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The high altitude birding secrets of Memel

The high altitude birding secrets of Memel

Travellers would be forgiven for not noticing a small town in a shallow valley. It’s near a bend in the R34 as it wends its way through hills punctuated by sandstone koppies and flat-topped mountains, 60 kilometres beyond Vrede in the north-eastern Free State. The road soon reaches the Drakensberg escarpment, dropping down via Botha’s Pass to Newcastle and KwaZulu-Natal beyond.

For photos of the birds in this article head to: Top 10 birds to spot in Memel

Many sought-after species

The town’s name Memel is Prussian for ‘surrounded by water’, and originates from the farm here of the same name, where a small settlement was officially established in 1913. The farm was named after Memel in East Prussia and anyone familiar with the flooding of the nearby Klip River after heavy summer rains, and the vast wetlands this forms, will agree that the name is apt.

Known for its spectacular scenery and tranquillity, the area’s extensive upland grasslands, wetlands and escarpment forests have become recognised as prime birding hotspots, and are together an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area as defined by BirdLife South Africa. The area includes the Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve (home to a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance), the recently proclaimed Sneeuwberg Protected Environment and a number of private nature reserves, and harbours many sought-after and endangered bird species.

When visiting Memel with birding groups, we stay at the highly recommended Mahem Country Guest House, run by owners Jimmy and Sylvia Saunders. Mahem is the Afrikaans name for the Grey Crowned Crane, derived from the sound of the bird’s call.

Many consider Seekoeivlei as Memel’s prime birding attraction, but my first birding stop here is always the upland plateau grasslands just south of town. There is something very special about being at 1 800 metres altitude and experiencing the early morning sights and sounds.

Finding specials

Although dissected by river valleys, the extensive plateaus provide uninterrupted views of Kranskop, Mont Pelaan and Mount Nelson to the east and south along the escarpment. In summer these grasslands are filled with birds, many with drab plumage, but they make up for this with exceptional displays and calls. The variety and colours of the veld flowers after summer rains are also a sight.

Early on the first morning of our stay, our three-vehicle convoy travels south along the gravel R722 towards Verkykerskop, which hugs the edge of the Pampoenspruit valley. We turn onto the S471 and drive slowly onto the grassy plateau. The wind often blows up here, but we are fortunate to have a still morning.

We stop near the junction of the S471 and S898 gravel roads to listen intently for calling birds, and our group of friends gathers at the roadside as a displaying Rudd’s Lark utters its ‘purpley-jeep, purpley-jeep’ song nearby. Thanks to Mahem’s Jimmy Saunders, we have permission to walk in the grasslands here, and are able to find this ‘special’.

Exploding with birds

Suddenly a hidden covey of Grey-winged Francolins explodes with raucous calls and rapid flight, before disappearing over a nearby ridge. Three species of tiny cisticolas – Wing-snapping, Cloud, and Zitting – call in display flight high above us. A sleek, brownish bird flushes near our feet, and hovers briefly nearby before banking away to reveal bright-yellow underparts; we are ecstatic to see a stunning male Yellow-breasted Pipit.

A large, whitish bird walking slowly across a distant hillside is another ‘special’ – a displaying male Denham’s Bustard. Back at our vehicles, we hear the characteristic ‘wet my lips’ call of the Common Quail, while a pair of Cape Longclaws flies off on staccato wingbeats, uttering mewing calls.

At the T-junction, we turn right onto the S18 past gnarled bluegums that shelter a long-deserted, stone dwelling near a kraal. Then the road descends into a narrow valley bounded by layered sandstone outcrops and eroded boulders dotted with ouhout (Leucosidea sericea) thickets.

Groups of African Pied Starlings and small flocks of Horus Swifts circling overhead are attracted to eroded gullies, where both species are hole nesters in the earth walls. Ground Woodpeckers, Buff-streaked Chats and Mountain Wheatears are seen on the boulder-strewn hillsides. Clear, whistled notes reveal a Cape Bunting perched among the boulders. At a narrow bridge over a small stream, a blue Half-collared Kingfisher flashes past.

