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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

South Africa: The East

Birds & Mammals

2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: There’s a reason South Africa ranks highly among birders’ favorite destinations. The diversity of birds, the incredible mammals, the excellent road system, delicious food, comfortable accommodation… the list goes on! This trip was nothing but successful, with nearly 440 species of birds and just shy of 50 species of mammals. We also had the opportunity to bird a variety of habitats from high montane grasslands and Afromontane forests to dry bushveld, savanna, and coastal dune forests, estuaries, and beaches. It’s no wonder people tend to return to South Africa for more.

IN DETAIL: After the early morning arrivals at the airport, we departed the bustling Johannesburg and headed north towards Zaagkuilsdrift Road. This rural gravel road traverses an extensive area of acacia bushveld and offers a host of species typical to the drier regions west of here. We quickly found some of these including Chestnut-vented Warbler, Black-chested Prinia, and one of our main targets in this area: Southern Pied-Babbler. By then it was late morning and things had quieted down, but we still had a good introduction to common birds of the region including Gray Go-away-bird, Burchell’s Coucal, Red-chested Cuckoo, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Magpie Shrike, Arrow-marked Babbler, Red-backed Scrub-Robin, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, and Green-winged Pytilia along with a few raptors such as Gabar Goshawk. A careful scan of a small flooded area produced Knob-billed Duck, Spur-winged Goose, African Jacana, and Squacco Heron.

We checked into our birding lodge and had an afternoon break before heading back out, birding the road until dusk. By now the birding had picked up again and we found a few dozen more new species. Pearl-spotted Owlet calls brought in several nice mixed-species mobs with the likes of Chinspot Batis, Black-backed Puffback, Cape Crombec, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Marico and White-breasted Sunbirds, Jameson’s Firefinches and some palearctic migrants such as Spotted Flycatcher and Willow Warbler along with a few owlets! Other birds found included Levaillant’s and Black Cuckoos, Red-faced Mousebird, Green Woodhoopoe, Little Bee-eater, the flashy Lilac-breasted Roller, the gorgeous Crimson-breasted Gonolek, our first Red-billed Oxpeckers, and a single Marico Flycatcher. We reached the small flooded area again and watched various waterbirds flying over to roost, adding White-faced Whistling-Duck, Yellow-billed Duck, and Black-crowned Night Heron to the list. Once night fell, we found a Fiery-necked Nightjar and eventually had a Southern White-faced Owl calling right in front of us. Despite being close and even having access to a thermal camera, we just could not find it. It goes to show just how thick the vegetation here is! Overall, it was a very successful day, tallying a hundred species.

We logged an hour of birding before breakfast the following morning, focusing our attention on the nearby Kgomo-Kgomo, a seasonal floodplain. The rains had already arrived so there was plenty of water, which hosted Red-billed Ducks, Little Grebes, Black-winged Stilts, Wood Sandpipers, and Yellow-billed Stork. Nearby plains provided Lesser Gray Shrike, Sabota and Red-capped Larks, Desert Cisticola, Kalahari Scrub-Robin, and African Pipit, while a puddle near the road was an attraction to many swallows including Pearl-breasted, Barn, White-throated, and Greater Striped.

After breakfast we added Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Black-faced Waxbill while loading the vehicles. We slowly worked our way back towards the main road where we’d begin our drive north to our next destination, Polokwane. Despite birding the road a couple of times now, every visit yielded new species and we picked up Pied Cuckoo, Marbou Stork, Brubu, Piping Cisticola, Red-billed Firefinch, and a locally rare Terrestrial Brownbul along the way. We also enjoyed our first mammal sightings this morning, having seen a Steenbok, Smith’s Bush Squirrel, as well as Slender and Yellow Mongoose.

