South Africa: The Arid West: Bloemhof, Kimberley, Mokala National Park and Kuruman.

Published by Lawson's Birding (leon AT

Participants: Leon Marais; Clive and Philippa Manvell.


Photos with this report (click to enlarge)

Rufous-eared Warbler
Rufous-eared Warbler

Tour Summary

Total Distance Travelled: 2,500 Kilometres

Temperature Range: 14 – 29 °C

Total Bird Species Seen: 184

Total Mammals Seen: 29

Day 1: ~ Bloemhof Dam

I met Clive and Philippa at the arrivals terminal at the airport early on Saturday morning and we were soon on our way around the south of Johannesburg and then westwards on towards Bloemhof Dam. The weather wasn’t playing along however, and by mid-morning we were driving through heavy showers. In the town of Klerksdorp we stopped at a road-side service station for some food, and while drinking our coffee we had a feast of swallows and swifts flying around the service station. These included White-throated, Barn, Greater-striped and South African Cliff Swallows, as well as Rock Martin and White-rumped Swifts. Moving on we drove just out of town to the Faan Meintjies Nature Reserve, a small 1000-hectare reserve comprising dry savannah, rocky outcrops, grassy plains and chalky depressions, where we began the first serious birding of the trip. Despite the rain the birds were active and we started off well. Species recorded included Ostrich, Black-crowned Night-Heron, African Spoonbill, Amur Falcon, Lesser Kestrel, Northern Black Korhaan, Black-winged Pratincole, Palm Swift, European Bee-eater, African Hoopoe, Rufous-naped and Spike-heeled Larks, Red-eyed Bulbul, Common Whitethroat, Black-chested Prinia, Scaly-feathered Finch, Long-tailed Paradise Wydah and Yellow Canary, among others. In the afternoon we continued on to Bloemhof Dam, spotting Orange River Francolin next to the road on the way and eventually getting great views of this sought-after species (lifers for all of us!). We arrived at our guest house in the late afternoon, and had time to settle in before having dinner in the Why Not? Restaurant.

Daily Total: 64
Trip Total: 64
Bird of the Day: Orange River Francolin

Day 2: Bloemhof Dam

On a wet early morning we headed out to the Sandveld Nature Reserve, bordering the huge Bloemhof Dam, a 100 kilometre-long, 25 000 hectare impoundment on the Vaal River. The reserve has 24-hour access, and with the heavy overcast we were there as it became light enough to start birding. The reserve has lots of dry Camel Thorn (Acacia erioloba) dominated savannah, with a long shore front along the north-eastern edge of the lake. A south-westerly breeze had blown large masses of water hyacinth plants onto the shore, which attracted waterbirds such as African Darter, Grey and Goliath Herons, Great, Little and Yellow-billed Egrets, Yellow-billed Stork, Sacred and Glossy Ibis, South African Shelduck, Red-billed Teal, Cape Shoveler, Spur-winged Goose, Caspian, White-winged and Whiskered Terns, among others. The Acacia bush also proved to be quite productive, and we recorded typical species such as Orange River White-eye, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler, Neddicky, Namaqua Dove, European and Lilac-breasted Rollers, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Acacia Pied Barbet, Sabota and Short-clawed Larks, Ashy Tit, Ant-eating Chat, Marico Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, Crimson-breasted Shrike and others, as well as a Brown Snake-Eagle, which is a bit out of range here, according to the books. We had two sessions in the reserve, one in the early morning and one in the afternoon, and racked up an impressive tally of nearly 100 species for the day. Mammals for the day included lots of Sable Antelope, a White Rhinoceros mother and calf pair, Springbok, Ground Squirrel, Giraffe and Vervet Monkey, among others. In the late afternoon we headed back to town, with a glorious sunset to the west and at last light the sight of hundreds of Lesser Kestrels returning to their roosts.

