When I mention the Cape most tourists will envisage Table Mountain, the dramatic cliffs of Cape Point, and the spectacular flower displays of the west …
By Jason Boyce
Larks, larks, larks … and more wonderful larks! The arid Northern Cape of South Africa is very well known for many wonderful species of larks, including seven species considered endemic or near-endemic to South Africa. Larks are not generally considered the most flashing or charismatic species, but I for one thoroughly enjoy LBJs, and larks are right up there among my favorite birds.
The first area that we spent some time birding was Aggeneys and Pofadder. The endemic Red Lark was our first target here, and on our first morning we located a couple of birds singing and displaying in the Koa Valley, just to the southeast of Aggeneys. The large and bulky Red Lark delivers a deep-rattling song in flight or from a perch on a dune crest or a fence post. Take note of the horizontal posture of the bird.
Red Lark (Calendulauda burra) Koa Valley, Aggeneys, Northern Cape
We also encountered the likes of Bradfield’s Swift, Short-toed Rock Thrush, Pale-winged Starling, Tractrac and Sickle-winged Chats, and the incredible and stunning little Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. These warblers have an incredibly distinctive call that can echo down from the rocky slopes that form its primary habitat. We found the territory of a male bird and sat quietly alongside some large rocks – this species hops about on the rocks, often clambering between the rocks and small bushes as opposed to flying.
Bradfield’s Swift (Apus bradfieldi), Aggeneys, Northern Cape
Cinnamon-breasted Warbler (Euryptila subcinnamomea), Aggeneys, Northern Cape
A night drive was most certainly on the cards, as the area is well known for some excellent nocturnal mammals as well as Cape Eagle-Owl. We were unlucky with the owl but did manage to see aardwolf and aardvark as well as striped polecat. By the end of the two days spent around Aggeneys and Pofadder, our lark tally had also grown substantially – we enjoyed seeing the likes of Karoo Long-billed, Cape Clapper, and Fawn-colored Larks, the bradfieldi subspecies of Sabota Lark, and Red-capped Lark.
We moved on through Springbok to Port Nolloth via the Spektakel pass and Kleinsee. The scenery was stunning, and the birds were brilliant! We encountered our first of many Ludwig’s Bustards as well as the likes of Fairy Flycatcher and Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark. The Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark in this region belongs to the subspecies damarensis.
Grey-backed Sparrowlark (Eremopterix verticalis damarensis), Northern Cape
The coastline from Hondeklip Bay right up to Alexander Bay, some 200 kilometers, is historically famous for producing large amounts of diamonds among other precious stones. Birder’s definitely won’t say no to stumbling across a diamond or two, but are rather on the lookout for the somewhat coastal lark species such as Barlow’s and Cape Long-billed Larks. The small town of Port Nolloth is a good base from which to explore the area. A trip to slightly north of Holgatrivier yielded some awesome sightings of a pair of Barlow’s Lark calling from some low coastal dune vegetation. Barlow’s Lark is a fairly recent split from Karoo Lark, and birds seem to be hybridizing between Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay.
Barlow’s Lark (Calendulauda barlowi), Holgat River, Northern Cape
Karoo Lark (Calendulauda albescens) for comparison, Kamieskroon, Northern Cape
The incredible Cape Long-billed Lark was out in good numbers, and at every stop we managed to hear them calling – a beautiful, drawn out, double, descending whistle. Unfortunately they seem to be rather shy and did not allow for any photographs. Humph! We also connected with the most westerly species of the Eremomela family, the Karoo Eremomela. These birds hang around in little family groups and also have a distinctive but monotonous call that can be heard from quite a long way away for such a small bird.
