South Africa: 3-Day Drakensberg and Sani Pass Birding Tour Report, February 2022

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01 – 03 FEBRUARY 2022

By Dominic Rollinson

Sani Pass ReportDrakensberg Rockjumper is always a highlight of a day’s biridng on Sani Pass.

Overview

This three-day birding tour of the Sani Pass and Drakensberg Mountains aims to target as many of the high altitude and mid-elevation specials of the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa, many of which are South African endemics or near-endemics. The main birding attraction of this short tour is our day up the famed Sani Pass, which crosses into the Kingdom of Lesotho, however we also enjoy some grassland and montane forest birding at slightly lower elevations. Some of the specials we found on this tour included Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Mountain Pipit, Bearded and Cape Vultures, Blue and Grey Crowned Cranes, Black-winged Lapwing, Southern Bald Ibis, Crowned Eagle, Half-collared Kingfisher, Ground Woodpecker, Fairy Flycatcher, Grey Tit, Orange Ground Thrush, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, and many others.

Sani Pass ReportThe cute Fairy Flycatcher was seen on the plateau in the Kingdom of Lesotho.

Detailed Report

Day 1, 1st February 2022. Durban to Himeville

We left Durban soon after sunrise and headed inland to our first birding stop near to the Karkloof area, in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, where we would spend most of the morning. At a quick stop in some grasslands, we started racking up good birds in the form of Black-winged Lapwing, Southern Bald Ibis, Martial and Long-crested Eagles, Jackal Buzzard, Drakensberg Prinia and many Red-collared Widowbirds. A European Honey Buzzard was also seen nearby, always a great bird to see anywhere in South Africa. We then pressed on further into the Karkloof area and birded some scrubby areas on the edge of a timber plantation which was surprisingly productive, and we managed to add Lesser Honeyguide (missed by most of the group), Black Saw-wing, Neddicky, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, African Firefinch and its brood parasite Dusky Indigobird, along with Golden-breasted Bunting and a calling Cape Grassbird which would remain unseen for now.

Around mid-morning we arrived at our primary birding site for the morning, Benvie Garden, where we enjoyed our breakfast with a number of interesting forest species calling as we ate. After finishing our breakfast, we took a walk around the garden and found some great birds including the likes of Orange Ground Thrush (our big target here), Woolly-necked Stork, Cape Batis, Black-headed Oriole, African Paradise Flycatcher, Bar-throated Apalis, Olive Thrush, Yellow-throated Bush Sparrow, Cape Weaver, Forest Canary, and a pair of Crowned Eagles which were busy displaying above us. In the patch of forest above the gardens we found other exciting birds such as Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and calling African Emerald Cuckoo and White-starred Robin, neither of which would show themselves.

After finishing our forest birding for the day and after a quick lunch we made our way further inland and climbed in elevation as we headed towards the Drakensberg Mountains. We didn’t find too much of interest for the rest of the afternoon until a birding stop outside Himeville at a small dam, which held Cape Shoveler, South African Shelduck, African Spoonbill and African Wattled Lapwing. However, the Wattled Cranes which are regular here, were unfortunately not around today. A little closer to Himeville we birded some grasslands on the edge of a wetland which gave us beautiful looks at Yellow-crowned Bishop, brief views of Pale-crowned Cisticola and prolonged views of Long-tailed Widowbirds, as they performed their crazy display flights.

Sani Pass ReportLong-tailed Widowbirds were displaying in grasslands throughout the area.

Day 2, 02nd February. Sani Pass birding

Today was the day we’d all been looking forward to as we were to spend most of the day up Sani Pass, one of South Africa’s premier birding sites. We left our accommodation with our local guides Aldo and Stuart just after dawn and made our way towards the base of the pass and had a few good birding stops en route. These stops yielded some great birds such as Red-throated Wryneck, Southern Boubou, Bokmakierie, Cape Crow, Cape Grassbird, African Yellow Warbler, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Yellow Bishop, Swee Waxbill and the highly prized Bush Blackcap. We then stopped for some breakfast alongside a river which had a bunch of nice birds around. First prize went to a Half-collared Kingfisher which eventually showed well for us, and we also found Cape Batis, Olive Thrush, Fiscal Flycatcher, Brimstone and Cape Canaries and Streaky-headed Seedeater.