In the late afternoon we birded the edge of town and ended up having a very productive and enjoyable time. Raptors really stole the show with Cape and White-backed Vultures, a flyby Black Sparrowhawk, and an active family of four Lanner Falcons, which clearly nested nearby. Other highlights include our first Pied Barbet, Rufous-chested Swallow, Streaky-headed Seedeater, and heard-only White-quilled Bustard and Coqui Francolin which were both calling from a great distance in very tall grass. The real bonus was right before dusk when a very cooperative pair of Ashy Tits put on a great show for us.

Our first destination the following was the Polokwane Game Reserve, where we’d target the localized Short-clawed Lark. This game reserve hosts a good number and diversity of large mammal species, and we had good sightings of Impala, Blue Wildebeest, Blesbok, African Buffalo, and Nyala in addition to the much smaller Banded Mongoose, which was in a mob of nearly 20. Returning to our search for a Short-clawed Lark, we picked up Common Scimitarbill, European Bee-eater, Black-collared Barbet, Red-backed Shrike, Barred Wren-Warbler, Violet-eared Waxbill, Golden-breasted Bunting, and a couple surprise Wahlberg’s Honeyguides before getting excellent views of a Short-clawed Lark. We returned to the park entrance and walked a short loop around the underutilized campground adding Crested Barbet, Bearded Woodpecker, and Groundscraper Thrush among others.

From Polokwane, we headed east and up in elevation, trading the arid landscape for cooler temperatures and the Afromontane forests of Magoebaskloof. In the evening we had about an hour and a half to become acquainted with forest species at a patch of native forest before returning the next morning. Right off the bat we spotted a Forest Buzzard and got views of Forest Canary, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, and Black-fronted Bushshrike while also hearing a White-starred Robin. Pushing on, we found Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Chorister Robin-Chat, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, and, just as we returned to the vehicles, a pair of Brown Scrub-Robins. After dinner we tried for African Wood Owl outside our rooms at our lovely accommodation; we had a very quick response and superb views! A nearby Buff-spotted Flufftail, however, remained a heard-only.

The next morning, we headed right back to the forest to track down the many species we only heard yesterday and pick up some new species. Before entering the forest, we had a picnic breakfast in a clearing to watch for the Endangered Cape Parrots. We had up to two dozen parrots circling around and, at one point, several landed in the large tree above our heads. Back in the forest we added the ever-so-popular Knysna Turaco, the gorgeous African Emerald Cuckoo, the ever-present Olive Bushshrike, Bar-throated Apalis, Gray Cuckooshrike, African Crested-Flycatcher, and several Cape Batises. Narina Trogon, Orange Ground-Thrush, and Olive Woodpecker remained heard-only, but we had more chances later on in the trip to see those species. Working our way back to our accommodation after a productive morning of birding, our ears caught a Barratt’s Warbler singing right on the road’s edge. Despite being literally a couple feet in front of our faces and us appearing quite silly with our heads nearly inside the bushes trying to see it, some of the group obtained great views of this serious skulker!

Just before returning to our accommodation, we made a brief stop along the entrance road where we spotted some Holub’s Golden-Weavers along with Yellow Bishop, Levaillant’s Cisticola, African Swifts, several Jackal Buzzards, and a major surprise of the trip, a Whinchat! This is a vagrant to all of Southern Africa and there were already local birders chasing it within hours despite this location being quite remote.

In the afternoon we drove over to Tzaneen and birded a neighborhood which hosts the uncommon Magpie Mannikin. After a while we had small flocks of Magpie and Bronzed Mannikins fly by, but none settled down. Other birds in the neighborhood included Tambourine Dove, Purple-crested Turaco, Lesser Honeyguide, Violet-backed Starling, White-browed Robin-Chat, and Grosbeak Weaver. Our last stop of the day was right outside town at a known Bat Hawk breeding site. En-route we added a Lizard Buzzard and a small flock of Rameron Pigeons. The Bat Hawks breed in a non-native eucalyptus plantation and a short walk provided us with excellent views of this big target.

Prior to breakfast the following morning, we moseyed around our accommodation in the fog and picked up a couple new species, namely African Yellow-Warbler and Little Rush Warbler. After packing up, we headed out to a nearby stakeout for Mountain Wagtail and quickly found a pair along a fast-moving stream. The rest of the morning was spent working our way towards the famous Kruger National Park, where we’d spend the next four nights birding and mammal watching.

