If you’re a birder, the statistics are mouth-watering. 370 species; nine of the 13 endemic birds in South Africa; beautifully preserved grassland and wetland habitats; expert guides and well-maintained hides. This is the appeal of Wakkerstroom, a small Highveld town with some truly legendary birding.
Run by leading bird conservation group BirdLife South Africa, the Wakkerstroom Tourism and Education Centre is the first port of call for twitchers. The centre is situated on 114 hectares of mouth-watering grassland and wetland within the protected Important Bird Area (IBA). Here, birders can visit four neat little hides renowned for some exceptional sightings. All but the most seasoned of bird watchers will tick off at least one ‘lifer’ here, and quite possibly several.
On the northern side of the wetland, the Clive Beck Memorial and Wings over Wetlands hides got us and some fellow excitable birders locked into specials such as African Snipe, African Purple Swamphen and Crowned Crane, while the booming call of the rarely-seen Red-chested Flufftail really perked up our ears. These wetlands are also home to the critically endangered White-winged Flufftail, a bird that only occurs in two other locations in South Africa.
An extravagant Crowned Crane. Photo: Lex Hes.
We ventured off to the Western side of the wetland, salivating at the prospects of the Crane Hide Iain Drummond Memorial Hide. Here, we watched a pair of Blue Korhaans strutting through the fringes of the swamp, and tried (unsuccessfully) to pin down several notoriously tricky-to-identify cisticolas.
The sweeping grassland sections of Wakkerstroom are just as rewarding as the wetlands. BirdLife trained guide Lucky Ndube was true to his name, hooking us up with sightings of the critically endangered, endemic Rudd’s Lark, Yellowbreasted Pipit, Ground Woodpecker and Bald Ibis.
A brief foray into a privately owned indigenous forest area yielded Bush Blackcap, Chorister Robin, Olive Woodpecker and Orange Thrush, capping off an extraordinary Wakkerstroom day.
On our drive home, I had time to reflect on the significance of this very special place. Conservationists have managed to build an impregnable wall around Wakkerstroom, just a stone’s throw from the coal mining giants who demolish precious habitats such as grasslands and wetlands. These efforts have turned Wakkerstroom into a destination which draws birders from across South Africa and even from abroad. As we recounted the lifers ticked off on our trip, we were already making plans to come back and tick off some more.