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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

South Africa: Marion Island Cruise - Land extensions

Sunday 17 January to Sunday 7 February 2021
Durban Extension to Monday 25 January
Cape Extension to Sunday 7 February
with Ethan Kistler as leader

Price: $2,650

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Cape Grassbird Photo: Billi Krochuk

South Africa is world-renowned for its incredible birding and unparalleled mammal watching while offshore offers some of the best pelagic birding on the planet. For those wanting a mix of land and sea, this opportunity should not be missed.  

BirdLife South Africa has put together a world-first voyage – a one-week cruise from South Africa to Marion Island and back on the MSC Opera. That’s right, an entire cruise consisting of only birders! At least 30 seabird experts will be on board and there will be plenty of lectures to attend as well.

The tour will begin in Durban where we’ll spend the first week birding the bird-rich KwaZulu Natal Province. From coastal estuaries and subtropical forests to the towering Drakensberg Mountains, we’ll be visiting a wide range of habitats where we hope to see remarkable species such as Bearded Vulture, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Narina Trogon, Cape Parrot, and Blue Swallow. We’ll also accumulate a substantial list of mammals while we are at it.

We’ll then depart Durban on the week-long cruise to Marion Island where we’ll hope to see six species of albatrosses, four species of penguins, 8 species of petrels, 5 species of storm-petrels, along with prions, shearwaters, and several cetaceans.

Returning to shore, we will dock in Cape Town and begin another week of birding on land exploring the diverse and endemic-rich Cape region. Here’s we’ll visit coastal scrub, the fertile Agulhas Plains, the Tanqua Karoo desert, and one of the most important estuaries in Southern Africa, the Langebaan lagoon. Key birds include Knysna Woodpecker, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Southern Black Korhaan and Black Harrier to name a few.

PLEASE NOTE: We are offering these extensions on either side of this cruise. There are very limited berths remaining on the voyage itself and it may well sell out. Please contact Birdlife South Africa directly to inquire about space on the ship. You can participate in one or both extensions whether you are on the cruise or not, but note there will be a week gap between extensions. To register for the Marion Island cruise:

To support their mission in the conservation of birds and their habitat, WINGS will be donating a portion of the proceeds from each tour registration to BirldLife South Africa.


Day 1: The tour begins at 6:30pm at our accommodation with a brief meeting following by dinner. Night in Durban.

Day 2: We’ll depart early and head inland towards Hella-Hella Pass. Our first stop will be an area of montane grassland where we’ll scan for Blue Swallows, a critically endangered species in South Africa. We will also keep an eye out for Black-winged Lapwing, Cape Grassbird, Drakensberg Prinia, Wing-snapping Cisticola, and Cape Longclaw. Following success, we’ll continue down the pass and over the Umkomazi River where we hope to find Knysna Turaco, African Finfoot, Cape Vulture, Narina Trogon, Southern Tchagra, Lazy Cisticola, and a half dozen species of kingfishers.

After lunch in the town of Underberg, we’ll get settled into our charming accommodation and drive a loop through the surrounding grasslands and farmlands. Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Half-collared Kingfisher, Southern Bald Ibis, Wattled and Gray-crowned Cranes and Denham’s Bustard are all possible. Night in Underberg.

Day 3: Towering over Underberg are the picturesque Drakensberg Mountains (Mountains of Dragons). We’ll spend the day traveling slowly up Sani Pass into the Kingdom of Lesotho, a landlocked country within South Africa. Along they way we’ll search for Red-winged Francolin, Horus Swift, Rufous-necked Wryneck, Barratt’s Warbler, Bush Blackcap, Gurney’s Sugarbird, and the secretive Short-tailed Pipit. Mammals are also possible including Cape Grysbok, Mountain Reedbuck, Cape Fox, and Black-backed Jackal.

As we near the escarpment, the main two specials, Drakensberg Rockjumper and Drakensberg Siskin, become evident, which should show well with an incredible backdrop of the Sani Valley below. We’ll also keep an eye out for Sentinel and Cape Rock-Thrushes, the scarce Mountain Pipit and the highly localized Sloggett’s Ice Rat!

