Trip Report: Eastern South Africa Birding
Guide: Nick Buys
This Eastern South Africa birding trip was a private departure with one of our repeat clients. Our aim was to see as many of the Eastern South Africa endemics. Although the route would give us the opportunity to see all of them; the request was that we focus on photographic opportunities and to enjoy a sighting and not rush to see as many as we can.
With that said, we still ended up with an incredible list, seeing pretty much all the targets. To top it all off we had incredible mammal sightings with the spoil of seeing Cheetah twice. Below is a brief summary of our birding tour.
Day 1: Johannesburg to Magoebaskloof
The flight from Dubai only arrived by late morning and we managed to get away from the airport around lunchtime so today was pretty much a driving day. With little time for proper roadside birding we just picked up a few general species that included Black-headed Heron, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Southern Red Bishop, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Black-winged Kite, Common Buzzard and Common Fiscal. We arrived at our guesthouse situated next to the Woodbush Forest with spectacular views towards Tzaneen with just over 45 minutes of daylight left. We did a quick walk around the gardens and still managed to see Knysna Turaco, Chorister Robin-chat, Forest and Yellow-fronted Canary, Red-backed Mannikin, Olive Thrush, African Dusky Flycatcher, Dark-capped Bulbul, Hadeda Ibis, Cape White-eye and Southern Double-collared Sunbird. The day ended with 6 Cape Parrots and a Forest Buzzard flying over. We had a nice dinner at a nearby hotel and it was time to get a good night’s rest with a full day of exploring Magoebaskloof waiting for us tomorrow.
Day 2: Magoebaskloof and Tzaneen
Since the forest is normally covered by thick mist early mornings at this time of the year, we decided to start our day a bit lower down around the town of Tzaneen. We started with our Bat Hawk stakeout spot and found a bird flying around which was a bit of a surprise as they are normally crepuscular. It must have been disturbed by something. From there we stopped at a roadside spot with great Acacia thickets and had a productive 45 minutes with Purple-crested Turaco, Holub’s Golden Weaver, White-winged Widowbird, Red-collared Widowbird, Dusky Indigobird, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Violet-backed Starling, Bronze and Magpie Mannikin, African Firefinch, Blue Waxbill, Speckled Mousebird, Kurrichane Thrush, Ashy Flycatcher, Collared, White-bellied and Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Spectacled Weaver and Black-collared Barbet.
A quick stop near the rubbish dump produced Marabou Stork and Abdim’s Stork before we tried for African Yellow Warbler which we found pretty quickly. Other interesting species here include Lizard Buzzard, White-rumped Swift, Pin-tailed Whydah, Spotted Flycatcher, Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Alpine and African Palm Swift, Laughing Dove, Lesser Striped Swallow and African Olive Pigeon.
After a quick and well deserved coffee break we made our way up the mountain to try and see as many of the forest species as we can find. As we entered the forest we found a Bar-throated Apalis Forest Canary and Knysna Turaco. Our first mixed flock produced excellent species including Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Brown Scrub Robin, Olive Woodpecker, Grey Cuckooshrike, Common Square-tailed Drongo, Orange Ground Thrush, Green-backed Camaroptera, Barrat’s Warbler and a Long-crested Eagle kept them all moving around. A second mixed flock had equally good results with a few of the same species as well as Cape Batis, Black-fronted and Olive Bush Shrike, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Sombre Greenbul and Chorister Robin Chat. On our way out we found a beautiful Eurasian Hobby and Common Waxbill.
We had a lovely lunch at a local craft brewery before making our way to a patch of grassland with scattered Acacia bushes. Here our main target was Short-clawed Lark with a very limited distribution and after a bit of searching we had incredible views including a bird displaying. A short walk in the same area produced Diederik and Great Spotted Cuckoo, Southern Masked Weaver, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Sabota Lark, Black-chested Prinia, Great Sparrow, Southern Fiscal, Fiscal Flycatcher, Green-winged Pytilia, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Yellow and Black-throated Canary and a Verreaux’s Eagle. A small dam on the way back had African Black Duck, Yellow-billed Duck and Egyptian Goose. We ended a great day with a very nice pizza dinner and great evening listening to the sounds of the forest. Tomorrow we are off to Kruger Park!!
