South Africa, Naturetrek Bargain Birds, March 2009.

Published by Lawson's Birding (leon AT

Participants: Leon Marais and six participants from the UK.


Tour Leader: Leon Marais
Total Distance Travelled: 1700 km
Temperature Range: 13 – 31 Celsius
Altitude Variation: 260 – 2100 meters above sea level
Total Number of Birds Seen: 305
Total Number of Mammals Seen: 34
Trip Report Compiled By: Leon Marais


The species mentioned in the report are only some of the species seen at each locality. Please refer to detailed checklists at end of report as to all species seen on this specific tour.

Trip Breakdown

Day 1: Tuesday 17th March 2009 ~ Dullstroom.

Route: Johannesburg International Airport to Dullstroom.
Distance: 290 km.
Weather: Partly cloudy and Mild, some rain PM.

Day 2: Wednesday 18th March 2009 ~ Dullstroom

Route: Dullstroom area.
Distance: 100 km.
Weather: Overcast, mist and light rain.

Day 3: Thursday 19th March 2009 ~ Blyde

Route: Dullstroom, Lydenburg, Mount Sheba, Pilgrim’s Rest, Vaalhoek Road to Blyde Aventura.
Distance: 200 km.
Weather: Partly cloudy and mild.

Day 4: Friday 20th March 2009 ~ Satara, Kruger National Park

Route: Blyde Canyon, Abel Erasmus Pass, Stryjdom Tunnel, Orpen Gate to Satara Rest Camp.
Distance: 205 km.
Weather: Overcast and warm.

Day 5: Saturday 21st March 2009 ~ Satara, Kruger National Park

Route: Satara region.
Distance: 105 km.
Weather: Partly cloudy and mild.

Day 6: Sunday 22nd March 2009 ~ Skukuza, Kruger National Park

Route: Satara to Skukuza via Tshokwane Picnic Site.
Distance: 170 km.
Weather: Clear and hot.

Day 7: Monday 23rd March 2009 ~ Pretoriuskop, Kruger National Park

Route: Skukuza to Pretoriuskop.
Distance: 128 km.
Weather: Clear and hot.

Day 8: Tuesday 24th March 2009 ~ Departure

Route: Pretoriuskop to Johannesburg
Distance: 502 km.
Weather: Clear and hot.

Trip Report

Day 1; 17th March 2009: Dullstroom.

We began the trip with a reasonably early departure from the airport, with a first stop at a small dam alongside the main highway, which produced some nice water birds, and ducks most notably, that we wouldn’t see again on the rest of the tour. These included Cape, Hottentot and Red-billed Teals, Fulvous Duck, Cape Shoveler, Maccoa Duck, Southern Pochard, Glossy Ibis, Marsh Sandpiper and Ruff. Not a bad start, I thought, and it boded well for a highly successful tour. Moving on we stopped for a light lunch near Belfast before continuing on to Dullstroom. After checking in we headed out on an excursion into the surrounding countryside, this time pioneering a new route along the Uitvlugt Road. Birding in and around Dullstroom, as with much of South Africa, entails driving slowly and stopping as soon as a bird is spotted and, in the case of a worthwhile sighing or species, disembarking to set up the scopes and get better views. Our first bird was a Banded Martin, followed closely by several Southern Bald Ibis (one of the top birds for the area) in a field, and then the surprise sighting of a group of Blue Cranes, first in flight and then walking through an open field, and only the second time that I have recorded this species on a Bargain Birds tour. The group of Cape Vultures in flight overhead that we spotted while getting ready to embark on the afternoon excursion further added to the exciting start to the tour, and other species recorded included African Fish Eagle, Jackal Buzzard, Amur Falcon, African Olive Pigeon, Greater Striped Swallow, Black-headed Oriole, Ant-eating Chat, Cape Grassbird, Cape Longclaw, Pied Starling, Malachite Sunbird, Southern Red Bishop, Pin-tailed Whydah and Cape Canary, among others. In the late afternoon we stopped at the Cape Eagle Owl stake-out site near the municipal dams and tried to locate the elusive bird, but without success, and then headed back to town to freshen up (or continue birding) before dinner.

