Most visitors to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve overlook the fact that it is one of the most incredible destinations in South Africa for birdwatching. The extraordinary variety of habitats – ranging from grassland to woodland, mountains, ravines, bushveld and huge dams – makes it home to over 300 bird species.
The summer season in South Africa (October to April) is the best time to go to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve for a rewarding birding experience. Avid “tickers” have been known to record over 80 species in a single day. Ivory Tree Game Lodge offers ‘bird drives’ that are tailor-made to suit everyone, from the novice birder to the experienced “Twitcher”.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve is regarded as one of the top birding destinations in southern Africa for good reason. There are plenty of opportunities in the reserve to get out of your car and get a closer look at birds. The reserve is dotted with a selection of hides at dams where a dedicated birder can patiently wait to spot the bird he or she is looking for.
Mankwe Dam attracts many water birds, including blacksmith lapwings, grey, black-headed and Goliath herons, great white egrets, Egyptian geese and white-faced whistling ducks. These elegant birds hop delicately between huge crocodiles dozing on the banks as herds of antelope graze nearby. If it’s early morning or evening, you may be distracted from bird watching by a breeding herd of elephants, a pride of lions or a leopard coming down to the water’s edge to drink.
Keep your eye peeled for the violet-eared waxbill and the black-faced waxbill foraging deep in the undergrowth. And point your binoculars tree-wards to spot one of the delightful members of the Kingfisher family.
At the gate to Manyane Camp, look out for a Pilanesberg special – the southern pied babbler which is endemic to the area.
Batlhako Dam is popular for bird watching and the sun reflecting off the water’s edge makes it ideal for the perfect photo opportunity. The hide is great but there is another viewpoint just north of the dam that is equally rewarding.
Tlou Drive passes through Acacia thickets and open grassland and you’re bound to catch more sightings of the violet-eared waxbill with its incredible blue, red and violet feathers. Tlou dam is more of a waterhole but an ideal place to stop for some binocular time.
The hide at Ruighoek Dam is also a good birding spot, and often a lot quieter as it is off the beaten track and not as popular as Mankwe Dam.
Makorwane Dam has a good bird hide and you have the added bonus of watching hippos and the odd herd of elephants or a lazy pride of lion sleeping off the spoils of the night under a shady tree.
Tilodi and Lengau Dams do not have bird hides but you can sit comfortably in your car fairly close to the water’s edge and watch the wildlife and birds pass by.
Malatse Dam hide is positioned on a small island and is the ideal place to spot a fish eagle. The call of the fish eagle is one of the most memorable sounds of the African bush. You’ll also see yellow-bill ducks and cormorants drying off on the banks of the dam.
The Rathlogo waterhole is an excellent game viewing spot that is also home to a lovely selection of birds. It is a great place to start and end your day if you are staying at Bakgatla or Ivory Tree Lodge.
When you’ve had your fill of the Pilanesberg dams and waterholes, make you way to the Lenong viewpoints. These are some of the highest spots situated along the road to the top of the Pilanesberg mountain in the central part of the reserve. From these vantage points, you have panoramic views of the grasslands and plains game below. You are allowed to get out of your car in the designated areas but still be vigilant for any predator that has made its way up the mountain.
The grasslands and valley savanna is home to some magnificent species, including the Secretary bird, flappet lark and grassveld pipit.
Birds to look out for in the woodlands and bushveld thickets include the southern yellow-billed hornbill, Swainson’s spurfowl, the southern black tit and the white-backed mousebird.
As many as 15 species of shrike descend on the reserve in the summer months, including the beautiful crimson-breasted shrike.
In the rocky outcrops, look out for short-toed rock thrushes and keep a watchful eye for raptors soaring on overhead thermals. These will include the black-chested snake eagle, the brown snake eagle, the martial eagle, the Verreaux eagle and the white-backed vulture.