Birding in the Drakensberg

Birding is one of the activities that can be done at most of the accommodation establishments and in the nature reserves in the Drakensberg.

One of the highlights for many tourists to the area is a visit to Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre in the Champagne Valley. The daily bird shows include an informational talk and a display of the magnificent raptors in their natural environment.

daily bird show in the drakensberg
Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre (Photo: Magda Ehlers)

Background to the birdlife in the Drakensberg

The Drakensberg was the very centre of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana. In Jurassic times this split apart during a period of great volcanism, and the land was covered with an immense thickness of basalt.

The high Berg is the only remnant of this in the world. The intervening 150 million years to the present day encompasses the entire history of birds on Earth.

South Africa is one of the world’s richest birding countries, mainly because of its diversity of habitats. The Drakensberg is one of the most important for birds.

The foothills are a mosaic of grassland, protea woodland and evergreen Afromontane forest, with thornveld in warmer valleys, all dissected with perennial clear streams and associated riverine thicket. Higher up are boulder-strewn slopes; higher still are sandstone and basalt walls; finally the Berg summit, an undulating plateau.

Grassland birds

Secretarybird in the Drakensberg
Secretarybird (Photo: Antony Trivet)

Altogether 300 bird species have been recorded in the Berg. The grasslands are the best place to see LBJs – little brown jobs. Six of these are species of cisticola; other likely sightings are the Yellow Bishop and endemic Cape Longclaw. Bigger birds like the Secretarybird, Southern Ground-Hornbill and Southern Bald Ibis stroll majestically.

The ibis is an endemic with a well-documented history. It has one close relative – in the mountains of Morocco. Genetics suggest a split in a single population 1.5 million years ago.

This was during a dry cold spell in the Pleistocene when the original population might well have been abundant and widespread in the tropics. Recent warming pushed this cold-lover away from the equator, and when Africa ran out of space at both ends, up the mountains too.

Birds of the Drakensberg Thornveld

Fiscal Flycatcher
Fiscal Flycatcher (Photo: Antony Trivet)

Thornveld specials include the dazzling Violet-backed Starling, Groundscraper Thrush, Yellow-fronted Canary and endemic Fiscal Flycatcher.

The starling is an example of a tropical migrant. It comes in summer to breed in old treeholes. In winter it returns to the tropics. This is such a successful strategy that dozens of Berg birds use it, including the beautiful African Paradise-Flycatcher.

Other examples are Greater Striped Swallows and White-rumped Swifts. They often make whirling displays low over hotel gardens early on summer mornings, and often nest actually on the buildings.

A few of the summer visitors are Palaearctic migrants. These do not breed here but have come to escape the northern hemisphere winter. The Willow Warbler, Common Swift and Barn Swallow are examples. Most remarkable is the Amur Falcon. It breeds in Siberia. To get here it flies to Burma, India, then non-stop across the Indian Ocean to Kenya before turning south.

Beautiful birds of the forests and riverine scrub

Forest species include Southern Boubou, Bush Blackcap, Chorister Robin-Chat, Barratt’s Warbler and Forest Canary – all endemics. These are not easy to see in the depths of the forest; the light is poor, but, more significantly, forest birds everywhere occur at low density because of the sparse food supply.

Perhaps the most beautiful of all the forest birds are the hardest to see – Black Cuckooshrike, Grey Cuckooshrike, Lemon Dove and Starred Robin – the latter two lurking in the darkest undergrowth. The Barthroated Apalis is the most common forest bird, listen for its repetitive call.

The endemic theme continues in the riverine scrub – Swee Waxbill, Cape Grassbird, Cape Canary and Drakensberg Prinia. The latter has an especially narrow range, centred on the Berg foothills. Two exceptionally beautiful and uncommon birds live along the streams – the Mountain Wagtail and Half-collared Kingfisher.

Protea woodland is the domain of nectar feeders, especially the Greater and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, the spectacular Gurney’s Sugarbird – all endemics – and the Malachite Sunbird. All nectar feeders must be at least semi-nomadic to take advantage of local abundance. Typically May-June sees the whole lot congregate in hotel gardens feasting on Aloe arborescens flowers.