Daily Total: 63
Trip Total: 63
Mammal total for the day: 0
Bird of the day: Blue Crane

Day 2; 18th March 2009: Dullstroom.

We awoke to heavy mist and poor visibility, but nevertheless set off as planned at six o’clock for the Veloren Valei Nature Reserve. Birding was difficult to start, as we could only see fifty meters or so in any direction, but we managed to locate the odd bird such as Ground-scraper Thrush, Black-headed Heron, White Stork, Drakensberg Prinia, Amethyst Sunbird, Natal Francolin and a pair of Blue Cranes (left) on the way up. Also seen on the way up was a pair of Red Rock Rabbits (Smith’s Red Rock Rabbit, according to distribution maps in Mammals of the Southern African Sub-region, by Skinner and Smithers), an animal not often seen, let alone in plain sight only meters away from the vehicle. On the very high ground the visibility wasn’t any better, but we stopped for coffee on the upper plateau anyway. As I got out of the car a Denham’s Bustard, initially unseen in the mist among some rocks, took flight and gave those that got a chance to get on to it the only Denham’s Bustard sighting for the trip. Not much else was seen during the break, besides the usual small herds of endemic Blesbok, and on the way down the mist had lifted somewhat and we were able to record a few more birds such as Mountain Wheatear, Buff-streaked Chat, Cape Robin-Chat, Zitting, Wailing and Levaillant’s Cisticolas, African and Buffy Pipits, Bokmakierie, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Cape White-eye, Yellow Bishop and others. With some sun shining through we arrived in town for breakfast and then had a little time to get ready for an extended afternoon session. Once again Cape Vultures were circling quite low over the town, joined for a while by a flight of Southern Bald Ibis, and after viewing them we set off on the Tonteldoos Loop, first taking the same route followed in the morning but continuing to the tar road and circling back via Tonteldoos. Notable species seen included Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk, Greater Kestrel, Grey-winged Francolin, Grey Crowned Crane, Brown-backed Honeybird, Black Saw-wing and Red-collared Widowbird. Near the end of the loop we stopped an disembarked at a spot overlooking a stream, and had 45 minutes of superb birding, with birds such as Cape and Village Weaver, Malachite and Amethyst Sunbirds, Long-tailed Widowbird, Barn, Greater-striped and Lesser-striped Swallows, Cape Canary and Cape Robin-Chat seen, and at one point a termite emergence brought a swirling flock of Amur Falcons close in. We had good views of them hawking the insects in flight, and a single Lesser Kestrel was spotted in among them. With the sun light becoming horizontal it was time to head over to the Cape Eagle Owl roost for a final effort. As soon as we got out at the site we could hear one calling from somewhere on the rock face and it was soon found by John, calling from the entrance to a small cave in the rocks. We had great scope-views of this very special species before heading back to town for the evening and a wonderful dinner at Fib’s Restaurant.

Daily Total: 81
New Birds: 43
Trip Total: 106
Mammal total for the day: 4
Bird of the day: Cape Eagle-Owl

Day 3; 19th March 2009: The Blyde River Canyon.

