10-25 MARCH 2017
By Jason Boyce
This was a tour with incredible diversity, varying habitats, enjoyable company, and a host of endemic South African bird species. Our 16-day ‘Subtropical South Africa’ tour gave us 397 species of birds, with an additional 15 species being heard only. We also saw 37 mammal species, interesting reptiles, and a few rare South African butterflies. It was a very enjoyable tour that showcased the best of what South Africa has to offer in its eastern parts. Experiencing over 400 species of birds with excellent game viewing in world-famous parks such as Kruger National Park and Mkhuze Game Reserve as well as notching up Lesotho highland endemics at 3300 meters above sea level has indeed to go down as a truly brilliant trip!
Day 1, Umhlanga and surrounds
The Umhlanga area is a fantastic place to kick this tour off. It hosts a really nice variety of eastern, ‘warmer climate’ species, and this was evident right from the get-go when we spent some time birding the gardens of the guest house. Red-capped Robin-Chat, White-eared Barbet, Violet-backed Starling, Square-tailed Drongo, African Paradise Flycatcher, and Collared and Olive Sunbirds, as well as Green-backed Camaroptera were in good voice and showed nicely. Lesser Striped Swallow and Black Saw-wings cruised overhead, while a small group of the coastal Black-bellied Starling was sitting conspicuously at the top of a nearby tree. We spent some time birding the nearby Umhlanga Nature Reserve, which often delivers the goods. The reeds at the entrance provided good perches for a small family of Little Bee-eaters as well as the resident Rufous-winged Cisticola. It was incredible, albeit fairly bizarre, to have three species of wagtail walking along the boardwalk in front of us: Cape, African Pied, and Mountain Wagtails – at one stage in a single binocular frame. A pair of Black-throated Wattle-eye showed really nicely in the thicker tangles along the path, while Terrestrial Brownbul, Sombre and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls, and Cardinal Woodpecker all gave us glimpses. We enjoyed a quick lunch before making our way south to the Umgeni River mouth, where we spent some time looking for a few shorebirds and tern roosts. Woolly-necked Storks greeted us as we got to the site, while a couple of Water Thick-knee made their voices heard as they flushed to the other side of the estuary. Common and Greater Crested Terns were both on view, while Common Greenshank was one of the few shorebirds around. A single Pink-backed Pelican was also feeding in the estuary, while a Yellow-billed Kite (who would soon depart northward again) was circling above us. We ended the day with some birding in the grasslands before our progress was halted by some heavy clouds and light rain. We did, however, connect with Dusky Indigobird, Red-collared Widowbird, and Rattling Cisticola.
Day 2, Oribi Gorge and Ingeli Forest to Himeville
A fairly early start traveling south along the coast to Oribi Gorge for some forest birding was on the agenda, and we did well to pick up both European Honey Buzzard and African Harrier-Hawk on the way. This brilliant natural forested reserve has a real good selection of mature forest species, including the likes of Knysna Turaco and Narina Trogon. We kicked things off, however, with a master skulker; Green Twinspot. We picked up on a pair calling nearby, and abandoning breakfast we spent some time tracking them and eventually enjoyed cracking visuals! The calls of Brown Scrub Robin and Chorister Robin-Chat echoed through the deep, dark forest patches; the latter only providing us with a glimpse. We did, however, thoroughly enjoy visuals of Knysna Woodpecker, Knysna Turaco, Forest Canary, and Grey and Collared Sunbirds, as well as Peregrine Falcon cruising above us. Later that morning we managed to find the stunning Blue Swallow cruising over the mistbelt grasslands, accompanied by Yellow-throated Longclaw, Wailing Cisticola, and Greater Striped Swallow. Cape Vulture showed high above us as we left for Ingeli. Ingeli Forest Lodge served us with a quick lunch as well as Malachite and Greater Double Collared Sunbirds, and before we knew it we were back in the forest, this time Ingeli Forest, to search for a few more species. The “vlei” we passed while heading towards the Ingeli Forest road held Thick-billed Weaver, Drakensberg Prinia, African Yellow Warbler, and African Dusky Flycatcher. The forest birding was fairly slow, but we were rewarded with sightings of the brilliant Narina Trogon as well as Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, African Olive Pigeon, Long-crested Eagle, and a glimpse of Blue Mantled Crested Flycatcher.
