South Africa March 2007; highlands and lowlands of the east

Published by Lawson's Birding (leon AT

Participants: Leon Marais (leader), Nicky, Larry and Eva.


Tour Summary

Total Distance Travelled: 1800 kilometres

Temperature Range: 9 to 35 degrees Celsius

Total Birds Seen: 260

Total Mammals Seen: 26

Birds of the Trip: Southern Banded Snake Eagle, Blue Crane and Pink-throated Twinspot

Trip Breakdown

Day 1: Saturday 3rd March 2007 ~ JHB to Mkhuze Game Reserve

Route: Johannesburg to Mkhuze Game Reserve

Distance: 540 kilometres

Weather: Clear and warm

Temperature range: 16 – 34 degrees Celsius

Day 2: Sunday 4th March 2007 ~ Mkhuze Game Reserve

Route: game and birding drives within the reserve

Distance: 60 kilometres

Weather: Hot and humid

Temperature range: 18 – 26 degrees Celsius

Day 3: Monday 5th March 2007 ~ Mkhuze to Ndumo Game Reserve

Route: Mkuze town, north along the N2 to Jozini and on to Ndumo

Distance: 162 kilometres

Weather: partly cloudy and warm to hot

Temperature range: 18 – 35 degrees Celsius

Day 4: Tuesday 6th March 2007 ~ Ndumo Game Reserve

Route: game and birding drives within the reserve

Distance: 48 kilometres

Weather: Cool and overcast with slight drizzle

Temperature range: 15 – 24 degrees Celsius

Day 5: Wednesday 7th March 2007 ~ Ndumo to Wakkerstroom

Route: Ndumo Game Reserve to Wakkerstroom town, via Pongola and Piet Retief

Distance: 362 kilometres

Weather: clear, windy and warm to start, becoming cloudy and cool in the afternoon

Temperature range: 18 – 30 degrees Celsius

Day 6: Thursday 8th March 2007 ~ Wakkerstroom district

Route: Road-side birding in the Wakkerstroom district

Distance: 110 kilometres

Weather: cold with solid overcast, clearing partly in the late afternoon

Temperature range: 10 – 26 degrees Celsius

Day 7: Friday 9th March 2007 ~ Wakkerstroom district

Route: Road-side birding in the Wakkerstroom district

Distance: 85 kilometres

Weather: clear and cool

Temperature range: 9 – 19 degrees Celsius

Day 8: Saturday 10th March 2007 ~ Wakkerstroom to Johannesburg

Route: Wakkerstroom to Johannesburg, via Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve

Distance: 433 kilometres

Weather: clear and mild

Temperature range: 11 – 27 degrees Celsius

Trip Report

Day 1: Saturday 3rd March 2007 ~ JHB to Mkhuze Game Reserve

The trip began reasonably early with an initial meeting at the Birchwood Hotel in JHB, where we all got acquainted with each other and then set off for Mkuze Game Reserve, some seven hour’s drive away. Not much birding was done on the trip, though we did see some typical highveld species such as Amur Flacon, Speckled Pigeon, Hadeda Ibis and White Stork. We arrived at the reserve in the mid-afternoon and, after a break to unwind from the travels we embarked on a short afternoon excursion. We saw plenty of impala and Nyala, the dominant antelope in the reserve, and birds such as White-backed Vulture, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Yellow-breasted Apalis, White-crested Helmet-Shrike, Yellow-throated Petronia and Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, adding up to a total of 39 species for the day. In the evening we enjoyed a good South African braai of boerewors (traditional sausage), chicken kebabs and a fine white wine under a full moon before completing our lists and retiring in anticipation of the first full day out in the Mkhuze bush.