Rock outcrops have their endemic specialists. They are the haunt of Cape and Sentinel Rock-Thrushes, Buffstreaked Chat, Bokmakierie and Ground Woodpecker. Unlike other woodpeckers it digs holes in bare banks and eats mainly ants.

Birds of the high Berg

Bearded vulture in flight
Bearded Vulture

At the very highest altitude the “must-see” is the tiny and delicate Fairy Flycatcher – pure pale grey, black and white with a pink belly; the “must-hear” is the Largebilled Lark, one of our finest songsters. Other Berg-top breeders include the Rock Martin, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Yellow Canary Drakensberg Siskin and Orange-breasted Rockjumper.

In summer the best ways to find these birds are trips up Sani Pass or to the Sentinel car park. In winter there is a general migration downhill to the Little Berg and even lower.

Soaring high above everything the Cape and Bearded Vultures rule. The Cape Vulture is endemic, and has a communal foraging system. On warm days the colony rises as thermals develop. Once up and about, individuals spread out to cover the maximum view of the land below, while still maintaining contact with the other vultures. Once a big carcass is found, everybody arrives within a few minutes.

By contrast the Bearded Vulture is solitary. Any old leftovers are edible, including dry bones. Huge pieces can be swallowed whole, anything bigger is carried to a great height and dropped repeatedly onto a large rock until it breaks.

The most common raptor is the endemic Jackal Buzzard – named after its call rather than a dietary preference. It forages by soaring, looking for carrion, snakes, and mammals up to the size of a hare. It has an interesting mating system with evidence of polyandry – a female having two mates simultaneously. The advantage to her is having three adults to forage for and guard her nest. The benefits to a male sharing everything with another are not so clear-cut.

Abridged Drakensberg Bird List (Using Roberts 7th edition names and sequence)

