North West – Assen backroads

About the Birding

This birding route starts at the ‘Leeupoort/Assen Police Station’ turn, off the R511 (25°09’58.1″S 27°35’31.5″E, or -25.166132, 27.592089) some 60km north of Brits.

Travelling north on the R511, turn right off the R511 at the above sign (also signposted to Borakalalo Nature Reserve). After 1km along this tarred section, ignore a turnoff to the right, and travel past the Assen Police Station. The road transitions to gravel shortly after this.

Although you pass through excellent acacia habitat for the next 3km after the police station, an iron ore mine in the area that has sprung up in recent years, make this a busy section of road, and it is recommended you proceed through this area to reach a quieter, and safer, section of road. While driving through the area, keep an eye out for Purple Roller on the powerlines – a pair regularly use this area to hunt.

4.4km past the police station, a road turns off to the right (signposted to the Borakalao Nature Reserve) – bypass this turn for now (we will backtrack shortly), and proceed a further 900m up the road to the high-water bridge over the Moretele River. This is the first point we suggest stopping. African Finfoot is regular in the area, and can often be seen on the east-side of the bridge, swimming quietly under the overhanging branches. Vigils in the early morning, and late afternoon offer the best chance of success, but a dose of luck is required to see this secretive bird. Other species that frequent the river are African Black Duck, Green-backed (Striated) Heron, Reed Cormorant, and Pied and Giant Kingfishers. The riverine woodlands flanking the river often host a wide array of birds – common species include Southern Boubou, Black-backed Puffback and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, while some of the species to keep an eye out for include Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Greater Honeyguide and Yellow-bellied Greenbul.

Retrace your steps 900m, to the second Borakalalo Nature Reserve sign you’ve just passed, and turn to the east towards Borakalalo Nature Reserve (25°08’01.2″S 27°37’17.1″E, or -25.133657, 27.621420). Reset your odometer back to 0 at this turn. After 700m you pass through a grove of dense riverine woodland, and cross over a small stream, which flows into the Moretele River we’ve just searched. A Giant Kingfisher can often be seen here, while species such as African Paradise Flycatcher often flit around the trees, and keep an eye out for Red-billed and Jameson’s Firefinches in the undergrowth. For 4km from this latest turn (3.3km passed this stream), you pass through a mix of farmland and dry acacia woodland. It is worth scanning the open fields for species such as Abdim’s and White Storks (summer), along with Namaqua Dove, Temminck’s Courser, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark and African Quail-finch. Various seedeaters feed in the fields, and are usually dominated by White-winged Widowbird, Southern Red Bishop and Red-billed Quelea, but it is worth sifting through the flocks for species such as Long-tailed Paradise and Shaft-tailed Whydahs, Purple and Village Indigobirds, and even Cuckoo Finch, which has been rarely recorded here. In summer Amur Falcons and European Bee-eaters adorn the wires, and careful searching can sometimes reveal the scarcer Red-footed Falcon in between them.

Between 4 – 6.5km, from the turn, it is worth stopping regularly along the road and birding the dry acacia thornveld. Many species can be seen here, ranging from commoner species such as Magpie Shrike, White-browed Scrub Robin, Rattling Cisticola and Blue Waxbill, to some of the more sought birds such as Crimson-breasted Shrike, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Southern Pied Babbler, Cape Penduline-tit, Black-chested Prinia and Black-faced Waxbill. After summer rains, Monotonous Lark occasionally irrupt into the area, and become conspicuous with their frog-like calls. After 7.5km you reach the village of Ga-Rasai, and while passing through the village, keep an eye out for Red-billed Buffalo Weaver (which nest in the village), along with Burchell’s Starling and Groundscraper Thrush.

Meyer’s Parrot often occur in the gardens of the houses in the village – listen for the typical parrot-like shrill call, while slowly driving through the village.

At 7.5km, take a prominent turnoff to the left (north) leading through the village (25°09’42.1″S 27°41’16.3″E, or -25.161703, 27.687858). Follow the main road, ignoring all the many small tracks branching off, for 2.6km, passing out of the village and leading down to a low-water bridge over the Moretele River. The land in this area belongs to the community, and it is OK for you to wonder up and down the river on foot. Note there are often cattle grazing on the outskirts of the river. African Finfoot can rarely be seen here too, but is less reliable than the first high-water bridge discussed earlier. A similar suite of water birds can be found, and it is also worth keeping an eye out for Half-collared Kingfisher and White-backed Night Heron, both rare, in the area as well. The riverine woodlands here host many birds, including a wide array of cuckoos in summer (Red-chested, Black, Klaas’s and Diederik), and other summer specials such as Grey-headed Kingfisher and Eurasian Golden Oriole. White-throated and Lesser Striped Swallows and Little and White-rumped Swifts nest under the bridge and often give great views here. A number of dragonflies and damselflies can be easily found here, and they make a good distraction while birding. Back-track through the village of Ga-Rasai, return to the main road, and continue with your journey (travelling east – turn left when rejoining the road) using the odometer readings from the turn off the main Assen road earlier.

