The Capricorn-Letaba birding route stretches from Polokwane in the west to the Great Letaba River beyond the Letsitele valley in the east. The route runs just a few degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, mainly along the R71 road which links the towns of Polokwane, Haenertsburg, Tzaneen and Gravelotte.

An interesting geographical feature of this route is its varying altitude. Polokwane lies on a plateau at approximately 1300 masl, further east lies the escarpment of the Northern Drakensberg and Wolkberg mountain ranges where the altitude reaches 2300masl. The route then drops down into the lowveld where the altitude is approximately 480masl at the Letaba River. These extreme variations in altitude result in a great range of vegetation types within a relatively small area. It is within these diverse habitats that over 500 bird species are to be found.

The open thornveld habitat of the Polokwane plateau supports a great variety of both Bushveld and Kalahari-type birds. Typical species here include Crimson-breasted Shrike, African Wren-Warbler, Short-clawed Lark and Black-faced Waxbill.

Just before reaching the foothills of the Drakensberg and Wolkberg Mountains, one passes through the outcrop strewn Mamabolo Bushveld. These granite inselbergs hold many rock-dwelling species including the northern-most population of Southern Bald Ibis.

In the Northern Drakensberg and Wolkberg sections of the route, birders enjoy vast tracts of montane grassland, which is Blue Swallow territory and houses other sought after species such as Broad-tailed Warbler, Croaking Cisticola and Drakensberg Prinia.

The afro-montane forests of Woodbush and Magoebaskloof offer amongst the best forest birding in the country with specials like Brown Scrub-Robin, Black-fronted Bush Shrike, Barratt’s Warbler, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, and Orange Ground Thrush. While the eastern lower slopes and valleys of Magoebaskloof provide reliable sites for the elusive Bat Hawk and Green Twinspot.

The Tzaneen area is well known for its sub-tropical fruit industry and the interesting mix of lowland habitats here support a wide range of species including Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, White-browed Robin-chat and Purple-crested Turaco.

The Lowveld region around Letsitele and along the Letaba River has habitats including Mopani Woodland where Arnot’s Chat is resident. There are many lowveld rivers with their associated riparion forest habitats where the likes of Greater Blue-eared Starling, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike and Thick-billed Cuckoo can be found.

This is also one of the prime raptor areas in the region.

We have divided the Capricorn-Letaba Birding Route into four different birding areas (Northern Escarpment, Polokwane, The Lowveld, Tzaneen). Each birding area has its own unique character and set of special bird species. Within each area there is also a variety of accommodation options and birding sites to visit.

Northern Escarpment

This is the route’s mountainous area and is made up by the Wolkberg and Northern Drakensberg mountain ranges, where the altitude reaches 2300 masl. The high annual rainfall of the area results in lush afromontane forest and rolling montane grassland habitats. Unfortunately most of the grasslands have been lost to commercial forestation, but patches of this unique habitat and its diverse inhabitants still occur around Haenertsburg and in the Wolkberg Wilderness Area.

These grasslands support a small population of Blue Swallow, as well as, Gurney’s Sugarbirds, Malachite Sunbirds, Broad-tailed Warbler, Redwinged Francolin and Striped Flufftail. The afromontane forests are amongst the most extensive and beautiful in the country, with the Woodbush, Grootbosch, Swartbosch and Black Forest forming an interconnected band of pristine habitat along the eastern and southern slopes of the escarpment.

In these forests, look out for specials like Cape Parrot, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Yellow-streaked Greenbul and African Crowned Eagle.

The Valley covers nearly 100 ha of forest and includes the world-famous Cheerio Gardens with their Azaleas, flowering cherries and crab apples. Interestingly, these exotic gardens attract a remarkable array of forest and mountain birds, and a walk along the well laid out paths may provide sightings of Lemon Dove, White-Starred Robin, Barratt’s Warbler, Orange Ground-Thrush and Green Twinspot. There have even been a few sightings of Bush Blackcap here.

