Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Lark Loop

A Visit to the Highveld Grasslands of Mpumalanga, South Africa

Over the years, you see a lot of habitats and a lot of wildlife on nature shows on TV.  A lot of the shows on Africa look a lot like the last post, Lions and Elephants in thorn scrub habitat, but there are some places that look very different, and one in particular I'd always wanted to visit.  The Highveld habitat is a special place.  Higher altitude grasslands, scattered with small Afrikaner farming communities, and filled with interesting and different birds.  It's hard to think of anything quite like it, so three days based in Wakkerstroom exploring this habitat was a trip I had been looking forward to for some time.

Sunday, January 7th / Monday, January 8th ... Wakkerstroom Area

We were staying at a lovely little guest house on the outskirts of Wakkerstroom.  South Africa prompts an odd series of emotions and Wakkerstroom, a pretty little Afrikaner farm town with neat little houses and beautiful gardens, prompted more than a few.  Outside of town, the "africans" (as the locals call them) still lived in a densely packed, and somewhat basic township with cinder block and corrugated iron 'houses'.  It may not have been surrounded by a fence any more but the contrast between the housing there, and the beautiful manicured grounds and accommodation at the place we were staying was quite jarring.  At dawn on day one, we drove over to the 'african' neighborhood to pick up our local guide for the day, the famous and talented Lucky.  Then off for a full day of birding the local hotspots.

White-bellied Bustard
Southern Bald Ibis
First stop was a location for WHITE-BELLIED BUSTARD and we quickly picked one up while driving across the short grass area where they breed.  Bustards were very much a key theme of the grasslands and not long afterwards we found ourselves searching for DENHAM'S BUSTARD and getting some distant scope views.  The third bustard species, BLUE BUSTARD had to wait until the next day but hey, any place with three bustard species is hardly horrible.

Mammals weren't really a target up here but we did see Meerkats, Yellow Mongoose, Scrub Hare, Springbok, Blesbok, Common Duiker, an Oribi, Mountain Reedbuck and a SERVAL, only the second one I'd ever seen.  Not a bad haul for a place not famous for it's mammals.

The bird I most wanted to see in the grasslands though was the BLUE CRANE the odd-looking, but strangely beautiful grassland crane of Southern Africa.  We saw a couple in the extreme distance while looking for bustards but I had to wait a while before we bumped into a pair with a young chick closer to the road.  The birds didn't panic when we stopped to take photos but they did walk away quite quickly so all I got was photos from the back.  Such an amazing species though, still my Facebook cover photo three months later.

Blue Crane family
Wakkerstroom is famous in birding circles not for these amazing big birds though, but for a series of small cryptic songbirds that spend their days hiding in the grass.  A half dozen species of lark can be found here but two of them RUDD'S LARK and BOTHA'S LARK are very rare and very hard to see anywhere else.  So generations of birders have come here to look for larks and with expert guide Lucky along for the ride, we planned to as well.

The spot for Rudd's Lark was an huge area of grassland with a few cows and couple of small building, and after stopping at a small farm to pay a fee, and stopping to flush an African Snipe from a small wetland, we got down to the serious business of lark-hunting.  Lucky clearly knew where a pair or larks preferred to be, so stopped in an area of grassland and had us form a line (of three birders) and walk through a specific area looking for find the larks.  45 minutes, and many passes later, no larks.  So we gave up on that pair and started working more broadly across acres of seemingly identical grasslands.  We saw Spike-heeled Larks, Red-capped Lark, various cisticolas and African Pipits (all similar-looking small brown birds) but no Rudd's Lark.  The only excitement came after about an hour and a half when we flushed a HOTTENTOT BUTTONQUAIL a very special and unexpected species.  Finally though, we were forced to admit defeat, deciding to try one more time at the original spot before moving one ... and of course there was a RUDD's LARK right where we'd started two hours before.

Rudd's Lark 
Scrub Hare, looking terrified ...
Botha's Lark
By contrast, the search for BOTHA'S LARK was straightforward.  We went to the site, got out, formed a line and walked no more than 30 yards before we found a pair on the nest.  Still a very good bird though.

Jackal Buzzard and Ground Woodpecker 

With the larks in the bag, and many other grassland species besides, we had time to look for a couple of species I really wanted to see at the Waakerstroom Wetlands.  My Rockjumper guide, Selwyn Rautenbach had done some important work on the super-rare and near mythical White-winged Flufftail, the rarest member of a family I'd seen precisely none of to date.  While we were talking about it he mentioned that Red-chested Flufftail lived in the local marsh ... did I want to see it?  Duh!  Of course I did.

So we spent a fair amount of time at the marsh seeing a good selection of water birds and even a big Nile Monitor lizard.   Gray Crowned-Cranes were here as were African Rails and African Marsh-Harriers, a truly birdy spot.  Playing tape for the flufftail I kept my fingers crossed then saw just hint of movement in the grass ... and there it was ... a female RED-CHESTED FLUFFTAIL, my first flufftail.  Hopefully not the last ...

Red-chested Flufftail ... well I was excited.
The night wasn't over though and we ended the birding by calling in an AFRICAN MARSH OWL.  When I was a kid I looked at the species in the Peterson Field Guide to the birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (they just get into Morocco) and had always wanted to see one.  Magical way to end the day.  And who knew, there was even a decent restaurant in Waakerstroom ... so some cocktails and a delicious meal to end the visit ... who could ask for more?

No comments:

Post a Comment