Central Karoo – Mountain Zebra National Park

About the Birding

Mountain Zebra National Park was proclaimed in 1937, to protect the remaining Cape Mountain Zebras. Over the years, the reserve has been expanded to now include 28 400 hectares of untouched Karoo wilderness. Other mammals have been progressively reintroduced including African Buffalo, Black Rhinocerous, Black Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, Gemsbok, Grey Rhebok, African Cheetah and African Lion – rendering this a ‘Big 5’ reserve. As such, it is rightly regarded as one of the South Africa’s top wildlife viewing destinations.

Some 275 bird species have also been recorded from the park and, although it is no longer permissible to hike, it remains one of the top birding hotspots on the central Karoo birding route. At least 2 days are recommended to cover the park thoroughly though it is suitable for a day trip from either Graaf Rienet or Cradock.

The entrance gate is roughly 1.5Km south of the R61 on a well-maintained gravel road. Check the plains on either side of this stretch for Northern Black Korhaan, which is common throughout the park, while Greater Kestrel is frequently seen on the telephone wires. Several small drinking pools at the entrance gate attract a variety of seedeaters including the Red-billed Firefinch, Southern Masked Weaver, Yellow Canary, Red-headed Finch and Scaly-throated Weaver. Watch out for Village Indigobird – a scarce resident in the park. The small dam to the left of the entrance can also be particularly productive and is best viewed from the offices. Inside the reserve, you are confined to your vehicle except at designated picnic spots and viewpoints, where it is possible to alight from your vehicle at own risk.

Most of the low-laying areas are covered by dry Karoo scrub, with the Ubejane Loop and Link Road being especially productive. Search for Eastern Clapper, Spike-heeled, Melodious, and Large-billed Larks and for both Nicholson’s and African Pipits. Eastern Long-billed Lark occurs, though the birds here appear strikingly similar to Karoo Long-billed Larks. Sickle-winged Chat co-occurs with Familiar Chat and caution is required to separate these two similar looking species. The endearing Rufous-eared Warbler is common, as is Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Lark-like Bunting, Black-headed Canary and Grey-backed Sparrow-larks irrupt into grassy areas in incredible numbers during the summer rains, especially when grasses come to seed. The Red-headed Finch and Scaly-feathered Weaver are also especially noticeable when grasses come to seed. Double-banded Courser is regular throughout the park, though the lower sections of the Sonnenrust 4×4 trail to the north are best for this species. Kori and Ludwig’s Bustards and both Northern Black and Blue Korhaans can be seen throughout the central regions of the park, the latter preferring grassy areas along the Link Road. Karoo Korhaan is surprisingly absent. The Juriesdam 4×4 through the east of the park deserves special mention as Pink-billed Lark and African Quailfinch are common along this route – though both species are seemingly absent from elsewhere in the park.

Acacia thickets occur along the many dry river gulleys, especially the Wilgerboomrivier which flows through the centre of the park. Pririt Batis, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Acacia Pied Barbet, Grey and Southern Black Tits, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Black-throated Canary, White-browed and Karoo Scrub-robins, Karoo Thrush, Cape White-eye, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler (Warbler), and Fairy Flycatcher are all fairly common in this habitat. Common Scimitarbill and Crested Barbet have both recently been confirmed for the park and appear to be becoming increasingly more common; search for these two species especially in the vicinity of the Ubejane Loop. The beautiful Golden-breasted Bunting regularly flushes from the roadside.

The south of Mountain Zebra National Park is dominated by the Bakenkop (1 957m) and Bankberg (1 927m) at much higher altitudes that the northern sections of the park. While it is no possible to access these peaks – where it is noted that Drakensburg Rockjumper occur – the Kranskop Loop takes one to higher altitude. Ravines and road cuttings in this section of the park should be checked for Buff-streaked Chat, Sentinel Rock-thrush, Layard’s Tit-babbler (Warbler), Ground Woodpecker, Pale-winged Starling, Mountain Chat, and African Rock Pipit. Grey-winged Francolin are also often heard from this section of the park.

Raptors abound in the park. Pale Chanting Goshawk is especially noticeable, often perching on exposed perches to survey the surrounding landscape. Several pairs of the impressive Verreaux’s Eagle nest inside the reserve and these stately birds are often seen soaring at midday. Jackal Buzzard, Martial, Booted and African Fish Eagles, and Gabar Goshawk are all fairly common.

Key species:

Blue Korhaan, Ludwig’s and Kori Bustards, Eastern Clapper and Pink-billed Larks, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Mountain Chat, Verreaux’s Eagle, Ground Woodpecker

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:

Blue Korhaan, Ludwig’s and Kori Bustards, Eastern Clapper and Pink-billed Larks, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Mountain Chat, Verreaux’s Eagle, Ground Woodpecker

Other Related Information

Mountain Zebra National Park is sign-posted off the R61 between Graaf Rienet (via N9) and Cradock (via N10). Gate times vary seasonally (Apr-Sept: 07:00-18:00; Oct-Mar: 07:00-18:30), and standard national park conservation fees apply. Wild Cards are accepted for both day visitors and overnight stays.

Notable points of interest include:
Entrance to the main park: -32.1408, 25.5096
Main rest camp: -32.2241, 25.47853
Enclosed picnic site: -32.2601, 25.4541

Other related information:

The nearest towns are:
Cradock: 16Km

Access and facilities:
A variety of accommodation options are on offer within Mountain Zebra National Park including a campsite and caravan park, self-catering chalets and a luxurious mountain cottage. Note that all accommodation options are of a self-catering nature, however there is a small restaurant and convenience shop at the main rest camp. A selection of activities are also available through SANPARKS including game drives, night drives, Cheetah tracking, and walking safaris. However, self-driven tours are permissible.

Within the rest camp complex, there are two short walking trails both <1Km long. Elsewhere in the part, there are several viewpoints where it possible to alight from your vehicle, however you are advised to remain cautious of dangerous game. A fenced picnic spot with braai facilities and ablutions is also provided within the reserve.

It is advisable to refuel in the nearby town of Cradock, where diverse shopping facilities are also available, though it is possible to refuel your vehicle at the main rest camp within Mountain Zebra National Park.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
No Birder Friendly Establishments are currently available for Mountain Zebra National Park. SANPARKS offers a variety of accommodation options within the park itself from camping and caravan stands, to self-catering chalets and a luxury 4×4 cottage. Reservations can be made through:
SANPARKS reservations
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
Fax: +27 (0)12 426 5500

Local guide information:
No Birder Friendly Tour Operators or local guides are currently available for Mountain Zebra National Park. However, SANPARKS guides are well-informed about the local birdlife.

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

Key species:

Blue Korhaan, Ludwig’s and Kori Bustards, Eastern Clapper and Pink-billed Larks, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Mountain Chat, Verreaux’s Eagle, Ground Woodpecker

Contact details:

Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency

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

SANPARKS head office

Tel: +27 (0)12 426 5000