Bird Watching: Western South Africa
In birdwatching terms, South Africa is a must for both the world lister and the leisure birder. For the leisure birder, it’s a wonderfully diverse destination in which to see a lot of birds as well as some of Africa’s iconic mammal species in a seemingly endless array of habitat types - the perfect place for a Birdwatching Safari!
For the world lister, however, South Africa is important for the high levels of endemism which make it the most important country on the continent in terms of endemic and near-endemic species. These include 19 true endemics; two breeding endemics; one seasonal endemic; and 45 near-endemics. These are spread out over a large geographical region, and it’s a given that any tour which aims to give a chance for almost all of them is going to be long and cover huge distances.
With this almost outrageous goal in mind, we have come up with this bird watching South Africa tour, a mega-birding tour, which will give participants a chance of seeing virtually all of the endemics and a large proportion of the near-endemics. It’s divided into two parts, Western and Eastern, which run back-to-back. The Western section starts in the regional town of Upington in the Northern Cape, with a night in Augrabies Falls National Park before heading westwards to Springbok in Namaqualand, then on to Calvinia in the heart of Bushmanland and then down to the West Coast and the Cape Peninsula before heading eastwards to the Agulhas Plain and the start of the Garden Route, where we begin to get a taste of what the eastern side of the country has to offer.
Top 5 highlights:
- Go birding around the mighty Augrabies Falls,
Place of Great Noise.
- Go looking for Larks and other endemics on a day trip into the remote Bushmanland region.
- Get to grips with waders in West Coast National Park.
- Go on a pelagic birding trip out of Simon's Town to see marine species up close (this is weather dependent).
- Search for Cape Rockjumper and other endemics on a scenic drive around False Bay.
How does birdwatching in Namibia sound? If you would like to find out more about this possibility becoming a reality have a look at the Essential Namibia Wildlife Safari Tour operated by Lawson's.
Alternative Tour Name: Western South African Endemics Birding Safari
After landing in Johannesburg, we’ll have a short wait before catching our connecting flight to the town of Upington, situated in the heart of the Northern Cape. After picking up our vehicle and loading up our luggage, we’ll complete the drive to the nearby Augrabies Falls National Park, with the camp overlooking the falls as the mighty Orange River cuts its way through the surrounding rock to form an 56m high waterfall followed by an 18km long gorge with some spectacular viewpoints along the way. We hope to arrive here late afternoon to allow us to do some birding in the nearby areas, and we should find a range of species such as Namaqua Warbler, Pririt Batis, Short-toed Rock-Thrush, Orange River White-eye, Pale-winged Starling, Acacia Pied Barbet and Ashy Tit, whilst, time permitting, a drive past a few of the viewpoints may turn up the sought after Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. We’ll spend a comfortable night here listening to the sound of the mighty Orange River crashing down nearby.
We’ll be up early for a short morning drive through a nearby section of the park where we’ll try to locate a few species we may still need, such as Double-banded Courser, before returning for breakfast and setting off in the direction of Springbok where we’ll be staying for the next two nights. The road there however provides some excellent birding, and we’ll spend some time at several sites searching for a selection of important species, with top prize arguably going to the quite striking ‘Dune’ form of Red Lark, a distinctly different colour morph compared to the birds found further south. Time permitting we’ll head down a fairly lengthy dirt road towards the Orange River to allow ourselves an opportunity to locate Rosy-faced Lovebird, a difficult bird to locate in South Africa, although the route there also has some good birding with Stark’s Lark, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and the highly nomadic Burchell’s Courser also being found in this region. Once we get back to Pofadder we’ll check a few nearby sites for the enigmatic Sclater’s Lark before completing the rest of the drive through to Springbok, arriving late in the afternoon. Our full day will be focused on one species, Barlow’s Lark, and we’ll drive across to the coastal town of Port Nolloth, experiencing a very pleasant drop in temperature as we do so, with the cold Benguela Current running along the coast creating a very different habitat compared to the dry interior. Along the way we’ll also search for the similar Karoo Lark, which overlaps slightly with Barlow’s Lark at various sites, and as such, we’ll spend a fair amount of time aiming to get good views of both species in order to ensure a positive ID before we search for some of the other more widespread but none the less interesting birds to be found here. Cape Long-billed Lark is found in the coastal scrub, where it is joined by several other species such as Southern Grey Tit, Cape Penduline-Tit, Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds. The coastline can also be quite rewarding, with Cape and Crowned Cormorant occurring here alongside African Black Oystercatcher, Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls, Caspian, Swift, Common and, if lucky, Damara Terns, with the latter occasionally being seen at a nearby pan where they are known to breed in small numbers. Depending on time, we may choose to drive further north to Alexander Bay, where the Orange River meets the cold Atlantic Ocean, offering us the chance to do some excellent coastal estuary birding. We should encounter a host of species here such as Curlew Sandpiper, Common Whimbrel, Grey Plover and Little Stint, whilst Caspian Tern is regularly seen alongside the typically scarce Damara Tern. Eventually we’ll start to make our way back to Springbok, keeping our eyes open for the fairly widespread Black-headed Canary, as well as the more scarce Damara Canary, although the latter can be quite erratic in its occurrence. Once we arrive back in Springbok, we may opt to search for the scarce Cape Eagle-Owl at a few areas along the outskirts of town after dinner.
