The Lowveld – Hans Merensky Nature Reserve

About the Birding

Located roughly 70Km north-east of Tzaneen, the Hans Merensky Nature Reserve offers a rich mixture of mature bushveld and mopane birding. One is able to bird on foot in this reserve, adding the chances of finding some of the sought-after species in the woodland areas. The reserve is also bounded to the north by a 10km stretch of the Letaba River adding additional interest to the reserve. The birdlife is rich throughout with the reserve playing host to at least 250 species.

In winter, a weekend of birding may easily yield over 100 species while 150 are possible in the summer months.

The top special here is Arnot’s Chat. Search for this species in the mature Mopane woodland along the tourist drive in the main portion of the reserve. Other lowveld birds of interest in the reserve include Greater Blue-eared Starling, both the Red and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Southern White-crowned Shrike and Stierling’s Wren-Warbler. The trails along the river are good for Retz’s Helmet Shrike, Thick-billed Cuckoo (summer), Brown-headed Parrot, Yellow-throated Petronia, and Red-headed Weaver. The scarce Bushveld Pipit is regular in the wooded areas and is best detected in mixed-species foraging flocks. Other regulars of the mixed-species foraging flocks include the White-crested Helmet Shrike, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Long-billed Crombec, White-breasted Cuckooshrike (at the southern limit of its range), Cardinal Woodpecker, Common Scimitarbill and Grey Tit-flycatcher.

Key species:

Arnot’s Chat, Bushveld Pipit, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, White-breasted Cuckooshrike

About the Birding Site

The Capricorn-Letaba birding route stretches from the city of Polokwane in the west to the Great Letaba River beyond the Letsitele valley in the east. The route runs just a few degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, mainly along the R71 road which links the towns of Polokwane, Haenertsburg, Tzaneen and Gravelotte.

An interesting geographical feature of this route is its varying altitude. Polokwane lies on a plateau at approximately 1300 masl, further east lies the escarpment of the Northern Drakensberg and Wolkberg mountain ranges where the altitude reaches 2300 masl. The route then drops down into the Lowveld where the altitude is approximately 480 masl at the Letaba River. These extreme variations in altitude result in a great range of vegetation types within a relatively small area. Within these diverse habitats, over 500 bird species are to be found.

The open thornveld habitat of the Polokwane plateau supports a great variety of both Bushveld and Kalahari-type birds. Typical species here include Crimson-breasted Shrike, Barred Wren-Warbler, Short-clawed Lark and Black-faced Waxbill. Just before reaching the foothills of the Drakensberg and Wolkberg Mountains, one passes through the outcrop strewn Mamabolo Bushveld. These granite inselbergs hold many rock-dwelling species, including Southern Bald Ibis’s northern-most population. In the Northern Drakensberg and Wolkberg sections of the route, birders enjoy vast tracts of montane grassland, which is Blue Swallow territory and houses other sought after species such as Broad-tailed Warbler, Croaking Cisticola and Drakensberg Prinia. The afro-montane forests of Woodbush and Magoebaskloof offer amongst the best forest birding in the country with specials like Brown Scrub-Robin, Black-fronted Bush Shrike, Barratt’s Warbler, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, and Orange Ground Thrush. The eastern lower slopes and valleys of Magoebaskloof provide reliable sites for the elusive Bat Hawk and Green Twinspot. The Tzaneen area is well-known for its sub-tropical fruit industry and the interesting mix of lowland habitats here support a wide range of species including Gorgeous Bush Shrike, White-browed Robin-chat and Purple-crested Turaco. The Lowveld region around Letsitele and along the Letaba River is blanketed in extensive Mopane Woodland where Arnot’s Chat is resident. There are many Lowveld rivers with their associated riparian forest habitats where the likes of Greater Blue-eared Starling, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike and Thick-billed Cuckoo can be found. This is also one of the prime raptor areas in the region.

The Capricorn-Letaba Birding Route is further divided into four different birding areas, namely the Northern Escarpment, Polokwane, The Lowveld and Tzaneen. Each area has its unique character and a set of special bird species. The area is also well-supported by a variety of different accommodation options as well as several easily accessible birding sites.

The lowveld is the most easterly section of the Capricorn-Letaba Birding Route with an altitude of less than 650 masl. Blanketed in Mopane woodland and sour bushveld, there are a host of birds not found anywhere else on the route including the likes of Arnot’s Chat, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Thick-billed Cuckoo and Stierling’s Wren-Warbler. More common species include the Greater Blue-eared Starling, Woodland Kingfisher and White-crested Helmet Shrike. The regions’ proximity to the larger conservation areas of the lowveld also makes this area good for the larger birds like raptors and storks. White-headed and Hooded Vulture and Bateleur Eagle are examples of the birds that you should continuously be scanning the sky for. The riverine areas along the Letaba River act as a conduit, drawing birds like White-backed Night-Heron, Saddle-billed Stork and African Openbill Stork into the area.

Key species:

Arnot’s Chat, Bushveld Pipit, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, White-breasted Cuckooshrike

Other Related Information

Access and facilities:
A nominal entrance fee is charged and the reserve is easily traversable using a circular drive that covers all key habitats. There is good camping and chalet accommodation at the Eiland Holiday Resort, located adjacent to the Hans Merensky Nature Reserve, with a rustic trail camp within the reserve itself. For more information, please contact the resort using the details listed below.

Directions:
From Polokwane, take the R71 east to Tzaneen and continue through towards Letsitele. After 31km, turn to the left and only the R529. Continue for 37km to reach the reserve.

Other related information:

Recommended accommodation nearby:
A variety of accommodation options are available in the nearby areas of Magoebaskloof, Haenertsburg. The nearest BirdLife Recommended Accommodations include the Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge, Bramasole Guesthouse, and Magoebaskloof Birders’ Cottages for which additional contact details are provided below.

Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge
Physical address:
Sterkloop Farm, Houtbosdorp, Magoebaskloof
Tel: +27 (0)15 276 1131
Mobile: +27 (0)82 200 4596
E-mail: info@krm.co.za
Website: http://www.krm.co.za

Bramasole Guesthouse
Address: A37 Bramasole, off the R71 between Polokwane & Tzaneen, Magoeabskloof, Limpopo, 0731
Landline: +27 (0)15 007 0629 (weekdays 8am – 5pm)
Phone: +27 (0)72 062 8514
Email: reservations@bramasole.co.za
Website: www.bramasole.co.za
Instagram: @bramasole97

Magoebaskloof Birders’ Cottages
Address: Dragonwyck Farm, A 46.5 off R71, Magoebaskloof
Phone: +27 (0)84 402 3709
Website: http://mbcottage.co.za/ or http://birderscottage.com

Local guide information:
Paul Nkhumane: +27 (0)73 670 5857
David Letsoalo: +27 (0)83 568 4678

Text prepared by:
Daniel Danckwerts (Rockjumper Birding Tours)

Key species:

Arnot’s Chat, Bushveld Pipit, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, White-breasted Cuckooshrike

Contact details:

For more information, please contact:

Eiland Resort
Tel: +27 (0)15 386 8000
Email: eiland@atkv.org.za
Website: www.eiland.co.za

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