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The Magoebaskloof area is a picturesque mountainous region speckled with pristine Afromontane forest patches. Spectacular forests play host to a number of southern Africa's forest specials making the area a very worthwhile birding destination. Two of the most worthwhile forests in the area are the enormous Woodbush and the small Swartbos Forests. Woodbush is probably the best place in South Africa to see the Black-fronted Bush-Shrike.

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Specials

Cape Parrot, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Orange Ground-Thrush, Buff-spotted Flufftail. African Olive-Pigeon, Tambourine Dove, Lemon Dove, Black Cuckoo, African Emerald Cuckoo, Narina Trogon, Olive Woodpecker, Grey Cuckooshrike and Green Twinspot.

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Habitats

Large expanses of Afromontane forest with a canopy height between 15 and 30 metres. The forest holds numerous small streams that cascade down the hills in ferns and moss-rich gullies.

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Facilities

There is a poor gravel road that meanders from the top of the escarpment, down through Woodbush, to the bottom of the gorge; at Debegeni Falls, a spectacular lookout point and picnic area ; an extensive matrix of hiking paths through Woodbush and Overnight hiking trail huts.

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Birding

1. Forest Drive A
The best way to see the birds of Woodbush is to take the forest drive from the Woodbush Hut, down past Debegeni Falls to the bottom of the gorge. This drive will take a minimum of 1 hour but count on about 3 hours with adequate birding stops. A vehicle with decent ground clearance may be necessary to negotiate some of the roads. Note that the forestry roads deteriorate with the late summer rains and the roads can become very dangerous when wet.

From the Magoebaskloof Hotel on the R71, drive another 2 km towards Tzaneen and turn left onto the gravel road at the 'Houtbosdorp' sign. After a number of curves, take the right fork at the 'P' sign. Continue for about 1km past the Woodbush trail hut to a breathtaking lookout point over the gorge and forest below. The viewpoint is spectacular at dawn as the sun rises across the valley to a chorus of forest sounds. This is probably the best position from which to look out for Cape Parrot as they fly up or down the gorge.

Retracing your steps for about 700m towards the Woodbush Hut, you will find the turnoff to the forest drive on your left. The forest drive meanders through lovely forest and birders would do well to walk stretches of the road. A good knowledge of forest bird calls is invaluable and keeping bird call CDs handy could prove to be useful. In winter, the best way to find Black-fronted Bush-Shrike is to listen out for a bird party. The parties generally begin with some ‘excited’ Yellow-streaked Greenbul and/or Square-tailed Drongo which attract a wide variety of other species (including both Olive Bush-Shrike and Black-fronted Bush-Shrike). A little bit of spishing around a flock of Yellow-streaked Greenbul may well induce a bird party and is worth a try.

Near the bottom of the gorge are the Debegeni Falls where one can walk around and enjoy a picnic. Look out for Mountain Wagtail patrolling the falls and African Dusky Flycatcher darting from tree to tree. The forest Drive continues down for a few kilometres before rejoining the R71. Keep a look-out for Red-backed Mannikin along the stream near the R71.

Upon rejoining the R71 turn left and travel another 3km towards Tzaneen and turn left onto the Rooikoppies road. The road forks after about 200 meters, but take the left road and follow this road for about three kilometer to a big "intersection". It is usually a most rewarding trip and well worth the effort. Look out for Wire-tailed Swallow, Collared Sunbird, Red-faced Cisticola, Yellow Bishop, Lazy Cisticola, Striped Pipit, Thick-billed Weaver, Red-backed Mannikin, Forest Buzzard, Long-crested Eagle and Bat Hawk along this road.

2. Forest Drive B
This alternative forest drive (about 2 hours) is more varied in that it passes Dap Naude Dam, some mountain grassland and a protea plantation. There are also some landslides which offer nice views into the forest.

From Magoebaskloof Hotel take the R71 in the direction of Tzaneen, take the Woodbush Hiking Trail turn off (as for forest Drive A). At the ‘P’ sign take the left fork and continue for 3 km. While admiring the view, look out for Forest Buzzard in winter, and Steppe Buzzard in summer. Check the roadside for Buffy Pipit, prinia, widows and waxbills. Also seen or heard in summer, are Black Cuckoo, Klaas's Cuckoo, African Emerald Cuckoo, Diderick Cuckoo, Levaillant's Cuckoo, Jacobin Cuckoo, Red-chested Cuckoo, and African Cuckoo. Jackal Buzzard and Long-crested Eagle are resident in the area.

Where the river widens, stop at the turn-off signposted ‘O’ road (Houtbosdorp road). Have a quick look on the river for Yellow-billed Duck, African Black Duck, Little Grebe, Reed Cormorant, African Stonechat, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, and White-throated Swallow in summer. Take the turn-off to Houtbosdorp and after about 200 meters another turn to the right. The road meanders along a river, through a variety of plantations and some beautiful (but not indigenous) oak forest, and passes a rustic camping place. Look for Long-crested Eagle, and various warblers and cisticolas.

