Amathole Mountains Route – Amathole Forest Complex

About the Birding

The Amathole Forest Complex has been regarded as an Important Bird Area, owing to the large number of endemic and bird-species on offer including nationally significant populations of several key species. Perhaps most exciting among these are the Black Harrier, Knysna Woodpecker, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, Bush Blackcap, and Cape Parrot. Several days are required in the Hogsback and Stutterheim forests to maximize chances at seeing the abovementioned species, as well as Orange Ground Thrush.

Montane grasslands abound on the northern flanks of most of the Amathole mountains and rich patches are accessible from both Hogsback and Stutterheim. Search for Black Harrier quartering low, as well as Black-winged Lapwing in any fallow fields or short pastures. Denham’s Bustard and both Blue and Grey Crowned Cranes are all fairly common. Check protea stands for both species of sugarbird, as both Cape and Gurney’s Sugarbird have been reported intermittently. This is one of the few places in South Africa where both species of sugarbird have been seen. Other notable species include the Cape Grassbird, Cape Longclaw, Cloud and Wing-snapping Cisticola, and Yellow Bishop. Stunted grassland at higher altitudes, particularly where barren rocky slopes are prominent, support Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat and Sentinel Rock-thrush. Barratt’s Warbler is common in the scrub above the treeline. Those willing to walk the final stretch towards the top of the highest peaks will likely be rewarded with the Drakensburg Rockjumper.

Forests on the southern flanks of the Amathole mountains host an incredible diversity of birds. Cape Parrot occur in considerable numbers, this being one of the last strongholds for the species, and an early morning or late afternoon lookout over a patch of mature forest is your best chance of seeing these endangered birds. The ‘Away with the Fairies’ backpackers in the centre of Hogsback town offers several fantastic vantage points from where to watch for the species. Listen for their harsh screeching calls and scan any exposed perches carefully. The forest interior supports Knysna Woodpecker, Bush Blackcap, Forest Canary, Brown Scrub-robin and Chorister Robin-chat; though knowledge of their calls is essential to success. Other notable mentions include Green Twinspot, Swee Waxbill, African Firefinch, Barratt’s Warbler, White-starred Robin, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Dark-backed Weaver, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Grey Cuckooshrike, Olive Woodpecker, Olive Bush-shrike and Orange Ground Thrush. African Emerald Cuckoo call from taller trees in the town itself during the summer months while the shy Mountain Wagtail prefers turbulent streams and waterfalls. Both Tambourine and Lemon doves are commonly heard and are regularly flush from edges of the trails through the forest.

Raptor diversity is extremely high in the region. Crowned Eagle can regularly be seen soaring over the forest canopy, along with both the Jackal and Forest Buzzards. African Goshawk and Black Sparrowhawk are both fairly common, particularly in the vicinity of the Hogsback Arboretum, while the Peregrine and Lanner Falcons nest on rocky cliffs and ravines.

In comparison to other large forest tracts further west, between Port Elizabeth and George, this area supports a considerably greater proportion of threatened and endemic vertebrate species. Notable mentions include the Tree Dassie, Samango Monkey, Blue Duiker and Giant Golden Mole. Leopard and Honey Badger are also reportedly present. The Amatolas are the only home to the extremely range-restricted Amatola Toad and they also support Hogsback Chirping Frog, which is endemic to these mountains. The South African endemic Amatola Flat Gecko is another inhabitant of the Amatolas, as are Southern Dwarf Chameleon and an isolated population of Natal Black Snake. The tributaries of the Kieskamma and Buffalo river systems, hold two endemic threatened and highly localised fish species: the Eastern Province Rocky and Border Barb.

Key species:

Cape Parrot, Orange Ground Thrush, Knysna Woodpecker, Chorister Robin-chat, Barratt’s Warbler, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Ground Woodpecker, Bush Blackcap

About the Birding Site

The Amathola Mountain range consists of a series of montane forest blocks, including several State forests, the Mpofu and Fort Fordyce nature reserves, surrounding fragmented urban and rural areas and montane grassland. The forest complex runs from Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve and Katberg State Forest in the west to Kologha State Forest and Fort Cunningham in the east. It includes large State-owned forest blocks such as Katberg State Forest, Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve, …

… Auckland Forest, Auckland Nature Reserve, Hogsback State Forest, Pirie Forest, Cwencwe Forest, Isidenge State Forest, Kologha State Forest and Kubusi State Forest, as well as smaller patches that provide continuity between the larger blocks, especially in the Keiskammahoek area. These patches include Wolf River Main Forest, Malan Forest, Cata Forest, Lenye Forest, Lotutu Forest, Gongoo Forest, Mt Thomas Forest, Abafazi Forest, Quza Forest, Mt Charybois Forest and Izelene Forest, and other small forest fragments adjoining them.

