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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

South Africa: The West

Kalahari to the Cape

Friday 1 September to Saturday 16 September 2023
with Steve Rooke as leader
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The floral displays in Namaqualand can be stunning. Photo: Steve Rooke

South Africa is a very popular destination for birdwatchers, and a glance at one of its many excellent field guides soon reveals why. Over 700 different bird species occur here, of which over 100 are endemic or near-endemic. Thousands of kilometers of shoreline harbor migrant and resident birds, and some of the largest concentrations of seabirds in the world congregate offshore. In addition there is a wonderful infrastructure with great roads, comfortable accommodation, and superb food. 

Early September is the absolute best time to visit western South Africa. Spring will be under way, and many of the birds will be in full breeding plumage as they busy themselves with the onset of nesting. If the early rains have been good, they will have coaxed life from the desert and we should be treated to some wonderful wildflower displays. Our journey will take us from the rolling red sand dunes of the Kalahari Desert through the hauntingly beautiful plains of Bushmanland to the Atlantic coast. From there we’ll travel to the vast expanse of the Great Karoo before ending our tour where Africa itself ends and two oceans meet, at the windswept Cape of Good Hope. We have been running tours to South Africa for well over 20 years and this itinerary has been designed to show us the best birding the Western Cape has to offer at the very best time to visit the region.

This tour perfectly complements our South Africa: The East- Birds and Mammals tour for complete coverage of South Africa. 

Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Johannesburg. 

Day 2: We’ll take an early morning flight Upington. Having collected our vehicle we’ll begin our drive north toward the Kalahari. We’ll have not gone far before we see the first of many massive Sociable Weaver nests perched atop roadside poles. Other species that could break our journey include White-backed Vulture, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Pygmy Falcon, Southern Ant-eating Chat, Fawn-coloured Lark, and possibly Short-toed Rock Thrush. Night near Kgalagadi Reserve.

Day 3: Sandwiched between Namibia and Botswana, the Kgalagadi Trans Frontier Reserve is one of Africa’s wildest and least-known national parks. We’ll have a short journey to get to the reserve gate when it opens for the day. Once inside we’ll head for a small waterhole, where we should be treated to flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse coming to drink, hopefully joined by good numbers of Burchell’s Sandgrouse and hordes of other birds such as Namaqua Doves, Cape Sparrows, Red-headed Finches, and of course those ubiquitous Sociable Weavers. We are allowed out of our vehicle in only a few designated places, so we’ll spend the morning slowly driving along a road that follow an old riverbed, using the vehicle almost as a mobile blind. Small birds that will be instantly obvious include Chat and Marico Flycatchers, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, and swarms of Scaly-feathered Finches, while some special birds we’ll be looking for include the stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike, Ashy Tit, and Kalahari Scrub-Robin. 

The park is a great place for raptors, and we can expect to see Gabar Goshawk, Lanner and possibly Red-necked Falcon, Bateleur, and Martial Eagle. Both Spotted and Verreaux’s Eagle Owls might be found at roost, and in the more open areas we stand a chance of finding the striking Secretarybird or a Kori Bustard. Gemsbok are common here, as are Springbok and Blue Wildebeest, and an encounter with an endearing troop of Meerkats is always possible. We may also see a pride of the large, black-maned Kalahari Lions or a skulking Cheetah.

The countryside outside the reserve is also good for birds, and we’ll be on the lookout for Northern Black Korhaan, African Grey and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Pearl Spotted Owlet, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Southern Pied Babbler, Groundscraper Thrush, and vivid Violet-eared Waxbill to mention a few. Night near Kgalagadi Reserve.

Day 4: We’ll retrace our steps to Upington, stopping on the way to look for Eastern Clapper and Pink-billed Larks. We may also encounter hundreds of Grey-backed Sparrow-larks overhead and we’ll look out for a mighty Lappet-faced Vulture drifting by. Upington sits on the Orange River and we’ll spend time this afternoon birding in and around the grounds of our lodge overlooking the river as well as at some nearby locations. Birds should include African Black Duck, Giant Kingfisher, South African Cliff-Swallow, White-throated Swallow, White-backed and Red-faced Mousebirds, African Hoopoe, Crested Barbet, Red-eyed Bulbul, Orange River White-eye, and Black-throated Canary. Night in Upington. 

