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Page History: Wakkerstroom and Amersfoort

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Page Revision: 2008/11/06 12:06


The Wakkerstroom/Amersfoort area is famous among birders as the easiest area to find three highly endemic species restricted to South Africa's high altitude grasslands - Rudd's Lark, Botha's Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit. A total of 13 bird species are endemic or nearly so to South Africa's Grassland Biome and nine of these, including Rudd's Lark, Botha's Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Korhaan, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat and Drakensberg Prinia can easily be found here during a full day's birding in summer. A second day could yield forest endemics such as Bush Blackcap and Chorister Robin-Chat. Add to these another 33 southern African endemics or near-endemics and it is easy to see why the area is a magnet for foreign as well as South African birders. Habitats range from open grassland to mist belt forest, gorges and cliffs, with extensive wetland habitat in the form of vleis, pans and dams.

Climate Summers are more often than not pleasantly mild with maximum temperatures rarely exceeding 25°C. The minimum is normally around 10-12°C, but can be decidedly cool at times. It is advisable to wear a hat and take a wind cheater with you when you go out. Some good spots (for Yellow-breasted Pipit for example) are quite exposed and a chilly wind could come up at any time. Rain showers are fairly common and if there has been heavy rainfall recently you should enquire locally about road conditions. Winters are cold (by South African standards) with maximum temperatures often in the low teens and occasionally lower. Minimum temperatures are often below zero and frost is commonplace. Light snowfalls sometimes occur. Rain is rare.

WAKKERSTROOM

Grassland birding Grassland birds are without doubt the main reason for birding the Wakkerstroom area. The routes described below will give you a representative sample of the best areas. While most of the birds can be seen from the network of gravel roads in the area some are best viewed on private farms.

Do not enter onto private property without getting permission first. By ignoring this basic rule of birding anywhere in the world you not only risk incurring the wrath of landowners, you also bring the entire birding fraternity into disrepute and jeopardise the chances of future birders of being allowed to bird here. Access to private property can often be arranged by your host if you are staying over in Wakkerstroom or consider engaging the services of a local guide in the town. The land owners are often very proud of their farms and the wildlife on them. If you ask they will normally be only to keen to let you go where you like.

Another thing to remember when birding from the roadside is don't stop your car in the middle of the road. There is usually enough space to pull off the road. Although it may look like a quiet country road to you it is the highway home for many other folk. Having got these two basic rules out of the way enjoy your birding in one of the most scenically pleasing areas of the country.

1. If you only have time to do one drive in the area you should take the Amersfoort road out of Wakkerstroom. Cross over the wetland and continue along the gravel road out of town. Cross over the railway line twice and take the first turning to the left (not the farm road leading through an avenue of eucalypts), crossing the line again almost immediately. This road was signposted to Volksrust but the sign has been stolen.

Be on the lookout for Blue Korhaan, Denham's Bustard (summer), Southern Bald Ibis and Blue Crane anywhere along this entire route. During summer Banded Martin should be common. Lesser Kestrel and the odd Red-footed Kestrel should be searched for amongst the hundreds of Amur Falcon on the telephone wires. Check the rocky hillside on the left (after passing the farm school) for Eastern Long-billed Lark.

Further along the road the rocky areas (including ruined farm buildings) are good for Buff-streaked Chat, Sentinel Rock-Thrush (more common here in winter), Ground Woodpecker and Mountain Wheatear. In October/November, particularly, listen for displaying Rudd's Lark, but remember to look up if you want to see them. Check all roadside larks for Spike-heeled Lark, Red-capped Lark and, if you're lucky Botha's Lark. During winter the firebreaks burnt along the roads are often a great place to find all three species.

The road crosses some small, grassy wetlands. These are often good for Pale-crowned Cisticola. Stop almost anywhere along this road and that soft "tseeep tsseeep" call that you hear is Wing-snapping Cisticola. Again remember to look up if you want to see them.

At the T-junction turn right towards Wydgelegen and drive along the road for a few kilometres until you reach the railway line again. Shortly before crossing the line there is a farm gate on the left with the sign 'Fickland Pan'. Go through this gate and follow the grassy track to the collection of mud huts visible from the road. This is a communally owned farm and a fee of R 10 for cars and R 20 for minibuses (more will certainly be welcome if you are feeling generous) is payable here. All funds go to the local community and this will hopefully help increase their environmental awareness. Carry on along the track to Fickland Pan itself. Rudd's Lark is often found in the grassland on either side of the track from the huts to the pan. The farm road to the left shortly after crossing the railway line goes to Fickland Pan. Please do not use this road. The farmer has banned birders from his property.

