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A Birding Year in Wakkerstroom's Grasslands

Birds have a great advantage over other wild animals - they can still be found virtually anywhere and are not restricted to natural areas specially set aside for them - not yet at any rate. South Africa's grasslands are a good example. Once teeming with antelope and other large mammals these animals are now virtually restricted to dispirited herds of Blesbok (now more often than not hybridised with Bontebok) and sometimes Black Wildebeest and the odd Springbok or two. If you are VERY lucky you may see a Grey Rhebuck, a Mountain Reedbuck, a Steenbok or even an Oribi. Generally our grasslands are pretty much devoid of wildlife now - unless of course you are a birder.

For birders the grasslands of south-eastern Mpumalanga provide a wealth of exciting wildlife. More than 400 species occur regularly in South African grasslands. Twenty-one, or more than half, of South Africa's 40 endemic birds, i.e. birds that can be found nowhere else on Earth, can be found here. Thirteen of these are endemic, or nearly so, to the grasslands themselves. A further 64 southern African (Africa south of the Zambezi and Cunene rivers) endemics or near endemics can also be found here.

Wakkerstroom, a sleepy little village nestled among the hills and wetlands of the Mpumalanga/KwaZulu-Natal border country has capitalised on this abundance of endemic bird life. From being an archetype no-hoper South African country 'dorp' on a slippery downhill economic slope the town has a fast growing if embryo tourism industry based entirely on it being in the centre of one of the few remaining relatively pristine grassland areas of the country. It is fast become a household name among local and international birders. The town has a host of accommodation establishments ranging from the relatively luxurious country hotel and lodge type accommodation through B&B and self-catering to caravan and camp sites.

A typical Wakkerstroom birding year runs something along the following lines.

May, June and July provide some spectacular winter weather - crisp, sunny days often without a cloud in the sky. The hills are sometimes covered with a mantle of snow. The grassland plants have withdrawn their nutrients into their root systems to protect themselves against the heavy frosts of winter. The veld has become a kaleidoscope of soothing shades of yellow, brown, mauve and even soft red - but they are pretty quiet months birding-wise. Many species have left the high-lying areas for the warmer climes lower down in KwaZulu-Natal.

Once the farmers start burning firebreaks along the road verges and elsewhere they form a magnet for many birds attracted to exposed areas where food is often easier to see than in the still long, but now dormant and nutritionally poor grasses in the surrounding countryside. Here the winter birder should look for Pink-billed Lark with their warm chestnut or rufous underparts. Spike-heeled Lark, with their friendly, soft chattering, are also common in the burnt areas. Occasionally the odd Botha's Lark may be tempted to put in an appearance here as well.

The pipits that one sees now are more likely to be Plain-backed Pipit as the ubiquitous African Pipit of summer have also decided to opt for lower lying areas. The Sentinel Rock-Thrush that you see in the open grassland are probably not the same individuals that occupy the rocky hillsides in summer. They are thought to be visitors from the Lesotho Highlands enjoying the relative warmth of a Wakkerstroom winter.

August is the month to be on the lookout for large flocks of pre-breeding Blue Crane. Groups of 200 or more birds gather in the fallow maize fields and grasslands, reminiscent of days gone by before this species, South Africa's national bird, became globally threatened. This is the time of year for older pairs to strengthen pair bonds with their mates and for younger birds to establish relationships that will last the rest of their lives. Their dancing displays are truly a sight to behold leaving even the most hardened individual moved by thoughts of the approaching Spring. Often they are joined by a hundred or so spectacular Grey Crowned Crane and a lonely Wattled Crane or two.

Late August is the time when most farmers in the area begin burning parts of their veld to stimulate good grass growth in anticipation of the first Spring rains. This in turn stimulates the first breeding activity at the cliff-side Southern Bald Ibis breeding colonies - yet another globally threatened grassland endemic bird. Blue Korhaan suddenly become more conspicuous and their resounding 'knock-me-down' calls can be heard all over the veld.

