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Blyde River Canyon is one of Mpumalanga's birding gems, but is yet surprisingly under-birded. The combination of highly varied habitats has resulted in a impressive bird list of around 365 species - the highest species diversity for any nature reserve in Mpumalanga. A weekend's birding in summer should provide in access of 150 species if adequate habitats are visited.

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Specials

Taita Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Blue Swallow, African Finfoot, White-backed Night-Heron, Half-collared Kingfisher, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Brown Scrub-Robin, Green Twinspot, Southern Tchagra, Southern Bald Ibis, Cape Vulture, African Cuckoo Hawk, Bat Hawk, Barratt's Warbler, Red-necked Spurfowl, African Crowned Eagle, Buff-spotted Flufftail, Striped Flufftail, Orange Ground-Thrush, Bush Blackcap, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Red-backed Mannikin, Forest Canary.

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Habitats

Towering cliffs, plateau grasslands, broadleaved woodland, riverine thicket and Afromontane forest are the main birding habitats. Most of the bird specials are found in the moist Afromontane forests on east-facing slopes, with a few on the cliffs, and a few on the grasslands.

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Facilities

Although access into many parts of the canyon is difficult or impossible, all habitats can be visited along the routes outlined below. Facilities include road access to resorts, walking trails, hutted accommodation and camping, and bird guiding.

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Birding

The most exciting birding is around the cliffs and forests where a number of specials can be found without too much effort.

1. Mariepskop. The vast Afromontane forests of Mariepskop are worth a full day's exploration and are an essential part of a visit to this area. A trail has been cut through the largest forest tract - ask for directions at the DWAF office; it is on the right-hand side of the tarred road that climbs up to the summit and has a small signboard. A number of highly localised Mpumalanga birds can be found here, including Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Southern Tchagra, Bush Blackcap, Square-tailed Drongo and Brown Scrub-Robin. There are also tantalizing recent reports of Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon being seen. Spend a few hours in the morning on the forest trail, scanning the undergrowth for Lemon Dove, Terrestrial Brownbul, Orange Ground-Thrush, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin and Brown Scrub-Robin. Mixed feeding parties usually hold Cape Batis, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Cape White-eye and Olive Bush-Shrike, and keep an eye on the forest canopy for Grey Cuckooshrike, Narina Trogon and the much sought after Black-fronted Bush-Shrike. Dense Curry-bush thickets closer to the summit are excellent habitat for Barratt's Warbler, and the odd Bush Blackcap. African Crowned Eagle breed here and can regularly be seen over the forest. Check forest verges and clearings for Red-necked Spurfowl, Swee Waxbill, Green Twinspot and Forest Canary.

2. Strydom Tunnel. Some of the best cliff birding is around the Strydom Tunnel. Park at one of several lay-byes and spend some time scanning the skies. Taita Falcon are regularly seen displaying or hunting near the tunnel and patience is usually rewarded. A good spot is 100mdownhill from the curio sellers between the two tunnels. European Honey-Buzzard have also been seen in this area recently. Brown Snake-Eagle have a nest near the tunnel and can often be seen overhead. This is also a good site for Cape Vulture, and fair numbers can be seen flying by from a large breeding colony nearby. The colony is visible on the cliffs from the R527 to Hoedspruit about 6-8 km from the tunnel. Smaller resident birds include Striped Pipit, Mocking Cliff-Chat, Cape Rock-Thrush, Red-winged Starling, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and Rock Martin. The World View and Three Rondavel look-out points are also excellent raptor watching sites. The ideal time is a warm, still summer's day from about 10h00 onwards as the thermals begin to rise. Expect Jackal Buzzard, Steppe Buzzard, Cape Vulture, African Crowned Eagle, Rock Kestrel, Brown Snake-Eagle, Black-chested Snake-Eagle, African Harrier-Hawk, African Fish-Eagle, Rock Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon and the occasional Verreauxs' Eagle, Wahlberg's Eagle, Martial Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, Lanner Falcon and others.

3. Grassland birding is at its best in summer, and even though patches of grassland exist around the Aventura Blydepoort resort, the best areas are south of Bourke's Luck and around Graskop. The only realistic chance of seeing Blue Swallow is in the vicinity of paradise Camp (on the loop connecting God's Window to the R532), and in a wide grassy valley just outside Graskop on the road to Sabie (R532). Typical grassland birds are Wing-snapping Cisticola, Wailing Cisticola, Levaillant's Cisticola, Cape Longclaw, African Stonechat, Drakensberg Prinia and Yellow Bishop. Rocky outcrops have Cape Rock-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Familiar Chat and Mocking Cliff-Chat. Check mountain streams for Mountain Wagtail, African Black Duck and Half-collared Kingfisher. Recently burnt grassland should be checked for Black-winged Lapwing, and Southern Bald Ibis occasionally feed in the grasslands in mid to late summer. Another uncommon visitor to the grasslands is Denham's Bustard.

4. Swadini Dam. The impressive Swadini Dam (also called Blydepoort Dam) is not a waterbird haven, as with most steep-sided dams, but it does have a number of sought-after species. An evening or early morning boat ride is the best way of accessing this habitat. Birds to look out for are African Finfoot, White-backed Night-Heron, Half-collared Kingfisher and Bat Hawk hunting in the evening. The tall riparian forests of the Ohrigstad river Gorge are not yet accessible to the public, but that may change in the future. Pel's Fishing-Owl has been reported from this gorge and the habitat looks ideal. The riparian forest below the dam wall towards Aventura Swadini could well have one or two of these elusive birds.

5. Broad-leaved woodland is dominant in the Swadini area and is typical of the vegetation east of the canyon. A good variety of bushveld birds can be seen here, including Green Wood-Hoopoe, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Ashy Flycatcher, White-browed Robin-Chat, Black-backed Puffback, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Black-crowned Tchagra, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Cardinal Woodpecker, Black-collared Barbet, Purple-crested Turaco, White-bellied Sunbird, Amethyst Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Yellow-fronted Canary and Golden-breasted Bunting.

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General

A number of enjoyable day trails covering most of the habitats can be found at the Blydepoort and Swadini Aventura Resorts, and at Mpumalanga Parks Board's Belvedere Cottage. For the fit and energetic, the 5-day Blydepoort Hiking Trail is one of the better ways to explore the birding potential of the canyon.

Accommodation is available in the area.

Warren McClelland 2001.



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