Daily Total: 98
New Birds of the Day: 57
Trip Total: 121
Bird of the Day: Short-clawed Lark

Day 3: Kimberley

Despite the totally clear sky the evening before we awoke to the patter of constant rain on the roofs. After a leisurely breakfast we packed our things and headed on to Kimberley. Instead of taking the main tar road we took a back-road route, and did some birding along the way. Initially the route took us through extensive maize cultivation, and with the heavy rain the birding was not too productive. We did however see Red-capped Larks, Bokmakierie, White-throated, Black-throated and Yellow Canaries, Red-breasted Swallow, large flocks of Cape Sparrows and a few others. We arrived at the Five Acres Guest House on the edge of town in the late morning, and after checking-in we drove to the Big Hole, the diamond mine of 1870 – 1914 that put the town on the map. We had lunch and hoped for the rain to abate so that we could search for Bradfield’s Swift around the hole, but unfortunately the rain just didn’t stop and we thus decided to brush up on our history and partake in the formal tour of the museum and mine. This was quite interesting, though perhaps not so much for Clive, who fell asleep during the introductory film. The simulated dynamite blast on the underground tour however certainly woke everyone up, as did the high-security diamond vault, where one can view real diamonds, as well as replicas of some of the world’s biggest stones. After the tour we tried for swifts again, but without luck, and then headed out of town for some back-road birding. We recorded our first Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks and a few others, and then, after a steep decent, found ourselves on a very muddy road where it would be easy to get bogged down. Birds were soon forgotten and the main goal became to get back to the tar road without getting stuck. Fortunately, after some 40 minutes of rally driving, we got through and headed back to town for the evening.

Daily Total: 52
New Birds of the Day: 11
Trip Total: 132
Bird of the Day: Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk

Day 4: Kimberley

Once again we awoke to heavily overcast skies, but thankfully without heavy rain. We met up with a local guide who would take us to some local birding spots. Our first stop was at Kamfersdam, a dam on the edge of town that has been transformed into a huge Lesser Flamingo breeding place by the construction of a special island. This is only the fourth breeding locality for these birds in Africa, and sixth in the world. Numbers at the dam average around 20 000 individuals and the shallows were a veritable pink sea of thousands of the birds, and wave after wave would take flight and fly to and fro (pictured below right), providing great photographic opportunities. Indecently, it was only after looking at the photographs that I noticed that some of the birds were in fact Greater Flamingos (pictured above left), identified by the pale, dark-tipped bill. Other waterbirds were also quite active in the early ours, such as Common Moorhen, Black-necked Grebe, Ruff, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt and Grey-headed Gull. After some time here using the scope and enjoying the spectacle we took a drive out to Benfontein, one of the De Beer’s mine properties that is supposedly a good place to find the Kimberley Pipit. The rains however meant that we could not use the vehicle and had to resort to foot-power. We took a slow walk through a large, grassy depression, flushing species such as Cape Longclaw, African Pipit, Red-capped, Large-billed, Eastern Clapper and Spike-heeled Larks. We also saw a distant pair of Blue Cranes, and on the return were treated to a mass of aerial feeders such as White-rumped and African Palm-Swifts, Common House Martin, South African Cliff-Swallow, Greater Striped and Barn Swallows flying low and fast very close by all around us. After a welcome cup of coffee out on the plains we headed back to town to drop our guide off before having a second go at the Bradfield’s Swifts at the Big Hole, but once again without luck. We then headed back to the guest house for a break before heading into town for lunch. With the weather improving quickly we had a post-lunch trip to Kamfersdam, but once again found that public access was severely limited and short of trespassing on the railway lines there was no way to effectively view the flamingos. So after a short session there we decided to do some roadside birding, and headed off into the surrounding chalk plains on a quiet back road. With the sun shining gloriously it was a wonderful afternoon, and we recorded some great birds such as Double-banded Courser, Rufous-eared Warbler, Chat Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Bokmakierie, Red-headed Finch, Cardinal Woodpecker, Northern Black Korhaan and others. Under a fantastic sunset we headed back into town for a final night in Kimberley. We ate out at a lovely Portuguese restaurant, which was perhaps the meal of the trip, and afterwards were surprised with a car that wouldn’t start. Luckily it was a short walk back to the guest house, allowing us to work off the dinner but leaving us uncertain as to what the next day’s plans would be.

