On the arid flats and gravel plains of the Northern Cape there is some very special birding. Peter Chadwick explores Pofadder…
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick
“Where?” Was my family’s horrified response when I suggested a holiday trip to the arid north of the country, with a focus on the Pofadder area. “What happens in Pofadder?” they asked. When I said there was some special birding to be done, they looked at me like I’d finally gone beyond my normal craziness.
But soon, with the help of Martin Taylor of Birdlife South Africa, we were heading north from Bredasdorp to overnight en route in Springbok. After a productive morning in the Goegap Nature Reserve searching for dassie rats and Hartman’s mountain zebras, we left behind us the rolling granite koppies of Goegap and headed out along the endless straight road to Pofadder.
The landscape changed rapidly to barren flats and gravel plains, where Jackal Buzzards, Lanner Falcons, Pale Chanting Goshawks and Rock Kestrels sat on the top of telegraph poles. Pied Crows and Greater Kestrels, which had built their nests on the cross-beams, incubated eggs and could only be seen by their tail feathers and heads sticking above a scraggy pile of sticks. Occasionally, herds of springbok were seen wandering across the veld and here and there a steenbok dashed away as we passed.
Reaching the town of Agenhuys, we headed south again on a good gravel road, stopping along the way to view the numerous Social Weaver nests. I became really excited when I found one with the telltale white droppings at the entrance to one of the nest chambers. A couple of telegraph poles later, we found the cause of these white droppings when we sighted our first Pygmy Falcon (5 on checklist) pair.
In my excitement, I failed to look around for other birds and it was my daughter who drew my attention to a pair of Karoo Long-billed Larks (8) that dutifully posed for a few photographs. Signage next to the roadside indicated that we were passing through the Black Mountain Conservancy, which sadly seems to be under threat from zinc mining, despite protecting numerous endemic plants and reptile species.
While scanning the mountain slope through binocs, I found a Booted Eagle circling up high, easily recognisable from its pale underwings. Aardvark burrows were plentiful and, in the low shrubbery, Scaly-feathered Finches and White-throated Canaries were regular sightings. Ground Agamas clung to the top of fence poles, using these to gain the maximum effect of the sun and to keep a look-out for approaching predators. The farm fence poles were also excellent for spotting Mountain Chats, Chat Flycatchers, Ant-eating Chats (6), Sickle-winged Chats and Sharp-clawed Larks. Our real purpose for taking this turnoff was to get to the Koa Dunes with their red Kalahari sands, and find the localised and endemic Red Lark (1). After driving several times through the stretch of dunes adjacent to the road, we eventually found a pair of Red Larks hiding from the heat at the base of a bush. One of the birds then obliged by hopping onto a fence post to show off its reddish colour and heavily streaked chest. An added bonus was a lone fawn-coloured lark and regular sightings of lark-like buntings.
From the dunes we took the road less travelled and continued along gravel to the forgotten hamlet of Naries. Along the way, Speckled Pigeons, Sclater’s Larks and Stark’s Larks were found at water troughs, where herds of sheep huddled in groups with their heads held low and panting. Black-headed Canaries and Pale-winged Starlings criss-crossed the sky and Cape and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings hopped around the boulder koppies. We also saw a family of four klipspringers, a small grey mongoose and plenty of rock hyrax in the koppies, all running off at high speed as we drove past.
As it became cooler, bat-eared foxes emerged from their daytime burrows to start feeding, and listened groundwards with their massive radar-like ears before digging furiously to catch a juicy, buried morsel.
Cinnamon-breasted Warblers and Karoo Scrub-Robins were found among the bushy stands and Karoo Korhaans were occasionally seen flying or calling. Namaqua and Burchell’s Sandgrouse feeding on grass seed at the side of the road froze briefly before erupting upwards when we stopped to try and photograph them. In the evening, sky flocks of Bradfield’s Swifts and White-rumped Swifts wheeled and turned as they fed together with Rock Martins and vibrantly coloured European Bee-eaters.
We all rose early and rapidly downed breakfast, and were heading towards the border post with Namibia at Onseepkans as the sun popped its head over the horizon. It’s a badly rutted gravel road, but the variety of habitats in such an arid landscape kept us enthralled. Among the boulder koppies, Cinnamon-breasted Buntings searched for their morning meal; at a river crossing, where stunted camel thorn acacias grew in the riverbed, an Acacia Pied Barbet called and a Pririt Batis pair and a Layard’s Tit-Babbler searched for insects. A roadside quarry along the route produced a pair of Black-winged Stilts and a pair of South African Shelducks (9) on the water’s edge, while a small flock of Red-faced Mousebirds flew down to drink and bathe in the shallows.
Soon the boulder koppies opened onto extensive gravel plains where ground squirrels and suricates sunned at their burrow entrances and occasionally Karoo Korhaans wandered off as we passed by. Namaqua Sandgrouse flocks were first heard and then seen, all heading in the same direction towards water where they would drink deeply before heading back to their feeding grounds.
Once again the telegraph poles proved great points for viewing Pale Chanting Goshawks and Pygmy Falcons and the vegetation soon became denser, with vast stands of quiver trees and haak-en-steek acacias (umbrella thorns) dotting the landscape. Sociable Weavers fed close to their massive straw nests in the quiver trees and, somewhere near by, I heard a pair of Bokmakieries calling when I stopped to photograph a hoodia plant and a particularly large weaver nest.
At Onseepkans, the life-giving Orange River has allowed vineyards to be cultivated across vast tracks of the floodplain. The palm trees near the police station were the reason we had driven all this way, and produced the expected nesting African Palm Swifts and four Rosy-faced Lovebirds (4) that flew out in a flash of pale green to perch and screech and preen.
At a water channel, Dusky Sunbirds (3), Orange River White-eyes (10), Cape Robin-Chats, Karoo Thrushes, Namaqua Doves, Lesser-swamp Warblers and Southern Masked Weavers added to our final tally of birds on this journey. With four new ‘lifers’ for me and a huge variety of habitats and other biodiversity, the trip to Pofadder was well worth it and the family agreed that perhaps I was still only partially insane, having redeemed myself somewhat in the last day or so, by bringing them to this special corner.
Season and Weather
Summer months can be extremely hot and afternoon thundershowers can be expected. Winter is pleasant with cooler more stable temperatures.
Habitats across this area are extremely varied from large granite koppies through to gravel plains, Kalahari sands and boulder-strewn koppies.
- Pygmy Falcon
- Red Lark
- Rosy-faced Lovebird
- Karoo Long-billed Lark
- Sclaters Lark
- Dusky Sunbird
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot around Pofadder
The Capped Wheatear (Hoëveldskaapwagter) roosts and nests in the burrows of rodents. It actively mobs and attacks snakes such as puff-adders and Cape cobras that try and enter their homes.
The Orange River White-eye (Gariepglasogie) is a common species that is easily identified from the Cape White-eye by its peach coloured flanks. It has also been known to hybridise with the Cape White-Eye.
Pofadder is situated on the main route from Upington to Springbok, 60km from the Onseepkans border post to Namibia.
Accommodation & Activities
Pofadder Hotel offers comfortable accommodation with restaurant facilities. There is also a large swimming pool. Pofadder acts as a gateway to Pella, with its historic cathedral and its date plantations. It is also close to the Namibian borderpost at Onseepkans.