Birding in the Tankwa Karoo National Park
by Jappie Classens
The 80 000 hectare Tankwa Karoo National Park protects one of the most starkly beautiful tracts of the Tankwa Karoo. It teems with life and character, from the dramatic landscapes, wide silences, eccentric richness of plant diversity and the rare and prolific birdlife that exploits this landscape and its relative isolation.
With rainfall isohyets of 30-400mm per year the western section of the Tankwa Karoo National Park can be described as a true desert park. It is situated about midway between Ceres and Calvinia, 110 km north of Ceres and 90 km south of Calvinia, next to the R355 road and the greatest part lies in the Northern Cape. It stretches from the R355 in the west over a distance of 70 km to the tops of the Roggeveld Mountains in the east. It is a very remote area and great parts are stony desert.
Visits to the park must be arranged with the Park Manager. The Park’s bird list consists of 86 species, but the list for the whole area is 174 species. The Park’s bird list is still not completed and more species will be added as the list is updated. The best time to visit the park for birding is during spring.
Typical specials of the dry western area of the park includes Ludwig’s Bustard, Karoo Korhaan, Karoo Eremomela, Tractrac Chat, Karoo Chat, Burchell’s Courser, Doublebanded Courser, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Karoo Lark, Karoo Longbilled Lark, Blackeared Finchlark, Layard’s Titbabbler, Rufouseared Warbler, Dusky Sunbird, African Rock Pipit and Blackheaded Canary.
Birding in the park will be best undertaken after arrangements with the Park Manager who will furnish you with a “not to scale” map and explain the road. Otherwise you have to use a guide who is familiar with the area.
The area near the Park Manager’s house is Karoo koppies, which hosts Palewinged Starling, Cape Bunting and Southern Grey Tit, with the occasional Black Eagle and Jackal Buzzard visiting from the nearby Roggeveld Mountains. Look at the slopes for Karoo Eremomela, Rufouseared Warbler and Greybacked Cisticola. Booted Eagle is a common summer visitor.
The flat plains to the west are covered with bushman grass (Stipagrostis sp.) and host species such as Capped Wheatear, Karoo Lark, Spikeheeled Lark, Karoo Longbilled Lark, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Larklike Bunting, Yellow Canary, Blackheaded Canary, Whitethroated Canary, Greybacked and Blackeared Finchlarks. Raptors, which occur, are Pale Chanting Goshawk, Rock Kestrel, Greater Kestrel, Martial Eagle and visitors such as Blackbreasted Snake Eagle. Steppe Buzzard (in summer) can also be seen. Pied Crows are breeding residents who scavenge the area and Ludwig’s Bustards occur in huge numbers during winter and spring.
At the more barren parts with little vegetation be on the look out for Doublebanded and Burchell’s Courser, Redcapped Lark, Tractrac Chat and Karoo Korhaans.
The riverine bush along the Renoster River hosts Pririt Batis, Dusky and Lesser Doublecollared Sunbirds, Whitebacked Mousebird, Fairy Flycatcher, Pied Barbet, Karoo Robin, Karoo Thrush, Greyheaded Sparrow, African Marsh Warbler (in summer), Wattled Starling and African Red-eyed Bulbuls.
Birding can also be done along the P2250 (Middelpos road which turns off the R355) and runs up the beautiful Gannagas Pass. The first part is good for Doublebanded and Burchell’s Coursers, Tractrac Chat and larks. The riverine bush, where you cross the Tanqua River, hosts Fairy Flycatcher, Karoo Prinia, Karoo Scrub Robin and Willow Warbler (summer). Entering the park look out for Karoo Lark, Karoo Chat, Pale Chanting Goshawk, Booted Eagle (summer) and Cape Penduline Tit. Karoo Korhaan and Ludwig’s Bustard are often seen on the flat areas. Check the windmills along the road for seedeaters, which come to drink.
Starting Gannaga Pass look for Longbilled and African Rock Pipit, Layard’s Titbabbler, Karoo Eremomela, Mountain Chat, Ground Woodpecker, Pale-winged Starling, Cape Bulbul, Southern Grey Tit and Blackheaded Canary. Black Eagle and Whitenecked Raven are residents together with Rock Kestrel and share the sky with Alpine and African Black Swift. On top of the pass look for Common Quail, Cape Canary, Cape Siskin and Cape Penduline Tit.
Waterbirds are very scarce because of the lack of open water and only occur for short times after rains and at the southern boundary of the park where there is a nearby weir in the Tankwa River with lucerne fields.
The area near the Tanqua Guest House is rich in birdlife and about 50 species of birds can be seen here. Ask permission at the Bird House to bird the area. Look around the airstrip for Doublebanded and Burchell’s Courser, Tractrac Chat, Capped Wheatear and Southern Thickbilled Lark. The riverine bush and lucerne fields host Cape Francolin, Common Quail, Namaqua Warbler, African Marsh Warbler (summer), lots of swallows and martins, European Bee-eater (summer), while the irrigation dam and the reedbeds beneath the wall host Little Bittern, Blackcrowned Night Heron, Greater Flamingo, Black Stork, ducks and waders (summer).
Ouberg is a spectacular pass rising up the Roggeveld escarpment with possibilities of African Rock Pipit, Sickle-winged Chat, Longbilled Pipit, Cinnamonbreasted Warbler, Southern Grey Tit, Blackheaded Canary, Pale-winged Starling and where boulders Cape Eagle Owl occurs.
There are two restored, fully furnished houses in the park for tourists. The one house is at Varschfontein on the western side of the park and near the R355. It can sleep 6 people, but it can be extended if you bring your own mattresses.
The other house is at Paulshoek in the eastern side of the park at the foothills of the Roggeveld Mountains and near the Middelpos road. It can also sleep 6 people. Bedding is provided in both houses. A bush camp and camping site will be built in the near future.
The network of old farm tracks which cross the park has been upgraded but a vehicle with high clearance is still recommended. The Middelpos road from the R355 runs for about 40 km through the park. No road signs exist on the minor roads in the park, so you have to know the area or have a GPS not to be lost on this flat area.
For accommodation in the park, contact the Park Manager at tel 027 – 3412389. There is a guesthouse, Tankwa Guest House (tel 027 - 3412366) on the southern boundary of the park. You can also arrange access to the park through the guesthouse. A small resort with chalets and a camping site, Die Mond, (tel 027 - 3412330) is about 30 km from the park. There is also a very birders friendly guesthouse at Klein Cedarberg (tel 023 – 3170783) which is about 90 km from the park.
The park is signpost from the R355 on both the Ceres and Calvinia sides and you are guided to the manager’s office, which you can also contact at tel 027 – 3412389. From there the park manager will give you directions. Some other private game reserves with good birding in the area are Inverdoorn Game Reserve (tel 023 – 3161264), Kagga Kamma Private Game Reserve (tel 021 – 8724343), Fort Tierkloof (tel 023 – 3582134) .
You can contact Japie Claassen for bird guiding in the park and in the Tanqua Karoo and Koue Bokkeveld in general. His contact numbers are 0837247916 / 023 – 3170884 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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