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The Vaal Birding Route extends from the green hills of Devon in the east to the Vredefort Dome in the west. Within this region occurs a wide variety of habitats including extensive highveld grasslands, rolling hills cloaked with a variety of woodland types and extensive natural pans and wetland areas. The vast shoreline of the Vaal and the richly diversity of riverine habitats along the Vaal, the Klip, the Suikerbos and other rivers, all contribute to a region which is rich in natural treasures. Vaal has a relatively small altitudinal range, from about 1 300 m to 1 900 meters above sea level. Despite its small area and lack of sub-tropical woodlands, Vaal has over 360 species of birds, including a number which are more easily seen here than anywhere else.
Devon, in the north- eastern corner is the centre of a rich farming area, and offers beautiful rolling grasslands interspersed with cultivated fields. This area, part of Lesedi, is rich in upland seeps, wide vleis and river systems. It also boasts numbers of farm dams and natural pans. The grasslands here are undoubtedly the richest in Vaal and hold substantial populations of Blue Korhaan, Blue Crane, Orange River Francolin, Pink-billed Lark and Cuckoo Finch; all sought-after species in the region as well as South African endemics including Northern Black Korhaan, Cape Longclaw and Cape Weaver. In the summer, the grasslands are the scene of brilliantly colourful displays as a host of widowbirds and bishops wear their brilliant breeding feathers; Fan-tailed Widowbird – rare elsewhere in Gauteng is common here. Cisticolas are plentiful and the localized Pale-crowned Cisticola occurs in seasons of good rain.
Depending on soil types and grass cover, a number of larks are possible; Eastern Clapper Lark is common around Suikerbosrand and to the South, while Melodious Lark can be found right across the region in the right habitat. Highly localized and sought after by birders, the endangered African Grass-Owl occurs widely across the region, but particularly at Suikerbosrand and Klipkop. Other common and widespread grassland species included Cloud Cisticola, African Quailfinch and that iconic Highveld performer: the Long-tailed Widowbird with its remarkable jet-black streamers.
On the border of Lesedi, close to Nigel lies Blesbokspruit, one of South Africa's most loved wetland birding hot-spots. The Blesbokspruit wetlands, which are protected by the Ramsar treaty, are best known through Marievale Bird Sanctuary. This bird sanctuary is ever popular with photographers who take advantage of several excellent bird hides to get up close to an assortment of ducks, kingfishers, rallids, herons, and shorebirds. Marievale is known as a rarities hotspot, regularly producing rare birds. In recent years, these have included Slaty Egret, Black-tailed Godwit, Western Marsh Harrier, Great Bittern, Spotted, and Corn Crake. Such elusive rallids as African Rail, Baillon's Crake and Red-chested Flufftail are regular here but also occur at other wetland sites within Vaal.
Around Heidelberg, the imposing hills of the Suikerbosrand range dominates the landscape, home to rather isolated populations of bird species, typically associated with the Drakensberg Mountains and Mpumalanga highlands. Top birds here include Grey-winged Francolin, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Cape Canary and Yellow Bishop. Rather mystically, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Eagle-Owl and African Rock Pipit occur at low densities in the range. Yellow-breasted Pipit is an erratic and poorly known endemic, which visits the area in the winter months as it seeks refuge from the cold extremes of its breeding range on the higher mountains of Mpumalanga and the Drakensberg. Throughout the year, Cape Rock-Thrush and Mountain Wheatear are bold and colourful denizens of rocky ridges and adjacent homesteads,
Suikerbosrand is perhaps the centerpiece of the Vaal Birding Route, and contains both high-altitude grasslands (up to 1 900 m), wooded valleys and an interesting expanse of thornveld; which holds a host of Kalahari specials representative of arid woodland which occurs at a number of sites on the route, and holds a wide variety of sought after endemics. This woodland extends from the south-western corner of Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve right down to the extreme south-western corner of Vaal, and occurs in an accessible patch at Goeiehoek. Species that are typical and widespread in this habitat type include Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, Ashy Tit, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Green-winged Pytilia, Long-billed Crombec, Red-headed Finch, Acacia Pied Barbet, Kalahari Scrub- Robin, Long-tailed Paradise-Whydah and Golden-breasted Bunting and Cardinal Woodpecker.
