Waterberg – Zaagkuilsdrift

About the Birding

This account is written as approaching from the east via the N1, turning off at Pienaarsrivier and joining the Zaagkuilsdrift Road at -25.196, 28.295. As you pass through Pienaarsrivier in the east, look for parties of the social Magpie Shrike perched on the telephone lines. This is also a good area to watch for the scarce Purple Roller. Grassland on the outskirts of the town supports Northern Black Korhaan and Desert Cisticola; and, while both species are resident, they are easiest to find in the summer months when their calls resonate. Rufous-naped Lark is regularly seen perched on fence posts uttering its distinctive call. Between December and March, one can also see Southern Carmine Bee-eater in this area. Other summer migrants to look for include the Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, both Amur and Red-footed Falcons, and European Roller.

Travelling west, one passes a small dam to the left. Roadside thickets here support the Grey-backed Camaroptera, Kalahari Scrub-robin, Chestnut-vented Warbler, and White-throated Robin-chat. The dam itself regularly hosts White-faced Whistling Ducks, Hamerkop, and a host of cormorants, and African Fish Eagle is often sighted in this area. Blue-cheeked Bee-eater is regular here in the summer months and can often be seen perched conspicuously on the tall dead trees emerging from the dam. In late summer, list for the melodious song of the Thrush Nightingale particularly in years of good rain.

The acacia scrub away from the water is generally good for the Crimson-breasted Shrike, Common Scimitarbill, Southern Pied Babbler, White-browed Sparrow-weaver, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Brubru, and Burchell’s Starling. Late summer is a good time to look for the Common Whitethroat, and the Olive-tree, Icterine, Willow, and Marsh Warblers. The uncommon Barred Wren-warbler is also regular in this area though knowledge of this species’ call is essential to find it.

Continuing westwards along the Zaagkuilsdrift road towards the Kgomo Kgomo floodplain, the vegetation becomes increasingly more arid and birders should be mindful of Violet-eared Waxbill and its brood parasite the Shaft-tailed Whydah. Other species include the African Firefinch, Black-faced Waxbill, Great Sparrow, and Scaly-feathered Weaver.

Roughly 10km from the start of the Zaagkuilsdrift road, a second prominent road turns off to the right. Turning right here, then left again after a few hundred metres, takes you to a road running parallel to the Zaagkuilsdrift Road. This is the best area to look for migrant warblers – including the rare River Warbler – though care should be taken as the road is often in poor condition and can be impassable after heavy rains. The River Warbler is best seen in March, when it begins calling.

As you approach the village of Kgomo-Kgomo, the vegetation changes completely and the arid thornveld gives way to open grassland with scattered bushes. This area is excellent for the Scaly-feathered Weaver, Great Sparrow, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark, and Capped Wheatear. The highly-nomadic Temminck’s Courser is also regular. In years of good rainfall, this area becomes completely inundated and birders should watch for Greater Painted-Snipe, Kittlitz’s Plover, African and Striped Crakes, Dwarf Bittern, and occasionally the Streaky-breasted Flufftail. The latter has only recently been found at this site though seems to be a visitor in exceptionally wet years only.

The road then passes through the village of Kgomo Kgomo with the vast floodplain on the left. Search around the houses for the Great Sparrow, Black-throated Canary, and both the Red-headed and Cut-throat Finches. Take the tarred road to the left and cross the Kgomo Kgomo floodplain. Look here for the Great Egret, Yellow-billed Stork, African Spoonbill, Squacco Heron, African Jacana and Black Heron. This is also a reliable area to find the migrant Blue-cheeked Bee-eater in the summer months. In wet years, this area sometimes also yields the Cuckoo-finch, Lesser Moorhen, Allen’s Gallinule, Striped Crake and even Black Coucal.

About the Birding Site

The 20km stretch of road spanning from the town of Pienaarsrivier to the village of Kgomo-Kgomo – known as the Zaagkuilsdrift road – is rightly considered one of the country’s top bushveld birding destinations and is a regular rarity hotspot. This is also arguably the best site in the country for the complete assemblage of Palearctic migrant warblers including the rare and highly sought-after River Warbler. These species are best seen in the latter part of summer (March-April) but one could expect a list of well over 150 species on a given day’s birding at any time of year.

Other Related Information

To reach the Zaagkuilsdrift road from Pretoria, follow the N1 north and take the Rust de Winter/Pienaarsrivier off-ramp. Turn to the west. At the first T-junction, turn to the right. After 1km, turn left onto an unpaved road; the start of the Zaagkuilsdrift Road. The Kgomo Kgomo floodplain is reached a further 20km along this road.

From Kgomo Kgomo, take the tarred road that leads to the south through Makapanstad and ultimately to the Hammanskraal Road approximately 35km further along. Turn left and continue for approximately 4km until you get to Hammanskraal and the R101. Turn right onto the R101 and, after 400m, turn left onto the R101. This road leads directly back to the N1.

Birders should be mindful that several areas of this road become virtually impassable in wet years, necessitating 4×4 vehicles with sufficient clearance.

Text prepared by:
Daniel Danckwerts (Rockjumper Birding Tours)

Key species:

River Warbler, Olive-tree Warbler, Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Dwarf Bittern, Lesser Moorhen, Allen’s Gallinule.