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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

South Africa: The West

Kalahari to the Cape

2023 Narrative

IN DETAIL: It must be said that this year’s tour was affected by some usually poor weather.  The winter rains, which should have dried up by the time our Spring tour started, were still much in evidence, especially as we neared the Cape. But to start with it was a lack of rain that was an issue as we headed north from Upington nestled on the Orange River, towards the Kgalagadi National Park. Our journey there was broken along the way with stops to admire the massive Sociable Weaver nests adorning the roadside poles, and the numerous Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks and Southern Ant-eating Chats on roadside poles. We also came across an amazing collection of vultures on a carcass. Most were African White-backed Vultures, some 50 in total but there were also up to 7 massive Lappet-faced Vultures present.

Inside the national park we discovered there had been no significant rainfall for some considerable time.  This had an obvious effect on the various waterholes which were a shadow of what they are usually like, and on the birdlife with many species missing or present in very low numbers. However the mammals did not disappoint with Leopard, Cheetah and Honey Badger all appearing in quick succession.  There were birds to be found and on our drive around the southern part of the park we found such delights as Tawny Eagles, Pygmy Falcons, Lanner Falcon, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Northern Black Korhaans, Kori Bustard, Double-banded Courser, Common Scimitarbill, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Lilac-breasted Rollers, Fawn-coloured and Sabota Larks and Kalahari Scrub Robin to mention a few. Outside of the park we had great views of Pearl-spotted Owlet and Southern Pied Babbler.

Returning to Upington for one night, the grounds of our lodge were a perfect place for spend time looking for birds. Giant Kingfisher and African Black Duck were seen on the river and a single White-fronted Bee-eater was something of a surprise.  Orange River White-eye, Namaqua Warbler, Goliath Heron, Hamerkop, African Fish Eagle, Crested Barbet, African Hoopoe, and Golden-tailed and Cardinal Woodpeckers were some of the other delights of our visit there.

In contrast to the drier areas further north, the Orange River had obviously been subjected to heavy rainfall and the effects could be seen inside Augrabies National Park which has obvious flood damage. Pale-winged Starlings were as numerous as ever and the river gorge was alive with a large flock of Alpine Swifts, which contained a few Bradfield’s Swifts.  The remote town of Pofadder was our base for two nights. The surrounding farmland is good lark country and we were not disappointed with superb views of Sclater’s, Stark’s, Karoo Long-billed, and the wonderful Red Lark. There were also some Grey-backed Sparrowlarks but the nomadic Black-eared Sparrowlark eluded us – for the time being. Moving into Namaqualand we were hoping for some good displays of wildflowers and we were not to be disappointed. North of Springbok there were vast swathes of bright orange daisies everywhere but moving into Goegap National Park the display of spring flowers was simply breathtaking in one of the best shows I have ever seen. Reluctantly leaving this natural wonder behind, we headed south to Lambert’s Bay where we were greeted by a wonderful sunset over the Atlantic Ocean from the equally wonderful beachside seafood restaurant. The other star attraction here is the Cape Gannet colony which we were able to get close to thanks to the observation blind. There were many thousands of birds making a lot of noise as they prepared for the breeding season, and out beyond them was a large colony of Cape Fur Seals.

Our journey into the Karoo was broken with a stop to look for Protea Canary, which was as elusive as ever with only fleeting views but Lesser Honeyguide was some compensation. We also spent time at a wonderful wetland where Little Rush Warblers were displaying. Reaching the Karoo we were pleased to see that this normally dry place was covered in flowers. This had pulled in some birds and there were literally thousands of Lark-like Buntings everywhere and it was not long before we located groups of Black-eared Sparrowlarks which included some males performing their ‘butterfly’ display flight. Karoo Eremomela showed very well, as did Rufous-eared Warbler, Layard’s Tit Babbler, and Fairy Flycatcher.

Our night staying inside Bontebok was useful as it meant we could get out birding early in the morning around our accommodation, albeit having to dodge showers. A pair of Brown-hooded Kingfishers were nice to see, as were Southern Tchagras, Pin-tailed Whydahs, and Pearl-breasted and Greater Striped Swallows. We also caught up with a striking Greater Double-collared Sunbird, here at the very western edge of its range.  Out in the park there were a few smart Bontebok antelope to be seen, and we found a couple of distant Stanley’s Bustards.

Moving south we crossed an expanse of farmland, picking up Agulhas Long-billed Lark on the way, along with numerous Red-capped and Large-billed Larks and lots of stately Blue Cranes. The Cape Vultures also showed well at Potberg.  From the lofty heights of the escarpment above Hermanus we not only had fantastic views of the coastline but also of amazingly tame Cape Rockjumpers living up to their name and bouncing around the rocks. Heading west we stopped at Harold Porter Botanical Gardens where Cape Sugarbirds were busy feeding on the flowering proteas, and Olive Woodpecker crept along a tree trunk. Next came the Stony Point African Penguin colony.  The usual boardwalk was closed due to damage during the winter storms but there were some of the endearing Penguins on the beach, and with the ‘scope we could see many Bank Cormorants amongst all the Cape Cormorants out on the rocks. There was also a single Crowned Cormorant, a bird that seems to be getting scarcer around the Cape. The walk at Betty’s Bay gave us another Cape Rockjumper, as well as Cape Rock Thrush and Orange-breasted Sunbird.

On reaching Cape Town, the weather was generally poor for most of our stay, but we had one good day for our pelagic, travelling south of Cape of Good Hope on very flat seas under clear skies. Our fast boat soon found some trawlers and were treated to a unique and amazing spectacle. Thousands of seabirds were just everywhere with hundreds of Shy and Black-browed Albatrosses gliding right past us. With them were countless White-chinned Petrels and good numbers of Pintado Petrels. Mixed in were both Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, a few Wilson’s Storm Petrels, a couple of Great Shearwaters and some Sub-Antarctic Skuas. However, the stars of the show were an amazing 6 Northern Royal and 2 Southern Royal Albatrosses. Back on dry land we spent a day visiting the West Coast National Park where we had good views of Black Harrier and perhaps best of all, a pair of African Marsh Harrier performing an aerial food pass right in front of us. This national park held good numbers of Southern Black Korhaans and we also had our best views of Cape Longclaw and Banded Martin here. Leaving the national park we called in at some salt pans where we found some smart Chestnut-banded Plovers and a single Great White Pelican amongst all the Lesser Flamingoes. Elsewhere our travels took us to Cape Point National Park for the obligatory group photo at the most south westerly point of Africa and this is where we managed to catch up with Ground Woodpecker. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is always worth a visit and we soon found the hoped-for Forest Canary. At least one Booted Eagle sailed overhead, along with some Black Sawwings, and it was good to see the Spotted Eagle Owl in its usual nesting site.

The dubious surroundings of Strandfontein Water Treatment plant produced a few Fulvous Whistling Ducks, and lots of Black-necked Grebes, Cape Teal, Southern Pochard and Cape Shovelers. There were also Lesser Swamp Warblers lurking in the reeds, along with a few African Purple Swamphens and searching through the flocks of Hartlaub’s Gulls turned up some nicely plumaged Grey-headed Gulls. And all too soon the tour was over. We had successfully travelled from the Kalahari to the Cape, seen a lot of wonderful things and had a lot of fun along the way. 

                                                                                                                                                                                          - Steve Rooke

Created: 17 October 2023