By now we would be quite used to our typical daily routine, and we’ll be up fairly early in order to bird the nearby Goegap Nature Reserve where we hope to locate Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and Karoo Eremomela if we haven’t yet done so, while other species we’ll be looking out for include Dusky Sunbird, White-backed Mousebird, Mountain Wheatear, Layard’s Titbabbler and Ground Woodpecker. After breakfast we’ll load everything into the vehicle once more and make our way south to the small town of Calvinia, situated on the edge of the stark and imposing Bushmanland region of the central Karoo. The drive there will be fairly lengthy and it will be considered to be a travelling day. However, we’ll still devote some time to birding at a few sites along the way, where we’ll search for birds such as Cape Long-billed Lark, Spike-heeled Lark, Cape Clapper Lark and Namaqua Sandgrouse. After driving directly south for much of the way we’ll turn inland towards Calvinia, with the imposing Van Rhyn’s Pass providing some spectacular views over the surrounding areas. As we pass through the town of Niewoudtville, the area will become rapidly more arid and stark, and we’ll keep our eyes open for a few additional species along the way such as Ludwig’s Bustard, Black Harrier and Greater Kestrel. We’ll only arrive in Calvinia late the afternoon or early evening and after dinner we’ll be straight off to bed. The next morning we’ll be up with a packed breakfast as we prepare to spend the day exploring the Bushmanland interior in search of a few localized species, with Black-eared Sparrowlark and Sclater’s Lark being at the top of the list. Initially we’ll spend time making our way further north in order to maximize our chances of locating these birds, although roadside species could include the much sought after Black-eared Sparrowlark, Large-billed Lark and Red-capped Lark. A roadside stop at a small dam may turn up South African Shelduck, and Black-necked Grebe, before we continue through to the small town of Brandvlei, briefly stopping to view the South African Cliff-Swallows along the way. Once we reach Brandvlei, we’ll start exploring the smaller dirt roads that branch out from here, with the hotter times of the day often being good for several lark species as they visit the few livestock drinking troughs which are the only sources of dirking water for most of the year in this arid region. We’ll look for a host of different species along the way, such as Red Lark, Karoo Korhaan, Karoo Eremomela, Spike-heeled Lark, Black-eared Sparrowlark and with luck, Burchell’s Courser. We’ll return to Calvinia late the afternoon for a well earned dinner and rest.
We’ll be up slightly later than usual, and after breakfast we’ll make our way out to Langebaan where we’ll be based for the evening. The route there will offer some spectacular scenery as we drop down to the coastal plain once more, where we’ll spend some time birding along the way for a few specials, with Protea Seed-eater being one of our main targets for the day. Additional species to look out for include Streaky-headed Seed-eater, Yellow, Cape and White-throated Canaries, Fairy Flycatcher and Layard’s Titbabbler. Along the way we’ll also spend some time birding the excellent Berg River Estuary where a host of shorebirds can be found, with Curlew and Marsh Sandpipers, Little Stint, Ruff, Bar-tailed Godwit and Common Whimbrel all being fairly regular, whilst Eurasian Curlew and Red Knot are present in low numbers, and if we’re lucky, Red-necked Phalarope may even turn up here. Afterwards we’ll have a fairly straightforward drive through to Langebaan, situated just outside of West Coast National Park, which we should arrive at in the late afternoon.
