Northern Cape Let’s Go Birding Trip

The Northern Cape has never been on my bucket list. However, when Jacques Giliomee (birding guide extraordinaire of Let’s Go Birding) offered a 6 day birding trip there in early October, I decided to give it a go and I’m so glad I did. There were eight of us, some of whom I knew and others not: myself, my ex-colleague and birding pal, Paul Potter, Mike Jennings (frequent fellow bird adventurer), Annette Versluis (catering and general organiser), Noeleen du Toit (enthusiastic citizen scientist with a font of knowledge on flora and goggas) and two new but very knowledgeable fellow birders, Willem Botes and Jeff Lanham. We had to leave early in the morning (5am!), as we had a long trip up and the gate of Goegap National Park just outside Springbok closes rather early at 4 pm. Good company and lots of roadside birding and flora stops helped make the long journey fun. On the way up, we saw Blue Cranes, Jackal Buzzards, Lark-like Buntings, Cape Glossy Starlings, Ant-eating Chats, Rock Martins as well as a Greater Kestrel and a Booted Eagle. I was expecting flat arid countryside in the Northern Cape but was amazed at the variety in the scenery: lots of hills, flowers and greenery. We stayed in two lovely chalets in Goegap and spent the late afternoon and evening exploring the Park, seeing lots of Lark-like Buntings and Capped Wheatears, as well as a few Mountain Wheatears, Ant-eating Chats, Grey Tits, Cape Buntings, Karoo Chats and Cape Sparrows. The scenery was incredibly lovely, particularly in the golden evening light which lit up the terracotta-hued rocky outcrops, the iconic quiver trees (Aloidendron dichotomum or kokerboom) and the carpets of yellow flowers. In addition to the birds, we also saw a couple of Black-backed Jackals running through the veld and a trio of Zebras standing against the beautiful yellow and russet backdrop. The evening was capped with a wonderful meal:  thick steaks (with secret sauce), boerewors and salads, with plenty of accompanying wine and beer. Thanks, Annette the catering maestro, and Mike the braai chef!

Goegap is a fantastic place to stay but, for those who need to travel far or bird outside its confines, it is limited by its rather inconvenient gate times (7.30am – 4pm). Fortunately, there are several good B&Bs in nearby Springbok if this will be an issue.

The next day we were up at 6am and did a birding walk around chalets for an hour or so, seeing Rock Martins on the fenceposts puffing up against the early morning cold, Mountain Wheatears warming themselves in the first few rays of sun on the rocky cliffs, as well as Cape Buntings, Pale-winged Starlings, a Speckled Pigeon, Karoo Chat, Karoo Lark, Bokmakierie, Southern Fiscal and Southern Double-collared Sunbird. We then headed out from Springbok towards the West Coast and soon we got very excited when Jacques noticed a small lark on a roadside fence, whose call sounded very much like a Barlow’s Lark. There was lots of discussion and many photographs taken. However, apparently all the experts consulted said it was very unlikely to find a Barlow’s close to Springbok, so it was either a Karoo Lark despite the unusual call, or possibly a Hybrid. Anyway, a lot of excitement was had and then we proceeded happily over the magnificent Spektakel Pass. A Verreaux’s Eagle flew overhead, and we saw several more Karoo Larks displaying, as well as some Familiar Chats, a Lanner Falcon and lots of Rock Martins sweeping by. We carried on to the coast where we tried hard to get some fresh fish to braai that evening but discovered to our dismay that there is no such thing in Port Nolloth! On the return journey to Goegap, we saw a pair of Cape Crows, a Spike-heeled Lark, a Black-headed Heron and a Greater Kestrel. That evening most of us did another drive around the Park and managed to find a Red-capped Lark and a pair of Pale Chanting Goshawks on a rocky ridge, as well as more Zebras (including a calf) and another Black-backed Jackal. We thought we saw a distant Cape Eagle Owl in the gathering gloom but failed to get any pictures. How irritating to find that the two sluggards who had stayed behind to rest had had a fantastic sighting (plus picture!) of a Cape Eagle Owl on the rocky hill just behind the chalet. There really is no justice in the birding world!

The next morning, we left as early as possible along the N14 past Aggeneys and Pella. We were not lucky enough to find either the Red Lark or Fawn-coloured Lark in the red dunes, so we pressed on through Pofadder and turned up the very long and bumpy R358 that leads to Onseepkans, the border post and farming settlement on the Orange River. The first bird we saw was a very confident Karoo Long-billed Lark strutting along the roadside like a model on the catwalk. It seemed to be the Namibian subspecies damarensis, which is rather pale and lacks the usual heavy breast streaking. Other birds seen were Bokmakierie, Pale Chanting Goshawk and a new favourite of mine, the lovely little Chat Flycatcher. Reptiles are not my thing but we did see a couple of rather delightfully coloured ones: a Karoo Girdled Lizard (aka Southern Karusa Lizard) and, I think, a Southern Rock Agama. It was about a three hour drive over this very dry moon-like terrain so we were very pleased to reach the fertile green area around the Orange River by lunchtime. Driving along the riverside with its vineyards and fruit trees, there were lots of African Palms Swifts flying around. A flash of green and blue alerted us to a  beautiful Swallow-tailed Bee-eater that settled high up in a row of trees. I’d seen one before in Namibia 2 years ago and was thrilled to be finally the first to recognise a bird! We could find nothing to eat in this little town but did manage to get some cooldrinks at the company store and later wandered around the local riverside picnic area. Among the trees we heard and saw several Namaqwa Warbler, Orange River White-eyes with their lovely pink blushed flanks, African Red-eyed Bulbuls and a Goliath Heron standing far away in the river rapids also trying to get some lunch! We then made the long dusty trip back to Pofadder and along the way managed to see several Dusky Sunbirds, a flash of Rosy-faced Lovebirds and a White-throated Canary. What a pleasure to settle in at the Pofadder Hotel and cool off with a swim in their super pool. Now this what I call easy birding: lounging by the poolside, chatting to good friends with a cold beer in one hand, and only having to lazily move one’s binoculars and camera now and then to get some really good shots (African Red-eyed Bulbuls, Southern Masked Weavers, a Karoo Thrush and both White-backed and Red-faced Mousebirds).

