From the Savanna to the Montane Forest

We woke up bright and early, and left Dinonyane after a quick breakfast. The Nylsvley Nature Reserve was only 10 minutes away, and we were soon exploring this beautiful protected preserve. This region is a flood plain, and is often inundated during wet summers. Now in mid-winter much of the area was dry. We birded the main part of the reserve, and then headed over to the Vogelfontein (or “bird pool”) where we saw several herds of antelope and some cool birds congregating around the remnant water sources. Fumbling through my mammal book, I eventually identified some blue wildebeests, steenbok, and the magnificent sable antelope. Avian highlights included our first Hamerkop and Marabou Stork, a flock of Alpine Swifts, and three species of cisticolas. Our checklist for Nylsvley totaled 66 species.

Levaillant’s Cisticola – photo by Neil Hayward

About noon we left Nylsvley behind, and continued our journey east. We checked out the Polokwane Game Reserve, which was a great afternoon stop. The network of dirt roads provided easy access to all parts of the reserve. I enjoyed watching the herds of zebra and ostriches wandering over the grasslands and through the trees.

Common Ostrich – photo by Neil Hayward

A Pale Chanting-Goshawk paid us a quick visit, and we were entertained by a Brubru and some Boubous, a couple of Cape Crombecs, and one Jameson’s Firefinch. Our Polokwane checklist complete, we headed east again away from the setting sun to our evening destination, Kurisa Moya.

Pale Chanting-Goshawk – photo by Neil Hayward

Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge is nestled in the lush montane forests at the northern terminus of the Drakensberg mountain range. At about 4000 feet elevation, this area is notably colder and wetter than the savanna and grasslands we had been visiting to the west. Our forest cabin was rustic, cozy, and very comfortable. It’s off the grid, but a couple of solar panels charge a small battery during the day, providing access to a couple of modest LED lights at night. Our hosts delivered us a hot and delicious dinner right to our doorstep.

For the next day and a half, we explored the extensive grounds of Kurisa Moya, the nearby Woodbush Forest Reserve, the town of Magoebaskloof and its environs, and Debengeni Falls. The cool mountain forests, rushing streams, and misty mountaintops were a dramatic departure from the dusty grasslands full of zebra and antelope that we had left just a day before. The birds were totally different, too. We enjoyed seeing Narina Trogon, Cape Parrot, African Wood-Owl, Lemon and Tambourine Doves, and Mountain Wagtail. Just off the trail near our cabin we heard the hoarse barking of a turaco. A moment later a pair of Knysna Turacos appeared at the top of a small tree, barely 25 feet away. Watching them through my binoculars literally took my breath away.

Knysna Turaco – photo by Neil Hayward

Neil and I made a conscious decision to forego the use of local guides for most of our South Africa trip. A big part of the fun of birding for me is finding and identifying the birds for myself. However, at the suggestion of our friendly hosts at Kurisa Moya, we hired one of their guides, David Letsoalo, to guide us to some of the more challenging local areas to explore. David was brilliant, extremely knowledgeable, and a super kind and patient guy. Without him, we would have surely missed seeing a number of really interesting species, like Bat Falcon (they eat bats on the wing!) and the super skulky Barratt’s Warbler.

Bat Falcon – photo by Neil Hayward

Late in the afternoon, we were bouncing our SUV up a steep, boulder-strewn hillside when we reached a grade that seemed impassable. We knew that there was good habitat for Gurney’s Sunbird just up ahead, but our vehicle didn’t seem up to the task of traversing the gravelly incline. David mentioned that most cars have more engine torque accessible in reverse gear than in any of the forward ones. Neil and I exchanged a nervous glance. Was he suggesting that we turn our little SUV around, and try to climb up this very steep and rocky hillside… backwards? Neil, not one to back down from a challenge or walk away from a potential lifer, gamely maneuvered the car around, and gunned the engine. I watched from well off the road, cowering behind a boulder with my fingers covering most of my eyes as our vehicle rocketed up the jeep track backwards and disappeared around the corner. A strangled cry a moment later indicated that either Neil was shouting triumphantly from the top or dangling dangerously off of a cliff. Fortunately, it was the former, and we were soon on our way again. Twenty minutes later, we were watching a Gurney’s Sunbird in the telescope.

Neil and David at Debengeni Falls

The mountains around Kurisa Moya were spectacular, and the birding was fantastic. Our two checklists for Magoebaskloof and Kurisa Moya didn’t have as many species as Zaagkuildrift Road, but there were some memorable ones. Still, after another night in the forest cabin, I was ready to move on. The biggest reason I was antsy to get going: our next destination was world-famous Kruger National Park.

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Filed under Birding, South Africa

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