Join me on a drive along a quiet dirt road on the Highveld. There’s been some good rain the last week, so the veld is lush and green. And at this time of year, all the grassland birds will be singing, displaying and nesting. Who knows what we’ll bump into! Ready? Seat belt fastened? Let’s go!

Read along:

Would you like some coffee? Ha, fine, more for me then! There’s nothing quite like that first cup of coffee once you’ve arrived at a birding spot. Just as the sun rises, and it’s still chilly and quiet. Pity you can never savour it, because it’s only a few seconds until you’re distracted by some bird calling nearby. Stupid birds, ruining my coffee time, haha!

But it’s looking like a glorious day. I was a bit worried about those threatening clouds out to the east, but it seems to have opened up. I think we’re going to have a great morning.

Grasslands are one of my favourite birding habitats. People sometimes think it’s just open and there’s no biodiversity if there are no trees. But in fact grasslands are some of the richest biomes in the world. I remember at university we did some plant surveys. We made these square sampling plots, where you stretch a piece of string to make a 4×4 m block. And then you get down on your hands and knees and you start crawling about looking at all these little micro plants growing beneath the grasses. It’s just incredible!

Of course, birding in grasslands is also very rewarding – especially as the birds are generally easy to spot! Like that Long-tailed Widowbird there. How many have we seen today already? Let’s stop and take a moment to appreciate it.

What a bird! That tail can grow up to half a metre long. And the longer the tail, the more attractive the male is to the females. He knows that of course, so he shows off by flopping slowly over the grass like that. Stunning! Hey, hold on! I can hear a quail. Yes, Common Quail. Can you hear that? Wet-my-lips. Wet-my-lips. Wet-my-lips. It’s quite far though…sounds like it’s coming from that slope over there. Something on the fence in front of us…African Stonechat. Can you hear his alarm call? Like two stones knocked together. Where’s the female? They’re almost always in pairs…uhm, oh yes, there on your side. Cool. Listen! Hear that? Red-winged Francolins! No, they sound pretty far. Let’s scan… No I don’t see them. Do you? Oh yes? Oh, okay, yes. I can see his head poking out of the grass there. Well spotted! Let’s drive up to the crest of that hill. I think we’ll be able to hear everything around us from there.

Here we go, what can you hear? Zit-zit-zit. Recognise that one? Yes, Zitting Cisticola. There he is, about 20 metres up, doing that dipping flight. See him? But listen there on your side. I can hear another species of cisticola. Hear it? That’a Cloud Cisticola. They usually display much higher up. Can you spot him? You got him? Yeah, I know right? Just a little speck! Where? Oh yes, I see something there. Uhh, where have my bins gone to? Okay, here they are, hold on…uhm…oh, that’s an Ant-eating Chat. And another one about 10 metres further left, on that termite mound. It looks like there are some Aardvark burrows over there. They love digging their nest tunnels in Aardvark burrows. And you know what? We must also keep an eye open for Banded Martins too. They and the Ant-eating Chats nest in the same spots and are often close to each other. Hey, what’s that calling in the distance? Hear that? Sounds a bit like a Hadeda. That’s a White-bellied Korhaan! Yes! Sounds like he’s flying, and coming closer…There! I can see him! Two of them! Just near those cows now. Got them? Wow! That’s a tough bird! I’m glad we stopped here. 

Can you hear that buzzing sound down there? Yeah. Ha, it’s about a million Boettger’s Cacos, dainty frogs. That must mean there’s a trickle of water or some sort of marsh down there. Let’s go check it out. Oh hold on, there’s something flying just above the grass…I can hear it: Banded Martin! Yes! Yes, they are pretty big. Check, he’s heading towards the Aardvark burrows like we suspected.

Sho, these little frogs are loud! I’m just going to park beyond the stream there, and then we’ll get out and see what’s around. Cool? Hey, listen, do you hear that? Just wait…you’ll hear it now…there! That spooky, blowing type sound? That’s an African Snipe displaying. He flies up and then he dives down, and when he reaches a certain speed the air rushing over his tail feathers makes that sound. There it is again! And you can hear another one on the ground, making that kek-kek-kek. Some African Wattled Lapwings calling. They sound pretty angry, I wonder what’s up.

