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Birding in Urban Areas in South Africa: Pretoria and Surrounding Areas

Johan has travelled extensively in the USA and Southern Africa. He is a retired school teacher and evangelist.

Urban Birding in Pretoria and Gauteng

Sometimes the best birding areas in a country can be found right in urban areas. Several of the major cities in South Africa have great birding opportunities, and the capital city—Pretoria—is no exception. Only about 50 km away is the Witwatersrand Urban area with Johannesburg in the centre. An estimated 400 species can be found regularly in the Pretoria and nearby Witwatersrand (within about an 80 km radius). This area is situated at a height of about 1500 m above sea level and falls in the grassland vegetation biome.

Specific “birding hotspots” include the Pretoria National Botanic Gardens, Roodeplaat Dam Reserve, Rietvlei Nature Reserve and Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary. Travelling a bit out of the city, one can visit the Nylsvlei Reserve, Rondebult Bird Sanctuary, Leeupan and Korsman Bird Sanctuary, Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens and the Marievale Bird Sanctuary, to mention just a few great areas.

On a recent visit to Pretoria, we managed to visit just two of these areas and both the Pretoria Botanical Gardens and the Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary provided some excellent birding and photographic opportunities.

Pretoria Botanical Gardens

The Pretoria Botanical Gardens is one of 10 National Botanical Gardens in South Africa. Its 74 ha of beautiful high-veldt gardens contain several indigenous types of vegetation, offering different habitats and therefore different bird species. From grassy areas and hilly slopes to different forest areas, one could easily spend a day exploring the gardens. A list of the birds that can be seen in the gardens is available for purchase at the entry gate, where a nominal fee is also required from visitors.

A bird list of well over 40 species would be possible, and that would include the common birds like a variety of doves and starlings, the sunbirds in the Aloe Garden and the rarer skulkers in the denser vegetation. Sometimes just sitting on a bench in a shady area can provide a pleasant surprise. The birds in the gardens are used to people passing by and so can be identified quite easily and photographed from close up.

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The well-marked and laid out natural medicine area is very interesting and clearly illustrated with appropriate signboards. Visiting groups of high school pupils from surrounding areas can sometimes be seen filling in worksheets as they explore the gardens with the help of a guide or a teacher.

The restaurant in the Botanical Gardens provides a really good menu at reasonable prices. At times, different raptors can be seen circling the gardens looking for a tasty morsel (e.g. the jackal buzzard and the yellow-billed kite).

Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens

At the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens near Muldersdrift, which is about 40 km from the Pretoria gardens, a couple of interesting raptors can also be seen. This includes a black sparrowhawk and a pair of Verreaux’s eagles who nest in the rock face next to the waterfall and which can best be seen from May to September when they are breeding. These gardens boast a plant list of 600 different kinds and a bird list of 220.

Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary

The Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary is in the suburb of Groenkloof, and although it is very small, it hosts a great selection of waders, water birds and even storks, depending on the season. Well-placed bird hides make this a birding photographer's dream, and obviously, early mornings and late afternoons with their softer light are ideal.

Roodeplaat Dam Nature Reserve and Rietvlei Reserve

The Roodeplaat Dam Nature Reserve is just outside Pretoria to the east and consists of 200,000 ha only 30 minutes from central Pretoria. To the south, the Rietvlei Reserve is even closer to the centre of the city. Both have a variety of animals, and Rietvlei has several antelope species and also rhino and buffalo in attendance. In these two reserves, many of the high-veld grassland and water birds can be viewed.

Don't Miss These Fabulous Bird Sanctuaries and Reserves!

Before rushing off to the Kruger National Park some 400 km to the east, it would be well worth the time spending a day or two visiting at least a few of the interesting urban and peri-urban bird sanctuaries and nature reserves in the Pretoria area. The concentration of birds in relatively small areas will provide a great start to a Southern African bird list for overseas birders arriving in the country.

© 2016 Johan Smulders

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