Birding in the southern Drakensberg

RHODES, NAUDE’S NECK PASS, TENAHEAD MOUNTAIN LODGE AREA, MACLEAR AND TIFFINDELL SKI RESORT

This is a very scenic part of the southern Drakensberg which you can bird from a high clearance vehicle. The roads are generally well maintained in the area. If it is very rainy or snowy, then a 4X4 vehicle will be required. This region has a good variety of mountain and high altitude grassland endemics, which are also found on the Sani Pass further north east.

SPECIALS: Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Drakensberg Prinia, Ground Woodpecker, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Cape Vulture, Bearded Vulture, Mountain Pipit (a summer visitor),  African Rock Pipit, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Grey-winged Francolin, Black Harrier, Striped Flufftail, Banded Martin and Wattled Crane (nearer to Maclear).

OTHER GOOD BIRDS: Sickle-winged Chat, Grey Crowned Crane, Blue Crane, Fairy Flycatcher, Layard’s Warbler (Tit-babbler), Wailing Cisticola, Barratt’s Warblers (in bush around the streams between Naude’s Neck Pass and Maclear) Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and Cape Bunting.

BEST TIME TO VISIT:   Late spring, summer and early autumn are best and the peak time would be OCTOBER TO EARLY MARCH.

The beautiful Naude's Neck Pass is 2 740 m above sea level. The highest pass in South Africa.
View from the middle of Naude's Neck Pass looking down to the road that leads to Maclear.

HABITATS: High altitude grasslands, with valleys filled with montane fynbos and bracken, mountain streams coming off the Lesotho highlands and wooded valleys.

WHERE TO BIRD:

Rhodes to Naude’s Neck Pass and Tenahead Mountain Lodge:

The road that leads from Rhodes village to Naude’s Neck Pass (2 740m above sea level) is where you can find most of the specials mentioned above.

MOUNTAIN PIPITS can be plentiful in summer from about November to February on open grassy areas around the top of the pass in summer. Very similar to African Pipit so look carefully. They are altitudinal migrants, so are only in this high altitude area during our summer months.

Note: Mountain Pipits have a pinkish base to the lower mandible, the breast is more heavily streaked than African Pipit and they have a darkish back and buff outer tail feathers. They are also larger in size and bulkier looking than African pipit.

DRAKENSBERG ROCKJUMPER, GROUND WOODPECKER, SENTINEL ROCK THRUSH and AFRICAN ROCK PIPIT occur on rocky outcrops along the sides of the road going up to the top of Naude’s Neck Pass.

FAIRY FLYCATCHER, SICKLE-WINGED CHAT, DRAKENSBERG SISKIN, DRAKENSBERG PRINIA, BANDED MARTIN, CAPE AND CINNAMON-BREASTED BUNTING, LAYARD’S WARBLER  and WAILING CISTICOLA can be seen on the roadside leading up to the top of the pass and on the road to the Tenahead Mountain Lodge and Spa. Be on the lookout for BLACK HARRIER hawking low over the grasslands. GREY-WINGED FRANCOLINS are often heard in the grasslands before being seen.

Keep a lookout for sheep carcasses in the veld where you will find CAPE VULTURES and possibly BEARDED VULTURES (Lammergeiers) too. There is a vulture restaurant run by Tenahead Lodge where you can observe vultures feeding on carcasses. You will need to arrange with the lodge to have meat put out for the vultures when you visit the vulture restaurant. Otherwise scan the skies constantly because these two types of vultures can appear very quickly overhead in that area.

(Tenahead Mountain Lodge and Spa offers day visitors tea and scones all day long for those that wish to stop over for an hour or two between birding)

Bottom of Naude’s Neck Pass to Maclear:

YELLOW-BREASTED PIPITS may be seen at the bottom of the Naude’s Neck Pass in the shorter, more clumpy grass.

Coarse clumpy grass where you can look for Yellow-breasted Pipits.

BLUE CRANES and GREY CROWNED CRANES may be found in the grasslands and fields on the road between Naude’s Neck Pass and Maclear.

WATTLED CRANES have been seen nesting on the edge of a dam near Maclear (see map).

BARRATT’S WARBLERS can be heard in bushes around the many little mountain streams on the way to Maclear.

Tiffendell Ski Resort:

A drive up the steep pass to Tiffendell Ski  Resort can be very worthwhile too. Here you can get most of the specials mentioned above. I have seen DRAKENSBERG ROCKJUMPERS AND SISKINS on the grassy ski slopes in summer when there was no snow. Birding around the resort may yield many of the specials too. Look out for AFRICAN SNIPE at the vleis en route to the resort.

ACCOMMODATION IN THE AREA:  

A website with accommodation options in the Rhodes village area:   https://rhodesinfo.co.za/accommodation/

Rubicon accommodation is  affordable accommodation where we usually stay. It is the old village school that has been turned into very comfortable accommodation on the outskirts of the village: https://www.travelground.com/accommodation/rubicon-units

Tenahead Mountain Lodge is a luxury 5 star lodge and spa in the mountains: https://www.nightjartravel.com/accommodation/tenahead-mountain-lodge

Tiffindell Ski Resort is affordable and on the ski slopes:  https://www.sa-venues.com/visit/tiffindellskiresort/

FOOTNOTE:   Many people want to see the SOUTHERN  BALD IBIS in that area and even though SABAP 2 shows that they do occur in the Rhodes area, I have never personally seen them there. I have, however, seen them often in the Barkly East area on lands or short grassland. Look at every Hadeda Ibis that you can find in that area and you are sure to spot one amongst them. They tend to hang out with the Hadedas. See the SABAP 2 map below and the other map with the pin where I found 3 of these ibises in short grasslands a few years back. 

Southern Bald Ibis with a Hadeda Ibis in the background
Southern Bald Ibis

Enjoy the scenic beauty of the area as you find the special birds that you are looking for. It is one of the Eastern Cape’s hidden gems. My favourite area to bird in this province!

Lynette Rudman

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