Free State (East) – Memel

About the Birding

The area boasts a checklist of approximately 250 bird species. A two to three day stay in the pleasant surroundings is highly recommended, particularly during summer (October to February), when many of the specials of the area are more conspicuous. Most areas are accessible, although road conditions (especially after summer rains) can vary. Lists of 80-100 bird species are usual, while up to 120-130 species may be seen over a weekend in summer.

A network of gravel roads and tracks allows access to most habitats, although road conditions may vary considerably, particularly after summer thunderstorms.

1. The area south-west and south of Memel is the most productive for the grassland endemics as well as species restricted largely to rocky hillsides and also to indigenous forest. The R722 (formerly S56; to Verkykerskop) south-west of Memel runs along a broad, shallow valley consisting mainly of cultivated lands. Turn left onto the S471 (to Normandien Pass/Mont Pelaan) and look out for Mountain Wheatear, African Rock Pipit, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Ground Woodpecker and Wailing Cisticola along the rocky ridges on the right before the road levels out onto extensive grassy plateaus. Banded Martin is common here in summer. Red-capped Larks fly up from the road verge as the topography levels and Rudd’s Lark, Ant-eating Chat, Cape Longclaw, Cape Crow and Pied Starling may also be seen here. Look out for Cape Vulture perched on the electricity pylons and search the rockier grassland areas for Sentinel Rock Thrush. In summer, the Amur Falcon and the odd Red-footed Falcon can also be seen. Montagu’s Harrier (summer), Secretarybird, Jackal Buzzard and Southern Bald Ibis can be seen anywhere in the area.

The grassland areas surrounding silver livestock pens (about 11 km down the R471) are prime habitat for Black Harrier (mainly in winter), Blue Crane, Denham’s Bustard, Burchell’s Courser (when area dry), Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Grey-winged Francolin, Wing-snapping Cisticola, African Quail-finch and Yellow-breasted Pipit; driving or walking along the track which cuts back immediately after the livestock pens (permission required to access this private property) is usually productive in summer. Botha’s Lark are however highly nomadic in this area. One can also bird for a few kilometres down the road to Merinodal (S898).

Continue for about 5 km along the S471 and at a T-junction (with the S472) turn right (still on the S471) to Mont Pelaan. Soon the road drops steeply into a narrow, wooded valley. Look out for Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, African Rock Pipit, Cape Bunting, Malachite Sunbird and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting in the rocky areas and Horus Swift, which breeds in holes in the road embankments and erosion gullies. Yellow Bishop, Drakensberg Prinia and Cape Grassbird are also usually present.

At the next T-junction (just after crossing the river), turn left onto the S18 (to Normandienpas) which climbs up onto grassy plateaus again, where Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, Southern Bald Ibis and Black-winged Lapwing may be found. Spongy wetland areas may also produce White Stork in summer. Look out for Eastern Long-billed Lark in rocky areas close to the road.

Turn right at the next junction (intersection of S18 & S783), headed for Normandien Pass and some spectacular scenery along the Drakensberg Escarpment, where the topography drops away to the south into KwaZulu-Natal. About 4 km along this road are some rocks right on the edge of the escarpment; this is a great place to stop for a break and where views over the indigenous forest are breathtaking. Cape Batis, Bush Blackcap, Olive Bush-shrike, Southern Double-collared Sunbird and Forest Canary may be seen from above the forest canopy, while other species, including Barratt’s Warbler, may be heard. Look out for African Harrier-Hawk along the cliffs, various swifts and swallows, and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk.

Backtrack to the junction and turn right onto the S783 (to Roodepoort); Red-winged Francolin and Grey-winged Francolin often occur here and Ground Woodpecker may be seen in the road cuttings. The Klip River rises in the valley on the right; this river feeds the Seekoeivlei wetland further downstream and ultimately joins other rivers to form the mighty Vaal; as such, this area is a vitally important catchment. Smaller wetlands along the Klip River valley support a diverse array of waterbirds; Purple Heron, African (Purple) Swamphen, African Rail, African Snipe and a number of duck species may be seen, as well as the majestic Grey Crowned Crane. Take the S17 (left) to return to Memel.

2. This is a much shorter route than 1) if you have limited time, but takes in another area of extensive high-altitude grassland, this time closer to Memel. Other habitats covered include wetland areas along a portion of the Klip River valley as well as rocky hillsides. Take the R34 from Memel, heading for Newcastle. Soon after leaving Memel, turn right onto the S781, running east of the Klip River. Look out for Blue Crane and Grey Crowned Crane in fallow lands and along the oxbows of the Klip River. Turn left onto the T2181, which climbs out of the valley up to another area of plateau grassland, and on towards Kranskop Mountain. Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Rudd’s Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit have been recorded at the top end of the valley up which the T2181 leads and on the grassy plateau beyond. Ground Woodpecker, Mountain Wheatear and Bokmakierie may be seen along the rocky ridges along the way. Return to Memel by backtracking along the same route.