Day 3 & 4: Northern Kruger Park
After waking up to a wet and misty Magoebaskloof, we made our way east to Kruger Park’s Phalaborwa gate where had 5 days to explore one of Africa’s top game reserves. Our first two nights were in the northern part of the park which is dominated by Mopane Woodland with beautiful riverine woodland around the multiple rivers including the main Shingwedzi River. As we entered the park and made our way north we started adding a few bushveld species including Rufous-naped Lark, European Roller, Golden-breasted Bunting, Brown and Black-crowned Tchagra, Blue Waxbill, Sabota Lark, Southern Yellow and Red-billed Hornbill, Magpie and Red-backed Shrike, Yellow-billed Kite, Southern Black Tit, Fork-tailed Drongo, Arrow-marked Babbler, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver and Wire-tailed Swallow.
As we approached Mopanie Camp for lunch we added Yellow and Red-billed Oxpecker, Swainson’s and Natal Spurfowl, Crested Francolin, Grey Go-away-bird, African Grey Hornbill, Red-breasted Swallow and Brown-hooded Kingfisher. Around the water we found African Jacana, Marabou and Yellow-billed Stork, Glossy Ibis, White-winged Tern, African Fish Eagle, Lesser Striped Swallow, Pid Kingfisher, White-faced Whistling Duck and the beautiful Saddle-billed Stork.
With Kruger being famous as a top wildlife viewing destination it did not disappoint with plenty of Elephant, Giraffe, Waterbuck, Common Impala, Burchell’s Zebra, Vervet, Warthog and the highlight a pride of six Lions.
We had a good day for raptors with White-headed and White-backed Vulture, Martial, Wahlberg’s, Tawny and Booted Eagle, Brown and Black-chested Snake Eagle, Bateleur and Common Buzzard. A very quick drive around Shingwedzi produced Woodland Kingfisher, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Water Thick-knee, Natal Spurfowl, Grey Heron, Purple Roller, Rattling Cisticola, Red-faced Mousebird, Little Sparrowhawk and Kurrichane Thrush. Nyala and Blue Wildebeest were the only new mammals. Barn Owl and African Stops Owl were seen in camp that evening.
The following morning started with a bang and as the gates open before first light this time of the year we made it count with Rufous-cheeked and Square-tailed Nightjars on the road. With the very first light had a stunning male Lion right next to the vehicle and after enjoying a roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and Cape Porcupine, we saw four male Cheetah cross the road in front of us. Buffalo and Elephant around in good numbers as you would expect for this section of the park.
The rest of the day were spent driving the various small riverine loops and new birds found include Dusky Lark, Helmeted Guineafowl, African Green Pigeon, Mosque Swallow, Spotted Flycatcher, Amur Falcon, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Black-backed Puffback, Little, Southern Carmine, European and White-fronted Bee-eater, Brown-headed Parrot, Common Scimitarbill, Green Woodhoopoe, Burchell’s Coucal, Southern Boubou, Striated Heron, Levailant’s, Diederick and Klaas’s Cuckoo, Wattled Starling, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Wooly-necked Stork, Three-banded Plover, Village indigobird, Long-billed Crombec, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Golden-tailed and Bennet’s Woodpecker, Southern Black Flycatcher, Red-faced Cisticola and Southern Ground Hornbill. We finished off the day with two male Lion, Elephant and Cape buffalo all within one view in the Shingwedzi Riverbed.
A night drive produced Barn and African Stops Owl, Bronze-winged Courser, Fiery-necked and Rufous-cheeks Nightjar, Springhare,
Day 5 – 7: Central and Southern Kruger
For the next three days we were in Letaba, Skukuza and Berg and Dal areas of Kruger with the main focus on finding good photographic spots and staying in that area to see what would show up instead of chasing after individual species. Even with this game plan and spending a lot of time exploring the camps on foot, we still saw an incredible amount of species. On our drive south from Shingwedzi we did a detour to an area of short grassland where we saw Dusky Lark, Plain-backed Pipit, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark, Kittlitz’s Plover, Temminck’s Courser, Cape Sparrow, Red-capped Lark, Lesser Grey Shrike, White Stork, Common Ostrich and a the birding highlight a displaying Black-bellied Bustard. From a mammal point of view Common Dwarf Mongoose and Black-backed Jackal were new mammals and we we very lucky and found two Cheetah casually walking down the road just in front of our car for about 30 minutes. A few other birds seen on the way down and around Mopanie camp include African, Jacobin and Diederick Cuckoo, White-rumped Swift, Woodland Kingfisher, Southern Red Bishop, Southern Ground Hornbill, Green-winged Pytilia, African Paradise Flycatcher, White-winged Widowbird and African Hoopoe. A family of Spotted Hyaena laying outside their den offered great photographic opportunities.