Birds of the Day: Long-tailed Paradise Whydah
Daily Total: 39
Trip Total: 39

Day 2: Sunday 4th March 2007 ~ Mkhuze Game Reserve

We rose early and left camp at around 5:30 AM, heading out into the Sandforest areas to look for some of the regional specials. Although the morning started off rather slowly (in terms of the birding) we began to have some luck and recorded European Hobby Falcon, Bateleur, African Green Pigeon, Purple-crested Turaco, Black-crowned Tchagra, Burchell’s Coucal, Speckled and Red-faced Mousebirds, Woodland and Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Common Scimitarbill, Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbills, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Rudd’s Apalis, Broad-billed Roller, Pale Flycatcher and Violet-backed Starling, among others. At the huge Nsumo Pan we recorded an African Crowned Eagle and a Tawny Eagle soaring high up above us, some water-associated species such as African Jacana, Black-winged Stilt, Blacksmith Lapwing and Common Greenshank and spent a good while observing the chaos of a huge Pink-backed Pelican, Yellow-billed Stork, Grey and Black-headed Heron, Great Egret and Reed Cormorant breeding colony in the Fever Trees along the edge of the pan. We then headed back to the Mantuma Tented Camp and had a light and healthy breakfast before succumbing to the rising heat. We opted for a few hours of siesta before meeting in the mid-afternoon to plan the rest of the day. We decided to head out to some of the hides to see if the heat and dryness would coax any birds and animals out of the bush. The water at the hide was rather stagnant however and animal activity was limited to a few Burchell’s Zebra, some Blue Wildebeest and a few Impala. Birds included Yellow-throated Petronia, Dusky Indigobird, Cape Glossy Starling, Red-eyed and Cape Turtle Doves and of course the ubiquitous Dark-capped Bulbul. We could hear the elusive Pink-throated Twinspots in the surrounding bush, but once again failed to locate them. After some time at the hide we drove around for an hour or two, recording Yellow-fronted Canary, Green-winged Pytilia, Blue Waxbill, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Grey Penduline Tit, Sombre Greenbul, Yellow-throated Longclaw and others before heading back to camp. We enjoyed another nice meal together, again under a beautiful full moon, with a Fiery-necked Nightjar calling from the deep of the bush, before completing our lists and saying our good nights.

Birds of the Day: Rudd’s Apalis
Daily Total: 81
New birds: 66
Trip Total: 105

Day 3: Monday 5th March 2007 ~ Mkhuze to Ndumo Game Reserve

We met early for a cup of coffee and some delicious rusks before heading out for a last morning drive in Mkhuze. We came across some fresh elephant dung, followed soon thereafter by the depositors – a small breeding herd of African Elephants. After observing them for a while we continued with the birding and recorded Lemon-breasted Canary, Golden-breasted Bunting, Brubru, Willow Warbler, Long-billed Crombec, the vociferous Rattling Cisticola, Chinspot Batis, African Paradise Flycatcher, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, White-throated Robin-Chat, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Green Wood-Hoopoe and others, as well as a small herd of Giraffe. We tracked a pack of Wild Dogs that appeared to have passed through during the night, but lost their tracks when they eventually left the road and headed off into the bush. We also came across fresh leopard and White rhino tracks, but that was as much as we saw of them. We headed back to camp with some satisfying birding under our belts for an early breakfast and departure, eventually leaving at around 10:00 AM. Our route for the day took us through the town of Mkuze, over the wall of the huge Pongolapoort / Josini Dam and into the flat lands beyond the Lebombo Mountains. We arrived at Ndumo Game Reserve in the mid-afternoon and checked in before taking a short break. We then headed down to some hides on Nyamithi Pan. The first was a long walk away and not too productive, though we did come across some large Nile crocodiles waiting for passing fish below a causeway over the river. They were not too perturbed by us and we managed to get some excellent views, without getting too close, of course! The second hide was more productive, and we recorded White-faced and Fulvous Ducks by the thousand, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Goliath Heron, Yellow-billed Stork, Great, Little and Yellow-billed Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Malachite Kingfisher and countless waders such as Ruff, Common Greenshank and Little Stint. With dusk approaching we headed back to camp in the vehicle, encountering two White rhino on the way. They headed off into the sunset to the west and inadvertently drew our attention to a large raptor sitting in a tree, which turned out to be a Palmnut Vulture – a fitting end to a great day. Back at camp we met in the evening for another braai, which was well complimented by a good bottle of South African Pinotage.