Namaqualand was the next area on our agenda, and our drive through to Kamieskroon would allow us to pass through some of the flower-rich landscapes that give this area so much beauty! The beautiful Malachite Sunbird was in full plumage and as stunning as ever. Grey Tit and Layard’s Warbler occupied the vegetated rocky slopes, and both their calls could be heard from the area in which we were camping. The subspecies leucolaemus of Black-headed Canary (“Damara Canary”) was also a treat to see; we had a few flocks of these cruising overhead while giving their sweet little contact call. Some flocks landed nearby and allowed us to have really nice looks and take a few pictures.
Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa), Kamieskroon area, Northern Cape
“Damara Canary” (Serinus alario leucolaema), Kamieskroon, Northern Cape
We encountered a couple families of the bizarre, but insanely awesome Ground Woodpecker, which had now bred and were busy raising young. One of the families that we found to the southeast of Kamieskroon had many young birds. Adult birds have developed the pale eye, while juvenile birds have a dark eye. The photograph below shows two adult birds (right) and a juvenile bird to the left. You can see the darker eye as well as a pronounced gape.
Ground Woodpecker (Geocolaptes olivaceus), East of Kamieskroon, Northern Cape
Namaqualand hadn’t received as much rain as it had in previous years, and therefore the flower season was definitely a bit late and flower densities were very low. We spent one morning driving to the west of Kamieskroon towards Namaqua National Park; here we added species to our general trip list as well as to our list of larks. Karoo Lark, Cape Clapper Lark, Large-billed Lark, and Spike-heeled Lark were all around and in good numbers.
Cape Clapper Lark (Mirafra apiata), Namaqualand, Northern Cape
The last species of lark that we added to our list for the trip was not a true lark but actually a sparrow-lark, the scarce nomad Black-eared Sparrow-Lark – a very interesting species that was certainly my bird of the trip and one that put on a fantastic show. This sociable species ‘erupts’ in response to rain and can be found in really good numbers in some areas after decent rainfall. They are really conspicuous in flight, and we actually identified a few males displaying at 100 km/h plus. In display these males fly silently in circles and figure eights at about 10 – 20 meters off the ground. They will then land, spend some time on the ground, and then take off and start the display again. What a bird!
Black-eared Sparrow-Lark (Eremopterix australis), Kliprand, Western Cape
Try as we might, we could not locate the likes of Stark’s or Sclater’s Larks. Sclater’s is often seen as the most difficult and sought-after lark species in the Northern Cape, while Stark’s seem to have stayed north this year, perhaps in response to the drought and El Niño effects that Southern Africa has been experiencing this year. Our trip total was in excess of 200 species over seven days, and our lark tally ended with 14 species.
The large area of the Northern Cape can certainly seem quite intimidating to some, but it certainly must not be underestimated or neglected. Driving the long distances slowly and taking your time at each spot are key to making sure that you don’t miss the wonders of this province’s beauty and diversity.
The Northern Cape, South Africa
The purpose of this article is to provide the most up-to-date information on South Africa’s endemic birds (based on the 2015 update of the country’s official bird-list), and also to photographically showcase some of these birds that require a trip to Africa’s southernmost country to be seen.
Dancing Blue Cranes (Stephen Hammer)
South Africa has an amazing total of 69 bird species which are confined to its borders, or nearly so. The tiny nations of Lesotho and Swaziland, both of which are virtually surrounded by South Africa (bizarrely), do kind of make things a bit complicated, though. This is because a remarkable 20 of the 69 South African “endemics” actually occur in all three countries (South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho). 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. And, finally, it is worth mentioning an extremely enigmatic bird that is not yet on the “endemics list”, but which could be. The critically endangered White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) is undergoing further study, but it is quite possible that this “ultimate skulker” might migrate between South Africa and Ethiopia, possibly with its entire non-breeding range in South Africa!
Drakensberg (Orange-breasted) Rockjumper (Hugh Chittenden). This species abounds in Lesotho and high in the Drakensberg Escarpment of South Africa
Cape Rockjumper (Dominic Rollinson) is endemic to Cape Fold Mountains and is trickier to find than Drakensberg Rockjumper (both are very localized birds but Drakensberg is common and conspicuous once in its tiny range).
