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Birders

Birding in Tanqua National Park and surrounds

Tankwa National Park is a well-known stop for birding enthusiasts in search of Karoo endemics. The Park’s list currently includes 174 bird species of the 178 species known to occur in the Region.

This article on birding within and in the region of Tankwa National Park has been reproduced with permission from the authors Callan Cohen and Claire Spottiswoode. It was published in Africa: Birds and Birding in the April/May 2002 edition, (volume 7, number 2). It may only be copied in portion or its entirety with the permission of either the authors or Africa: Birds and Birding.

Birding the Tanqua Karoo

Just two southern African regions have been bestowed the honour of designation as Biodiversity Hotspots by Conservation International. One is of course the Cape Floral Kingdom, and the other the Succulent Karoo. For those whose image of the south-western Karoo is a shimmering wasteland to be endured as briefly as possible en route to Cape Town or Johannesburg , this may come as a surprise. Though - the remarkable endemism and diversity of the Succulent Karoo flora (at its most spectacular from August to October) is its most renowned aspect, the Karoo as a whole naturally has a great deal to offer the birder. With no less than 18 endemics almost wholly restricted to it, the Karoo is an essential destination for any birder visiting southern Africa, as well as a potential source of exciting new species for hardened locals.

Consequently, the accessible south-western corner of the Karoo – a low-lying, mountain-bound section of the Succulent Karoo Biome known as the Tanqua Karoo, after the river that bisects it – has received a great deal of birding attention. Here, in sparsely populated semi-desert just two and a half hours drive from Cape Town , the majority of the Karoo specials are easily accessible in a day’s outing from the city. The famous stretch of white, dusty R355 from Karoopoort through Eierkop to Skitterykloof (the latter popularly but erroneously known as “Katbakkies” – the true Katbakkies Pass lies 15km to the west) has been intensively birded as has already received detailed treatment in such accounts as The Birds of the South-Western Cape and Where to Watch Them (Cape Bird Club, 1995) and Essential Birding in Western South Africa: Key Routes from Cape Town to the Kalahari (Struik, 2000). For a detailed description of birding in these southerly reaches of the Tanqua Karoo, you may wish to visit the free, electronic version of the latter resource on the web at www.capebirdingroute.org.

Our purpose here, however, is to draw attention to some lesser-known areas north and west of the R355, which have proved to supply superb birding. Notably, a number of sought-after species, usually associated with the less accessible Bushmanland region to the north and difficult to find or absent at the traditional Tanqua Karoo sites, appear to reach the south-western limit of their regular range here. We also describe some highlights of the Tanqua Karoo National Park , a much overlooked yet fairly accessible and strikingly beautiful protected area north of the Tanqua River.

Larks, Eremomelas and the P2250

For those unfamiliar with the Tanqua Karoo, the stretch of R355 regional road linking Karoopoort, at the south-westernmost corner of the Tanqua Karoo, to Eierkop and Skitterykloof provides access to a good selection of Karoo endemics. Beyond the Skitterykloof turn-off, the R355 continues northwards to Calvinia through a lonely and very beautiful stretch of semi-desert, bounded on the west by the dramatic skyline of the Cederberg Mountains. Conveniently, however, even day-trippers can add an attractive extra few Karoo specials and enjoy some great landscapes by continuing a more manageable distance north. Twenty-five kilometres north of the Skitterykloof turn-off, a minor road, the P2250, heads off north-eastwards towards Tankwa National Park and the distant towns of Middelpos and Sutherland. We consider this unassuming regional road to be perhaps one of the finest for birding of the south-western Karoo , particularly in spring, when the scrub is alive with displaying, nest-building and chick-provisioning birds. The initial stretches are relatively heavily vegetated and resemble the familiar R355; however, before long the bushes grow further and further apart. Stretches of gleaming gravel appear, punctuated by the occasional clump of spiny Hoodia, a fly-pollinated succulent decorated in spring by droopy and foully malodorous pink flowers.

Perhaps the most conspicuous species along these arid stretches is Tractrac Chat, a gravel-plains specialist with a short-tailed, dumpy jizz. The commonest bird of the adjacent scrub is usually Rufous-eared Warbler, a noisy, neurotic and beautifully marked endemic of southern Africa’s arid west. Spike-heeled Larks are also particularly common here, as well as Thick-billed, Karoo and Red-capped Larks. Karoo Lark is particularly easy to find in spring, when its rattling call is heard everywhere. The commonest seedeater in the area is usually Yellow Canary; however, nomadic species like Black-headed Canary and Larklike Bunting periodically invade the area. The latter can be particularly abundant at times, and is generally present much more regularly than further south in the Tanqua Karoo. Coveys of Namaqua Sandgrouse, another erratic visitor further south, flush up at intervals from the roadside. Especially in winter and spring, Ludwig’s Bustard may be present in some numbers and are best spotted in flight, while Karoo Korhaans occur year-round. Pairs or small parties are occasionally seen within sight of the road, although their true density is only revealed at dawn, when their atmospheric frog-like duets drift across the scrub. Greater Kestrel, a scarce bird further south in the Tanqua, is fairly regularly seen along the P2250, as well as the commoner Pale Chanting Goshawk, Rock Kestrel and the occasional Black-chested (breasted) Snake Eagle and Martial Eagle.

