Wandering around Wakkerstroom

Every serious birder who comes to South Africa (or lives in South Africa) will inevitably head to the tiny town of Wakkerstroom. Wakkerstroom is located on the Mpumalanga-KwaZulu-Natal border, smack in the middle of the most beautiful highland grasslands in the country. These grasslands support a huge amount of bird diversity, and more importantly for many birders, endemic bird diversity. Two of the top drawcards for birders from around the world are Rudd’s (Heteromirafra ruddi) and Botha’s Larks (Spizocorys fringillaris), both scarce, nondescript grassland species found only in South Africa. In addition to this, it is relatively easy to find many other more widespread endemics such as Yellow-breasted Pipit (Anthus chloris), Blue Korhaan (Eupodotis caerulescens), Eastern Long-billed Lark (Certhilauda semitorquata), and Barratt’s Warbler (Bradypterus barratti). The fantastic birding combined with the fact that the town itself is perfectly quaint (and only three hours from Johannesburg) makes this the perfect weekend getaway.

Melissa, our two fellow bird nerds Ainsley and Lynique, and I decided to book a last minute trip to this little town in late January. Melissa and I drove down through increasingly hilly grasslands noting a Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis) on one of the telephone poles as well as a flock of Southern Bald Ibis (Geronticus calvus) feeding in field outside Amersfoort. We met up with Ainsley and Lynique on the famous bridge overlooking the wetlands just before sunset. It was a beautiful evening with African Rails (Rallus caerulescens) calling from deep within the reeds along with numerous Little Rush (B. baboecala) and Lesser Swamp Warblers (Acrocephalus gracilirostris). Several Black-crowned Night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) flew over us, giving a harsh kwok. In the distance, two Grey Crowned Cranes (Balearica regulorum), a truly iconic African species, fed where the wetlands met the marsh. There were ducks galore in each little pond. They ranged from the diminutive Hottentot Teal (Spatula hottentota) to the striking South African Shelduck (Tadorna cana). It was completely dark all too quickly and so we headed to our lodging at the BirdLife South Africa centre with one brief stop for a Spotted Eagle Owl (Bubo africanus) sitting on the power line. Our day was topped off by dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Metamorphis, and an early bedtime.

The next morning, we all got up well before sunrise, quickly making a coffee and grabbing some easy breakfast snacks. Off we went down the Dirkiesdorp road to look for White-bellied Bustard (Eupodotis senegalensis) and whatever else we could find. As the sun rose, we spotted numerous Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo) and Jackal Buzzards (Buteo rufofuscus) perched on each fence post. We began dropping down towards a more open plain, leaving behind the rocky, Ouhout-covered slopes. After about half an hour, we turned up a little dirt track past the tiny village of Dirkiesdorp and up into an overgrazed field. A small patch of bracken turned up a handsome Cape Grassbird (Sphenoeacus afer), singing his heart out from the top of one fern. We continued down our narrow path, spotting numerous Spike-heeled (Chersomanes albofasciata) and Red-capped (Calandrella cinerea) Larks scampering around the cow patties and termite mounds. They were joined by squads of Crowned Lapwings (Vanellus coronatus) as well as a handful of the African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus), most adaptable of the grassland birds. We scanned and scanned, hearts skipping a beat every time any large bird took off. As we reached the far corner of the field, we spotted two bobble heads on long necks, skulking in a single patch of long grass. As we approached close, the White-bellied Bustards came into focus. There was a pair along with their nearly fully grown chick. Upon spotting us, they promptly sat back on their haunches with only their heads peaking over the grass. After enjoying them for a bit, we headed back out onto the main road, happy that we had acquired our first target.

