Mountain of the Dragons

I am really hoping to use this blog in more of a “real-time” manner, but I already have so many adventures to catch up on! I think have been procrastinating with my final batch of South Africa photos because, on some level, I just don’t want it to end. The process of sorting through photos, and refreshing my memory of bird identification, helps to extend the experience. But, really, there is no end to it….I’ll be reflecting on these experiences for some time to come (and I’m already looking forward to sharing stories and photos with my students when I return to teaching in the fall).

Our very last adventure was my favorite on the entire trip. Our final destination was the dramatic Drakensberg Mountains and the “Mountain Kingdom of the Sky“, the tiny country of Lesotho. The Drakensbergs loomed in the background for a few days leading up to this trip, so we approached this journey with great anticipation! The Drakensberg, or “Mountain of the Dragons” is the eastern portion of the Great Escarpment, which encloses the central South African plateau. The escarpment stretches for over 600 miles and is 11,424′ tall and its highest peak.

Breathtaking views as we approached the Drakensberg and made our way up the Sani Pass

We climbed the Drakensberg via the Sani Pass, a rugged mountain pass located in the west of KwaZulu Natal, connecting the South African town of Underberg with the country of Lesotho. The Sani Pass starts at 5,065′ and climbs 4337 vertical feet to an altitude of 9,435′, featuring dramatic switchbacks along the way. The steep gravel road ensures slow-going for most of the way up (and back down!). The Sani Pass ends at the border of South Africa and Lesotho. The Kingdom of Lesotho is a enclaved country, surrounded on all sides by South Africa (one of only three countries in the world that is completely encircled by another country). It is a scenic land of tall mountains and narrow valleys, most of which is made up of highlands where many villages can only be reached by foot or horseback.

Welcome to the Mountain Kingdom in the Sky

The Sani Pass is considered one of Southern Africa’s best birding spots and prime venues for high altitude alpine species, many of which are endemic to this region. In fact, we started picking up terrific birds first thing in Sani Valley, on our way to the pass, including the first Giant Kingfishers of the trip. The Giant Kingfisher, measuring 18″ long, earns its name by being the largest kingfisher in Africa. A nice species to round out our robust list of kingfisher species seen on this trip!

Giant Kingfisher

This was followed by some more fantastic birds as we drove through the Sani Valley – great looks at a feisty Red-necked Francolin, some actively nectaring Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, a cooperative Long-crested Eagle, an Olive Woodpecker, and my first look at a Greater Honeyguide.

Red-necked Francolin
Double-collared Sunbird (Africa’s answer to Hummingbirds)
Double-collared Sunbird
Long-crested Eagle
I can’t help but post another shot of this fancy bird.
Olive Woodpecker

As we gained altitude, the habitat transitioned a Protea-dominated zone with scattered rocky outcrops. Here we encountered our first Gurney’s Sugarbirds.…one of only two species of Sugarbirds, both of which depend on Protea and belong to a family endemic to Southern Africa. These birds are significant pollinators of Protea and meet most of their energy needs from nectar- in fact, they have a long and protrusible tubular tongue that is frilled at the end, a nice adaptation for sipping the sweet stuff! They supplement their diet with insects that are attracted to the flower’s inflorescence.

Gurney’s Sugarbird
Gurney’s Sugarbird

A personal highlight, as we climbed the pass, was a couple of groups of Ground Woodpeckers that we encountered. I think this trip solidified Woodpeckers as one of my favorite groups of birds, in large part because of my affinity for this interesting species of woodpecker. I recently listed the reasons why on an Instagram post, but I’ll recap here: 1) They generally don’t scare easily so, typically, once heard or spotted they can be enjoyed for more than just a fleeting moment, unlike some of the more skittish passerines, 2) They have zygodactyl feet, and 3) They have evolved some fascinating adaptations to protect their brains from the trauma one would expect the intense hammering and drumming they do with their bills to cause. Ground Woodpeckers are endemic to mountainous areas in Southern Africa and have never been recorded elsewhere. Unlike most woodpeckers, they feed on the ground, preferring to eat ants. The bird in the image below is on “sentry duty”, glancing for aerial predators from a rock perch. Shortly, he will be relieved by another member of his group and will resume foraging.