For the rest of the day we wondered around camp where we found African Barred Owlet, Black-headed Oriole, African Pied Wagtail, Goliath Heron, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Collared Sunbird, Grey-headed Bushshrike, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Levailant’s and Great Spotted Cuckoo, Mourning collared Dove, Black-backed Puffback, African Openbill, White-crested Helmetshrike and Red-winged Starling. Our drive down to Skukuza via Satara produced Dwarf Bittern, Yellow-throated BushSparrow, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Kori Bustard, Red-crested Korhaan, Lesser Kestrel, Burchell’s Starling, Martial Eagle, Knob-billed Duck, Squacco Heron, Klaas’s Cuckoo, African Scops Owl at its daytime roost and a brilliant view of a male Harlequin Quail. As is often the case in the open savannah of central Kruger, we had a great game viewing with big herds of Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Elephant, Giraffe, Impala, Warthog, Slender Mongoose, Smith’s Bush Squirrel and another Spotted Hyaena.
The more dense woodland riverine thickest around the Sabie River gave us the chance to see a few different species and we had great views of Purple-crested Turaco, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, White-browed Robin-Chat, Chinspot Batis, Common Buttonquail, Red-billed Firefinch, Black-collared Barbet, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Red-faced Cisticola, African Spoonbill, Greater Striped Swallow, Speckled and Red-faced Mousebird, Ashy Flycatcher, Common Scimitarbill, Dusky and Village Indigobird. Klipspringer and Southern White Rhino were two new mammals for the trip and Greater Galago were calling camp throughout the night. We also got to watch a newborn Cape buffalo give its first steps with the very protective mother not allowing anyone to come close.
Day 8 & 9: Wakkerstroom
We started our day with a walk around Berg and Dal rest camp and we had a very productive hour with Shikra, Brown-headed Parrot, Retz’s Helmetshrike, Green Woodhoopoe, Giant Kingfisher, Southern Boubou, African Barred Owlet, Striped Kingfisher, Trumpeter, Southern Yellow-billed, Southern Red-billed and African Grey Hornbill, Kurrichane Thrush, Ashy Flycatcher and European Bee-eaters. Our 10km drive from camp to the park gate was non stop action in terms of mammals with a Leopard, two Lion, White Rhino and Elephant which brought the end to a wonderful few days in one of Africa’s great game parks.
Our drive south produced Speckled Pigeon, African Sacred Ibis, Southern Fiscal, Brown Snake Eagle, Black-winged Kite, White-winged and Long-tailed Widowbird, Pin-tailed Whydah, Cape Sparrow, Spur-winged Goose, Red-knobbed Coot and African Stonechat. Wakkerstroom is a small town on the edge of an important wetland and surrounded by beautiful rolling grassy fields, offering some of the best grassland birding in South Africa. A quick visit to the wetland that afternoon produced South African Shelduck, Purple Heron, Grey-crowned Crane, Little Rush Warbler, Levailant’s Cisticola, Black-crowned Night-heron, Common Moorhen, Reed Cormorant, Great Egret, Yellow-billed Duck, Southern Pochard, Red-billed Teal and Glossy Ibis while Malachite Sunbird were seen feeding nearby.
The next day was all about the grassland endemics and our day were off to a brilliant start when we flushed a family of Red-winged Francolin. Other endemics and grassland specials we saw include the endangered Rudd’s Lark, Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, White-bellied Bustard, Ground Woodpecker, Pink-billed Lark, Cloud, Lazy, Pale-crowned, Wailing and Wing-snapping Cisticola, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Yellow-breasted Pipit and Cuckoo-finch. In the small pockets of montane forest we found our two targets, Bush Blackcap and Drakensberg Prinia.
Other good birds we saw today include Cape Longclaw, Dusky Indigobird, Red-collared and Fan-tailed Widowbird, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Long-tailed Widowbird, Mountain Wheatear, Bokmakierie, South African Cliff Swallow, African Black Swift, Banded and Brown-throated Martin, African Snipe, Denham’s and Black-bellied Bustard, African Marsh Harrier, African Harrier-Hawk, Jackal Buzzard, Secretarybird, Amur and Red-footed Falcon, White-backed Duck, Cape Shoveler, Common Quail and Cape Crow.