After breakfast we started to ascend the pass proper and the birding continued to pick up. The lower boulder-strewn slopes had good numbers of Gurney’s Sugarbird perching up on protea bushes while Karoo Prinia, Wailing Cisticola, Cape Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Bunting and Horus Swift also put in appearances for us. The higher-elevation rocky areas (such as around the switchbacks, just below the Lesotho border post) were really birdy and this is where we found our first Drakensberg Rockjumper of the day along with Drakensberg Siskin, Sickle-winged Chat and flyovers of Cape and Bearded Vultures. Two mammal highlights were encountered on the drive too, in the form of Mountain Reedbuck and Grey Rhebok.

Sani Pass ReportGurney’s Sugarbird showed well as we ascended Sani Pass.

Once onto the top of Sani Pass and the plateau at around 2,800 metres (9,100 feet) in elevation we found a different suite of birds which inhabit the short Karoo-type vegetation which dominates the plateau. Layard’s Warbler, Fairy Flycatcher, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Mountain Wheatear and Yellow Canary were relatively abundant while we had to work for Grey Tit and Large-billed Lark. The target bird of any summer trip to the plateau is Mountain Pipit which was surprisingly abundant and were in full voice today. We also enjoyed decent views of a couple of African Black Ducks on a nearby river. After some lunch and a quick drink at the Sani Top Chalet (the highest pub in Africa, which included more views of Drakensberg Rockjumper) we made our way back down the pass. The descent was fairly uneventful but did produce fleeting glimpses of the skulking Barratt’s Warbler.

Sani Pass ReportThe attractive Sentinel Rock Thrush was seen on the plateau.

After safely negotiating the pass, we enjoyed some birding around the Himeville area which produced Grey Crowned Crane, White Stork, Jackal Buzzard, Ant-eating Chat, Quailfinch and Red-collared, Fan-tailed and Long-tailed Widowbirds. After a long day out, we enjoyed a good drink and meal before heading to bed for our last night of this short tour.

Day 3, 03rd February 2022. KwaZulu-Natal Midlands birding and transfer to Durban

We had another early start this morning and headed out to Marutswa Forest to try our luck at Cape Parrot. Disappointingly the parrots were a no-show this morning and so we had to be content with African Olive Pigeon, Terrestrial Brownbul, Speckled Mousebird, Amethyst and Malachite Sunbirds, African Firefinch and Forest Canary which all kept us entertained on the forest edge. After giving up on the parrots we headed to the Mkomazi Valley where our next big target was Blue Swallow. This rare swallow is listed as Vulnerable by BirdLife International and is mostly threatened by the loss of mid-altitude grassland habitat where it breeds in South Africa. The swallows took a little while but eventually we had great views of at least one adult male and a juvenile as they went about feeding low over the grasslands, alongside Black Saw-wings. Other good birds in the area included Lazy Cisticola, Fan-tailed Grassbird (heard only), Swee Waxbill and Common House Martin.

We then made our way further down the valley and enjoyed some bushveld birding with our lunch stop. Birds seen here included Natal Spurfowl, Purple-crested Turaco, Green Wood Hoopoe, Black-headed Oriole, Cape Starling, Thick-billed Weaver and Golden-breasted Bunting. As we crossed the Mkomazi River we enjoyed perched views of a Crowned Eagle. From here, it was the long drive back to Durban where we arrived in the late afternoon, after a successful three days of Drakensberg birding.

 

Bird ListFollowing IOC (12.1)

 Birds ‘heard only’ are marked with (H) after the common name, all other species were seen.

The following notation after species names is used to show conservation status following BirdLife International: EN = Endangered, VU = Vulnerable.

 

