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Sandveld Nature Reserve, situated on the Free State side of the Bloemhof Dam (at the confluence of the Vaal and Vet Rivers), is potentially the province's top birding spot. It comprises a range of habitats (particularly kalahari Thornveld), and boasts a checklist of approximately 295 bird species. A two to three day stay in the pleasant surroundings is recommended. Most habitats are easily accessible. Lists of 70-80 bird species are usual, while up to 150 species may be seen over a weekend in late summer.

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Specials

Specials include Great Crested Grebe, Pygmy Falcon (very rare), Caspian Tern, Double-banded Courser, Natal Spurfowl, Orange River Francolin, Pink-billed Lark, Eastern Clapper Lark and Fawn-coloured Lark, Tinkling Cisticola, Desert Cisticola and Rattling Cisticola, Rufous-eared Warbler, Sociable Weaver, Violet-eared Waxbill and Black-faced Waxbill. Waterfowl species, including White-faced Duck, Fulvous Duck, Southern Pochard, Cape Shoveler, Cape Teal, South African Shelduck and Comb Duck may be seen in good numbers at certain times. Heronries comprising up to 12 different species of heron, egret, ibis and cormorant may be present during seasons of good rainfall.

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Habitats

These include open water, shoreline, marshy areas, grassland, karoo scrub, kalahari Thornveld savanna and woodland, and sweethorn (acacia karoo) savanna. Some rocky areas are also present.

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Facilities

A good network of gravel roads traverses the different habitats, chalet accommodation, night drives, organised walks, picnic sites for day visitors.

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Birding

The reserve office provides a map, together with bird (and mammal) checklists. Good birding sites include the following;

1. The vicinity of the camp always produces a good number of species, many of which are fairly tame (including Crimson-breasted Shrike, Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Marico Flycatcher, Groundscraper Thrush and Scaly-feathered Finch). bush thickets close to the dam are good for warblers, particularly in late summer, when Garden Warbler, Willow Warbler, African Reed-Warbler, Marsh Warbler and Icterine Warbler have been recorded. Rattling Cisticola, an uncommon species in the Free State, may also be found here. Look out for Jacobin Cuckoo here during summer. The dainty Fairy Flycatcher can be seen during the winter months. All three southern african species of mousebird (White-backed Mousebird, Red-faced Mousebird and Speckled Mousebird) may be encountered in the camp environs, with Speckled Mousebird being the least common. Waterbirds and waders, including Great Crested Grebe, South African Shelduck, Yellow-billed Egret and Little Egret, as well as Caspian Tern are usually seen along the edge of the dam and in the shallows near the campsites and picnic spots.

2. The road travelling north from the main camp along the shoreline of the dam is excellent for waterbirds, especially when the water level is high. Look out for Spur-winged Goose and Egyptian Goose, Comb Duck, Cape Shoveler, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal and Cape Teal, Southern Pochard, White-faced Duck and Fulvous Duck. Goliath Heron, Grey Heron, Yellow-billed Egret, Little Egret, Squacco Heron and the occasional Black Heron may be seen foraging in the shallows, particularly where emergent vegetation is present. Any stretch of exposed sand or mud and associated shallow water should produce a number of small waders, including Kittlitz's Plover and Three-banded Plover, and in summer, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper and Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt, Ruff and Little Stint. Common Ringed Plover are usually present in low numbers in summer. Look out for Caspian Tern, both at rest on exposed sand spits, and flying along the shoreline. Whiskered Tern and White-winged Tern are common (the latter in summer only). African Fish-Eagle breeds in the reserve. Both Greater Flamingo and Lesser Flamingo may be present in good numbers when extensive areas of shallow water are present. Great Crested Grebe and Little Grebe occasionally occur in good numbers. Lesser Black-backed Gull is occasionally seen during summer and has been known to over winter.