From a mammal point of view we enjoyed sightings of Blesbok, Yellow Mongoose, Rock Hyrax but the highlight was definitely two groups of Meerkat. With so many of the endemics seen on one day we enjoyed dinner at one of the local restaurants in town before heading back to our guesthouse. Tomorrow we are off to Kwazulu Natal.
Day 10 & 11: Mkhuze Game Reserve
It was time to move to the Elephant Coast in northern Kwazulu Natal and one of the most exciting birding destinations in South Africa. Our first stop was Mkuze Game Reserve which offers top birding and we had a very enjoyable full day in the park. A big part of the day was focussed on the area around the main camp which can be explored on foot and found Eastern Nicator, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, African Pygmy, Brown-hooded and Striped Kingfisher, Red-billed Firefinch, Dark-backed Weaver, White-bellied Sunbird, White-browed Scrub Robin, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Southern Black, Spotted and Pale Flycatcher, Grey-headed Bushshrike, Chinspot Batis, Acacia Pied and Black-collared Barbet, Natal Spurfowl while Rudd’s Apalis was the best find.
We did spend a great hour in and around one of the great hides and with the warm and dry conditions there were a lot of activity. We saw Pink-throated Twinspot, Grey Waxbill, Green-winged Pytilia, Red-billed Oxpecker, Gorgeous Bushshrike, Terrestrial Brownbul, Brown-backed Honeybird, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Lesser Striped Swallow, Wattled and Cape Starling, Bearded Scrub Robin, White-browed Robin-Chat, Village and Southern Masked Weaver, Red-billed Quelea, Jameson’s Firefinch, Common and Blue Waxbill, Golden-breasted Bunting and Sombre Greenbul.
We explored some of the tracks and even with the thick vegetation and fact that you are not allowed to walk without an armed ranger due to the presence of dangerous wildlife we still found Black Cuckooshrike, White-crested Helmetshrike, African Paradise Flycatcher, Purple-crested Turaco, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Violet-backed Starling, Long-billed Crombec, Rattling Cisticola, Red-breasted Swallow, Sabota Lark, Black-headed Oriole, Black-crowned Tchagra, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Crested Barbet, Trumpeter Hornbill, European, Little and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Pied and Woodland Kingfisher, Speckled Mousebird, Little Swift, Burchell’s Coucal, Diederick Cuckoo, Reed Cormorant and Crested Francolin.
Mkuze is also very good for game viewing and we saw family of White Rhino, Giraffe, Greater Kudu, Nyala, Impala, Warthog, Red Duiker, Zebra, Blue Wildebeest and Slender Mongoose. We ended a great day with a Spotted Eagle-Owl on our way back to the lodge.
Day 12: Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve and St Lucia
It was time to move further down the coastline to the famous St Lucia wetlands but first we decided to do a detour and drive through Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, famous for bring Southern White Rhino back from the brink of extinction in the wild. In the northern thickets and forest section we found Gorgeous Bushshrike, Olive Sunbird, Red-capped Robin-Chat, White-eared Barbet, Purple-crested Turaco, Amethyst Sunbird, Red-fronted Tinkerbird and Black-bellied Starling to name a few. A close up view of the shy Red Duiker was a great mammal bonus.
In the more open sections we found Fan-tailed, Red-collared and White-winged Widowbird, Pin-tailed Whydah, Cardinal and Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Rufous-naped Lark, Croaking Cisticola, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, White-throated and Red-breasted Swallow, Yellow-fronted Canary, European Roller, Cape Starling Red-faced and Speckled Mousebird and White-backed Vulture. We enjoyed seeing a few big herds of Elephant and Cape Buffalo while other mammals seen include Giraffe, Zebra, Nyala, Warthog, Vervet and Slender Mongoose. From here we made our way to the town of St Lucia, gateway to the iSmangaliso Wetland Park.
After enjoying a break for a few hours we made our way to the estuary mouth to see if we could find the reported African Skimmers and we had a pair flying around. White-fronted Plover, Common Sandpiper, Purple Heron, Eastern Golden Weaver, Yellow-fronted Canary, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Malachite Sunbird, African Pied Wagtail and African Palm Swift were also seen. On the way back we had a great sighting of an immature Crowned Eagle, Crowned Hornbill and White-eared Barbet. We enjoyed dinner at one of the local seafood restaurants and had an early night as we planned to get an early start tomorrow to explore the wetland paradise.
