A self-driven birding route on public dirt roads, just off the N3 Toll Route, near Harrismith. Birders can spot Blue Cranes, Southern Crowned Cranes, Wattled Cranes and Blue Korhaans.
At the top of 42nd hill, on the Johannesburg side of Harrismith (N3 Toll Route) is the turn-off to Verkykerskop. Zero your odometer at this turn-off. Travel for 3.7km, then turn right at the sign that says De Beers Pass, the S692. When your trip meter is at 12.9km, turn left onto the Collins Pass road, still on the S692. At 18.5km again stay left on the S692 towards Collins Pass. At 25.9km, at the cross-roads, turn right onto the S691, De Beers Pass road. At 27.8km you will see Alex Pan on your right, an innocuous looking farm dam. The Cranes are usually in the mowed lands behind the dam, or just over the rise and over the hill. To get permission to go onto the land you would need to enquire at the farmhouse, just past the pan and turn left at the board. Best to contact Johan Swart on 083 627 8593.
The early part of the route is through intensely farmed land and does not hold much interest. The highlight would be Red throated Wryneck in the exotics. A mega-tick for this part is the Rufous-chested Sparrow Hawk. Scan the erosion gullies for Ground Woodpecker, and expect to see Ant-eating Chat and Stonechats.
From marker two onwards you get into interesting grassland. Here you can start looking out for the Larks and Pipits that make grassland birding so exciting. Expect to see Cape Clapper Larks in the long grass, Spike-heeled Larks on the road verges and Red-capped Larks in the road. Look out for Eastern Long-billed Larks on the scree-slopes of the small koppies and Botha’s and Pink-billed in the overgrazed areas.
Your common Pipit will be the African Pipit, but look out for Long-billed, Plain-backed, Buffy and African Rock Pipits. I have had Mountain Pipit in both the spring and the autumn close to this area. Although the altitude is not correct you could still find Yellow-Breasted Pipits here in winter. In summer there is a good chance of both Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers and in winter you can expect to see Black Harrier.
Blue Korhaans are always “outstanding” in their fields, as are the Secretary birds and Red-winged Francolins.
The other Eastern Free State special that you would want to see is the Bald Ibis and of these there are plenty, but closer to Alex Pan.
The usual suspects like Jackal Buzzards, Black-shouldered Kites, Pied Starlings, Long-Tailed Widows and Cape Long-claws are a plenty.
A late afternoon departure in winter will be rewarded with Marsh Owls in the grassy places and then if you are really lucky you might get to see a Grass Owl in one of the Marshy areas. The trick with this kind of birding is to take it slow and to scan the fields at any sign of birds. Very often you will see a number of Pied Starlings in the veld, stop and scan, because they are often indicators for other birds. Scan before you scare the birds in the road, as they are easy to scope and often the Redcapped, Eastern Clapper and Spike-heeled Larks will come to pick up spilled grain.
Should you get lost, or are feeling “all shagged out” after a stressful tick, give me a call, David 083 303 4230. I can put you onto some other high Grassveld specials should you need them, or offer you a comfortable bed for the night.