• Overview
  • Trip Outline
  • Trip Includes
  • Trip Excludes

Endemic Birding in Eastern South Africa 2021

9 to 19 December 2021

Magoebaskloof, Kaapschehoop, Wakkerstroom, Lesotho

The Southern African subregion, which is taken to be the portion of land south of the Cunene and Zambezi Rivers, hosts more breeding bird species than the United States of America and Canada combined.

South Africa is the most important country for birding endemism on the African continent with an impressive total of 69 bird species which are confined to its borders, or nearly so. The small nations of Lesotho and Swaziland, both of which are virtually surrounded by South Africa do hold 20 of the 69 South African “endemics”. One other species (South African Cliff Swallow) breeds only in these three countries but migrates to more northerly parts of Africa during the austral winter.

Only 18 bird species are absolutely, strictly confined to South Africa. The remaining 30 species on the list are “near-endemics”, with 70 % or more of their range within the boundaries of South Africa.

This tour focuses on the endemic species which can be found on the wetter eastern side of the country, where habitats are extremely varied due to massive variations in altitude.

OUR TOUR

We depart from Johannesburg bright and early and head northwards on the N1 highway, on route to our first overnight stop in the Magoebaskloof valley in the Limpopo Province.

Along the way, we visit the Polokwane Nature Reserve, the classic site for the isolated northern population of Short-clawed Lark and a wide range of thornveld and plains birds. The area consists of arid thornveld, open grassland, acacia thickets and granite outcrops.

Other interesting birds which we may encounter are Northern Black Korhaan, Double-banded Courser, Barred Wren-Warbler, Black-faced Waxbill and Tinkling Cisticola.

DESTINATIONS

Magoebaskloof and Woodbush Forest

Lying about three hour’s drive north of Gauteng, the mountainous area around Magoebaskloof and Woodbush Forest, constitutes the second largest forest complex in the country and the Magoebaskloof Pass is considered to be the steepest mountain pass in South Africa. The afro-montane forests offer amongst the best forest birding in the country.

Due to a high number of resident species, there is an abundance of birds to see year round and the eastern lower slopes and valleys of Magoebaskloof provide reliable sites for the elusive Bat Hawk and Green Twinspot. The Tzaneen area is well known for its sub-tropical fruit industry and the interesting mix of lowland habitats here support a wide range of species including Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, White-browed Robin-chat and Purple-crested Turaco.

The Woodbush Forest drive winds through pristine afro-montane forests, down into semi-deciduous mixed forest along the lower sections of the drive. Cape Parrot, Knysna Turaco, Orange Ground-Thrush, Narina Trogon, Brown Scrub-Robin, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, White-starred Robin, Barratt’s Warbler and Green Twinspot are a few of the specials found on this road. Raptors include African Crowned Eagle, African Cuckoo Hawk and African Goshawk.

Our home for two nights is the superb Kurisa Moya guesthouse, situated on a 422-hectare farm, which straddles the Woodbush Forest and the bushveld habitats on the Northern Drakensburg escarpment. Kurisa Moya boasts excellent birding on site, including 7 species of Robin, including White-starred Robin and Chorister Robin-Chat. Most notable are 5 Bush-Shrikes, with Black-fronted heading up the list. In this spectacular indigenous forest, other specials include the Narina Trogon, Green Twinspot, Grey Cuckooshrike, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and Yellow-streaked Greenbul. The Bushveld areas have a range of cisticolas and warblers and the montane area is home to Gurney´s Sugarbird. Raptors include Rufous-chested and Black Sparrowhawk.

Endemic and near-endemic species

Jackal and Forest Buzzards, Cape Parrot, Knysna Turaco, Chorister Robin-Chat, Brown Scrub-Robin, Cape Grassbird, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Greater and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, Barratt’s Warbler, Swee Waxbill, Forest Canary.

Other specials

African Crowned Eagle, Long-Crested Eagle, African Cuckoo Hawk, Bat Hawk, Rufous-chested and Black Sparrowhawks, African Goshawk, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Mountain Wagtail, Gorgeous and Black-fronted Bush-Shrikes, Narina Trogon, Orange Ground-Thrush, White-starred Robin, Lemon and Tambourine Doves, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Grey Cuckooshrike, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Magpie and Red-backed Mannikins Green Twinspot.

