Free State (South) – Smithfield

About the Birding

Smithfield Mountain is accessed by travelling north out of Smithfield on the N6, and turning left onto the S119 (-30.188922, 26.515550), just after passing the town dam (on the right). Immediately after turning left, the gate on the left leads to a track through grassland and sparsely vegetated, bushy flatlands. Birds to look out for in the flat areas include Blue Crane, Ludwig’s Bustard, Blue and Northern Black Korhaan, Melodious, Eastern Clapper, Spike-heeled, Large-billed and Red-capped Lark, African, Buffy and Plain-backed Pipit and Ant-eating Chat.

Rufous-eared Warbler is frequently encountered in the areas with small bushes. The more vegetated, lower slopes of Smithfield Mountain provide good habitat for Mountain Wheatear, Fiscal and Fairy Flycatcher, Grey Tit, Layard’s Tit-babbler (Warbler), Grey-backed Cisticola, Yellow and White-throated Canary. Hamerkop may nest on rock outcrops along wooded streams in small valleys here as well.

Smithfield Dam is situated just north of town on the N6 and usually produces a feast of waterbirds and others associated with this habitat and the dam shoreline. All three species of grebe (Great Crested, Black-necked and Little) occur if the shallow dam holds sufficient water, and most of the waterfowl found in the Free State (including South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveler, Cape Teal and Maccoa Duck) may also be found here. Both Greater and Lesser Flamingo may be present, as well as African Spoonbill and Yellow-billed Stork. In summer, shorebirds and waders include Kittlitz’s, Common Ringed and Three-banded Plover, Avocet, Common Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper and usually good numbers of Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint. Fly pasts by African Fish-Eagles may cause the many waterbirds to take flight before settling again. The open shoreline provides an ideal opportunity for birders to observe a diverse array of birds with relative ease in a short period of time; a spotting scope is useful here.

Vaalkop Mountain is on private property; please arrange for the necessary permission before trying to gain access; a high clearance vehicle is also recommended. Take the N6 north out of Smithfield and turn right onto the R701 (signposted to Wepener) soon after leaving town (-30.201992, 26.535806). An extensive stand of exotic Eucalyptus trees in the area immediately after crossing the bridge just after the turn-off holds African Harrier-Hawk and Black Sparrowhawk; park off the road near the golf course fence and walk into the trees on the left, looking out for these two species. In summer, vocal flocks of European Bee-eaters may use dead branches overhead as perches from which to hawk passing insects. Continue with the R701, passing one or two dams close to the road offering good birding, until reaching the turn-off to Vaalkop (-30.133258, 26.605169), where a key will be needed to unlock the gate. This area includes habitat and birds similar to that of Smithfield Mountain, but has less of the bushy, scrub habitat of the latter. Listen out for calling Desert and Cloud Cisticolas in the grassland areas leading to Vaalkop Mountain. When approaching the higher-lying areas, listen out for the characteristic whistled song of African Rock Pipit, which has been found on the hill (-30.157092, 26.618342) just to the left of the concrete road up to the Telkom tower, and on the hillside area just below and south-east of the tower (-30.165442, 26.621397). The lower slopes of this hillside may also be approached by high-clearance vehicles on a track to the south of Vaalkop Mountain; this is recommended. The bushy slopes are host to Grey-winged Francolin, Pririt Batis, Fairy Flycatcher, Grey Tit, Grey-backed Cisticola and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Rufous-cheeked Nightjar (summer) has been flushed from its daytime roost beneath bushes in the gully lower down the slope, and Karoo Scrub Robin also occurs here. The lower slopes of the mountain/hill level out onto a rock-strewn flat area, which may produce various pipits, including Buffy and Nicholson’s. Don’t forget to take in the views to the east from the top of Vaalkop Mountain and also from the lower slopes!

The “Cliff Swallow” ravine, Beersheba Farm and Caledon River are all accessed from Smithfield as for Vaalkop Mountain, but the route then continues north-east along the R701, before turning first right (-30.130633, 26.607428) onto the S396. A short distance further on, keep a lookout for Blue Korhaan and Ludwig’s Bustard in the short grassland on the left of the road. Continue along the S396 until a deepish ravine/kloof is visible close to the road on the left hand side (-30.129758, 26.712378). Park at the roadside, climb through the fence (again – please make prior arrangements for accessing this private property) and climb down into the river valley. Giant Kingfishers may be seen along the small river, and both Red-winged and Pale-winged Starling occur along the cliffs skirting the valley. Levaillant’s Cisticola occurs in the Phragmites reeds and Black-chested Prinia on the bushy slopes. Find and follow a path downstream, keeping an eye out for a small South African Cliff-Swallow nesting colony situated on a cliff on the left side of the valley (-30.124161, 26.710022), one of very few cliff nesting sites of this species. Whether this colony is used on a regular basis is uncertain; there may only be the remains of a few nests if disused (as was the case previously), or perhaps an active colony will be present (if visited in summer). Rock Kestrel is also usually seen in the valley.