Day 5: After a final look around the lodge grounds we’ll begin our journey to Poffader, following the course of the Orange River. We’ll stop at Augrabies National Park. Here the river tumbles through a narrow gorge and over a spectacular waterfall. We’ll have time admire the falls, and the brightly coloured Cape Flat Lizards that chase each other around the boulders.  Alpine Swifts and African Rock Martins buzz around the gorge and there is a chance of the rarer Bradfields Swift as well. Other birds we may encounter in the gorge include Black Stork, Peregrine Falcon, and Verreaux’s Eagle while around the wooded camp site we’ll look for Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Pririt Batis, Pale-winged Starlings, African Reed Warbler, and the localized Namaqua Warbler. As we near Pofadder we may encounter our first Karoo Korhaans or a lone Double-banded Courser. Night in Pofadder.

Day 6: South of the Orange River lie the arid and semi-arid regions of Bushmanland, a primeval landscape where, in the not-too-distant past, San tribes hunted the migrant herds of antelopes. This area is still sparsely populated, and it’s possible to travel through the stark wilderness all day without seeing another person. Driving along the endless dirt roads that service the remote farms, we’ll hope to see Great Kestrel, Karoo Korhaan, Ludwig’s Bustard, Tractrac and Karoo Chats, Layard’s Tit-babbler, Southern Grey Tit, and Lark-like Bunting, among others. In such an arid region, water is a great attraction, and we’ll stop at the many small drinking troughs to see what’s about. In particular we hope to find more of the region’s larks, including Sclater’s, Stark’s, Thick-billed, Karoo Long-billed, and Spike-heeled. Later we’ll travel to a specific area of red sand dunes to look for the rare Red Lark, which is found in only a few tiny areas of the Northern Cape. Night in Pofadder.

Day 7: We’ll leave early to travel west to Namaqualand and the world-famous wildflower region. Turning south, we’ll drive into the hills following a maze of dirt tracks that weave through a mosaic of agricultural land where, if the rains have been generous, we should be treated to some fabulous wildflower displays. Whether or not the flowers are there (and they are dependent on there having been good rains), we’ll still have many birds to see, including Ground Woodpecker, Mountain Wheatear, Bokmakierie, Malachite Sunbird, and Black-headed Canaries. 

Dragging ourselves away from what we hope will be a botanical extravagance will not be easy, but an ornithological one awaits us farther south at the thriving fishing port of Lambert’s Bay. We’ll arrive in the evening, just in time to sample the delights of an excellent open-air fish restaurant on the beach with the Atlantic waves crashing just a few yards away. Night at Lambert’s Bay.

Day 8: We’ll begin with a dawn visit to the extensive coastal fynbos that surrounds the town, looking for Karoo and Cape Clapper Larks, both of which should be performing their aerial song displays. Other species could include Karoo Scrub Robin, Karoo Prinia, Grey-backed Cisticola, Cape Penduline Tit, and Bar-throated Apalis. After breakfast we’ll visit the famous Cape Gannet colony, which will be teeming with tens of thousands of birds well into their breeding season. The sight, sound, and, it must be said, smell of all these birds packed together is memorable. In the throngs of Cape Gannets we should also find Cape and Crowned Cormorants jostling for space, and we’ll watch Cape Fur Seals basking on the rocks. Leaving Lambert’s Bay, we’ll head inland, stopping first at a location for the very elusive Protea Canary before driving on through some increasingly dramatic scenery towards the great Karoo where we spend two nights.

Day 9: The Karoo is a vast open and dry place and it must be said, not exactly full of birds.  However there are some real gems lurking in this landscape and we’ll begin with a visit to a rocky gorge to look for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler as well as Fairy Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, and Layard’s Tit Babbler. The Karoo is an endless stony plain covered in a beautiful array of small euphorbias and succulent scrub. If there has been rain, we may find flocks of Black-eared Sparrowlarks displaying, while Karoo Korhaan and Burchell’s or Double-banded Courser could turn up anywhere. This is good “chat” country, and we’ll have time to compare Karoo and Tractrac Chats. Elsewhere we’ll search for Rufous-eared Warbler, Karoo Eremomela, and the localized Namaqua Warbler

Day 10: We’ll have time this morning to search for any species we may have missed yesterday before setting out for Swellendam. The route we take depends on what birds we still need to see in this area but whichever route we follow, we are assured of some fantastic scenery before we reach the quaint town of Swellendam and the Bontebok National Park, where we’ll spend the night. 

Day 11: The Bontebok National Park comprises some extensive fynbos, and driving along the tracks we should find Stanley’s Bustard, possibly with some males performing their impressive display. Elsewhere there should be more Black Harriers along with Pearl-breasted Swallow, “Agulhas” Cape Clapper Lark, Yellow Bishop, Malachite Sunbird, and African Stonechat. Fiscal Flycatchers are common here, and we may encounter a Greater Double-collared Sunbird, just on the western edge of its range. An early walk around our cabins may reveal Southern Tchagra, Olive Bushshrike or even Knyasna Woodpecker.  Later we’ll head south, driving through undulating arable fields where we’ll look for Agulhas Long-billed Lark among the many Red-capped and Large-billed Larks and where we should find large groups of Blue Cranes. We’ll cross the Breede River at the Malgas ferry and drive down to Potberg, a towering hill that is one of the last strongholds of Cape Vulture. Here we should have good views of these magnificent birds circling overhead.  Moving on we’ll drive to the coastal town of Hermanus where we’ll spend the night.

