As soon as the dark shadow passed low overhead, I knew that it was going to be one of those “most memorable in life” moments. The early wake up at 4 a.m. was now well worth the effort. I had woken early to trudge 12 kilometres up the Zwelele Ridge at Lotheni Nature Reserve in the southern Drakensberg. This would get me up into the Little Berg, where there was a good chance that a life-long dream could be achieved.
Since a young boy, I had always marvelled at the denizen of the mountains, the Bearded Vulture, and up until this moment had only been able to read about it in books. All this now changed, as the shadow circling just 10 meters above my head was an awe-inspiring adult Bearded Vulture. It spent the next few minutes circling and fixating me with its dark eye before soaring up into the skies and disappearing out of sight. In the following six years, that I was to spend living in the Drakensberg Mountains as a conservationist, I grew to know the Bearded Vulture well and was often joined by them during my foot patrols. The birds always appeared out of nowhere and they always brought with them a feeling of total peace and freedom in the quiet openness of the high ridges. My time in the mountains also allowed me to learn many of the other birding secrets of these special mountains.
Two of my favourite localities for birding in these rugged mountains are the Lotheni Nature Reserve and Sani Pass. Both are located in the southern Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Park, which encompasses afro-montane and grassland habitats. The Maloti-Drakensberg is better known for its rugged and spectacular mountain scenery than for its avifaunal diversity. It is a haven for hikers and people just wanting to escape from the trials and tribulations of living in the 21st centaury. In addition to its spectacular scenery the region is also well rewarded as being one of only 23 sites in the world that holds prestigious World Heritage Status for both its biodiversity and for its cultural heritage, It has also been identified as one of seven world Biodiversity Hot Spots and is an international RAMSAR wetland site, supplying water to a large percentage of the South African population. It is home to 350-recorded species of birds. Of these, 43 species are endemic and 18 species are listed as threatened. The real bonus of the area is the ability to wander freely and really search the habitats for their hidden feathered treasures.
The Lotheni Nature Reserve is easily accessible through the towns of Himeville and Nottingham Road. On entering the reserve through the control gate, watch the rocky boulder outcrops for Buff-streaked Chat, where the males often display. The museum and day visitor area are a good spot to stop and look for the Redthroated Wryneck, which sit and display from prominent posts, while at night Spotted Eagle-Owl, Cape Eagle-Owl and Barn Owl can be seen hunting the open spaces. The elusive African Grass-Owl and Marsh Owl can be found in the patches of long grass and wetlands in the surrounding ridges. Summer months herald the arrival of Fierynecked Nightjars and their calls of “Good Lord Deliver Us” echo through the silence. During one summer and following a tremendous thunderstorm, I also found a male Pennantwinged Nightjar in full breeding plumage; this just showing what unusual species can arrive unexpected. On the road up to the camp be on the look out for Ground Woodpeckers and Cape Rock Thrush, while in the camp itself Greater-Striped Swallows and Whitethroated Swallows return each summer to breed under the awnings. The ever-present Red-winged Starlings and Familiar Chats flitter amongst the chalets, while noisy Hadedah’s wander the lawns probing the soil for delicacies. On the camp outskirts Cape Bunting, Cape Canary and Drakensberg Siskin can all be viewed at close quarters, the latter breeding amongst the rocky slopes.
During the summer months, walks up along the Zwelele Ridge - where I had my first encounter with the Bearded Vulture - provide a variety of grassland specials and it is from here that occasional sightings have been made of the endangered Blue Swallow. On the upward trek, skyward glances are particularly worthwhile for Banded Martin, Black Saw-wing Swallow, Horus Swift, House Martin and Alpine Swift as they hawk insects from the skies and at the end of summer, huge flocks of Common Swifts and Barn Swallows fly northwards over the reserve. Cape Vulture, Verreauxs’ Eagle, Jackal Buzzard, Rock Kestrel and Lanner Falcon often pass overhead as they scour the landscape for food items. Following the summer rains flocks of African Quailfinch, Swee Waxbill, Pintailed Whydah, Black Widowfinch and Short-tailed Pipits all move into the reserve to take advantage of the booming insect populations and grass seeds.
