Central Karoo – Commandodrift Nature Reserve

About the Birding

Roughly 60km from Cradock, in the heart of the vast central Karoo birding route, lies the 6 000 hectare Commando Drift Nature Reserve. Central around the impressive Commando Drift Dam, which is fed by four rivers, the dam ensures an abundance of biodiversity within an otherwise stark landscape. The lake itself covers roughly 950 hectares when full but water levels fluctuate in relation to rainfall and river flow.

Among the most striking features of the reserve is a series of spectacular dolerite and sandstone cliffs, as well as numerous popular hiking and off-road trails including the Bushman and Endurance hiking trails and Palingkloof jeep track. The reserve offers scenic chalets, campsites and direct lake access, making this a great option for the perfect weekend escape.

The vegetation within the Commando Drift Nature Reserve is a mixture of arid karoo veld and recovering grassland – an artefact of several decades of intensive livestock farming in the wider area. However, some 200 species can be seen within the reserve including a fair number of waterbirds on the dam itself. The Northern Black and Blue Korhaans are prevalent within the reserve and both the Ludwig’s and Kori Bustards are recorded regularly. A resident pair of Secretarybird are present and nest within the reserve. Karroid scrub supports the endearing Rufous-eared Warbler, Scaly-feathered Weaver, Karoo Scrub-robin, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Desert Cisticola, and Fairy Flycatcher. Riverine thickets should yield the Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler (Warbler), Grey Tit, Red-billed Firefinch, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Orange River White-eye, and Red-headed Finch. Large numbers of Lark-like Bunting and Grey-backed Sparrow-lark irrupt into the area after heavy rainfall, when grasses come to seed. Resident plains species include the Double-banded Courser, Spike-heeled and Thick-billed Larks, and Sickle-winged Chat.

Birds-of-prey abound. The large dolerite and sandstone cliffs supporting a breeding pair of Verreaux’s Eagle and, though these birds only nest every second year, they are often sighted soaring over the reserve. Martial Eagle is an occasional visitor and African Fish Eagle is resident on the dam. Smaller species include the Gabar Gosahwk, both Rock and Greater Kestrels, and the occasional Lanner Falcon.

Key species:

Martial and Verreaux’s Eagles, Double-banded Courser, Blue and Northern Black Korhaans, Kori and Ludwig’s Bustards.

About the Birding Site

The vast central Karoo is one of South Africa’s most iconic ecosystems, blanketed by semi-desert drought adapted vegetation and characterised by endless plains broken only by isolated conical hills. The region is dotted with picturesque towns and villages, many with a quaint charm and old-fashioned way about them. The largest among these is the picturesque town of Graaf-Rienet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa and the administrative centre for virtually the entire Karoo region.

However sparse the central Karoo may seem, it supports extremely high avian diversity including over 400 species and many of South Africa’s endemics and near-endemics. Among these are 10 species that are entirely restricted to the Karoo! Most Karoo birds are highly nomadic in nature, moving into areas following high rainfall, but a few are truly desert adapted and remain year-round. Key species include the Karoo Korhaan, Kori and Ludwig’s Bustards, Rufous-eared Warbler, Double-banded Courser, Sickle-winged Chat, and Pririt Batis to name a few.

As a birding route, the region is admittedly broad given the large geographic extent of the Karoo. Nevertheless, several key hotspots are included into the Central Karoo, all of which offer fantastic birding. Among these are the famed Mountain Zebra National Park, Camdeboo National Park, Commandodrift Nature Reserve and the Neiu-Bethesda district.

Key species:

Martial and Verreaux’s Eagles, Double-banded Courser, Blue and Northern Black Korhaans, Kori and Ludwig’s Bustards.

Other Related Information

Commando Drift is roughly 60km north of Cradock on the road to Tarkastad.

The nearest towns are:
Tarkastad: 35Km
Cradock: 55Km
Queenstown: 125Km

Other related information:

Access and facilities:
Gate times are 06:00 to 19:00 in summer, and 07:00 to 18:00 in winter. A nominal fee is payable to enter the reserve.
A 6km Bushman Trail and 28km circular endurance trail are provided and are well-maintained. Self-drive game viewing, boating and fishing are all permitted. Braai facilities and ablutions are available in the campsite.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
No Birder Friendly Establishments are currently available for the Commandodrift Nature Reserve. However, the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency has several accommodation options within the reserve itself. These include:
Self-catering Lake View Chalet: 1 bathroom – sleeps 4
Self-catering Fish Eagle Cabins: 2 basic, electrified stone cabins with ablution facility
Campsite: 2 caravan sites (electrified) and 6 tent sites – with ablution facilities

For more information, or to make a reservation, contact:
Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency
17-25 Oxford Street
East London CBD
Tel: 043 492 0081
Email: info@ecpta.co.za

Local guide information:
No Birder Friendly Tour Operators or local guides are currently available for Commandodrift Nature Reserve.

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

Key species:

Martial and Verreaux’s Eagles, Double-banded Courser, Blue and Northern Black Korhaans, Kori and Ludwig’s Bustards.

Contact details:

For more information, contact:

Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency

17-25 Oxford Street
East London CBD
Tel: +27 (0)43 492 0081
Email: info@ecpta.co.za

Reserve contact details:

Tel: +27 (0)87 286 6404