Limpopo Province has a unique combination of vegetation types which can be attributed to its location and topography. This mixture of bushveld, forest, open grassland and wetlands allows for a great diversity of birdlife! Certain bird species are found only in a particular habitat, or specific niche in that habitat. Recognising these different habitats and vegetation types will help you to know which birds to find where.
The escarpment plateau and mountain peaks are covered with Afromontane Grassland. The southern and eastern slopes of the mountain ranges catch the moist air that blows in from the Indian Ocean which rises, cools and produces mist and rain. This allows for the development of moist evergreen Afromontane Mistbelt Forests along the upper southern slopes of the mountains. The lower southern slopes are dominated by Semi-deciduous Mixed Forest and Semi-deciduous Scrub Forest with an unusual diversity of bird species. The northern and western slopes of the Soutpansberg fall in a rain shadow; this is where the hot and dry Arid Mountain Bushveld is found.
Riverine Forest can be found fringing the large lowland rivers.
A relict patch of Brachystegia (Miombo) Woodland is found in Venda.
A variety of bushveld types occur on the plains areas; these are dominated by Sour Bushveld in the south, Mopane Veld in the north, Lowveld Bushveld in the east, Clay Thorn Bushveld and Mixed Bushveld with Kalahari elements in the west. Polokwane Plateau Bushveld is found around Polokwane, and east of Polokwane is a unique vegetation type called Mamabolo Mountain Bushveld.
Although the region is predominantly dry, riverine and wetland habitats are dispersed throughout.
Afromontane Grassland occurs on the very tops of the Eastern Escarpment, Wolkberg, Soutpansberg and Blouberg Mountains. Not much of this habitat remains as it has been replaced by forestry plantations in many parts. It also needs to be sustained by regular burning and the lack thereof has allowed the invasion of pioneer shrubs. These grasslands have a great diversity of forbs and herbs; a Fynbos element, characterised by Proteas, Ericas and succulents, is present in some parts. A mosaic of woody plants forms part of these grasslands. These are usually dense thickets on quartzite outcrops dominated by Mountain Waterberry (Syzygium legatii) and Stamvrug (Englerophytum magalismontanum).; The grasslands are generally poor in bird species; some birds specific to this habitat are Cape Grassbird, Cape Eagle-Owl, Cape Rock Thrush and Gurney´s Sugarbird.
Afromontane Mistbelt Forests occur in patches on the southern and eastern slopes of the Magoebaskloof, Soutpansberg and Blouberg mountains. They have a closed canopy 15-25m in height, a mid-stratum of smaller trees and shrubs and a ground layer of herbaceous plants and ferns. Characteristic tree species are Real Yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius), Lemon Wood (Xymalos monospora), Cheesewood (Pittosprum viridflorum) and Forest Fig (Ficus craterostoma). A number of forest-specific bird species occur exclusively in Afromontane forest and are not found in any other vegetation types; examples are White-starred Robin, Orange Ground Thrush, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike and Knysna Turaco.
Semi-deciduous Mixed Forest is a mixture of Afromontane Forest species and low-lying Riverine Forest species. The canopy is 10 - 15 metres in height, with a sub-canopy, shrub and herb layer. Species typically found here are Forest Mahogany (Trichilia dregeana), Forest Fever Tree (Anthocleista grandiflora) and Broom-cluster Fig (Ficus sur). Birding is rewarding in this forest-type as the canopy is relatively open and a wide range of bird species can be found.
Semi-deciduous Scrub Forest is widespread along the lower slopes of the Soutpansberg & Eastern Escarpment. It is a forest-type that has developed probably due to the lack of regular fires and previous overgrazing; over the last hundred years it has replaced much of the mixed grasslands that originally covered these areas. It has a low open canopy which is 3 - 6 metres high, with a high proportion of deciduous trees. The forest does not have a clear sub-canopy, but has a definite shrub and herb layer with a high proportion of grasses. Trees are mostly single stemmed; characteristic species are the Lavender Tree (Hetropixis natalensis), Flame Thorn (Acacia/Senegalia ataxacantha), Forest Currant (Searsia chirendensis), Forest Elder (Nuxia floribunda) and Bushman´s Tea (Catha edulis).
Riverine Forest is well-represented along the Limpopo, Luvuvhu, Letaba and Olifants rivers. These gallery forests are tall, almost closed-canopied forests forming narrow bands along the riverbanks on nutrient-laden soil. Characteristic tree species are Sycomore Fig (Ficus sycomorus), Ana Tree (Faidherbia albida), Nyala Tree (Xanthocercis zambesiaca), Matumi (Breonadia salicina), Waterberry (Syziguim cordatum) and River Bushwillow (Combretum erythrophyllum). Birding is excellent in these forests.
This small area of Brachystegia Woodland near Gundani village in the north-eastern Soutpansberg is the only one in South Africa, with the next closest Miombo community in Zimbabwe. It is just 40 hectares in size and tree species are dominated by Msasa (Brachystegia spiciformis) and False Mufuti (Brachystegia utilis), although there is some debate about possible inter-pollination of the two species. Despite its small size and isolation, some Miombo bird specials have been recorded in the woodland. These are Southern Hyliota and White-breasted Cuckooshrike. There have also been isolated records of Tree Pipit, Spotted Creeper and Red-throated Twinspot.
