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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

South Africa: Kalahari to the Cape

2017 Narrative

Taking an earlier flight than usual to Upington gave us more time to start our birding off in a bird-rich location on the Orange River. Here we encountered Cardinal Woodpecker, the bizarre Crested Barbet, stunning Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, dinky Orange River White-eyes, Black-throated Canaries, South African Cliff Swallows, and both Red-faced and White-backed Mousebirds among many other species. Heading north we soon came across the huge structures of Sociable Weaver nests sitting on the top of roadside poles, along with the first of many Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks. Birding along the dry riverbed close to Askham gave us smart Southern Pied Babblers, Red-billed Buffalo Weavers, vivid Crimson-breasted Shrikes, and some African White-backed Vultures on nests.

Our full day inside the Kalahari Trans Frontier National Park produced the hoped-for spectacle of both Namaqua and Burchell’s Sandgrouse pouring into drink at a waterhole, which they shared with hundreds of Cape Sparrows, Red-headed Finches, and a few striking Yellow Canaries. Elsewhere in the park we saw our only ‘genuine’ Ostriches of the tour and found both Kori Bustard and Northern Black Korhaan, as well as Secretary Bird. Raptors included Martial Eagle, Bateleur, Tawny Eagle, Lanner, and Pygmy Falcon.

This was also the only place on the tour where we saw Lilac-breasted and Rufous-crowned Rollers, and other highlights included Kalahari Scrub Robin, vocal Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, loads of Marico Flycatchers, and the local Namib form of Fiscal Shrike. We also saw lots of Fawn-coloured Larks, and we must not forget the mammals – handsome Gemsbok were plentiful, as were Springbok and Wildebeest.

Retracing our steps to Upington, we made a few stops that produced some good birds in the form of Barn Owl (adding to Verreaux’s and Spotted Eagle Owls, and Pearl-spotted Owlet already seen), a view Violet-eared Waxbills glowing in the bushes, Black-faced Waxbills, hundreds of Red-billed Queleas, and a couple of young Gabar Goshawks. There was also a brief encounter with a single Pink-billed Lark, and a distant Short-toed Rock Thrush. Stopping at Augrabies National Park we admired the spectacular waterfall where the Orange River tumbled into the narrow gorge. There were birds here for us as well - Hamerkop, Black Stork, Verreaux’s Eagle being mobbed by a Peregrine, Pale-winged Starling, and a couple of puzzling raptors that turned out to be a dark brown and a melanistic juvenile African Harrier Hawks. It seems that records of melanistic birds of this species are very rare.

We knew that South Africa was coming out of a very dry winter and that drought conditions were prevailing in some places. This was very obvious around Pofadder, and finding some of the larks for which the region is famous proved difficult. In the end, we did see Karoo Long-billed, Spike-heeled, Sabota, and more Fawn-coloured Larks, although pride of place went to the Red Larks which performed beautifully for us. Other highlights here were Larklike Buntings, Mountain Wheatears, Karoo Korhaan’s, Chat Flycatchers, and both Karoo and Tractrac Chats.

The long drive to the coast at Lambert’s Bay took us through an expanse of Bushmanland and into Namaqualand. Here the drought conditions continued with virtually no wildflowers on show. We did find Ludwig’s Bustards however, with a staggering total for the day of 32, plus Ground Woodpecker posing for us while we ate lunch, and some Black-headed Canaries to mention a few species. The day ended with our traditional wonderful seafood meal right on the beach as the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. Our usual dawn excursion provided and introduction to fynbos birding with displaying Cape Clapper Larks and singing Bokmakieries. Lambert’s Bay Bird Island provided the usual Cape Gannet spectacle, along with our first real encounter with Cape and Crowned Cormorants, African Black Oystercatchers, hundreds of Hartlaub’s Gulls and Swift Terns, and dainty White-fronted Plovers. From here we followed the coast south to Velddrif. Eland’s Bay was incredibly dry but did give us a few waders including some Marsh Sandpipers, Black Crake, and a dapper Malachite Kingfisher. We also had good looks at both Little Rush and Lesser Swamp Warbler here.

At Velddrif we visited the estuary of the Berg River for a collection of water birds while a tour of some nearby salt pans gave us Chestnut-banded Plovers with chicks, bobbing Black-necked Grebes, and some very close Caspian Terns. The West Coast Nature Reserve was where we finally caught up with some spectacular flowers displays, along with Southern Black Korhaan, Grey-winged Francolins, Bar-throated Apalis, African Marsh Harrier, Karoo Lark, and vivid nesting Southern Red and Yellow Bishops. Away from the reserve we added Cape Long-billed Lark to our growing lark list, and caught up with Orange-throated Longclaw in the Darling flower fields.

We had two nights in the remote quiet of Klein Cederberg where the Karoo lived up to its name and was very dry. However, the Cinnamon-breasted Warbler put on a great show for us, regularly taking food into a nest, while Layard’s Tit Babbler, Karoo Eremomela, and Namaqua Warbler also all showed really well. The Black Ducks were very easy to find in Ceres and above the town Protea Canary performed pretty much on cue. We had a great time around Swellendam and a gathering of at least 300 African Olive Pigeons on the way there was very unusual.

The small Bontebok reserve gave us some great birds with both Brown-hooded and Giant Kingfisher showing within minutes of each other, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Water Thick-knees, Black Harriers drifting over the fynbos, displaying Stanley’s Bustards, and, at the other end of the size spectrum, tiny Cloud Cisticolas bouncing overhead.

Our journey to Cape Town took us through rolling agricultural fields where we found Agulhas Long-billed Lark, and hordes of Blue Cranes with the total for the journey reaching in excess of 300. The Cape Vultures showed well at Potberg, as did a Southern Tchagra in De Hoop.

At a time when many pelagics out of Cape Town were being cancelled due to windy weather, we were lucky to have one good day for ours, and managed to find a trawler which in turn attracted loads of birds. By the time we returned to Simonstown Harbour we had seen Shy, Black-browed, and Indian Ocean Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Great Shearwater, Pintado Petrel, Wilson’s Storm Petrels, loads of Sooty Shearwaters, hundreds of White-chinned Petrels, both Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, and 5 Soft-plumaged Petrels.

On dry land, our initial attempt to find Cape Rockjumper proved fruitless, but a return visit to ‘Area 51’ produced wonderful views of 3 individuals. Elsewhere we visited Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Harold Porter Botanical Gardens, Strandfontein Sewage Farm, Mouille Point, and of course the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Highlights at these places were many and included Bank Cormorants amongst the African Penguins at Stony Point, Forest Buzzard, hordes of Southern Pochard, Cape Teal, and Cape Shovelers at Strandfontein (where we had a smashing time looking at some Whiskered Terns!), Cape Siskins, Swee Waxbills, Forest Canaries, Cape Batis, and up-close Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds. And all too soon it was time to make out way to the airport and the flights taking us home, marking the end of another successful and fun-filled tour to South Africa.

- Steve Rooke


Created: 27 September 2017