We’ll be up early again, heading out to the West Coast National Park for the morning, with this being arguably the best site for waders in South Africa, with numerous rarities having turned up on the lagoon shores over the years. We’ll divide our time between birding the tidal mudflats around the Geelbek Hide, where we hope to find a number of waders, many of which we would probably have recorded already but we’ll still aim to locate Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Red Knot, African Black Oystercatcher, White-fronted Plover and Chestnut-banded Plover whilst rarities such as Eurasian Oystercatcher, Black-tailed Godwit and Greater Sand Plover do turn up from time to time. The surrounding bush and scrub will also attract our attention for much of the morning as we aim to locate Grey-winged Francolin, Black Harrier, Cape Penduline-Tit, Karoo Lark and Southern Black Korhaan. Afterwards we’ll return for brunch before we make our way south to the Cape Peninsula, where we’ll be based for the next three nights. During this time we’ll visit a few different spots as we aim to track down a plethora of species. Depending on what time we arrive, on the way onto the Peninsula we may well stop at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens on the slopes of Table Mountain, where our birding will begin. Fynbos specials such as Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird will be high on our list of ‘must-sees’, while other species we’ll look for include Swee Waxbill, Spotted Eagle-Owl, Lemon Dove, Malachite Sunbird and others. Moving on we’ll head to our guest house in the small village of Noordhoek and spend the rest of our time birding in the area. Sites to visit over the next day include the following:
This small bay and stretch of rocky shoreline is the favoured roost of Cape, White-breasted, Bank and Crowned Cormorants, as well as Swift, Common and Sandwich Terns. Hartlaub’s Gull is common and African Black Oystercatcher should also be seen. Along the sandy shore we’ll look for White-fronted Plover and low bushes on the inland side often produce Karoo Prinia, while Speckled Pigeons frequent the rocks and houses along the waterfront.
On the False Bay side of the Peninsula there is a colony of African Penguins, the larger of only two mainland-based breeding colonies, and we will see them up close with wonderful photographic opportunities. The wooded area inland from the colony usually produces White-backed Mousebird, Brimstone and Cape Canaries, Fiscal Flycatcher, Southern Boubou, Southern Double-collared Sunbirds and the common Cape White-eye. Mammals seen here may include Rock Dassie (Hyrax), Cape Fur Seal and Southern Right Whales offshore (though it may be a bit early in the season at this time). We’ll be staying right next to the colony and should have plenty of time with the penguins.
Cape of Good Hope
We drive along the magnificent shoreline to the southern tip of the Peninsula, with the final leg of this lovely journey by funicular railway to Cape Point. This reserve has an excellent representation of fynbos vegetation, with flowering Protea, Leucospermum, Restio and other genera making up one of the richest plant kingdoms on earth. Birds favouring this habitat include Malachite and Orange-breasted Sunbirds, Cape Sugarbird, Cape Grassbird, Cape Bulbul and others. The mountain slopes are favoured by Rock Kestrels, Cape Rock-Thrush, Cape Siskin, Peregrine Falcon and Ground Woodpecker. Mammals on the peninsula include the endemic and striking Bontebok and the endemic Cape Mountain Zebra, plus Eland, the largest of African antelope, and the small Common Duiker. Chacma Baboons will probably also be seen and sadly some have become habituated by people illegally feeding them.
These are actually large water-treatment ponds and the open water as well as the prolific growth of water vegetation makes for a habitat that is very attractive to water birds such as Greater Flamingo, Red-billed and Cape Teals, Maccoa Duck, Cape Shoveler and Southern Pochard, among others. This is a great venue for birding in the ‘English’ style; i.e.: setting up scopes and scanning for new species. On one of the days we’ll also partake in a Pelagic birding tour out of Simon’s Town where we’ll add a great number of species to our list, such as Northern and Southern Giant Petrel, Shy, Black-browed, Atlantic Yellow-nosed, Indian Yellow-nosed and possibly Wandering Albatross, Cory’s, Great and Sooty Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel and Wilson’s and European Storm Petrel, amongst others.
