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Polokwane – A special reserve that needs saving.
Text and pictures: Peter Chadwick. Article from the January 2012 issue of Country Life Magazine.
David Letsoalo and I rose way before the dawn to leave Kurisa Moya and head on our way to Polokwane Game Reserve as part of my journey through Limpopo Province. I remembered travelling through Polokwane as a young boy and was eager to return to this special place which always seemed to have better birds than anywhere else.
It was as though Polokwane was the central point from where all bushveld birds radiated outwards, with eastern species overlapping western species and northern species meeting their southern counterparts.
On our drive from Magoebaskloof, David and I stopped at various heavily grazed grasslands, where we tried to add some of the more difficult-to-identify larks, pipits and cisticolas to our list. Southern Bald Ibis were also a target but, alas, avoided us totally. So we concentrated on getting to Polokwane Game Reserve as the gates opened, where we would meet Joe Grosal from Eden Routes Eco-Safaris. Joe knows the Polokwane area intimately, having worked in the region as an ecologist for many years before he and his wife, Lisa, set up their current business. He is also an active member of the Polokwane Bird Club, regularly holding courses in bird identification and leading mist-netting trips for research and monitoring purposes.
We arrived slightly earlier than planned and, after parking our vehicle, grabbed our binoculars and wandered through the campsite at the entrance to the reserve. African Palm-Swifts were swooping in the skies above together with Little and White-rumped Swifts. Barn, Greater Striped and Red- breasted (above) Swallows flew with them, but at a much more sedate pace than the fast-flying swifts.
A pair of Fiscal Flycatchers moved systematically along the tree line, stopping occasionally to swoop onto an insect. At one point the similar-looking but much larger Common Fiscal swooped in and bullied the flycatchers away from a large grasshopper that .they were trying to subdue. White-browed Sparrow-Weavers sung melodiously from the dry acacia trees and a Common Scimitarbill (5 on checklist) took most of our attention as it moved along the tree trunks, prising small morsels from under the bark.
After Joe’s arrival, David and I made ourselves comfortable in his open 4×4 and were soon heading into the heart of the reserve. We had hardly travelled 100 metres before a family of Burnt-necked Eremomelas (9 on checklist) was sighted and we spent several minutes watching them as they moved through the acacia thickets, constantly calling to one another. Next up was a mixed flock of Black-faced, Violet-eared and Blue Waxbills feeding on ripe grass seeds that had fallen to the ground. Above them a male Great Sparrow (7 on checklist) sang with its harsh call that only a female sparrow would appreciate.
As we drove on, Joe knowledgeably and passionately talked about the ecology of the reserve, saying that it was one of the last remaining patches of Pietersburg Plateau false grassland, most of the rest having been lost to agriculture. It’s thus imperative for this relatively unknown gem of a reserve to be protected and supported. Sadly, though, the local municipality is battling to find the funds to run it, and there are constant threats from mining. Perhaps this is where we, the public, can step in and support the long-term preservation of this special place.
Rounding a corner we found ourselves in the middle of a mixed herd of giraffe and Burchell’s zebra. Nearby, a small herd of kudu stood protectively around a very young calf looking inquisitively out on its new world with large brown eyes. A short distance further on we came to a spot where the bush was absolutely alive with bird calls. Soon a pair of Crimson-breasted Shrike hopped across the road. This heralded the start of a birding party that included Southern Black Flycatcher (3 on checklist), Marico Flycatcher (10 on checklist), Magpie Shrike (above), Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Cape Glossy Starling (above), Brubru (6 on checklist), Black-collared Barbet (page 25) and a lone male Marico Sunbird. A pair of Wahlberg’s Eagles circled high overhead, drawing the attention of a jackal Buzzard which tried a few halfhearted stoops on them before continuing on its way.
Next stop was one of the picnic sites where, camera in hand, I tried to creep up on some Kalahari Scrub-Robins that Joe was trying to entice closer by mimicking the call of a Pearl-spotted Owl. Swainson’s Spurfowl, Crowned Lapwing, Cape Turtle-Dove (above), Groundscraper Thrush and African Hoopoe wandered the lawns, and from the acacia trees, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and Fork-tailed Drongo launched after prey.
Jacobin (1 on checklist) and Diderick Cuckoos were both present and sat preening, while a Grey Go-away-bird called loudly in alarm at our presence. Acacia Pied Barbets were heard close by and a short search also produced Crested Barbet, Southern Boubou, Golden-tailed Woodpecker Scaly-feathered Finch, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler and Cape Penduline-Tit.