Hey, there’s a Golden Bishop! What? Oh yeah, sorry I still call them by their old name. Uh, Yellow-crowned Bishop. He’s displaying over that patch of flooded grass there. How cool is that? Look at him buzzing around. Ha! I just want to check on the other side here… I got a Cape Longclaw. See him there? Perched on that cow pat? What a gorgeous bird. You’ll hear when he flies now, he’ll make his cat-call. There! Meow! Hear that? Should we move on a bit?

Yeah, I saw that bird that flushed. Think he landed by those taller, dark green tufts there. Looked very red. Maybe some kind of lark? I don’t see him now though. Hey, look on the wires there! European Bee-eaters! Awesome. I love that sound. And can you hear that on your side there? Chirry, chirry, chirry… That’s a male African Pipit doing his display-flight. Yeah, there he is. Each time he dips he makes those notes. And then when he dives… Yeah, cool! 

Let’s get out and see if we can spot that lark thing. Uh, let’s walk towards the fence line. Oi! Quailfinches! Yeah, they flushed from right here somewhere. No, I didn’t have a good look. But you seldom do with Quailfinches. The best bet is to wait for them to come and drink at a puddle. Let’s keep going. Oi! Common Quails! Common Quails! Man, they gave me a fright. Yeah, they are tricky to tell from buttonquails when they fly up like that, but remember that buttonquails don’t call when they flush. 

Listen behind us, close to the car there. That wing-clapping and then the whistle? That’s an Eastern Clapper Lark. That must have been what we saw earlier. I can’t believe we walked right past him. Oh, more of them are answering in the distance. How epic is that? And there? Hear that? Yes! Blue Cranes. Let’s see if we can spot them. You got them? Where? Oh yes, I see, there amongst the cattle. And look they’ve got a chick! Very cool! Let’s get back to the car. I want to check out a spot that I remember from last time.

I think it’s just up head. Yeah, here we go. There’s a colony of South African Cliff Swallows under this bridge. Yip. I love these guys. Such characters. Yeah, poke your head under there. See the nests? Just watch out for wasps hey! It’s probably worth checking out those excavations there. Yeah, I can see some nest tunnels in that one bank. Uhm, I’d guess most probably Pied Starlings. Yes, here come some starlings now. But check up there. Yes, high up. Those are Horus Swifts! I’m sure they are also nesting with the starlings in this bank. Here they come! Wow, those were pretty insane views! 

Wow, it’s been a very productive morning so far, hasn’t it? But I wonder what’s beyond that next rise. Shall we check it out? Let’s go! 

Birds featured:

Long-tailed Widowbird | Langsterflap (p. 449) | 01:18

Common Quail | Afrikaanse Kwartel (p. 139) | 01:45, 09:32

African Stonechat | Gewone Bontrokkie (p. 297) | 02:17

Red-winged Francolin | Rooivlerkpatrys (p. 137) | 02:41

Zitting Cisticola | Landeryklopkloppie (p. 400) | 03:33

Cloud Cisticola | Gevlekte Klopkloppie (p. 401) | 03:45

Ant-eating Chat | Swartpiek (p. 299) | 04:20

White-bellied Korhaan | Witpenskorhaan (p. 130) | 04:43

Banded Martin | Gebande Oewerswael (p. 266) | 05:28

African Snipe | Afrikaanse Snip (p. 105) | 06:18

African Wattled Lapwing | Lelkiewiet (p. 144) | 06:48

Yellow-crowned Bishop | Goudgeelvink (p. 446) | 07:00

Cape Longclaw | Oranjekeelkalkoentjie (p. 307) | 07:22

European Bee-eater | Europese Byvreter (p. 238) | 08:10

African Pipit | Gewone Koester (p. 311) | 08:23

Quailfinch | Gewone Kwartelvinkie (p. 462) | 09:06

Eastern Clapper Lark | Hoëveldklappertjie (p. 317) | 09:48

Blue Crane | Bloukraanvoël (p. 125) | 10:22

South African Cliff Swallow | Familieswael (p. 266) | 11:19

Pied Starling | Witgatspreeu (p. 278) | 11:53

Horus Swift | Horuswindswael (p. 261) | 12:10



ABOVE: A male Long-tailed Widowbird displaying. Photo by Anton Kruger/Firefinch App.