MICHAEL GRAHAM – 01 OCTOBER 2009

Margaret and I were privileged to be part of the inaugural N3TC (N3 Toll Concession) Birding Trip to the Drakensberg and Sani Pass in November. Arranged through BLSA Travel Department, this was a trial run to see if the route was worth advertising. We were joined by Con Roux (head of the N3 Toll Route), Jon Minster (reporter with GO Magazine) and 2 other “twitchers” plus our host and guide Malcolm Gemmell of Button Birding, Creighton.
An early start from Hermanus at 0300 in order to catch the 0600 flight was rewarded with a “lifer” of a Woolly-Necked Stork as soon as we left the airport at Durban.

Our first overnight stay was at Beaconvlei Guest House, Balgowan, some 2 hours drive NW from Durban. This is an excellent establishment to rest and the guest house offers forest and water birding-watching. Village Weavers abound, along with Forest Canaries, Marsh Harriers and Darters. The dam is home to several African Rail, which became elusive in the poor weather, although we did hear them calling. Matthew Drew’s home is very comfortable and Granny Mouse Country House is well worth a visit for good food and wine.

From Beaconvlei we headed towards Creighton via the newly opened Marutswa Forest Walk. Our local guide was Simpewhe who took us on one of the walks available. Marutswa is home to the endangered Cape Parrot and some 80 individuals live here. We arrived very early and so caught their dawn chorus as they jostled for position in their favourite tree. There are little elevated picnic sites which can be closed off by means of an “occupied” chain so that one can have the picnic in peace and watch the bird life. Simpewhe guided us to an Orange Thrush at the nest, Star Robins and the bird we were all after, the Bush Blackcap. This is somewhere that requires a full day and a local guide to enjoy. There is also a small shop that sells local handmade crafts.

We then carried on to Smithfield Guesthouse, home of our host Malcolm Gemmell and his wife Gail. Sightings on the way included Grey Crowned Cranes and Denham’s Bustards. Malcolm owns 1000 hectares and their garden is home to a Long-crested Eagle. Malcolm took all of us around the land he owns and on which several good sightings were made. Bald Headed Ibis roost and breed at the river cliffs, Black-winged Lapwing forage in the sandy dunes and Gymnogene frequent the village trees. We were also lucky to see Red-throated Wryneck. One area of the farm is host to the Red Data species of Black-Rumped Buttonquail. There are just 2 and we spent around 30 minutes in trying to flush 1 if not 2 from the long, tufty grass. Anyone passing by and seeing 6 grown men marching in a line abreast in continuously varying directions would have thought we had escaped from a mental institution. But it worked and we got to see just one.

Other birds heard but not sighted were African Emerald Cuckoo, Buff-spotted Flufftail and Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike.

Malcolm’s wife Gail served us with a wonderful meal in the evening and after a comfortable night’s sleep we headed off to the Sani Pass.

The route took us through Himeville and Underberg and onto the border control for Lesotho. The route up through the pass is 4×4 only and when you see the road you can understand why. But this was all part of the adventure with a picnic breakfast half-way up. This area is full of specials and progress is slow whilst they are listened for and tracked down. Our first success was just after the border control where we found Barratt’s Warbler at close range. A secretive little bird but with a little encouragement by using it’s call on Robert’s a pair obliged us with some good pictures. We slowly worked our way up to the top, some 2,800 metres above sea-level seeing Gurney’s Sugarbird, Drakensberg Prinia, Streaky-headed Seedeater and Yellow-fronted Canary on the way. The weather was good and visibility was exceptional. Just before the top we got our first sighting of the Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) soaring high above the cliffs.

The route up and down is busy with tourists and also taxis taking people from Lesotho into Himeville and back. Traffic doesn’t seem to bother the birds though. The afternoon was spent pushing farther up the road towards Black Mountain at 3,300 metres above sea-level. Our goal was the African Rock Pipit but after hours of searching we only heard one call. Still there was the following morning.

We did get to see more Lammergeiers and also Cape Vulture devouring the carcass of a cow that had fallen and died.
The accommodation is a rondavel, simple but comfortable with a gas and log fire and which when the outside temperature is 1C are an absolute must.

We set off the next morning around 0500 in almost zero visibility after poor weather had rolled in overnight. Undetermined, we climbed again towards Black Mountain, through the cloud to sunshine. The specials were not going to be missed under any circumstances. It was worth the early departure as we got good sightings of Drakensberg Siskin, Drakensberg Rock-Jumper, Grey-winged Francolin, Ground Woodpecker, Sentil Rock-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat and Mountain Pipit. The Rock Pipit eluded us again so it looks like another trip up there. The views are superb and the trip up and back over 2 days is well worth it.

The rain set in on the way down and it was torrential all the way to the Bird of Prey Sanctuary just outside Pietermaritzburg. This sanctuary is well worth the visit, even if only to see Pel’s and Scops Owls.

Our last stop was at 1,700 hectare Shongweni Reserve, only a short distance from Durban. Unfortunately the weather was against us but there are many specials here including Black Stork, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, African Striped Pipit and Crowned Eagle. We were going to spend most of the day there but Mango cancelled our afternoon flight and re-scheduled us to the morning so after breakfast it was time to go.

Over the 4 days we managed 128 positively identified species of which 13 were Red Data.

We go back in January to KZN for 8 days and this time it will include Bonamanzi, Hluhluwe and Eshowe. Look out for Jon Minster’s article in GO Magazine early in 2009 and watch this space for the next report.