Most birders and nature enthusiasts may already be familiar with South Africa’s wonderful birdlife, consisting of over 800 different birds! What they might not be familiar with are our countries 112 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas or IBAs. These are sites such as Nature Reserves, National Parks or larger conservation areas that have been identified as the critical network of sites needed to conserve our remarkable bird diversity. BirdLife South Africa’s IBA Programme is tasked with identifying, assessing and conserving this vast network of magnificent areas. The IBA Team has spent the better part of the last four years assessing this network, culminating in our revised IBA Directory for South Africa and the first ever IBA Status Report.
It is obviously near impossible to summarise all of these sites, and what makes them special, in a short article…so just to whet your appetite we will showcase five different IBAs which are also easily accessible national parks and nature reserves. Beginning in the far north-east corner of the country, lying along the border with Mozambique is a birders paradise, Ndumo Game Reserve. This is one of many IBAs which easily meets the required scientific criteria; conserving magnificent threatened species such as the Southern Banded Snake Eagle and White-backed Vulture, whilst Neergaard’s Sunbird and Rudd’s Apalis are undoubtedly a major “tick” for many birders! Nyamiti pan offers great birding opportunities, particularly for viewing large congregations of Pink-backed Pelican and Yellow-billed Stork, and with the chances of finding the enigmatic Pel’s Fishing Owl or shy Pink-throated Twinspot, the entire reserve is really a birder’s playground. An early morning start, and guided walk with the reserve’s well known bird guide, a genius mimic, will no doubt reveal many of these specials.
Heading to the interior, hosting a slightly different suite of species, we find the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. This Park is particularly important for the grassland biome species such as Southern Bald Ibis, Yellow-breasted Pipit and White-bellied Korhaan. Visitors may be especially interested in the Southern Bald Ibis breeding colonies, including the well-known site at Cathedral Cave. The area can also yield some Drakensberg mountain specials too like Gurney’s Sugarbird, Drakensberg Rockjumper and Drakensberg Siskin. Species such as these occur nowhere else in the world, attracting much local and international interest. South Africa is blessed with many such endemics that attract birders from across the globe, and provide great input to our economy.
On the topic of endemics – the forest habitats of the Woody Cape Section of Addo Elephant National Park may also reveal species unique to South Africa. This Eastern Cape IBA also provides essential habitat for the conservation of coastal species such as the Damara Tern, African Black Oystercatcher and Cape Cormorant. More than 350 different bird species have been identified, with the Knysna “trio” of Knysna Turaco, Knysna Warbler and Knysna Woodpecker high on many birder’s lists. The overnight Alexandria Trail is a great option for the more adventurous among us, whilst the 7km Tree Dassie trail could easily showcase many of the beautiful forest birds.
Not to be outdone by our beautiful coastline, the Karoo also hosts a number of IBAs, which in turn conserve their own suite of threatened and endemic birds. Anysberg Nature Reserve IBA in the Western Cape lies south of the town of Laingsburg, and is well worth the detour to break a long trip from the interior down to the Cape. This hidden gem extends nearly 80,000 ha and under sound management from CapeNature it has grown in size and restored karoo and fynbos habitats. The larger threatened species including the Blue Crane, Ludwig’s Bustard and Southern Black Korhaan require these large protected areas to persist. Sightings of these may be accompanied by views of numerous raptors, including the Martial and Verreaux’s Eagles – always an exciting species to spot. Visitors should not overlook the unique smaller Karoo species such as the Karoo Lark, Karoo Eremomela and Namaqua Warbler, whilst marvelling at their larger cousins.
Once you’re done in the hot interior a visit to the cooler west coast would be most welcome. The West Coast National Park IBA, with the exquisite Langebaan Lagoon is yet another birders paradise within our borders. This IBA easily meets all four of the relevant scientific criteria, conserving threatened species, range and biome-restricted species, and perhaps most importantly – significant congregations of water birds. Geelbek bird hide, located along the southern shore of Langebaan lagoon can provide hours of happy birding, as many migrants such as Grey Plover, Ruddy Turnstone and Curlew Sandpiper forage in large numbers along the mudflats in front of the hide. However, one should first stop in at the Geelbek information centre and check the tides and ideal times for birding at these hides.
These are only five of our 112 IBAs in South Africa, and you can be sure that wherever your next holiday adventure or birding trip might take you – you might very well be sitting in one of these remarkable places. Check out the IBA Directory online and learn more about the significance of these sites and the conservation actions underway to conserve them.