Botha's Lark sometimes frequent the roadside here. Ignore the turnoff to the right signposted Wakkerstroom. The road climbs up the ridge and just after it begins to drop again the eroded stream bed on the right sometimes holds Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat and Sentinel Rock-Thrush. Shortly afterwards there is a turnoff to the left signposted Vlakpoort. If you have time drive along this road for a bit. Botha's Lark has been found along here.

Back on the main route the field on the right sometimes holds Black-winged Lapwing. This is also a good spot for Blue Korhaan. The T-junction a bit further on brings you back to the Wakkerstroom-Amersfoort road. A right turn will take you back to Wakkerstroom and a left on to Amersfoort (see Grassland Site 2). The road back to Wakkerstroom is good for Marsh Owl (and of course all the other species) particularly on late winter afternoons.

2. If you have the time it is worthwhile turning left towards Amersfoort at the above T-junction. Travel along this road, keeping an eye open for Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Korhaan, Eastern Long-billed Lark (among the rocky outcrops along the route), etc. Carry on for around 20 km until you reach a turn-off to Daggakraal on the left. Drive straight on towards Amersfoort for a short distance until there are no longer any fences on either side of the road. These are communal lands so there should not be a problem walking where you like here. If anyone is around just explain to them that you are watching 'inyoni' ('birds' in isiZulu) In recent years Pink-billed Lark has been resident in the degraded, weedy grassland to the right of the road. A walk in these old lands should, with any luck, give you sightings of these birds. A walk up the hillside on the left will bring you to some rocky areas which are good for Eastern Long-billed Lark. A walk or drive along the road towards Amersfoort across the brow of the rise in the road will give you an extended view across the open grasslands. On the right of the road there is an incongruous lone tree (a peach tree?) and down in the valley to the right of the road is a small dam. There is a larger dam further to the right. The area on the right of the road, almost opposite the lone tree, should be searched for Botha's Lark. Check out the differences between Botha's Lark and Pink-billed Lark very carefully as both can be found here at times. The latter are probably foraging birds from the population in the degraded grassland that you have just searched.

3. Another good route is to take the Utrecht road out of Wakkerstroom. Drive up the hill looking at all the rocky areas for Buff-streaked Chat, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Mountain Wheatear and Ground Woodpecker. A walk up the hill from the road to the large quarry (feel free to walk here as you are on town lands) might also yield Ground Woodpecker. Carry on up the road to the Paulpietersburg turnoff. Turn left here (continue watching the rocky areas) and once on top of the hill look for a wire gate in the fence on your right. Park your vehicle here and walk across the field on the right (scan the field on the left for Southern Bald Ibis and Black-winged Lapwing among the Crowned Lapwing). Once again this is on town land and the lessee thinks that birders are good people - please don't do anything to disillusion him. This is the famous Yellow-breasted Pipit field. If you familiarise yourself with the calls you can pick the birds up very easily as they call frequently. More often than not the birds are found in the parts of the field where there are tufts of longer grass or along the rocky scarp above the Utrecht road. In some years four or more pairs breed in this field. Other birds here include Eastern Long-billed Lark, Red-capped Lark, Cape Longclaw, African Pipit and Cape Canary. A drive further along the Paulpietersburg road during summer could give you Rudd's Lark, Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, Red-winged Francolin, Grey-winged Francolin, Denham's Bustard, Sentinel Rock-Thrush and Yellow Bishop. Cuckoo Finch has also been seen along here. During winter it is also a good bet for Black Harrier.

4. Leave Wakkerstroom along the Volksrust road. On the edge of town, before crossing the wetland, turn left onto a gravel road signposted Newcastle. Eventually this road crosses the Uthaka River (check the area around the bridge for South African Cliff-Swallow) and meanders along the shore of Zaaihoek Dam. During early mornings (around daybreak) this area is good for both Grey-winged Francolin and Red-winged Francolin. While scenically attractive the dam is too deep to be of much use to waterfowl. After 14 km or so the road reaches a junction. Ignore the road to the right (unless you want to go to Volksrust). Two kilometres or so after this junction the road passes through a rocky gorge below the dam wall. Stop close to the bridge over the Slang River. In summer this is an excellent site for Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, Drakensberg Prinia, Horus Swift and Cape Bunting. Cape Rock-Thrush, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Mocking Cliff-Chat, African Rock Pipit and African Black Duck are also seen here from time to time. You can either return to Wakkerstroom by retracing your steps or by carrying straight on and bearing left at every fork in the road. If you do the latter you should keep an eye open for Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan and Southern Bald Ibis.

