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Text and Pictures: Peter Chadwick. Article from the May 2012 issue of Country Life Magazine.
Great birding begins on the 15km gravel road leading up to this unspoilt slice of KZN’s Little Berg.
Thunder rumbled down the valleys and lightning flashed across the sky. Soon raindrops started to fall – small and slow at first and then heavy and hard – and eventually hail started pelting down. But in minutes the storm was over and, as I peered out of my tent, I looked out on a white carpet of hailstones and up into a starry sky.
Fortunately I’d pitched my small hiking tent under the protective branches of some tightly packed bushes. Others in the campsite had not been so lucky and many were now scurrying around in the darkness trying to re-tie the guy ropes and flaps of their tents.This was definitely the Drakensberg that I remembered, where the weather changes rapidly from one extreme to another.
I’d arrived at Cobham Nature Reserve earlier that afternoon, 10 years since I’d managed the place, and, also as I remembered it, the birdlife was still excellent.
Cobham lies an easy one and a half hours drive from Pietermaritzburg and is to my mind one of the best gateways into the Drakensberg. The campsite is still rustic and makes a perfect base from which to explore the reserve’s valleys and ridges. Added to this, the Pholela River bisects the reserve and a quick dip in it when the hiking gets tiring is invigorating enough to make one want to explore further while its pollution-free water will quench even the hardest thirst.
The birding begins when you turn off the tar road running through Himeville onto the D7 gravel road which winds another 15 kilometres or so to the entrance of the reserve.
I timed my visit for midsummer when the area would be at its greenest and all the migrant species present. As I drove along, flocks of Amur Falcon (8 on the checklist) lined the fences, flying off only to snatch up insects in their razor sharp talons. Yellow-billed Kite patrolled above the road in the hope of finding roadkills which they could scavenge, and Steppe and Jackal Buzzards looked down at me with glaring eyes from atop the telegraph poles. Opposite one of the numerous timber plantations, a Long-crested Eagle (4 on checklist), a bird which is a firm favourite of mine, allowed me to take a few quick photographs of it before it flew off to quieter patches.
In the farmlands, White Storks wandered among fat dairy cattle which kicked up grasshoppers as they moved through the lush grasses. Numerous small dams dotted the landscape and at one of these a pair of Grey Crowned Cranes walked in the marshy ground with two chicks in tow. Black Duck (above),Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal, Cape Shoveller and Egyptian Geese swam on the open water and Little Egret and Hamerkop waited motionlessly on the banks in the hopes of catching passing prey.
Southern Red Bishop males resplendent in their red and black plumage displayed to rather bored-looking females, whose indifference only spurred the males to further frenzy. Eventually the females could take it no longer and flew off into the distance. Red-collared Widowbirds were also plentiful and, much like the bishops, seemed unsuccessful in their amorous endeavours.
As I arrived at Cobham, a light drizzle closed in over the mountains, but the air was still fresh and invigorating. The feeling of peace was immediate after the taxing drive along the winding roads from Pietermaritzburg. In the campsite, I was welcomed by Cape Weavers (10 on checklist), Cape Robin-Chat, Common Fiscal, Red-winged Starlings, a pair of Bokmakieries, Cape White-eyes and Dark-capped Bulbuls, all of which saw me as a possible supplier of titbits. Hadedah Ibis (7 on checklist) and Cape Crows wandered the lawns, and somewhere in the tree tops, Dideric Cuckoo (above) and Red-throated Wryneck reminded me of their presence with their incessant calling.
With darkness approaching rapidly, I quickly set out to wander the short ‘Ou Hout’ Trail and was rewarded with a Giant Kingfisher (above) that shot past at great speed. Karoo Prinia, Swee Waxbills, Fork-tailed Drongos, CapeTurtle-Doves, Red-eyed Doves and Pied Starlings were also added to my rapidly growing list. Just as I returned to my tent, my final reward for the day was a Black Sparrowhawk hot on the heels of a Laughing Dove.
After the storm in the middle of the night I soon fell asleep again, but it seemed only seconds later when the pre-dawn cold woke me once more and forced me out of my tent, long before my alarm was set to go off. As I strode along the path in the predawn darkness, my boots soon became waterlogged and my clothes so damp that they clung to me on account of the long grass being so wet. But the discomfort was worth it as I heard pairs of black-backed jackals and Red-winged Francolins calling across the valleys, and flushed out small flocks of Quail Finch, African Quail and Cape Longclaw.