3. Take the R722 (formerly S56) gravel road (to Verkykerskop) south-west of Memel, which initially runs along a broad, shallow valley consisting mainly of cultivated lands. Continue for a few km beyond the turn-off to Normandienpas (S471), where after another short, steep section tar, the road comes out onto a plateau. After a few more km, the S56 passes the turn-off to Hope royal (S226), to the right. Soon after this, keep a lookout for Southern Bald Ibis and Blue Crane in pastures and fields. The Non-Pareil/Witkoppe mountains rise majestically to the right; Southern Bald Ibis roost and breed in sandstone caves and overhangs here.

About 1 km beyond the intersection with the S818 (signposted to Driebult) is a shallow pan on the left hand side of the S56. When it holds water, this pan often has roosting Blue Crane, various waterfowl species, and Whiskered Tern breed here in seasons of good rainfall. Just after the pan, there is again a short stretch of tar. Look out for Cape Eagle-Owl on the rocks close to the road towards the bottom of the hill, particularly in the late afternoon.

Just after the bridge is an intersection (S898) signposted to Mooivlakte, to the left. The condition of this road varies considerably, but the S898 is a short-cut back to the silver livestock pens, mentioned in Route 1), above.

An alternative to turning left onto the S898 is to continue for a few more km along the R722 (formerly the S56). This area comprises mainly upland grassland on plateaus, with some cultivated lands and small dams in the shallow valleys. As the road dips into a valley, look out for Grey Crowned Crane and Blue Crane as well as Southern Bald Ibis in the area along the drainage line to the east (left) of the road. Large groups of cranes and Spur-winged Goose sometimes gather in fallow or recently planted fields here. Soon afterwards, take the gravel road to the left. This road traverses mainly the plateau between the Cornelis River valley (to the north) and the Meul River valley (to the south). Birds to look out for along this stretch of road, the condition of which also varies (please check with locals before travelling it!), include Grey Crowned Crane and Blue Crane, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Korhaan and various waterfowl species which are often found at a number of natural pans and dams along the way. Black-necked Grebe, White-backed Duck and Maccoa Duck are some of the more interesting waterbirds to lookout for. There are a number of grassland areas along this route providing suitable habitat for a number of lark and pipit species. African Stonechat, Cape Longclaw and various widowbird species also occur here and Cape Vulture and Martial Eagle have been recorded in flight. Continue with this road in an easterly direction until the junction with the S471 (soon after passing beneath overhead power lines), where Sentinel Rock Thrush may be seen in the rocky areas. Turn left onto the S471, and return to Memel, passing the silver livestock pens.

4. Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve is well worth a visit, with the best birding to be had approaching the wetland from the west. Take the S782 from Memel, heading north past the township. The western (Waterval) entrance gate to Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve is just over 4 km from the edge of Memel town, on the right hand side of the road, opposite a well-vegetated pan. This pan often produces some interesting egrets and herons as well as various widows and bishops. Take the track to the right and continue to a second (locked) gate, which is the entrance to the reserve proper (a small entrance fee is payable for visitors; this and the key should be arranged in Memel beforehand (contact Mahem Country Guest House). Look out for Grey-winged Francolin in the grass before and near the gate; good views of Common Quail are also possible here in summer. Ant-eating Chat are usually seen perched on the fence in this area as well. Once through the locked reserve gate, continue straight on for a hundred metres or so and stop at the viewpoint on the right (signposted) that provides excellent views of the wetland below, with oxbows and some more distant open water sections. A scope is a good idea here, as many of the waterbirds are quite far away. The scenery is quite spectacular, especially after good rains when the water level in the wetland is high. Grey Crowned Crane, African Marsh Harrier and various herons and egrets are usually clearly visible from this raised vantage point.

5. Alternatively, continue on the S782 to travel around the outside perimeter of Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve. Opposite the reserve gate at Merelsvlei is some very good moist grassland habitat, which usually hosts Grey Crowned Crane and a few family groups of Blue Korhaan. The four species of grassland cisticola already mentioned are also common in this area. White Stork and calling Common Quail occur here in summer. Continue a short distance north along the S782 to a low-level bridge over a stream, where South African Cliff Swallow and White-throated Swallow breed during summer. Cape Weaver nest close to the bridge while Southern Masked-Weavers usually build their nests on the reserve fence. Hamerkop is often seen here, and African Marsh Harrier is occasionally encountered as well. A well-vegettated wetland area on the left of the road a short distance further on usually produces various herons, egrets, widows and bishops.

