From George to Port Elizabeth, from dusty Karoo to stormy coast, lies a diverse mix of landscapes containing a wealth of flora and birdlife, much neglected by the avitourist industry. This later fact makes birding peaceful and affordable. Around 300 species can be seen within a short period of time, many of which will be Cape, Karoo or Southern African endemics. The area is easily accessible from George or Port Elizabeth, and offers one of the most productive birding experiences anywhere in South Africa. In addition, wildlife and scenery are first class and a reason to do the trip all by itself. This route can be undertaken with a sedan vehicle. A 4x4 would open up the possibility of going through Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, but this is a route description that literally takes one 'around' the Baviaanskloof NR.
May: suggested destinations as a circular route from George (or Port Elizabeth).
A – George, B – Montagu Pass, C – Blue Hill Escape, D – Steytlerville, E – Addo, F – Nature’s Valley
George. Depending on flight arrival time visit the Garden Route Botanical Gardens for Black and rare Baillon's Crakes, Purple Swamphen and ‘garden birds’, including African Paradise Flycatcher, Cape Weaver, Olive Thrush and Cape Robin Chat. African Cuckoo Hawk has also been spotted here on rare occasions.
If you have more time, head west past MosselBay to the Voelvlei floodpan. Little Stint, Ruff, Black-winged Stilt and White-faced Duck are common, but even a Hudsonian Godwit has graced this large wetland although other waders are more common.
Witfontein Forest Reserve is about 2 km outside George on the start of the Montagu Pass. Walk east along the main forest trail for about 2 km to the indigenous forest stands. The focal species are forest specialists: Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Knysna and Olive Woodpecker, Yellow Woodland-Warbler, Knysna Warbler, Starred Robin, Knysna Turaco, Narina Trogon, Rameron Pigeon, Forest Buzzard and Forest Canary. I’d recommended 2 to 3 hours at almost anytime of the day since forest birds are active for longer.
Spend an hour or so driving up the Montagu Pass. The lower section of the road follows more indigenous forest along the Keur River. Olive-bush Shrike, Dusky Flycatcher, Cape Batis, Black Saw-wing Swallow and Swee Waxbill are all possibilities. Further up the pass one gets into Fynbos. Lesser and Greater Double-collared, Malachite, Orange-breasted and Amethyst Sunbirds are all probable. There is a chance for Cape Sugarbird. Jackal Buzzard is also likely towards the top of the pass, and in fact almost anywhere along the route. The road is narrow with few passing and overtaking places, to take care up this section.
Once one reaches the N9 between George and Uniondale one is into mixed agricultural land with several dams. The road is wide enough to pull over easily to set up a scope to scan for waders, including Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, 3-banded Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveller and the more common waterfowl – Yellow-billed Duck and Egyptian Goose. Black-shouldered Kite, Rock Kestrels and Steppe Buzzards are frequent along the powerlines. Less frequently seen are Black Harrier hovering over the short scrub further east towards De Vlugt. Blue Cranes and White Storks occasionally prowl the fields. Summer migrants include Yellow-billed Kites with the chance for Black Kite, African Stonechat, Steppe Buzzard and various Swallows – Barn, White-throated, Greater Striped, and Black Sawwing.
Giant, Brown-hooded and Pied Kingfisher lurk along open, overgrown rivers and dams respectively. Helmeted Guineafowl are also plentiful in the fields around towns.
Passing the Uniondale heights one enters a type of Fynbos called Renosterveld, which grades into succulent Karoo further north. This is Korhaan and Bustard territory, but these can be hard to pick out among the grey Renosterbos, while Karoo Scrub-Robin is common. 15 km out of town, take the southern most of the access routes to Baviaanskloof (labelled Hartbeesrivier). From here it is a 30km drive to Blue Hill Escape. Denham's, Ludwig's and Kori Bustards, as well as Black Korhaan and large flocks of Blue Crane are all found here. Rarely, Spoonbill and Black Stork are seen around the dams en-route. Pale-chanting Goshawks and the occasional Jackal Buzzard, Black-chested Snake Eagle or Lesser Kestrel keep watch from the telephone lines along the road. Pied Starlings, Speckled Pigeon are common, but care needs to be taken to tell between the various Canary species that occur – Yellow, Brimstone, Streaky-headed, Cape and Black-headed.
At Blue Hill, a wonder along the short Baboon trail may reveal Red-necked Spurfowl, Grey-winged and Cape Francolin, Long-billed Crombec, Bar-throated Apalis, Bokmakierie, Karoo Prinia and Cape Bulbul. All fynbos specials can be seen along the 7 km Sugarbird Valley hike. Cape Rockjumper, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird, Protea Seedeater, Cape Siskin, Victorin's Warbler, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock-thrush and Cape Bunting. A lucky stumble could flush a Hottentot Buttonquail, but more likely a Common Quail. There are good chances for Booted Eagle, Verreaux's Eagle and Jackal Buzzard. Martial Eagle and Fish Eagle have on rare occasion been seen moving through the area. The late night listener may be lucky enough to hear Cape Eagle Owl beyond the Reed Frogs and Fiery-necked Nightjars.
From Blue Hill a worthy day drive follows the Vaalwater road to Nuwekloof Pass, which offers amazing cliff scenery, another chance for Bustards and Korhaans, but also Red-chested Sparrowhawk. On the road between Nuwekloof and Willowmore one dips into Karoo birds including Karoo, Red-capped, Long-billed, Large-billed and Cape Clapper Larks, Lark-like Bunting, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Golden-breasted Buntin and Cape Bunting as well as Chestnut-vented and Layard’s Titbabblers, all three Mousebirds, Karoo Chat, Namaqua and Rufous-eared Warbler.
The long and dusty R329 through Steytlerville hides Kori Bustard and a sparse population of Secretary Birds. Grey-backed Sparrowlarks sometimes wonder this far south, as do Sentinel Rock Thrush. Towards Addo Elephant National Park (306km, 4 hour drive from Blue Hill) one has to pass through the orchards around Kirkwood where Spotted Eagle Owl hide among the Hadedas in the large exotic trees. Spectacled and Dark-backed Weavers will be a new ones for the list along with Cape, Southern Masked Weaver and Red Bishops. The Spekboom habitats integrate into woodland thickets preferred by Black-headed Oriole and White-browed Scrub-Robin.
From Addo the coastal route once again offers the chance to explore the forests of the Tsitsikamma. Natures Valley is the perfect place to spend some time looking for Knysna Turaco, Black Cuckoo, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Chorister Robin-chat, Dark-backed Weaver and the beautiful Narina Trogon. If a walk along the estuary does not reveal Roseate, Swift, Sandwich, Common and Damara Terns, then a pelagic trip out of Plettenberg Bay or Knysna should.
Of the Wilderness Lakes, Rondevlei may well be one’s best bet for reed and lake specialities, such as Little Rush-Warbler or African Marsh-Harrier. There are several walks in the area along beaches and into forests, as well as around the estuary. The birdlist for Ebb and Flow campsite (managed by SANParks) is impressive, and warrants a few days here alone. And that more or less rounds off the trip, with George just a few kilometres up the road.