While the acacia woodland typically dominates flatter, alluvial soils, mixed woodland and scrub is more prevalent in hilly areas, valleys and kloofs. These mixed woodlands are widespread at Suikerbosrand, Nature Reserve, Klipkraal, Goeiehoek and the Holfontein area, but occur widely in Central and northern Vaal as well. Some of the species typical of these woodlands also occur widely in gardens in the region, including Cape White-eye, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Fiscal Flycatcher, Green Wood-hoopoe, Cape Robin-chat and Karoo-thrush. Other species typical of these habitats include Bar-throated Apalis, Bokmakierie, Cape Weaver, Brown-backed Honeybird, Neddicky and Red-throated Wryneck. In the winter months they are joined by the charming Fairy Flycatcher, which leaves its breeding grounds on the top of the Lesotho highlands to avoid the heavy snowfall which usually occurs there. The Holfontein area in the far South-Western Corner of Vaal has a good variety of acacia and mixed woodland types, and is probably the best place to see Orange River White-eye, as well as all the other woodland species listed above.
Vaal covers part of the wintering range of the worlds furthest-migrating Raptor, the Amur Falcon, which comes all the way from the Amur basin in North-eastern Asia. These small falcons are often seen in large numbers are occur on all the grassland areas across Vaal. Both Heidelberg and Vereeniging have roost sites for these remarkable small falcons (which also include the less common Lesser Kestrel). Another migrant species which offers a real spectacle is the Black-winged Pratincole. This migrant from western Asia is often present in huge flocks and the Vaal Dam Bird count in 2011 produced a total of 72 000 Pratincoles! Devon, Marievale, fields adjacent to Suikerbosrand and the Vaal Dam are places to see these majestic swallow-like birds, but they can turn up in any open country and roost on recently mowed fields, ploughed lands and the edge of pans.
South Africa's Highveld boasts a large number of natural pans, and Vaal is no exception. These pans are seasonal and water levels vary from year to year. When conditions are right they may hold large numbers of waterbirds, including Flamingoes, Ibis, Herons, Grebes and Waterfowl. One of the best pans in Vaal is Leeukuil Pan, just outside Sharpeville. It may share similar birds with Klipkop Farm, Grootvlei Pan and some of the wetlands in the Devon grassland, but Leeukuil Pan is the largest of these waterbodies and may hold over 3000 water-birds at times, including large numbers of shorebirds in the summer months.
34 species of Raptors are known to occur in Vaal. Resident and widespread species include Greater Kestrel, Rock Kestrel, Verreaux's Eagle, Lanner Falcon, Jackal Buzzard, African Fish-Eagle and the ubiquitous Black-shouldered Kite. Long-crested Eagle has shown an extension of its range into Vaal and is now known to breed in the area – particularly at Henley on Klip. Apart from the Amur Falcon's and Lesser Kestrels summer sees the arrival of several other species most notably Steppe Buzzard, but also three species of Harrier – Marievale Bird Sanctuary is probably one of the best places in South Africa to see Western Marsh Harrier, while the both Montagu's and Pallid Harrier range more widely over the Vaal grasslands from east to west.
The Vaal Dam is one of the largest inland water bodies in South Africa and with a shoreline of over 950km it has more shoreline than KwaZulu-Natal! Due the varied nature of the shoreline, development and the large amount of recreational activity, which takes place on the Vaal Dam, by far the best birding is actually outside Vaal at South Bay, and a shallow keeled boat is required to view the birds there. The Vaal Dam is the focus of an annual waterbird count, and in 2010, 72, 000 Black-winged Pratincoles where counted – a number which has lead to a re-assessment of this species global population estimate. The Vaal Dam also holds a significant number of Goliath Heron, Caspian Tern, and usually one or two of the rare Lesser Black-backed Gull.
The river has been the focus of large scale urban development along its banks, which has much reduced the bird diversity and numbers compared to historical times. However there are a number of areas where birding remains good and a range of aquatic species can be found. The Vaal River Barrage Reservoir has stable water levels and Cloudy Creek and the Taaibosspruit are two navigable tributaries which are the focal point for Vaal River birding cruises, a relatively new form of birding that can be expected to increase in future. Species such as Black and Goliath Heron, African Snipe, Whiskered Tern and African Black Duck are amongst the many species which can be seen on such a birding trip.
- South African Shelduck
- Greater Flamingo
- Western Marsh-Harrier
- Black Harrier
- Orange River Francolin
- Grey-winged Francolin
- Blue Korhaan
- Spotted Crake
- Baillon's Crake
- Blue Crane
- Double-banded Courser
- Black-winged Pratincole
- Caspian Tern
- African Grass-Owl
- Sentinel Rock-Thrush
- Pale-crowned Cisticola
- Orange River White-eye
- Pink-billed Lark
- Melodious Lark
- Fairy Flycatcher
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