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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

South Africa: Kalahari to the Cape

2019 Narrative

Our birding began in earnest in the grounds of our riverside lodge in Upington. The river was alive with birds and highlights included a pair of African Black Ducks, a pair of Giant Kingfishers, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, a single Little Green (or Striated) Heron, Hamerkop, and hordes of weavers and martins feeding on insects. Little Rush Warbler showed well and we heard Namaqua Warblers frequently, although it was several days before we managed to get good views of this range-restricted species. Away from the river, there were plenty of Karoo Thrushes feeding in and around the grounds, along with Red-faced Mousebirds, African Palm Swifts, and Orange River White-eyes, while away from the lodge we watched South African Cliff Swallows building nests and bizarre Crested Barbets, here on the very edge of their range. A few Red-billed Firefinches were also unusual here.

Heading north into the dry landscape of the Kalahari we soon started to see the large structures of Sociable Weaver nests and a few stops gave us Pririt Batis, Chestnut-vented Tit Babbler, our first Kalahari Scrub Robins (it turned out to be a good year for these) and a very obliging pair of Pygmy Falcons. One stop and a walk along a dried riverbed was particularly useful with Spotted Thick-knees, Southern Pied Babbler, Ashy Tit, Long-billed Crombecs, Yellow-bellied Eremomelas, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Common Scimitarbill, and stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike all showing well, as did a Pearl-spotted Owlet.  The Kalahari proved to be very dry and many of the usual species were missing or very scarce. Indeed the highlight of the visit probably goes to the mammals with a Caracal successfully hunting sandgrouse at a waterhole – at one point leaping vertically high into the air to take out a passing Burchell’s Sandgrouse – this followed by a Honey Badger digging a large hole in search of prey with a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk and Black-backed Jackal in attendance for any scraps. But birds were there to be found. We located a pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls and a single Spotted Eagle Owl, and the raptor list included African White-backed Vultures, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Bateleurs, a pair of Lanner Falcons, Tawny Eagle, Gabar Goshawk, and lots and lots of Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks. Bustards also showed well with a lot of Northern Black Korhaans, several Kori Bustards and a single Ludwig’s Bustard. The supporting cast included lots of Ostrich, many Lilac-breasted Rollers, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, Marico Flycatchers, and Fork-tailed Drongos. And once the Caracal had moved on from the waterhole we were treated to great views of both Namaqua and Burchell’s Sandgrouse coming to drink. A single Cinnamon-breasted Bunting was an unusual sighting at the waterhole. The smart Gemsbok and Springbok were joined by a small group of Great Kudu, not a mammal we see that often on the tour.

Retracing our steps south we travelled via Upington to Pofadder. We made a few stops, highlights of which included a very obliging pair of Green-winged Pytilias, and a Lappet-faced Vulture circling overhead. We had a frustrating time with Pink-billed Larks but managed views in the end. We spent more time the next day looking for larks and other species that inhabit the arid farmland that surrounds Pofadder. The various water troughs were surprisingly quiet and finding any larks took some doing. However we managed good views of Stark’s, Karoo Long-billed, and Spike-heeled Larks, and good numbers of Black-eared Sparrowlarks. Later in the day we caught up with Grey-backed Sparrowlarks and our first looks at a couple of the enigmatic Red Lark. Moving on the day started well with distant ‘scope views of Burchell’s Courser and then really good views of more Red Larks. This was also the only day we had any sightings of the aptly-named Lark-like Bunting and also when we saw our first Black-headed Canaries coming to drink at a trough. The journey to Lambert’s Bay notched up an amazing number of Ludwig’s Bustards with at least 30, and our first Blue Cranes, and we made it there in time to enjoy a memorable meal at the famous fish restaurant on the beach.