Kaapschehoop

Kaapschehoop is situated 25km southwest of Nelspruit on a buttress of the Mpumalanga escarpment. The area formerly offered protection to several pairs of the globally threatened Blue Swallow, but sadly since the summer of 2008-09, not a single Blue Swallow has been recorded. Kaapscheehoop remains an excellent locality to see several South African bird endemics and near-endemics. The area hosts a good selection of montane grassland species and also offers the opportunity for some good forest birding.  

A 470ha portion of Kaapschehoop grassland falls under protection of the Natural Heritage Site while the state owned forestry company owns a another substantial expanse of grassland wedged between the reserve and town. The reserve is home to several sought-after species, including Black-rumped Buttonquail, Red-winged and Shelley’s Francolins, Wailing and Wing-snapping Cisticolas and, in winter, Black-winged Lapwing. Although regular in the bracken and briar patches, Striped Flufftail is very elusive and rarely seen.

Raptors to look out for include Peregrine and Lanner Falcons, Eurasian Hobby, Forest, Jackal and Common Buzzards, Long-crested Eagle, Black and Rufous-chested Sparrowhawks and African Goshawk.

 

Mature Afromontane forest holds Knysna Turaco, Lemon Dove, Narina Trogon, Orange Ground-Thrush, Olive Thrush, Grey Cuckooshrike, White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-Chat, Brown Scrub-Robin, Bush Blackcap and Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler.

In addition to grassland there are extensive cliffs, a forested gully with a waterfall and broken sandstone formations around town. Fragmented indigenous forest is found on the forestry property of the eastern escarpment slopes. A private road along the reserve boundary gives access to this forest and the associated forest birds.

The bizarre rock-strewn landscape along a walking trail is home to Mocking Cliff-Chat, Buff-streaked Chat, Cape Rock-Thrush and Lazy Cisticola. Long-billed, Plain-backed and African Pipits occur.

Flowering aloes, strelitzias and fuschias are visited by Amethyst, Greater Doubled Collared, Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds and the noisy Gurney’s Sugarbird.

A group of wild horses have roamed the area for more than 100 years and are loyally protected by the locals.

Endemic and near-endemic species

Jackal and Forest Buzzards, Knysna Turaco, Bush Blackcap, Cape Rock-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Chorister Robin-Chat, Brown Scrub-Robin, Cape Grassbird, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Southern Tchagra, Drakensberg Prinia, Greater and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, Swee Waxbill and Forest Canary.

Other specials

Long-crested Eagle, Black and Rufous-chested Sparrowhawks, Peregrine and Lanner Falcons, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Black-winged Lapwing, Orange Ground-Thrush, Olive Bush-Shrike, Narina Trogon, Lemon Dove, Cape Longclaw, Bokmakierie, Lazy Cisticola, Mocking Cliff-Chat.

Wakkerstroom

The high-lying grasslands region along the escarpment of Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal is an essential destination for birders seeking out the highland endemics of South Africa.The Wakkerstroom area is one of the best locations in southern Africa to find the rarer highveld species, and the abundance of vleis in the area offers ideal wetland birding.

 

Habitats range from open grassland to mist belt forest, gorges and cliffs, with extensive wetland habitat in the form of vleis, pans and dams.

Hills, valleys, ravines, patches of indigenous forest, montane grassland and rocky outcrops surround the town. Patches of Leucosidea scrub are home to Bush Blackcap, Cape Batis, Drakensberg Prinia and Barratt’s Warbler and copses of alien trees and forested valleys also provide good birding. Most birding in the greater Wakkerstroom area is along a number of rewarding bird drives on public dirt roads.

A total of 13 bird species are endemic or nearly so to South Africa’s grassland biome and nine of these, including Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Korhaan, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat and Drakensberg Prinia, can easily be found here during a full day’s birding in summer. A second day could yield forest endemics such as Bush Blackcap and Chorister Robin-Chat. Add to these another 33 southern African endemics or near-endemics and it is easy to see why the area is a magnet for foreign as well as South African birders.

 

The Dirkiesdorp plain is at a lower altitude than the other Wakkerstroom sites and is particularly good for bustards and korhaans, especially White-bellied Korhaan. Open pastures are good for Black-winged Lapwing. South African Cliff-Swallows breed under the bridge over the Assegaai River.

Blue Korhaan, Grey Crowned and Blue Cranes, Denham’s Bustard (summer) and Southern Bald Ibis and Blue Crane can be encountered anywhere along the roadside routes. During summer Banded Martin is common while Lesser Kestrel and the odd Red-footed Falcon can be found amongst the hundreds of Amur Falcon on the telephone wires. Rocky hillsides hold Sentinel Rock-Thrush, African Rock Pipit, Eastern Long-billed Lark and Ground Woodpecker.