On these high plateaus good sightings can also be made of Cape Longclaw, Yellowbreasted Pipit and Botha’s Lark. For the lucky, Red-winged Francolin, Common Quail and Redchested Flufftail erupt from your feet if you leave the trails and walk through the grasslands. Cloud and Ayres Cisticola also abound here and it is best to become acquainted with their calls before trying to positively identify these drab and difficult birds.
Simme’s Dam, near the visitor’s accommodation, although rather small, is a good stop over point for various water birds. Apart from the resident Hammerkop, Redknobbed Coot and Little Grebe other species such as Maccoa Duck, Southern Pochard, Spurwinged and Egyptian Goose and Yellowbilled Duck make irregular visits. Each evening Common Reedbuck graze around the dam and for the lucky, views of secretive Spot-necked and Clawless Otter may be made while they hunt in and alongside the dam.
The Emadundwini Trail, which starts from the camp, crosses over the Lotheni River and winds upward onto the Little Berg, is a must as it takes you into a patch of indigenous afro-montane forest, where if you sit quietly bird parties filter through the tree tops. Birds such as Fairy Flycatcher, Olive Woodpecker, Chorister Robin-Chat, and Bush Blackcap, Grey Cuckooshrike and Yellowthroated Warbler and Cape Batis are regularly seen moving through the branches, gleaning insects. African Paradise-Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher and African Dusky Flycatcher can be viewed as they move from perch to perch, where they launch attacks on insects.
During the summer months the monotonous call of Redchested cuckoo can be heard, with the bird often calling incessantly throughout the night on clear moonlit nights. Black Cuckoo and Klaas’s cuckoo are also occasional vagrants and in the summer months African Olive-Pigeon comes to feed on the fruiting trees Within the river course Mountain Wagtail can be seen alongside their more common relative the Cape Wagtail. When water is flowing, displaying male widowbirds of four species (Long-tailed, Red-collared, Red-Shouldered Widowbird and Yellow Bishop) flit over the waterlogged grasses, while females nest secretively in the rank grass and Black Duck move secretively in the watercourses.
A short distance further south from Lotheni is the famous Sani Pass, one of only a few access points for vehicles into Lesotho. Apart from the sheer impressiveness of the actual road, this pass provides for the opportunity to easily take in a whole range of bird species at different altitudes from the comfort of your vehicle. During the months of March and April, the Red Hot Poker fields attract large numbers of sunbirds including the Amethyst Sunbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and the eye catching, metallic green Malachite Sunbirds. Males spend just as much time flashing their yellow shoulder patches and chasing one another, as they actually do feeding. Also attracted to the rich nectar bearing flowers are Cape White-eyes and Dark-capped Bulbuls. Broadtailed Warbler and Barratt’s Warbler can be located skulking amongst the rank riverien vegetation, below the roadside and at dawn Cape Grassbirds proclaim territories by calling loudly from the top of grass stalks. Olive Thrush and Cape Robin-Chat lurk around in the leaf litter and European Nightjar has been seen lying cryptically along the branches of the Buddleia trees. Southern Boubou, Sombre Greenbul and Barthroated Apalis form bird parties with Cardinal Woodpeckers and the occasional, Greater Honeyguide with all moving amongst the foliage in noisy abandon. As the final bends, at the top of the pass, are reached start looking out for Drakensberg Siskin and Drakensberg Rock-jumper as this area is certainly one of the best places to see these endemic birds. On cresting the pass Sickle-winged Chat and Sentinel Rock-Thrush can be observed amongst the rocky boulders and Large-billed Lark occurs amid the grassy patches. Aside from the birds be on the lookout for the endemic Ice Rat, Otomys slogetti, amongst the buildings at Sani Top as this unusual rodent only occurs at the high altitudes above the escarpment. After the trek up the pass and some strenuous birding be sure to stop off and enjoy a cold ale in summer or a warm hot-toddy in winter with friends at the highest pub in Africa. If you are really lucky perhaps that “free spirit” of the Drakensberg, the Bearded Vulture, might also fix you with its dark eyes as it soars effortlessly past the large bay windows!
In this article, specific mention has only been made to two locations, but rest assured that any visit to any part of the Drakensberg will hold immense rewards not only in bird species, but also in magnificent scenery, close encounters with herds of upto 400 Eland, endangered Oribi, beautiful spring and summer flowers and an experience of freeing the mind, be it through relaxing in the camps or challenging ones fitness through hiking the mountains.
Text and Images © by wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick