Free State (North) – Greater Sasolburg (Meulsteenpan, Bongani Mabaso Eco Park, Heron Banks Wetlands and Wolwehoek)

About the Birding

There are a number of sites close to Sasolburg with access to the Vaal River and associated wetlands and tributaries, where visitors can expect good birds such as Goliath Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Giant Kingfisher, Tawny-flanked Prinia, African Jacana, Black Crake, Thick-billed Weaver, Squacco Heron and Great Crested Grebe. African Black Duck is resident on the river and the full suite of highveld ducks and geese, including Blue-billed (Hottentot) Teal, White-backed Duck and Maccoa Duck, can be ticked during a visit, especially at nearby Meulsteenpan.

Red-chested Flufftail and African Rail are regularly recorded on the Leeuwspruit, close to its confluence with the Vaal River and a Baillon’s Crake has recently been spotted there as well. The elusive and seldom seen Red-chested Flufftail has become a regularly heard addition to the list and patient waiting often results in a brief sighting.

The recently established, upmarket Heron Banks Golf Estate on the banks of the Vaal River is a nice addition to the local birding scene and its large wetland can be visited with prior arrangement. It has turned up surprises like Black-African Crake, Lesser Moorhen, Dwarf Bittern and Little Bittern. There are at least two breeding pairs of African Fish-Eagle and even a record of Osprey on this stretch of river. Surprisingly and sadly, an adult African Grass Owl carcass was found hanging from a barbed-wire fence very close to Sasolburg in June 2014. Other live individuals have been recorded sparsely in the area during night drives on the R59, direction Parys.

More unusual raptor records include Gabar Goshawk, Ovambo and Little Sparrowhawk, Greater Kestrel, Martial Eagle, Brown Snake-Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Booted Eagle and even a sprinkling of substantiated European Honey-Buzzard records. It is, however, the resident Black Sparrowhawks in Sasolburg and VaalPark that cause most excitement to birders lucky enough to see this rapacious predator. Long-crested Eagles have also taken up residence and are frequently recorded lately.

Industrial purification reservoirs, like the Sasol-owned and run Metsi Matle lapa area, situated in some degraded habitat, offer surprisingly good birding. Pied Avocet, Grey-headed Gull, Black-necked Grebe, Cape Teal, African Swamphen and waders are regular, especially when the water-levels are low, exposing mud banks. The garden of the NATREF oil refinery offices yielded one of the weirdest records in a long time in the area, with a photographed and heavily twitched Red-capped Robin-chat in October 2013.

The Bongani Mabaso Eco Park, next to Vaal Park and the R57 to Gauteng, is also managed by Sasol Ltd and offers good wetland and grassland birding. Access is free and it is open over weekends.

The Riemland Bird Sanctuary, now in a sad state of disrepair, still delivers good birding with resident Black Sparrowhawk and both Lesser and Greater Honeyguide regularly recorded. Even a Woodland Kingfisher put in an appearance in October 2019.

Good Highveld grassland birding can be had around town and the gravel road to the Wolwehoek grain silo and abattoir, which traverses some pristine grassland, wetlands and game farms with a number of man-made dams is a good example. This area yields pipits, canaries, bishops, weavers and specials such as Banded Martin, Orange River Francolin, Blue Korhaan and Pink-billed Lark are not unusual. Other larks found in the area include Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark (normally much more common in winter), Red-capped Lark, Spike-heeled Lark (also more conspicuous in winter), Eastern Long-billed and Eastern Clapper Larks. Recently two very exciting separate sightings of a very special bird for this area, namely Botha’s Lark, were close to Sasolburg on the R82 to the town of Koppies. Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and Pink-backed Pelican have also made it onto the Wolwehoek area bird list and a lone individual was even recorded in Sasolburg during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. Moist grasslands afford regular sightings of Black-winged Pratincole and African Marsh Harrier. Although much scarcer, both Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers have also been recorded.

The school ground of Afrikaanse Hoërskool Sasolburg has turned up some extremely unexpected records like Black Cuckoo, Grey-headed Bush-Shrike, Mountain Wheatear and Mocking Cliff Chat.

