Free State (East) – Bethlehem & Loch Athlone

About the Birding

The Loch Athlone Dam offers excellent birding, with a large variety of waterfowl on offer, including Reed- and White-breasted Cormorants, African Darter, large flotillas of Red-knobbed Coot, Little- and occasionally Great Crested Grebes, various duck species, including South African Shelduck, White-backed Duck and along the quieter banks, overhung by willows, African Black Duck.

Kingfishers hunt from convenient perches along the water’s edge, with Pied-, Giant-, and Malachite Kingfishers found here regularly.

Over the open water the resident African Fish Eagles can be seen scanning the water for their next meal, with Western Osprey being encountered fairly often in summer. Both Whiskered- and White-winged Terns are present in large numbers in summer and if you have access to a boat or kayak, many enjoyable hours can be spent watching them hunt at close range. Caspian Terns are irregular visitors to the dam.

Extensive reed beds towards the southern end of the dam, in the Loch Athlone Bird Sanctuary, provides ideal habitat for a host of species. Roughly a third of all the species encountered in the sanctuary are to some extent dependent on these reeds, whether for shelter, food, nesting, roosting, hunting, etc. Here a large reed island is the regular breeding and roosting site for Black-headed-, Grey-, Purple Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Cattle-, Yellow-billed (Intermediate) and Little Egrets, as well as Little Bittern and large flocks of Glossy Ibis. Grey Crowned Crane also roost in this area from time to time.

The reed beds are also home to various warbler species like the resident Lesser Swamp Warbler and Little Rush Warbler. In spring and summer, the warbler numbers are boosted with the arrival of Great Reed-, African Reed- and Sedge Warblers.

African Marsh-, Pallid-, and Black Harriers have been recorded hunting over the reed beds, with a couple of historic records (prior to SABAP2) of Western Marsh Harrier.

Various swallow species use the reed beds to roost, like White-throated Swallow and Brown-throated Martin. In autumn large numbers of Barn Swallows gather and roost here before they start their northward migration. These congregations attract the attention of several raptor species, notably Peregrine-, and Lanner Falcons.

In the wetlands bordering the reed beds, Great Egret, Black-, and Goliath Heron are occasional visitors. The rail family is also well represented with African Rail, Black Crake and African Purple Swamphen quite common. If conditions are right and you are lucky, you might even bump into the elusive Baillon’s Crake or Red-chested Flufftail. Here in the wetlands in summer, you can also enjoy the African Snipe’s aerial performances in the early morning. Some of the rarer species encountered in the wetlands along the reed edges are Orange-breasted Waxbill and Cuckoo Finch.

The grassland surrounding the dam holds various grassland species such as the iconic Long-tailed Widowbird, Fan-tailed Widowbird, African Quail-finch, Cape Longclaw, African Stonechat, various cisticolas such as Levailants-, Cloud-, Wing-snapping- and Desert Cisticola, with Pale-crowned Cisticola also troughing in an appearance from time to time.

For a couple of seasons now, a pair of Secretarybirds have been breeding here and chances of seeing them hunting in the grasslands are very good.

The eastern boundary of the sanctuary is a boulder strewn hillside with a sandstone ridge line. The indigenous vegetation along this hillside attracts a host of endemic species like Ground Woodpecker, Cape Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Cape Grassbird, Fiscal Flycatcher, Fairy Flycatcher and Southern Boubou. Other interesting birds encountered here include: Wailing Cisticola, Mocking Cliff Chat, Fork-tailed Drongo, Garden- and Willow Warblers, Natal Spurfowl, Grey-winged Francolin, Long-billed Crombec and Brown-backed Honeybird.

Here in the sandstone cliffs a pair of Cape Eagle-Owls have been roosting and breeding for many years. Spotted Eagle- and Barn Owls are common in the area, with African Grass Owl recorded on a couple of occasions. Freckled Nightjar can be heard calling from the hillside on moonlit nights.

