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Golden Gate and The Ever Elusive Ground Woodpecker

Last week, during my “matric vacation”, I decided to do two day visits to Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Golden Gate is a wonderful national park situated 20 minutes from the quaint little town of Clarens in the Free State. Its rolling grassland hills and golden-hued sandstone cliffs are a refreshing change from the typical bushveld scenery that dominates much of South Africa.

Mushroom Rock

Golden Gate Grasslands

Besides the beautiful scenery, Golden Gate provides a variety of birds for people to seek out. Within the ouhout thickets Bush Blackcap and Barrett’s Warbler can be found, while the mountainous terrain provides a habitat for Cape and Bearded Vultures as well as White-necked Ravens. Large numbers of widowbirds and bishops can be found in the undulating grasslands and large boulders should be scanned for Ground Woodpeckers… which was my primary reason for visiting Golden Gate.

Bearded Vulture at Golden Gate

Black-backed Jackal at Golden Gate

Ground Woodpeckers have made me question my birding abilities as despite having visited Golden Gate numerous times over the past few years, I had never been fortunate enough to spot them. So the main objective of my recent visit was to see a Ground Woodpecker.

On the first day, my friends and I departed from the farm that we were staying at 5am so that we could make it to the Park by gate opening time, 5:30 am. Upon arrival we discovered that the office only opened at 7am, so being the teenagers that we are, we just decided to drive the Park’s roads without a permit (don’t worry, we did pay later when the office eventually opened). That day we were treated to views of Peregrine Falcon, Cape Vulture, Secretary Bird, Rock Kestrel, and Jackal Buzzard, in addition to many common species. But to my disappointment, no Ground Woodpecker.

A couple of days later we decided to return to the Park, but this time we went on a guided hike to Cathedral Cave. If you are ever in the Golden Gate area, I highly recommend doing this hike - just make sure you come more prepared than we did. After hiking three kilometers, we arrived at the bottom of the cave where we discovered that we had to swim through a freezing pool of water (something that is not new to me, having previously traversed the 13°C waters of the Atlantic Ocean from Robben Island to Big Bay). Following our icy swim, we climbed up a loose chain ladder and then navigated across precariously slippery rocks. Our arduous journey proved to be worthwhile as on entering the cave we were mesmerized by the grandeur of the cathedral-like chamber, built from towering sandstone walls.

The route to Cathedral Cave

Almost in the cave

Cathedral Cave

After the hike to Cathedral Cave, we went for a quick drive. We found an African-harrier Hawk perched on a cliff face and at the vulture hide we spotted a Cape Vulture and Bearded Vulture perched on the top of the cliff to the south of the hide. But unfortunately, still no Ground Woodpecker.

Two days later, I joined my aunt and her team on an environmental surveying project between Verkykerskop and Normandien Pass. Without any expectation, and within 5 minutes of arriving at the site, I spotted my very first Ground Woodpecker! The chase was finally over…

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