Daily Total: 80
New Birds of the Day: 21
Trip Total: 153
Bird of the Day: Double-banded Courser

Day 5: Mokala National Park

I left the guest house early to go and see about the vehicle, leaving Clive and Philippa to search for the Karoo Thrush that had been eluding Philippa thus far. Fortunately the car was quickly fixed, the problem being a simple fuse connection, and we were back on schedule. After breakfast we packed and headed on to Mokala National Park. We arrived in time for lunch, and in the afternoon took a drive out into the reserve. This park is the newest addition to SA National Park’s collection. It was only opened to the public last year, and was basically set up as a replacement for the de-proclaimed Vaalbos National Park. It is situated around 80 km’s south-west of Kimberley, and falls in a transition zone between the Karoo biome of the Cape interior to the south and east and the sandy Kalahari of the central interior. Specific habitats include rocky outcrops, grassy plains and Camel Thorn / Shepard’s Tree savannah. During lunch on the terrace we viewed camp birds such as Familiar Chat, Cape Sparrow, Fiscal Flycatcher, Laughing and Cape Turtle Doves, Greater Striped Swallows, Orange River White-eyes and Chestnut-vented Tit-babblers in the gardens. Later in the afternoon our first excursion took us on a loop road to the north of the camp, first through the rocky outcrops and then into flat, red sand plains dominated by Camel Thorn (Acacia erioloba) and Shepard’s Tree (Boscia albitrunca). Birds seen included Ostrich, Black-shouldered Kite, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Kori Bustard, White-backed Mousebird, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Cape Penduline Tit, Short-toed Rock-Thrush, Lesser Grey, Red-backed and Common Fiscal Shrikes, Dusky Lark, Cape Glossy Starling, Sociable Weaver and Cape Bunting. On the mammal side we saw Gemsbok, Tsessebe (pictured above), Red Hartebeest, Kudu, Slender Mongoose, Roan Antelope, Springbok, Ground Squirrel, Steenbok, Meerkat, Warthog, Blue Wildebeest and Burchell’s Zebra. We arrived back in the early evening and had time to freshen up before heading over to the restaurant for a lovely meal.

Daily Total: 61
New Birds of the Day: 8
Trip Total: 161
Bird of the Day: Kori Bustard

Day 6: Mokala National Park

We awoke early on our first full day at Mokala, and left camp in semi-darkness at 6:00 AM. This time we took a different route, heading out towards the main gate and then circling around to the west. The morning was clear and sunny, with the early light creating beautiful scenes with the yellow grass, Camel Thorn trees and burnt-iron hued rock outcrops. On route we stopped for a long coffee stop in the middle of a bird party, which provided ample entertainment while we drank tea and consumed rusks. We had a early excursion until 9:00 AM, when we returned for breakfast, and then took a drive out to one of the other camps for an inspection, before returning to Mosu Lodge for lunch and some time-out for reading, relaxing and searching for Karoo Thrush. Then, at 3:00 PM we headed out for a long afternoon drive, returning when the gates closed at 7: 00 PM… a very relaxing program indeed. Sightings for the day included Helmeted Guineafowl, Common Scimitarbill, Acacia Pied Barbet, Golden tailed Woodpecker, Fawn-coloured and Sabota Larks, Fork-tailed Drongo, Ashy Tit, Red-eyed Bulbul, Mountain Wheatear, Fairy Flycatcher, Cape Wagtail, Long-billed Pipit, Crimson-breasted Shrike, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Southern Masked-Weaver, Red-headed Finch and others, while the mammal tally of 19 species included the usual arid habitat antelope and gazelle such as Gemsbok, Red Hartebeest and Springbok, as well as Impala, Blesbok, Cape Buffalo, Common Duiker, Giraffe, White Rhinoceros and Mountain Reedbuck.

