Negotiating the Northern Cape: Joburg to the West Coast

Some of the persistent gaps in Melissa and my lifelists were the endemic species of the Northern Cape, land of open sky and vast open desert landscapes. The Northern Cape is both the largest province in South Africa (over 350,000 sq. km.) and the least populated (about 1.2 million people). It is extremely arid with some parts of the province receiving only 50mm in annual rainfall. Despite this, it contains a vast amount of biodiversity (including the biodiversity hotspot of the Succulent Karoo) and many endemic birds, reptiles, and plants. Because of all this, when Melissa and I got the opportunity to drive from home in Johannesburg to the Flock conference in Langebaan, Western Cape), we quickly planned an itinerary to find as many interesting bird species as possible in the few days we had in the region. We centered our search around two of the main birding regions of Northern Cape, Bushmanland in the center and Namaqualand on the coast to the east.

The morning of March 2nd, Melissa and I woke up at 4:30am, packed the bakkie, and left home with a journey of over 1000kms ahead of us. By the time the sun had fully risen, we were already out of Gauteng and into the North-west. To keep ourselves occupied for 1000kms, we pulled off often to scan promising habitat ranging from dry grassland to shallow dams. The first of these was in a promising patch of grassland on the R501 where we listened to the dawn chorus of Orange River Francolin (Scleroptila gutturalis), Eastern Clapper Lark (Mirafra fasciolata), and Zitting Cisticolas (Cisticola juncidis). Soon after our stop, we were on the N14, the national highway from Gauteng in the east to Springbok in the west. For the first 100km or so, the sides of the highway were lined with fields of sunflowers in full bloom. Stops along this portion of our route revealed a male Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus), Cape (Gyps coprotheres) and White-backed (G. africanus) Vultures, and two separate sightings of Booted Eagles (Aquila pennatus) (one dark and one pale morph). Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks (Eremopterix leucotis) regularly flitted across the road.

As we headed further and further west, the landscapes around us grew more and more arid. By the time we hit Vryburg in the west of North-west province, the vegetation was distinctively Kalahari. Large Camelthorn (Acacia erioloba) trees dotted the road edges and Shaft-tailed Whydahs (Vidua regia) decorated the powerlines. We passed through more small towns, Kuruman, Kathu, and Olifantshoek, into true Kalahari where Sociable Weaver (Philetairus socius) nests began to appear on any pole or tree large enough to support them. The soils were sandy and red, contrasting with the green Acacia trees. A quick stop in this section revealed our first Dusky Sunbird (Cinnyris fuscus), the arid specialist, along with Kalahari Scrub-robin (Cercotrichas paena) and Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler (Sylvia subcoerulea). We eventually reached Upington where we took a brief detour in order to cross the mighty Orange River, the longest river in South Africa which flows from the Drakensberg into the Atlantic Ocean.

After passing through Kakamas, the vegetation grew much sparser and we were officially into Bushmanland. The birds must have known as we very quickly began picking up interesting arid species. Every 100 meters of power line seemed to hold a Chat Flycatcher (Agricola infuscatus). Our first quick stop of Bushmanland was in a dry river bed. Lark-like Buntings (Emberiza impetuani), the ultimate nondescript LBJ, sat singing on the fence-line, seemingly undeterred by the furnace-like temperature of late afternoon in the Northern Cape summer. A handful of Grey-backed Sparrow-larks (Eremopterix verticalis) fed on the ground before darting across the road, evading photographs. About 20km after this stop, Melissa and I stopped in a spot that looked good for Rufous-eared Warbler (Malcorus pectoralis) (we later discovered that any bush in the Northern Cape is good for this bird). As we were scanning for the warbler, we noticed jet-black birds flying and dropping into the bush. After several unsuccessful attempts to get eyes on them, we finally confirmed our suspicions. It was our first lifer of the trip, the endemic Black-eared Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix australis).

Happy birders celebrating lifer #1!