Trails lead through a section of indigenous forest in which the elusive Narina Trogon is regularly spotted. Numerous small dams on the property attract the likes of Half-collared Kingfisher, African Black and White-backed Duck, Purple Heron, and the resident Cape Clawless Otters.

Other activities include trout-fishing, mountain biking and hiking. There are picnic sites and a beautiful tea garden that serves light meals.
Contact

Please contact +27 (0)83 417 1341 for more information.

This spectacular waterfall is a popular picnic site for locals and visitors to the area. Grey Wagtail has often been sighted here. Even if this special is not there, it is worth visiting the Debengeni Falls to see Mountain Wagtail and other forest birds.

After turning off onto the dirt road from the R71, keep a look-out for Red-backed Mannikin, African Firefinch and Swee Waxbill on the road verges.

After about 100m you will cross a small stream; when the water levels are high this is a good spot for Half-collared Kingfisher and African finfoot. On the 3km drive up to the falls look out for Tambourine and Lemon Dove, Chorister Robin-Chat, Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher and Yellow-streaked Greenbul in the forests. Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk breed in the vicinity of the falls and Buff-spotted Flufftail and Scaly-trhoatd Honeyguide are often heard calling in the area.

There is picnic facilities and short walking trails along the river. A note of caution: below the falls, the large smooth rock surfaces can be dangerous to walk on, particularly when they are wet.
Directions

If travelling in an easterly direction on the R71, the turnoff to the falls and the Woodbush forest drive is on the left, 12km from the Magoebaskloof Hotel. The entrance point to the falls is a further 3km up the dirt road.

Additional Information

There is an entrance fee in the region of R10 per person.

This spectacular 30km dirt road between Houtbosdorp and Mooketsi drops down over the escarpment through bushveld and riverine habitats. On this road, you will descend about 1000 metres and be treated to fantastic views and an interesting mix of habitats. Verraux’s, Crowned and Long-crested Eagle, Lanner Falcon as well as Horus, Alpine and African Black Swift are often sighted soaring over the valley. The exposed granite boulders along the slopes near the top of the route are home to Cape Rock Thrush, Mocking Cliff Chat, Olive Bush-Shrike, Shelley’s Francolin and Lazy Cisticola. The lower end of the pass has more riverine and tropical bushcveld areas in which African Green-Pigeon, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Purple-crested Turaco, Green-capped Eremomela and White-throated Robin-Chat can be seen. Look out for African Fish Eagle, Great Egret, Purple Heron and various Indigobird and Firefinch species around the farm dams near the bottom of the route.

Directions

From Polokwane follow the R71 and after approximately 20kms, take the slipway to the left at the first traffic light to the University of Limpopo. Continue on this road past Mankweng and then past the University for 27km’s until the tar road ends. Start birding here: follow the dirt road down the escapment to Mooketsi.

If travelling from Polokwane on the R81, 19km after Munnik you will reach Mooketsi, continue past the filling station and shop towards Duiwelskloof/Modjadjiskloof and immediately after the crossing the bridge, turn right to Hotbosdorp on the Kudu’s Valley dirt road. If you are coming from the Duiwelskloof/Modjadjiskloof direction then you will turn left to Houtbosdorp, just before Mooketsi and the bridge.

This scenic trail starts in the village of Haenertsburg and winds through 200 ha of protected afro-montane grasslands with forest patches situated above the village.

The whole trail is 10km but various parts of the trail can be done separately depnding on your fitness level and enthusiasm. It is one of the most easily-accessible pieces of this rare habitat left in the area. Blue Swallows have been encountered here in the past. On the grasslands, you may find Wailing-, Lazy-, Croaking-, Cloud- and Wing-snapping Cisticola. Grass Owl, White-necked Raven, Red-winged Francolin, Yellow Bishop, Dark-capped Yellow and Broad-tailed Warbler and Drakensberg Prinia are present as well as Cape Grassbird. Jackal Buzzard and Long-crested Eagle often hunt over the grassland. The patches of forest have Olive Bush-0Shrike, African Olive-Pigeon, Cape Batis, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-streaked Greenbul and Forest Canary in them.

The trail starts at the Haenertsburg Village Hall (in the main road) –follow the yellow markers or the map that is available at The Elms restaurant (Tel: +27 (0)15 276 4712). For the less energetic, a drive up to the village cemetery (surely the most scenic in the country) will take you into the centre of the grassland. Ask at the Tourism office or any of the businesses in the village how to get there. While in the village, visit the Termite House which displays grassland habitats and acts as an environmental education centre.

Contact: +27 (0)83 746 2239

This 14km dirt road is the best forest birding area in the Limpopo Province, if not the country. The Woodbush Forest Drive winds through pristine afro-montane forests, down into semi-decidious mixed forest along the lower sections of the drive. Cape Parrot, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Orange Ground-Thrush, Brown Scrub-Robin, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-streaked Greenbul and Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher are simply a few of the specials to be seen on this road. Also look out for African Cuckoo Hawk, Crowned Eagle and African Goshawk. Towards the bottom of the Forest Drive, where the telephone lines cross the road, look out for Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, which has been sigted there on a few occasions.

The beautiful Debengeni Waterfalls are also accessible from this road – (see Debengeni Falls). A high-clearance vehicle is recommended and a 4-wheel drive vehicle would be need in wet weather.

Directions

To reach Woodbush Forest Drive, take the R71 from Polokwane past Haenertburg. About 2km past the Magoebaskloof Hotel, turn to the left onto the gravel road to Hotbosdrop/Woodbush. After 2.5km take the right fork to the Woobush Forest Reserve, which passes through stone gateposts. 200 metres after passing the hiker’s huts (2.1km past the previous junction), turn right onto the Woodbush Forest Drive. This road can be birded for about 13km. There are two forks along this road: at the first, stay left and at the second, take the right fork.

Additional Information

There is an entrance fee in the region of R10 per person.

Birder Friendly Establishments in this area:

Polokwane

This is the most westerly region of the Capricon-Letaba Birding Route that extends from Polokwane to the Wolkberg and Northern Drakensberg mountain Ranges. The area has an average altitude of 1300 masl and is the driest area of the birding route.

The habitat is characterised by open savannah with scattered Acacia and broadleaved trees and includes the Polokwane Plateau Bushveld and Mamabolo Bushveld vegetation types. Granite outcrops and riverine thickets provide diversity in the vegetation and bird species in this area.

The unique bird species to look out for, amongst almost 350 species in this area, include Short-clawed Lark, Northern Black Korhaan, Kalahari Scrub-Robin and Black-cheeked Waxbill. The dams and associated wetlands here, attract a wide variety of waterfowl and shore birds and regularly produce rarities like Pectoral Sandpiper or Western Marsh-Harrier.

This small bird sanctuary, which consists of three large settling dams, dense reed beds and tall riverine thickets, is always likely to produce an interesting birding surprise or two.

Apart from a good variety of waterfowl, waders and railids, the Acacia thickets are veruy productive and accommodate Grey-backed Camaroptera, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-breasted Apalis and many warbler species in the summer months, including Common Whitethroat and Olive-tree; Icterine; Garden; Great Reed Warblers and Eurasion Marsh Warblers. The sahllow ponds on the eatern side of the sanctuary attract a host of waders during middle to late summer with Wood; Marsh; Common and Curlew Sandpipers, Greenshank, Ruff and Little String. Look out for skulking African Snipe and Greater Painted-Snipe. There is a resident pair of African Fish Eagle along with other interesting raptors including Ovambo Sparrowhawk, African Goshawk and African Harrier-Hawk.

No overnight accommodation is available here, but facilities such as lapas, picnic/braai* sites, bird viewing hides and walking trails make this reserve more than worthwhile for a day visit.

Directions

The sanctuary is situated just outside town on the R521 (to Dendron). The turn-off is on the right-hand side just after crossing the Sand River, and is diagonally across from a filling station.

Additional Information

Entry Fee: R12 per person; R15 per vehicle.

Opening Times: 07H00 – 17H00.

Contact

Tel: +27 (0)15 290 2331 (office hours only)
Fax: +27 (0)15 290 2333

Although this reserve is best known as the most reliable site for the isolated eastern population of the Short-clawed Lark, it also provides excellent bushveld, thornveld and grassveld birding.

The extensive road network, walking trails and bird hides expose the visitor to a variety of habitats which hold over 300 bird species.

Localized species found here include:

  • Northern Black Korhaan,
  • Shelley’s Francolin,
  • Double-banded Courser,
  • Burchell’s Sandgrouse,
  • Bushveld Pipit,
  • Great Sparrow,
  • Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler,
  • African Wren-Warbler and
  • Tinkling Cisticola.

Raptors are also well represented here with:

  • African Hawk-Eagle,
  • Black-chested Snake-Eagle,
  • Secretarybird,
  • Wahlberg’s Eagle,
  • Greater Kestrel and
  • Gabar Goshawk.

All of which breed in the reserve.

The Short-clawed Lark is best found where the main loop cuts through areas of short grassland with scattered shrubs. Listen for its high-pitched whistle and scan the tops of the broad-leaved Gymposporia shrubs and Acacia trees.

Directions

From the N1 south of Polokwane, turn onto the Tzaneen bypass road (R71/R81). Turn right onto the Silicon Road at the second intersection and travel for another 800m. The reserve entrance is on the right.

From Polokwane itself, travel along Dorp Street in a southerly direction, passing the sports stadium and golf course until the road becomes Silicon Road.

Additional Information

At the reserve’s entrance gate there is a neat camping ground, caravan park and comfortable chalet accommodation. A self-catering guest house is also situated within the reserve.

Opening Times: 07H00 – 16H30

Contact

Tel: +27(0)15 290-2331 (office hours only)
Fax: +27(0)15 290-2333

The Thabapashwa Hiking and Mountain Bike Trails lie in a unique mountain range between Polokwane and Mokopane. The 2000ha farm is dominated by huge granite outcrops and provides a range of habitats. There is a combination of thornveld and broadleafed woodland as well as riverine areas along a couple of small streams that run through the farm.

The unusual habitat has provided for interesting sightings. The rocky outcrops and mountains are home to two pairs of Verraux’s Eagle, Lanner and Peregrine Falcon, Rock Kestrel and Cape Eagle Owl. Shelly’s Francolin, Striped Pipit, Cape Rock Thrush and Mountain Chat are also seen in the rocky areas of the farm. Other specials include Ovambo Sparrowhawk, Secretarybird, White bellied Korhaan and Freckled Nightjar.

The accommodation on the farm is varied and complements the beautiful scenery by being built into and around the big boulders. The Dome Rock Camp can accommodate 26 in 5 huts each with its own boma and wash-up area.

This provincial nature reserve was originally proclaimed in order to protect the Turfloop Dam an its associated wetland habitats. It has now also become a protected breeding site for the northernmost population of the Southern Bald Ibis. It falls within the Mamabolo vegetation-type and has many granite outcrops which are typical of this habitat. The dam itself has fluctuating water levels depending on local rainfall, so conditions change seasonally. The dam has an open shoreline with some exposed mudflats in the summer, a feature which has probably led to this site having provided the odd vagrat wader, with species such as Ruddy Turnstone, Pectoral, Green, Broad-billed and Terek Sandpiper having been seen here over the pas few years. The more common wetland species to be found here include Great-crested Grebe, Southern Pochard, Fulvous Duck, Hottentot Teal, Cape Shoveler and Maccoa Duck. The rocky island in the dam is an important breeding site for White-breasted Cormorant, Black-headed Heron, African Sacred Ibis, Yellow-billed Egret and African Spoonbill.

Directions

To get to this reserve take the R71 out of Polokwane and travel for just over 20km. At this point turn left at the traffic lights towards the University of Limpopo. Travel for 7.3km and look for an obscure turn-off to the right opposite two general dealer stores. Travel down this gravel road, passing several houses on the left until reaching the nature reserve fence. Turn left here; the entrance gate is a few hundred metres further on. Once through the gate, keep to the left track to the dam. From the east, the turn-off is 15.4km from the Woodbush/Magoebaskloof T-junction.

