CUSTOMIZED ORIENTATION TRIP OF SOUTH AFRICA For Members Of The American Birding Association (ABA) Executive

Clients : Richard H. Payne President/C.E.O., Mike Ord and Paul Bristow, USA

Dates : 16 to 28 January 2008

Duration : 13 days


ABA brief called for a 12 day orientation tour of South Africa that would address a ‘wish list’ of birds compiled by Paul Bristow, a highly experienced global birder with close on 6000 sightings on his life list, while simultaneously embracing a wide diversity of habitats and overnight hospitality options, across the cost and comfort spectrum, to provide an insight into what South Africa has to offer the visiting birder.

Whilst not ‘intensive’, the pace was brisk throughout in order to deliver against the target expectation of 350-plus species within a limited time frame of 12 days.

In the planning phase we drew on the latest habitat reports for each area and precise routing arrangements, within the constraints of time and distance, were adjusted and carefully managed throughout to bring about the best of prevailing birding opportunities along the way.

A pelagic trip off Cape Town , one of the finest seabird viewing experiences in the world for albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels, could not be included in the itinerary due to a lack of time and prevailing weather conditions off the Cape of Goof Hope.

Lilac-breasted-Roller – W Tarboton
Southern Black Korhaan

Orange-breasted Sunbird
Southern Bald Ibis
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
Nylsvlei Sunset – R Payne

Time of year was optimal for most migrants with an impressive selection of palearctic and intra-African migrants still present within the sub-region. On the down side the group had to contend with atypical summer weather conditions throughout the trip ranging from cold and misty conditions with driving rain, due to a low pressure system over the central interior, to close on 40 degrees C (100 degrees F) with swirling ‘dust devils’ for company in the arid Tanqua Karoo.
Furthermore time of year was the post-breeding period and most resident species had already lapsed into silent and non-exhibitory patterns of behavior to add to the birding challenges along the way…

Itinerary started with the south-western Cape with its mix of ‘fynbos‘ specials such as Cape Rockjumper, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird and Victorin’s Warbler, followed by the sandveld of the Atlantic coastline that is home to Black Harrier and Southern Black Korhaan. The diverse mix of habitats visited along the West Coast included tidal estuaries and a vast lagoon and salt works that collectively support thousands of migrant shorebirds and a wide variety of waterfowl. Heading east the route cut across the coastal plain to the semi-arid expanse of the Tanqua Karoo lying in the rain shadow of the rugged Cedarberg Mountain range.

In this ultra special and sparsely populated area we listed Karoo Korhaan, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Pale Chanting Goshawk, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Layard’s Titbabbler as well as a host of ‘chats’ including Familiar, Trac Trac, Mountain and Karoo Chat.

From here the route cut through the impressive Cape Folded Mountains to the heavily wooded seaward facing slopes overlooking the vast Agulhas Plain which stretches away to the southern most tip of the African continent. This final leg of the south-western Cape sector delivered specials such as Crowned Eagle, Black Sparrowhawk, Blue Crane, Knysna Woodpecker, Agulhas Long-billed Lark, Southern Tchagra and Olive Bush Shrike.

Having completed the Western Cape loop the second leg of the two part trip started south of Johannesburg on what is known as the ‘highveld’ – an area of high lying grassland that supports a wide variety of larks, lapwings, widowbirds, korhaans and bustards. Targets successfully sighted included Denhams Bustard, White-bellied and Blue Korhaan, Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Pink-billed Lark and the highly localized Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks. Aside from the sprawling grasslands, the many vleis (seasonal wetlands) in the vicinity of Wakkerstroom support a wide variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, crakes and rails providing a medley of additional sighting opportunities in scenic surroundings.

Heading north the rolling grasslands give way to sprawling thornveld and mixed savanna woodland associated with lower elevations beyond the capital city of Pretoria . This bushveld biome supports a wide diversity of indigenous trees, mammals, birds, reptiles, butterflies, moths and insects. It is an incredibly rich biome that delivered well in terms of expectation with sightings of Crimson-breasted and Orange-breasted Bush Shrike, Magpie Shrike, Northern Black Korhaan, Southern Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbill, Lilac-breasted and Purple Roller being listed within the more spectacular category. To the north the heavily forested slopes along the Great Escarpment added their own unique suite of resident species which included Cape Parrot , Knysna and Purple-crested Turaco, Olive Pigeon, Black-fronted Bush Shrike and Bat Hawk with the higher elevations providing excellent views of Gurney’s Sugarbird and Long-billed Pipit.

Unquestionably, the highlight of the north was our arrival at Nylsvley, a RAMSAR wetland site, to coincide with the seasonal inundation of this sprawling floodplain. We were not to be disappointed as heavy rains during the preceding four weeks had saturated the marsh and fringing acacia woodland. Thousands of waterbirds had congregated to take advantage of the superabundance of emergent amphibians & spawning catfish with breeding actively for most herons, egrets and bitterns at a peak at the time of our visit.