With time marching on, Joe suggested that we drive to the other side of the reserve and towards its crown where we would try to find one of the reserve’s real specials – the Short-clawed Lark (4 on checklist). The drive took us through herds of zebra, red hartebeest and tsessebe. At a small waterhole, a lone blue wildebeest quenched its thirst before galloping off. Below the powerlines that transect the reserve we found Northern Black Korhaan and a flock of Helmeted Guineafowl – which had obviously had a good year judging by the large number of young with them. A Black-chested Snake-Eagle used the powerlines as a vantage point and nearby a Brown Snake-Eagle (8 on checklist) perched in a dead tree.
Crossing through a marshland where we dared not stop for fear of getting stuck in the mud, we snatched quick views of Black-throated Canary, Red-collared Widowbird, White-winged Widowbird, Black-chested Prinia, Long-tailed Paradise-Whydah and a Shaft-tailed Whydah. We then systematically searched each grassland patch, and although we found Rufous-naped Lark, Sabota Lark, Desert Cisticola, Tinkling Cisticola and Coqui Francolin, the Short-clawed Larks avoided us.
With only one remaining patch to search amid mentions of “it’s rather late in the season to find them”, Joe tried to call the elusive larks up by expertly imitating them – but still nothing. So after a final walk through the grasslands, we turned and headed for the entrance gate. We had gone hardly 50 metres when David suddenly yelled for us to stop.There in front of us was a Short-clawed Lark, which posed beautifully in the open before flying off and disappearing in the long grass.
Typically, we sighted several more after that, and were also fortunate to see a recently fledged Bushveld Pipit (2 on checklist), which sat perfectly in the fork of a large tree, allowing us to photograph it.
Back at my own vehicle and ready to head off to Nylsvlei, I reflected that Polokwane had again lived up to my childhood memories of it as a top birding site, and there and then I committed myself to returning to it, this time to spend several days in the area.
Season and Weather Lying about 1 300m above sea level, Polokwane Game Reserve is dry and hot. Late afternoon thunderstorms can be expected in summer; while the winters are generally mild with cold evenings and nights.
Habitats Open savannah with scattered acacia and broad-leaved trees, granite outcrops, riverine thickets, and open grasslands that are critical for a number of lark, pipit and cisticola species. Specials Short-clawed Lark, Northern Black Korhaan, Shelly’s Francolin, Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Tinkling Cisticola, Black-faced Waxbill.
Accommodation & Activities Polokwane Game Reserve offers comfortable chalets as well as camping and caravan sites, all at the entrance gate. Facilities inside the reserve include an extensive road network, walking trails and bird hides.
Getting There From the N1, turn onto the R71/R81 by-pass road to Tzaneen. At the second intersection, turn right onto the Silicon Road and travel for another 800m. The reserve entrance is on the right.
Local Bird Guides Joe or Lisa Grosel,
015 263 6473,082 415 5250 or 083 380 2322, email.
10 specials to try to spot on BirdLife South Africa’s Eden Routes Birding Route.
- As its Afrikaans name indicates the Jacobin Cuckoo (Bontnuwejaarsvoël) is a common summer visitor that also has a dark morphological form.
- Found in thornveld and open woodland, the Bushveld Pipit (Bosveldkoester) is a common but extremely localised resident, with Polokwane being a good location to spot it.
- The Southern Black Flycatcher (Swartvlieëvanger) is smaller than the Fork-tailed Drongo and also lacks its deeply forked tail. It inhabits woodland areas and is usually seen in pairs, hawking insects from , prominent positions.
- The Short-clawed Lark (Kortkloulewerik) has a very limited distribution, with Polokwane Nature Reserve being one of the best places to see it. It inhabits open grassy areas with scattered thornveld trees. Bush encroachment is a threat to the species.
- The female Common Scimitarbill (Swartbekkakelaar) has a shorter bill than the male and also a brownish and not glossy black head, which the male has.
- The Brubru (Bontroklaksman) is usually seen in the crowns of trees gleaning insects and is also often part of larger birding parties.
- The Great Sparrow (Grootmossie) is a larger and brighter version of the House Sparrow that is restricted to the extreme northern and western dry thornveld of South Africa.
- The Brown Snake-Eagle (Bruinslangarend) is easily distinguished from other brown eagles by its bare, pale white legs and large head with yellow eyes.
- The Burnt-necked Eremomela (Bruinkeelbossanger) usually occurs in small family groups that stay in constant contact with one another through their high-pitched chii-cheee-cheee calls.
- The pure white underparts and brown upperparts of the Marico Flycatcher (Maricovlieëvanger) make it easily distinguishable, as does its habit of perching prominently in thornveld.
|More info on the quaint town of Polokwane||More info on the Capricorn area|
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