Beholding the bearded vulture

After our Namibia trip, we were in need of a little greenness and so we planned a quick trip to the Golden Gate National Park in the Maluti Mountains near the border of Lesotho. The park is named for the golden light that falls on its impressive sandstone cliffs. This particular area has a long history of human settlement beginning with the San (or Bushmen) who roamed the area leaving behind stone tools and cave paintings. The area was then settled by groups of both Africans and Europeans on and off until 1962 when the government declared the area a national park. It began with around 4,800 hectares but has since expanded to nearly 12,000 hectares of grassland and rock formations. Golden Gate holds around 250 bird species including some montane specials such as Drakensberg rockjumper (Chaetops aurantius), Gurney’s sugarbird (Promerops gurneyi), mountain pipit (Anthus hoeschi), and Cape (Gyps coprotheres) and bearded vultures (Gypaetus barbatus).

We left Johannesburg at around 8am and headed south on the backroads to the park. As we moved through the grasslands, we say plenty of pied starlings (Lamprotornis bicolor) posing on fence poles along with lesser kestrels (Falco naumanni) and common buzzards (Buteo buteo) flying above us. We made it to Clarens, a little arty town, popular among South African tourists. We wandered around for a few hours and picked up some more bird paraphernalia including a copy of Birds of Britain, a checklist of birds in Lesotho, a milk jug with malachite sunbirds (Nectarinia famosa) on it and a sugar bowl with African jacanas (Actophilornis africanus). Along with our birdy goods, we also grabbed some local cider and beer from Clarens Breweries (which I cannot say enough good things about).

We drove into Golden Gate, admiring the rolling grasslands punctuated by sandstone cliffs. It was the heat of the day, so there was little activity in terms of birds or mammals. As we pulled in to check in to our chalet, we grabbed two new birds for the year list Cape bunting (Emberiza capensis) and streaky-headed seedeater (Serinus gularis). We settled in and sat on the porch to wait out the heat for a few hours. Cape weavers (Ploceus capensis) quickly colonised our little garden along with red-winged (Onychognathus morio) and pied starlings and red-eyed doves (Streptopelia semitorquata). As the sun dropped and the day cooled down, we went for a quick loop to admire the dam and investigate the vulture restaurant. Our first bird was a young African harrier-hawk (Polyboroides typus) which soared over us before settling on a cliff, much to the other birds’ concerns. As we neared the dam, we caught up with handsome male African stonechats (Saxicola torquatus), feisty Levaillant’s cisticolas (Cisticola tinniens), and acrobatic banded martins (Riparia cincta). The dam was quiet with little bird life but the river held yellow-billed (Anas undulata) and African black duck (A. sparsa). We continued up the road, rising in altitude. Several black-backed jackals (Canis mesomelas) skulked in the grass and far off herds of black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) grazed peacefully. The black wildebeest is South African endemic mammal, found only in the grasslands. It was hunted to near extinction with only 600 individuals remaining. Today, its population has grown to around 18,000 individuals (most of which reside on private lands). It is now ranked as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN.

Our last stop for the evening was at the vulture restaurant (an area where carcasses are placed to feed vultures). This restaurant was created to provide safe food for both bearded and Cape vultures. This has been shown in India to reduce their risk of poisoning, a major threat to vulture populations globally. The drive up brought us two more species for the year list, the brightly colored yellow bishop (Euplectes afer) and the tiny Cape canary (Serinus canicollis). As we arrived at the restaurant, we were greeted by an extremely tame black-backed jackal, who only loped away when we were meters away from him. Sadly, the restaurant held no vultures as the carcasses were much too old and had been stripped of all their meat. This is a common problem at vulture restaurants as carcasses can be in short supply. We drove back down, satisfied with our day, and enjoyed a lasagna dinner before passing out, ready for our early morning.