Birds of the Day: Palmnut Vulture
Daily Total: 85
New birds: 37
Trip Total: 142

Day 4: Tuesday 6th March 2007 ~ Ndumo Game Reserve

Day four promised a full day in the renowned Ndumo Game Reserve. It dawned cool and cloudy with the threat of imminent rain. We decided to head to the other side of the reserve, to visit the Dipini Hide, Shokwe Pan and Red Cliffs on the Usutu River that forms the border with Mozambique.

This route took up the entire morning and produced some good birding and mammal viewing, including Southern Banded Snake-Eagle (with snake), African Cuckoo Hawk, Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher, Pink-throated Twinspot (finally!), Saddle-billed Stork, Crested Francolin, Tambourine Dove, Wire-tailed Swallow, Eurasian Golden Oriole, European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, African Fish Eagle, White-eared Barbet, Square-tailed Drongo, Crested Guineafowl, Terrestrial Brownbul, African Pied Wagtail and others. Mammals included a large White rhino bull, nyala, warthogs, impala, giraffe, vervet monkey and red duiker. After a nice stop for coffee at Red Cliffs and with the morning drawing on we made our way back to camp for a late breakfast. A usual siesta was had in the afternoon and then we drove down to the first hide at Nyamithi Pan, where we spent the rest of the afternoon watching the waterside action. Although new species were not forthcoming the sheer scale, beauty and abundance kept us captivated for hours, watching the birds feeding; a crocodile catch a large tigerfish and the ensuing attack from the others intent on pirating his prize; herons, storks, pelicans and ibises coming and going in great flocks; avocets, stints, plovers and other waders marching through the shallows; hippo, warthogs, nyala and monkeys feeding on the banks…true, unrivalled African splendour. Back at camp we had the last of our self-made meals, completed lists and called it a day, and a good one at that!

Birds of the Day: Pink-throated Twinspot, Southern Banded Snake-Eagle
Daily Total: 84
New birds: 23
Trip Total: 165

Day 5: Wednesday 7th March 2007 ~ Ndumo to Wakkerstroom

We began day 5 with a walk along the Pongola River floodplain, accompanied by an armed guide from the Park’s Board. We set off with high hopes of finding a roosting Pel’s Fishing Owl, and, despite intense efforts and the perfect habitat, we did not manage to locate one. We did come across a huge female Nile crocodile on a nest in the sand, a water monitor resting up in a tree, and new birds in the form of Black Saw-wing, African Openbill, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Common House Martin and Yellow-bellied Greenbul. After a most enjoyable morning we arrived back at camp at 9:00 AM, after which we had breakfast, packed and got on the road to Wakkerstroom. The drive was rather uneventful and we arrived at our destination at around 15:00. The weather was decidedly cooler than when we started at Ndumo and provided a welcome change. For the afternoon we decided to embark on a short walk from the Inn down to the bridge over the wetland at the edge of town. This wetland area teems with birds and soon we were racking up new species by the dozen. These included Grey-crowned Crane (with young), Cape Shoveler, Hottentot Teal, South African Shelduck, Yellow-billed Duck, Common Moorhen, African Purple Swamphen, Hamerkop, White-rumped and Horus Swifts, White-throated, South African Cliff and Greater Striped Swallows, Banded Martin, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Common, Red-winged and Pied Starlings, Amethyst Sunbird, Cape and Southern Masked Weavers, among others. We then headed back to the Inn, with a cool evening settling around us. We met at 19:30 for dinner in the restaurant, which included a pleasant choice of dishes (most of us opted for the prawns). After the meal we completed our lists and headed off to bed.

Birds of the Day: Grey-crowned Crane
Daily Total: 99
New birds: 35
Trip Total: 200

Day 6: Thursday 8th March 2007 ~ Wakkerstroom district

We began at the usual time of 05:30, but were forced to sit in the gloom for a while for it was still very dark at that time, due to the overcast and the fact that Wakkerstroom is much further west than Ndumo and Mkhuze. As it began to get light enough to see we headed out of town on the Amersfoort Road to some of the better birding spots in the district. Birds for the morning included hundreds of Amur Falcons, Blue Korhaan, Spike-heeled and Red-capped Larks, Blue and Grey-crowned Cranes, Fan-tailed and Long-tailed Widowbirds, African Pipit, Southern Bald Ibis, Montagu’s Harrier, Red-winged Francolin, Buff-streaked Chat, Southern Ant-eating Chat, African Stonechat, Black-winged Lapwing, Diederick Cuckoo, Pied Kingfisher, Cape Crow, Bokmakierie, Cape Sparrow and Orange-breasted Waxbill, among others. After some really productive birding we made our way back to the Wakkerstroom Country Inn for a hearty breakfast (which was so big as to be un-finishable!).