We’ll have an early morning departure from Noordhoek as we head out towards the east to explore the region around Swellendam and the Agulhas Plains, where a number of specials will be high up on our list. Along the way though we’ll stop at a few sites as we try and locate specific species such the highly sought after Cape Rockjumper, with this species being one of the iconic birds of South Africa, along with Drakensberg Rockjumper which we hope to find a few days later. Other species we’ll search for if we haven’t yet found them include Victorin’s Warbler and Cape Siskin, before carrying on to spend the afternoon birding the surroundings for species such as Agulhas Clapper Lark, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Crane, Karoo Korhaan, Agulhas Long-billed Lark, and Black Harrier.
We’ll have an early morning outing to try to locate a fairly specialist species that is only present at a few localities in South Africa, the Damara Tern, with a handful of these birds breeding each year at a nearby site roughly 30 minutes drive away from where we’ll be staying. Other species we’ll search for here include Southern Tchagra, which is fairly common in the dense thickets, whilst African Black Oystercatcher and White-fronted Plover may also be seen. After returning for breakfast we’ll pack up once more and continue to the east with a fairly lengthy drive lying ahead of us. Much of the day will be dedicated to travelling as we try to get to the small town of Wilderness with enough time left to do some afternoon birding. Along the way we’ll stop to search for the tricky Knysna Warbler, whilst some birding around Wilderness may turn up species such as Grey Cuckooshrike, Narina Trogon, Bar-throated Apalis, Scaly-throated Honeyguide and possibly Knysna Woodpecker before calling it a day.
We’ll start our final day with an early birding session to try and track down the skulking Knysna Warbler at a nearby site, before we make our way through to the airport where we’ll have breakfast before our flight back to Cape Town at the end of the tour, where everybody will connect with their international flights back home. For anybody that is continuing on to the Eastern South African Endemics tour, we’ll have a short flight to Durban, where we’ll spend the night ahead of the next leg of the tour (costs not included in the tour price).
251 species seen on this tour in 2019, some of the target species include: Sclater’s Lark, Yellow Canary, White-backed Mousebird, Barlow’s Lark, South African Shelduck, Crowned Cormorant, Cape Cormorant, African Oystercatcher, Cape Long-billed Lark, Karoo Prinia, Layard’s Warbler, Pririt Batis, Blue Crane, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Fairy Flycatcher, Dusky Sunbird, White-throated Canary, Grey-back Sparrowlark, Sclater’s Lark, Namaqua Warbler, Verreaux’s Eagle, Pale Chanting Goshawk, Karoo Korhaan, Karoo Eremomela, Black-headed Canary, Cape Spurfowl, Protea Canary, African Penguin, Black Harrier, Cape Penduline Tit, Cape Shoveller, Cape Teal, Cape Bulbul, Bokmakierie, Karoo Lark, Grey-winged Francolin, Cape Rockjumper, Cape Siskin, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Ground Woodpecker, Maccoa Duck, Hottentot Teal, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Forest Canary, Southern Boubou, Olive Woodpecker, Cape Robin Chat, Black Sparrowhawk, Denham’s Bustard, Southern Red Bishops, Agulhas Long-billed Lark, Cape Vulture, Southern Tchagra, Cape Clapper Lark, Fiscal Flycatcher, Cape Weaver, Karoo Scrub Robin, Cape Bunting, Bar-throated Apalis, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, plus mammals such as Bontebok, Cape Grysbok, Cape Mountain Zebra, Southern Right Whale.
What is included?
- All accommodation or lodgings based on double occupancy
- Single occupancy available at extra cost (single supplement)
- All meals
- Local transfers and all ground transport throughout the trip/tour/safari
- Lawson's insulated water bottle (clients to purchase own water or use tap water)
- Entrance fees to all National Parks, Provincial Reserves and other sites / attractions on the specified itinerary
- Personalised bird / mammal checklists and itinerary
- Specialist guide fees (professional English-speaking birding and wildlife guide)
What is not included?