After about 4 km you pass the wall of Dap Naude Dam, followed by some nice indigenous forest. Park here and listen for Olive Woodpecker, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, thrushes and robins. Continuing from here, you exit the indigenous forest to find Dap Naude Dam on your right. The reed-beds are worth a look, and the grassland is good for prinias, widows, cisticolas, canaries and Cape Grassbird.

Next is a turning to your left marked ‘O.8’ and ‘Dokolewa Pools’. Turn here and follow the road up the mountain past some Trail Huts and enter the indigenous forest again. Knysna Turaco are common, and listen for the Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher, Square-tailed Drongo (imitating a dominant raptor call), Barratt's Warbler, thrushes and robins. Narina Trogon can also be heard at times. Little Sparrowhawk might dash across the road and African Goshawk fly overhead. After entering the forest, stop at the first landslide to get out and listen. The birds will start calling and some exciting species might show themselves. The next big landslide is another km or so, and here again it is worth stopping to listen and explore. The forest fringes can be quite productive, with Olive Woodpecker, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Barratt's Warbler, Narina Trogon, Knysna Turaco etc. The sudden bark of a Samango Monkey may alarm you. Continue up the mountain and you will exit the forest, pass through a bit of grassland, then plantation ,and eventually proteas, and a marvellous view towards the west. If lucky you might get Gurney's Sugarbird here.

Continue to a crossing with a tarred road. Left (‘Magoebaskloof’) will bring you back to the wide river where the turn-off of the O-road is (after about 5 km you get a T-junction, near the widened river, turn left and go back to the R71). If you turn right (‘Houtbosdorp’) you can go down the mountain range toward Pietersburg and this is where some excellent dry-veld birding can be done.

3. Swartbos Forest Reserve
Swartbos is a small (52ha) forest ideal for a whirlwind birding stop and is alongside the road between Pietersburg and Tzaneen (R71). Most of the forest specials found in the area are to be found in Swartbos, which is situated alongside the R71 next to the Magoebaskloof Hotel.

The Lesodi trail starts at Sanford Heights Farm stall (maps available) and winds through the Swartbos forest. The trils provides good opportunities for spotting many of the forest specials found in Woodbush. Birds include Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Square-tailed Drongo, Chorister Robin-Chat and African Crowned Eagle. No facilities are provided on site but the adjacent Magoebaskloof Hotel has pub and eating facilities.

4. Magoebaskloof to Polokwane Drive
This 2 hour drive can be taken as an alternative route from Magoebaskloof to Polokwane. Follow the Forest Drive B directions to the turn-off signposted ‘O’ road (Houtbosdorp road). After about 600 meters this will become a tarred road through plantations. Scan the dams close to the road on the left for herons, cormorants, ducks, weavers and warblers. The road then starts descending rapidly down the western ‘escarpment’. Stop regularly at small streams and look for Lazy Cisticola, Neddicky, Cape Grassbird, Blue Waxbill, Swee Waxbill, Jameson's Firefinch, Black Cuckooshrike, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Olive Bush-Shrike, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Bar-throated Apalis, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Cape Batis and Chinspot Batis. In summer Black Saw-wing, Lesser Striped Swallow, Greater Striped Swallow and Barn Swallow all occur. Also look for White-throated Robin-Chat, White-browed Scrub-Robin, Chorister Robin-Chat and Cape Robin-Chat as well as African Dusky Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Black-backed Puffback, Southern Boubou, African Goshawk.

At the T-junction, turn left to Pietersburg. For the next 20km you will be passing through some nice acacia shrub alternated with rural settlements. Stop regularly, especially at areas which have aloes on rocky slopes, looking for Sabota Lark, Short-clawed Lark, Rufous-naped Lark, African Pipit, Striped Pipit, Buffy Pipit, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Black-chested Prinia, Cape Canary, Yellow-fronted Canary, Brimstone Canary, African Hoopoe, Greater Kestrel, Common Waxbill, Scaly-feathered Finch, Cut-throat Finch, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, Red-backed Shrike, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Black-crowned Tchagra and Kalahari Scrub-Robin. You will eventually pass the University of Limpopo and about 2 km later hit the R71. A right turn will take you to Polokwane (and onto the Polokwane Nature Reserve and/or Polokwane Bird Sanctuary), a left turn will take you back to Magoebaskloof via Haenertsburg.

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General

Magoebaskloof is approximately 58km from Pietersburg and 27km from Tzaneen on the R71. Access to Woodbush and Swartbos is free but there is a R10 entrance fee to the Debegeni Falls. Accommodation is available at the Magoebaskloof Hotel, as well as a variety of country lodges, B&B’s and camping in the area.

For further information check out the Greater Limpopo Birding Routes www.limpopobirding.com

Ben de Boer 2007
Jaap Kuiper 2001
Dale Forbes 2001
Derek Engelbrecht 1998.



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