We arrived at the gate to the 7,500 sq mile Kruger National Park where we had lunch and traded our vans for a couple of open-top safari Land Cruisers. These allow for much better bird and mammal viewing and offer excellent flexibility for taking photos. Our drivers doubled as local experts of the Kruger National Park. After lunch, during a short walk around Orpen Camp, one of many camps dotted around the park, we had our first taste of lowveld (savanna) birding. Sulphur-breasted and Gray-headed Bushshrikes, Southern Black-Tit, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Ashy Flycatcher, and Marico Sunbirds all put on a good show.

We spent much of the afternoon slowly traversing our way towards Satara Camp, our base for the next two nights. Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, African Hoopoe, African Gray Hornbill, Cardinal Woodpecker, Black Cuckooshrike, White-crowned Shrike, and Gray Tit-Flycatcher were some of the new additions. Mammals didn’t disappoint either and during the drive we saw our first African Elephant, Chacma Baboon, Spotted Hyena, Plains Zebra, Common Warthog, Hippopotamus, Giraffe, Greater Kudu, and Common Waterbuck along with the much smaller Common Dwarf Mongoose. The biggest highlight however was our first Leopard before reaching camp! With mammals come oxpeckers and along with the more common Red-billed, we also had a couple of the more uncommon Yellow-billed Oxpeckers. Satara Camp is known to host a family of African Wild Cats and it was clear that luck was on our side as we spotted one near our rooms after dusk, an excellent ending to another successful day!

We dedicated our attention to perusing the open savanna of central Kruger to the north of Satara Camp the following morning. This area is home to healthy herds of large game along with a host of target birds that become less likely further south. Those who woke up early enjoyed watching a Honey Badger making its rounds visiting the garbage cans around our rooms. We hopped into the safari vehicles and departed camp, but instantly were stopped again a mere 100 yards from the camp gate. It was a proper roadblock: a pair of Lions sitting right in the middle of the road blocking traffic from both directions. We enjoyed these magnificent cats while the drivers skillfully maneuvered our way through to the other side.

Continuing north we had an excellent morning, seeing a lot of the specials in this area including four Kori Bustards, five Southern Ground Hornbills, and a well-spotted Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl roosting in a tree. Other highlights included Black Crake, Yellow-billed Stork, Brown Snake-Eagle, the Critically Endangered White-headed Vulture, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Desert Cisticola, and some flyover Quailfinches. We eventually reached one of the more productive rivers in the park, which almost always has water present. From the bridge, we added White-crowned Lapwing, a pair of White-fronted Plovers, and our first of many African Pied Wagtail among the usual suspects. After snacking throughout the morning, we enjoyed a well-deserved late breakfast at Olifants Camp, which sits high up on a bluff overlooking the Olifants River. After breakfast and some much-appreciated coffee, we scanned the river below, finding a half-dozen Collared Pratincoles and an impressive Goliath Heron. This vantage point was also great for observing raptors at eye level and we ended up adding an Endangered Lappet-faced and Critically Endangered Hooded Vultures, Tawny Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, and African Fish-Eagle to the list.

The afternoon was spent taking the unpaved backroads south where you see very few other people, but plenty of wildlife. We managed to find a Common Ostrich, Red-crested and Black-bellied Bustards, and a Secretarybird out in the open savanna; this bizarre raptor is the sole member of its family and recently listed as Endangered. We also enjoyed seeing a Black-backed Jackal. We also picked up Hamerkop, Bateleur, Black-chested Snake-Eagle, Malachite Kingfisher, and a small flock of Zebra Waxbills, which are always nice to see. A big bonus was picking out a single Gray-backed Sparrow-Lark among a dozen Chestnut-backed. The former is a vagrant into this region. In the evening after dinner some of us opted for an owl walk finding another Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl and excellent views of an African Scops-Owl.