Later, in the open grasslands, Ayre’s Cisticolas, Banded Martins, Brown-throated Martins and Greater-striped Swallows were common sightings, while high in the skies, Black, European, Alpine and Little Swifts shot past at great speed.
On reaching Whale Rock I had good sightings of Broad-tailed Warblers, Levaillant’s Cisticolas, Neddickys (9 on checklist), White-winged Widowbirds (6 on checklist) and Cape Grassbirds in the dense bracken. Plodding up the steep incline to Shipongwene, I realised I was not as fit as I used to be and was soon huffing and puffing and having to take repeated rests.
These brought their own rewards as I was able to watch a Rock Kestrel (2 on checklist) hunting along the ridges and, at a clump of boulders, a pair of Buff-streaked Chat (5 on checklist) fussing around a recently fledged youngster Cape Rock-Thrush, Mountain Pipits (1 on checklist) and Ground Woodpeckers (3 on checklist) fed nearby. At another point I found a puffadder that was trying to warm itself and, in a deep rock fissure nearby, the nest of a Cinamon-breasted Bunting with three pale eggs in it.
On reaching the top of the Little Berg, I looked down on distant herds of feeding eland and troops of baboons, while above me loomed the prominent points of Hodgkin’s Peaks. Flowers of numerous types and colours were plentiful and attracted a myriad of insects, which in turn had Drakensberg crag lizards darting around after them.
Resting with my legs dangling over a cliff, I found that the peacefulness of Cobham’s grassland plateau, waterlogged tarns, distant river and deeply incised valleys and ridges certainly made my early morning rise and hard slog up the steep slopes well worth the effort.
Underberg Tourism 033 701 1471, www.drakensberg.org
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife reservations 033 845 1000, www.kznwildlife.com
Season and Weather Summers are warm with afternoon thunderstorms while winters are cold and heavy snow can fall. Be aware that the weather changes rapidly in the Drakensberg and all four seasons can occur in a single day. Heavy snow has been recorded even in the middle of summer.
Habitats The weather plays an important role in determining the nature of the habitat here. In summer dramatic thunderstorms with lightning play along the escarpment, while in winter snow and fire can ravage the landscape. The weather also plays a huge role in structuring the two main vegetation zones, namely the Alti-montane Biome, which ranges between 2 500m and 3 480m above sea level, and the Afro-montane Grassland Biome, which ranges between 1 700m and 2 500m above sea level. Different bird species occur in each zone.
Specials Bearded Vulture, Cape Vulture, Drakensberg Rock-jumper Gurney’s Sugarbird, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Short-tailed Pipit, Botha’s Lark.
Accommodation A variety of accommodation is available, from camping to self-catering chalets and luxury units.These can be booked through Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Call Underberg Tourism to book into hotels and B&Bs which lie outside the reserve.
GettingThere From the N3, take the R 617 to Underberg and Himeville. After entering Himeville, follow the signs to Cobham.
10 specials to try to spot in the Cobham Nature Reserve.
1. The Mountain Pipit (Bergkoester) is endemic to the Drakensberg, where it is regularly encountered in the montane grassland.
2. Rock Kestrels (Kransvalk) are versatile hunters, taking a variety of prey ranging from small insects to reptiles and small birds.
3. Ground Woodpeckers (Grondspeg) occur in small family groups on rocky hillsides and are another species endemic to South Africa.
5. The male Buff-streaked Chat (Bergklipwagter) is easily distinguished from the female by its black face and throat.
6. The White-winged Widowbird (Witvlerkflap) gets its name from the distinctive white wing bar that the male carries when in breeding plumage. Common to tall grasslands, the species breeds during summer, peaking in February and March.
7. The Hadedah Ibis (Hadedah) is sometimes known as the Bronze-winged Ibis because of its iridescent bronze wing patches.The species has extended its range in southern Africa and is now common throughout most of the country.
8. Originating in Asia, the Amur Falcon (Oostelike Rooipootvalk) visits southern Africa during in summer and can be seen a in large flocks hunting over open grassland.
9. The Neddicky (Neddikie) is a widespread, plain-coloured cisticola with a rufous cap and fawn upper parts.
10. Breeding in small colonies, the Cape Weaver (Kaapse Wewer) is a common resident, endemic to Cobham. Its nest is neatly woven with a short entrance tube.
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