Once we enter Lesotho our chances for Bearded Vulture soars. We’ll also be searching for Ground Woodpecker, African Rock Pipit, and a host of species more typical to the Karoo desert namely Gray Tit, Sickle-winged Chat, and Karoo Scrub-Robin.

After lunch, we’ll begin our journey back down the pass and if time permits, target any missing species surrounding Underberg. Before dusk, we’ll make our way to a handful of large gumtrees where we can witness hundreds of Amur Falcons coming to roost. Night in Underberg.

Day 4: An early start today will allow us to get to a nearby forest reserve for sunrise when Cape Parrots are most reliable. We’ll also watch out for Gray Cuckooshrike, Cape Batis, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Orange Ground-Thrush, Chorister Robin-Chat, and White-starred Robin.

With a potential stop or two en-route, we’ll work our way back towards the coast and head north towards Eshowe. Time should allow for an evening stroll in the Dlinza Forest where Spotted Ground-Thrush will be our main target. Trumpeter Hornbill, White-eared Barbet, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Green Twinspot and Dark-backed Weavers are all possible among a whole host of other forest species. The friendly Natal Red Duiker, a tiny antelope, should also be present. Night in Eshowe.

Day 5: Before breakfast we’ll return to Dlinza Forest for anything we may have missed the previous evening. We’ll then pack our bags and head to St Lucia with a brief stop in Mtunzini where we should find Palm-nut Vulture among other new trip birds.

The rest of the day will be spent birding around St Lucia which offers a good chance at finding Crested Guineafowl, Livingstone’s Turaco, Woodward’s Batis, Gorgeous Bushshrike, Rudd’s Apalis, and Gray Sunbird. The nearby Mfolozi estuary is well worth a visit and should provide a whole host of shorebirds, waders, and terns. This estuary has a tendency to host a good number of vagrants from time to time and a local Sooty Tern is sometimes present. Night in St Lucia.

Day 6: We’ll aim to enter the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park right at opening time and spend the whole morning birding this productive park. One of the main attractions are the presence of raptors from Black-chested and Brown Snake-Eagles to Crowned Eagles, African Cuckoo-Hawks, and African Hawk-Eagles. Other star birds include Green Malkoha, Brown Scrub-Robin, Crowned Hornbill, Croaking Cisticola, and a selection of sunbirds. Mammals are also prevalent, and we’ll keep an eye out for rhinos, Leopards, Hippos, and a selection of antelope.

After lunch, we’ll bird along the way to our accommodation outside Mkhuze Game Reserve. Night near Mkhuze.

Day 7: Mkhuze Game Reserve is one of the top birding destinations in all of Southern Africa. With a list surpassing 450 species recorded in the park it is not uncommon to accumulate a list of 120-130 species in a single day. We’ll have a full day exploring this bird-rich park, which also has some of the best mammal viewing of the whole tour. We’ll keep an eye out for Black-bellied Bustard, three dozen species of raptors including Lappet-faced Vulture, Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, along with African Broadbill, Eastern Nicator, Pink-throated Twinspot, and if we’re lucky, the localized Neergaard’s Sunbird. Night near Mkhuze.

Day 8: Today is flexible as we work our way back towards Durban. We’ll stop and bird at a variety of locations depending on what birds we may still be missing. Night in Durban.


PLEASE NOTE: There are very limited berths remaining on the voyage itself and it may well sell out. Please contact BirdLife South Africa directly to inquire about space on the ship. You can participate in one or both extensions whether you are on the cruise or not, but note there will be a week gap between extensions. To register for the Marion Island cruise:


Day 1: Depending on the cruise arrival time dictates how much birding, if any, we’ll be able to squeeze in today. Night in Cape Town.