We crammed a lot into the next day as we continued our journey south. An early visit to some fynbos gave us distant Cape Clapper Larks and a nice selection of typical fynbos birds such as Grey-backed Cisticola, Lesser Double Collared Sunbirds, Karoo Scrub Robin and noisy Bokmakaries. Then came Bird Island with its thousands of Cape Gannets, Cape Fur Seals, and our first African Penguins. Driving through more coastal fynbos we saw some wildflower displays which had been sadly absent so far. We also were treated to some excellent views of Black Harriers drifting over the fynbos. At Veldriff we mingled with both species of flamingos, found numerous Chestnut-banded Plovers, and a massive flock of Black-necked Grebes before ending the day with Sickle-winged Chats and Cape Long-billed Larks. West Coast Nature Reserve gave us our first Southern Black Korhaans but sadly virtually no flowers. However the fynbos was alive with birds and we had some very confiding Bar-throated Apalis, while down at the hide we found African Black Oystercatchers, and a selection of terns and other waders. A small freshwater pool held displaying Little Rush Warbler and both African Purple Swamphen and Black Crake. Moving inland we heard and saw the tiny Cloud Cisticola before driving onto Ceres and the remote lodge at Klein Cederberg.  This was our base for exploring the vast Karoo. Cape Clapper Lark showed really well as we set out, as did Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. This normally elusive bird could not have been more obliging allowing everyone views through the ‘scope. Down on the Karoo we found a Karoo Eremomela on its nest and tracked down Fairy Flycatcher in the thorn trees. We had close encounters with Tractrac Chats and found another Burchell’s Courser, as well as more Karoo Korhaans. We also eventually caught up with Namaqua Warbler with one bird popping up right in front of us. Gydo Pass above Ceres was alive with Cape Sugarbirds and our journey to Swellendam took us through some interesting countryside, with the highlight of the day perhaps being the pair of Double-banded Coursers by the road. We reached Swellendam with time for a brief visit to the edge of the Bontebok reserve where a Cape Grassbird sat up and sang for us.  Venturing into the reserve proper the next day was worth it for the many species which included Water Thick-knees, Knysna Woodpecker, Pin-tailed Whydah, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, several Stanley’s Bustards, African Stonechats, and Pearl-breasted Swallows. The onward journey took us through rich farmland and we eventually found the sought-after Agulhas Long-billed Larks, along with many Large-billed and Red-capped Larks, and numerous African Pipits. Reaching Potberg we watched the rare Cape Vultures sailing overhead and also had good views of a Booted Eagle here. Popping into De Hoop was had brief views of a shy Southern Tchagra before we set out on the final part of the journey to Cape Town.

Our four days around Cape Town had lots to offer. Strandfontein Sewage Farm was the perfect place to go in the rain, which soon cleared allowing us to see a huge variety of waterbirds. There were Southern Pochard, Cape Teal, and Cape Shoveler in abundance, but the small group of Hottentot Teals and a few Maccoa Ducks were also good to see, as was the African Marsh Harrier. A single Whiskered Tern was a surprise, as was the flock of 22 White Storks, one bearing a ring which showed it had travelled all the way from Croatia! A sighting of a Cape Dune Mole Rat here was very unusual.

The Cape Rockjumper, Ground Woodpeckers, Orange-breasted Sunbirds, and Neddicky performed beautifully for us over at Rooi Els, although the Victorin’s Warbler was more a game of hide-and-seek. The African Penguins at Stony Point were closed for the day but we still had close views. Down on the Cape of Good Hope, besides posing for the obligatory photo, we also caught up with Cape Siskins which showed very well. Our trip to sea started out quietly but things soon livened up when we found a fishing boat, and we found ourselves surrounded by Shy, Black-browed, Indian Ocean Yellow-nosed and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, masses of White-chinned Petrels, both Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Sub-Antarctic Skuas, and a single Arctic Tern. There was also a small group of three Humped-back Whales. We enjoyed a pleasant walk through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens finding Cape Batis soon after entering. We went on to see Olive Pigeon, Southern Boubou, Sombre Greenbul, and many Forest Canaries. The blooming proteas attracted Cape Sugarbirds, Orange-breasted and Malachite Sunbirds while overhead there was Forest Buzzard tussling with a Jackal Buzzard and a Klaas’s Cuckoo posed for the telescope. On our last day we had time to visit a few sites. We started with Amethyst Sunbird in the hotel grounds and a return visit to Strandfontein was worth it for the great views we had of Cape Longclaw. There was also a small group of White-faced Whistling Duck which proved to be the last new bird of the tour.

Steve Rooke

Created: 25 September 2019