Karoo Eremomela , a curiously localised and sometimes tricky Karoo endemic, is remarkably common along here. Look especially along the shallow drainage lines 4-7 km from the R355, always remaining alert for its two calls (a high-pitched, pulsating whine, somewhat like the tightening of a rusty bolt, and a Spike-heeled Lark-like krrr-krrr). Small groups of this social and cooperative-breeding species follow each other through the scrub, popping up at intervals to let forth a volley of whines.

The highly nomadic Black-eared Finchlark, usually considered a Bushmanland special, may well be a regular visitor to this region. In 1996, they bred in the Tanqua National Park (see Africa: Birds & Birding 2(1): 74), and in spring 2001 invaded the Tanqua Karoo once again. In this exceptional season, they occurred and probably bred right down to Eierkop at the Tanqua’s southern edge; however, they occurred at highest densities along the P2250, and patchily in the Tankwa National Park. When breeding, aerially displaying males are easy to locate, looking more like giant, floppy black butterflies than birds. In flight, only their dangling white legs break the pure black of their underwings and bodies. Small groups tend to land frustratingly concealed in the scrub; the best technique is to walk slowly up to the spot, and wait quietly until a foraging bird potters into view in a gap between the bushes.

As the day heats up or once you have exhausted the possibilities of the gravel plains and scrub, you may wish to make a stop at the first or especially the second Acacia-lined watercourse, the latter crossing the P2250 27.6km from the R355. These supply all the expected Karoo thicket species, such as Pririt Batis, Cape Penduline Tit (also in the adjacent lower scrub), Rufous-ventedTitbabbler and White-backed Mousebird. Just beyond the second watercourse, a turn-off to the left, takes one 12 km further to the Tanqua River and Tanqua Guest House. The Tanqua Guest House (see Box) makes an excellent base for exploring this area and the National Park as a whole.

Namaqua Warbler, which in the Tanqua Karoo occasionally also occurs into Acacia thickets far from water, is very common and fairly easily seen in the mixture of reeds and Acacia thicket densely lining the Tanqua River. This riparian strip is also one of the more reliable sites in the Tanqua Karoo to look for Dusky Sunbird, a highly nomadic desert sunbird that only occasionally ventures south to the Eierkop-Skitterykloof area. The Tanqua River is dammed just beyond the guest house, rather startlingly creating a substantial waterbody which hosts varying numbers of waterfowl and waders, perhaps most characteristically South African Shelduck and Avocet.

Tankwa National Park

The Tankwa National Park protects one of the most starkly beautiful tracts of the Tanqua Karoo and is well worth visiting for several reasons, among them its koppie-studded, moon-like landscape, diversity of succulent plants, fine Karoo birding and, perhaps most notably for hardened birders, above-average chance of finding the enigmatic Burchell’s Courser. The park is criss-crossed by a number of vehicle tracks, most of which are easily negotiable by two-wheel-drive. However, please don’t let courser-ambition get the better of you.

Birders will probably want to concentrate their efforts along a track on the Park’s southern boundary, and easily accessible from the Tanqua Guest House. Burchell’s Courser is seen fairly regularly on the patches of bare, burnished gravel along this road, and was even seen with chicks in spring 2001. Burchell’s Courser is a poorly known and notoriously tricky bird: it may be absent altogether in some years, and even when present requires considerable effort to spot. The best techniques are to drive along slowly, stopping now and then to scan promising-looking expanses of gravel, and to keep a very sharp eye out for odd-shaped birds flying over. Strangely, we have picked up most of the coursers we have seen in the park this way! Double-banded Courser also occurs here. A bird that appears to reach the southern limit of its regular range in the Tanqua Karoo here is Karoo Long-billed Lark , which becomes very much commoner as one enters Bushmanland to the north.

Ouberg Pass and on to Sutherland

Heading eastwards from the National Park, a potentially confusing network of roads works its way over the Roggeveld escarpment and on to the town of Sutherland, whose one-horse appearance belies its astronomical fame with SALT (Southern African Large Telescope), the largest single telescope in the southern hemisphere). These are beautiful, remote roads, worth driving for their solitude and landscapes alone. However, if a birding objective is more acceptable, then Ouberg Pass does admirably. Ouberg is a truly spectacular pass, rising precipitously up through 600m of Roggeveld escarpment in a series of dramatic switchbacks which may not, perhaps, suit the particularly fainthearted. The rewards are superb views of the great, hazy basin of the Tanqua Karoo below, and excellent birding. Ouberg Pass is possibly the most reliable place within striking distance of Cape Town to see African Rock Pipit (knowledge of its call is essential), and is also a good site for other Karoo escarpment birds such as Sickle-winged Chat, Pale-winged Starling and, together with the plateau beyond, Cape Eagle Owl. The latter can be looked for any time from dusk onwards, simply by scanning the roadside telephone poles. Cape Eagle Owls can be unexpectedly common in many mountainous Karoo regions, though do beware of the occasional Spotted Eagle Owls venturing out of their favoured copses of exotic trees.

Planning Your Visit

When To Visit

Spring is best: birding is at its peak from August to October, when the region may also unpredictably burst into flower. However, the majority of the specials (with the possible exception of Black-headed Canary, Ludwig’s Bustard and Black-eared Finchlark) are accessible year-round with a little effort.