BeKZN Weekend Away | Wakkerstroom

Wakkerstroom Trip Report 24-27th November 2022

It had long been a dream of mine to visit the Wakkerstroom area as you hear from so many people how quaint the town is ( known as the Jewel of Mpumalanga and how excellent the birding is, with people  coming  from all over the world for the “specials”. Our party of nineteen birders, consisting of BEKZN  and  some family members, made their way up for the weekend for a fantastic birding experience

BirdLife South Africa has a centre just outside of town where most of us stayed, with a variety of comfortable affordable accommodation, including camping and is managed by Kristi Garland. From the campsite one hears Red-chested Flufftail calling at night from the nearby wetlands and you awake to the calls of Red-winged Francolin and Swainson’s Spurfowl.  There are many grassland species to be seen around the centre and there is a large hide for viewing the magnificent Southern Grey Crowned Cranes which are frequently seen in the area thanks to conservation efforts.

Southern Grey-crowned Cranes – Steve Davis
Dave and Brenda Oldacre’s camp setup under the trees – Rob McLennan-Smith

The weather at this time of the year can be very unpredictable and on the Thursday afternoon and night we had four successive dramatic electric thunderstorms and torrential rain. 

Dramatic electric storm – Anneli Mynhardt

We did however have enough of a break in the late afternoon to bird from the bridge near the hides on the north side of town. This provides an excellent vantage point over reedbeds and open water and we saw Little Bittern, African Marsh Harriers plus many other waterbirds. 

On the Wakkerstroom Bridge overlooking the wetlands- a very good vantage point – Rob McLennon-Smith

There is a very pleasant, sheltered picnic spot off the road and we enjoyed our evening sundowners there. Once we got back to the Centre and started our braai the second thunderstorm hit which made for some very intrepid and soggy braai masters but luckily there is a large indoor kitchen and dining area if your fire gets drowned.

On Friday morning we headed off in convoy at 6am with our two guides, Lucky and Siphiso, to the Dirkiesdorp area on the Piet Retief road. It was raining steadily for most of the first part of the morning but we still managed to see numerous species, including two Secretary Birds. Our main goal in this area were korhaans and we were treated to the magnificent White-bellied Korhaans in flight on a few occasions. 

White-bellied Korhaan – Johnny de Beer

Heading back towards Wakkerstroom the rain stopped and the clouds lifted allowing us to enjoy the spectacular unspoilt emerald green mountains and valleys with fast flowing rivers and full dams following all the good recent rains. On the way back we observed a colony of Southern Bald Ibis with about 14 of these curious looking birds flying into their nests on a sandstone cliff.

We then headed out on the Amersfoort road and saw many Yellow -crowned Bishops, Blue Cranes plus other grassland species. 

The Yellow-crowned Bishops were quite frequent, buzzing about in the grasslands – Johnny de Beer

At one point standing outside our cars observing a Denham’s Bustard, a curious Pale-crowned Cisticola flew onto a nearby fence posing for photographs. It is quite a distinctive bird and easy to identify and we saw them again on a few occasions. 

The breeding male Pale-crowned Cisticola with its distinctive black lore patch – Johnny de Beer

Our main aim on this road was to find the Blue Korhaans, and eagle-eyed Siphiso eventually spotted a pair in the distance, only identifiable through a spotting scope. Unfortunately, we never got a closer look at this beautiful species over the weekend – but I would certainly go back to try to get better sightings.

That evening we had a drier braai and an early night to prepare for another early start.

On Saturday we had the very knowledgeable David and Siphiso once again and we headed off to the Groenvlei area to look for the Lark specials. On a remote hilltop farm, we walked for about a kilometer to an area where there are three known breeding pairs of Rudd’s Lark. The view from the top was spectacular and after a search our guides heard the Lark’s calls and then we saw the first one with its distinctive low bobbing flight pattern and when it settled, we managed to get good views of it. We managed to see three of these very range restricted birds with their distinctive eyebrows.

High up on the hilltops searching for the elusive Rudd’s Lark – Jenny Norman
The eagle-eyed Siphiso tracked them down Rudd’s Lark for us – Rob McLennan-Smith 

On the same hilltop we also came across the Red-capped Lark and good close views of the skulking Yellow-breasted Pipit. On the way back towards Wakkerstroom along the roadside we saw Eastern Long-billed Lark and a grey morph Mountain Wheatear

The skulking Yellow-breasted Pipit hiding in the grass near the Larks – Rob McLennan-Smith
A pair of Eastern Long-billed Larks were seen very close to the road – Bridget Thorne
Grey morph male Mountain Wheatear – Steve Davis

Our next target was Pink-billed Lark and so we headed off once again on the Amersfoort road and then turning off on a side road to get to a ploughed communal farmland. David spotted them immediately but the rest of us took some time to pick up these well camouflaged little birds which tend to hide in the furrows. This is a very distinctive pretty Lark with a bright pink bill and as Faansie Peacock describes them – with “clown face” head patterns.  In the same fields we had good views of a group of Black-winged Lapwing mobbing an African Marsh HarrierCapped Wheatear and Sentinel Rock Thrush were also seen in the area.

Pink-billed Lark – difficult to spot in the ploughed fields – Steve Davis
A capped Wheatear in the ploughed fields near the Pink-billed Larks – Bridget Thorne
A male Sentinel Rock Thrush in the grasslands – Johnny de Beer

The other special – Botha’s Lark, hasn’t been seen for a long time so we didn’t specifically search for it. In the afternoons the group split up to do their own activities – Paige and I explored the village with its upmarket restaurants, coffee shops featuring beautiful back gardens, historical buildings, and a beautiful old church with the most impressively manicured expanse of lawn.

A side street in Wakkerstroom with wonderful coffee shops – Rob McLennan-Smith

On the Saturday night after an early braai at the centre (once again in torrential rain) we headed off to a local pub – de Oude Stasie, to watch the Springboks play England in a smoky room filled with entertaining locals who weren’t allergic to a glass or two of the hard stuff. Luckily the Boks won fairly convincingly. 

Early Sunday morning we received a message from Johnny de Beer, who had been employing stealth tactics along the bridge in search of the elusive African Rail, that he had found three of them and got some good photographs. I joined the leopard crawling Johnny and managed to see a juvenile – a lifer for me. 

African Rail in flight – Johnny de Beer

The group gradually packed up and headed off in different directions – some to KNP, others to Nambiti and most returning home after a thoroughly enjoyable and successful weekend of birding.

Steve Davis had the highest number of species logged at 150 (which is attached to the report) with Jenny adding the Ground Woodpecker and Mocking Cliff Chat. Personally, I had 133 logged with 15 lifers. The record for lifers was Bridget Thorne with 50 lifers, followed by Lorraine Retief with 40!

Even in the rainy weather the birding was good with many lifers for most of us – Rob McLennon-Smith

I think everyone in our group would thoroughly recommend this area for at least a three-day trip and to use the services of the knowledgeable guides who know where to look in this very widespread picturesque and largely unspoilt part of our country.  

A South African Cliff Swallow in flight – Johnny de Beer
South African Cliff Swallow colonies under a bridge – Rob McLennan-Smith
A beautiful composition of a male Cape Canary – Steve Davis
An African Yellow Warbler in the wetlands – Steve Davis
Sunset over the Wakkerstroom wetland and a wonderful end to our trip – Lorraine Retief

by Rob McLennan-Smith

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