3. If you are interested in some fascinating behaviour, spend time during the summer months near the bridge that crosses the Vaal river section of the dam. Grey Heron perch on the concrete supports beneath the bridge and catch unsuspecting South African Cliff-Swallow and Little Swift that breed here in large colonies. The herons may snatch birds in flight, or fly out short distances to retrieve birds downed in the water. The sight of large numbers of calling swifts and swallows is a spectacle in itself.

4. A visit to the vicinity of a heronry (present usually only after good rains) in camelthorn trees allows good views of breeding Grey Heron, Black-headed Heron, Squacco Heron and occasional Goliath Heron. Cattle Egret, Little Egret and Great Egret are also usually present, as are African Sacred Ibis, African Darter, Reed Cormorant and White-breasted Cormorant. Black-crowned Night-Heron may also breed here. Avoid approaching too close, as this will cause unnecessary disturbance to breeding birds. Contact the Senior Nature Conservation Officer, tel. 0534-331703 for details of any heronries present

5. A drive through open grassland will produce Eastern Clapper Lark and Rufous-naped Lark, Northern Black Korhaan, Ant-eating Chat and Desert Cisticola. Look out for the occasional Kori Bustard, Secretarybird, and listen for Orange River Francolin, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon. Marsh Owl may be seen in flight in the late afternoon.

6. woodland habitats provide a wealth of birdlife. Listen for Brubru and Crimson-breasted Shrike. A family of Magpie Shrike is also resident in the area fairly close to the main camp and a few pairs of Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill may also be encountered. Common Scimitarbill is fairly common, and Red-crested Korhaan is more often heard than seen. Pririt Batis and Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler are common. Listen out for Lesser Honeyguide, Acacia Pied Barbet and Crested Barbet, as well as Cape Penduline-Tit, african barred warbler, Yellow-bellied Eremomela and Long-billed Crombec. Waxbills and finches are common in thornveld and also in thicket areas between the gravel road and the edge of Bloemhof Dam. Species such as Blue Waxbill, Black-faced Waxbill and Violet-eared Waxbill, Green-winged Pytilia and Red-billed Firefinch are resident, while Jameson's Firefinch is an occasional visitor. Fawn-coloured Lark and Sabota Lark also prefer thornveld habitat. Listen for the characteristic calls of Tinkling Cisticola, particularly in woodland/thornveld bordering on open grassland. White-backed Vulture nest in this habitat, and Verreaux's Eagle-Owl may also be encountered here, particularly at dusk, when its gruff calling may be heard.

7. A visit to this reserve would not be complete without spending some time at the fairly numerous Sociable Weaver colonies, a number of which are situated in camelthorn trees close to the tourist roads. Look out for the tell-tale signs of individual nests being used by Pygmy Falcon, a rare species in the area.

8. This area represents the only patch of karoo scrub habitat accessible to visitors. Particular species to look for here include Double-banded Courser (in the bare patches between the grass and bushes), Rufous-eared Warbler (in the low bush clumps) and Pink-billed Lark. Grey-backed Sparrowlark may also be found here.

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Mammals

Larger mammals include white Rhino, Buffalo, Giraffe, Eland, Roan and Sable Antelope, Gemsbok, Kudu, red Hartebeest, black and blue Wildebeest, burchell's Zebra, Impala, Springbok, grey Duiker, Steenbok and black-backed jackal. Aardwolf may also be seen. yellow Mongoose, slender Mongoose and Springhare are common, while water Mongoose is rarely seen.

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General

Chalet accommodation and campsites may be booked by contacting Sandveld Nature Reserve (Tel. 0534-331702). A hall and 'lapa' (barbeque area) may also be hired. Additional accommodation is available at Bloemhof Guest house (Tel. 053-4332249).

Night drives may be organized, and arrangements can be made for visitors to walk in the reserve (contact the Senior Nature Conservation Officer, tel. 0534-331703).

Day visitors and those camping pay an entrance fee. Picnic sites are available in a restricted area along the shoreline of the dam for day visitors.

The reserve is situated on the R34 between Hoopstad (Free State) and Bloemhof (North West Province), +/-35km from Hoopstad and 10km from Bloemhof.

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

Rick Nuttall 2001.



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