* Coqui Francolin * Forest Buzzard * Zitting Cisticola
* Grey-winged Francolin * Jackal Buzzard * Wing-snapping Cisticola
* Red-winged Francolin * Verreaux’s Eagle * Drakensberg Prinia
* Red-necked Spurfowl * Booted Eagle * Bar-throated Apalis
* Swainson’s Spurfowl * Martial Eagle * Rufous-naped Lark
* Common Quail * Long-crested Eagle * Cape Rock-Thrush
* Helmeted Guineafowl * African Crowned Eagle * Sentinel Rock-Thrush
* Egyptian Goose * Secretarybird * Groundscraper Thrush
* Spur-winged Goose * Rock Kestrel * Olive Thrush
* African Black Duck * Amur Falcon * Karoo Thrush
* Yellow-billed Duck * Lanner Falcon * Southern Black Flycatcher
* Greater Honeyguide * Peregrine Falcon * Fiscal Flycatcher
* Lesser Honeyguide * Little Grebe * Spotted Flycatcher
* Brown-backed Honeybird * African Darter * African Dusky Flycatcher
* Red-throated Wryneck * Reed Cormorant * White-starred Robin
* Golden-tailed Woodpecker * White-breasted Cormorant * Cape Robin-Chat
* Ground Woodpecker * Grey Heron * Chorister Robin-Chat
* Cardinal Woodpecker * Black-headed Heron * African Stonechat
* Olive Woodpecker * Goliath Heron * Buff-streaked Chat
* Black-collared Barbet * Cattle Egret * Mountain Wheatear
* Crested Barbet * Black-crowned Night-Heron * Familiar Chat
* Southern Ground-Hornbill * Little Bittern * Anteating Chat
* African Hoopoe * Hamerkop * Mocking Cliff-Chat
* Green Wood-Hoopoe * Hadeda Ibis * Red-winged Starling
* Half-collared Kingfisher * Southern Bald Ibis * Cape Glossy Starling
* Malachite Kingfisher * African Sacred Ibis * Violet-backed Starling
* Grey-headed Kingfisher * African Spoonbill * Pied Starling
* Brown-hooded Kingfisher * Black Stork * Common Myna
* Giant Kingfisher * White Stork * Red-billed Oxpecker
* Pied Kingfisher * Fork-tailed Drongo * Amethyst Sunbird
* White-fronted Bee-eater * Fairy Flycatcher * Malachite Sunbird
* Speckled Mousebird * African Paradise-Flycatcher * Southern Double-collared Sunbird
* Jacobin Cuckoo * Black-backed Puffback * Greater Double-collared Sunbird
* Red-chested Cuckoo * Black-crowned Tchagra * Gurney’s Sugarbird
* Black Cuckoo * Southern Tchagra * Spectacled Weaver
* Klaas’s Cuckoo * Southern Boubou * Cape Weaver
* Diderick Cuckoo * Bokmakierie * Southern Masked-Weaver
* Alpine Swift * Olive Bush-Shrike * Red-billed Quelea
* Common Swift * Cape Batis * Yellow-crowned Bishop
* African Black Swift * Cape Crow * Southern Red Bishop
* Little Swift * Pied Crow * Yellow Bishop
* White-rumped Swift * White-necked Raven * Fan-tailed Widowbird
* African Wood-Owl * Common Fiscal * Red-collared Widowbird
* Marsh Owl * Grey Cuckooshrike * Long-tailed Widowbird
* Fiery-necked Nightjar * Black Cuckooshrike * African Firefinch
* Freckled Nightjar * Southern Black Tit * Swee Waxbill
* Speckled Pigeon * Brown-throated Martin * Common Waxbill
* African Olive-Pigeon * Barn Swallow * Orange-breasted Waxbill
* Lemon Dove * White-throated Swallow * African Quailfinch
* Laughing Dove * Greater Striped Swallow * Bronze Mannikin
* Cape Turtle-Dove * Rock Martin * Dusky Indigobird
* Red-eyed Dove * Common House-Martin * Pin-tailed Whydah
* Namaqua Dove * Black Saw-wing * House Sparrow
* Denham’s Bustard * Dark-capped Bulbul * Southern Grey-headed Sparrow
* Buff-spotted Flufftail * Terrestrial Bulbul * Cape Wagtail
* Common Moorhen * Barratt’s Warbler * Mountain Wagtail
* Common Greenshank * Cape Grassbird * Cape Longclaw
* Spotted Thick-knee * African Reed-Warbler * African Rock Pipit
* Blacksmith Lapwing * Lesser Swamp-Warbler * African Pipit
* African Cuckoo Hawk * Dark-capped Yellow Warbler * Plain-backed Pipit
* Black-shouldered Kite * Long-billed Crombec * Long-billed Pipit
* Yellow-billed Kite * Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler * Cape Canary
* African Fish-Eagle * Willow Warbler * Forest Canary
* Lammergeier * Broad-tailed Warbler * Yellow-fronted Canary
* Cape Vulture * Arrow-marked Babbler * Yellow Canary
* African Harrier-Hawk * Bush Blackcap * Brimstone Canary
* African Goshawk * Cape White-eye * Streaky-headed Seedeater
* Little Sparrowhawk * Lazy Cisticola * Cinnamon-breasted Bunting
* Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk * Wailing Cisticola * Golden-breasted Bunting
* Black Sparrowhawk * Levaillant’s Cisticola
* Steppe Buzzard * Neddicky

Activities

R120 - R950
R950 - R1400

Eagles’ Rock

Self-catering cottages in foothills of the Southern Drakensberg
R2500 - R6250

Sasi Bush Lodge

Luxury Tented Safari Camp in Northern Drakensberg, South Africa.
0607929845

Weenen Game Reserve

Protected Nature Reserve for day trips or overnight stays
+27 (0) 36 354 7013

Falcon Ridge – Bird Of Prey Center

Bird of prey centre in the Champagne Valley
+27 36 468 1752
Birding
29 September 2020

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife

For information regarding World Heritage Sites and birding, contact Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Tel 033 386 8000 bookings@kznwildlife.com