We’ll head to the Wakkerstroom Wetlands on the edge of town where we can expect South African Shelducks, Southern Pochard, African Swamphen, and perhaps African Marsh Harrier, Little Bittern, and Purple Heron. Closer to dusk we’ll attempt to see a couple of the more elusive species including Red-chested Flufftail and African Rail. Spotted-necked Otters are often present, and we’ll keep an eye out for these as they splash around in the marsh! 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, Eastern Long-billed and Pink-billed Larks, South African Swallow, Black-winged Lapwing, and Quailfinch to name a few. Mammal possibilities include Yellow Mongoose and the charming Meerkat. Night in Wakkerstroom.

Day 11: After breakfast we’ll continue north and work our way towards the legendary 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 switch over into an open-top safari vehicle, which we’ll have for our entire Kruger experience. This allows for better viewing and photography.

Crossing the Crocodile River bridge, we’ll continue north through the park. The more densely vegetated region of southern Kruger hosts the largest populations of African Wild Dogs and we’ll certainly keep our eyes peeled. Not far 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-knee, Pied Kingfisher, Black Crake, Striated Heron, various 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. This area hosts a dense population of Leopards and we stand a good chance at finding one. Night at Skukuza Camp.

Day 12: 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 13: Today we’ll travel north into the central Kruger region, which is comprised or more open savanna habitat. Satara Camp, 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 water 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 14: 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-fronted Bee-eaters. 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 15: Our final morning in Kruger, we will slowly work our way west towards the Orpen Gate before heading exiting the park and heading into the mountainous region of 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 tree 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 16: 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, African Black-headed Oriole, and we may even hear a Buff-spotted Flufftail right outside our rooms. 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 17: This morning we’ll head west towards Polokwane and will 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. The game reserve also hosts a good selection of mammals including Tsessebe, Sable, and Gemsbok. Night in Polokwane.

Day 18: We’ll depart Polokwane and head south, working our way towards Zaagkuilsdrift Road.  This quiet gravel road offers exceptional ‘bushveld’ birding and we’ll spend much of the day birding this very productive road. Despite being near the end of the tour, this area still holds a host of species that we wouldn’t have seen before including White-quilled Bustard, Pale Chanting-Goshawk, and Southern Pied Babbler. Southern Penduline-Tit, Scaly Weaver, Great Rufous Sparrow, Ashy Tit, and Barred Wren-Warbler are also regular and we’ll keep an eye out for these if we haven’t caught up with them by now.

After lunch, we’ll slowly bird our way back along the Zaagkuilsdrift Road towards the main road before continuing south to Johannesburg, where we’ll stay near the airport. Night in Johannesburg.

Day 19: Depending on flight schedules, and if time permits, we’ll visit Marievale Bird Sanctuary on the outskirts of Johannesburg. This productive wetland area hosts an impressive number and variety of waterbirds such as Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Cape Teal, Red-billed Ducks, Pied Avocet, African Snipe, Marsh Sandpiper, and usually large numbers of Ruff and Little Stints. Capped Wheatears are also common here if we hadn’t caught up with any prior.

The tour ends with flights home.

Updated: 12 February 2024


  • 2024 Tour Price : $6,890
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $780


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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 5 with one leader.

    Single rooms may not be available at some locations.

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