Daily Total: 54
New Birds of the Day: 3
Trip Total: 164
Bird of the Day: Crimson-breasted Shrike

Day 7: Mokala National Park

Once again, with a full day at Mokala, our morning routine was much the same as the day before, heading out just before sunrise and having a long coffee stop out in the bush. We once again chose a spot that was teeming with birds, and had lots of fun recording each new species as they showed themselves. Bird parties are a wonderful phenomenon, and we must have seen 15 to 20 species while sitting quietly in the vehicle and observing. With a 9:00 AM finish time for breakfast at the lodge we had to cut the morning short, though the birding could obviously continue from the breakfast table. After the meal we drove out to the high ground in front of the lodge to take photographs (pictured above right), and then headed back for a long rest and some lunch before heading out on the afternoon drive. By this time a huge thunderstorm had rolled in from the south-east, and heavy but highly localised showers were experienced. The western side of the reserve was still experiencing sunshine after a brief shower, and the dark skies to the east contrasted wonderfully with the afternoon light shining from the west (Mokala is a wonderful place for landscape photography, and be sure to pack a wide-angle lens). Although there were lots of birds about, new species were becoming increasingly uncommon, but those recorded for the day included Gabar Goshawk (wonderful views of one raiding nests in the morning and another one catching the rain on spread wings during the afternoon deluge), Karoo Scrub-Robin, Long-billed Crombec and Black-faced Waxbill. On the route back to the lodge we were treated to a sighting of around 15 giraffes, and an incredible fiery pink sunset to the west complemented by the moonrise to the east, a fine end to the 21st of March, the Southern Hemisphere’s autumn equinox, when night and day are of the exact same length, and the official start of Autumn.

Daily Total: 56
New Birds of the Day: 4
Trip Total: 168
Bird of the Day: Gabar Goshawk

Day 8: Kuruman

With the rain and cloud of the previous afternoon having disappeared for the moment we took a last morning drive at Mokala, recording Eland, Africa’s largest antelope, as a new mammal species before heading back for an early breakfast and departure. The route from Mokala to Kuruman to the north took us through some wonderful back country, with incredible chalk plains, seasonal pans, arid Acacia savannah, Wild Olive woodland and occasional farmsteads as passing scenery. We passed through a few small unheard of towns such as Douglas and Danielskuil, but for the most part had the land to ourselves. New birds included Temminck’s Courser, several Dusky Sunbirds seen fighting for ownership of a patch of Aloe flowers (our only sunbirds for the trip), Secretarybird, Greater Kestrel, and Pale-winged Starling. By early afternoon several convection thunderstorms were forming all around us, but for the most part we travelled between two of the larger ones, with one to the left and another to the right. The one on the right seemed to be expanding rapidly however, and was soon ominously filling the view in the rear-view mirrors. On arrival in Kuruman we had a quick stop at the Eye, a natural spring in the centre of town, where Philippa finally got good views of the Karoo Thrush that had been eluding her thus far. We then pushed on to the lodge 15 km’s out of town, and upon arrival the storm had caught up with us, meaning that it covered the last 80 kilometres at almost the same speed as us! We only had time to get checked in before it broke, but thankfully it was not as bad as it had looked (pictured above right). Later in the evening we had a good meal in the lodge’s restaurant before calling it a night in anticipation of a long final day.

Daily Total: 73
New Birds of the Day: 5
Trip Total: 173
Birds of the Day: Secretarybird and Dusky Sunbird

Day 9: Departure

We met at 6:00 AM for a cup of coffee or Rooibos tea before going on a short walk before breakfast, startling some Mountain Reedbuck and a Scrub Hare that had come down to graze on the lodge’s lawns. The sun only appeared over the hills closer to seven o’clock, at which time it was necessary to head back for breakfast and a swift departure, considering the long road ahead. After leaving we stocked up on fuel and peppermint crisps, and then had three hours on the road to get to the Barberspan Nature Reserve near Delareyville in the North West Province. Once again the late rains made things a little difficult, as driving around the pan was severely limited. We were able to walk down to one of the hides, from where we saw African Fish-Eagle, Pink-backed Pelican, plenty of Egyptian Geese, Red-knobbed Coot by the hundreds, Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Kittlitz’s Plover, Black Egrets and others, while from the second hide we saw Yellow-billed Stork, Goliath Heron, Common Moorhen, African Purple Swamphen, Caspian Tern, African Darter, Reed and White-breasted Cormorants among others. Soon it was time to get on the road, with White Stork and Grey Go-away-bird as our final two birds on the list before arriving at the airport right on time.

Daily Total: 85
New Birds of the Day: 11
Trip Total: 184
Bird of the Day: Pink-backed Pelican

Species Lists

For a full species list and more see: Lawson's Birding and Wildlife Tours, Trip Reports.