Day 3, Sani Pass, Lesotho
A true birding highlight was the day trip up Sani Pass into Lesotho. We could not have asked for a better day to head up the pass in terms of weather, and, as we would find out later, the birding was incredible too! Both Bush Blackcap and Cape Grassbird showed well for us at the base of the pass, while further along we were able to enjoy stunning looks at a pair of Gurney’s Sugarbird feeding on a large Protea bush alongside the road – a definite highlight! A couple of distant storks and vultures, including, Cape Vulture and Black as well as White Storks circled high above us as we started the main ascent. The endemic and striking Drakensberg Rockjumpers were actively moving around the rocks feeding, not at all bothered by our presence. We enjoyed an amazing interaction between a Verreaux’s Eagle and a Jackal Buzzard on the slopes above us, while Fairy Flycatcher was calling behind us. Bearded Vultures were yet another highlight for us today – no less than two individuals circled high alongside the steep cliff face, where they had been breeding the past season. We also enjoyed a productive walk on one of the shrubby slopes, where we picked up Grey Tit, Layard’s Warbler, Drakensberg Siskin, and Sentinel Rock Thrush, as well as a pair of Mountain Pipit. Mammals included Grey Rhebok, Rock Hyrax, and Sloggett’s Vlei Rat.
Day 4, Himeville to Eshowe
Today we traveled from Himeville in the southern Drakensberg to Eshowe, where we would spend two nights. A lot lay ahead of us as we departed Himeville and spent some time searching the area for cranes and Secretarybird. Grey Crowned Crane wasn’t difficult to come by, and we enjoyed many of them; however, Wattled Crane didn’t show on that morning. Some other species in the area were Pied Starling, Spur-winged Goose, African Marsh Harrier, African Harrier-Hawk, Cape Canary, Long-tailed Widowbird, and South African Cliff Swallow. The highlight of the morning was indeed a Secretarybird that was strolling along the rolling hills. We stopped off at Marutswa Forest to try to locate Cape Parrot, a species that hasn’t been doing very well in past years. It seems that the Marutswa population is not doing well either, no birds were found on our visit. We did manage Orange Ground Thrush, Cape Batis, Olive Thrush, Knysna Turaco, Cape Grassbird in the surrounding grasslands, and a pair of Crowned Hornbill. Brimstone Canary was a highlight at lunch before we started the long drive to Eshowe.
Day 5, Birding Eshowe and surrounds
A full days birding in the greater Eshowe area included an early morning visit to Ongoye Forest Reserve as well as birding around Mtunzini and Amatikulu Nature Reserve. Birding was generally slow, and species were quiet, but a beautiful Green Barbet near an active nest sight was definitely a highlight. Chorister Robin-Chat and Lemon Dove were present, but only some members of the group managed visuals. Yellow-streaked, Sombre, and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls all showed, while the calls of Square-tailed Drongo and Purple-crested Turaco were echoing through the forest. The surrounding grasslands gave us Croaking and Zitting Cisticolas, and the woodland below Ongoye to the north produced Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Rattling Cisticola, Blue Waxbill, Lesser Striped Swallow, Little Swift, Marsh Warbler, and Black-collared Barbet. Mtunzini and Amatikulu were beautiful and green. Woolly-necked Storks circled over the Umlalazi estuary, while some Emerald-spotted Wood Doves were seen en route. Amatikulu didn’t produce anything new besides a few rather incredible butterflies that were enjoyed thoroughly by all in the group.
Day 6, Eshowe to St Lucia
We spent the morning in Eshowe, exploring the Dlinza Forest Aerial Boardwalk, which is located right in the town itself. Dlinza Forest is home to breeding Spotted Ground Thrush, and we were certainly lucky to see an individual cruising around the forest floor collecting worms for its young. The canopy tower produced a great view over the forest as well as African Olive Pigeon, Trumpeter Hornbill, Olive Sunbird, and good numbers of White-eared Barbet. Other areas of the forest were productive and yielded Chorister Robin-Chat, Square-tailed Drongo, fleeting views of Olive Bushshrike, Black-backed Puffback, Purple-crested Turaco, and the sought-after Green Malkoha. We headed on toward St Lucia, a great birding destination with loads of excitement in store. We visited the estuary in the afternoon after a quick bite to eat at the St Lucia Ski Boat Club, picking up the likes of Sand Martin, Barn Swallows, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, ten Pink-backed Pelicans, Yellow-billed Stork, and both Little and Greater Crested Terns in the tern roost. The iGwala Gwala Forest Trail was as good as always, with the likes of Woodward’s Batis, Rudd’s Apalis, Livingstone’s Turaco, Collared Sunbird, Dark-backed Weaver, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Brown Scrub Robin, and a slightly unexpected sighting of Pink-throated Twinspot. We ended the day with a family of the extravagant Crested Guineafowl – six adult birds and three young.