Standing on the causeway that stretches across the Nylsvley marsh at dawn to observe the flight lines of herons and egrets weaving along the floodplain in both directions was certainly a lasting and memorable sight at the end of the trip.

In all over 400 species were recorded during the trip representing close to two thirds of what South Africa has to offer visiting birders in the way of terrestrial species. A pelagic trip off Cape Town would have added at least a dozen more to the list including sightings of four or more albatross species.

Of particular significance was the deliberate exclusion of the Kruger National Park with its wide diversity of bird & mammal life from the trip in view of time and travel restraints.

On the health & safety side anti-malarial prophylactics were not required as the route was specifically tailored to steer clear of the malaria belt to the east of the country.

Overnight accommodation along the way included parks board self-catering cottages, bed & breakfasts, fully catered guesthouses, country retreats and game lodges, all of which were chosen for comfort and proximity in relation to key birding areas.

SA Endemics Recorded (Robert’s V11)

Cape Spurfowl, Natal Spurfowl, Hottentot Buttonquail, South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveller, Knysna Woodpecker, Ground Woodpecker, Acacia Pied Barbet, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, White-backed Mousebird, Cape Parrot, Knysna Turaco, Northern Black Korhaan, Southern Black Korhaan, Karoo Korhaan, Blue Korhaan, Blue Crane, Namaqua Sandgrouse, African Black Oystercatcher, Hartlaub’s Gull, Cape Vulture, Black Harrier, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Jackal Buzzard, Forest Buzzard, Cape Gannet, Crowned Cormorant, Bank Cormorant, Cape Cormorant, Southern Bald Ibis, African Penguin, Southern Tchagra, Southern Boubou, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Bokmakierie, Olive Bush Shrike, Pririt Batis, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Cape Rock-jumper, Cape Penduline Tit, Grey Tit, South African Cliff Swallow, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Cape Bulbul, Fairy Flycatcher, Cape Grassbird, Victorin’s Warbler, Knysna Warbler, Barratt’s Warbler, Bush Blackcap, Layard’s Tit-babbler, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Cape White-eye, Grey-backed Cisticola, Cloud Cisticola, Black-chested Prinia, Karoo Prinia, Namaqua Warbler, Rufous-eared Warbler, Barred Wren-warbler, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Eastern Clapper Lark, Sabota Lark, Karoo Lark, Cape Long-billed Lark, Agulhas Long-billed Lark, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Short-clawed Lark, Spike-heeled Lark, Gray-backed Sparrowlark, Rudd’s Lark, Pink-billed Lark, Botha’s Lark, Large-billed Lark, Cape Rock Thrush, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Karoo Thrush, Chat Flycatcher, Marico Flycatcher, Fiscal Flycatcher, White-throated Robin Chat, Chorister Robin Chat, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Karoo Scrub Robin, Sickle-winged Chat, Karoo Chat, Tractrac Chat, Buff-streaked Chat, Mountain Wheatear, Ant-eating Chat, Burchell’s Starling, Pied Starling, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Dusky Sunbird, Scaly-feathered Finch, Cape Weaver, Red-headed Finch, Swee Waxbill, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Great Sparrow, Cape Sparrow, Cape Longclaw, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Cape Canary, Forest Canary, Yellow Canary, White-throated Canary, Cape Siskin and Cape Bunting. (113 species)

Contact us for the full trip list of 403 species

In the client’s own words: “Just a quick note to thank you for a wonderful South African birding experience. It was a real pleasure meeting you both and experiencing some of South Africa’s rich bird life. You truly did demonstrate what a well planned customized tour can look like. I was impressed across the board and am not easily impressed as a general rule.”
Richard H. Payne Phd President/CEO American Birding Association

“I will be giving a solid endorsement from my personal standpoint of Avian Leisure and Patrick’s field skills and will encourage any one with an interest to use my name as an entry to your world. The overall accommodations were fantastic and the food was another story. I had hoped to lose weight but no such luck.”
Mike Ord, Hawaii

“Thanks Patrick and Marie-Louise for arranging and hosting our trip to South Africa. The birding exceeded my most ambitious hopes. The accommodations and especially the food were the best of any of my birding trips anywhere! Patrick’s ability to find the target birds and get everyone in a position to see them made the trip list spectacular.

I was particularly impressed that the checklist was so accurate. We got a large percentage of the listed birds so there was not the “padding” that sometimes creeps into checklists. That only builds expectations beyond the possibility to fulfil. Managing expectations is 90% of the task sometimes.

I would recommend Avian Leisure to anyone who wanted a tailored birding trip at any level of intensity”

Paul Bristow, Director ABA, Canada ( Paul passed the impressive 6000 mark on his world life list in this trip! )
For more information contact Marie-Louise on

Most of the bird images used courtesy of W Tarboton

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