The Vaal River area is famous for its many wedding venues but the variety of habitats makes for good birding and some secretive species are hiding out along the banks and in the general area known as the Vredefort Dome.
Amongst the birds passing through are the nomadic widowfinches – little seed-eating birds also known as Indigobirds that spend the winter in large flocks.
But come summer and the males wander far and wide and are conspicuous in their almost-glossy blue-black plumage as they sing from elevated call-sites. They move all over the eastern half of Southern Africa and the Highveld, and the Vaal River region is just the sort of area in which they would pop up.
And so it was in early February that I saw both Black Widowfinch, along the Venterskroon Road, and Steelblue Widowfinch at Vaal de Sioleh, one of the wedding venues that offers good birding along the river.
The riverine vegetation holds plenty of Redeyed Dove and Southern Masked Weaver, while Natal Francolin skulk around the thicker undergrowth and Redbilled Woodhoopoes pass noisily through. Bokmakierie also occasionally flies through in a burst of colour.
The river itself hosts African Darter, Reed Cormorant, Whitebreasted Cormorant, Cattle Egret, Yellowbilled Duck, Giant Kingfisher, Whitethroated Swallow, Southern Red Bishop, Greater Striped Swallow, Blackheaded Heron, Great White Egret and Egyptian Goose.
There is still a lot of natural bush along the Venterskroon Road and, coupled with all the rocky outcrops, this leads to good species diversity. Swainson’s Francolin, Whitebrowed Sparrow Weaver, Spotted Flycatcher, Redbilled Quelea, Redeyed and Blackeyed Bulbuls, Rufousnaped Lark, Sacred Ibis, Cinnamonbreasted Rock Bunting, Whitewinged Widow, Blackthroated Canary, Chestnutvented Tit Babbler and Amur Falcon were all seen from the road, while a Longcrested Eagle, imperiously perched on a telephone pole surveying all below him, was an interesting visitor from it’s moister preferred habitat.The most interesting sighting of the day, however, was the Scimitar Oryx, an antelope that is extinct in the wild (since 2000). Endemic to North Africa, it is now part of an extensive global breeding program and I was fortunate enough to see half-a-dozen of them on a farm adjoining the Venterskroon Road.
They are adapted to extreme heat and semi-desert conditions, and can go long periods without water (their kidneys prevent water loss through urination), so 29° and thorn scrub must have felt quite luxurious for them. Interestingly, there is speculation that the legend of the unicorn comes from seeing a Scimitar Oryx with one horn …
Southern Masked Weaver
Whitebrowed Sparrow Weaver
Cinnamonbreasted Rock Bunting
Chestnutvented Tit Babbler
Southern Red Bishop
Greater Striped Swallow
Great White Egret