White-bellied Korhaans - Dirkiesdorp, MP
Sneaky White-bellied Bustards

The next target was the elusive Bush Blackcap (Lioptilus nigricapillus), an interesting and beautiful endemic. They spend most of their summer on slopes covered in Ouhout and we had seem plenty on our drive out. We stopped at the first promising place to no avail although we did pick up a female Buff-streaked Chat (Campicoloides bifasciatus) as well as a Bearded Woodpecker (Chloropicus namaquus). We moved on to another spot where we had seen them in the past and once again heard radio silence from the blackcaps. However, not all was lost, there was a persistent sunbird-like call coming from a particularly dense thicket. Melissa immediately recognized it as a Barratt’s Warbler, a skulking, endemic species which is also fond of Ouhout. We wasted no time calling him in and after much craning of necks and holding of breathes, all four of us got diagnostic views. Besides the warbler, the slopes were fairly quiet with the exception of a single Greater Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris afer) and a calling Southern Boubou (Laniarius ferrugineus) who refused to show himself (to Melissa’s dismay).

After giving up on the Bush Blackcap, we headed out towards Fickland Pan, a key grassland area run by the community. Melissa and I had seen Rudd’s Lark there in the past as well as an assortment of waterbirds on the pan itself. We headed out into the rolling grasslands to the north of Wakkerstroom. South African grasslands in the summer are truly spectacular. The grass is green and lush with yellow and purple wild flowers scattered throughout. All the cloud-scraping cisticolas are displaying out of eyesight with their high thin calls. Widowbirds and bishops are in their sharp breeding plumages, black with varying amounts of red, yellow, and white. We drove until we hit a small marsh where we could hear Pale-crowned Cisticolas (Cisticola cinnamomeus) calling above us. We scanned and scanned but could not pick the birds up, although we did get a big bonus in the form of a pair of Denham’s Bustards (Neotis denhami) in the fields nearby. We pressed onwards, stopping at another wetland with Pale-crowned Cisticolas calling. Once again, the cisticolas evaded us but we did find another bonus, a handsome African Marsh-harrier (Circus ranivorus) quartering over the vlei. The biggest surprise on the way to Fickland, was a single male Black-bellied Bustard (Lissotis melanogaster), a species I have always associated more with the tropics of Zululand and Kruger than with the cool grasslands of Mpumalanga, on the side of the road. The bustard hunched down behind some grass before scuttling off behind a hillock.

We arrived at Fickland Pan and after paying, decided to head to the pan for a bit of breakfast before searching for the ever elusive Rudd’s Lark. We sat down with our yoghurt, granola and fruit and scanned the pan. There were lots of ducks paddling around including Cape Shovelers (Spatula smithii), Maccoa Ducks (Oxyura maccoa), and White-backed Ducks (Thalassornis leuconotus). We also got eyes on a Wing-snapping Cisticola (Cisticola ayresii) coming in for a landing post-display. After refueling, we went on a Rudd’s hunt. The Rudd’s Lark is listed as Endangered due to its extremely small population (less than 5000 individuals) and its fragmented distribution. Its main threat appears to be habitat loss as its habitat requirements are extremely specific. We drove along the narrow road, scanning for any movement. We quickly located some mystery cisticolas, Cape Longclaws (Macronyx capensis), and African Pipits but there was no sign of the lark. Eventually, a single bird flew across the road, landing in the grass nearby. It was carrying insects in its beak, likely for its chicks. We enjoyed the lark’s little bobble head for a few minutes before leaving it to feed its young. As a last bonus on our way out, we were lucky enough to get a Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) striding across the road as well. All in all, a very productive stop.

With Rudd’s Lark in the bag, we headed out for the next target, Botha’s Lark. Botha’s Lark is trickier than Rudd’s Lark. It is very small, almost sparrow-like and also tends to be shy and flighty. It also happens to be Endangered, also due to habitat loss. We headed towards Daggakraal, an area where the Botha’s are reasonably reliable. The drive out was relatively uneventful, although the scenery was as breath-taking as always. The highlight was another Secretarybird meandering through a field with some horses. We headed down onto a small plain in the middle of a small settlement. The grass in this area was short which is ideal for seeing Botha’s Lark. Sadly, our luck seemed to have run out with not even a hint of Botha’s seen or heard. We gave up and headed back towards Wakkerstroom. We had gone about 500 meters when Melissa stopped dead (halfway up an enormous hill). She had somehow managed to spot a pair of Yellow-breasted Pipit, marching through the long grass on the side of the road. The two foraged nearby the road for a minute, giving all of us fantastic views, before disappearing back into the grass. From the pipits, we headed to the top of the hill where we stopped for snacks. As we sat looking over the lush landscape, we spotted a large black raptor that was initially dismissed as a Jackal Buzzard. When it came around a hill and back into view, we realized that we had made a mistake! It was a beautiful Black Harrier (Circus maurus). Even without Botha’s Lark, the trip to Daggaskraal was still well worth the drive.