We packed up and headed south the next morning towards Tshokwane where we’d have a bush breakfast. We were out before 6am which gave us our best chance at finding mammals and a good diversity of birds before the day warmed up and tallied over 80 species before reaching Tshokwane 2.5 hours later. New additions to the trip list included African Woolly-necked Stork, an impressive Martial Eagle, small flocks of Red-billed Quelea, Eastern Paradise-Whydah, and a Leopard Tortoise. Breakfast was joined by our first Red-faced Cisticola, Mourning Collared-Dove, and Spectacled Weaver among others, including naughty troops of Vervet Monkeys hoping to steal someone’s breakfast. After breakfast, we pushed south adding our first Peregrine Falcon, Booted Eagle, and Brown-headed Parrot. We also secured insanely good views of a Bearded Scrub-Robin and watched a pair of peculiar Klipspringer.

Lunch was surrounded by towering figs at Skukuza Camp on the balcony overlooking the Sabie River. The figs were fruiting and, with that, a good number of birds feeding on them including our first African Green-Pigeons. In the late afternoon we headed down the road and spent an hour in the Lake Panic bird hide to enjoy some birds up close such as Black Crakes, Water Thick-knees, Striated Herons, along with a large Village Weaver colony that had a few Lesser Masked-Weavers mixed in.

The following morning, we departed early and spent much of the morning slowly traveling southeast along the very productive Lower Sabie River towards the Lower Sabie camp. The vegetation along this river was green and had a lot of activity, including Broad-billed Rollers, African Harrier-Hawk, African Goshawk, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, and Mosque Swallow, while the river produced a small number of African Spoonbills. A small rest area provided bathrooms, a quick bush coffee and plenty of breakfast snacks. We loaded back up and made it to a bridge where we positioned ourselves at a stakeout African Finfoot location. After a bit of searching, we spotted one down river off in the distance. We continued on, adding White-rumped Swift and a stunning female Greater Painted-Snipe before arriving at our brunch spot with over 100 species on our morning’s list. Just before we pulled into our brunch spot, however, we got word of a young Aardvark right on the edge of a road so a quick change of plans saw us continuing a bit farther. Seeing an Aardvark anywhere is a big deal, but seeing on in Kruger is even a bigger deal… and seeing one during the day is an even a bigger deal! We arrived and had great views of one tucked under a bush, oblivious to the nearby traffic. There were rumors that it wasn’t doing well, but we later learned that it piped right up and wandered off later in the day so perhaps it was just having a snooze. What an incredible sighting!

We spent the remaining part of the afternoon working our way back towards camp. Despite the weather warming up, we still had some new birds including Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Southern Yellow White-eye, and several more Southern Ground Hornbills along with a bonus Flap-necked Chameleon.

Thanks to our connections in the park, we managed to schedule a private night drive instead of joining the public night drives offered by the park. This would allow us to control the route and what we target. Success was on our side as we found Leopard, Scrub Hare, White-tailed Mongoose, Spotted and Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls, African Barred Owlet, and an unbelievable second Aardvark! This time it was an adult. This is not a mammal you would ever expect to see in Kruger, even with the aid of spotlights; they’re just that uncommon.

Sadly, we only had a few hours remaining in the Kruger the following morning. We slowly worked our way south, adding Southern Black-Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Bush Sparrow, Kurrichane Thrush, a cooperative pair of Bennett’s Woodpeckers, and an excellent breakfast at the small Afsaal Picnic Spot. We then hit the road and spent the afternoon traveling towards the charming little village of Wakkerstroom, a key stop on any birding trip to South Africa.

We met our local Birdlife South Africa guide the following morning; he had the latest tabs on target species. We set off for a day of birding the surrounding montane grasslands and farmlands. For our first stop, we visited a reliable spot for Yellow-breasted Pipit just above town. We were greeted by Eastern Long-billed Larks, Wing-snapping Cisticolas, Banded Martins, Southern Anteater-Chats, and Long-tailed Widowbirds before spotting several Yellow-breasted Pipits. This Vulnerable species behaves much like a rodent and stays close to the ground, often disappearing behind tufts of grass. We also spotted a pair of Blue Cranes, the national bird of South Africa.