We stopped one more time on our way west for a confiding group of Spike-heeled Larks (Chersomanes albofasciata). We finally arrived in Pofadder at about 6pm after travelling for thirteen hours. Pofadder is a tiny town of about 3,000 people. It is unclear exactly how it got its name but regardless of how, it shares its name with the venomous Puff Adder (Bitis arietans). The town was relatively busy and we were grateful to find a 24hr petrol station and soon after, the Pofadder Hotel, where we were going to spend the night. There were a few birds moving around including Orange River White-eyes (Zosterops pallidus), with their pale peachy sides, and White-backed Mousebirds (Colius colius), with their bright pink legs and two tone bill. We quickly sat down at the hotel restaurant for a good meal and a couple of cold Savannas, and discussed our plan of attack for the next day.

We awoke the next day long before first light. We threw on our boots, grabbed a cup of coffee, and got back on the N14 towards Aggenys, a mining town to the west of Pofadder. The area around Aggenys is famous for the Red Lark (Calendulauda burra), an endemic Bushmanland bird. There are two forms of this lark, the brown inland form found around Brandevlei further south and the red dune form found near Aggenys. The easiest place to spot the lark around Aggenys is at the Koa Dunes, rolling sandy hillocks believed to be formed in an ancient (read 100-200 million years ago) path of the Orange River. These rolling orange-red dunes are covered in small bushes with patches of grass, all providing the perfect environment for the Red Lark.

The light was just coming over the horizon as we turned off the highway onto a dirt track. We could see a large inselberg of dark rock (where an imporant zinc mine was located) to the east and nothing but sparsely vegetated plains to the west. Sociable Weaver nests and Quiver Trees (Aloidendron dichotomum) dotted the landscape making for some spectacular photographic opportunities. Just before we reached the Koa Dunes, we found a promising patch where we picked up Rufous-eared Warbler, a cheeky denizen of the karoo, and Karoo Long-billed Lark (Certhilauda subcoronata), another endemic lark species, as well as a fleeting glance at Bat-eared Fox (Otocyon megalotis). We reached the edge of the Koa Dunes just as the sun rose fully above the horizon. From the moment, we got out of the car there was a cacophony of bird sound. Red Larks were singing their simple happy songs all around us. Flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua) called kelkiewyn (Afrikaans for goblet of wine) as they headed for their morning ablutions. Rufous-eared Warblers shouted their short prinia-like call from small bushes. From far off a clapper lark whistled and clapped somewhere in the dunes. Northern Black Korhaans (Afrotis afraoides) gave their loud, raspy call from dune crests while far off the croaking frog-like call of Karoo Korhaan (Eupodotis vigorsii) drifted through the still air. I cannot imagine a more spectacular way to start a morning.

Our first order of business was to get eyes on one of the Red Larks calling all around us. While it seemed easy enough at first, we quickly realized it was going to be hard to get a good, prolonged view of the bird. After a couple of minutes, we got a silouetted view of one bird who then took off and began displaying. Red Larks display about ten meters in the air while calling which was very cool to watch. We walked along the roadside looking and listening for anything we could find. There were plenty of small seedeaters drinking at a livestock watering hole including Grey-backed Sparrow-lark, White-throated Canary (Crithagra albogularis), and Cape Sparrow (Passer melanurus). A single Fawn-coloured Lark (Calendulauda africanoides) gave brief scope views from one of the taller bushes. When we scoped one of the barer dune slopes, we got good views of Namaqua Sandgrouse as they scuttled around like moving stones. We were still not happy with our Red Lark sighting though and also wanted the opportunity to photograph one. So, after an hour or so we got back into the bakkie and drove slowly through the dunes. Every Red Lark sounded close but none of them seemed to actually be close. Finally Melissa spotted a single bird at the top of a bush, singing his heart out. It was a Red Lark and after a few minutes of careful stalking, we ended up with some nice shots of the bird. Lifer number two for the trip!

Satisfied with the Red Lark, we headed back east towards Pofadder on the dirt road. As we headed towards the base of the big black mountain, Melissa screeched to a halt near a small house. She had somehow spotted a tiny, grey and white bird of prey sitting at the top of a bush. It was a male Pygmy Falcon (Polihierax semitorquatus), the smallest of the southern African raptors, measuring only 18cm tall and weighing less than 60grams. These amazing little birds live and breed in Sociable Weaver nests. It was long-wanted lifer for me and we sat for a while, watching as it flew to a small wall and then off into the distance. We continued towards the mountain, spotting another Pygmy Falcon as well as many Pale-winged Starlings (Onychognathus nabouroup). The landscape was unbelievebly beautiful , flat and treeless in some places, mountainous and rocky in others. We passed few other people (maybe a total of five cars in six hours of birding).