Day 7, iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it truly offers a fine day out birding and mammal watching! African Jacana, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, European Roller (over 30 individuals), and Black-chested and Brown Snake Eagles were some of the first species that we recorded, while a number of African buffalos were seen grazing away in the distant grasslands. We slowly worked our way towards Cape Vidal, taking some of the side road loops. Some of these were productive, and we recorded the likes of Striped Kingfisher, Red-breasted Swallow, Red-backed Shrike, Yellow-throated Longclaw and the zygodactyl Burchell’s Coucal. Green Twinspot was one of the highlights on a small trail toward a lookout point over Lake St Lucia, while Senegal Lapwing and Woolly-necked Stork were seen in the open areas toward the shoreline of the lake. Two White Rhino were really great to see as we were leaving the reserve in the afternoon, a relief for some of us, as things on the mammal front had been fairly slow for most of the day.
Day 8, St Lucia to Mkhuze Game Reserve
We decided to once again take a walk on the iGwala-gwala Forest Trail in St Lucia and worked on a few species that we had missed the day before. Yellow Weaver, African Marsh Harrier, African Goshawk and Thick-billed Weaver all gave us some visuals, while the likes of Grey Waxbill and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, species that are normally not observed very well, really did put on a show for all of us. The last species that morning before breakfast was Scaly-throated Honeyguide singing up in one of the beautiful ‘flat-crown’ forest trees. On leaving St Lucia we managed some nice sightings of Southern Brown-throated Weavers that bred in the reeds near the estuary bridge. A sub-adult Palm-nut Vulture gave us a brilliant flight view as we pulled onto the main road north, a bird that we had previously dipped on. What a great sighting! False Bay produced the goods; Gorgeous Bushshrike, the beautiful master skulker, showed pretty well after a bit of work chasing it around the thicket bush. One of the Zululand specials, Neergaard’s Sunbird was heard calling along the trail to the north and responded nicely. This is a ‘sand-forest’ species and is therefore restricted to small patches of this remnant woodland. We also managed to get some nice looks at: African Yellow White-eye, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Caspian Tern, and White-fronted Plover. Mpempe Pan was the next short stop along the way to Mkhuze – an open floodplain-type area that usually holds some interesting species. Here we recorded Western Yellow Wagtail, Senegal Lapwing, Crowned Lapwing, African Quailfinch, Yellow-billed Stork, African Spoonbill, Hamerkop, African Jacana, Red-billed Teal, and the highlight, real good numbers of Lemon-breasted Canary!
Day 9, Mkhuze birding
One of my personal favorite birding locations in South Africa is Mkhuze Game Reserve. It offers extremely good mixed woodland, thicket, and sand-forest habitat and has a bird species list of over 440 species to date. Birding was decidedly slower than normal, but with a bit of effort we managed some enjoyable sightings. Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were around in force and were a real treat for most of the day. Some of the hides in the area produced African Darter, Grey and Goliath Herons, Emerald Spotted Wood Dove, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Diederik Cuckoo, and Red-billed Oxpecker. The open areas to the south of the reserve gave us a few savanna species, including Grey Go-away-bird, Sabota, Rufous-naped, and Flappet Larks, Lilac-breasted Roller, and the stunning Bateleur. The Nsumo Pan was active with many White-winged Terns as well as African Fish Eagle and a few aerial-feeding species including Barn, Wire-tailed, and Lesser Striped Swallows as well as Little, White-rumped, and African Palm-Swifts. In the evening we joined a local night drive to give us another chance at seeing some nocturnal species including some interesting nocturnal mammals. The night drive turned out to be very productive for birds but unfortunately not as productive for mammals. We added the likes of Fiery-necked and European Nightjars, Tawny Eagle, and Spotted Thick-knee, as well as no less than four Bronze-winged Coursers. Mammals encountered during the day included White Rhino, Hippopotamus, Scrub Hare, Giraffe, Impala, Thick-tailed Greater Galago, and Chacma Baboon.