We then took a rest, and in the afternoon Eva and I went out into the district again while, Larry and Nicky had a look around town and did some garden birding. For the afternoon we recorded a single Red-footed Falcon in among all the Amur Falcons, Mountain Wheatear, Drakensberg Prinia, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, African Harrier Hawk, Cape Bunting, Wing-snapping and Zitting Cisticola, African Wattled Lapwing, Africa Quail Finch and Spotted Thick-Knee, among others. We arrived back at the Inn at dusk, and then met up for another lovely dinner. As usual we did our homework before retiring for the night, with full stomachs and tired limbs.

Birds of the Day: Blue Korhaan, Orange-breasted Waxbill
Daily Total: 97
New birds: 36
Trip Total: 236

Day 7: Friday 9th March 2007 ~ Wakkerstroom district

The seventh day was our last full day of the tour. We decided to try the Flufftail Hide on the far side of the wetland reserve, which unfortunately proved to be rather unproductive, as there was no water in the vicinity. We then headed out on the Paulpietersburg Road to see if we could locate the Yellow-breasted Pipit. We found a good area on top of the mountain, where permission is not required to walk around beyond the fences. We flushed many African Pipits and Cape Longclaws, and two Yellow-breasted Pipits, which unfortunately flew off and we were not able to get any descent views. Nevertheless the scenery was spectacular, with the town bathed in full morning sunlight in the valley far below. We investigated an old rock quarry, and saw Ground Woodpecker, Lazy Cisticola, Buff-streaked Chats, Horus Swifts and Pied Starlings. We then made our way slowly back down to town for breakfast. After the meal we had a few hours of relaxation and personal time before heading out on a final afternoon drive. Just before leaving we drove over to the local Catholic Church, where Eva had discovered two roosting Spotted Eagle Owls. We observed one for a while and then continued with the drive out to the Zaaihoek Dam. Although we were experiencing decreasing marginal returns as far as new birds went (which included only Rock Kestrel, Rock Martin and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting), we had a lovely afternoon out in the country. After arriving back at the Inn we had time to relax, and some drove down to the Mucky Duck, which has the distinction of being the oldest pub in the town (and one of the smallest in the country!). We then met up for a final dinner, before list-duties and heading to bed.

Birds of the Day: Ground Woodpecker, Southern Bald Ibis
Daily Total: 77
New birds: 10
Trip Total: 246

Day 8: Saturday 10th March 2007 ~ Wakkerstroom to Johannesburg

For the final morning Eva and I went out on a drive while Larry and Nicky decided to have a sleep in. Eva and I had some good birding on a beautiful sunny morning, recording Marsh Owl, Jackal Buzzard, Steppe Buzzard, African Quail Finch (our first views of them on the ground), Blue Crane, Denham’s Bustard and the usual plethora of widowbirds, whydahs and longclaws. Back at the lodge we had a last breakfast before heading on to Johannesburg and the end of the trip. We did have a few hours left over for the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve not far from Johannesburg. The more arid grasslands and thornveld produced a few new species, despite the heat of the day. These included Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Familiar Chat, Red-billed Firefinch, Fiscal Flycatcher, Black-chested Prinia, Rufous-naped Lark, Black-throated Canary, Red-collared Widowbird, Streaky-headed Seed-Eater, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver and Cape Grassbird, and new mammals such as Eland, Springbuck and Black Wildebeest. These were the final birds and animals for the trip and an hour and a half later we had said our goodbye’s at the official ending of the tour.

Birds of the Day: Marsh Owl.
Daily Total: 90
New birds: 14
Trip Total: 260

Species Lists

For a check-list of species see: Lawson's Birding and Wildlife Tours, Trip Reports.