The magnificent mountain region and escarpment of the Maloti Drakensberg comprises an array of habitats home to over 350 species of bird life. High-altitude alpine sites, steep grassy slopes, forested rivers and more provide sanctuary to majestic raptors, tiny thrushes, pipits and hundreds of other rare and even endangered unique birds. An increasing number of proficient local guides can assist in finding them, providing the rewarding experience of tracking down some of the most beautiful and fascinating creatures.

The conservation laws governing many of the areas in this region seek to protect globally endangered species such as the Bearded Vulture, the Cape Griffon (formerly Cape Vulture) and the Wattled Crane. There are a number of species which are endemic to the region, such as the Orangebreasted Rockjumper, the Drakensberg Siskin and the Mountain Pipit.


Some endangered species in the region

The much-maligned Bearded Vulture (commonly but mistakenly known as the lammergeier, from the German for “lamb-hunter”) has been persecuted to near extinction in North Africa. Although breeding sites are still found in the Ethiopian Highlands, the second most important African breeding site for these magnificent birds is the Maloti Drakensberg. There are approximately 200 breeding pairs of Bearded Vultures remaining in the Maloti Drakensberg Mountains and currently none of the breeding sites are in protected areas.


The Bearded Vulture is primarily a scavenger, but prefers bone marrow over flesh and will drop bones from great heights onto flat rocks (known as ossuaries) to shatter them, then extract the marrow or swallow and digest the pieces. They are easily recognizable in flight by the long, narrow wings and wedge-shaped tail. The bird’s striking colours – black wings, ferric chest, white-feathered head and black mask and beard decoration – make it exceptionally handsome. Legend has it that the rust-coloured feathers on the chest were caused by the bird rubbing white feathers against oxidized rocks to smooth and condition them.


The Wattled Crane is a very large, conspicuous bird with a white neck, grey back and black belly. It has two whitish wattles beneath its chin. Its habitat ranges from midland to highland wetlands and moist grasslands. These cranes, of which there are only about 70 nesting pairs in South Africa, are severely endangered due to the loss of their spongy wetland habitats, and deaths caused by power line collisions and consumption of poisoned grain left for other problem animals. They have the slowest reproductive rate of the three South African crane species.


In terms of global conservation, the Cape Griffon (formerly known as the Cape Vulture), a southern African endemic, is also extremely important. Once common in the region, the Cape Griffon has fallen prey to poisoned bait and is regarded as vermin by many farmers, despite the fact that it rarely kills. Its decline is also attributed to electrocution on power lines, and to reduced breeding success resulting from juvenile mortality. Estimates put the numbers of the Cape Griffon at between 8 000 and 10 000. About 10-15% of these nest within the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, foraging beyond the borders of the park during the daytime. Groups roost and nest on precipitous cliffs which are white with their droppings. They prefer mountainous country or open country with inselbergs and escarpments. They are late risers, soaring out between two and three hours after sunrise. Their tongues are serrated, enabling them to feed rapidly on the soft tissue of carcasses.


The Cape Parrot lives in and near evergreen mist belt forests along the eastern escarpments of the region. They can be seen actively clambering around in search of fruits and berries, or flying high overhead in pairs or larger groups with their loud screeches resounding between clumps of remaining forest. This is a critically endangered species, primarily due to loss of habitat. Good places to see them include the Marutswa Forest Boardwalk near Bulwer, and the Xumeni Forest near Creighton.


Other interesting bird species in the region

The Bald Ibis is notable for its naked red-domed crown, with red bill, iris and legs, and glossy green plumage. It enjoys foraging in short grasslands at mid- to high altitude (especially after burning) and is often found on overgrazed pastures and cultivated lands. It breeds in communal roosts, the nests precariously perched on ledges against high cliffs such as those in the Mokhotlong area. The word Mokhotlong means the “place of the Bald Ibis”.


The Orange-breasted Rockjumper (sometimes called the Drakensberg Rockjumper) is found on the steeper rocky slopes and low cliffs of the region. These birds are often found in pairs or family groups, leaping from rock to rock with little wing action, although they do fly and glide well. They also run fast, sometimes with their tails cocked. If you approach their nest or their young, they become very wary and vocal, running to and fro, disappearing and reappearing at different places.


The Drakensberg Siskin is a well camouflaged small bird, endemic to the Drakensberg, which sings all day long. It is found in montane scrub and in Afro-alpine grasslands. Its diet consists mainly of seeds and insects, and it forages on the ground amongst rocks and low vegetation, or in bushes and trees. The nest, made of grass and lined with animal hair, is built in a hollow rock or in a bush among rocks.


The endemic and rare Mountain Pipit breeds at altitudes above 2 000 m. It is very similar to the Grassveld Pipit, although somewhat larger. Its habitat is short montane grassland and the eastern slopes of the escarpment. The Mountain Pipit has very recently been awarded full status as a species, having previously been considered a race of the Grassveld Pipit.


The near-endemic Bush Blackcap is an uncommon resident in the Lesotho Highlands and the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, with its status listed as near-threatened. This small bird (slightly bigger than a sparrow) is jet black from the top of its head to its mantle, with a pale throat and belly. It enjoys evergreen mistbelts and montane forests as well as adjacent scrubby hillsides. It is quite aninquisitive bird, and creeps around the middle layers of the forest edge or low down in the scrub with slow, deliberate movements. Its diet consists largely of fruit.


Birds in this region which are endemic to southern Africa include Jackal Buzzard, Buff-streaked and Sickle-wing Chats, Fairy Flycatcher, Rudd’s Lark, Yellow-breasted, Rock and Long-billed Pipits, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrushes, Grey-wing Francolin, Ground Woodpecker, Barratt’s Warbler, Spotted Prinia and Layard’s Tit-babbler.


Some other birds of interest in the region are Black-headed Canary, Lanner Falcon, Alpine Swift, Cape Eagle Owl, Yellow-throated Warbler, Verreaux`s (Black) Eagle and Half-collared Kingfisher.