07 August 2014 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Birding at Barberspan, North West province

A visit to Barberspan, a natural pan in South Africa’s North West province, to look for returning seasonal migrants turned up a few surprises.

Birding at Barberspan, August 2014
Eurasian curlew spotted at Barberspan in August 2014

It was impossible to miss the bird standing in the middle of the muddy track. It didn’t look like anything else we had seen thus far at  Barberspan Bird Sanctuary in the North West province. In fact, it didn’t look like any bird we’d seen inland in South Africa before. Balanced on long legs with a disproportionately long beak and bold wing markings, it was just too far away for me to get a good picture of it; but I managed a record shot.

This kind of sighting is one of many things that make birding at Barberspan so rewarding.

With much excitement, and after a brief exchange with rare-bird expert Trevor Hardaker (who publishes weekly updates on special sightings in South Africa), my partner confirmed that we were looking at a Eurasian curlew, a non-breeding Palearctic migrant and one of the first summer migrants of the season, probably on a brief stopover en route to the coast.

This kind of sighting is one of many things that make birding at Barberspan so rewarding. The sanctuary is a Ramsar site (in other words, a wetland of international importance) for migratory birds and waterfowl . 

At this time of year (early August), you never know what will turn up – or how long it will stick around. 

Another special sighting was the curlew sandpiper, also an early migrant. There is always the chance of a whimbrel or a godwit, as many migrating aquatic species use the pan as an important stopover.

The largest of several bird hides at Barberspan Bird Sanctuary

You don’t, however, have to be a brilliant birder to enjoy what the sanctuary has to offer. While my partner is mildly obsessed, the birding was good enough for me to thoroughly enjoy the three hours we spent slowly exploring the northern shore of the large natural pan, which is about 600m wide and 1 550m long.

Almost all South African duck species have been recorded at the lake and we recorded most of them in no time at all, while the reeds held great birds too, like the very vocal lesser swamp warblers. In a couple of hours, we recorded more than 60 species of birds, and for the first 40 minutes or so were ticking off more than a bird a minute – and that’s on a late-winter’s afternoon when the numbers are relatively low.

In summer, more than 400 species have been recorded in and around the reserve, from vultures to seedeaters. As a perennial, natural, shallow alkaline lake, Barberspan is one of the few permanent natural water bodies on the western Highveld and provides food and shelter during the dry months for large numbers of waterfowl.

Sunset over Barberspan

While they’re as common a bird as you can imagine, I enjoyed seeing thousands of red-knobbed coots that have been wintering on the pan; in some years, more than 16 000 individuals have been counted!

We also saw a mating pair of Kittlitz’s plovers (the sweetest little waders you can imagine), large flocks of geese, and a magnificent marsh owl gliding low and silently over the grasslands as the sun began to set. The African marsh harrier that was quartering the lake shore was also a particular highlight.

The reserve is situated between the North West towns of Sannieshof and Delareyville and is an easy three-hour drive from Gauteng. The roads are good, there are a number of bird hides and we had the place all to ourselves during our visit! 

All images by Dianne Tipping-Woods and Joël Roerig of Afribird

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