Wakkerstroom – it's for the birds
This was our welcome to the little town of Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga, an essential stop for anyone serious (or even not so serious) about birdwatching in South Africa.
Wakkerstroom is one of the oldest towns in Mpumalanga, and is famous for its prolific birdlife – there are more than 370 bird species recorded in the town and its surrounding grasslands.
Birders get particularly excited about its endemic bird species like Rudd’s and Botha’s larks, as well as high-altitude grassland species like yellow-breasted pipits, ground woodpeckers, southern bald ibises, sentinel rock thrushes and Drakensberg prinias. For beginners there are plenty of other distinctive avian species to spot, the largest and perhaps most distinctive being wattled, grey crowned and blue cranes.
There are also dairies that make delicious cheese, art studios and galleries, and welcoming locals, including lots of interesting characters who have moved here for a quieter life.
Regardless of your level of experience, it’s a good idea to book one of the BirdLife South Africa guides or associated freelancers who are based in Wakkerstroom, where Birdlife South Africa has an office and training facilities.
A typical morning’s birding starts early. We met Sifiso Magagula at the post office at 6.30am. Having seen a good variety of the area’s birds on a previous trip, we were targeting a Rudd’s lark, one of the range-restricted specials of the region and the reason many international birders ‘flock’ to Wakkerstroom.
Sifiso took us to a grassy slope that belongs to a community living close to Wakkerstroom (which is translated as 'awake stream' from Afrikaans). We paid R20 (per car) at the local kraal (a traditional rural settlement) and signed a book, an important thank you to the people who allow birders on their land. Then we drove down to the Fickland Pan.
Sifiso is intimately familiar with the local birds – he has been studying the area’s larks for years – and he was soon pointing out two birds that were displaying and calling overhead: 'Rudd’s lark!' We spent a pleasant hour getting better views of the birds on the ground and in the air. We didn't get good photos but our patience was rewarded with a hyperactive bonus pair of pink-billed larks that showed up for comparison.
With or without a guide in tow, there are a number of scenic drives through the agricultural fields around the town. You can spot groups of blue cranes, red bishops and extravagant long-tailed widow birds (which look so plain in winter). If you’re observant, you can also spot blue korhaan, northern black korhaan and even Barrow’s (white-bellied) korhaan.
In addition to the bird life, our latest trip coincided with the annual autumn eruption of pink and white cosmos flowers, while maize was ripening in all the fields and fat herds of cattle, sheep and goats were dotted over the still-lush hillsides.
If you’re after a more casual birding experience, the large wetland adjacent to the town is accessible and enjoyable thanks to a number of walkways and hides – and, of course, a range of obliging and beautiful species including pied and malachite kingfishers, African purple swamphen and the resident grey crowned cranes. You can also listen out for melodic species like the little rush-warbler. If you’re really lucky, you can spot African rail or even red-chested flufftail.
The town itself is quaint and quirky. During our visit, the residents of Wakkerstroom were hosting its annual music festival. We combined mornings of birding with lazy lunches at some of the town’s restaurants, like The Garret Emporium and House of Baxburg, and attended a fantastic concert by the Classic Jazz Masters at Papillion, followed by an amazingly generous meal at Bistro Metamorphosis. I started with spanakopita, followed by slow braised lamb, with fresh-baked rhubarb pie to follow (although I was too full to enjoy the dessert).
There are also dairies that make delicious cheese, art studios and galleries, and welcoming locals, including lots of interesting characters who have moved here for a quieter life. This makes people-watching rewarding too. But, really, Wakkerstroom is for the birds.