The next stretch was quiet for about ten kilometres. As we began approaching a small hill of stacked boulders that also happened to be very close to the road, I began thinking about Cinnamon-breasted Warbler (Euryptila subcinnamomea), an elusive prinia-shaped species of arid boulder piles. We stopped at the base and immediately heard the plaintive whistle of a warbler. There was a small side road that led closer to the hill and then an even smaller side road that led even close! We stopped and began scanning the hill, spotting Dusky Sunbirds and White-throated Canaries until eventually we picked out the warbler, sitting atop a pointy rock continuing his mournful call. Within five minutes of first hearing the call, we had beautiful scope views of this often tricky species and another lifer in the bag. Knowing just where to look and what to listen for definitely helped!

The rest of the drive was beautiful but relatively quiet as the temperatures rose. We found a large gravel plain where a trio of the enigmatic Stark’s Larks (Spizocorys starki) were feeding. There were also many Sabota Larks (Calendulauda sabota) (the large-billed Bradfield’s form) along the road verges. A single Cape Grey Mongoose (Galerella pulverulenta) made a quick appearance before dashing far, far away from us. We ended the drive with a stop at a water point that often produces Sclater’s Lark (Spizocorys sclateri) sightings. We did not have much time and so we only spent around thirty minutes. We got plenty of Lark-like Buntings and Grey-backed Sparrow-larks but dipped on the Sclater’s. As we drove the last five kilometres towards town, we were given a couple last treats. The first was a small flock of photographable Black-eared Sparrow-larks and the second was one last look at another flock of Stark’s Larks. From there, we went to get a cold drink before getting back on the highway and heading towards Springbok.

The long stretch of driving we did was relatively uneventful. We got a single Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) perched on a far off pylon and a Tractrac Chat (Emarginata tractrac) flew across the road, flashing its white rump. We turned south onto the N7 when we hit Springbok. We had left Bushmanland and were now in Namaqualand, a region famous for its succulents and its springtime fields of daisies. We spotted virtually no birds besides the occasion flyover by a Pied Crow (Corvus albus) for the next 100 or so kilometres. We were still missing one of our targets, a bird I had thought would be easier. I had read that the species could be found in the mountainous areas to the east of Kamieskroon and so, we exited the highway and headed back onto the dirt. The pass started off well with our first Karoo Prinia (Prinia maculosa) and Cape Bulbul (Pycnonotus capensis) of the trip. We also spotted quite a few Familiar Chats (Oenanthe familiaris) and Mountain Wheatears (Myrmecocichla monticola), birds of the rocky mountains, on the way up. Eventually, as we reached the crest of the pass, something caught our eye as it darted across the road. It disappeared as quickly as it came and we could not confirm our suspicions that this was the bird we were searching for. Luckily, 100 metres down the road, there was a small seep where numerous species were congregating. It was here that we spotted our target, the Black-headed Canary (Serinus alario). The Black-headed Canary is a dapper little bird with a chestnut back, white belly, and in the south and east of its range a completely black head. This bird was the more north/west form, sometimes called the Damara Canary, which has a head streaked with black and white. The pair of canaries sat for a minute before darting off, never to be seen again despite our long vigil at the seep. Luckily, there were plenty of other species to enjoy including Yellow (Crithagra flaviventris) and White-throated Canaries, Cape Bunting (Emberiza capensis), and Layard’s Tit-babblers (Sylvia layardi). Our detour had been worth it with another lifer spotted!

From the seep, we turned around and got back on the highway. A quick stop for petrol an hour later, revealed our first Cape Weaver (Ploceus capensis) of the trip, and we even spotted a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles (Aquila verreauxii) soaring over the hills next to the road. Two hours later, we once again exited the highway and headed inland through Vanrhynsdorp and up an enormous pass onto a karoo plateau before arriving at our home for the night, Nieuwoudtville.

