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Memel is situated in the north-eastern Free State, where it borders Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, close to the Drakensberg Escarpment. Memel is on the tarred R34, between Vrede (Free State) and Newcastle (KwaZulu-Natal), about 250 km from Johannesburg. Not only does this area boast some of the best and most extensive habitat for high altitude grassland endemic bird species, but it also includes the extensive Seekoeivlei Wetland, a RAMSAR site, contained in the Seekeoivlei Nature Reserve. The Memel district is characterised by varied landscapes ranging from undulating grassy hills with vleis, dams and streams in shallow valleys to the north of the town to deeply incised river valleys, rock-strewn hillsides, grassy plateaus and sheltered forests clinging to the south-facing slopes of the Drakensberg Escarpment to the south. This provides for some majestic scenery characterised by some well-known flat-topped sandstone (koppies) mesas rising above the surrounding areas.

The area boasts a checklist of approximately 250 bird species. A two to three day stay in the pleasant surroundings is highly recommended, particularly during summer (late October to late February), when many of the "specials" of the area are more conspicuous as they display and vocalize. Most areas are easily accessible, although road conditions (especially after summer rains) should be checked before visiting. Lists of 80-100 bird species are usual, while up to 120-130 species may be seen over a weekend in summer.

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Specials

Specials include Southern Bald Ibis, White-backed Duck, South African Shelduck, Maccoa Duck, Bearded Vulture, Cape Vulture, African Marsh-Harrier, Black Harrier, Grey-winged Francolin, Eurasian Bittern, Wattled Crane, Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, African Rail, White-winged Flufftail, Denham's Bustard, White-bellied Korhaan, Blue Korhaan, Burchell's Courser, Temminck's Courser, Cape Eagle-Owl, Ground Woodpecker, Olive Woodpecker, Half-collared Kingfisher, Melodious Lark, Rudd's Lark, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Pink-billed Lark, Botha's Lark, Bush Blackcap, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Mountain Wheatear, Chorister Robin-Chat, Cloud Cisticola, Wing-snapping Cisticola, Pale-crowned Cisticola, African Rock Pipit, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Swee Waxbill and Forest Canary.

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Habitats

Habitats include high-altitude grassland, vleis/wetlands, river valleys, rocky hillsides, mountains and cliffs, high-altitude mist belt forest and cultivated lands.

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Facilities

A network of gravel roads and tracks allows access to most habitats, although road conditions may vary considerably, particularly after summer thunderstorms. Various types of accommodation are available, ranging from an upmarket guest house in Memel to self-catering cottages on farms in the district and at Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve, to camping. Contact Memel Getaways (tel./fax. 058-9240400) or Mahem Guest House (tel./fax 058-9240034) for details.

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Birding

Memel Getaways (Voortrekker Street, Memel) provides a map, together with a bird checklist for the area. Good birding spots include the following (route numbers refer to areas indicated on map)

1. The area south-west and south of Memel is the most productive for the grassland endemics as well as species restricted largely to rocky hillsides and also to indigenous forest. The S56 (to Verkykerskop) south-west of Memel runs along a broad, shallow valley consisting mainly of cultivated lands. Turn left onto the S471 (to Normandienpas) and look out for Mountain Wheatear, African Rock Pipit, Eastern Long-billed Lark and Wailing Cisticola along the rocky ridges on the right before the road levels out onto extensive grassy plateaus. Banded Martin are common here in summer. Red-capped Lark fly up from the road verge as the topography levels and Ant-eating Chat and Pied Starling may also be seen here. Look out for Cape Vulture perched on the electricity pylons and search the rockier grassland areas for Sentinel Rock-Thrush.

The grassland areas surrounding silver livestock pens a little further on are prime habitat for Black Harrier (mainly in winter), Blue Crane, Denham's Bustard, Burchell's Courser, Rudd's Lark, Botha's Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit; driving or walking along the track which cuts back immediately behind the livestock pens is usually productive in summer. As this is all private farmland, please contact Mahem Guest House (tel. 058-9240034) concerning permission to enter private property here.

Continue for about 5 km along the S471 and at a T-junction (with the S472) turn right (still on the S471) to Mont Pelaan. Soon after passing some dwellings on the right, the road drops steeply into a narrow valley. Look out for Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, African Rock Pipit, Cape Bunting and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting in the rocky areas and Horus Swift, which breeds in holes in the road embankments and erosion gulleys. Yellow Bishop is usually present here in summer.

At the next T-junction (just after crossing the river), turn right onto the S18 (to Normandienpas) which climbs up onto grassy plateaus again, where Blue Korhaan and Southern Bald Ibis may be found. Spongy wetland areas may also produce White Stork in summer. Look out for Eastern Long-billed Lark in rocky areas close to the road.

Turn right at the next junction (intersection of S18 & S783), headed for Normandien Pass and some spectacular scenery along the Drakensberg Escarpment, where the topography drops away to the south into KwaZulu-Natal. About 4 km along this road are some rocks right on the edge of the escarpment; this is a great place to stop for a break and where views over the indigenous forest are breathtaking. Chorister Robin-Chat, Bush Blackcap, Olive Bush-Shrike, Southern Double-collared Sunbird and Forest Canary may be seen from above the forest canopy, while other species, including Barratt's Warbler, may be heard. Look out for African Harrier-Hawk along the cliffs, as well as various swifts and swallows.