5. The drive up Ossewakop is no longer negotiable by two-wheel drive vehicles. It was built by MTN and Eskom and kindly donated to the Mpumalanga Parks Board. Unfortunately the Parks Board no longer maintains a presence in Wakkerstroom and the track is no longer looked after by them. It provides access to the best site in the area to find African Rock Pipit. Other birds to look for include Yellow-breasted Pipit, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Red-winged Francolin, Grey-winged Francolin and Sentinel Rock-Thrush. The delightful Sloggett's Rat or Ice Rat may also be seen around the ruins (from the Anglo-Boer War) near the MTN tower.

Wetland birding 1. Some fine views of the Wakkerstroom Wetland and its birds can be had from the Wakkerstroom-Amersfoort road, but please be careful of the passing traffic here. The bridge over the Uthaka River provides excellent views of South African Cliff-Swallow, White-throated Swallow, Greater Striped Swallow, Little Swift and White-rumped Swift in summer when these birds all nest here.

The Clive Beck Memorial Hide, kindly donated to the Wakkerstroom Natural Heritage Association (WNHA) by Kangra Holdings Ltd, a coal mining company which had mines in the vicinity of Heyshope Dam, also provides excellent views over the wetland and the Uthaka River. African Grass-Owl has been seen at dusk in the rank grass across the river from the hide. Black-crowned Night-Heron are often found in the poplars (ugh!) on the path to the hide. Red-chested Flufftail has been seen from the walkway across the wetland along this path.

A quiet walk along here may well reward the careful observer with good views of Cape Clawless Otter along the river. Grey Crowned Crane breed in the reeds near the hide and visitors are asked to be especially quiet went using this facility in the breeding season. Little Bittern is seen from time to time in the reedbeds near the road. African Snipe is common, as are African Purple Swamphen (often in large groups), Purple Heron and Yellow-billed Egret.

African Rail is regularly seen from both the hide and the road and Baillon's Crake has been seen from the road. African Marsh-Harrier can often be seen quartering the extensive reedbeds to the west of the road and Grey Crowned Crane, up to 13 pairs of which breed on the wetland, use the grassy areas for feeding their young.

BirdLife South Africa has built another three hides around the wetland and, if you like hides and have the time available, these are all worth a visit. If, instead of going out to the grasslands along the Amersfoort road, you keep bearing left you will circumnavigate the wetland. This drive passes by the walk to one of the BLSA hides. Terrestrial birds that can usually be see along the drive in Blue Korhaan, Swainson's Francolin, Pale-crowned Cisticola and Red-throated Wryneck. On the way back in to town you may want to pay a visit to the BLSA offices and their remaining two hides.

2. Fickland Pan is a small lake with shallow, open water habitat. For directions to the pan see Site 1 under grassland birding. Apart from the ubiquitous Red-knobbed Coot and Yellow-billed Duck, Fickland has a completely different suite of waterbirds to the Wakkerstroom Wetland. Species that are often common here but are seldom found at Wakkerstroom including Great Crested Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Maccoa Duck, White-backed Duck, Southern Pochard and Whiskered Tern.

3. Heyshope Dam is an artificial impoundment which is worthy of Ramsar status. Many of its shallow bays provide a moult refuge to spectacular numbers of waterbirds from time to time, e.g. 35 000 Red-knobbed Coot, 6 000 Yellow-billed Duck, etc. For detailed directions on how to get there and the birds involved refer to A Bird and Nature Guide to Wakkerstroom by Warwick and Michelle Tarboton obtainable from various shops in the village or your host in Wakkerstroom.

4. Martin's Dam, the town dam for Wakkerstroom is no longer particularly exciting from a birding point of view. The large numbers of Southern Bald Ibis and Grey Crowned Crane that used to roost in the trees at the upper end of the dam have sadly gone - probably as a consequence of inconsiderate birders and others misusing a hide, which in retrospect was probably sited too close to the roosting site. There is still a small heronry on the dam utilised mostly by Black-headed Heron and Grey Heron. There is still quite a large Cattle Egret roost in the reeds lining the shore and Little Bittern is seen here from time to time.

Forest Birding While Wakkerstroom is not generally associated with forest birding and the local forests no longer have the diversity of other areas there is still some interesting birding to be had here.

