To many travellers, the Free State, situated in the centre of South Africa's highveld plateau, is perhaps regarded as an inconvenience – the quicker those long stretches of seemingly featureless countryside through which the main N1 and N3 routes can be traveled, the better. Venturing off the beaten track however can be rewarding! Not only does the rural Free State offer some spectacular scenery and home-from-home hospitality, but there are also numerous surprises for birders.
Close to 470 bird species have been recorded in the Free State, including more than 100 southern African endemics and near-endemics. While conservation areas (such as Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Willem Pretorius Game Reserve, Sandveld Nature Reserve, Soetdoring Nature Reserve and Tussen-die-Riviere Game Reserve) scattered throughout the province offer excellent birding opportunities, good birding is also possible along many of the roads in rural areas.
Magnificent scenery and exceptional birding in high-altitude grassland, mountain, wetland and forest habitats are on offer close to the escarpment in the north-eastern Free State. This area includes some of the most important areas in southern Africa for certain endangered, restricted-range species such as Southern Bald Ibis, Rudd's Lark, Botha's Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit, found in high- altitude grasslands. Pristine upland wetlands are host to small numbers of Wattled Crane, as well as White-winged Flufftail. African Rock Pipit, Buff-streaked Chat and Mountain Wheatear are found in rocky valleys.
The high peaks of the Drakensberg and Maluti mountains tower over the striking sandstone cliffs and buttresses of the eastern Free State, providing refuge for Bearded and Cape Vulture. Clumps of flowering proteas woodland in sheltered valleys host endemic Gurney's Sugarbird and various sunbirds, while Ground Woodpecker is common on boulder-strewn hillsides.
Extensive, gently undulating grassy plains in the central areas of the province are host to Orange River Francolin, Blue and Northern Black Korhaan, various larks, pipits and cisticolas; a number of these species are endemic. Areas of open grassland are punctuated by rivers, often feeding large dams. The various habitats associated with these systems include open water, exposed shorelines, dense riparian bush and thickets, each with a great variety of birds to enjoy.
Mining activities centred on Welkom in the north-western Free State produce extensive stretches of permanent water, providing ideal habitat for a variety of waterbirds, especially Greater & Lesser Flamingo. Also characteristic of the western & north-western Free State are natural pan systems; these represent important sources of water in otherwise largely waterless, semi-arid areas.
Major rivers form the geographic boundaries of the Free State in the north-west and west (Vaal River), the east (Caledon River) and south (Orange River). Rivers generally flow during the summer rainy season only, but most retain at least some water throughout the year, providing water for birds in otherwise dry areas.
Extensive areas of semi-arid Kalahari Thornveld found in the western Free State contribute an interesting array of dry-country species including Sociable Weaver and Kalahari Scrub-Robin. Tinkling Cisticola is found in areas of thornveld bordering on open grassland.
The southern and south-western Free State is characterised by semi-arid Karoo vegetation, with dramatic topography including sparsely vegetated grassy plains and hills / koppies with rock-strewn slopes, where calling African Rock Pipits are frequently heard, especially in summer. This is real ‘big-sky' country, with bright night skies a treat to experience.
The birding potential of many parts of the Free State still remains to be discovered. Certain rural areas such as those surrounding the small hamlet of Memel near the north-eastern escarpment have already established a reputation as outstanding birding and tourism venues. Others such as the small town of Smithfield in the southern Free State are well on their way to becoming recognized as excellent birding, eco- and heritage tourism destinations.
The Free State offers spectacular scenery and exceptional birding in a variety of habitats from high-altitude grassland, mountains, wetlands and forests to semi-arid Kalahari Thornveld and Karoo vegetation. Close to 470 bird species have been recorded in the area which has been divided up into a variety of sub-routes, detailed below. So don't just pass through the Free State as quickly as possible, but take some time to travel the back roads and discover what this diverse area really has to offer.