Updated: Oct 1
In the beginning of July 2020, I spent a three day weekend with my family at this farm in the foothills of the southern Drakensberg. Driving from the farm gate to the reception was quite a longish drive, but I got an idea of some of the habitats and birds that I would encounter. Being mid-winter, the grasslands were both dry and straw-like, or they were recently burned. Of course burnt grasslands actually gets birders excited, and I knew to look out for species that favour this habitat, particularly Red-capped Lark, Plain-backed and Buffy Pipit. What I did see on the drive down was a number of Cape Longclaws, Ant-eating Chats and Long-tailed Widowbirds.
The other highlight of the grasslands were the numerous plains game that the farm had. Lots of Zebra (which got my daughter excited), as well as Red-Hartebeest, Blesbok and believe it or not a solitary Springbok (a species very uncommon to see in KZN).
Continuing on to the reception, and the grasslands soon descended down a small cliff to the valley below. This led to breath-taking views of some of the farms numerous and pristine wetlands.
After checking in at reception, we were assigned to a large A-frame cottage close to a nice children’s playground for my kid, and overlooking a small dam in the distance. The cottage was fully equipped with all modern appliances and essentials (essentials in July means electric blankets!)
The cottage also came with DSTV and, and was spotlessly clean. The one mistake they made was however that they supplied an enormous bag of firewood to use for braaing. Now if you know me, then you would know that I normally like to use all the charcoal and wood I can get my hands on when braaing. In the end though I had to restrain myself as I was surrounded by bone-dry grass and a thatch roof, and I thought I better not burn this whole farm down.
I decided not to do much birding the first day, and instead relaxed and had a braai (And of course I cracked open the bottle of Reyneke Organic).
During the night my wife woke me and said that she had heard an owl calling. Unfortunately it didn’t call again, and I was a bit irritated as I needed it for the all crucial Birdlasser challenges.
I woke up early the next morning and like a madman I went birding. I say mad, because it was -4 degrees C outside, and the ground was frosty. Luckily I had a learnt a trick from Adam as to how to bird in this weather. I got into the car and put the heater on full whack and opened the windows. This way, you get the best of both worlds, you don’t freeze to death, and you can still hear the birds calling. I decided to head back to the farm entrance gate to explore the cliff and grassland areas. On the way though I stopped at the wetland and proceeded to walk to the water’s edge, navigating the frost and dongas.
I was treated to a still and misty wetland full of the more common species, including Red-knobbed Coot, Cape Shoveler, Common Moorhen, Little Grebe, South African Shelduck and Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese. Then suddenly a raptor flew over. I got it in the bins and watched it fly and land into the edge of the forest adjoining the wetland. It appeared similar to a Common Buzzard, but was whiter underneath. I then realised that in this habitat, and at this time of the year that it was a Forest Buzzard, which was a lifer for me.
I then headed up the cliff to the grasslands, and it wasn’t long before I got one of my target birds, the Red-capped Lark. There were also big flocks of non-breeding bishops and widowbirds, and I also came upon a small flock of Pied Starlings.
On the return trip to the cottage, I sotted a Cape Rock Thrush near the cliff area, as well as a Nicholson’s Pipit in the grassland.
I then had breakfast back at the cottage whilst listening to the Bokamkieries and Southern Boubous having a singing contest. I think the winner was the telephone-like Bokmakieries.
Later in the day I decided to do the same route, and this time I was rewarded with seeing a pair of Eastern Long-billed Larks, a lifer and apparently uncommon in the area.
We had an early dinner braai in the afternoon, as its too cold to braai in the evening. That night I attempted to sleep with my window a bit open so I could hear the owl, but half way through it was just too cold, and I gave up.
The next day I woke up early again (-3C this time), and even though I had been doing the same route to the farm gate and back, there was still a huge farm to explore. I headed to another large and scenic wetland, where there was a group of Grey-Crowned Cranes, Black-winged Stilts and a Spoonbill.
I got out the car, and stood by the lake for a while to try and find some rarer water birds. I did see a large group of Cape Vultures in the distance, and one obliged and flew straight over me.
Another stunning surprise while standing by the lake, was seeing as pair of African Clawless Otters.
After getting back from my drive I had lunch, and then went for a walk up on the hills into the dry grasslands.
The birdlife at the top of the hill was sparse, and I think I only managed to see some more Cape Vultures and a few White-necked Ravens.
Later in the afternoon my family went for a walk in yet another direction that I hadn’t explored yet. The weather was spectacular and the farm was picture perfect with the straw coloured grass contrasting with the blue waters and sky.
On the walk back, a Long-tailed Widowbird sat on a fence and posed for a photo.
On the final night, I hit the luck and I did indeed hear a Spotted Eagle-Owl calling loudly from nearby. I didn’t go outside and look for it, as it was freezing and I had left my torch at home.
Accommodation Rating : 8.5/10
The cottages are modern, fitted with everything needed for a comfortable holiday. There is no wifi in the rooms, but there is available at reception. In my opinion what makes the place special though is the farm itself. The farm is large with multiple stunning wetlands, picture perfect vistas with the backdrop of the mighty Drakensberg. It was so good that I did not leave the farm in the three days that I was there, but instead relaxed and soaked up its splendour.
Birding Rating : 7/10
For Mid-winter in the Drakensberg, I wasn’t expecting the birding to be amazing, but I ended up with 74 species on the farm. The highlight for me was definitely the pair of Eastern Long-billed Larks. The farm does also get regular visits from Wattled Cranes, however I didn’t see any whilst I was there.
I can imagine in summer that those wetlands could produce some interesting water birds, and there is always the possibility of seeing some decent raptors with all the cliffs around. Bearded Vultures are definitely in the area and are something to look out for.
Overall Rating : 7.75/10
I would definitely recommend Penwarn Farm Lodge to anyone looking for a relaxing birding breakaway in the great outdoors.