Wide-ranging habitats

Just after the stream, we turn towards Normandien Pass, keen for a refreshment break. Everyone stands quietly, taking in the views from the escarpment over farmland and commercial plantations in KwaZulu-Natal far below. The air is thinner here, and protection from the sun is a must.

Flat rocks overlook a mixed yellowwood mistbelt forest; thankfully a breeze rises here at the escarpment edge. Despite the warm morning, we hear forest birds – Red-chested- and Black Cuckoo, Chorister Robin-Chat, Cape Batis, Bush Blackcap, Black-backed Puffback, Southern Boubou, Barratt’s Warbler, Southern Double-collared Sunbird and Forest Canary. It’s not easy, but we also manage to glimpse a few birds from above the canopy. A Jackal Buzzard and African Harrier-Hawk use the rising thermals, slowly circling over the forest.

Before descending into the Klip River valley, we spot a small group of Southern Bald Ibises foraging in moist grassland. Then we take the road back to Memel, following the valley and crossing the river a few times. The day is fast hotting up and we’re relieved to get back to Mahem, where in the shade of the garden we see Diederik Cuckoo, Red-throated Wryneck and a stunning male Malachite Sunbird.

Later we drive north of Zamani township along the S782 to Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve, where the impressive wetland stretches for almost 30 kilometres. Just beyond the reserve gate, a raised viewpoint overlooks the meandering Klip River below, giving our group views of waterfowl, egrets and herons on the water (a spotting scope is an advantage).

The resident family of Blue Korhaans is in the grasslands below, and Long-tailed and Fan-tailed Widowbirds, Southern Red- and Yellow-crowned Bishops display in the rank vegetation. Later, while sipping sundowners, we enjoy small flocks of Grey Crowned Cranes flying in to roost.

Unforgettable sights

Next morning, we again head north along the S782, skirting the western side of the reserve, past farm land and shallow pans. We cross the reserve’s five-kilometre northern boundary, heading east across the Klip River, where Giant- and Malachite Kingfisher, Pale-crowned- and Levaillant’s Cisticola are seen.

At a small roadside wetland we watch drumming display flights of African Snipe, while small flocks of stunning Orange-breasted Waxbills flit in and out of the reeds. A few Blue Cranes loaf at a nearby farm dam, recalling for me the unforgettable sight I once had of a mixed group of cranes – Blue, Grey Crowned and Wattled – gathering to roost in this same dam at dusk.

All too soon it’s time to travel back to Memel and Mahem for brunch, and then pack up and bid farewell before heading for home.

What you need to know

Winter temperatures regularly drop below zero, while wind, mist and rain are common in summer when temperatures can also reach the mid- and upper 20s. Visitors should be prepared for any weather conditions; bring appropriate clothing. Most birding areas have an altitude above 1 800m, so take the necessary precautions to prevent overexposure to sun and wind. The best time for birding is in spring and summer.

High-altitude plateau grasslands (primarily to the south) and extensive wetlands, including Seekoeivlei, immediately to the north, and along the Klip River valley system to the south. There are forest patches in the incised valleys and on the escarpment, and rocky hillsides and cliffs.

Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Korhaan, Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, Bush Blackcap, Rudd’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit

Memel is situated on the tarred R34 between Vrede and Newcastle. About 300km from Johannesburg and 400km from Durban, it’s also accessible from Harrismith via Verkykerskop on the R772. During rain, the gravel roads deteriorate significantly and a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.

A variety of accommodation is available in Memel and on farms in the area, and Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve has a self-catering chalet on the eastern side of the reserve. There are numerous mountain biking, hiking and 4×4 trails in the area, as well as Seekoeivlei and Majuba battlefield.

Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve 058 924 0183
Mahem Country Guest House 058 924 0034

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