Our second day, we headed to Royal Natal Park, a KwaZulu-Natal Parks Board property. Royal Natal holds the source the mighty Orange River (the longest river in South Africa), as well as the famous Ampitheatre, a half bowl of 500 meter high cliffs. The plan for us was to try to find some of the high elevation endemics by visiting another vulture restaurant and climbing at least partway up the Sentinel, a nearly 3,200 meter plateau. We awoke before sunrise to red-winged francolins (Francolinus levaillantii) calling all around us and drove for an hour and a half to Witsieshoek Mountain Resort. The birds were quiet as it was much too early for most to be active but we did find a single southern bald ibis (Geronticus calvus) at the park gate, a good omen for our day. We chatted to the woman at reception who informed us that a bone would be placed for the bearded vultures at around 9am. Vultures cannot fly early in the morning due to the lack of wind and thermals. It was only 7:30 and so we went for a short hike through the grassy hills. The wildflowers were unbelievable with Agapanthus (African lily or lily of the Nile), Watsonia (bugle lily), and many others all in full bloom. Bushy kloofs held Cape grassbirds (Sphenoeacus afer) while grassy slopes held wing-snapping (Cisticola ayresii) and cloud cisticolas (C. textrix) who both called vigorously. Malachite sunbirds bobbed around from flower to flower. In one particular section, the sky teamed with swifts and swallows including one particularly vicious black saw-wing (Psalidoprocne pristoptera) who seemed determined to pirate food from the other aerial feeders.

We finished our warm-up stroll and returned to the lodge to await our beardie. The staff placed a large, raw bone on a rock and instructed us to sit quietly behind a little stone wall. We waited and suffered through many “false alarms” of white-necked ravens (Corvus albicollis) before a single adult bearded vulture flew low over our heads. It did not land as it had clearly seen us before we saw it but the sighting was phenomenal none the less. Bearded vultures are in severe need of conservation in South Africa and Lesotho. Very few pairs remain in the subregion and those that do are at risk of poisoning and collision with wind turbines. Their declines have been catastrophic over the past three decades.

After our bearded vulture encounter, we headed to the base of the Sentinel to go for a hike. The massive mountain loomed above us, covered in rocky scree and flower-filled grass. Our hike began very successfully with a jackal buzzard (Buteo rufofuscus) soaring above us followed by a family of Drakensberg rockjumpers below us. Rockjumpers are a family of birds endemic to South Africa and are always a pleasure to see. Young from previous broods often remain with their parents to help raise subsequent broods. This particular group had an extra male along with the pair. They hopped from rock to rock, calling loudly. We continued up the slopes surrounded by many flowers such as Diascia (twinspur), Nemesia, Papaver (poppy), and Eucomis (pineapple flower). It was fairly quiet birdwise until we reached around 2,800 meters. We heard a soft call as two small birds flew over and landed on a cliff. My mother spotted the two sitting and we quickly identified them as Drakensberg siskin (Serinus symonsi). Another Drakensberg special down! We decided that this would be our turning point and headed back down the mountain. As we rounded a corner, a massive bearded vulture flew right over us! Looking at photos now, it appears to be the same bird from earlier. As we neared the rockjumper spot again, we saw that the area was busy with birds. The Drakensberg rockjumpers remained along with a very smart-looking buff-streaked chat (Campicoloides bifasciatus) and a single ground woodpecker (Geocolaptes olivaceus). Two more specials in the bag!

We arrived back at the bakkie, tired but happy, and headed back to Golden Gate. When we re-entered the park, we drove through fields of antelope with black wildebeest, blesbok (Damaliscus pygargus phillipsi), Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii), and springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis). A small patch of Protea that was in bloom held a single male Gurney’s sugarbird, another Drakensberg special. Overall, it was a very satisfying day with many new birds added to the year list.

The next morning, we packed up and left through the backside of the park, heading towards Harrismith. The antelope covered the open plains. We found few new species but there were plenty of bokmakieries (Telophorus zeylonus), Cape canaries, and red-collared widowbirds (Euplectes ardens). We also picked up another family of ground woodpeckers and a red-throated wryneck (Jynx ruficollis). From Golden Gate, we flew onwards until we reached Harrismith. We had decided to look for grey-crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), eastern long-billed lark (Certhilauda semitorquata), and Botha’s lark (Spizocorys fringillaris). The little loop began with a small, relatively dry farm dam. The first thing that we noticed about the dam was the extreme number of southern bald ibis. There were easily 100 individuals at the dam. Joining the ibis, far in the back of the dam, was a single pair of grey-crowned crane, a truly iconic African bird. We dipped on the rest of the specials but the cranes alone were well worth the detour.

The whole trip was a wonderful experience! Our chalet at Golden Gate National Park was clean and well-equipped, the hiking in both parks was wonderful, and the birds were basically unbeatable with many new species for the year list. We saw 104 species over the three days and although none were lifers, many were birds we very rarely see and were great to add to the year list!

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