The acacia savanna around the exclusive Boschenvaal Estate provides a different habitat and associated birds. Specials and somewhat unexpected species include Kurrichane Thrush, Golden-tailed and Bearded Woodpecker, Orange River White-eye, Natal Spurfowl, Bar-throated Apalis, White-fronted and European Bee-eater, Pied Starling, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Red-collared Widowbird, African and Jameson’s Firefinch, Dusky- and Village Indigobirds, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Rattling Cisticola, Chinspot Batis, Long-billed Crombec, African Grey-, Southern Red-billed and Yellow-billed Hornbill, Arrow-marked Babbler, Brown-backed Honeybird and Black-faced Waxbill. Nearby, Crimson-breasted Shrikes have taken up residence and the rare yellow-breasted morph has been recorded as well. Old claims of White-backed Night Heron were confirmed on the night of 22 October 2010, when a bird was flushed from a boat during a night cruise close to Boschenvaal Estate. Boschenvaal made birding headlines in November 2008 when a Eurasian Reed-Warbler was caught and ringed there and Thrush Nightingale also featured on the list for this area.

Double-banded Courser is a scarce resident in the area around Sasolburg and there are recent vagrant records of both Temminck’s and Bronze-winged Courser. A number of more exciting summer visitors like Violet-backed Starling, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Garden, Great Reed and Icterine Warbler, Jacobin Cuckoo, Woodland Kingfisher.

A visit to Meulsteenpan, a permanently flooded sandstone quarry next to the R82, towards Koppies, is a must. It is on communal land and used to be a quarry for sandstone, getting its name from the mill stones extracted there. Huge blocks of sandstone were piled up and still provide mid-pan refuge to many water-associated species. Some of these blocks even made it to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The number and variety of waterfowl is staggering. Meulsteenpan is also the closest locality to Sasolburg where Kittlitz’s Plover is regularly recorded. Large numbers of Ruff and Little Stint visit during summer, with Marsh- and Wood Sandpipers and Common Greenshank making regular appearances. It must be one of the few wetlands where three grebe species, both flamingos and as much as 10 duck species can simultaneously be seen.

Key species:

Red-Chested Flufftail, African Rail, White-backed Duck, Black Sparrowhawk, Long-crested Eagle, Little Bittern, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Double-banded Courser, Lesser Flamingo, Black-faced Waxbill

About the Birding Site

First-time visitors to the greater Sasolburg area can be excused for not being overly enthusiastic about its birding potential. However, once they start exploring, they will be pleasantly surprised by the variety of habitats and their associated avifauna. Habitats in this extreme northern corner of the Free State include the Vaal River and its riverine woodland, grassland, agricultural pastureland, acacia savanna, broadleaved woodland, urban gardens, ephemeral and permanent wetlands, industrial purification reservoirs and a mosaic of protected areas, including the well-known Bongani Mabaso Eco Park and the Riemland Bird Sanctuary.

This variety accounts for the more than 300 bird species recorded in the area, of which most are resident. A day’s dedicated birding within a 20km radius of Sasolburg will yield 120 to 150 species in summer and a typical winter list would be 80 to 100 species.

Key species:

Red-Chested Flufftail, African Rail, White-backed Duck, Black Sparrowhawk, Long-crested Eagle, Little Bittern, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Double-banded Courser, Lesser Flamingo, Black-faced Waxbill

Other Related Information

Directions:
Sasolburg is located on close to the Vaal River, east of the N1, from which it may be reached on the R59: -26.819250, 27.840619
The area has an extensive network of good country roads begging for exploration.

Other related information:

Recommended accommodation nearby:
The greater Sasolburg area offers a wide variety of accommodation options, catering for all tastes and budgets.
No BirdLife Recommended Accommodations are currently available in the area.

Local guide information:
No BirdLife Recommended Tour Operators or local guides are currently available in the area, but Vaal Bird Club has regular outings and meetings and can assist with planning your trip.

Text prepared and edited by:
Dawie Kleynhans
Martin Benadie | Specialist Birding Guide

Key species:

Red-Chested Flufftail, African Rail, White-backed Duck, Black Sparrowhawk, Long-crested Eagle, Little Bittern, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Double-banded Courser, Lesser Flamingo, Black-faced Waxbill

Contact details:

N/A

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