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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

South Africa: Kalahari to the Cape

2018 Narrative

This year’s tour started differently than usual, with a night in Upington on the Orange River. This proved to be a good move with some great birding around the grounds of our lodge. African Black Ducks on the river were something of a surprise, as were the two White-fronted Bee-eaters – a species only seen a few times before on this tour. Giant Kingfishers showed well, and we had a nice introduction to a variety of local species at the lodge and nearby: nesting South African Cliff Swallows, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, Crested Barbet, White-backed Mousebirds, African Pied Wagtail, African Hoopoes, Karoo Thrush, Black-throated Canaries, and Brubru to mention a few.

Leaving Upington we had a leisurely drive north to the Kalahari. We had plenty of time for stops along the way – the first of which turned up Cape Penduline Tits visiting their strange nest, Ashy Tit, Pririt Batis, Dusky Sunbird, Acacia Pied Barbet, Black-chested Prinia, and White-browed Sparrow Weavers among others. We were soon seeing the large communal nests of Sociable Weavers, which were to become a feature of the landscape over the next few days, and Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks, Southern Ant-eating Chats, and Chat Flycatchers were also frequent roadside birds. It became evident that Grey-backed Sparrowlark had enjoyed a good breeding season as there were literally thousands of them along the road. Stops revealed Fawn-coloured Larks to be common as well, and we also found nesting Pink-billed Lark right by the roadside, a species we can easily miss some years.

Our day in the Kgalagadi National Park gave us few mammals although we did get good sightings of the local ruddy form of Slender Mongoose and had some close encounters with endearing Meerkats. The Gemsbok, Springbok, Wildebeest, and Red Hartebeest also kept us entertained while a lucky few also glimpsed a Honey Badger. Birds included Kori Bustards, Northern Black Korhaans, a Secretarybird sedately picking its way through the savannah, a young Martial Eagle on the nest, dozing Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlets, Red-necked Falcon, Sabota and Spike-heeled Larks, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Chestnut-vented Tit Babbler, masses of Scaly-feathered Finches, Groundscaper Thrush, Kalahari Scrub Robin, and Black-faced Waxbills.

In such a parched environment the waterholes were attracting lots of birds. Hordes of Red-headed Finches and Cape Sparrows were much in evidence, as were the smart Namaqua Doves. However, the star waterhole birds were undoubtedly the sandgrouse. This year for some reason, it was Burchell’s Sandgrouse that far outnumbered the Namaqua Sandgrouse, a reversal of the usual situation. It was a real pleasure to see so many Burchell’s Sandgrouse piling into the waterhole to grab a quick drink before heading back out into the desert.  Outside of the Park there were plenty of African White-backed Vultures on nests, plus Gabar Goshawks, Southern Pied babblers, Red-billed Buffalo Weavers, Lilac-breasted Rollers, and brief views of Violet-eared Waxbills.

Heading to Bushmanland and the isolated town of Pofadder, we called in for a brief visit at Augrabies National Park to admire the spectacular waterfall and to look at Alpine Swifts, Pale-winged Starlings, and African Reed Warbler.  We had been warned that the north of the country was in the grip of a cold spell, and we certainly felt that on our day wandering the dirt roads that surrounded Pofadder. Lark-like Buntings were abundant at the drinking troughs and elsewhere, joined by yet more Grey-backed Sparrowlarks. We eventually caught up with Karoo Long-billed Lark and had excellent looks at Stark’s Lark after a lot of searching, and Karoo Korhaan put on a good show although the Ludwig’s Bustards were as flighty as ever. We had a superb encounter with Double-banded Courser with chick and our first attempt for Red Lark gave us close but brief views.