Day 10, Mkhuze to Wakkerstroom
White-crested Helmetshrike, Common Scimitarbill, and Black Cuckooshrike were three of the passerines to greet us as we made our way out of the park’s western gate. We stopped briefly in Mkhuze town for brunch as well as a bird or two and then started our long drive inland to the rolling grasslands of Wakkerstroom. Today was mainly be a travel day with some rest later that afternoon, as the next day would be a full day birding the brilliant grassland areas. Cloud Cisticola entertained us at a quick rest stop as we approached Wakkerstroom, while a few Hadada, African Sacred, and Southern Bald Ibis all gave us some visuals right near the town and guest house.
Day 11, Wakkerstroom birding
There was an early start with a full day’s birding ahead. Wakkerstroom is a very well known birding area among the South African birding community. and they do well to support local guides. We made use of a local guide today who knows the area intimately. We kicked off the day on the Kwa Zulu Natal/Mpumalanga border, where we managed to find no less than four Yellow-breasted Pipits. These pipits were joined by Eastern Long-billed Lark, Wing-snapping Cisticola, Denham’s Bustard, Pied Starling, and Sentinel Rock Thrush. We drove towards Zaaihoek Dam, where we did well to locate a single African Rock Pipit as well as singles of both Horus Swift and Cape Rock Thrush. Cape Bunting as well as a few rock hyraxes were more numerous. We then made our way to the grasslands in the northern parts of the area, where we spent most of our time trying to locate the red-data species Blue Korhaan, Botha’s Lark, and one of South Africa’s rarest birds, Rudd’s Lark. Fickland Pan is one of the stronghold breeding areas for Rudd’s Lark, and even though this species was just about done breeding for the day we managed to locate an individual that we watched for some time. The pan and surrounding areas held Wing-snapping Cisticola, Spike-heeled Lark, Maccoa Duck, Great Crested Grebe, and Banded Martin. After enjoying our packed lunches overlooking the dam we carried on, flushing two Blue Korhaans right in front of us – it truly is incredible how this species is able to hide in short grassland! Botha’s Lark also ‘played ball’ and showed pretty well in the cattle tracks in a local field. Later that afternoon, while looking for the sought-after White-bellied Bustard, we located Black-wined Lapwing, Montagu’s Harrier, and Grey-winged and Red-winged Francolins. It had been a very successful day so far, and we weren’t quite done yet; after exhausting all our known spots for the bustard our local guide had one more area up his sleeve. This area did hold one White-bellied Bustard, and so, just like that, we ended a truly brilliant day in Wakkerstroom. Mammal highlights were Yellow Mongoose and the brilliant Meerkat.
Day 12, Wakkerstroom to Kruger National Park
Today again was mainly a travel day, during which we drove from Wakkerstroom down the escarpment to Kruger National Park. We did, however, first spend some time birding the local Wakkerstroom wetlands before making our way to the amazing national park. The wetlands were productive as usual; no less than four African Rails showed for us in the morning light. We also encountered Black Crake, Hottentot Teal, Cape Weaver, Southern Red Bishop, Spur-winged Goose, African Wattled Lapwing, Amethyst and Malachite Sunbirds, and a brilliant African Hoopoe back at the guesthouse before we departed. We entered Kruger National Park at Phabeni Gate and used the last amount of time that the day had to offer to look for birds and game. Our drive towards Skukuza was highly productive; we observed the likes of Woodland Kingfisher, Burchell’s Starling, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Lilac-breasted Roller, Lesser Grey Shrike, and some Wattled Starling hanging around a heard of African Buffalo. We did also encounter our first African Elephants of the tour (many of them) as well as two Spotted Hyenas near the entrance to Skukuza Restcamp.