We continued our driving loop around the region, picking up Orange-throated Longclaw, Horus Swift, the endemic and odd Ground Woodpecker, Southern Bald Ibis, Spike-heeled Lark, South African Swallow, Black-winged Lapwing, Pale-crowned and Cloud Cisticolas, and one of the major targets of the tour: a Rudd’s Lark, which took quite a bit of effort! This Endangered species is highly localized, only occurring in this small region of South Africa. It has suffered a drastic population decline and range detraction in recent decades.

After lunch back in the village, we headed back out and added Malachite Sunbird, Blue Bustard, and large numbers of cranes with at least 40 Blue and 70 Gray Crowned-Cranes, not to mention some distant Meerkats! An optional trip to the vlei (marsh) that borders half of the village had an excellent diversity and number of waterfowl including South African Shelducks and Southern Pochards along with African Rail, Little Bittern, Purple Heron, and a Red-chested Flufftail that just wouldn’t make itself visible. It was also enjoyable watching large numbers of birds come in to roost in the evening with impressive numbers of Long-tailed Widowbirds. The biggest highlight, however, goes to the several Spotted-necked Otters that we enjoyed watching as they played in the water.

With some spare time before needing to depart Wakkerstroom the next morning, we decided to target a few species that we didn’t have time for the previous day. Along the way we had Fan-tailed and Red-collared Widowbirds, which were peculiarly absent yesterday, along with a couple Mountain Wheatears. Once at our ‘spot’, we walked out into a section of grassland where we managed to scope a few Eastern Clapper Larks. We were also rewarded views of their aerial displays. When we returned to our accommodation, we enjoyed breakfast before departing for our comfortable lodge near the Mkhuze Game Reserve. After an extensive week of birding with early starts and late evenings, we enjoyed the comfort of the upper scale lodge brought us by having an early evening.

Well rested, we departed our lodge at 5am with packed breakfasts and lunches in order to maximize our visit to Mkhuze Game Reserve. This 155 sq mile park is renowned for its birding with a list surpassing 400 species. We entered the park and pulled off at a deserted campsite to have a picnic. Birds kept distracting us, however, with the likes of Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Mocking Cliff-Chat, and the dazzling Four-colored Bushshrike before we continued on, picking up Gray Duiker and Suni along the road. We then spent the next couple hours of prime birding time focusing on an area of sand forest, which hosts a couple localized species that we hoped to find. Rudd’s Apalis and Black-tailed Waxbill were new, but our excitement increased with sightings of Neergaard’s Sunbird and Pink-throated Twinspot, both tricky species to see. A couple of folks even managed to see an African Broadbill before it quickly disappeared.

Late morning was spent at several hides and lookout points along Nsuto Pan. Water levels were high and there were plenty of Hippos around. New birds include Whiskered Tern, Pink-backed Pelican, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, and African Golden-Weaver. African Pygmy-Geese were high on people’s wish list, so we briefly left the park and birded the nearby Muzi Pan, which usually hosts a good number of these diminutive geese. Sure enough, we were rewarded with at least 30. We also had Blue-billed Teal, African Swamphen, Kittlitz’s Plover, Osprey, Southern Brown-throated Weaver, and a surprise Allen’s Gallinule, a scarce species in the country. We then worked our way back through the park on our way back to our lodge picking up Trumpeter Hornbill and Dark Chanting-Goshawk along the way.

The next morning, we spent an hour birding our lodge grounds before breakfast, which overlooks a lake. Kingfishers were well represented with Giant, Pied, Brown-hooded, and Malachite all being seen. We also coaxed in a Common (African) Reed Warbler into view. The fever trees around the gardens hosted Willow Warblers, Purple-banded Sunbirds, African Paradise-Flycatcher, and our first White-browed Robin-Chats.