We left Dullstroom at six o’clock, headed for Mount Sheba on the edge of the escarpment. We arrived an hour and half later after a wonderful scenic drive, and after recording Red-necked Spurfowl on the entrance road got ready to head into the forest for some pre-breakfast birding. The forest seemed rather quiet to start with, which is not unusual, and it took some hard work to rack up the five forest species we had set as our goal. These included Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Cape Batis, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Olive Woodpecker and Olive Bush-shrike. The reason for setting the five species as a goal is to keep expectations realistic, as these temperate forests don’t hold as many species as more tropical forests, but have the same difficulties in terms of poor visibility and difficulty of actually locating birds. After breakfast we had a another go in the forest and a walk in the hotel grounds, racking up other species such as Mountain Wagtail, Dusky Flycatcher, Red-winged Starling, Bar-throated Apalis, Rock Martin, Familiar Chat and African Goshawk as new birds for the list. Samango Monkey, a species restricted to our eastern forests, was also seen here. We then pushed on to the Blyde River Canyon via the historical mining town of Pilgrim’s Rest. At the canyon we stopped at the Three Rondavels View Site, where we saw Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Lazy Cisticola and Peregrine Flacon, and enjoyed the awe-inspiring views of the canyon and hazy savannah in the distance beyond. After checking in to the resort we had a short break and then met for a cup of tea before a birding walk. With a big thunderstorm rolling in from the east we headed towards the lower view-point, but virtually the only bird seen was Greater Double-collared Sunbird, so quiet was the afternoon. I was sure it would be better in the morning, which was in fact the case, and with the sun setting we ended up back at our chalets for some time to freshen up before dinner.

Daily Total: 56
New Birds: 24
Trip Total: 130
Mammal total for the day: 4
Bird of the day: Red-necked Spurfowl

Day 4; 20th March 2009: Kruger National Park, Satara.

We met up at quarter to six, slowly getting up earlier and earlier in preparation for the Kruger. A White-throated Robin-Chat showed up as everyone arrived, making for the first new bird for the day, with many more to come. After coffee we had a rather productive walk (pictured right) down to the lower view point, recording species such as Booted Eagle, Black-collared Barbet, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, Mocking Cliff-Chat, White-browed Scrub-Robin, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green-backed Cameroptera, Chinspot and Cape Batis, Southern Boubou, Black-backed Puffback, Collared Sunbird and African Firefinch. All in all a superb morning and after breakfast we made ready to depart, with a next stop on the Abel Erasmus Pass to view the resident Taita Falcons. On the way however we had a trio of awesome White-necked Ravens (below left) next to the road, and then had a quarter of an hour viewing the falcons, both of which were resting high up on the cliffs. We then pushed on to the Kruger Park, and had a virtual smorgasbord of new species to contend with. These included White-headed Vulture, Martial, Tawny and Wahlberg’s Eagles, Bateleur, Woolly-necked and Marabou Storks, Crested Francolin, Senegal Lapwing, Water Thick-Knee, Brown-headed Parrot, African Green Pigeon, Levaillant’s and Jacobin Cuckoos, Burchell’s Coucal, Woodland Kingfisher, Southern Carmine Bee-eater, European and Lilac-breasted Rollers, Green Wood-Hoopoe, Southern Ground Hornbill, Mosque Swallow, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Red-backed Shrike, Burchell’s Starling, Marico Sunbird and Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, among many others. Whew! A long and tiring day admittedly, but well worth it. We arrived in camp not long before the gates closed and had a little time to freshen up before dinner in the camp’s restaurant.

Daily Total: 113
New Birds: 71
Trip Total: 201
Mammal total for the day: 15
Bird of the day: Taita Falcon

Day 5; 21st March 2009: Kruger Park, Satara.

March is a wonderful time to be in the Kruger, as the gates open at 5: 30 AM but the sun only rises about fifteen to twenty minutes later, giving the opportunity to be out of camp while it is still quite dark. Thus we met for coffee at a quarter past five, and then headed out as the gates opened, driving north to the arid Mavumbye Plains area. As we left camp we spotted an African Scops Owl (left) that had just returned to its day-time roosting spot outside my room, and we piled out of the van for a quick look before continuing. The birding was good and we recorded species such as Common Ostrich, Green-backed Heron, Hamerkop, Lanner Falcon (superb views of four birds perching and flying low and fast when on the hunt), Namaqua Dove, Purple Roller, Rufous-naped, Flappet and Sabota Larks, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark, Desert Cisticola, Black-crowned and Brown-crowned Tchagras, among others. We also encountered four individual White Rhino as well as a large bull Elephant who was in his musth cycle (the males’ breeding phase) and was clearly in a funny mood. Luckily he decided not to come over to inspect us and after ten minutes of blocking the road sauntered off into the bush to take his frustrations out on some other poor creature. The way back to camp was remembered by large herds of Burchell’s Zebra with dozens of Marabou Storks in between, hunting grasshoppers, and a pair of Secretarybirds with Southern Carmine Bee-eaters following closely behind, picking off insects disturbed by the hunting birds. All in all a wonderful morning and after breakfast we had a walk around the camp, with good views of species such as the African Scops Owl outside my room, Crested Barbet, African Hoopoe, Bearded Woodpecker, Greater Blue-eared Starling, African Mourning Dove, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Village Indigobird, Cut-throat and Red-headed Finches (Red-headed Finch is in fact a species not usual for the Kruger National Park), among others. After stocking up on water we headed out on a long afternoon drive, which was followed closely by a sunset drive with a Park ranger. This drive produced three cat species – Lion, Leopard and African Wild Cat – as well as six Kori Bustards and Square-tailed Nightjar. The group returned to camp for dinner, tired but elated with a fantastic day of birding behind and several more still to come.

