I trust this newsletter finds you happy and healthy!
With lockdown restrictions lifted in South Africa, Eileen, Joshua and I got to have a wonderful Easter break in the Cape. We are still missing our respective families terribly, but it was amazing to spend some special family time on the beach in Nature’s Valley and visit one of my favourite South African destinations; the Mountain Zebra National Park (MZNP).
The visit to the MZNP reminded me of how much I love the tranquility of the Karoo and the stunning landscapes and birds that the area has to offer. Given that I have always struggled to find a good birding or bird photography guide to the Park, I thought I would share some of my thoughts while they are fresh in my mind.
I hope you enjoy the newsletter that follows and look forward to your feedback!
A magnificent Blue Crane; South Africa’s national bird, forages across a typical Karoo landscape, as the sun rises over the Mountain Zebra National Park, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Moments like this one are hard to explain using words and images alone. You have to be there!
DESTINATION BEHIND THE BIRDS Mountain Zebra National Park
The Mountain Zebra National Park, with its flat top hills, açacia dominated woodlands and mind-blowing landscapes, must rank as one of the most picturesque destinations our country has to offer. It may also be one of South Africa’s best kept secrets!
Established in 1937 to protect a single species from extinction; the Mountain Zebra, it is lauded as one of South Africa’s conservation success stories. Starting with a mere 17 Mountain Zebras the Park now boasts over 350 individuals.
A typical MZNP scene of a Mountain Zebra on the Rooiplaat loop! The Park was established in 1937 with the specific purpose of protecting the Mountain Zebra, which at the time was threatened by extinction.
Situated in the Karoo and 30 minutes from Craddock in the Eastern Cape, the park holds over 200 bird species with at least 20 being endemic, as well as some exciting wildlife; including Lion, Cheetah, Cape Buffalo, Black Rhinoceros and indeed its namesake; the Mountain Zebra.
The Park has a special place in my heart, as it is situated very close to where our family farm; Bankfontein, was located and was the original source of what became my Father’s pride and joy; a well-established population of Mountain Zebra. The Park’s incredible mountain vistas, open, sweet grass plains and the Wilgeboom river that winds its way through it, bring back so many good memories of my time on the farm.
A “habitat shot” of an African Rock Pipit taken on the way up from the MZNP rest camp to the Rooiplaat Plateau in March 2021. The new Canon R5 handles low light conditions extremely well and made a big difference when photographing these Pipits in the late afternoon. Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens Settings: AV mode | ISO 2000 | 1/800s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash
What started as a dream for my Dad; transforming an unkept sheep and goat farm back to its original glory, with incredible herds of Black and Blue Wildebeest, Mountain Zebra, Cape Eland, Red Hartebeest, Springbuck and Blesbuck, became a reality and a farm that he could be incredibly proud of. My last memory of the farm was with my now wife; Eileen, and my father as we watched the sunset over Springbok Vlakte (Springbuck Plains) as a huge herd of Cape Eland walked off into the distance. If you haven’t been to the Karoo, you are missing out on a very special part of South Africa. There is a peace and beauty in the Karoo that cannot be expressed through words or images alone. You must be there to experience it!
At that point in my life, although fascinated by wildlife, I didn’t possess a camera or the same passion for obscure birds, and hence the Park is even more exciting for me now given its plethora of special LBJs (little brown jobs) and some incredible bird species such as Ludwigs Bustard, Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, Verreaux’s Eagle, Double-banded Courser, Secretarybird and much more.
A Double-banded Courser stands proudly on a termite mound on the Link road that links the Rooiplaat Loop to the Ubhejane Loop at the Mountain Zebra National Park, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens Settings: AV mode | ISO 800 | 1/6400s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -0.7 | no Flash
How to approach the Park from a bird photography perspective
From a photographic perspective, the Park is a wonderful change from flat, open Savannah’s, thick bushveld habitats or shaded forests, as it provides the classic, wide open spaces and amazing landscapes that one would expect from the Karoo. This combined with beautiful early morning or late afternoon light can make for some unique photographic opportunities.