Yellow-breasted Pipit 1 - Daggakraal, MP
A sneaky Yellow-breasted Pipit in the grass near Daggaskraal

The drive back didn’t disappoint either. We enjoyed many Amur Falcons (Falco amurensis) sitting on power lines and fence lines. Interspersed between them, we pulled out a couple of Rock Kestrels (F. rupicolus) as well. We were also lucky enough to spot our last member of the korhaans/bustards, the Blue Korhaan (E. caerulescens). A pair of them were standing in a firebreak in one of the fields. By the time we were back in Wakkerstroom, we were all hungry and ready for lunch. We stopped by the local bakery to pick up some sweets and headed up towards Ossewakop. Ossewakop is the mountain to the south of the town. It has a tiny, public-access road leading to the top. We drove up along the main dirt roads to the south, spotting an enormous flock of Southern Bald Ibis at the top of this first crest. Once there, we opened the gate (which I swear had a logic puzzle to keep it closed) and headed up Ossewakop. The road is very steep but is well surfaced for most of the drive (with a few exceptions). We did not really stop until we reached a saddle between Ossewakop and its neighbor where we spotted a handsome male Sentinel Rock-thrush (Monticola explorator). We soon reached the peak of Ossewakop where we piled out of the car to enjoy the view and eat some wraps. The view was amazing with views of the town and the surrounding mountains and hills. As we enjoyed our lunch, several high elevation denizens showed themselves including a Lanner Falcon (F. biarmicus), a couple of Long-billed Pipits (Anthus similis), and a whole family of Buff-streaked Chats. After enjoying an hour at the top, we crept back down but not without stopping for a quick view of another endemic, the Drakensberg Prinia (Prinia hypoxantha).

We decided to stop one more place before heading home, the dam wall at Zaaihoek. Melissa and I had seen Ground Woodpecker (Geocolaptes olivaceus) and heard African Rock Pipit (Anthus crenatus) there in the past. It was a long, uneventful drive out to the wall and when we arrived all was quiet. The highlight came in the form of a mammal lifer for all, the Spot-necked Otter (Hydrictis maculicollis). After a few minutes, we also picked up a few birds including numerous Rock Martins (Ptyonoprogne fuligula), a single Cape Rock-thrush (Monticola rupestris), and more Buff-streaked Chats. Exhausted, we headed home for nap.The rest of the afternoon and evening was fairly uneventful. We spotted a single Horus Swift (Apus horus) on the walk down to the BirdLife hide, and enjoyed the waterbirds and warblers for a few minutes at dusk.

The next morning, we all headed to the hides to check for rails! While we did not find a rail but we did get unbeatable views of a Little Rush Warbler displaying over the reeds, singing its bouncing ball song. African Reed and Lesser Swamp Warblers were also skulking through the vegetation all around us. Black-crowned Night-herons hid in the reeds and several Little Bitterns (Ixobrychus minutus) did quick flybys. After the hide, we said our goodbyes to Melissa (who was headed to the Cape for work) and scanned the wetlands for another couple minutes. We picked up Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) as well as Intermediate Egret (Egretta intermedia). One last swing out to promising grassy marsh, surrendered brief, far views of Pale-crowned Cisticolas. With that, our birding was done and we headed into town for some shopping and craft beer before making our way home to Johannesburg after a fantastic weekend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s