Wakkerstroom is a quaint village surrounded by pristine upland grasslands, wetlands, and forests. For some, its a vacation retreat from Johannesburg but for those in-the-know it is a birding paradise! It’s the best place to find certain high altitude grassland biome specialists, such as Rudd’s Lark and Botha’s Lark, and some beautiful wetlands birds, including dramatically feathered Grey Crowned Crane, as well as forest species, like the Bush Blackcap. The landscape, and the nature of birding, in this region was a dramatic departure from the previous day’s Kruger experience.
We woke up to a morning rainstorm, but managed to find a few great birds on our way to “Pipit Plains”. This Bush Blackcap waited cooperatively while I ran back to the car to fetch my camera.
He was my last photo subject of our early morning run as our next targets were flighty pipits who only occasionally hopped up from the tall grasses. We cruised through “Pipit Plains”, picking up African Pipit, Long-billed Pipit, and some great looks at Yellow-breasted Pipits. From there, we drove through a network of dirt roads radiating out from Wakkerstrom, in search of the Botha’s Lark. The long drive was punctuated by beautiful scenery and some spectacular birds along the way. I don’t see how the novelty of watching Long-tailed Widowbirds hovering over the tall grasses, or perched roadside on barbed wire, could ever wear off. Male Long-tailed Widowbirds appear, at first glance, to be the world’s fanciest version of a Red-winged Blackbird. Between 6-8 of their 12 tail feathers are over 20″ long! In flight, the tail expands vertically forming a deep and long keel which is quite dramatically displayed as the he flies with slow wing eats a couple of meters above the ground.
Speaking of bird displays that keep me entertained on long drives through African countrysides, let me introduce you to the Yellow-crowned Bishop. The smallest of the bishops, displaying birds fluff out their bright yellow back and rump feathers appearing not at all unlike a bumblebee. I wish I could’ve captured some better photos of these cheerful birds.
Oh, and a mob of MEERKATS!
Wakkerstroom is one of the best places to spot Amur Falcons on their wintering ground, having navigated from eastern Russia and northern China to southeastern Africa. These small, Kestrel-like birds were quite abundant but I never tired of seeing them in flight or perched on barbed wire! Hundreds and hundreds of these small falcons hawk over the high altitude grasslands and roost at night in tall trees. We’ve seen so many of these falcons so far, that I was quite pleased to finally capture a few shots of both the male and female.
That brings me to our target bird: the Botha’s Lark. This species is a South African endemic, found exclusively in high-altitude grasslands, and listed as an Endangered species. We spread out in search of this bird in a heavily grazed upland field, not far from a local village. The bird was quickly flushed, but kept returning to the same spot. We quickly determined that the bird was returning to a nest….a lovely thing to note for an endangered species. We quickly retreated, but I managed to grab a quick shot before leaving.
Our final target for the day was the Rudd’s Lark, another South African endemic of high-altitude grasslands (see range maps of both lark species below). We stopped along the way for the strikingly rufous Eastern Clapper Lark and the peculiar Red-throated Wryneck, ultimately arriving at Fickland pan. We had to work much harder for just a fleeting glance of the Rudd’s Lark. We spread out and walked continuously in large circles, hoping to flush the bird. This went on for quite some time, and I think we all felt deflated at the prospect of leaving this small part of the world without having seen this bird we would be unable find anywhere else! Finally, someone caught a brief glimpse brief of lark as it flew above the tall grasses before dropping down again. Gareth ran at a full sprint in an effort to flush the bird back in our direction – it worked! We savored our brief, but unobstructed, view of this rare bird. Although I wasn’t able to capture a photo of this brief moment, I did manage to shoot a beautiful Malachite Sunbird as we contentedly made our way back to the car.