Source: Sanparks Map showing Rooiplaat, Kranskop and Ubhejane Loops ~ Four coloured dots have been added to the map to help with finding some of the Park’s special birds, but please note that birds have wings and can change their haunts, and hence there are no guarantees. The bright green dot shows the best place to look for Blue Korhaan. The turquoise dot shows the best place for Pink-billed Lark. The purple dot identifies the best location for Ludwig’s Bustard. And the yellow dot is my best spot for African Rock Pipit.
My normal approach to bird photography at MZNP is to leave the camp at gate opening time or around 15h30 to catch the beautiful sunrises and sunsets that this location is known for. I either make my way to the start of the Rooiplaat Loop and focus in this area and the upper section of the Link road or head to Ubhejane Loop (starting closest to the gate) and work my way back towards Link road and then Rooiplaat Loop. Both routes have their benefits!
Rooiplaat is undoubtedly best for game viewing as the open plains are covered in sweet grass (as opposed to sour grass) and attract all the grazing specialists; Black Wildebeest, Blesbuck, Springbuck, Red Hartebeest and Mountain Zebra. It is estimated that at any one time about 85% of the large herbivores of the Park will be found here. Consequently, this section of the Park also attracts its big predators. In a single, morning game drive, I have seen 3 cheetah and 3 lions on the move through this area.
It is also the best place in the park to obtain scenic shots of some of the sought after, larger bird species; specifically, Ludwig’s Bustard and Blue Crane. I spent an amazing morning on my last trip with two Blue Cranes as the sun rose over the park, allowing for some unique backlit images and silhouettes.
A beautiful Blue Crane photographed early one morning close to the start of the Rooiplaat Loop (when approaching it from the Ubhejane Loop side).
A silhouette of the same bird taken a few minutes earlier. It is always good to experiment with light and look for opportunities, which can show off a species in a special or unique way.
Rooiplaat is also the best place to find and photograph many of the endemic lark, chat and pipit species the park is renowned for. If you travel straight to the loop from the rest camp, you will drive up a mountain pass prior to the start, which affords amazing opportunities for African Rock Pipit. Listen for their telltale call and you are likely to be rewarded. This specific location (i.e. the yellow dot on the map) afforded me my best views of this species to date, and that is saying a lot given that I have observed them up Sani Pass and Naude’s Nek previously.
The Mountain Zebra National Park is an excellent location to find and photograph African Rock Pipit. On my last trip I found a very vocal family group of three birds; mom, dad and juvenile, who afforded incredible photographic opportunities in the late afternoon.
Once you start the 13 kilometre, circular route, look out for calling Eastern Clapper, Eastern Long-billed, Large-billed, Melodious, Spike-heeled and Pink-billed Larks. The Pink-billed larks are best found along the upper Link Road not too far from the loop. There is also a debate as to whether Karoo Long-billed Larks may overlap with Eastern here, but more research is required to be sure. Given you visit in summer and after good rains, all these species can be found in abundance, making this Park a top destination if you enjoy LBJs and want to improve your photographs of them. The flat plains with termite mounds and natural, scrub perches, superb light and mountains in the background make for idyllic, photographic conditions.
Spike-heeled Larks are regular sightings along the Rooiplaat Loop. If you ever wondered how they got their name, this image gives you a good idea.
Two of the common Lark species that you find on the Rooiplaat plateau; Large Billed (left) and Eastern Long-billed (right).
This loop is also home to one of South Africa’s exquisite warblers; the near-endemic Rufous-eared Warbler. Wherever there is a bit of scrub for them to hide in, you can be rest assured that one of these stunning birds is lurking nearby. The Park must rank as one of the best places to photograph this species, with Prince Albert in the Western Cape being another.
A cracking Rufous-eared Warbler calling from a typical perch at the beginning of the Rooiplaat Loop. The MZNP must be one of the best sites in our country to photograph these beautiful near endemics. Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens Settings: AV mode | ISO 800 | 1/3200s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash
The key to bird photography in this destination is driving very slowly and keeping a constant look out for any small movements. The birds are well camouflaged and often secretive when not calling, so you need to be persistent and observant. While scanning the flat, rocky terrain you have a good chance of locating one of my favourite species; the Double-banded Courser. This bird can be difficult to separate from its habitat but is an absolute treasure when found! It’s exquisite markings and golden colouration make it one of the standout Karoo species. I had an incredible experience with these Coursers on my last visit, where I witnessed them calling from the top of a termite mound. What made the experience even more special was that within the space of one hour, this same location produced Capped Wheatear, Large-billed Lark, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Spike-heeled Lark and Sickle-winged Chat. If only every 60 minutes of birding in the Karoo would produce these results!