The route itself is centred around the small town of Keiskammahoek and is roughly bounded by the towns of Stutterheim, Hogsback, Alica and Dimbaza. A number of high peaks dominate the overall geography including the Katberg (1 828 m a.s.l.) and Devil Bellow’s Neck (1 726 m a.s.l.) on the western boundary, Elandsberg (2 016 m a.s.l.) and Gaika’s Kop (1 963 m a.s.l.) in the centre of the complex, and Kubusi (1 662 m a.s.l.) and Dohne (1 454 m a.s.l.) peaks in the Kubusi State Forest in the east. The areas at highest altitude, particularly in the rain-shadow, are characterised by a mixture of montane grassland and fynbos heath. Further south, the topography becomes gentler, characterised by lower peaks such as Murray’s Krans (927 m a.s.l.) in Pirie Forest. Much of the area comprises steep cliff-faces, with numerous perennial and non-perennial streams. The largest of these, the Buffalo River, feeds the Maden and Rooikrantz dams, which supply water to the greater King William’s Town/Bisho District. The area receives rainfall mostly in summer and autumn, ranging from 800 mm per annum at the lowest altitudes to 2 000 mm per annum at the highest points.

Owing to this incredible habitat diversity, the region boasts a high diversity of bird species including nationally significant populations of several endemic and threatened species. Among these are the endangered Cape Parrot, localized Orange Ground Thrush, Bush Blackcap and Drakensburg Rockjumper. Perhaps the most accessible areas to explore are the Hogsback and Stutterheim areas that, together, share a similar species diversity and several days are recommended in the area to maximise chances at all species. Outer-lying sites on the Amathole Mountains Route include Cathcart and Queenstown areas, the Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve, King William’s Town, and Readsdale Forest Complex.

Key species:

Cape Parrot, Orange Ground Thrush, Knysna Woodpecker, Chorister Robin-chat, Barratt’s Warbler, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Ground Woodpecker, Bush Blackcap

Other Related Information

Directions to Hogsback:
The village of Hogsback is easily accessible from Grahamstown, following the R67 to Fort Beaufort. At the main intersection, take the R63 through Alice and finally the R345 to Hogsback. Alternatively, from East London, follow the’ ‘N2’ to King William’s Town. Continue towards Alice o the R63, turning to the right along the R345 to Hogsback. Several trails, of various lengths and intensities, lead from the town itself. The walk to the Big Tree, via Swallow Tail Falls, is recommended and takes roughly 1-2 hours.

Other related information:

Alternatively, visit the Hogsback Arboretum and follow the short trail into the forest beyond the parking. This trail begins and ends at -32.5931, 26.9354. Alternatively, follow Wolfridge Road beyond Hobbiton. Take the Madonna and Child trail into the forest at -32.6058, 26.9633 and follow the signs to the Big Tree. All forest specials are possible along all three of these trails. Continuing along Wolfridge Road will take you near the summit of the Hogsback where most grassland and highland species can be seen. Alternatively, continue through Hogsback Village on the R345 in the direction of Catchcart to access grassland habitats. Note that many of these roads are forestry tracks and road conditions vary.
Notable points of interest include:
Away with the Fairies Backpackers: -32.6009, 26.9411
Hogsback information: -32.5983, 26.9384
Hogsback Arboretum: -32.5907, 26.9352

Directions to Stutterheim:
To reach Stutterheim from East London, take the N6 north through Macleantown and Amabele. At the main traffic lights in town, turn to the left and follow the R352 for roughly 1km before taking the signposted turning to the right toward the Kologha Picnic Spot (-33.5384, 27.3644). A number of trails lead into the forest from here, where all forest specials can be seen. Alternatively, continue to the R352 to Gubu Dam where most specials can be found. Note that access to the intricate Kubusi Indigenous State Forest is no longer possible, requiring permission from forestry officials and a detailed knowledge of the road networks.
Notable points of interest include:
Kologha Picnic spot: -32.5388, 27.3645
The Shire Eco Lodge: -32.5366, 27.3844
Gubu Dam: -32.6097, 27.2789

Recommended accommodation nearby:
No Birder Friendly Establishments are currently available in either Hogsback or Stutterheim, however several accommodation options are available in both villages to suit a range of budgets and requirements.
Some suggestions for Hogsback include:
The Edge Mountain Retreat B&B: 082 603 5246
Laragh on Hogsback self-catering: 045 962 1187, 082 781 0470
Away With The Fairies backpackers and camping: 045 962 1031, 076 230 9352,
Some suggestions for Stutterheim include:
Wattlechop Self-catering: 083 537 6568
Amatola Mountain Lodge: 043 842 0173, 072 568 7926
The Shire Eco Lodge: 043 683 2452, 072 364 8077

Local guide information:
Guided bird walks are available at a cost of R300 for a group of 1-2 people, or R400 for groups of 3-4 people with Dr. Kate Carstens and Cassie Carstens. Walks can be arranged at or by visiting the Hogsback Tourism offices in the centre of Hogsback village.

Text prepared by:
Daniel Keith Danckwerts (Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Tours)

Key species:

Cape Parrot, Orange Ground Thrush, Knysna Woodpecker, Chorister Robin-chat, Barratt’s Warbler, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Ground Woodpecker, Bush Blackcap

Contact details:

Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency

17-25 Oxford Street
East London CBD
Tel: +27 (0)43 492 0081

Hogsback Tourism

Tel: +27 (0)83 458 3414

Stutterheim Tourism