While Wakkerstroom is not generally associated with forest birding and the local forests no longer have the diversity of other areas, there is still some interesting birding to be had here.Birds that may be found include African Crowned Eagle, African Goshawk, Bush Blackcap, Orange Ground-Thrush, Chorister Robin-Chat , White-starred Robin and Olive Woodpecker. Barratt’s Warbler calls from deep in the densest of the thickets along the path

Endemic and near-endemic species

Black Harrier, Jackal Buzzard, Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Korhaan, Grey-winged Francolin, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, African Rock Pipit, South African Cliff-Swallow, Bush Blackcap, Ground Woodpecker, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Chorister Robin-Chat, Cape Grassbird, Fiscal Flycatcher, Drakensberg Prinia, Barratt’s Warbler,Greater and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, Cloud Cisticola.

Other specials

Lesser Kestrel, Amur Falcon, Denham’s and Black-bellied Bustards, White-bellied Korhaan, Blue and Grey Crowned Cranes, Red-winged Francolin, Black-winged Lapwing, Pink-billed Lark, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Cape Batis, African Rail.

Lesotho

The Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho is land-locked within South Africa; rugged and grand. It is high lying Big Sky country with clear air and lots of silent space. Picturesque tranquil villages lie in the cultivated valleys, rude shepherd`s huts cling to the lofty mountain slopes. All of Lesotho lies above 1000 metres. In the entire world it is the country with the highest lowest point.

Approximately 340 bird species are believed to have been recorded in Lesotho and it supports 13 globally threatened and near-threatened species. The period between October and February is considered to offer the best birding in the area and the weather is usually good.

The area that we will be visiting is by far the closest and most accessible place to see a variety of restricted Drakensberg endemic bird species.

Our trip is focussed on the area between the RSA border at Caledonspoort and the Afri Ski Resort, near Mahlasela.

The area covers a variety of open habitats, including high altitude scree slopes, basalt outcrops, scrub filled gullies, grassy plains with karroid scrub and sub-alpine heath.

We enter Lesotho via Caledonspoort border post near Fouriesburg and travel to the junction at Butha Buthe.

Our trip follows two main routes, namely:

Route 1-From Butha to Katse Dam, via Mafika-Lisiu Pass

The tarred Mafika-Lisiu Pass is on the main northern access route from the western lowlands of Lesotho to the Katse Dam, deep in the highlands of the Malototi Mountains. It is characterised by its steep climbs and descents and hairpin bends. Habitats near the summit include Afro-alpine grasslands, rocky cliffs and scree slopes, as well as the spongy wetland catchments of the Bokong and Lepoqua rivers. Ascending the Pass, the road winds in and out of spectacular valleys with fynbos/macchia -type vegetation. From the summit of this spectacular Pass, the road traverses the 1970 ha Bokong Nature Reserve, before dropping steeply to the east to the village of Ha Lejone.  At an altitude of more than 3 000 metres the Reserve is one of the highest in Africa. An impressive visitor centre perches on the edge of the Lepoqua valley and offers spectacular views of the nearby Lepoqua Falls and the valley below. Continuing from the visitor centre the road soon drops steeply down to the village of Ha Lejone, all the way down to the Malibamatso River valley and the upper reaches of the Katse Dam in the distance.

One of the highlights of a visit to Lesotho, the Katse Dam is an engineering spectacle. It is the highest dam in Africa and its unusual shape, twisting like a serpent along the Maloti valleys, means there is a lot of it to explore. The dam is the transfer reservoir for the entire Lesotho Highlands Project. The Katse Botanical Garden is a centre for Alpine flora in Katse village. The gardens were created as a result of plant rescue missions to mitigate the impact of the Katse Dam, particularly spiral aloes. The collection has a focus on traditional Sotho medicinal plants and has a large seed bank. The first night of our trip is spent in cottages owned by Katse Lodge, perfectly positioned atop a ridge, and offering panoramic views of the Katse Dam.

Route 2-From Butha-Buthe to the Afri Ski Resort, near Mahlasela.

The road from here into the highlands is one of the most dramatic roads in Lesotho, passing through some particularly striking sandstone cliffs before twisting torturously up a chain of heart-stopping hairpins into the basalt. Some 20km beyond Liphofung, past Motheng Pass (2820m) and a number of stunning ravines, one comes to a string of alpine-style buildings in a narrow valley, New Oxbow Lodge, our home for two nights. The name comes from the shape of a mountain nearby that resembles the bow of an ox, and also the river nearby that flows in an oxbow. Accommodation is in comfortable en suite rooms.