Additional Information

Entry Fee: R10 per person and R20 per vehicle.

Opening Times: 07H00 – 17H00.

Contact

Tel: +27 (0)15 276-1131

The Lowveld

This is the most easternly section of the Capricon-Letaba Birding Route with an altitude of less than 650masl. In this area, with its Mopani woodland and sour bushveld, there is a host of birds not found anywhere else on the route. Special birds like Arnot’s Chat, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Thick-billed Cuckoo and Stierling’s Wren-Warbler can be found here.

More common species like Greater Blue-eared Starling, Woodland Kingfisher and White-crested Helmet Shrike will also only be found in this area of the Capricon-Letaba Birding Route. The Proximity to the larger conservation areas of the lowveld also makes this area good for the larger birds like raptors and storks. White-headed and Hooded Vulture and Bateleur Eagle are examples of the birds that you should continuously be scanning the sky for. The riverine areas along the Letaba River act as a conduit, drawing birds like White-backed Night-Heron, Saddle-billed Stork and African Openbill Stork into the area.

This provincial nature reserve, which includes the Eiland Holiday Resort, has many of the lowveld’s best qualities including fine tracts of Mopane and red bush-willow woodland, riverine forest, saline patches and doleritic ridges. A stretch of 10 km of the great Letaba River forms the northern boundary of the reserve.

The special here is Arnot’s Chat, which is best looked for in the mature Mopane woodland along the tourist drive in the main portion of the reserve. Other lowveld birds of interest in the reserve include Greater Blue-eared Starling, Red and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Southern White-crowned Shrike and Siterling’s Wren-Warbler. The trails that runs along the river is good for Retz’s Helmet Shrike, Thick-billed Cuckoo (summer), Brown-headed Parrot, Yellow-throated Petronia and Red-headed Weaver.

There is good camping and chalet accommodation at the Eiland Holiday Resort and a rustic trail camp within the reserve itself.

Contact
Website: www.coachhouse.co.za
Please contact +27 (0)83 417 1341 for more information.

This reserve on the escarpment of the Drakensberg, between Tzaneen and the Able Erasmus pass, has spectacular forest and rolling grasslands. There are historical records of Blue Swallows in the grassland, and this is a good site to see Black Saw-wing Swallow and other montane grassland species like Wing-snapping; Croaking and Wailing Cisticola, Denham’s Bustard, Cape Rock-Thrush, Buff-Streaked Chat, Broad-tailed Warbler and Malachite Sunbird. The forested gorges hold Cape Parrot, Red-capped Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin, African Emerald Cuckoo and Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler to mention a few. The Reserve has various cottages that can be rented and there is also a camp site.

Contact

Tel: +27 (0)15 345 1693

This 45km route descends the Drakenberg Mountains following the Magabane river starting at Mafefe about 60km south of Polokwane and ends at Ofcolaco after travelling through the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve. The road is a 4×4 track for about 15km that takes you through riverine habitat offering a variety of bushveld birds, as well as Cape Vulture, Verraux’s Eagle and Rock Kestrel. It then becomes a tar road that leads through the Grasslands of the Downs, in the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve, look out for Cloud, Wing-snapping and Croaking Cisticola as well as Gurney’s Sugarbirds, and Malachite Sunbirds. As you head down the escarpment you will travel through forests that hold Cape Parrot, White-starred Robin and Orange Ground Thrush. Once in the lowveld look out for bushveld birds like Gre-headed Bush-Shrike, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove and White-browed Scrub-Robin. The route takes a full day to compete if birded slowly and an entrance fee is required to be paid at the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve.

Directions

From Polokwane take the R37 south, after about 67km turn left to Mafefe. Once in the village of Mafefe, after about 40km, follow the road straight and follow the river, this will take you onto the Orie Baragwanath pass. A high clearance vehicle is needed and enquire about the road conditions after heavy rain.

