This birding drive take us into the Little Karoo, an arid landscape, with birds that are well adapted to cope with the warm, dry summer days and the chilly winter mornings. For most of the year this landscape is brown and dry in comparison to the wet, lush landscapes that lie south of the Outeniqua mountains. However, for a short time in early spring, it can be full of bright colours as all the succulent vygies come into bloom after good winter rains. The general vegetation does not grow very tall, and in some places the succulent scrubland is less than a metre tall. Here many of the birds have adapted to have excellent camouflage and blend into this environment, making their identification a fun challenge at the best of times. The Karoo is best explored first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, but mornings are best!

The Heimersrivier birding drive

Take the N9/N12 from George over the Outeniqua Pass and continue to the split where the N12 veers off to the left (towards Oudtshoorn) and the N9 continues straight towards Uniondale. Follow the N9 into the Langkloof. Reset your odometer to zero here and drive along the N9 for 28,6 km until you arrive at a turnoff with the signpost Daskop. Take this turnoff (to the left) onto a gravel road, and drive north, following the Matjiesrivier. In this Fynbos habitat you should be on the lookout for birds such as the sought after Protea Canary and the Malachite Sunbird. Soon you will arrive at the next junction, where the Heimersrivier Road actually starts. This is about 2,2 km from the turnoff on the N9 – reset your odometer to zero again.

Turning left onto the Heimersrivier Road, you will be heading west – this is where the Karoo birding drive really begins! Scan the arid plains for larger birds such as Secretarybird, Blue Crane, Ludwig’s Bustard and Southern Black Korhaan. Also look for the smaller LBJ’s such as Karoo Scrub-Robin, Large-billed Lark, Red-capped Lark, Karoo Chat, Familiar Chat and African Pipit. Pied Starlings and Cape Sparrows are common, but also watch out for the nomadic Grey-backed Sparrow-larks and the more colourful Capped Wheatear. Namaqua Doves often come to drink at water troughs, and farm dams can become a magnet for waterbirds such as South African Shelduck, Red-billed Teal, Spur-winged Goose, African Spoonbill, Pied Avocet, and masses of Southern Red Bishops and Southern Masked Weavers in the reedbeds fringing these dams. Close to some of these dams you might find one of my favourite birding habitats in the Karoo – drainage-line woodland.

Drainage-line woodland is a taller habitat, found along drainage lines where the dominant tree species is usually the Sweet Thorn, Vachellia karroo. These trees are full of insects, an important part of the diet of many insectivorous birds. My favourite stop is located at about 17,4 km from the start of the Heimersrivier Road. Be on the lookout for Chestnut-vented Warbler, Pririt Batis, Long-billed Crombec, Yellow-bellied Eremomela and the very special little Fairy Flycatcher. Another similar habitat (with the same community of birds) can be found at 24,3 km from the start of the Heimersrivier Road. Here you should also listen for Acacia Pied Barbet, Cardinal Woodpecker, Grey-backed Cisticola and families of tiny little Cape Penduline Tits.

Don’t forget to scan every electricity pylon for birds of prey – the Karoo is a haven for these birds. Anywhere along this road you may find Martial Eagle, Booted Eagle, Lanner Falcon, Rock Kestrel, Black Harrier and Pale Chanting Goshawk, to name a few.

This route is 30,7 km in total – the T-junction at the N12 signals the end of this drive. From here you can turn right and head back to George.