The road to Mokhotlong is often called “the Roof of Africa Route”, crossing a succession of ever higher passes, peaking at Tlaeeng Pass (3270m), and passing through bleak, sparsely populated but entrancing mountain countryside. The road is tarred all the way to Mokhotlong.

The final night of our trip is spent at Katse Lodge, perfectly positioned atop a ridge offering panoramic views of the well-known Katse Dam.

Endemic and near-endemic species

Jackal Buzzard, Black Harrier, Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Korhaan (on route), Grey-winged Francolin, South African Cliff-Swallow, Ground Woodpecker, Pied Starling, Sickle-winged Chat, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Drakensberg Rock-jumper, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Mountain Pipit, Grey Tit, Bush Blackcap, Cape Grassbird, Barratt’s Warbler, Karoo Prinia, Fairy Flycatcher, Layard’s Tit-Babbler, Cape White-eye, Drakensberg Siskin, Cape Weaver, Swee Waxbill.

Other specials

Bearded Vulture, Cape Vulture, Black Stork, White Stork, African Black Swift, Horus Swift, African Rock Pipit.

This 11-day tour departs from Johannesburg. We travel in an air-conditioned VW Caravelle, 4-wheel drive Microbus

Itineraries

Day 1

Date : December 9, 2021

Johannesburg-Polokwane-Magoebaskloof

Depart from Johannesburg bright an early.
Travel via Polokwane and Haenertsburg to our first overnight stop near Magoebaskloof.
En route visit Polokwane Nature Reserve for mid-morning to early afternoon birding.
Mid-afternoon arrival and overnight at Kurisa Moya.

Day 2

Date : December 10, 2021

Magoebaskloof area

Day spent birding in forests and grasslands.
Overnight at Kurisa Moya.

Day 3

Date : December 11, 2021

Magoebaskloof-Kaapschehoop

Early morning birding walk at Kurisa Moya.
Depart after breakfast for Wakkerstroom.
Travel via Tzaneen and Hoedspruit and Arrive at destination at around lunchtime.
Afternoon birding and overnight in Kaapschehoop.

Day 4

Date : December 12, 2021

Kaapschehoop area

Day 4 (Kaapschehoop area)
Day spent birding in and around Kaapschehoop.
Overnight at guesthouse in the town.

Day 5

Date : December 13, 2021

Kaapschehoop-Wakkerstroom

Early morning birding around Kaapschehoop.
Travel via Carolina and Amersfoort to Wakkerstroom, arriving in the early afternoon.
Afternoon birding in grasslands and wetlands
Overnight in Wakkerstroom.

Day 6

Date : December 14, 2021

Wakkerstroom area

Day spent birding in and around Wakkerstroom
Overnight at guesthouse in the town.

Day 7

Date : December 15, 2021

Wakkerstroom-Caledonspoort-Katse Dam

Early morning guided birding around Wakkerstroom
Depart after brunch for Lesotho.
Travel via Memel and Harrismith to Lesotho border, birding on route .
And arrive in Lesotho at around lunchtime.

Day 8

Date : December 16, 2021

Johannesburg-Polokwane-Magoebaskloof

Depart from Johannesburg bright an early.
Travel via Suikerbosrand and the Harrismith roadside routes to Lesotho, arriving at around lunchtime.
Visit Bokong Nature Reserve en route to Katse Dam.
Overnight at Katse Lodge.

Day 9

Date : December 17, 2021

Katse Dam-New Oxbow Lodge

Early morning birding in vicinity of Katse Dam.
Depart after breakfast for New Oxbow Lodge, via Motheng Pass.
Bird on route and arrive at destination mid-afternoon.
Late afternoon birding and overnight at New Oxbow Lodge.

Day 10

Date : December 18, 2021

New Oxbow Lodge

Day spent birding, sightseeing and flower watching.
Overnight at New Oxbow Lodge.

Day 11

Date : December 19, 2021

New Oxbow Lodge-Johannesburg

Early morning birding on Motheng Pass.
Depart after breakfast and head for Golden Gate Highlands National Park, via Harrismith.
Bird in Park until early afternoon, before heading for home.

Includes

Transport, all meals and accommodation, guiding and entrance fees.

Excludes

Alcoholic beverages, gratuities, and items of a personal nature.