Backtrack to the junction and turn right onto the S783 (to Roodepoort); Red-winged Francolin and Grey-winged Francolin often occur here and Ground Woodpecker may be seen in the road cuttings. The Klip River rises in the valley on the right; this river feeds the Seekoeivlei wetland further downstream and ultimately joins other rivers to form the mighty Vaal; as such, this area is a vitally important catchment. Smaller wetlands along the Klip River valley support a diverse array of waterbirds; Purple Heron, African Purple Swamphen, African Rail, African Snipe and a number of duck species may be seen, as well as the majestic Grey Crowned Crane. Take the S17 (left) to return to Memel.

2. This is a much shorter route than 1), but takes in another area of extensive high-altitude grassland, this time closer to Memel. Other habitats covered include wetland areas along a portion of the Klip River valley as well as rocky hillsides. Take the R34 from Memel, heading for Newcastle. Soon after leaving Memel, turn right onto the S781, running east of the Klip River. Look out for Blue Crane and Grey Crowned Crane in fallow lands and along the oxbows of the Klip River. Turn left onto the T2181, which climbs out of the valley up to another area of plateau grassland, and on towards Kranskop Mountain. Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Rudd's Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit have been recorded at the top end of the valley up which the T2181 leads and on the grassy plateau beyond. Ground Woodpecker, Mountain Wheatear and Bokmakierie may be seen along the rocky ridges along the way. Return to Memel by backtracking along the same route.

3. Take the S56 gravel road (to Verkykerskop) south-west of Memel, which initially runs along a broad, shallow valley consisting mainly of cultivated lands. Continue for a few km beyond the turn-off to Normandienpas (S471), where after another short, steep section tar, the road comes out onto a plateau. After a few more km, the S56 passes the turn-off to Hope royal (S226), to the right. Soon after this, keep a look out for Southern Bald Ibis and Blue Crane in pastures and fields. The Non-Pareil/Witkoppe mountains rise majestically to the right; Southern Bald Ibis roost and breed in sandstone caves and overhangs here, and there is reputedly also a Bearded Vulture nesting site (the northern-most for this species in south Africa).

About 1 km beyond the intersection with the S818 (signposted to Driebult) is a shallow pan on the left hand side of the S56. This pan often has roosting Blue Crane, various waterfowl species, and Whiskered Tern breed here in seasons of good rainfall. Just after the pan, there is again a short stretch of tar. Look out for Cape Eagle-Owl on the rocks close to the road towards the bottom of the hill, particularly in the late afternoon.

Just after the bridge is an intersection (S898) signposted to Mooivlakte. The condition of this road varies considerably, but the S898 is a short-cut back to the silver livestock pens, mentioned for Route 1), above.

An alternative to turning left onto the S898 is to continue for a few more km along the S56, until the tar starts. This area comprises mainly upland grassland on plateaus, with some cultivated lands and small dams in the shallow valleys. As the road dips into a valley, look out for Grey Crowned Crane and Blue Crane as well as Southern Bald Ibis in the area along the drainage line to the east (left) of the road. Large groups of cranes and Spur-winged Goose sometimes gather in fallow or recently planted fields here.

Soon afterwards, take the gravel road to the left (referred to as the 'Sterkfontein Loop' on the map). This road traverses mainly the plateau between the Cornelis river valley (to the north) and the Meul river valley (to the south). Birds to look out for along this stretch of road, the condition of which also varies (please check with locals before travelling it!), include Grey Crowned Crane and Blue Crane, Denham's Bustard, Blue Korhaan and various waterfowl species which are often found at a number of natural pans and dams along the way. Black-necked Grebe, White-backed Duck and Maccoa Duck are some of the more interesting waterbirds to be on the lookout for. There are a number of grassland areas along this route providing suitable habitat for a number of lark and pipit species. African Stonechat, Cape Longclaw and various widow species also occur here and Cape Vulture and Martial Eagle have been recorded in flight. Continue with this road in an easterly direction until the junction with the S471 (soon after passing beneath overhead powerlines), where Sentinel Rock-Thrush may be seen in the rocky areas. Turn left onto the S471, and return to Memel, passing the silver livestock pens.

4. Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve is well worth a visit, with the best birding to be had approaching the wetland from the west. Take the S815 from Memel, heading north past the township. The western (Waterval) entrance gate to Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve is just over 4 km from the edge of Memel town, on the right hand side of the road, opposite a well-vegetated pan. This pan often produces some interesting egrets and herons as well as various widows and bishops. Take the track to the right and continue to a second (locked) gate, which is the entrance to the reserve proper (a small entrance fee is payable for visitors; this and the key should be arranged in Memel beforehand (contact Mahem Guest House 058-9240034)). Look out for Grey-winged Francolin in the grass before and near the gate; good views of Common Quail are also possible here in summer. Ant-eating Chat are usually seen perched on the fence in this area as well. Once through the reserve gate, continue straight on for a few hundred metres and stop at the viewpoint on the right (signposted) that provides excellent views of the wetland below, with oxbows and some more distant open water sections. A scope is a good idea here, as many of the waterbirds are quite far away, but the scenery is quite spectacular, especially after good rains when the water level in the wetland is high. Grey Crowned Crane and various herons and egrets are usually clearly visible from this raised vantage point.

