Dragon Peaks Weekend Away

Dragon Peaks 27 February to 1 March

Report by Paul and Sally Bartho

Sally and I set out several days early to scout the area around Dragon Peaks to see where we could lead the group birding for the weekend.

We set off in trepidation as the weather forecast was very unfavourable – rain every day all day and heavy at times. We arrived at lunchtime on Tuesday 24 February. Our campsite was quickly organised.

As we were undecided about the birding program for the weekend, we set off to check out the birding around Bell Park Dam with Maureen Geall – another early arrival.

We had been given an offer to take a motorised pontoon around the dam by one of our members who was joining the outing – Rex Aspeling. Birding around the area of Bell Park Dam seemed to have potential and we thought that this might be a relaxing way to enjoy Saturday afternoon.

That night the rains arrived during dinner – pouring heavily until past two o’clock the next morning. We awoke to a gloomy morning and went off to see what birding at Monk’s Cowl could offer us.

We took the walk through the forest and into the grassland down to the waterfall.

A long way down and it seemed a longer way back uphill. Birding through the forest was quiet, however the grassland area was more interesting. There were numerous Cisticolas, the odd Pipit, Widowbirds, Bishops, Stonechats and the like. We were not convinced that this would be an appropriate place to bring the group.

Norman did find a Swee Waxbill at Monk’s Cowl at the end of the weekend.

Swee Waxbill - Norman
Swee Waxbill – Norman

That afternoon the trails around Dragon Peaks including the forest walk were negotiated and proved relatively quiet as well.

The next day – Thursday – we took a recce of the Blue Grotto forest walk at the Drakensberg Sun. Lovely bright sunny day and the forest was alive with numerous interesting bird species. That settled where we would go on Saturday morning.

We then went to see if the White-fronted Bee-eater roost still existed at the Little Tugela (one km. off the Winterton road along the D57). Their roost was overgrown. However, Brown-throated Martins had established a roost in the sandbanks along both sides of the road as we approached the bridge. On the other side of the bridge we chased an Orange-breasted Waxbill and White-winged Widowbirds to get photos – no great success.

After another kilometre we came to a large cattle ranch – birds every which way – all 4 species of Ibis, Pied Starlings, Queleas, Black Crows, White-necked Ravens, Steppe and Jackal Buzzards, Amur Falcons, hundreds of White-faced Ducks in the dam, Red-billed Teals, Yellow-billed Ducks, Common Sandpiper, Three-banded Plovers, Blacksmith Lapwings, Rufous-naped and Red-capped Larks, Cape Longclaw, Black-headed heron, Cattle Egret, Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese, South African Cliff-Swallows, Barn and White-throated Swallows, Southern Grey-headed Sparrows, Cape and African Pied Wagtails. Wow.

That sealed another must visit place for the weekend.

A few more people arrived on Thursday with most coming at lunchtime on Friday. In all the group consisted of 20 persons at Dragon Peaks – 8 of us (Peter and Frankie, Maureen, Paddy and Helen, Sabrina, Sally and I) camping. Barry, Merle, Heather and Stanley, Jackie and Roland, Ismail, Hennie and Decklan, Mike and Jane, Norman in Dragon Peaks accommodation. Then there was Dave and Penny Rimmer at the Drakensberg Sun and Rex Aspeling at Bell Park Dam. We were 23 in all. A large group.

Friday night we braaied in the resort’s covered braai area. The program was set – quite a convivial evening despite the drizzle.

Braaing at Dragon Peaks boma
Braaing at Dragon Peaks boma

The next morning at 07h00 we all set off for Drakensberg Sun. It was overcast but not raining. We split into 2 groups – the tortoises and the hares. The hares set off first up the Blue Grotto trail and the tortoises followed 10 minutes behind.

Before we even set off a Forest Canary sat very obligingly out in the open and we all had good views of it.

Forest Canary
Forest Canary

Both groups had good views of most of the forest specials – Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin, Bush Blackcap,  African Olive Pigeon and Lemon Dove to name a few.  The Barratt’s Warbler was heard but not seen. On the way back drizzle set in but fortunately the rain got no heavier.

On the way back to Dragon Peaks, Norman spotted this Secretarybird among other bewildering birds.

Norman's Secretarybird and friend.
Norman’s Secretarybird and friend.

Saturday afternoon we set off at 14h00 from Dragon Peaks to Bell Park Dam. There we met with Rex and James (the captain of the pontoon).

James - Ismail
James – Ismail

Off we set for a couple of hours circling the dam. Some birds seen along the Bell Park Dam:

African Black Duck were seen as well as a number of other ducks. However the highlight of the tour was definitely good sightings of a Half-collared Kingfisher. This was a lifer for a number of people on board. Even the persistent drizzle did not dampen our spirits.

On the way home we came accross an alate erruption and the raptors were buzzing low over the road – Lanner Falcon, African Harrier-Hawk, Yellow-billed Kites.

That evening we gathered at the Dragon Peaks braai boma – did our bird list – some 150 different species. Then as asked, each person presented an interesting or unusual fact about birds. The effort everyone went into to research something different was amazing. In the end a bottle of red wine went to Paddy for his info on the behaviour of Sooty Terns which scoop up a mouthful of sea water on their return to the roost. This they deposit on grass eventually killing it. The dried grass is then used in nest building.

Sunday morning was an early start – 06h30. We took a walk around Dragon Peaks checking out the bird life in and around the dams. Possibly the best sighting was that of an African Reed Warbler – identified by its call.

The idea was then to visit the Little Tugela and cattle ranch which most people did on their way home.

You can view the bird list by clicking here. Note a few additional birds were seen during the morning including Bronze Mannikin and Lesser Grey Shrike

The bird of the weekend was the Half-collared Kingfisher.