So, admittedly this trip report is a long overdue…a day of amazing birding at the dream destination with a fantastic guide for the day.
Blessing Majoka and I headed up to Gauteng in August last year for a whirl-wind birding trip. Two nights and two days. The goal was to see as many birds as possible.
At the Wimpy at the airport in Durban, while most people aimlessly scrolled through irrelevant social media posts, we were on our phones planning the list of birds that we wanted to see. There were the obvious targets that would be easy to get, but there was also a ‘wish-list’ of birds that we had both wanted to see for a long time.
We spent the first day in Gauteng birding at Marievale Bird Sanctuary in Nigel, followed by a drive around Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve near Heidelberg. The day was good, but not amazing, for birding. The water levels were not great at Marievale, and the light conditions didn’t lend themselves to getting great photos. The length of the loop road at Suikerbosrand caught us by surprise. The words of Hotel California went through my head as the road kept on going, and going, and well, going some more. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave". We planned to spend an hour or so and then grab some lunch. Instead, we ended up driving for many hours and having to grab garage pies as an early dinner. Blessing was on a ‘health diet’ – but even he succumbed to his hunger pangs, and didn’t only eat one pie, but two! I guess a balanced diet can be a pie in each hand.
The next day however was the highlight of our trip, a day of birding in a destination that I had dreamed of birding at for many years. We planned to do a morning of birding on the famous Zaagkuilsdrift road. The well-known Zaagkuilsdrift road is a road that is between the towns of Pienaarsrivier and Kgomo-Kgomo. To help us maximize the time that we would be spending on the route, we got Jandré Verster to guide us for the morning. Don’t let Jandré’s age fool you, this guy knows birds and he knows the route really well. Throughout the morning his intimate knowledge of the route was seen. It was as if he was connected to the route on a far greater level than just a knowledge of where and how we would see birds on the day. Birding with him is an education, his passion for every bird that he sees during the day will impact anyone that gets to spend time birding with him.
Jandré got us to pick him up really early so that we could get some of the nocturnal birds on the road. After a quick coffee, we were ready to find some birds. Just after 5:30am we were on the road and looking for what we could find – already the route started to show its ‘magic’ – Pearl-spotted Owlet, Southern White-faced Owl, Barn Owl, and Marsh Owl, were some of the early birds that we managed to see. We birded in thick darkness, only the car lights and our spotlights allowed us to glimpse the secrets that were all around us. Sipping coffee and listening to the sounds of Africa all around us is something that I will never forget. Why do birding people say? It’s moments like this that have hooked me and left a deep impression on my soul.
As the sun started to slowly make itself known over the horizon the bird activity started to pick up. Having Jandré with us really helped, not only was his knowledge of calls impressive, but he also knew all the best places to stop and see birds. The stretch between the Wolfhuiskraal Boskamp and turn off to Zaagkuilsdrift Bird Sanctuary and Lodge was great for birding. We go birds such as Rattling Cisticola, White-browed Scrub Robin, Grey Go-away-bird, Magpie Shrike, Crested Francolin, Burchell’s Starling, and Southern Pied Babbler (a lifer for me). This wasn’t the best time of the year to visit the road and bird, so the very popular ‘Crake Road’ was quiet with the highlight being a Jameson’s Firefinch (this is the road that goes to the Zaagkuilsdrift Bird Sanctuary and Lodge).
After leaving ‘Crake Road’, the stretch between there and the Haakdoornbult produced some of the best birding of the day. This is where it helps having someone guiding you that has local knowledge, we would have honestly missed so much if we had done this route by ourselves. This was where we saw a bird that both Blessing and myself really wanted to see, a Violet-eared Waxbill. Blessing spent considerable time photographing this beautiful bird, but this allowed us the opportunity to enjoy the birds that we might have missed if we were driving. We also managed to see Burnt-necked Eremomela, Yellow-billed Stork, and Red-breasted Swallow on the stretch. There was a surprise bird for the day – we had a fly over by a Double-banded Sandgrouse. This was a lifer for Blessing and myself, it was definitely not a bird that we expected to see.
We then did some birding in the area across the road from Haakdoornbult. Again, this area showed why this is seen as one of the county’s best birding routes. This area produced Marico Sunbird, Cape Penduline Titi, Marico Flycatcher, Black-faced Waxbill, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Great Sparrow, and Scaley-feathered Weaver. Four lifers in one spot was not bad at all! What was significant personally, was that the Great Sparrow was my 600th South African species.
As I already mentioned earlier in this article, this wasn’t the best time of the year to visit, so the Kgomo-Kgomo Wetland wasn’t as productive as it would have been at other times of the year. Using the scope, we managed to record species such as White-faced Whistling Duck, Little Grebe, and Glossy Ibis. We headed into the town and got a great view of a Pearl-spotted Owlet, which caused the other birds in the tree that it was in to call frantically. Across the field we managed a view of a Gabar Goshawk, not the best view of this special bird, but it was still awesome to see.
We started to head back home as we started to slowly bake in the midday sun, but we would have one more special sighting on the way home. We saw a raptor on a powerline beside the road and stopped to see what it was. The stop was worth it as a got a great view of a Lizard Buzzard. This was probably the bird that made my heart beat the fastest that day. It’s a bird that I had wanted to see for a long time, and we were able to spend quite a bit of time enjoying the sighting.
We ended the day recording 104 species, which was a great list considering we were targeting specific species throughout the day.
Before we started the day, we gave Jandré a long list of what we wanted to see. He was honest about what we could expect to see and what we would probably not see during the day. But, as the day came to the end, almost every single target species that we had wanted to see, we managed to record. If you are looking to do birding on this route or around Gauteng, I highly recommend Jandré. He is knowledgeable about both the birds and the areas around Gauteng. He strives to ensure that you get to see the birds that you are targeting. Our time with him didn’t only meet, it FAR exceeded expectations!
To book Jandré, contact him on 0769141966 or email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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