Day 13: Ismangaliso Wetland Park
We were again up and ready to enter the park at first light and to our surprise the first signs of life as we entered were a bachelor herd of Cape Buffalo and a male White Rhino. A small flock of Crested Guineafowl was a great start to our birding day. In the open grassland we found Yellow-throated Longclaw, Rufous-naped Lark, Croaking and Rattling Cisticola, Collared Pratincole, Fan-tailed Widowbird and a Common Buttonquail. After seeing both Brown and Black-chested Snake Eagle, we had a quick view of the localised Southern Banded Snake Eagle. Cuckoos were all over the place and during the morning we saw and heard Diederick, Klaas’s, African Emerald and Red-chested. A beautiful African Pygmy Kingfisher gave us really good views at one of the walkways while Livingstone’s Turaco was another of our big targets that we found.
Other interesting birds during the day were Black-crowned Tchagra, Ashy Flycatcher, Dark-backed Waver, Cuckoo-Finch, Sand Martin, Intermediate Egret, Red-billed Oxpecker, African Cuckoo Hawk, Little Sparrowhawk, Collared, Amethyst, Grey and Olive Sunbird, Spur-winged Goose, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbill and Green-backed Camaroptera.
Day 14 & 15: Sani Pass
We started our day with a forest trail at the edge of town which produced Square-tailed Drongo, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Livingstone’s Turaco, Rudd’s Apalis, Brown Scrub Robin, Olive Sunbird, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Sombre Greenbul, Terrestrial Brownbul, Red-capped Robin-Chat while Southern Brown-throated Weaver was seen nearby.
From here it was time to head to the Drakensberg Mountains. On arrival at our beautiful lodge with great mountain views we did a quick walk around the property and picked up Levailant’s Cisticola, White-backed Duck, Grey-crowned Crane, Olive Thrush, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Zitting Cisticola, Fan-tailed and Long-tailed Widowbird, Spur-winged Goose, Cape Weaver, Southern Red Bishop, Cape White-eye, Malachite Sunbird, Red-knobbed Coot, White Stork, Cape Robin-Chat, White-breasted Cormorant and White-faced Whistling Duck.
We then had a full day to explore this beautiful area and we started with a drive up to Lesotho via the famous Sani Pass. The road leading the South African border produced Red-winged Starling, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Horus swift, Barratt’s Warbler, Red-chested Cuckoo, Ground Woodpecker and Banded Martin. Once we started ascending up the mountain we started seeing the big specials for this area which include Barded Vulture, Cape Vulture, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakenberg Siskin, Drakensberg Prinia, Sentinel Rock Thrush while Grey Rhebok and Sloggett’s Vlei Rat were new mammals. Other interesting birds seen include Yellow Canary, Cape Bunting, African Yellow Warbler, Southern Boubou, Specked Pigeon, Cape Sparrow and Cape Canary.
We did a quick drive into Lesotho where we picked up Fairy Flycatcher, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Sickle-winged Chat, Large-billed and Red-capped Lark, Jackal Buzzard, Black Stork, Wailing Cisticola, African Stonechat, Mountain Pipit, Grey-winged Francolin, White-throated Swallow, Cape Wagtail, Cape Crow, Rock Kestrel and a large group of Southern Bald Ibis.
We slowly made our way down and new birds for the day included Malachite Kingfisher, Short-tailed Pipit, Rock Martin, Swee waxbill and Barn Swallow. We then had a bit of time and our final birding drive produced Wattled Crane, Nicholson’s Pipit, Red-throated Wryneck, African Sacred Ibis, Cape Longclaw, African Rail, Southern Pochard, South African Shelduck, Maccoa Duck, Little Grebe, Yellow-crowned Bishop, African Marsh Harrier, Ant-eater Chat, Amur falcon, Familiar Chat, Brown-throated Martin, Bush Blackcap, Black Saw-wing, African Black Swift, Greater Striped Swallow, Long-crested Eagle, Denham’s Bustard and Secretarybird.
It was then time for our farewell dinner and last evening enjoying the cool fresh mountain air before making our way to Durban Airport in the morning. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and very successful trip with a very impressive total bird list and fantastic wildlife along the way.