Day 2: The Cape comprises of the Cape Floristic Region, the smallest of the six recognized floral kingdoms in the world. Known as Fynbos, of the 9,000 species of plants that call this hyperdiverse floristic kingdom home, 70% are endemic. With this unique habitat comes a whole host of endemic birds and the world-renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens offers an excellent introduction to these Cape specialties. We’ll keep an eye out for Cape Spurfowl, Cape Sugarbird, Cape Bulbul, Cape Batis… see a pattern? The resident Spotted Eagle-Owls should also be present.

The second half of the day will be focused around a couple wetland reserves, including the Strandfontein Wastewater Treatment Plant. Here we should rack up an excellent list of waders, waterbirds, and shorebirds along with African Marsh-Harrier, Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warblers, and Levaillant’s Cisticola. Night in Cape Town.

Day 3: Today we’ll head east along Clarence Drive, South Africa’s most scenic route embraced between the False Bay and the stunning Hottentots Holland Mountains. Our first stop will find us searching for the Cape Rockjumper along a gravel track which plays host to a couple different family groups. Other species present include Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Grassbird, Victorin’s Warbler, and Ground Woodpecker.

Next up we’ll pay a visit to an African Penguin colony where we’ll be up close and personal with these comical birds and be able to see all of the coastal cormorant species side by side for excellent comparison. Before reaching our destination for the night, we’ll visit a private nature reserve where we have an excellent chance at flushing a Hottentot Buttonquail, a bird rare enough most visiting birders never see before making a stop at a Damara Tern breeding colony. Night at De Hoop Nature Reserve.

Day 4: The birding starts right outside our doorstep this morning and we’ll spend an hour before breakfast birding the area on foot. Southern Tchagra and Knysna Woodpeckerare both very likely and we’ll also scope out the large vlei, or freshwater lake, which plays host to excellent numbers of waterbirds.
After a tasty breakfast with a view of the vlei, we’ll take a short drive in search of Denham’s Bustard, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Agulhas Long-billed Lark and the “Agulhas” subspecies of Cape Clapper Lark – the latter two are endemic to these fertile plains.We’ll then bird our way north towards the picturesque town of Ceres and if time permits, we’ll check out a nearby stakeout for Protea Canary. Night in Ceres.

Day 5: An early start will allow us to reach the Tanqua Karoo just after sunrise and gives us much of the day to bird this productive desert. Here we expect to find a remarkable list of species we’ll not see again along a quiet gravel road, which happens to be the longest stretch of road in South Africa between settlements at 250kms! Rufous-eared Warbler, Karoo Lark, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Karoo Eremomela, Gray Tit, Pririt Batis, several species of chats, and the cute Fairy Flycatcher are all possible and if we are very lucky, perhaps a Burchell’s Courser!

In the evening we’ll work our way west towards the coast passing mountains and scenic farmlands along the way. Night in Langebaan.

Day 6: This bird-packed day will begin north of town were we’ll target the localized Cape Long-billed Lark before heading to a nearby quarry for breeding Verreaux’s Eagles, one of the largest eagles in Africa. We’ll then head into the West Coast National Park where the strandveld offers the chance to see Southern Black Korhaan, Gray-winged Francolin, Black Harrier, White-backed Mousebird, and Cape Penduline-Tit to name a few. The Langebaan Lagoon, one of the most important estuaries in Southern Africa, plays host to thousands of shorebirds and flamingoes and we’ll spend some time in two different hides to scan through the masses. Heading back towards Cape Town, if time permits, we’ll target Chestnut-banded Plover, White-backed Duck, and anything else we may still be missing. Night in Cape Town.

Day 7: The tour ends this morning after breakfast.

Updated: 24 February 2020


  • Durban-area Extension : $2,650
  • Durban-area Single Room Supplement : $290
  • Cape-area Extension : $2,050
  • Cape-area Single Room Supplement : $220
  • Marion Island Cruise should be booked directly with cruise company*


Questions? The Tour Manager for this tour is Stephanie Schaefer. Call 1-866-547-9868 or 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

* For details or to book on cruise, please see here:

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