Birding in the Karoo

Eastern Long-billed Lark

Words by Alan Collett

The semi-arid scrubland of the Karoo has some fascinating endemic or near-endemic bird species. Although it doesn’t host the sheer density of species found in the northern regions of the country, the open landscapes offer great birding for beginners and specialists.

Spike-heeled lark
Spike-heeled Lark – one of the many charismatic Karoo LBJs. Photograph Alan Collett

Travelling from Cape Town, the first Karoo special can be found north of Ceres in the Tanqua Karoo, home to Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. This small, dark bird is often referred to as a miniature Rock Jumper because of the way it bounds over the rocks and hides in them. Nowhere is it abundant and this is considered a very good sighting.

Travelling further north one passes through Karoo Long-billed Lark country. This species borders onto the distribution of Cape, Agulhas and Eastern Long-billed Larks and it is always a challenge to work out which one you are looking at.

Around Williston and moving into Bushmanland you will find one of the true Karoo endemics, the Red Lark. They have a restricted range so you may need local knowledge to know where to look for them.

Sclater’s Lark can be found here too, and if you are lucky enough to find its nest in the gravel plains you will marvel at the little cup built of small stones and submerged below the general ground level.

Eastern Long-billed Lark
Eastern Long-billed Lark, easily confused with other larks. Photograph Alan Collett

Heading back in a rough south-easterly direction, look out for another Karoo endemic, the Black-eared Sparrowlark. The male’s all-black head and underparts make it easily distinguishable from Grey-backed Sparrowlark.

Further east you will encounter Karoo Eremomela. This longer-tailed Eremomela with the greenish back moves around in small parties. They move from one bush to another, entering  at the base of the bush and moving towards the top, gleaning small insects as they go.

The Chats are also well represented in this semi-desert. Tractrac, Karoo, Sickle-winged, Familiar and Anteating all occur here. The two that can be confused are Sickle-wing and Familiar but the former is slightly smaller, paler, has a salmon coloured rump and does not flick its wings as much.

Karoo Korhaan
Karoo Korhaan are found mostly on the western side of the country. Photograph Alan Collett.

Bustards and Korhaans are synonymous with the Karoo. Ludwig’s Bustard is widespread and can occur in flocks of up to 50 at a food source. The massive Kori Bustard – often referred to as the heaviest flying bird in the world – is a common resident of the Plains of Camdeboo south of Graaff-Reinet.

This is the area where Blue and Southern Black Korhaan ranges overlap and over the Bankberg, in the Cradock district, you’ll find Northern Black Korhaans.

Other Karoo birds in this area are Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Dusky Sunbird and Fairy Flycatcher. Two special’s that frequent ironstone koppies are Layard’s Tit-babbler and African Rock Pipit and can mostly be located by their call.

Layard’s has a warbled call but its staccato rattle, like a miniature machine gun is more recognisable.

Layard's Tit-babbler
Layard’s Tit-babbler. Photograph Alan Collett

The Rock Pipit has a plaintive two syllable whistle that is evocatively typical of the Karoo.

Many raptors occur in the Karoo, but by far the most charismatic is the Black Eagle, now renamed the Verreaux’s Eagle. These master flyers frequent the mountain cliffs where they nest and dassies (rock rabbits) in the koppies. The sight of a pair of these eagles riding the wind bouncing off a ridge without flapping their wings is an unforgettable Karoo sighting.




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