Driving across the open expanse of Bushmanland we found a few Greater Kestrels before we descended into Namaqualand, hoping for displays of wildflowers. We were to be disappointed, and the weather turned against us as we got nearer to the coast. Our one night visit to Lambert’s Bay ran true to form kicking off with a fine meal at the beachside fish restaurant with the earlier poor weather clearing for us. A dawn visit to the fynbos gave us displaying Cape Clapper Larks, along with a selection of other fynbos birds such as Karoo Scrub Robin, Layard’s Tit Babbler, Bokmakierie, Yellow Canary, and Lesser Double-collared Sunbird. Breakfast was followed by a visit to see the teeming Cape Gannets on Bird Island up close and personal, along with White-fronted Plovers and Cape Fur Seals. Moving on we found ourselves driving through a painted landscape awash with masses of wildflowers. We encountered our first Blue Cranes on the drive and our picnic lunch stop at Rocher Pan was notable for the male and female Boomslangs (Tree snakes) hanging out in the tree right next to our minibus. The Berg River estuary gave us some really close views of Caspian Terns and Chestnut-banded Plovers, Kittlitz’s Plovers, lots of Greater and Lesser Flamingos, and Black-necked Grebes. En route to our hotel, we located Sickle-winged Chats feeding young.

West Coast National Park also had some spectacular flower displays, and we were treated to a food pass by a pair of Black Harriers – something I have never seen before. We also encountered African Marsh Harrier, Southern Black Korhaan, very obliging Bar-throated Apalis, and Karoo Lark. Our journey to our mountain hideaway in the Karoo took us through a variety of landscapes, including the flower fields at Darling. A stop outside of Ceres produced the much sought-after Protea Canary, another bird that is easy to miss.

Despite some very cold nights in the karoo, the days were fine although the landscape was quiet for birds. However, we were able to get ‘scope views of a perched Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, perhaps the key bird out here. Other karoo specialities included Namaqua Warbler, Fairy Flycatcher, Southern Grey Tit, Karoo Eremomela, Karoo and Tractrac Chats, and more Layard’s Tit Babblers.

We managed two visits to the Bontebok National Park, one in the afternoon on the day we arrived in Swellendam, and the other the following morning. Still the cold conditions prevailed, and the place was not as busy as we had hoped. Stanley’s Bustards did not seem to mind the cold however and the fynbos plain was almost littered with displaying males and attendant females. The Cloud Cisticolas remained in the clouds, but this time we were able to locate this tiny dot of a bird bouncing around the sky. Other highlights here included a brief Burchell’s Coucal, Fiscal Flycatchers, Streaky-headed Canary, Pearl-breasted Swallows, and Pin-tailed Whydahs.  Driving south through the expanse of arable farmland we found Agulhas Long-billed Larks right by the road, along with many Capped Wheatears, African Pipits, and Large-billed and Red-capped Larks. Blue Cranes were nowhere as numerous as usual on this drive with the total count for the day only reaching 14. At Potberg we watched the Cape Vultures circling overhead, and a Southern Boubou showed well, as did Bully Canary.

And so, to Cape Town. The sewage farm came first where we had a nice selection of waterbirds including lots of ducks with a big flock of Southern Pochard of note. We finally got good views here of Orange-throated Longclaw after a succession of poor views, and both Levaillant’s Cisticola and Little Rush Warbler showed well. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens gave us Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds posing on proteas, two pairs of Cape Batis, Forest Canaries, a brief Cinnamon Dove, and three Spotted Eagle Owls. Crossing over to the other side of False Bay we were incredibly lucky with a really obliging Victorin’s Warbler which showed better than I can ever recall. This was followed by a pair of Cape Rockjumpers, a perched Ground Woodpecker (thanks to the Kowa zoom!) Neddicky, Cape Siskins, and Cape Rock Thrushes. We enjoyed the African Penguins at Stony Point, along with some Bank Cormorants, and Harold Porter Botanical Gardens provided a few Swee Waxbills.

Our pelagic took us beyond the Cape of Good Hope to where two oceans meet and once we found a couple of trawlers we were treated to the amazing spectacle of hundreds of Shy and Black-browed Albatrosses, White-chinned Petrels, Pintado Petrels, more Wilson’s Storm Petrels than I recall ever seeing on a pelagic, both Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Subantarctic Skuas, and a single Soft-plumaged Petrel on the way home.  Our final morning kicked off with birding in the grounds of the hotel where we had a fly-over from African Goshawk and manged to ‘scope a few of the Amethyst Sunbirds present. Having started our Kalahari to the Cape tour in the Kalahari, it was only right that we ended it by visiting the Cape of Good Hope and posing for the obligatory group photo before heading off to the airport and our flights home.

-        Steve Rooke 

Updated: September 2018