1. The most accessible forest is to be found in the Pongola Bush Nature Reserve administered by the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Even here though there is a long walk before the forest edge is reached. Birds that may be found include Orange Ground-Thrush, African Crowned Eagle, African Goshawk, Bush Blackcap, Chorister Robin-Chat , White-starred Robin, Olive Woodpecker, etc. Barratt's Warbler calls from deep in the densest of the thickets along the path. For details on how to get here consult A Bird and Nature Guide to Wakkerstroom or telephone the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife offices in Vryheid (Tel. 0381 81-2492) for directions and permission to enter the Reserve.

2. Mpumalanga Parks Board have acquired property in the mountains near Lüneburg for eventual development as a nature reserve. There is a patch of mist belt forest here which holds a similar suite of species to Pongola Bush. There are no trails or paths in the forest yet, but it is possible to have a picnic here (and swim if you dare) near a picturesque waterfall and to walk through the forest across the river. This is one of the few places in the area where Mountain Wagtail occurs. Unfortunately there is no public access to the Reserve at present, but you can contact Jannie Coetzee of Mpumalanga Parks Board on (013) 262-4190 to see if there have been any changes by the time of your visit.

3. Most of the other forest patches in the area are on private property and should not be visited without prior permission from the landowners. The few patches nearby the road often hold Bush Blackcap, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler and Olive Bush-Shrike, but unfortunately these birds have disappeared from most of these areas - possibly as a result of "over taping."

Amur Falcon Roost If you are impressed with large numbers of birds then this is the place for you. Take a late afternoon drive into Volksrust. Turn left at the first traffic lights and drive straight through the town as if going to Newcastle. At Speers Restaurant (the last set of traffic light before leaving town) turn left and drive down to some large eucalypts near the old railway station and rows of historical Railway Houses. At dusk on a summers evening many thousands of bird come in to roost here for the night. It has been estimated that in a good year up to 10 000 Amur Falcons roost here together with up to 1 000 Lesser Kestrels. It is probably advisable to visit the site in a group as it is sometimes used as a 'roost' for individuals that have scant regard for the law and birders' expensive equipment.

AMERSFOORT Many of this area's special birds are fairly common in suitable habitat and will be easily seen with a bit of exploration along the numerous roads radiating out from these two villages. However, a few spots have been productive in the past and will help the visitor with limited time:

1. The Amersfoort to Piet Retief road: check the edges of this gravel road 5km from town for Botha's Lark, which prefers areas of short grass. Pink-billed Lark also occur in this area but prefer taller grass. The birds may be seen for the next 20km until a turn-off to the right signposted Waterval. The grazed area around the huts at this junction is good for both Botha's Lark and Rudd's Lark, the latter being most easily located in summer by its aerial display.

2. Continue down the Waterval road for approximately 6km until you see a large pan on the right. Botha's Lark has been seen on both sides of the road in this area. The pan is productive when water levels are suitable: Maccoa Duck and Lesser Moorhen are regular and Black-tailed Godwit has occurred as a vagrant. Surrounding grassland is good for Southern Bald Ibis and Blue Korhaan.

3. Return to the Amersfoort-Piet Retief road and continue for 17km to a turnoff to the left, signposted Sheepmoor. Bush Blackcap, Bar-throated Apalis and Olive Bush-Shrike may be found in the Ouhout woodland about 10km along this road, where it passes over a small escarpment. Bird from the roadside here or get permission to walk along the ridge to the left, where Cape Eagle-Owl has been seen.

4. Amersfoort to Wakkerstroom road: the pristine grassland along this road should be scanned for Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, Black-winged Lapwing, South African Cliff-Swallow and Banded Martin. Black-winged Pratincole, Amur Falcon and Common Swift may be seen hawking over the grasslands in summer. Check the higher areas for Rudd's Lark.

General Most birding can be done from the roadside but if you wish to enter private property, get permission from the land-owner before doing so. Places to stay in or near Wakkerstroom vary from well-appointed country lodges, guest houses and hotels, self-catering establishments and Guest Farms. Campers and caravaners should enquire about facilities at the time of their visit. Birders planning a trip are welcome to contact John McAllister bigmac@crazyweb.co.za for advice (Tel. (017) 730 0269).

The excellent Wakkerstroom Bird and Nature Guide by Warwick and Michele Tarboton is highly recommended and is available from various shops in Wakkerstroom as well as your host if you are staying over in the town.

Accommodation See Adverts

Wakkerstroom - John McAllister 2008
Amersfoort - Jonathan Rossouw 1997.

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