Ground Woodpecker on sentry duty

As we climbed through the rocky sections of the pass, we soon encountered one of our primary target birds: the Drakensberg Rockjumper (this was a Rockjumper birding tour, so it would’ve been quite embarrassing if we dipped on this bird!). These insectivorous birds have quite a restricted range and are endemic to the alpine grasslands and rocky outcrops of the Drakensberg, so it was our one and only chance to spot them. These birds could not have been truer to form, as both a male and female jumped from rock to rock. The pursuits of the female paid off as she nabbed an insect meal and the male just posed and looked pretty and afforded us the opportunity to enjoy him! Similar to the sugarbirds, there are two species in the genus Chaetops, which constitutes the entire family that is endemic to southern Africa. Sidenote: if I were a bird, I’d want to be named after a mountain range.

Drakensberg Rockjumper
Female Drakensberg Rockjumper with a snack
Drakensberg Rockjumper rockjumping

As we made our way up the Sani Pass, we also spotted Karoo Prinia, both Sentinel and Cape Rock-Thrushes, African Stonechat, Sicklewing Chat, and Drakensberg Siskin.

It wasn’t just about the birds…..! The scenery was just spectacularly breathtaking at every turn (every frightening switchback turn)…truly, the photos just don’t do it justice. The mountains are so dramatic, yet lush and green and popping with wildflowers. I almost peed my pants as we approached a slope that was covered in Pineapple Lily flowers (Eucomis bicolor)….my fascination with this plant dates back to college, when Carly and Adrienne were growing them in pots (I think it all started with Adrienne gifting us these gems). Sharing these bulbs between us became somewhat of a tradition for awhile, so to see them in the wild was super special. (Side note: I think my excitement seemed out-of-proportion to those I was with…but I knew my favorite girls back home would “get it”….and a good reminder to resurrect this old tradition!). I was also ecstatic to spot South Africa’s only native poppy, Papaver aculeatum, which looks quite similar to our Fire Poppy, or a larger version of our Wind Poppy.

Pineapple Lily (Eucomis bicolor)
Papaver aculeatum

Near to one of the highest altitude regions that we reached, we spotted an incredibly large and dramatic bird. I began to write about the Bearded Vulture and then promptly decided this bird deserved its very own post. For me, this sighting was one of the most captivating of my entire African experience, and you can read more about these fascinating birds here.

Bearded Vulture, aka Lammergeier

(Brief Nerd Alert Detour – I was excited to fill in another country on my eBird map, even though Lesotho appears as a tiny dot inside South Africa. My Lesotho list now has 32 species including Bearded Vulture, African Black Duck, Cape Griffon, White-necked Raven, Red-capped Lark, Large-billed Lark, Fairy Flycatchers, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Sicklewing Chat, Yellow-tufted Pipit, Drakensberg Siskin, Karoo Prinia and Layard’s Warbler.)

We made our way back down the Sani Pass, stopping for birds on the way down – Drakensberg Siskin, Bush Blackcap, Fan-tailed Grassbird, to name a few. We ended the day, and thus our trip, with a final drive on the winding roads that surround the quaint village of Himeville, scanning for a few target birds in the surrounding grasslands. We stopped for a roost of White-breasted Cormorants and admired some more Grey Crowned Cranes. Before heading back for our final night at our lodge, we spotted the very last new bird of the trip – the Blue Crane. I could not imagine a more apropos species with which to end our trip….this strikingly elegant bird is endemic to Southern Africa and is the National Bird of South Africa.

Grey Crowned Crane
My last lifer of the trip: the Blue Crane, the national Bird of South Africa.
Blue Crane

I have posted ALL of my favorite photos on Flickr. Go HERE to see all South Africa pictures, HERE to view my favorite bird photos from South Africa, and HERE if you’d rather just see mammals!

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