Common Name Scientific Name
Ducks, Geese, Swans (Anatidae)
White-faced Whistling Duck Dendrocygna viduata
Spur-winged Goose Plectropterus gambensis
Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca
South African Shelduck Tadorna cana
Cape Shoveler Spatula smithii
African Black Duck Anas sparsa
Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata
Pheasants & Allies (Phasianidae)
Natal Spurfowl Pternistis natalensis
Swifts (Apodidae)
African Palm Swift Cypsiurus parvus
African Black Swift Apus barbatus
Little Swift Apus affinis
Horus Swift Apus horus
White-rumped Swift Apus caffer
Turacos (Musophagidae)
Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolophus
Cuckoos (Cuculidae)
African Emerald Cuckoo (H) Chrysococcyx cupreus
Black Cuckoo (H) Cuculus clamosus
Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius
Pigeons, Doves (Columbidae)
Rock Dove Columba livia
Speckled Pigeon Columba guinea
African Olive Pigeon Columba arquatrix
Red-eyed Dove Streptopelia semitorquata
Ring-necked Dove Streptopelia capicola
Rails, Crakes & Coots (Rallidae)
African Rail (H) Rallus caerulescens
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Red-knobbed Coot Fulica cristata
Cranes (Gruidae)
Grey Crowned Crane – EN Balearica regulorum
Blue Crane – VU Grus paradisea
Grebes (Podicipedidae)
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Plovers (Charadriidae)
Blacksmith Lapwing Vanellus armatus
Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus
African Wattled Lapwing Vanellus senegallus
Three-banded Plover Charadrius tricollaris
Storks (Ciconiidae)
Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia episcopus
White Stork Ciconia ciconia
Anhingas, Darters (Anhingidae)
African Darter Anhinga rufa
Cormorants, Shags (Phalacrocoracidae)
Reed Cormorant Microcarbo africanus
Ibises, Spoonbills (Threskiornithidae)
African Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus
Southern Bald Ibis – VU Geronticus calvus
Hadada Ibis Bostrychia hagedash
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
African Spoonbill Platalea alba
Herons, Bitterns (Ardeidae)
Western Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Black-headed Heron Ardea melanocephala
Great Egret Ardea alba
Hamerkop (Scopidae)
Hamerkop Scopus umbretta
Ospreys (Pandionidae)
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Kites, Hawks, Eagles (Accipitridae)
Black-winged Kite Elanus caeruleus
African Harrier-Hawk Polyboroides typus
Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus
European Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus
Cape Vulture – EN Gyps coprotheres
Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus
Martial Eagle – EN Polemaetus bellicosus
Long-crested Eagle Lophaetus occipitalis
African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus
Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius
African Fish Eagle Haliaeetus vocifer
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo
Forest Buzzard Buteo trizonatus
Mousebirds (Coliidae)
Speckled Mousebird Colius striatus
Wood Hoopoes (Phoeniculidae)
Green Wood Hoopoe Phoeniculus purpureus
Kingfishers (Alcedinidae)
Malachite Kingfisher Corythornis cristatus
Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata
Giant Kingfisher Megaceryle maxima
Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis
African Barbets (Lybiidae)
Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird (H) Pogoniulus bilineatus
Honeyguides (Indicatoridae)
Lesser Honeyguide Indicator minor
Woodpeckers (Picidae)
Red-throated Wryneck Jynx ruficollis
Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus
Caracaras, Falcons (Falconidae)
Rock Kestrel Falco rupicolus
Amur Falcon Falco amurensis
Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus
Wattle-eyes, Batises (Platysteiridae)
Cape Batis Batis capensis
Bushshrikes (Malaconotidae)
Bokmakierie Telophorus zeylonus
Black-crowned Tchagra (H) Tchagra senegalus
Southern Boubou Laniarius ferrugineus
Shrikes (Laniidae)
Southern Fiscal Lanius collaris
Figbirds, Orioles, Turnagra (Oriolidae)
Black-headed Oriole Oriolus larvatus
Drongos (Dicruridae)
Fork-tailed Drongo Dicrurus adsimilis
Monarchs (Monarchidae)
Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher Trochocercus cyanomelas
African Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone viridis
Crows, Jays (Corvidae)
Cape Crow Corvus capensis
Pied Crow Corvus albus
White-necked Raven Corvus albicollis
Rockjumpers (Chaetopidae)
Drakensberg Rockjumper Chaetops aurantius
Fairy Flycatchers (Stenostiridae)
Fairy Flycatcher Stenostira scita
Tits, Chickadees (Paridae)
Southern Black Tit (H) Melaniparus niger
Grey Tit Melaniparus afer
Larks (Alaudidae)
Large-billed Lark Galerida magnirostris
Bulbuls (Pycnonotidae)
Sombre Greenbul (H) Andropadus importunus