The table below, courtesy of Birdlife South Africa (www.birdlife.org.za) provides a comprehensive list of all 69 South African avian endemics and near-endemics – along with Red Data (RD) status of those endemic species that are threatened with extinction. This South African endemics list is a subset of the Official Birdlife South Africa country bird list, which is updated annually and can be downloaded from the same URL as shown above. South Africa has an amazing 846 bird species, or in fact 854 species if Marion Island and Prince Edward Island are included – these sub-Antarctic islands are politically part of South Africa, yet they are almost 1000 nautical miles (about 2000 km) from the South African mainland.
Cheetah: South Africa is a spectacularly biodiverse country so it’s not only about endemic birds even though these are a major attraction!
And bird-wise, South Africa of course has a stack of spectacular yet non-endemic birds to keep tour participants entertained at all times – this is a Long-tailed Widow which is sometimes the first bird visitors see when arriving at Johannesburg Airport (John Caddick).
Over 60 of the 69 endemics and near-endemics, including South Africa’s national bird (Blue Crane) and both rockjumper species, can be seen given 23 days in South Africa if you combine the subtropical South Africa birding tour and the 8-day Cape birding tour shown at Birding Tours South Africa. Most of the remainder can be found on the Cape, Namaqualand and Kalahari bird tour shown at the same link above, or, alternatively, on a 4-6 day trip to the Northern Cape (a summary of this trip is at South Africa 1-5-day tours). Forest Buzzard and the Agulhas Plains endemics are very tough or impossible unless you do the 12-day Western Cape tour, which includes the Garden Route, instead of just the 8-day version (giving a full 27 days in South Africa).
Southern Bald Ibis (Ian Merrill)
Most South African avian endemics lurk in one of two places, 1) the Cape (the fynbos and Karoo – the toughest fynbos endemic is Hottentot Buttonquail) and 2) the Drakensberg Escarpment. But there are a good number of endemics elsewhere too. There are also some species that might have, say, 50 % of their range in South Africa, with the other half in Mozambique (for example), and the birding tour itineraries on our website are designed not to miss those either when you visit South Africa (of course). In fact, while the bulk of the endemics are seen on our tours, given 23 days in South Africa, we hope to see a stack of non-endemics as well, and a bird-list of 400 species (which include an absolutely brilliant set of pelagic seabirds) is always tried for (on the 23-day Cape/subtropical South Africa combo). And we never ignore the big and small African mammals. We like to see everything – including as many of the endemics as possible, but also never ignoring all the other wildlife. That’s our general philosophy as a company.
Click the link for the actual list of endemics: 2015 Checklist of Birds
Another Drakensberg Rockjumper (Ian Merrill), often seen on the subtropical South African birding tour
Ground Woodpecker, one of the most remarkable endemics as it’s just so very unusual for a woodpecker! (Martin Benadie)
Victorin’s Warbler, a Cape fynbos endemic (John Tinkler)
Cinnamon-breasted Warbler manages to skulk and often remain elusive in rock crevices in semi-desert. It’s quite a rare bird restricted to Namibia and South Africa.
Another Cape fynbos (Cape Floral Kingdom) endemic, Cape Sugarbird, sitting atop a Pincushion Protea (Dominic Rollinson)
And the Drakensberg equivalent, Gurney’s Sugarbird (Dominic Rollinson)
Orange-breasted Sunbird is a dazzling Cape endemic pictured here in the garden of our guide John Tinkler
Neergaard’s Sunbird (Andre Stapelberg) is another dazzling sunbird, but this one is restricted not to fynbos mountains, but to steaming coastal lowlands in Zululand (South Africa) and southern Mozambique
Pink-throated Twinspot has a very similar distribution to the previous species (Neergaard’s Sunbird)
At one time Central America was mostly underwater, and only the peaks of volcanoes rose above the water, creating islands …