Next morning, we took a detour back along the N14 to bird along the gravel road (near the Klein Pella Guest House where we would have stayed had they enough room). Amongst more Mountain Wheatears and Flycatcher Chats, the first new bird we saw was finally a Sociable Weaver, after seeing so many empty-looking nests all along the trip. We then headed back along the N14 to the Augrabies Falls National Park. Jacques suddenly noticed a group of Grey-backed Sparrowlarks and, while looking at these, we came across some interesting LBJs that we finally identified as Spike-heeled Larks. Jacques then had to chase his Let’s Go Birding cap in the veld and flushed a Northern Black Korhaan. It ran at an amazing pace through the scrubland, really stressing my photographing prowess. We arrived at Augrabies Falls National Park just before lunchtime and headed out on a birding walk to the Falls and in the trees above them, where we found White-throated Canaries, Dusky Sunbirds and my only lifer of the trip, a Common Reed Warbler (#561). I nearly dislocated my neck trying to get some decent pictures as it flitted around the treetops but only Jacques saw the Black-chested Prinia. Back in the bus and driving through the Park, we saw lots of Namaqua Sandgrouse, some well-camouflaged in the gravelly roadside veld but others easily seen foraging in the road ahead. We had a great sighting of a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles flying back and forth over Moon Rock. I managed to get good pictures of an obliging male Pririt Batis, but the female hid from me amongst the leaves. Mammals seen included many Dassies, as well as several Giraffe and Klipspringers. In the picnic area we found an Acacia Pied Barbet, Cape Glossy Starling, Cape Robin Chat, African Hoopoe, Orange River White-eyes, Cape Wagtails and Southern Grey-headed Sparrows. Near our chalets we came across a beautiful Karoo Scrub Robin, who sang to us prettily in the dying light. That night we had an excellent meal in the Park’s Quivertree Restaurant and retired to one of our well-equipped chalets to watch the Springboks vs. France in the Rugby World Cup quarter final. As you can imagine, there was lots of tension and shouting at the screen but finally we were able to go to bed happy campers.

We left early the next day on our onward journey to Calvinia, stopping at sunrise on the R27 bridge over the Orange River just past Keimoes to see an amazing array of birds: Hamerkop, a Giant Kingfisher, African Darters, Rosy-faced Lovebirds, African Pied Wagtails, Little Swifts, Three-banded Plovers, Southern Masked Weavers, Cape Sparrows and (finally!) a Black-chested Prinia. Further along the road we came across a Kalahari Scrub Robin singing with his cocked tail nicely backlit in the early morning light, and then a pair of them frolicking in full sunlight.  We stopped in the quaint little town of Kenhardt, well worth it because of the wonderful variety of Karoo lamb pies, coffees and milkshakes at Oma Mimmie’s Café & Bakery. Other birds seen along the R27 were Karoo Korhaans and several Namaqua Sandgrouse, both running in the veld and flying overhead. Near Brandvlei, we turned off left along the R357 and R353, seeing European Bee-eaters near the Sak River, to take a detour along a gravel road to find  Karoo Scrub Robin, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Spike-heeled Lark and Chat Flycatcher. Later that afternoon, it was lovely to sit on the veranda of the comfortable Blou Nartjie B&B in Calvinia, having a few excellent gin and tonics and chatting about the birds seen that day and then another great meal.

Suddenly it was the last day! But Jacques had a very special treat in store: two hours in the secret treasure of the Akkerendam Nature Reserve 4km north of Calvinia. It was wonderfully scenic with the Hantam Mountains in the background. In quick succession we saw Bokmakierie, Cape Bunting, Grey-backed Cisticola, Karoo Prinia, Cape Clapper Lark, Chat Flycatcher, Malachite Sunbird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Black-headed Canary, Lark-like Bunting and a tree full of nesting Rufous-eared Warblers. On the little dam was a Black-necked Grebe in full breeding colours, as well as Little Grebe, Cape Teal and South African Shelduck. The fabulous flora included Chincherinchee (Ornithogalum thyrsoides) and Lady’s Hand (Cyanella hyacinthoides). We had a bonus sighting of a Puff Adder slithering across the road. We had to call it a day but as we left  a European Bee-eater sat on an overhead wire before flying off. We did did manage to break up the long journey along the N7 to Cape Town with stops at 2 wine farms (Klawer and Piekeneerskloof) for a bit of tasting and buying. What a wonderful trip: many great birds, varied scenery, good company and, of course, a fantastic guide, Jacques Giliomee of Let’s Go Birding. Can’t wait for the next birding adventure!

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See you soon

Let’s go Birding!

Article by Gillian Ainslie ( Article also published in the Properops Magazine)

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