Daily Total: 106
New Birds: 45
Trip Total: 246
Mammal total for the day: 21
Bird of the day: Kori Bustard

Day 6; 22nd March 2009: Kruger Park, Skukuza.

With our bags packed, and after a cup of coffee of course, we left Satara and headed out towards Gudanzi Dam on the Orpen Gate Road. Birding-wise, the morning was dominated by huge flocks of Red-billed Queleas swarming all over the place (left), often landing in the road ahead of us like locust plagues and then taking off again, almost as if each flock were a single creature. Other species for the morning included Golden-breasted Bunting, Wattled Starling, Red-billed Oxpecker, Arrow-marked Babbler, Red-faced Mousebird, African Grey, Red-billed and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Swainson’s Spurfowl, Lappet-faced Vulture and African Harrier-Hawk, among others. At Satara we had breakfast, with Lesser-masked Weavers and African Mourning Doves in close attendance, and then headed south on the 92 kilometre drive to Skukuza. Notable species seen en-route included good views of White-backed, Lappet-faced and White-headed Vultures gathering at a carcass hidden in the grass, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, and four top birds at Leeupan, namely Pygmy Goose, Allen’s Gallinule, Lesser Moorhen and Yellow-crowned Bishop. We arrived at the Sabie River in the mid-afternoon and chose to have a break at the Nkuhlu Picnic Site before birding our way to camp. New birds recorded for the afternoon included African Jacana, Purple-crested Turaco, Alpine Swift, Common House Martin, White-fronted Bee-eater, Red-faced Cisticola, Tawny-flanked Prinia, African Pied Wagtail, White-bellied Sunbird and Spectacled Weaver. At camp we had an hour to unwind before heading over to the Selati Restaurant, housed in the old train station, for dinner and a well-deserved drink after a long, hot but wonderful day.

Daily Total: 109
New Birds: 20
Trip Total: 266
Mammal total for the day: 22
Bird of the day: Allen’s Gallinule

Day 7; 23rd March 2009: Kruger Park, Pretoriuskop.