Various raptors use the updrafts along the ridge line and time spent here will almost certainly be rewarded with some raptor sightings. Verreaux’s-, Long-crested-, Booted- and Martial Eagles have all been recorded here, while Black Sparrowhawk is a breeding resident and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk an occasional visitor.

The ridge line is also a good vantage point from where to observe swifts, with Alpine-, African Black, Common-, Little-, and Horus Swift regularly seen. Here Rock Martin, and Common House Martin can also be seen, while Banded Martin patrol the grassland below.

As the dam level drops during the drier periods, several wader species are usually present. Ruff, Common Greenshank, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Three-banded- and Kittlitz’s Plover, Wood- and Marsh Sandpipers can be common, while others such as Curlew Sandpipers, Common Ringed Plovers and Western Yellow Wagtails may put in an occasional appearance in summer.

Over the years the Loch Athlone Bird Sanctuary has also delivered its fair share of rarities. One of the more noteworthy ones is a Palm-nut Vulture that was first seen here in 2016, but has been returning to the area for a couple of weeks every year since then. Other out-of-range records include a juvenile Allen’s Gallinule, a pair of Lesser Moorhens, Dwarf Bittern, African Jacana, Common Whitethroat, African Wattled Lapwing, and Bronze-winged Courser.

The Loch Athlone Bird Sanctuary is open to the public and anyone is welcome to walk, hike or cycle there. The sanctuary is managed by the Hoogland Wildlife Society/BirdLife Eastern Freestate, who (at the time of writing in February 2021) is in the process of erecting a new bird hide in the wetland area.

Key species:

Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, Mocking cliff Chat, Cape Eagle-Owl, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock Thrush, Fairy Flycatcher, Grey-winged Francolin, Brown-backed Honeybird, Red-throated Wryneck and African Black duck

About the Birding Site

Bethlehem is nestled in the eastern Free State between the Loch Athlone dam to the south, Loch Lomond pan to the north and the Sol Plaatjies dam to the east. The town itself and surrounding areas offer great birding. Apart from the open water and fringing habitats of dams, wetlands and rivers in the area, other habitats include typical sandstone koppies and cliffs of the eastern Free State, sheltered kloofs / valleys with indigenous vegetation and wide-open grasslands.

Bethlehem has the unique distinction of having a breeding colony of Southern Bald Ibis right in town. The colony is located in Pretoriuskloof and the nests are located in a section of sheer cliffs. Their breeding success is monitored annually for Birdlife South Africa by volunteers and between eight and ten pairs of birds breed here annually, with a high success rate. It is advisable to only visit the colony in a group owing to personal safety issues at this site. European Honey Buzzards have also become regular summer visitors in town and are quite often seen in suburban areas of town.

Loch Athlone Dam and the Loch Athlone Bird Sanctuary (entrance gate: -28.264598°, 28.314831°) is located just south of Bethlehem town. The Loch Athlone Bird Sanctuary is quite unique in the sense that it contains such diverse habitats in a relatively small area. From open water, reed beds, wetlands, grassland, boulder strewn hillsides with indigenous vegetation to sandstone cliffs.

The area offers excellent birding with 264 species having been recorded here since 2009. Several mammal species also occur here with a number of antelope species that includes Black Wildebeest, both Cape Clawless-, and Spotted-necked Otter, several mongoose species and small predators such as Caracal and Serval.

Key species:

Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, Mocking cliff Chat, Cape Eagle-Owl, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock Thrush, Fairy Flycatcher, Grey-winged Francolin, Brown-backed Honeybird, Red-throated Wryneck and African Black duck

Other Related Information

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Various types of accommodation are available in Bethlehem, from where all the sites mentioned are easily accessible.

Local guide information:
No BirdLife Recommended Tour Operators or local guides are currently available in the area.

Other related information:

Text prepared by:
Martin and Melanie Potgieter
Martin Benadie | Specialist Birding Guide

Key species:

Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, Mocking cliff Chat, Cape Eagle-Owl, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock Thrush, Fairy Flycatcher, Grey-winged Francolin, Brown-backed Honeybird, Red-throated Wryneck and African Black duck

Contact details: