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Land of the “Big F’s”

 
09 December 2016 by Katy Louise Johnson

The Lowveld has it’s famed ‘Big 5’, but here in the Highlands Meander it is all about the ‘Big F’s’: Fireplaces, Fine Foods, Flora & Fauna, Fishing, and Fun!

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All Images credits: George Skinner and Alan Hatton

Yet there is another ‘F’ to add to the pack, one that has a similar lure to Fly-Fishing when it comes to drawing flocks of avid enthusiasts to the Highlands. An ‘F’ that rivals the incredible Highland Flora when it comes to vivid colours, that is as tempting to the eyes as the Fine Foods of the region are to your taste buds and can only be described as Fun (although at times it can be truly frustrating too!).

Any guesses? - Feathers!  

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Thanks to the high-altitude positioning of the Highlands Meander on the lofty escarpment, which provides a vast array of different habitats, the whole region is a birdwatcher’s paradise. With the tourist town of Dullstroom at the epicentre!

Undulating wind-swept grasslands, cooled by fresh mountain air and early morning mists, give way to rocky escarpments with glorious marshes and riverine gullies. It’s a place where proteas flourish, wild flowers turn the grasslands into a carpet of colour during the summer months, and aloes transform the landscape.

It’s the impressive diversity of the scenic settings and floral richness that makes this area both a birding mecca and a picturesque driving route. So why not combine the two and grab your bird book and binoculars and set off on a picture-perfect adventure.

We teamed up with George Skinner, Chairman of the Escarpment Bird Club, who gave us these three BIG FIVE top tips for what to look out for, for any novice ‘twitcher’ wanting to go on birding quest:

1.       White-winged Flufftail

2.       Yellow–breasted Pipit

3.       Denham’s Bustard

4.       Short-tailed Pipit

5.       Pale-crowned Cisticola

Our adventure started in the tourist town of Dullstroom at the Municipal Dam, which is a birding treasure trove if you know just where to look.

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It’s easy to get side tracked by this magnificent body of water, but it is the small marshy areas that surround the inlets to the dam where the real birding hotspots can be found. Here we got our first glimpse at some of the many species of Warbler, Flufftail and Bishops that can be found all along the Highlands Meander Route. Yet it was the scrubby vegetation a small distance away from the dam itself that that produced my first, of many, birding ‘lifers’ that day. The spectacular Malachite Sunbird, one of the prettiest birds I have seen, even rivalling the Lilac Breasted Rollers of Kruger and any other Sunbird I’d seen before.

HIGHLAND BIRDING 000 - Malachite Sunbird - Courtsey of George Skinner BirdLife South Africa

My biggest mistake was only allocating one day to this addictive quest, which meant we didn’t have time to explore the rocky route from the campsite into the forest. Where lucky birders may get a glimpse of the Cape Eagle-Owl and day visitors will bump into a whole host of Highland birds. I am already planning my trip back!

HIGHLAND BIRDING 000 - Sentinel Rock Thrush  - Courtsey of George Skinner BirdLife South Africa

Next on our list a driving adventure that would take us into the Heart of the Highlands, this is a route I would recommend to everyone whether you are a passionate birder or not. The scenery is fabulous and one of the routes home takes you past the most fabulous cheese shop in Mpumalanga at Tonteldoos.

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Starting just north of Dullstroom on the R540 we had just under 6kms of tar road before our gravel adventure began, as we took the De Berg road on the left. Please reset your kilometre counter here, as from now on we will be going by kilometres rather than road signs, just adding to the sense of adventure. The De Berg road is flanked by agricultural fields, but don’t let that put you off as you will soon be enveloped in highland grasses once more.

Just 2.5km into the adventure, (you would have already crossed the railway line), there is an area of scattered proteas on the left. This is a great area, especially during the summer months, to spot the beautiful Malachite Sunbird and if you are really lucky the more elusive Gurney’s Sugarbird! We spent a good 15 minutes here and found both, more lifers for my list and the opportunity to grab a couple of great Highland Meander shots on the way.