Guides can be contacted through the booking office number:

Cell: +27 (0)83 294 1013

This is a well-situated refreshing roadside stop along the R71 between Tzaneen and Phalaborwa as it is situated right on the banks of the Letaba River under shady trees. It has a pub and restaurant which serves breakfasts and light meals. The river and riverine vegetation support Goliath and Purple Heron, Little Egret, Thick-billed Weaver, African Jacana and Red-faced Cisticola while the tropical gardens hold White-browed and Red-capped Robin-Chat, Woodland Kingfisher, Purple Indigobird and Red-backed Mannikin.

Directions

The turn-off to The Junction is at the Letsitele filling station, on the right just before crossing the river 30km from Tzaneen. Follow the signs from there.

Contact

Tel: +27 (0)15 345 1693

Birder Friendly Establishments in this area:

Hoedspruit

Phalaborwa

Tzaneen

This area encompasses the lower reaches of the Wolkberg and Northern Drakensberg mountain ranges and the hot sub-tropical regions around the Tzaneen Dam. The altitude in this area ranges from 900masl to about 650masl, with the habitat changing from afromontane to semi-deciduous forest and lush tropical vegetation. Various rivers that originate in the escarpment flow into the Tzaneen dam, the largest body of water on the route, with the Letaba River being the most dominant and flowing out of the dam through the area.

This area is alive with birds; watch out for Purple-crested Turaco, African Green Pigeon, White-browed Robin-Chat, Broadbilled Roller and Half-collared Kingfisher. This area also has the highest concentration of confirmed Bat Hawk breeding sites in the country, with four nests. In this transition zone, between the afromontane and the true lowveld bushveld, birders have a chance of finding all sorts of surprise birds. Historical recordings of Blue-throated Sunbird and Blue-spotted Wood Dove exist for this area.

This provincial nature reserve, which includes the Eiland Holiday Resort, has many of the lowveld’s best qualities including fine tracts of Mopane and red bush-willow woodland, riverine forest, saline patches and doleritic ridges. A stretch of 10 km of the great Letaba River forms the northern boundary of the reserve.

The special here is Arnot’s Chat, which is best looked for in the mature Mopane woodland along the tourist drive in the main portion of the reserve. Other lowveld birds of interest in the reserve include Greater Blue-eared Starling, Red and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Southern White-crowned Shrike and Siterling’s Wren-Warbler. The trails that runs along the river is good for Retz’s Helmet Shrike, Thick-billed Cuckoo (summer), Brown-headed Parrot, Yellow-throated Petronia and Red-headed Weaver.

There is good camping and chalet accommodation at the Eiland Holiday Resort and a rustic trail camp within the reserve itself.

Contact
Website: www.coachhouse.co.za
Please contact +27 (0)83 417 1341 for more information.

Kings Walden is renowned for its beautiful Victorian gardens set on the edge of the escarpment with stunning views out over the Lowveld. This is an enchanting guest house to stay at or simply to spend time in the gardens. Sitated on the Agatha escarpment above Tzaneen, this property attract a mix of subtropical and montane bird species.

A trail through a patch of indigenous forest has Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher, Purple-crested Turaco, Collared Sunbird as well as White-browed and Red-capped Robin-Chat. The extensive gardens host African Firefinch, Greater and Southern Double-collared sunbird, Cape Batis, Black Cuckooshrike and Tambourine Dove. A patent scan over the escarpment’s edge can produce sightings of soaring raptors like Cape and White-backed vulture, African Harrier-Hawk and several eagle species.

The lodge is close to a Bat Hawk nesting site and the beautiful Rooikat Trail. Ask for directions at the lodge reception.

There are 5 en-suite rooms and full catering can be arrange with Tana and David Hilton-Barber. Each room has a fireplace and TV. The gardens are open to the public and tea and scones are served on the terraces. Picnics can be ordered by prior arrangement.

Contact
Website: www.kingswalden.co.za
For more information, phone +27 (0)83 417 1341