Once out of the village, you transition into lush broad-leaved woodlands, on rocky ground – which continues for 4.5km. It is worth stopping regularly and birding along the road, slowly walking and listening, as many of the area’s specials occur in this area. Birding can be tough in these woodlands – they are often quiet for periods, but then burst into life with ‘bird parties’ (a group of various bird species that move and feed together), and patience goes a long way in these woodlands. Some of the regular species include Cardinal and Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Southern Black Tit, Neddicky, Violet-backed Starling (summer), Yellow-throated Petronia (Bush Sparrow), Yellow-fronted Canary and Golden-breasted Bunting. In between all of these, search for species such as Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, Lesser Honeyguide, Striped Kingfisher, Bearded and Bennett’s Woodpeckers, Brubru, Pearl-breasted Swallow and Red-headed Weaver.

You gradually transition out of the broad-leaved woodland, into acacia thornveld once more, and at this point (25°11’29.2″S 27°44’59.1″E, or -25.191442, 27.749750), you will see a small, seasonally flooded pan to your left (north of the road). This is a good area to stop, search the pan, which when wet, occasionally hosts birds such as Greater Painted-snipe. The acacia around here is particularly birdy, and slowly wandering around the road and road verges often produces more of the region’s specials. Species that can be seen in this area include Pearl-spotted Owlet, Acacia Pied Barbet, Chinspot Batis, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Southern Pied Babbler, Ashy Tit, Cape Penduline-tit, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Barred Wren-Warbler, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler (Warbler), Violet-faced Waxbill, Scaly-feathered Weaver (Finch), Green-winged Pytilia and Black-throated Canary, amongst others. This is a great area for more cuckoos in summer, and Jacobin, Levaillant’s along with the difficult African and Great Spotted are all regular in the area. 2.5km from this small pan, you will enter the large Fafung village. This extends for the next 4.5km. Meyer’s Parrot again is regularly seen in this village, and it is worth driving slowly through the village, listening for the typical parrot-shrill notes. The open thornveld on the east side of the village (such as: 25°10’58.5″S 27°48’48.9″E, or -25.182902, 27.813579) is the best area to search for Great Sparrow. While a few pairs of birds reside in the area, they are difficult to track down. It is worth scanning through all sparrows and small seedeaters while passing through the village for this species.

The T-junction at the end of the village marks the end of this route, and a left turn takes you to the gate of the Borakalalo Nature Reserve some 3km away.

Key species:

African Finfoot, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Purple Roller, Meyer’s Parrot, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Southern Pied Babbler, Cape Penduline-tit, Barred Wren-Warbler, Red-headed Weaver and Great Sparrow

About the Birding Site

Situated in the rich woodlands north of Brits, the network of dirt roads found around the small village of Assen play host to some excellent birding. Birding is at its best during the summer, where a high total can be easily accumulated (it is possible to get to over 100 species in the space of a few hours in the area). Although it doesn’t have the numbers that summer brings, winter birding can be rewarding in this area as well!

The area has a wide mix of habitats, ranging from almost Kalahari-like dry thornveld, to terminalia sp. dominated broad-leaved woodland on rocky ground and lush riverine woodland bordering on the large Moretele River. There are also small tracts of open farmlands dotted throughout the area. Please note that this is a route involving birding from the roadside, along public gravel roads – the majority of the land off the road is private and non-accessible. Facilities are few and far between along these routes directly, but fuel stations, food shops and a wide range of accommodation options exist in the surrounding areas.

Key species:

African Finfoot, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Purple Roller, Meyer’s Parrot, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Southern Pied Babbler, Cape Penduline-tit, Barred Wren-Warbler, Red-headed Weaver and Great Sparrow

Other Related Information

Access and facilities:
The routes described above are all off public gravel/tar roads. The roads are regularly maintained and a small sedan vehicle is sufficient to cover the area. Most of the land, away from the road is private, and please seek permission before venturing off the road – the community land described above is OK to walk around, but please be courteous to the community members you may see and come across in the area.

Other related information:

This is a very birdy area, and a high total can be expected. This area is regularly incorporated into routes for various teams in their Birding Big Day attempts.

GPS Coordinates:
Turn-off to the Assen backroads, from the R511: 25°09’58.1″S 27°35’31.5″E, or -25.166132, 27.592089

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Two BirdLife Recommended Accommodations are in the ‘greater’ area surrounding this route (although not on the route):
Mziki Safari Lodge
Finfoot Lake Reserve
There are no accommodations directly in the area, but a wide range of lodges, game farms and camping sites can be found in the area (such as around Beestekraal) to suit all budgets.

Local guide information:
Birding Ecotours operate day tours to the area

Text prepared by:
Dylan Vasapolli

Key species:

African Finfoot, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Purple Roller, Meyer’s Parrot, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Southern Pied Babbler, Cape Penduline-tit, Barred Wren-Warbler, Red-headed Weaver and Great Sparrow

Contact details: