Elaine and myself had such a fantastic afternoon's birding along the Zaagkuildrift road and at the wetland at Kgomo-Kgomo that we decided to write a separate report on this and do the rest of our trip report later. We visited my mom in Pretoria on the morning of Tuesday 5 April and reached the road at 12h00. Herewith some mind-blowing impressions.
The Zaagkuildrift road is some 50 km north of Pretoria and runs west from Pienaarsriver “town” to the village of Kgomo-Kgomo. I quote directly from Etienne Marais and Faansie Peacock's “The Chaimberlain Guide to Birding Gauteng”: “The road tracks the course of the Pienaar's River. In years of good rainfall the river forms a 27 square km ephemeral floodplain with birding comparable to the much better known Nyl floodplain. This combination of rare tropical waterbirds together with excellent mature Acacia woodland arguably offers the richest birding locality in the region, and certainly one of the best birding spots in southern Africa! A diverse variety of raptors, cuckoos, bee-eaters, kingfishers, shrikes, warblers and seed-eaters are present in summer months.” The species count on this 26 km stretch of road stands on roughly 320 species, with 41 endemics!
Conditions were certainly not ideal for birding as there was a 100% very dark cloud cover throughout the day with a fairly strong wind. The condition of the road is very poor after the good rains and Elaine really had to take it slowly in our rented sedan, but this probably made for better birding. The poor conditions were aptly illustrated by the fact that as far as “raptors” are concerned we were only able to see a Black-shouldered Kite and Pearl-spotted Owlet in an area known for it's birds of prey.
But did the area make up with shrikes? Seven of the first fifteen birds that we encountered were Magpie, Red-backed, Lesser Grey and Crimson-breasted Shrikes together with Common Fiscal, Southern Boobou and Black-backed Puffback. The road offers lots of so-called “western species” that one would expect to find towards the Kalahari and Namibia. We were delighted to pick up old favorites such as Marico Flycatcher, Namaqua Dove, Scaly-feathered Finch, Grey-backed Cameroptera, Violet-eared Waxbill, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler and Namaqua Sandgrouse. There were also many birds that we would normally associate with the Kruger National Park and these included three hornbills, two indigobirds, three spurfowls, two tchagras and several bee-eaters, rollers and waxbills. Also Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark.
Southern Pied Babbler
The highlight of the afternoon however was a bird party that we came upon: there were Arrow-marked and Southern Pied Babblers (a lifer for Elaine), Crimson-breasted Shrikes, Kalahari Scrub-Robins, Red-billed Buffalo- Weavers, Red- and Yellow-billed Hornbills, together with several smaller jobs messing around in three bushes. One did not know where to look and we really irritated each other with “check that”, “there's a …..”, “ sit still” and so on. There was simply to much to take in and this will remain one of my favorite birding experiences of my life.
This is Bosveld birding at it's best as the area's list includes some of the following birds that we did not see: Amur Falcon, Pallid Harrier, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Harlequin Quail, Northern Black Korhaan, Black-winged Pratincole, Bronze-winged and Temminck's Coursers, Southern White-faced Scops- Owl … the list just goes on.
And it gets better: we then reached the extensive floodplain at Kgomo-Kgomo and were simply blown away. There were VAST numbers of waterbirds – all of the white egrets and Squacco Heron, to many types of ducks to mention, Glossy Ibis by the hundreds, MANY Purple Herons, four kingfishers and huge numbers of snipes. There were many waders on the mudflats, but light conditions were unfortunately such that we were only able to positively identify eight of these. We were also very impressed with being able to watch Black-crowned Night-Herons from really close up, while an African Marsh-Harrier quartered the scene. The most impressive of all of this was that the tar road that cuts through the floodplain has very wide verges, allowing one to bird safely and in comfort. The two of us decided that for relaxed birding this is better than Nylsvlei, Wakkerstroom and Velddrif, although it is probably unfair to compare birding hotspots such as these.
Rod Steward was there as well
Also keep in mind that the brag list for the area include rippers such as Dwarf Bittern, Allen's Gallinule, Lesser Moorhen, African and Striped Crakes, African Pygmy-Kingfisher, Slaty Egret and Rufous-bellied Heron. The area is also known for its warblers and is known as the most reliable site to find Common Whitethroat, Thrush Nightingale and River Warbler in summers of good rainfall.
In the end we managed to positively identify 110 species in just less than four hours in really bad conditions. So what is the take home message? Members are encouraged to visit this area if ever they are in the unlikely position of visiting Gauteng or traveling through it. We are certainly planning to visit the area for a few days during the next summer.