North West – Boons and Derby grasslands

About the Birding

Boons Road:
The first route described begins just off the N14, just outside the Gauteng province, on the Boons Road (26°14’25.4″S 27°16’58.8″E, or -26.240385, 27.283004). This is the ‘main’ birding route in this area, as it supports almost all of the specials.

At the coordinates described above, turnoff north onto the Boons gravel road. The first 2.5km pass through predominantly agricultural areas, which don’t host much of interest – keep an eye out for Swainson’s Spurfowl and Long-tailed Widowbird.

After 2.8km, you will see a small, cattle drinking trough on the left (west) side of the road. In winter, this has proven a reliable area for Namaqua Sandgrouse to come and drink from – a very significant record given the proximity to Gauteng, and Johannesburg. This species’ distinctive call often gives them away, as they fly powerfully overhead, before settling down and making their way to drink. It is worth keep an eye open for this species at any other drinking area, or dam, anywhere in this area. Many other species come to drink here as well, and species can include Namaqua Dove, African Quail-finch, Yellow Canary and even Lark-like Bunting. At this point, and onwards for the next 4km (total =6.8km from the N14), small, karoo-like bushes dominate the landscape, and this is the best area to find Rufous-eared Warbler. Like the sandgrouse, this is another significant record and a very special bird of the area. They are a secretive bird, and difficult to see – listen for their wispy calls and scan the tops of the bushes for them as they often perch up while calling. Other species to search for in these areas are Orange River Francolin, Northern Black Korhaan, Eastern Clapper Lark, Desert and Cloud Cisticolas, Ant-eating Chat and Buffy Pipit.

Winter and recently burned areas attract Temminck’s Courser, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark, Capped Wheatear and Plain-backed Pipit. Small numbers of White-bellied Bustard (Barrow’s Korhaan) persist in the area, and are occasionally heard and seen. Small bushes that sporadically dot the area should be searched for Acacia Pied Barbet, White-backed Mousebird, Bokmakierie and Wattled Starling. In summer these bushes bring in exciting species such as Common Whitethroat and Icterine Warbler. Stands of eucalyptus trees, often around farmhouses, should be searched for Red-throated Wryneck, Lesser Honeyguide and in winter Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, with species such as Crested Barbet, White-browed Sparrow Weaver and Southern Grey-headed Sparrow regularly present. Throughout this area, many other more common grassland species can be expected, such as Helmeted Guineafowl, Spotted Thick-knee, Black-winged Kite, Amur Falcon (summer), Rufous-naped and Red-capped Larks, South African Cliff Swallow (summer), Black-chested Prinia, Pied Starling, African Stonechat, Cape Longclaw, African Pipit and Black-throated Canary.

Continue along this road for 21.3km (bypassing other turn offs), where you turn sharply to the left (south-west). This road continues for 10.7km, and passes through a similar habitat set described above. 7.5km after turning onto this road (total = 28.8km), you pass a small wetland and stream. The water levels do fluctuate somewhat but there is almost always water present. This is a great area to see African Quail-finch, as they come down to drink. Additionally, African Snipe are usually present, while other species seem to come and go – search for Grey Heron, Little Egret, White-faced Whistling Duck, Yellow-billed Duck and Black-winged Stilt. In summer, this area sometimes floods, and many species are attracted here, and flocks of Black Herons, Squacco and Purple Herons, Intermediate Egret, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Red-billed Teal and various shorebirds such as Ruff and Wood Sandpiper have all been seen. After 10.7km (total = 32km), the road ends in a T-junction with a tarred road. A left turn takes you past a large dam (search for Maccoa Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Goliath Heron and various ducks) before re-joining with the N14, and effectively completing a big circular route. Melodious Lark is often present opposite this dam, just north of the N14 (early summer is best, when this species is displaying and easy to locate – listen for their distinctive call). A right turn at the above-mentioned junction takes you towards Derby, and the next route discussed below.

Derby grasslands:
This route describes a circular route through the network of grasslands, wetlands and farmlands around the small town of Derby. This route starts shortly off the R509, east of Derby, at these coordinates: 25°55’17.3″S 27°05’35.3″E, or -25.921483, 27.093129. This road turns off to the south from the R509, and is the starting point for this route. The first 4.5km of this route pass through vast areas of farmed lands and it is worth searching for more common grassland species.

Here the road takes a sharp left, followed by a sharp right, before crossing a wide wetland after 6.2km. This is a great area to stop and scan (search especially for Blue Cranes and Marsh Owl) as you have wide views over the grasslands occurring around here. Many of the species mentioned above under the Boons Road (with the exceptions of Rufous-eared Warbler and Namaqua Sandgrouse) can be found along this route as well. In winter, much of this wetland is usually dry, but it often holds water during the summer, and can hold a number of waterbirds, including African Spoonbill and Yellow-billed Stork. Black-winged Pratincole has been in the summer months here. This is also a great area for widowbirds and bishops in the summer, with White-winged, Red-collared and Long-tailed Widowbirds, Yellow-crowned and Southern Red Bishops all present. Keep a careful eye out for Cuckoo Finch, which can be seen perched quietly and inconspicuously on the fences and wires in this area, in the summer. The road reaches a T-junction after 10.4km (briefly turn left (east) here to visit the dam/wetland immediately visible), and it is suggested to turn right (west). After 2.5 (total = 12.9km) follow the road to the left (south) for a further 1.5km (total = 14.4km), before turning right (east), and continuing onwards to the R30 and eventually back to Derby.

Key species:

Orange River Francolin, Blue Crane, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Temminck’s Courser, White-backed Mousebird, Eastern Clapper Lark, Melodious Lark, Cloud Cisticola, Rufous-eared Warbler, Buffy Pipit

About the Birding Site

This route describes a network of public roads covering the dry highveld grasslands located to the west of Johannesburg and south of the Magaliesberg. This is a predominantly open area, where grasslands dominate, but a number of agricultural areas exist as do areas of karoo-shrubland and pockets of dense bush. Various dams and wetlands are also present and further boost the bird list.

This area is home to a number of endemic and near-endemic species, and is an important birding site. Although perhaps not as diverse as some of the other birding sites described in this Central & East section of the North-West Province, it is possible to accumulate a list of 100 species in a day in the summer (less in the winter).

Key species:

Orange River Francolin, Blue Crane, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Temminck’s Courser, White-backed Mousebird, Eastern Clapper Lark, Melodious Lark, Cloud Cisticola, Rufous-eared Warbler, Buffy Pipit

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. This area is easily done as a half-day/day trip from Gauteng, and an overnight stop is usually not required.

Other related information:

Access and facilities:
The routes described above from the base for birding the area, but it is worth noting that many other gravel roads criss-cross this area, not described above, and host a similar selection of birds. Feel free to explore other roads in this area, not described, if you’re feeling adventurous.

GPS Coordinates:
The start of the Boons road, off the N14: 26°14’25.4″S 27°16’58.8″E, or -26.240385, 27.283004
The start of the Derby route, off the R509: 25°55’17.3″S 27°05’35.3″E, or -25.921483, 27.093129

Recommended accommodation nearby:
No BirdLife Recommended Accommodations are currently available in the area. However, a diverse array of accommodation options exists in the wider area.

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

Text prepared by:
Dylan Vasapolli

Key species:

Orange River Francolin, Blue Crane, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Temminck’s Courser, White-backed Mousebird, Eastern Clapper Lark, Melodious Lark, Cloud Cisticola, Rufous-eared Warbler, Buffy Pipit

Contact details: