~ Guest Blogger Chris Lotz of Birding Ecotours ~
It’s certainly not easy to narrow down just a top ten birding spots in this large and diverse country, but I’ll try. It’s the country I grew up in (birding since I was a young child) and have since guided countless trips in all corners of the nine provinces, so I consider it my (rather large) patch.
Strandfontein Bird Sanctuary
Starting near Cape Town, Strandfontein Bird Sanctuary, a sewage treatment plant (many a birders’ favourite habitat!) is teaming with flamingos, waterfowl, reed-associated warblers, African Marsh-harrier Circus ranivorus and other birds aplenty. It has also become famous as a magnet for rare birds, and in most years there are several species to twitch. Being located on the edge of the long white sand beach of False Bay with views of the Cape Peninsula mountains (which extend from Table Mountain in the north to Cape Point in the south), one can enjoy spectacular scenery while birding.
Strandfontein is well-positioned for the drive along the mountains that come right down to the sea that are opposite the Cape Peninsula, to get to Rooiels/Betty’s Bay. This is one of the few places where Cape Rockjumper Chaetops frenatus can be seen at sea level rather than high on mountain passes. Many of the other Cape fynbos endemics are also easy to find here. Nearby Stony Point boasts one of the few mainland colonies of African Penguin Spheniscus demersus, and all the marine cormorant species including two localized threatened species are also present here. The penguin colony is now fenced as a rare Cape Leopard Panthera pardus pardus was predating the penguins!
West Coast National Park
Moving northwards, the West Coast National Park is the best place on the planet for the stunning Black Harrier Circus maurus and other localized birds, along with a wader spectacle from October through March. It’s very scenic with the Langebaan Lagoon and sometimes spectacular spring floral displays, and has some excellent mammals such as Caracal Caracal caracal.
Continuing further northwards to near the Namibia border, is Springbok/Pofadder, a remote mountainous part of the world that is the lark epicentre of the world, boasting some extremely range-restricted ones such as Red Lark Callendululauda burra, Sclater’s Lark Spizocorys sclateri and Black-eared Sparrow-lark Eremopterix australis. If larks aren’t your cup of tea, then it’s still a great area for bustards such as Ludwig’s Bustard Neotis ludwigii and a number of other spectacular birds.
Moving far to the east is the legendary Zaagkuilsdrift Road which is in easy reach of Johannesburg. This has some Kalahari-type birds such as Crimson-breasted Shrike Laniarius atrococcineus, a lot of grassland species and in years of good rainfall, tropical waterbirds including Dwarf Bittern Ixobrychus sturmii. One can accumulate a long very bird list in a single morning here.
Marievale Bird Sanctuary/Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve
On the other side of Johannesburg is Marievale Bird Sanctuary/Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve. These two reserves that are very close to each other are worth at least one full day of birding. Marievale is one of the country’s best waterbird sites, and Suikerbosrand is superb for spectacular-plumages widowbirds and bishop species, among a plethora of other birds.
Kruger National Park
Just a five to six hour drive east of Johannesburg is one of the world’s most famous game parks, the Kruger National Park which is about the same size as Belgium, so a vast – and spectacularly bird and mammal rich – part of the world.
Wakkerstroom is within easy reach of the southern parts of the vast Kruger National Park, and is rightly famed as an endemic hotspot, with charismatic korhaans including the localised and beautiful Blue Korhaan Eupodotis caerulescens plus localized larks including the Critically Endangered Rudd’s Lark Heteromirafra ruddi.
From Wakkerstroom it is then easy to reach northern Zululand, one of the most bird-diverse corners of South Africa. If you only have time to visit two of northern Zululand’s game reserves, then Mkhuze and iSamangaliso Wetland Park (St. Lucia) are likely to be at the top of your list. Both these reserves boast staggeringly high bird and mammal lists.
Last but not least, is Sani Pass which is easily accessible from Durban. As one ascends this road from the Kwazulu/Natal midlands up the imposing Drakensberg Escarpment into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, one is able to find almost all the Drakensberg endemics and specials in a single day of birding. Near the base of the pass are species like Bush Blackcap Sylvia nigricapillus, half way up are Protea specialists such as Gurney’s Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi and at the top are Drakensberg Rockjumper Chaetops aurantius, Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus and other star species.