Day 12: We’ll start the day early searching the nearby rocky escarpments for the wonderful Cape Rockjumper and the skulking Victorin’s Warbler, along with other more common species such as Cape Rock Thrush, and Neddicky.  Hermanus is famous as a place to see whales and as we head west towards Cape Town we may see some of these mighty leviathans out to sea. We’ll stop to look at a colony of African Penguins and may have time to visit a small botanical gardens where brightly coloured Swee Waxbills feed around the flower beds. Later we’ll continue to Cape Town following a wonderfully scenic coastal road. Night in Cape Town.

Days 13-16: We’ll have four days in which to sample the delights that birding around the tip of Africa has to offer. The weather here is notoriously fickle, but if conditions allow we’ll venture out on a boat one day into the South Atlantic in search of seabirds. Our objective is to find a deep-sea trawler, which is likely to be followed by thousands of seabirds, mostly albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters. If we find one, binoculars will hardly be necessary as many of the birds will be almost too close to focus on. The mix of birds is variable with a wide range possible, and we should see Shy, Black-browed, and with luck both Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Southern Giant, Pintado, and White-chinned Petrels, Sooty and Great Shearwaters, Sub-Antarctic Skua, and Wilson’s Storm-petrel. Less common possibilities include Antarctic Fulmar, Wandering Albatross, and Soft-plumaged Petrel, and there is always the chance of a real seabird rarity. There may be a few Antarctic Terns heading to their southern breeding grounds, or a Sabine’s Gull freshly arrived from the north, and all of these will be mingling in the feeding frenzy with thousands of Cape Gannets, Cape Gulls, and Cape Fur Seals.

Back on land, we’ll explore the Cape’s verdant mountains, passes, and valleys looking for special birds such as Cape Grassbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, and Cape Siskin. We’ll take time to visit the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, lying in the shadow of Table Mountain. These gardens are not just a wonderful place for plants—there are plenty of birds to be seen as well. A resident Spotted Eagle Owl can usually be found at its daytime roost, Cape Batis and Forest Canaries feed among the undergrowth, while Cape Sugarbirds, Cape White-eyes, and Lesser Double-collared Sunbirds buzz around the masses of flowers and Sombre Greenbuls call loudly from the undergrowth. Black Saw-wings skim overhead, and we have a good chance of seeing a majestic Verreaux’s Eagle or a Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk soaring around the slopes of Table Mountain. 

One day we’ll leave early to drive north to the West Coast Nature Reserve. Here we’ll look for striking Black Harriers quartering the flower-strewn coastal fynbos, and we’ll spend time searching through the flocks of waders that make this huge natural lagoon their winter home. Among the migrants from farther north, there will also be resident birds such as White-fronted and Kittlitz’s Plovers. Around the edge of small pools we’ll find nesting Cape Weavers, and Southern Black Korhaans while Cape and Grey-winged Francolins can frequently be seen along the roadside. There should also be some superb flower displays here.  

Leaving the reserve, we’ll visit Veldriff at the mouth of the Berg River. Swift Terns will be much in evidence along with Caspian Terns, Cape and Hartlaub’s Gulls, and a variety of waders including Pied Avocet and Marsh Sandpiper. There should also be flocks of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos and thousands of Cape Cormorants. At some small salt pans we hope to find a number of smart Chestnut-banded Plovers, and from there we’ll explore the open agricultural areas, looking for Cape Long-billed Lark and Sickle-winged Chat.

Back at the Cape, a visit to the famous Strandfontein Sewage Farm should give us close encounters with Glossy Ibis, Pied Avocets, and a number of ducks including Southern Pochard and Maccoa Duck and there is always the chance of a rarity such as Allen’s Gallinule. Nights in Cape Town.

We’ll have time during the morning of Day 16 to explore any areas we feel warrant a second visit before we travel to the Cape Town airport where the tour concludes around midday.

Updated: 09 November 2022

Prices

  • 2023 Tour Price : $5,690
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $390

Notes

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Questions? Tour Manager: Stephanie Schaefer. Call 1-866-547-9868 (US or Canada) or (01) 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

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

Maximum group size 10 with two leaders.

 

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