About 3.5 km further on, the road to the right traverses the northern end of the Seekoeivlei Wetland and the Klip River. Birding along here can be really worthwhile however, with Purple Heron, African Wattled Lapwing, African Snipe, Malachite Kingfisher and Pale-crowned Cisticola some of the special birds to be seen here.

After crossing the small bridge over the Klip River, on the left is a pan in a dip; Black Stork has been seen here along with the more regular Red-knobbed Coot and Little Grebe. This is also a good spot for Whiskered Tern in summer. Just beyond this pan is a series of grasslands and pastures for a few kilometres; Blue Korhaan and White-bellied Korhaan are possible, as are Pink-billed Lark, but patience and knowledge of the latter’s calls are essential. Look out for Secretarybird on the opposite side of the road, inside the nature reserve, and listen out for the characteristic calls of displaying Eastern Clapper Lark a little further on. Banded Martin, South African Cliff-Swallow and Barn Swallow may be seen feeding in flight low over the vegetation.

Turn right at the junction and travel south along the boundary of the reserve. After a short distance is a wetland area on the right, with willow trees on the left of the road. Yellow-crowned Bishop, Fan-tailed Widowbird and Long-tailed Widowbird breed here in summer, when males can be seen in display. This is also a very good spot to pick up African Snipe, with males performing their drumming aerial territorial displays for much of the year. Pale-crowned Cisticola is also almost a certainty here as well.

Continue with this road until it meets the tarred R34 (Vrede/Memel/Newcastle), checking the various small dams and wetland areas along the way for interesting bird species. To return to Memel, turn right onto the R34.

It is also possible to visit the eastern section of Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve (enquire at Mahem Country Guest House 058-9240034). Many of the same species already mentioned can be seen on the eastern, Seekoeivlei section of the reserve and Botha’s Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit have also been recorded occasionally on the higher-lying grassy plateaus in this area.

Key species:

Southern Bald Ibis, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Korhaan, Ground Woodpecker, Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Buff-streaked Chat, Blue Crane, Black-winged Lapwing

About the Birding Site

The Memel district is one of South Africa’s top areas for endemic grassland bird species. The main birding habitats in the Memel area are extensive high-altitude plateau grasslands, particularly to the south and south-west of Memel, vleis/wetlands, including the extensive Seekoeivlei Wetland (A RAMSAR site part of Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve immediately to the north of Memel).

Rocky hillsides and cliffs are also present and are host to a number of interesting bird species. Small patches of mistbelt forest are found near Normandien Pass and Ncandu. The area offers spectacular scenery and quality birding.

Key species:

Southern Bald Ibis, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Korhaan, Ground Woodpecker, Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Buff-streaked Chat, Blue Crane, Black-winged Lapwing

Other Related Information

Directions:
Memel is situated in the north-eastern Free State, where it borders Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, close to the Drakensberg Escarpment. Memel is on the tarred R34, between Vrede (Free State) and Newcastle (KwaZulu-Natal), about 250 km from Johannesburg.

GPS coordinates:
Memel village: -27.680550, 29.564539
Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve (entrance to Waterval): -27.642397, 29.559336

Other related information:

A guide to bird watching in & around Memel. Nuttall R, Retief E, Pretorius M. 2018:
https://www.birdlife.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/BLSA-Guidelines-Memel-Birding-Routes.pdf
Free download; All of the birding routes, and more, as well as a fully annotated map, are included in this very useful guide.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Various types of accommodation are available, ranging from guest houses in Memel to self-catering cottages on farms in the district and at Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve, to camping.

Grace Mountain Retreat is a Birder Friendly Establishment in Memel
http://www.birdlife.org.za/go-birding/bird-friendly-establishments/free-state/#1525896359262-078cb57a-0327

Mahem Country Guest House: +27 (0)58 9240034; +27 (0)82 565 8939. The owners are very helpful in contacting landowners for private access and are knowledgeable regarding birding spots and conditions in the area.

Several guesthouses and self-catering accommodation options are available in Memel.

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

Text prepared and edited by:
Rick Nuttall
Martin Benadie | Specialist Birding Guide

Key species:

Southern Bald Ibis, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Korhaan, Ground Woodpecker, Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Buff-streaked Chat, Blue Crane, Black-winged Lapwing

Contact details:

N/A

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