Continue along the S396, which drops down towards the Caledon River in the east and turns into Beersheba Farm on the left (-30.130897, 26.725042). The road crosses the wall of a sizable dam, from where the diminutive Malachite Kingfisher may be seen. Various herons, egrets and African Spoonbill have been seen foraging along the dam shoreline. The Beersheba farmhouse (-30.119436, 26.739092) is set among tall trees and lush vegetation due to the abundant natural water supply, and has an interesting history. Spend some time listening and looking for birds such as Crested Barbet, Karoo Thrush, Cape White-eye and Cape Canary near the farmhouse; this is a cool retreat on a hot summer’s day.

Return to the S396, turning left and heading again in the direction of the Caledon River. After a short distance, turn left again at Diepkloof Farm (-30.140614, 26.723633) and continue along this road, which follows close to the western bank of the Caledon River. Stop occasionally (e.g. -30.122458, 26.760539) to listen for the characteristic call of the endemic Namaqua Warbler, found in riverside vegetation. Both Cape and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting should be found here, particularly in rocky areas. Seedeaters (including weavers, queleas, sparrows, waxbills and canaries) occur in good numbers alongside cultivated lands irrigated from the Caledon River. Continue to a stand of poplar trees growing on both sides of the road (-30.106556, 26.768353) and look out for African Paradise Flycatcher, an uncommon summer breeding visitor to these parts. Return to the S396 and return to Smithfield either by turning right or by turning left and travelling via the S396 on a longer circular route.

A day trip to the Tussen-die-Riviere Game Reserve, between the Caledon and Orange Rivers to the south-west of Smithfield is also an option.

Key species:

Mountain Wheatear, Fiscal Flycatcher, Grey Tit, Layard’s Tit-babbler (Warbler), Grey-backed Cisticola, White-throated Canary, Ant-eating Chat, Northern Black Korhaan, Melodious Lark, Eastern Clapper Lark and Rufous-eared Warbler

About the Birding Site

Located between Bloemfontein and East London, this little Free State town markets itself as being “halfway to anywhere in South Africa”. Situated on the friendly N6 between Reddersburg to the north and Rouxville and Aliwal North to the south, the small town of Smithfield is relatively unknown as a birding destination. Habitats include extensive grassland areas, mountains with rocky, vegetated slopes, deeply incised, wooded valleys, dams and the banks of the Caledon River, to the east of Smithfield.

Key species:

Mountain Wheatear, Fiscal Flycatcher, Grey Tit, Layard’s Tit-babbler (Warbler), Grey-backed Cisticola, White-throated Canary, Ant-eating Chat, Northern Black Korhaan, Melodious Lark, Eastern Clapper Lark and Rufous-eared Warbler

Other Related Information

Access and facilities:
Most of these areas include privately-owned land and visits must be arranged beforehand by contacting Lynden Lund (+27(0)83 263 0613), who will assist with the necessary arrangements to access private property.Smithfield (-30.211792, 26.530511) is situated on the N6, about 135 km south of Bloemfontein.

Other related information:

Smithfield is the third oldest town in the Free State and also offers a number of interesting places to visit including the Basotho War Memorial, Caledon River Museum, Carmel (French Mission Station), General De Wet House, Karoo House, Market Square and San Rock Art sites. Sir Harry Smith, Governor of the Cape Colony at the time, founded this town back in 1848 on a farm named Waterval. Today this area is known for its wool production and cattle farming. There is also a concentration camp memorial outside Bethulie; the graveyard commemorates around 1 700 people that died here during the South African (Second Anglo-Boer) War.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Various types of accommodation, with fully catered guest houses, B&Bs, rustic self-catering and camping available.
For further details, contact Lynden Lund
Cell: +27(0)83 263 0613

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

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

Key species:

Mountain Wheatear, Fiscal Flycatcher, Grey Tit, Layard’s Tit-babbler (Warbler), Grey-backed Cisticola, White-throated Canary, Ant-eating Chat, Northern Black Korhaan, Melodious Lark, Eastern Clapper Lark and Rufous-eared Warbler

Contact details:

To arrange access to the privately-owned land, make arrangements beforehand by contacting:

Lynden Lund
Cell: +27(0)83 263 0613