North West – Vaalkop Dam Nature Reserve

About the Birding

We begin at the entrance gate to the Vaalkop Dam Nature Reserve, which sits below the imposing dam wall. After paying your entrance fee, the gravel road progresses through some productive woodland – a mix of large acacia trees and some denser riverine woodland vegetation at the base of the dam wall. Don’t be in a hurry to move through this area, as birding is often great, and you can find many species here.

Be on the lookout for Arrow-marked Babbler, Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Brubru, Southern Black Tit, White-throated Robin Chat, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Marico Flycatcher, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Red-billed and Jameson’s Firefinches and Blue Waxbill, amongst others. More widespread species such as Black-collared Barbet and Green Wood-hoopoe are also present. In summer, these areas are boosted with many migrants, such as Woodland and African Pygmy Kingfishers, many species of cuckoos, and various warblers, such as Marsh Warbler (common), along with scarcer species such as Olive-tree, Icterine and even the rare River Warbler. January onwards is usually better for the warblers, but River Warbler is almost exclusively only possible during mid-late March, when this species begins calling.

Once you reach the end of the dam wall, following the right-hand split in the road takes you to a point on the dam’s shoreline, at a pump station, where you can scan a large portion of the dam for waterbirds. The water levels of the dam fluctuate widely, and the birds move around in accordance with the levels. Resident species that you can expect include Grey, Goliath, Black and Squacco Herons, Great, Little, Yellow-billed (Intermediate) and Western Cattle Egrets, Yellow-billed Stork, Glossy and African Sacred Ibises, African Spoonbill, Hamerkop, African Jacana, along with Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese, Little and Great-crested Grebes, White-faced Whistling, Yellow-billed and Knob-billed Ducks, Red-billed Teal, Southern Pochard and Cape Shoveler. Depending on conditions, other species such as Cape and Hottentot Teal and South African Shelduck might move in. When water levels are low, a number of waders can be seen here, and might include Common Ringed, Three-banded and Kittlitz’s Plovers, Black-winged Stilt, Common Greenshank, Ruff, Marsh, Wood, Curlew and Common Sandpipers and Little Stint. When the water levels are high, only small numbers of waders can be seen, usually limited to Three-banded Plover, Ruff and Wood Sandpiper. During summer, huge numbers of White-winged Terns occur on the dam, with smaller numbers of Whiskered Tern and the occasional Caspian Tern as well. In certain years, Black-winged Pratincoles move in and might number in the thousands (keep an eye out between January – March). In summer, the rank vegetation on the edge of the dam can host prized birds such as African Crake, Greater Painted-snipe, Common Buttonquail and Harlequin Quail. Double-banded Sandgrouse drink from the dam’s shoreline during the evenings and early mornings, and can occasionally be found on the tracks through this area. A number of rare waterbirds have been recorded over the years, and it is always worth keeping an eye out for any odd birds – some of which have included Rufous-bellied Heron, Lesser Jacana, African Skimmer, Sooty Tern, Eurasian Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit.

Backtracking to the split in the road at the edge of the dam wall, instead bear left (continue straight), crossing over a dyke, and continuing into the main portion of the nature reserve. There are not many tracks to drive (and be cautious during summer, as some of the tracks may be muddy, and/or flooded), and you should slowly drive along these tracks, stopping regularly, and walking around, to look for birds. The habitat is a mix of open grassy areas on the edge of the dam, leading onto dry acacia thornveld. The thornveld birding here can be productive and further species such as Crimson-breasted Shrike, Southern Pied Babbler, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler (Warbler), Ashy Tit and Cape Penduline-tit occur, and colourful seedeaters such as Black-faced and Violet-eared Waxbills, Green-winged Pytilia and Golden-breasted Bunting are abundant.

Just before the entrance to the nature reserve, a small dirt track turns off to the right (signposted to Bushwillow Estate), and heads to a low-water bridge over the Elands River. The Magalies Water settling ponds to the right of this road (look for the dense reeds), have become increasingly overgrown in recent years, and many of the pans can no longer be accessed. The reeds here however are alive with Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warblers, joined in summer by African Reed Warbler. It is not recommended to explore these areas on foot, as there are Hippo’s that move between the Elands River and these settling ponds, which can result in an unpleasant encounter. It is worth spending time at the low-level bridge, as many birds move up and down the river. A resident pair of Black Crakes are almost always present; Green-backed (Striated) Heron regularly move up and down the river, numbers of African Darter, Reed and White-breasted Cormorants roost in the trees along the river, as do Black-crowned Night Heron, and also allows you a good vantage point for Kingfishers – Pied, Malachite and Giant are all regular, and Half-collared is rarely seen as well.

Continuing along this dirt road, past the low-water bridge, you soon pass a turnoff to the left to the ‘Fishing/Camping Area’ portion of the dam (take note if you plan on camping here overnight). Bypass this turn, and proceed straight onwards (skirting the Bulkop Farm on your right) and up the Bulkop koppie. A slightly different suite of species can be found here, such as Lazy Cisticola, Bar-throated Apalis, Striped Pipit, and rarely Short-toed Rock Thrush and Mocking Cliff Chat. The top of the Bulkop koppie gives you a wide view over the dam and surrounds, and is a good place to search for raptors – which may include African Hawk Eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle and Cape and White-backed Vultures. Eventually you reach the gates of the Bushwillow Estate, which you need to proceed through to access the North West Bird Sanctuary. This area can only be accessed by prior arrangement through the estate (it is worth asking at the Vaalkop Dam Nature Reserve offices at the entrance, if they can organise access for you). While a similar suite of bushveld species occurs here as well, the habitat is mostly dominated by broad-leafed woodlands on sandy soils, and houses a few different species. Species such as Red-crested and Northern Black Korhaan, Coqui Francolin, Double-banded Sandgrouse, Bushveld and Buffy Pipits, Monotonous Lark and Red-headed Weaver amongst others.

A number of nocturnal birds can be found here, if you’re spending the night, with owls including Southern White-faced Owl, Western Barn Owl, Spotted Eagle-Owl and Pearl-spotted Owlet all regularly, and Fiery-necked and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars (the latter in summer only) widely present as well.

The road leading up to the Vaalkop Dam Nature Reserve entrance passes through a number of agricultural fields, which should be searched for Abdim’s Stork (summer), Temminck’s Courser, Namaqua Dove, Desert Cisticola, White-winged Widowbird and African Quail-finch. Shortly before reaching the entrance, a large settling pond is visible opposite the Magalies Water buildings. A big heronry can be found here, with numbers of Grey and Black-headed Herons, African Spoonbill, African Darter, Reed and White-breasted Cormorants, and Great and Little Egrets. The open water also occasionally hosts Little Grebe, Common Moorhen, African Swamphen and Hottentot Teal, amongst others. Village and Lesser Masked Weavers have big colonies here too.

Key species:

Western Osprey, African Hawk Eagle, Water Thick-knee, Common Buttonquail, Double-banded Sandgrouse, White-throated Robin Chat, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, African Pied Wagtail, Bushveld Pipit, Black-faced Waxbill

About the Birding Site

This 3996ha nature reserve lies adjacent to the large Vaalkop Dam, some 50km north of Brits. The vegetation is generally typical bushveld consisting of mixed Acacia thornveld and broad-leafed woodland with all the associated bird species, and an added bonus of the dam for waterbirds and waders. The Elands River provides a different suite of birds, as do the neighbouring Magalies Water settling ponds and the many agricultural fields in the area.

Over 340 bird species have been recorded. An 800ha section has been set aside as a bird sanctuary (North West Bird Sanctuary) and can only be accessed by appointment, through the private Bushwillow Estate. The diversity of habitats here makes this one of the premier birding sites in the wider-Gauteng region.

Key species:

Western Osprey, African Hawk Eagle, Water Thick-knee, Common Buttonquail, Double-banded Sandgrouse, White-throated Robin Chat, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, African Pied Wagtail, Bushveld Pipit, Black-faced Waxbill

Other Related Information

Access and facilities:
The reserve entrance gate is located here: 25°18’33.0″S 27°28’57.5″E, or -25.309154, 27.482643.

Adults R30.00 per person
Children (2 to 12 years) R20.00 per child
Pensioners R20.00 per person
Angling R15.00 per angler

Other related information:

Camping/Caravan Site:
With ectricity points: R80.00 per site per night (max. 6 persons) and R10.00 per additional person + gate entrance fee
Ablution block: Shower with hot water

No electricity points: R60,00 per site per night (max. 6 persons)
and R10.00 per additional person + gate entrance fee
Ablution block: shower with hot water.

4X4 Camp: R200 per night – maximum 8 persons and R20.00 per night per additional persons plus gate entry fee.

Gate times:
Summer 06h00 – 18h30
Winter 06h30 – 18h00

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Two BirdLife Recommended Accommodations are found on the southern shoreline of Vaalkop Dam:
Mziki Safari Lodge
Finfoot Lake Reserve

The Vaalkop Dam Nature Reserve has a rustic campsite (see information above) with ablutions and hot water available.

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 (Birding Ecotours)

Key species:

Western Osprey, African Hawk Eagle, Water Thick-knee, Common Buttonquail, Double-banded Sandgrouse, White-throated Robin Chat, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, African Pied Wagtail, Bushveld Pipit, Black-faced Waxbill

Contact details:

Vaalkop Dam Nature Reserve
Office: +27 (0)12 277 1670
Gate: +27 (0)12 277 2498
Cell: +27 (0)73 991 0310

Park Manager: Mr M Setuki
Contact Cadet Ranger: +27 (0)73 327 9988
Fax: +27 (0)86 579 1521
Click to download the reserve brochure