HIGHLAND BIRDING 000 - Gurney's Sugarbird - Courtsey of George Skinner BirdLife South Africa

6-7km further on you will come across a couple of roadside dams, these are home to a number of water loving birds. We stopped here for a while, although our luck was not n this time before heading off to the Verloren Valei Nature Reserve. Be warned you will need to pre-arrange any visit here, but it is worth it. Verloren Valei is Mpumalanga’s only RAMSAR site protecting wetlands of international importance, it is also home to a host of floral wonders including a number or rare orchids and other endangered flowers.

HIGHLAND BIRDING 000 - Long-billed Pipet - Courtsey of George Skinner BirdLife South Africa

However this visit we had come to find the Long-billed Pipit and find it we did! Every tick-off our birding list came with a rush of excitement, it was like a feather covered treasure trail where we were collecting snapshots of some of South Africa’s most exquisite species. While we didn’t see one, this reserve is also the best place to spot the elusive Yellow-Breasted Pipit, another endangered bird which gets the bird watching world excited. For any crane enthusiasts, this is the perfect place to find all three of South Africa’s endangered crane species, the Blue Crane, Wattled Crane and my favourite the splendid Crowned Crane (just check our Nature Reserves Protecting National Icons Blog).

If you couldn’t arrange a trip into Verloren Valei, never fear. Just two kilometres past the turn off is a wetland visible from the road where Wattled Cranes are often seen. So grab your binoculars and take time out to enjoy some ‘padkos’ while you keep your eyes peeled!

HIGHLAND BIRDING 000 - Malachite Kingfisher -  Courtsey of George Skinner BirdLife South Africa

Along the next stretch of road the marshy habitat provides the perfect area for a number of South Africa’s most visually enchanting birds including the Grey Crowned Crane, Secretary bird and Wing-snapping Cisticola. The recently burnt grasslands in this area also provide a hive of activity, so keep your binoculars ready to identify which Lapwing, Francolin, Lark and Pipit you spot.

HIGHLAND BIRDING 000 - Coqui Francolin - Courtsey of George Skinner BirdLife South Africa

At the end of the road you come to a T-Junction and here you will have to make a difficult decision! Right towards Lydenburg for the best chance to get a glance at the Gurney’s Sugarbird. Then back to Dullstroom on the ‘Vermont’ gravel road about 9.5km from the junction. Be warned there are a couple of forks on this road, you will need to keep right at the first under a km in, left at the second around 2.5km and then right at the final one about 10.5km.

HIGHLAND BIRDING 000 - Chinspot Batis -  Courtsey of George Skinner BirdLife South Africa

Or, do as we did and opt Left onto the R577 going via the amazing town of Tonteldoos, which has a highlands heart despite recently becoming part of Limpopo. Here you can enjoy a bit of a birding pit stop and enjoy the best cheese platter I have ever tasted and a poke around the interestingly named Thirsty Walrus general store.

About 10km on from the turn look out for a sign post saying Uysedoorns on the right and take this, about 4.5km there is a wetland where all three species of endangered crane can sometimes be found and while we weren’t lucky here hopefully you will be!

Back on the R577, we turned left towards Dullstroom after about 2.5km which marked the end of our birding adventure but we did enjoy a sneaky stop for cheese in Tonteldoos.

HIGHLAND BIRDING 000 - Shaft-tailed Whydah - Courtsey of George Skinner BirdLife South Africa

We are looking forward to hearing how your Highlands Meander bird quests go, so make sure you Instagram any photos and tag us in @mpumalangatourism #Mpumalanga!


FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Make sure you get in touch with the Escarpment Bird Club, a member of BirdLife South Africa, they are an authority on what to look out for: info@escarpmentbirdclub.co.za

To book an excursion to Verloren Valei, contact Elsa: wildflowersdullstroom@gmail.com or vermeulen.elsa@gmail.com | 072 593 7587