- Travel and medical insurance (incl. personal equipment and repatriation)
- All airfares unless otherwise indicated
- Excess baggage charges
- Visa fees (if applicable)
- All drinks
- Optional excursions where applicable
- Tips and Gratuities
- Items of a personal nature (incl. laundry and telephone charges)
In 2020 we are celebrating our 30th year of running birding and wildlife safaris in Africa. So we have plenty of experience in the game, and pride ourselves in creating incredible wildlife holiday experiences for our clients from across the globe. We offer quality wildlife experiences through set-departure and custom safaris, guided by fun and experienced birding and wildlife guides. Like our motto says, "you'll want to return to Africa with us time and time again!" See more on our website.
A deposit will secure your place on the tour, with full payment due 8 weeks before the tour starts. Terms and Conditions apply, we'll give you all the info during the inquiry process.
Our Endemics tours are only recommended for serious birders. For more casual birders we have other set-departures that are more suitable.
On our Endemics tours the days can be long, starting early in the morning and running though to late afternoon as we try to see as many of the Endemics and Near-Endemics as possible. Where appropriate we will have a bit of down time to charge batteries etc, but overall the pace is fast.
Our Endemics tours are not suitable for children.
In general credit cards are widely accepted in South Africa and across much of Southern Africa, though Diner's Club is the exception (Visa and Master are better options). It is a good idea to have some South African Rands (ZAR) on hand for smaller purchases or times when card machines may not be working. Note that South Africa and Namibia do not accept US Dollars cash, but US Dollars can be used in most of the rest of Africa.
Most certainly! We usually recommend coming in a day early to acclimatize and reduce the risk of missing out a day or two due to flight delays or other travel problems, and we are happy to arrange this accommodation for you. And if you would like to extend your time in the country, our consultants are happy to help with suggestions and bookings.
We send out more detailed packing lists as part of every safari info pack, but basically you'll need comfortable clothing, preferably in neutral colors. In general clothes dry quite quickly for self-washing, and most private places have laundry services, so it's not necessary to over pack. In order to avoid having to tow trailers etc we ask participants to keep their luggage down to one main bag and one day / carry-on bag plus photo / optics gear. We do recommend some warm gear for all safaris, just in case of cooler weather coming through, and especially for safaris entailing open-vehicle drives. Even at 20 degrees Celsius it can start getting a little chilly on a moving vehicle when you are exposed to the wind. Hats and sunglasses are essential. A torch / flashlight is also essential, and we strongly recommend socks and closed shoes after dark. Adapters - make sure you have the right adapters to be able to charge your devices. The 'universal' adapter does not work in South Africa!
Unless otherwise stated, our set-departures do not require any advanced degree of fitness, as most of the activities are vehicle-based. However, on tours with open-sided safari vehicles, getting into the vehicle does require a some climbing ability - if you have difficulty climbing up a step or two let us know in advance so we can make arrangements such as including steps to help you get up or making sure the passenger seat is available. Where there is any walking involved this is normally an optional activity so you are welcome to sit it out. Those who are not too mobile may miss out on a few birds that need to be followed up on foot.
In general yes - when using restaurants you are able to order whatever item on the menu suits you. When using lodges doing their own catering then advanced warning will usually enable them to cater for your needs. Please indicate any special needs to us well in advance. Note that the food is very good in general on our trips so you don't need to indicate that you are vegetarian just because you are worried about what meat may be served - for the most part it's beef, pork, lamb and chicken, though game meat may be available as an option. Speak to our consultants if you have any specific questions.
The interior will be hot and mildly humid this time of year, whilst the Western Cape will be pleasant generally but could be quite windy. Some rain may occur along the coast.
This tour is fast paced, best suited to more serious birders.
Birding in brief: excellent variety of habitats and bird species, strong focus on birding. Mammal viewing: although not strongly focused on mammals, a good selection of game is possible with Gemsbok, Dassie Rat, Cape Grysbok, Cape Mountain Zebra, Cape Fur Seal and Southern Right Whale.
This tour can be combined with the Eastern South African Endemics set-departure, which begins the day after this one ends.
Medium; B&B's, guest houses and National Parks accommodation.