Day 13, Kruger National Park
This was a full days of birding the greater Skukuza area of the Kruger National Park. We headed out as the gates opened at 5:30 a.m. to make the most of the early morning; A Marabou Stork was perched in a dead tree awaiting some sunlight, and a white rhino crossed the road in front of us. Southern Yellow-billed, Southern Red-billed, and African Grey Hornbills all made an appearance within a few minutes of one another, while the likes of Dark-capped Bulbul and Cape Glossy Starling were out early, checking the road for food. At the Skukuza high water bridge and the picnic site nearby we found Water Thick-knee, Red-winged Starling, White-fronted Plover, Common Sandpiper, White-winged Widowbird, Red-billed Quelea, and Village Weaver. Sunset dam is one of those spots in the KNP where you could spend hours. Here we found Malachite Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Three-banded Plover, White-crowned Lapwing, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, and Lesser Masked Weaver actively attending nests in a dead tree in the lake, while both Grey and Black-headed Herons were perched nearby. A local brunch was enjoyed at the Lower Sabie Restcamp, overlooking the impressive Sabie River. Brown-headed Parrot gave us a flyby, and Greater Blue-eared Starling wanted the food from our plates. Chinspot Batis and Red-faced Cisticola were both in the area, and we picked up on these and a host more before leaving the camp area. Then we birded some of the open areas north of Lower Sabie and picked up a few new species for the trip. Harlequin Quails were calling all over, but unfortunately we couldn’t get any visuals. We were rewarded, though, with sightings of Common Buttonquail on more than one occasion, some with young. We also picked up Swainson’s Spurfowl, Magpie Shrike, White-headed and Lappet-faced Vultures, Bateleur, Purple Indigobird, and the stunning Mocking Cliff Chat. On route back to Skukuza we encountered a few raptor species catching some thermals; African Harrier-Hawk was present and so too was a juvenile Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, which is considered a rarity almost anywhere in South Africa. A very good bird for the day! We ended things nicely with a flock of Retz’s Helmetshrikes, Common Scimitarbill, Brubru, and a family of Crested Francolin.
Day 14, Kruger National Park to Dullstroom
We decided to have a walk through camp this morning instead of heading out for a drive. Many species we still needed reside in the camp, and we got nice visuals of the stunning Scarlet-chested Sunbird right near our chalets. White-throated Robin-Chat was another species that uses Skukuza as a home, and it didn’t take long for us to pick out this beauty. Yellow-breasted Apalis, Long-billed Crombec, Southern Black Flycatcher, Black-collared Barbet, Speckled Mousebird, Collared Sunbird, African Paradise Flycatcher, and the stunning African Green Pigeon were all around before breakfast. After we had left the camp we birded toward the gate, checking for a few species in the broad-leafed habitat on the way out. We did pick up Green-capped Eremomela, Striped Kingfisher, and Gabar Goshawk before exciting at Phabeni Gate and traveling to Sabie for lunch. The Long Tom Pass was our preferred route to Dullstroom that afternoon, and it definitely has some spectacular scenery! As we were entering Dullstroom we stopped at a local spot to check for Denham’s Bustard, but we only saw a distant African Harrier-Hawk as well as a pair of Oribi – a small highveld grassland antelope, a treat for us as we were ending our day.
Day 15, Dullstroom to Dinokeng
The De Berg Road was enjoyable as usual; we picked up Denham’s Bustard, Rock Kestrel, Wing-snapping Cisticola, Eastern Long-billed Lark, about seven Buff-streaked Chats, and a single Mountain Wheatear. Our route for the day was changed slightly due to an impassable road after good rains in the area. This, however, meant that we had time to pick up the tricky Melodious Lark on the way to Mabusa, a real treat of a lark among LBJ enthusiasts. Mabusa Nature Reserve did produce a few bits and pieces, but the heat of the day made things slow going. Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Lazy Cisticola, Cape Grassbird, and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird were all active and showed fairly well. On our way to Dinokeng we added sightings of Grey Go-away-bird, the striking Crimson-breasted Shrike, Red-billed Oxpecker, and Black-chested Snake Eagle.
Day 16, Dinokeng, Rust de Winter to Johannesburg, departure
Our last day of the tour kicked off with an early morning game drive. A beautiful morning was enjoyed even more as we came across a pair of Common Ostrich, Crested Francolin, Arrow-marked Babblers making their presence known to a Pearl-spotted Owlet, Violet-eared Waxbill, Green-winged Pytilia, and Red-crested Korhaan. A local dam where we stopped for a coffee break gave us really good looks at African Fish Eagle, Whiskered and White-winged Terns (both going through different stages of plumage), Giant Kingfisher, and Water Thick-knee. After breakfast and checking out we made our way to bird the roadside routes of the Rust de Winter Nature Reserve before heading south to Johannesburg. Here we picked up a number of beautiful Long-tailed Paradise Whydahs, Purple Indigobird, Black-chested Prinia, Desert Cisticola, Burnt-necked Eremomela, and Marico Flycatcher. Our last stop of the day was at the Pretoria Botanical Gardens, where we enjoyed lunch and added both Karoo Thrush and Black-throated Canary to the list before driving to Oliver Tambo International Airport for our flights home.
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.