September and October are months of awakening in the Wakkerstroom grasslands. The Southern Bald Ibis colonies become a hive of activity as more and more birds establish nests, chicks start hatching and parent birds are kept endlessly busy tending the needs of their young.

The first Yellow-breasted Pipit arrive back in the area. From mid-September through to mid-March these otherwise little brown jobs are resident on the higher lying ground (mostly areas above 2 000 m) around Wakkerstroom. The underparts of these birds - particularly the breasts and upper bellies - become bright yellow and the birds indulge in loud and conspicuous display flights.

The large crane flocks start breaking up into breeding pairs and smaller groups of non-breeding birds.

Other altitudinal migrants are starting to put in an appearance once more. Bush Blackcap are re-colonising the forest patches on the moister south-facing slopes of the escarpment. Black-winged Lapwing join the flocks of ubiquitous Crowned Plover. Stanley's Bustard are starting to put in an appearance again. The lucky birder may see male birds giving their spectacular displays on prominent hilltop spots. They puff out their chests to such an extent that they seem to nearly double in size. This is done by single male birds apparently in complete silence. The brilliant white of the much enlarged chest against the emerald green background of the early summer grass is visible for many kilometres and female birds can sometimes be seen striding across the veld towards the distant hilltop display sites.

During mid to late October (earlier if their have been good early rains) the hormones of the hitherto silent Rudd's Lark spur them on into starting the strange, somewhat guttural 'purple jeep' calls.

November is the month when everything really hangs out in Wakkerstroom's birding world. Rudd's Lark, a somewhat cryptically coloured, inconspicuous bird which holds the unwelcome distinction of being one of South Africa's most threatened birds, suddenly becomes extremely conspicuous and easy to find. At this time the males indulge in fluttering display flights high above their chosen breeding territories. These flights can carry on for upwards of an hour and a half and many a surprised birder has complained of 'rain forest neck' in Mpumalanga's grasslands! This species once occurred in primary mid-altitude grasslands (1 500 to 2 000 m. a.s.l.) along the Drakensberg Escarpment from northern Mpumalanga to the Eastern Cape. This habitat has been dramatically fragmented by agricultural activities, particularly afforestation. It has been estimated that 85% of the world population of Rudd's Lark are now to be found within 100 km of Wakkerstroom.

Botha's Lark is another equally cryptically coloured threatened species that is restricted to primary grasslands in the upper Vaal catchment from Wakkerstroom in the east to around Balfour in western Mpumalanga and Kroonstad in the Free State. While Botha's Lark don't indulge in any spectacular display flights they have a very pretty trilling call and become extraordinarily confiding during the breeding season. Wakkerstroom is one of the few areas where, during November each year, birders can almost be guaranteed of finding both Rudd's Lark and Botha's Lark in the same field as their ranges are otherwise very separate.

December through to March are also great birding months in the Wakkerstroom area although birders still wanting to see Rudd's Lark and Botha's Lark should visit the area earlier rather than later during this period. All the other local 'specials' are still present in abundance, however.

Migrant birds from the Northern hemisphere are prominent at this time. Globally threatened Lesser Kestrel are often found among the many thousands of Amur Falcon that roost in the clumps of exotic trees dotted around the countryside. The falcons are essentially insectivorous and migrate from their breeding grounds in south-eastern Siberia and north-eastern China, across the Himalayas to India where they stop for a few moths. From India the birds fly straight out over the Indian Ocean probably making their first landfall on the African coast somewhere around Malindi in Kenya - quite a feat for an insectivorous bird.

Hundreds of White Stork dot the open countryside at this time picking off the many insects in the ever-bountiful grassland. The lucky birder may also happen across Montagu's Harrier and even Pallid Harrier here - both increasingly frequent migrants from the north. Large flocks of the globally threatened Black-winged Pratincole are also sometimes found here.

April is the month when everything starts quietening down again in preparation for the winter. Local altitudinal migrants have mostly left the Wakkerstroom area for their winter holidays nearer the coast. Like any time of year there is something for the keen birder in Wakkerstroom, however. This is the time to watch for spectacles such as large numbers of birds gathering in early April for the long migration back to their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia.
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