The morning routine was the same, i.e.: leaving camp with our luggage so as to maximise the time available for birding. We took a drive down to the High Water Bridge over the Sabie River, with the morning starting out wonderfully cool with mist hanging in the valleys, as is typical for the autumn and winter. The drive produced Black Stork, Hooded Vulture, Gabar and African Goshawks, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Giant Kingfisher, Wire-tailed Swallow, Sombre Greenbul, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Thick-billed Weaver, Jameson’s Firefinch and African Finfoot as new and notables for the morning. Back at camp we had breakfast and then embarked on a walk about camp, which produced the target birds such as White-browed Robin-Chat, Bearded Scrub-Robin and Collared Sunbird (a pair of which were seen feeding a baby Klaas’s Cuckoo). After the walk we headed on to the Lake Panic Bird Hide, but found it to be fully occupied, so we headed over to the golf course to see what we could find there. No new birds were seen, though we did find a pair of roosting Mauritian Tomb Bats, and then headed back to the hide, which had thankfully emptied out somewhat, and there found the three birds we were looking for – Goliath Heron, African Darter and Black Crake. We then pushed on to Pretoriuskop, our last camp for the tour. After checking in we had a short break and then headed out to Shabeni, a large granite dome that dominates the area. A pair of Klipspringer were spotted high up on the rocks, and new / notable birds for the afternoon included Striped Pipit, White-breasted Cormorant, Croaking Cisticola, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Grey-headed Bush-Shrike and Yellow-throated Petronia. While we were viewing the Striped Pipit we heard the alarm call of a posse of Banded Mongooses off in the grass to our right, and, wondering what they were alarmed about, I decided to drive down a small track leading off to the right. As we came around a bend we found a Lioness resting in the shade on some rocks (left), and had superb close-up views. A second Lioness suddenly appeared, just to make it even better and as good a sighting as one could wish for. So, with a full bird list for the day and elation at the close-up Lion encounter, we headed back to camp for a final dinner, though there would still be ample time for a last few new species the following morning.

Daily Total: 120
New Birds: 25
Trip Total: 291
Mammal total for the day: 20
Bird of the day: African Finfoot.

Day 8; 24th March 2009: Kruger Park, Departure.

Our final morning began as usual, this time however with the goal of seeing at least ten new species to give the total list a final boost. We set out in semi-darkness on the Fayi Loop road, and soon began recording new species. This is the beauty of moving to several different camps within the Kruger, as with the associated habitat change new species begin to turn up. On this morning they included Lizard Buzzard, Dark Canting Goshawk, Striped Kingfisher, Kurrichane Thrush, Green-capped Eremomela, Pale Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Violet-backed Starling and Fan-tailed Widowbird. That made for nine new species, and with the morning drawing on we headed back to camp for breakfast. Afterwards we had an hour-long walk around camp, and at ‘Bennett’s Bend’ – a spot where three of the participants had seen a Bennett’s Woodpecker the day before – we stopped to look for the elusive woodpecker for the benefit of those who hadn’t yet seen it (Bennett’s is the least common of the four woodpecker species in the park). While searching and viewing other birds, a knocking sound caught our attention, and there on top of a caravan was a female Bennett’s Woodpecker. We were not sure why it would be tapping against the roof of a caravan, but it was a great sighting anyway. Soon it was time to leave the park, and on the way out we recorded two new species – Retz’s Helmet-Shrike and Bushveld Pipit – and had a great close-up sighting of four Hamerkops at a stream crossing. Once out of the park the birding didn’t come to a halt, and bird number 304 was a Long-crested Eagle seen in the town of White River (and four more individuals seen on the journey), and bird number 305 came right at the last possible moment as we were dropping off a participant at a hotel near the airport when we spotted several groups of Cape Sparrows feeing beside the road.

Daily Total: 81.
New Birds: 14
Trip Total: 305
Mammal total for the day: 11
Bird of the day: Bushveld Pipit


Total Bird Species: 305; Total endemics / near endemic birds: 31; Total Mammal species: 34

Wow, what a trip. With 305 bird species on the list a new personal record was set for this tour, with the all-time highest total (for the trips I’ve been involved with since September 2005) of 314 birds on a two-vehicle tour not far out ahead. There were 96 recorded mammal sightings and 729 recorded bird sightings for the tour, which gives you some idea of the numbers of birds and animals seen on a daily basis. Indeed, this was an incredible total, thanks to a lot of hard work put in by all, and it included some terrific and memorable moments and species. Of course it’s impossible to see everything in a mere eight days, and although we missed some species that we should have seen, the unusual birds more than made up for this. So thanks to all participants for joining us on this wonderful tour, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Top ten birds for the tour: Blue Crane; Cape Eagle-Owl; Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl; Red-necked Spurfowl; Taita Falcon; Allen’s Gallinule; Lesser Moorhen; Pygmy Goose; African Finfoot; Lappet-faced Vulture.

Species Lists

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