We slept in a little the next morning until 5:30am (late by our standards) partly due to the cold. After packing up, we took a quick walk around the farm, spotting a Bokmakerie (Telophorus zeylonus) and many Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). We had no real plan for the day besides arriving at Langebaan before 4:00pm and so we pulled out our faithful atlas and chose a dirt road (the P2292) to explore. It was an arbitrary decision but we soon found out that it was a very good one! Our trip started fairly slowly with a handful of common species, Capped Wheatear (Oenanthe pileata), Karoo Scrub-robin (Cercotrichas coryphaeus), and single Southern Black Korhaan (Afrotis afra). This region is in a severe drought which meant that there was little undergrowth and no colour in the vegetation. The birds were skittish, perhaps because they had fewer places to hide. We found a single inland-form of Karoo Lark (Calendulauda albescens), but the bird refused to show more than brief glimses of itself as it skittered away. A Large-billed Lark (Galerida magnirostris) was more accommodating, sitting proudly on a fence line while it sang its simple three note song.

You can tell there is a drought in the west!

Eventually, we came over a hill and the overgrazed farmland seemed to end. This was where the birding got really exciting. A single Namaqua Warbler (Phragmacia substriata) showed itself near a small reedy patch while its Rufous-eared Warbler cousin screamed from a nearby bush. As we descended more, Karoo Chats (Emarginata schlegelii) began popping up everywhere. A very dry stream bed had a group of Karoo Eremomelas (Eremomela gregalis) on each side as well as showy Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus). The vegetation here was very different from the Bushmanland with taller bushes and stonier soil. Melissa somehow managed to spot a group of Karoo Korhaans singing among the bushes and a bare patch a kilometre later held another one. This drive was shaping up nicely, we were finding all the karoo birds that we had missed.

The road turned and began to follow a river, the Kleintoring. Mountains surrounded us on both sides and the landscape varied from plowed empty fields to scrubby Acacia patches. One of the Acacia patches appropriately held a handsome Acacia Pied Barbet (Tricholaema leucomelas) with a formidable looking, toothed beak. A plowed field held our first Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) of the trip. And finally a huge reed bed held yet another Namaqua Warbler. As the road finally drew to close, we found a farm dam with Alpine Swifts (Tachymarptis melba) and White-necked Ravens (Corvus albicollis) soaring above and a dapper pair of South African Shelducks (Tadorna cana) swimming around. From there it was onto the main gravel road, the R355, south to Calvinia.

Acacia Pied Barbet - Niewoudville to Calvinia, NC
A good-looking Acacia Pied Barbet

From Calvinia, we got onto the R364 which was quiet in the heat of the day, save for a few brave Pale-chanting Goshawks (Melierax canorus) perched on anything over meter high. We dropped down into a valley through Botterkloof Pass, passing through a small village, before reaching the base of Pakhuis Pass and the tarred road once again. As we travelled through Pakhuis, the karoo disappeared and the fynbos took over again. We stopped in Clanwilliam for lunch and continued west until we hit the coastal road. The vegetation was fully strandveld, a sandy coastal form of fynbos. We passed through the small town of Elands Bay followed by Veldrif. Our last stop was the farm road north of Vredenburg where we hoped to find Cape Long-billed Lark (Certhilauda curvirostris). The farmlands where they are usually plentiful was unbelievably dry. There were plenty of other larks including Grey-backed Sparrow, Red-capped (Calandrella cinerea), and Large-billed, but not a single Cape Long-billed. Perhaps the favorite along this road was the dapper Sickle-winged Chat (Emarginata sinuata) (our last new chat of the trip) with its skinny legs and striking white eye ring.

Our last stop outside of Velddrif, one of the many Cerebos salt pans

We gave up on the lark and headed to Club Mykonos in Langebaan, our home for Flock on the West Coast. Exhausted, we spent the evening listening to the African Oystercatchers (Haematopus moquini) and eating seafood while catching up on all our friends’ trips to Langebaan. From here on out, we were going to be birding and learning about birds here on the West Coast but more on that next time.

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