Kariega and Bushmans – Thomas Baines Nature Reserve

About the Birding

Just 12km outside Grahamstown, Thomas Baines Nature Reserve is an ideal destination for those wanting to explore the rich historical, cultural, and geological history of South Africa’s famed Frontier Country. Originally established as a municipal nature reserve in 1961, it was declared a provincial nature reserve in 1980. The reserve is named after the 19th century artist, Thomas Bains, and comprises a number of farms bordering and incorporating Howison’s Poort Reservoir and Settlers Dam – both important water sources for the nearby town of Grahamstown.

The 1 000 hectare reserve teems with birdlife, and the 15km of dirt tracks make for excellent game drives, nature walks and mountain biking. Suitable for either a day trip from Grahamstown, or an overnight visit, the area supports roughly 175 bird species including several notable endemics.

Much of the area is blanketed in mature succulent thicket – dominated by Spekboom – and the avian diversity is reflective of this. Southern Tchagra is common in the reserve and is best detected by its loud descending call. Other characteristic species include the Bar-throated Apalis, Green-backed Camaroptera, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler (Warbler), White-browed and Karoo Scrub-robins, Acacia Pied Barbet, and Familiar Chat. The beautiful Malachite Sunbird is common in the winter months when stands of Aloe begin flowering, and Streaky-headed Seedeaters arrive en mass when the bloom ends.

Several small drainage lines flow into, and out of the Settler’s Dam and Howison’s Poort reservoir. These areas teem with birds including a surprising diversity of forest specials. The reclusive Mountain Wagtail is occasionally sighted on small streams while the Chorister Robin-chat and Brown Scrub-robin call from the neighbouring thickets. Knysna Woodpecker is present and is best detected by its high-pitched shrill call. Knysna Turaco, Narina Trogon, Trumpeter Woodpecker, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Olive Bush-shrike, Grey Cuckooshrike, and Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler are all present in small numbers in isolated patches of riverine forest with tall trees.

The two large dams are incredibly deep and support surprisingly few bird species. However, fair numbers of Egyptian Goose and South African Shelduck are usually present. Quiet backwaters potentially host both African Finfoot and White-backed Night Heron; the best approach to seeing these two species would be to canoe slowly around the edges, scanning overhanging vegetation carefully.

At night – the Fiery-necked Nightjar is common by voice. Spotted and Cape Eagle-owls are both present in small numbers, the latter preferring rocky sections. African Wood Owl inhabit drainage lines and there are unconfirmed reports of the almost mythical capense race of African Barred Owlet from within the reserve.

Notable mammals that can be seen within the reserve include White Rhinoceros, Cape Buffalo, Red Hartebeest, Bushbuck, and Cape Grysbok.

Key species:

Knysna Woodpecker, Southern Tchagra, Chorister Robin-chat, African Finfoot, Brown Scrub-robin, Grey Cuckooshrike, Narina Trogon

About the Birding Site

The Bushmans and Kariega Rivers drain two small basins in the Eastern Cape, both entering the Indian Ocean on either side of the small coastal town of Kenton-on-Sea. Both rivers flow permanently across much of their lengths, supporting large agricultural and conservation areas. The Bushmans and Kariega triangle is of ecological significance, supporting several endemic and highly threatened species. This includes the almost mythical nominate race of the African Barred Owlet – which likely constitutes a true species and would thus be endemic to the area – as well as the critically endangered Eastern Cape Cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii).

Large areas in the region have been converted from private farmland into high-end ‘Big 5’ conservation areas, harbouring vast tracts of forest, coastal grassland, succulent thicket, dune thicket as well as isolated patches of fynbos. Among the most important of these are the Kariega Private Game Reserve, Thomas Bains Nature Reserve, and Water’s Meeting Nature Reserve. Other notable hotspots in the area include the coastal strip between Port Alfred and Kenton-on-Sea, Assegai Trails farm, and the Golden Mile farming community. Access to several of these sites is limited to overnight guests only, though most species are common in the area and can be found with 2-3 days to explore public sites.

Key species:

Knysna Woodpecker, Southern Tchagra, Chorister Robin-chat, African Finfoot, Brown Scrub-robin, Grey Cuckooshrike, Narina Trogon

Other Related Information

From Grahamstown, travel south along the N2 in the direction of Port Elizabeth. After roughly 14Km turn to the left along the R343 in the direction of Salem and Kenton-on-Sea. The entrance to Thomas Baines Nature Reserve is a further 2Km from the intersection on the left.

The nearest towns are:
Grahamstown: 12km
Kenton-on-Sea: 47Km
Port Elizabeth: 110Km
East London: 180Km

Other related information:

Access and facilities:
A limited network of trails and unpaved roads can be used to access different sections of the reserve. Some areas are accessible in sedan-type vehicles, though high clearance is recommended. Gate times are 06:00 to 18:00 and a small fee is payable for visitors. Canoeing and boating are permitted from the picnic site on Settler’s Dam, though be cautioned for dangerous game including both Cape Buffalo and White Rhinoceros.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
A large campsite with basic ablutions is situated on the Settler’s Dam, though electricity is limited. Nearer the entrance, the Dung Beetle cottage has capacity for 4 people with 1 bathroom. For reservations, contact:

Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency
17-25 Oxford Street
East London CBD
Tel: +27 (0)43 492 0081
Email: info@ecpta.co.za
Diverse accommodation options are also available in the nearby town of Grahamstown, to suit a range of budgets and requirements.

Local guide information:
No Birder Friendly Tour Operators are currently available for the Kariega and Bushamans River Valleys. However, birding tours in the general area are available through:

Tim Cockcroft
Website: https://timwcroft.wixsite.com/timcockcroftbirding
Email: timwcroft@gmail.com
Tel: +27 (0)72 314 0069

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

Key species:

Knysna Woodpecker, Southern Tchagra, Chorister Robin-chat, African Finfoot, Brown Scrub-robin, Grey Cuckooshrike, Narina Trogon

Contact details:

Reserve contact details

Reserve manager: +27 (0)79 496 7978
Office number: +27 (0)87 285 7399