The Double-banded Coursers from the story. What a special moment in time and what a bird!
The open, grassland areas on the Rooiplaat Loop are also excellent for some of the Park’s key photographic targets; specifically Ludwigs Bustard, Blue Crane and Secretarybird. My best location for the Bustards have been midway along the 8km section of the Rooiplaat route i.e. the purple dot on the map.
As much as the Rooiplaat plateau is fantastic, starting your self drive at the Ubhejane loop (closest to the gate) can be just as fruitful. If your focus is Blue Korhaan, Karoo Korhaan and/or Secretarybird then I would recommend starting here and spending good time searching the first couple of kilometres before you reach the big dam. Blue Korhaan is best found here and I have had my best Secretarybird sightings in and around the dam. You will also find many of the exciting, Acacia woodland species in this area such as Acacia Pied Barbet, Golden-breasted Bunting and Scaly-feathered Finch.
A simple portrait of a Secretarybird photographed at the large dam (near the green dot on the Sanpark’s map) on the Ubhejane Loop.
Birding around camp
If you have time to kill between game drives or are staying at the Park for more than a couple of nights, I highly recommend that you spend some time birding the camp itself.
The pool area, especially when the sprinklers are on in summer and it is not too busy, can be excellent for Karoo Scrub Robin, Scaly-feathered Finch, Mountain Wheatear, Karoo Prinia, Bar-throated Apalis and Red-headed Finch. I also heard African Rock Pipit calling from the top of the mountains above the pool and had several Rock Martins flying overhead.
The grounds around the restaurant and camping area are also excellent locations for bird photography and, besides the above mentioned species, have produced some super additions to my Park list; including Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Golden-breasted Bunting, Chestnut-vented Tit Babbler and Acacia Pied Barbet.
A Red-fronted Tinkerbird photographed just outside the restaurant at the MZNP restcamp. Not a bird you would necessarily expect from a Karoo destination!
If you missed out on the African Rock Pipit on the way to the Rooiplaat loop, or you are in the mood for breath-taking landscapes and birds of prey, then you should seriously consider spending a morning or afternoon doing the Kranskop Loop.
An African Rock Pipit showing all his key features at the MZNP, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Key species to look for on the Kranskop scenic drive include; Verreaux Eagle, Booted Eagle, Alpine Swift, Short-toed Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Pale-winged Starling and Grey-winged Francolin. If you are incredibly fortunate you may also bump into a Drakensberg Rockjumper or Cape Eagle Owl, but don’t hold your breath for the latter.
Although far more common in locations like Naude’s Nek and Sani Pass, the Drakensberg Rockjumper (pictured above) has also been seen along the Kranskop Loop. (Thanks so much to Anton Kruger for providing this information as well as sharing several other interesting sightings he has had within the Park)
When to go:
For displaying larks such as Melodious, Eastern Clapper, Pink-billed, Large-billed, Karoo or Eastern Long-billed I suggest visiting in November, December and January. Although it can be very hot at this time of year, it is your best bet to find these species (especially after good rains).
For the best light, cooler weather and still great opportunities for the special endemics the late summer or early winter months (April and May) may be your best bet. My latest trip took place in early April and although I missed some of the displaying larks such as Melodious, I found that the light was sublime and was able to connect with most of the LBJ specials as well as Ludwigs Bustard, Double-banded Courser and Secretarybird.
Sickle-winged Chats are just about guaranteed on the Rooiplaat Plateau and are more than willing to pose for a photograph. This particular individual was photographed at the top of Naude’s Nek at Tenahead Mountain Lodge in the Eastern Cape.
Some of the “special” bird species found at the Mountain Zebra National Park
A “habitat shot” of the pair of Double-banded Coursers I was privileged to spend time with in April 2021. My highlight of the trip!
Whether you are living overseas or in South Africa, I hope this newsletter has inspired you to consider a trip to the Karoo and especially the Mountain Zebra National Park. Not only will it introduce you to an array of interesting, endemic bird species and amazing photographic opportunities, but it will also allow you to experience the magic of the Karoo firsthand.