Backtrack to the gate and follow the track north along the reserve fence (check beforehand on the condition of the track if travelling in a sedan). Further on the track moves away to the right and towards the wetland. There are a number of good vantage points overlooking the wetland where various waterfowl and Glossy Ibis and African Sacred Ibis as well as African Purple Swamphen may be easily seen. Look out for Purple Heron here as well and African Marsh-Harrier and Marsh Owl may also be present, quartering the shorter vegetation at the edge of the wetland. The track traverses grassland areas as well where Blue Korhaan may be seen. Flocks of Red-billed Quelea, Southern Red Bishop and Yellow-crowned Bishop and various widows (mainly Long-tailed Widowbird and Fan-tailed Widowbird) are also common here in summer and Orange-breasted Waxbill are also frequently seen. Levaillant's Cisticola and various warblers occur in the vegetation close to the wetland, while Zitting Cisticola, Cloud Cisticola, Wing-snapping Cisticola and Pale-crowned Cisticola are more often heard than seen in the surrounding moist grasslands. The track continues to the old Merelsvlei homestead and then joins the gravel S782 (Memel/Volksrust) beyond. Turn left to return to Memel (via the S815).

5. Alternatively, turn right onto the S782 to continue around the perimeter of Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve. Opposite the gate at Merelsvlei is some very good moist grassland habitat, which usually hosts Grey Crowned Crane and a few family groups of Blue Korhaan. The four species of grassland cisticola already mentioned are also common in this area. White Stork and calling Common Quail occur here in summer. Continue a short distance north along the S782 to a low-level bridge over a stream, where South African Cliff-Swallow and usually a pair of White-throated Swallow breed during summer. Cape Weaver nest in a willow tree next to the bridge while Southern Masked-Weaver usually build their nests on the reserve fence. Hamerkop is often seen here, and African Marsh-Harrier is occasionally encountered as well. A well-vegetated wetland area on the left of the road a short distance further on usually produces various herons, egrets, widows and bishops.

About 3.5 km further on, the road to the right traverses the northern end of the Seekoeivlei Wetland and the Klip River. This stretch of road is stony and quite bumpy and should be driven with care. Birding along here can be really worthwhile however, with Purple Heron, African Wattled Lapwing, African Snipe, Malachite Kingfisher and Pale-crowned Cisticola some of the special birds to be seen here.

After crossing the small bridge over the river, on the left is a pan in a dip; Black Stork has been seen here along with the more regular Red-knobbed Coot and Little Grebe. This is also a good spot for Whiskered Tern in summer. Just beyond this pan is a series of pastures on the left; Blue Korhaan are usually a certainty here, as are Pink-billed Lark, but patience and knowledge of the latter's calls are essential. Look out for Secretarybird on the opposite side of the road, inside the nature reserve, and listen out for the characteristic calls of displaying Eastern Clapper Lark a little further on. Banded Martin, South African Cliff-Swallow and Barn Swallow may be seen feeding in flight low over the vegetation.

Turn right at the junction and travel south along the boundary of the reserve. After a short distance is a wetland area on the right, with willow trees on the left of the road. Yellow-crowned Bishop, Fan-tailed Widowbird and Long-tailed Widowbird breed here in summer, when males can be seen in display. This is also a very good spot to pick up African Snipe, with males performing their drumming aerial territorial displays for much of the year. Pale-crowned Cisticola is also almost a certainty here as well. Continue with this road until it meets the tarred R34 (Vrede/Memel/Newcastle), checking the various small dams and wetland areas along the way for interesting bird species. All three species of crane (Wattled Crane, Grey Crowned Crane and Blue Crane) have been seen roosting at a small farm dam along this road, and Half-collared Kingfisher has been seen at the bridge over a stream a few km from the junction with the R34. To return to Memel, turn right onto the R34.

It is also possible to visit the eastern section of Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve, although the track is not recommended for sedan vehicles (enquire at Mahem Guest House 058-9240034 or Memel Getaways 058-9240400). Many of the same species already mentioned can be seen on the eastern, Seekoeivlei section of the reserve and Botha's Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit have also been recorded occasionally on the higher-lying grassy plateaus in this area.

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Mammals

Larger mammals to be seen within Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve include Hippopotamus, Burchell's Zebra and Blesbok, while Mountain Reedbuck and the more rare Vaal Ribbok may be seen in the more mountainous areas south and south-west of Memel. Some farmers in the area keep herds of Springbok and White Blesbok as well. Smaller mammals to be seen include Yellow Mongoose and Suricate.

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General

For further birding details contact Rick Nuttall (tel. 051-4479609 (w); e-mail: ornito@nasmus.co.za

Rick Nuttall 2001.



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