After a delicious and colossal buffet breakfast, we loaded up the vehicles and began the drive towards the coast. Along the way we tried our luck at a stakeout location for the localized Lemon-breasted Seedeater. This isn’t always a sure-find but, much to our delight, there was a small flock waiting for us, working a grassy fenceline. We eventually arrived in St Lucia, our base for the next two nights, making a brief stop at the bridge onto the island. Here we enjoyed much better views of Southern Brown-throated Weavers and a couple Black-bellied Starlings while some took an opportunity to do some local craft shopping.

In the late afternoon, we took a short drive to a nearby trail that loops around a nice patch of forest. Our first main target was quickly found, the localized Woodward’s Batis. Elsewhere along the trail we added Olive and Mouse-colored Sunbirds, Square-tailed Drongo, Green Malkoha, and the stunning Livingstone’s Turaco. We also had a new mammal, Natal Red Duiker.

We found ourselves first in line at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park the following morning. This expansive park has a large mosaic of habitats, ranging from sandy beaches and coastal forests to inland forests, wetlands, and grasslands. We planned to spend the whole morning in this beautiful park. The various wet areas are some of the highlight areas to bird and focusing on these yielded White-backed Ducks, Lesser Moorhen, Rufous-winged Cisticolas, and several Southern Reedbucks. A picnic breakfast in a large patch of coastal dune forest was interrupted intermittently by the likes of White-eared Barbet and Dark-backed Weavers among others. The latter were building a nest right above one of the picnic tables. Nearby we added African Cuckoo-Hawk and Southern Banded Snake-Eagle. Some folks were feeling down by not spotting any rhinos in Kruger, which have suffered immensely by the rampant poaching problem, so it was to everyone’s great excitement when we stumbled upon some White Rhinos relaxing in a mudhole. A great finish to the morning!

After lunch we walked a quiet campground, adding a couple dozen Southern Crested Guineafowl, Red-capped Robin-Chat, and finally our first seen Narina Trogon. Next we headed to the beach and picked up Whimbrel, Greater Crested Terns, Gray-hooded Gull, and seven African Oystercatchers, a Southern African endemic. At dusk we tried our luck for Swamp Nightjar at a known site, but they didn’t want to cooperate this time around.

One of the attractions to birding the St Lucia area is the Mfolozi River Mouth, which often holds national rarities. It’s quite a walk, involving a lot of walking on sand, so half of the group opted for this while the others took a more leisurely stroll along the iGwalagwala Trail for more views of species such as Green Malkoha and Livingstone’s Turacos. Although we didn’t find anything rare at the river mouth, we still had a good diversity of birds including our first Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderling, and Common and Little Terns. The Little Terns numbered around 240 individuals and joined another couple hundred Greater Crested, Common, and Caspian Terns.

The town of Mtunzini provided Palm-nut Vulture for the list and a delicious lunch and coffees before heading inland towards Ngoye Forest. This beautiful patch of forest is surrounded by high montane grasslands, which provided our first Croaking Cisticolas. This forest hosts the only population of Green Barbets in South Africa. Despite considerable effort, we only managed to hear a couple. We did, however, see the impressive Crowned Eagle, Africa’s largest raptor alongside Martial Eagle. We also saw an African Goshawk and obtained superb views of a Narina Trogon, which offered extended scope views. A singing Scaly-throated Honeyguide never made an appearance, but it was great hearing their distinctive song.

After a great day of birding, we enjoyed a lovely Thanksgiving dinner at our B&B. Our hosts enthusiastically accepted the challenge of cooking a somewhat unfamiliar cuisine when I inquired whether it might be something they’d be up for. This made celebrating Thanksgiving particularly special, and it was fascinating to see what South Africans would come up with as they incorporated their own twists on American classics! 