Much of the northern and western part of the province is covered with Mopane Woodland, sometimes with pockets of Mixed Bushveld and Riverine Forest. Typical species are Mopane (Colophospermum mopane), Red Bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum), Apple-leaf (Philenoptera violacea) and Baobab (Adonsonia digitata). Tall Mopane woodland is the best place to find Arnot´s Chat.
Arid Mountain Bushveld occurs on hot, dry, rocky northern slopes. The vegetation is open to thicket-like in parts. Characteristic species are Lavender Croton (Croton gratissimus), Hairy-leafed Monkey-Orange (Strychnos madagascariensis), Silver Cluster-leaf (Terminalia sericea) and Kiaat (Pterocarpus angolensis). Bird life is interesting and one can sometimes spot birds not common to other bushveld types, such as Pink-throated Twinspot and Crowned Hornbill.
Clay Thornveld is found on undulating plains; the woodland is short and open with nutritious grasses. Characteristic species are Sweet Thorn (Acacia/Vachellia Karoo), Umbrella Thorn (Acacia/Vachellia tortilis), Blue Thorn (Acaci/Senegalia erubescens), Scented Thorn (Acacia/Vachellia nilotica) and Sicklebush (Dichrostachys cinerea). Typical thornveld bird species include Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler, Burnt-necked Eremomela and Acacia Pied Barbet.
Lowveld Bushveld is found on flat to undulating terrain below 500masl on sandy, brackish or clay soils. The vegetation ranges from dense bush to open tree savanna with a fairly well-developed shrub layer and dense herbaceous layer. Typical species include Leadwood (Combretum imberbe), Apple-leaf (Philenoptera violacea), Marula (Sclerocarrya birrea subsp caffra) and Sjambok Pod (Senna abbreviata). This habitat is particularly productive for large raptors and vultures, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and Southern Ground Hornbill.
This vegetation-type lies between the Polokwane Plateau and the mountain habitats of the Strydpoort, Wolkberg and Drakensberg ranges. It is an extension of the Polokwane Plateau Bushveld but has a greater botanical diversity. Mamabolo Mountain Bushveld is made up of a combination of dense shrubby thickets and small trees of both Acacia and broad-leaved species. Tall Mountain Aloes (Aloe marlothii) are conspicuous, as are the characteristic granite boulders and koppies. These outcrops support a great variety of plant life including Bushveld Candelabra (Euphorbia cooperi), and various Fig, Bushwillow and Acacia species. The thickets consist mainly of Red Thorn (Acacia/Vachellia gerrardii), Wild Pear (Dombeya rotundifolia), Rock Cabbage-tree (Cussonia natalensis), Jacket-plum (Pappea capensis) and several Guarri (Euclea) species. Unfortunately much of this habitat has been lost due to deforestation and rural densification and it may be considered threatened. Bird species which are associated with the granite outcrops include Southern Bald Ibis, Rock Kestrel, Familiar Chat, Mocking Cliff-Chat, Freckled Nightjar, Rock Martin, Striped Pipit and Lazy Cisticola.
Mixed Bushveld occurs on undulating to rugged terrain, the vegetation is varied with a mixture of Red Bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum), Marula (Sclerocarrya birrea subsp caffra), Knob-thorn (Acacia/Senegalia nigrescens) and Velvet Raisin (Grewia flava). In the north-western areas, a strong Kalahari element is seen in the protruding red sands with Shepherd’s Tree (Boscia albitrunca) and Sesame Bush (Sesamothamnus lugardii). Birds in those areas are typically those associated with drier climates, such as Southern Pied Babbler, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters and Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk.
This habitat is characterised by open savannah dominated by Red Grass (Themeda triandra) and scattered Umbrella Thorn (Acacia/Vachellia tortilis) and Silky thorn (Acacia/Vachellia rehmanniana) trees. As its name suggests, it is perched on an elevated plateau at an average height of 1300m above sea level. Much of this habitat has been altered due to agricultural activities and the most pristine examples can be found in and around the Polokwane Nature Reserve. Where watercourses and drainage lines run through the Polokwane Plateau, the vegetation becomes much taller forming dense Sweet Thorn (Acacia/Vachellia karoo) and Common Wild Currant (Searsia pyroides) riverine thickets. Other interesting geographical features scattered over the plateau include white quartz veins, granite outcrops and barren saline patches.
Bird species associated with this habitat are Secretary Bird, Northern Black Korhaan, Short-clawed Lark, Barred Wren-Warbler, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Ashy Tit and Black-faced Waxbill.
The vegetation structure of Sour Bushveld is generally open, except where overgrazing has caused bush encroachment. Dominant species are Paperbark Thorn (Acacia/Vachellia sieberiana), Silver Cluster-leaf (Terminalia sericea), Mobola Plum (Parinari curatellifolia), Common Spikethorn (Gymnosporia buxifolia) and Sickle-bush (Dichrostachys cinerea). Some unusual birds may be found in the eastern areas, including European Honey Buzzard, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike and Thick-billed Cuckoo.
Wetland areas may be permanent or seasonal; they include provincial and farm dams, seasonal pans and ephemeral floodplains, perennial rivers and occasional streams. Habitats within these wetland areas include open water; surface aquatic vegetation with water lilies (Nymphaea nouchali) and others; sedge (Cyperus) and reed (Phragmites) beds; sandy or rocky banks as well as flooded grassland. A good variety of waterbirds, waders and water-associated birds may be found in these wetland areas.