Fish River – Great Fish River Reserve including Double Drift

About the Birding

The Great Fish River Reserve, located 38Km north-west from Grahamstown, protects over 45 000 hectares along the Fish River including large areas of scrub, thornveld, grassland and forest. The complex includes the Andries Vosloo Kudu Reserve, Buckland’s Nature Reserve, Double Drift Nature Reserve and Sam Knott Nature Reserve. Together, these reserves host notable populations of several bird and mammal species. They are recommended for a day trip from the nearby town of Grahamstown, though overnight stays are possible in both self-catering and more luxurious accommodation options.

Note that walking is not permissible within the reserve, except at designated picnic spots or hides, given the presence of dangerous game.

Much of the reserve is covered in an arid karoo scrub and thornveld mosaic, with vast open areas of reclaimed agricultural land. Here it is possible to find both the African and Red-billed Firefinches, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler (Warbler), Pririt Batis, Emerald Spotted Wood-dove, Greater Honeyguide, Southern Black Tit, White-browed Scrub-robin, Acacia Pied Barbet, Fiscal Flycatcher, Golden-breasted Bunting, Cape Rock-thrush, and Familiar Chat. Jacobin Cuckoo is common in the summer months. Southern Black Korhaan and Kori Bustard are both regular in reclaimed agricultural pastures. Red-billed Oxpecker has been reintroduced and is regularly sighted on the backs of large herbivores. Red-headed Finch occasionally irrupt into the reserve in large numbers to breed, particularly after rains.

Small dams often dry out during drought years but, when wet, regularly support good numbers of ducks and other waterfowl. White-faced Whistling Duck and Red-billed Teal are perhaps most common, though Maccoa Duck, Cape Shoveler, South African Shelduck and both the Cape and Hottentot Teals have all been recorded. Muddy edges host both Ruff and Wood Sandpiper in summer, while reedbeds support Baillon’s Crake, African Snipe and occasionally African Jacana. Several hides are available, where it is permissible to exit from one’s vehicle. However, note that these reserves support dangerous game and care should be taken at all times.

The Fish River itself should be checked for African Finfoot, though seeing this species requires luck and patience. The surrounding thickets and riverine forest host Knysna Turaco, up to four species of woodpecker (Olive, Knysna, Bearded, and Cardinal), Dark-backed Weaver, and Olive Bush-shrike. The vocal Red-chested and Black Cuckoos call incessantly during summer. At night, listen for both African Scops and African Barred Owlet; the latter, representing the almost mythical nominate race of the species; along with Spotted Eagle-owl and Western Barn Owl. Fiery-necked Nightjar is common throughout the park.

Birds-of-prey abound. Pale Chanting Goshawk is especially conspicuous, perching on the tops of exposed perches to survey the surrounding landscape, while Rock Kestrel prefer cliffs and ravines. The Martial, Booted and Crowned Eagles all nest nearby and are sometimes found soaring over the reserve in the middle of the day. African Goshawk prefer dense riverine vegetation, together with both the Black and Little Sparrowhawks. The Lanner and Falcons nest on cliffs within the reserve. Verreaux’s Eagle have been reported from the reserve, wandering from further along the Fish River valley.

Key species:

African Finfoot, Southern Black Korhaan, Acacia Pied Barbet, Martial and Crowned Eagles, Baillon’s Crake, Pale Chanting Goshawk

About the Birding Site

The Great Fish River is the Eastern Cape’s largest river system, running 644Km from source to mouth and draining a basin of some 30 366Km2. Originating to the east of the Karoo town of Graaf Rienet, the river runs past Cradock and Grahamstown before finally entering the Indian ocean near Seafield. Its main tributaries include the Groot Brak, Tarka, Kap and Little Fish Rivers with supplementary input from the Orange River through the Orange-Fish River tunnel system.

The river itself flows permanently across much of its length and supports one of the Eastern Cape’s largest agriculture production areas. It is also of ecological significance supporting several endemic and highly threatened species, including the endangered Eastern Cape Rocky (Sandelia bainsii) and the Eastern Cape Cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii). As such, several conservation areas have been delineated along its banks to protect vast areas of forest, grassland, karoo scrub, fynbos and dune thicket. Among the most important of these are the Greater Fish River Reserve, Kwandwe Private Nature Reserve, and the Kap River Nature Reserve. In terms of its avifaunal richness, the grassland areas surrounding the small village of Bedford are of additional significance.

More than 350 bird species can be found throughout the Fish River drainage system, with some 250 species resident along the river itself. Notable mentions include the nominate race of African Barred Owlet, African Scops Owl, African Finfoot, Crowned Eagle, Knysna and an isolated population of Bearded Woodpeckers, and Olive Bush-shrike. Several of the key sites are openly accessible, where others have restricted access, though most species are common among all sites.

Key species:

African Finfoot, Southern Black Korhaan, Acacia Pied Barbet, Martial and Crowned Eagles, Baillon’s Crake, Pale Chanting Goshawk

Other Related Information

From Grahamstown, travel north along the R67 in the direction of Fort Beaufort for roughly 31Km. Soon after Ecca Pass, turn to the right on an unpaved road at -33.1432, 26.6210. At -33.1477, 26.6414, turn to the left to reach the Kamadolo Gate. Once inside, the second road to the right leads to the Kwalamanzi Hide where it is permissible to exit the vehicle. Continuing beyond the hide will take you through Bucklands Farm, then back into the Sam Knott sector.

Other related information:

From here, it is possible to access the Fish River at the Double Drift Fort; an outpost during the Frontier Wars. Here, it is again permissible to exit your vehicle at the picnic site.

The nearest towns are:
Alice: 30km
Grahamstown: 35km
East London: 150Km
Peddie: 35km
Fort Beaufort: 70Km

Facilities and access:
Entrance to the Great Fish River Nature Reserve is admission free, though be advised of gate times which vary seasonally. Gate times are between 05:00 and 17:00 daily, though overnight guests within the reserve may arrange late entry with the reserve management.

A picnic site is provided at the Double Drift fort, complete with ablutions and braai facilities. Elsewhere, a single hide is provided but water levels fluctuate drastically in relation to rainfall.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
No Birder Friendly Establishments are currently available within the Great Fish River Nature Reserve, though overnight self-catering accommodation is available through the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism. A campsite is also available at the Double Drift picnic site along the Fish River. Alternatively, there are now numerous private lodges that offer luxurious accommodation and ‘Big 5’ tours. It is also possible to visit the Great Fish River Reserve as a day trip from Grahamstown, where various accommodation options are available to suit all requirements and budgets.

Local guide information:
No Birder Friendly Tour Operators or local guides are currently available for the Great Fish River Nature Reserve. However, guides operating through the private lodges in the area are normally well-informed about the local birdlife.

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

Key species:

African Finfoot, Southern Black Korhaan, Acacia Pied Barbet, Martial and Crowned Eagles, Baillon’s Crake, Pale Chanting Goshawk

Contact details:

The Great Fish River Reserve is managed by Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism. For more information, contact:

Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency

17-25 Oxford Street
East London CBD
Tel: (+27) 043 492 0081

Reserve contact details:

Main office tel: +27 (0)87 286 6545/ +27 (0)79 496 7883/ +27 (0)71 442 0776
Conservation manager: +27 (0)66 484 8364