On the edge of town, there’s a well-preserved forest, Dlinza Forest. The following morning we spent a couple hours here before breakfast to target a couple key species. The first was the Spotted Ground-Thrush, which found us walking quietly on the dark forest trails listening for rustling leaves. It didn’t take too long before we had excellent views of this gorgeous denizen of the forest interior. We ended up seeing and/or hearing at least five individuals. Farther along the trail we picked up on a Green-backed Twinspot, but never got our eyes on this shy bird. We then headed to the canopy tower to soak in the sun, the dawn chorus, and watch for Delegorgue’s Pigeon. After a while, four distant pigeons flew by quickly, giving just enough of a view to confirm their ID, but not quite long enough for everyone to get views themselves, sadly. It’s hit or miss, and often just takes time sitting and patiently waiting until some decide to fly by. We had a long drive ahead of us, so we headed back to our accommodation for breakfast before hitting the road towards Underberg at the base of the Drakensberg Mountains.

The next morning promised to be an exciting day as we loaded up into 4x4s for our journey up the dramatic Sani Pass road into the country of Lesotho. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, so our long list of targets seemed even more likely. The lower levels of the pass quickly provided our first new birds, including Rufous-necked Wryneck, Bokmakierie, Cape Grassbird, Drakensberg Prinia, Wailing Cisticola, Bush Blackcap, Cape Rock-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, and Gurney’s Sugarbird. As we gained elevation, the scenery became even more dramatic with every switchback giving another incredible view. Just across the border post in Lesotho, we stopped by the Sani Mountain Lodge for bathrooms and hot coffees. Right from the deck of the lodge we enjoyed great views of Drakensberg Rockjumper, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, and Cape Bunting along with Sloggett’s Ice Rats. We continued to push further into Lesotho picking up Fairy Flycatcher, Gray Tit, Large-billed Lark, Karoo Prinia, Layard’s Warbler, Karoo Scrub-Robin, and Sickle-winged Chat; all species you would expect further west somewhere like the Karoo Desert of the Western and Northern Cape provinces. Other highlights included Mountain and Yellow-tufted Pipits, Drakensberg Siskins, and an impressive Bearded Vulture sitting up on a cliff-face.

With virtually all of our targets in the bag, we began our descent back down the pass where we managed to pick up two more species: a pair of Short-tailed Pipits at a stakeout site, and a Half-colored Kingfisher along a stream. Before dinner, we had just one more target to go for and, after a 30-minute drive, we found ourselves looking over a small dam. Just on the other side was a family of Wattled Cranes, which is listed as a Vulnerable species.

Sadly, we had arrived at our last full day of birding… but we made the most of it! We departed Underberg and drove the incredibly scenic Hella-Hella Pass south towards a private farm, which hosts the very rare Montane Blue Swallow. As we pulled in we spotted a couple Red-necked Spurfowl before meeting a local researcher who knows the swallows well. It was a foggy morning, but this doesn’t affect the swallows. We walked out in the damp vegetation to a grassy slope, which has a couple naturally occurring burrows in the steep slope where the swallows breed. We waited for quite a while to no avail. We redirected our attention to another highly localized species: Striped Flufftail. We walked a short distance to where a family of these flufftails had been seen to try out luck. By now they wouldn’t be breeding anymore, but despite this and after a very short amount of searching, we found two different individuals. Flufftails in general are incredibly difficult to see, let alone a Striped Flufftail! As if one species wasn’t good enough, nearby in a wet stream a Red-chested Flufftail was singing.

Turning our attention back to Montane Blue Swallow, we hopped back into our vehicles and drove to another site. Here we quickly spotted four of these magnificent, Vulnerable swallows circling around a field showing off their long tail streamers. We even managed some scope views of this special species. With our great success, we began the drive back down in elevation towards the coastal city of Durban. Just north of the city not far from our hotel, we made one last stop at a local vlei hidden among new neighborhoods being built. After a bit of waiting and searching, we spotted a male Red-headed Quelea, our last new bird of the trip. That evening we enjoyed a lovely final dinner together at a nice Indian restaurant, as Durban is known for having incredible Indian cuisine, before our flights home the next morning.

                                                                                                                                                                              -          Ethan Kistler


Created: 19 March 2024