The majority of birders actively plan birding trips to areas where they can either see a large quantity of birds in a short space of time or mega rarities that would not easily be seen elsewhere. The Kruger to Canyons Birding Route offers both these highlights and a captivating wildlife experience to visiting birders.
Contained within the Kruger to Canyons Birding Route are 10 Provincial nature reserves, the world's largest collection of privately owned nature reserves and the world famous Kruger National Park. The route includes three vegetative biomes namely Montane Grassland, Afro-montane Forest, Savanna and a fascinating vegetation unit of Northern Escarpment Afromontane Fynbos with strong links to that of the Fynbos Biome which is restricted to the Western Cape.
This diverse range of habitats provides home to a total of 76 bird families and a staggering 510 species of which 8 are endemic to the region. The Lowveld is a raptor watchers dream destination with approximately 85% of South Africa's raptors being concentrated in this region. The fantastic road infrastructure and a well established tourism industry, offering accommodation in unparalleled surroundings, provides birders with an excellent platform from which to explore the area.
The route starts at Graskop and the top of the Blyde River Canyon from where it meanders along the course of the panoramic Canyon before plunging down through the Abel Erasmus Pass, the only known breeding site of the rare Taita Falcon in South Africa, and into the Lowveld. The drop in altitude from 1730 to 250 meters above sea level gives rise to a multitude of breathtaking views of a Tufa waterfall, wooded valleys and the expanse of open savanna below.
Once down in the Lowveld the route reaches the town of Hoedspruit where a number of different birding opportunities are presented. The Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, which includes the Swadini Dam, offers a wide variety of typical bushveld bird species and also includes African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron and Green Twinspot.
Mariepskop, which is one of the best kept birding secrets in South Africa, is largely dominated by Afro-montane Forest, but also includes a piece of Northern Escarpment Afromontane Fynbos habitat at the summit. Exploring both habitats assures a treasured day's birding with species such as Orange Ground Thrush, Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Red-necked Spurfowl and Gurney's Sugarbird.
Alternatively one can continue on to the town of Phalaborwa, which as well as offering a diverse range of bushveld birding, has a number of wetlands which is uncharacteristic of the area. The region offers some fantastic bird species such as White-crowned Lapwing, Pel's Fishing Owl and Saddle-billed Stork. Phalaborwa is also a gateway to the central section of the Kruger National Park which has been rated as one of the top birding destinations in Southern Africa with a species list exceeding 500 species.
The rest camps of Mopani, Letaba, Olifants and Satara with their fantastic mixture of bushveld and riparian habitat birding anchor the Kruger to Canyons Birding Route. Look out for species such as African Barred Owlet, Southern Ground Hornbill, Collared Pratincole and Yellow-billed Oxpecker.
The Kruger to Canyons Birding Route offers an amazing and diverse number of species within three different biomes supported by well-maintained infrastructure and world-class accommodation options catering specifically for birders.
The Kruger National Park covers 19,685 kilometers and is the 10th largest game reserve in the world. It has 3000 kilometres of road, 23 rest camps and a host of excellent picnic sites, walking trails, 4x4 routes, hides and massive dams.
A remarkable new initiative involving the Kruger National Park is the creation of a fence free park that allows animals to migrate freely across national borders. In May 2002, Kruger, Coutada 16 (in Mozambique) and Gonarezhou (in Zimbabwe) formally merged into the 35 000 square kilometre Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, one of the largest game reserves in the world.
The big game viewing in Kruger rivals that of any reserve in Africa with large elephant buffalo and lion populations being relatively easily seen. Every year over a million visitors tally up in the region of 520 bird species.
Birding is best in the summer months (November to March) with the arrival of summer migrants but a remarkable amount of birds can be seen in the winter months (May – July). Birding is fantastic throughout the park but the northern area is host to a number of species that are on the edge of their southernmost range and do not occur elsewhere in South Africa. A birding trip to Kruger National Park should be on the agenda of any birder in South Africa.