Terrestrial Brownbul Phyllastrephus terrestris
Dark-capped Bulbul Pycnonotus tricolor
Swallows, Martins (Hirundinidae)
Black Saw-wing Psalidoprocne pristoptera
Banded Martin Neophedina cincta
Brown-throated Martin Riparia paludicola
Rock Martin Ptyonoprogne fuligula
Blue Swallow – VU Hirundo atrocaerulea
White-throated Swallow Hirundo albigularis
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Common House Martin Delichon urbicum
Lesser Striped Swallow Cecropis abyssinica
Greater Striped Swallow Cecropis cucullata
Crombecs, African Warblers (Macrosphenidae)
Cape Grassbird Sphenoeacus afer
Leaf Warblers & Allies (Phylloscopidae)
Willow Warbler (H) Phylloscopus trochilus
Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus ruficapilla
Reed Warblers & Allies (Acrocephalidae)
African Yellow Warbler Iduna natalensis
Grassbirds & Allies (Locustellidae)
Fan-tailed Grassbird (H) Catriscus brevirostris
Barratt’s Warbler Bradypterus barratti
Little Rush Warbler (H) Bradypterus baboecala
Cisticolas & Allies (Cisticolidae)
Lazy Cisticola Cisticola aberrans
Wailing Cisticola Cisticola lais
Levaillant’s Cisticola Cisticola tinniens
Neddicky Cisticola fulvicapilla
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis
Pale-crowned Cisticola Cisticola cinnamomeus
Karoo Prinia Prinia maculosa
Drakensberg Prinia Prinia hypoxantha
Bar-throated Apalis Apalis thoracica
Green-backed Camaroptera (H) Camaroptera brachyura
Sylviid Babblers (Sylviidae)
Bush Blackcap – VU Sylvia nigricapillus
Layard’s Warbler Curruca layardi
White-eyes (Zosteropidae)
Cape White-eye Zosterops virens
Sugarbirds (Promeropidae)
Gurney’s Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi
Starlings, Rhabdornis (Sturnidae)
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Cape Starling Lamprotornis nitens
Pied Starling Lamprotornis bicolor
Red-winged Starling Onychognathus morio
Thrushes (Turdidae)
Orange Ground Thrush Geokichla gurneyi
Olive Thrush Turdus olivaceus
Chats, Old World Flycatchers (Muscicapidae)
Fiscal Flycatcher Melaenornis silens
African Dusky Flycatcher Muscicapa adusta
Cape Robin-Chat Cossypha caffra
White-starred Robin (H) Pogonocichla stellata
Cape Rock Thrush Monticola rupestris
Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator
African Stonechat Saxicola torquatus
Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciatus
Sickle-winged Chat Emarginata sinuata
Ant-eating Chat Myrmecocichla formicivora
Mountain Wheatear Myrmecocichla monticola
Familiar Chat Oenanthe familiaris
Sunbirds (Nectariniidae)
Collared Sunbird Hedydipna collaris
Grey Sunbird (H) Cyanomitra veroxii
Amethyst Sunbird Chalcomitra amethystina
Malachite Sunbird Nectarinia famosa
Greater Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris afer
White-bellied Sunbird (H) Cinnyris talatala
Old World Sparrows, Snowfinches (Passeridae)
Yellow-throated Bush Sparrow Gymnoris superciliaris
Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow Passer diffusus
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Weavers, Widowbirds (Ploceidae)
Thick-billed Weaver Amblyospiza albifrons
Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis
Southern Masked Weaver Ploceus velatus
Red-billed Quelea Quelea quelea
Yellow-crowned Bishop Euplectes afer
Southern Red Bishop Euplectes orix
Fan-tailed Widowbird Euplectes axillaris
Red-collared Widowbird Euplectes ardens
Long-tailed Widowbird Euplectes progne
Waxbills, Munias & Allies (Estrildidae)
Bronze Mannikin Spermestes cucullata
Swee Waxbill Coccopygia melanotis
Common Waxbill Estrilda astrild
Quailfinch Ortygospiza atricollis
African Firefinch Lagonosticta rubricata
Indigobirds, Whydahs (Viduidae)
Dusky Indigobird Vidua funerea
Pin-tailed Whydah Vidua macroura
Wagtails, Pipits (Motacillidae)
Cape Wagtail Motacilla capensis
African Pied Wagtail Motacilla aguimp
Cape Longclaw Macronyx capensis
African Pipit Anthus cinnamomeus
Mountain Pipit Anthus hoeschi
Finches, Euphonias (Fringillidae)
Forest Canary Crithagra scotops
Yellow-fronted Canary Crithagra mozambica
Drakensberg Siskin Crithagra symonsi
Yellow Canary Crithagra flaviventris
Brimstone Canary Crithagra sulphurata
Streaky-headed Seedeater Crithagra gularis
Cape Canary Serinus canicollis
Buntings (Emberizidae)
Cape Bunting Emberiza capensis
Golden-breasted Bunting Emberiza flaviventris

 

Total seen 168
Total heard only 14
Total recorded 182

 

Mammal List

 

Common Name Scientific Name
 
Bovids (Bovidae)
Southern Reedbuck Redunca arundinum
Mountain Reedbuck Redunca fulvorufula
Grey Rhebok Pelea capreolus
 
Old World Monkeys (Cercopithecidae)
Vervet Monkey Chlorocebus pygerythrus
Chacma Baboon Papio ursinus
Murids (Muridae)
Sloggett’s Vlei Rat Otomys sloggetti

 

Total seen 6

 

This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.

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