I recently returned from an excellent birding trip to mostly the Zululand part of Natal. I picked my clients up in Cape Town and we bird throughout the country to Ndumo along the Moz border and back. In the process we saw and heard 346 bird species which is excellent for this time of the year. We also discover a couple of new venues which are great for birding. My clients were 2 from the UK and the others from SA.
We started in Cape Town in windy conditions, which follows us all the way to Beaufort West. We managed to pick up some Pale Chanting Goshawks, Jackal Buzzard, Cape Sparrows, etc along the road. In Beaufort West we travelled up Molteno Pass but due to the weather we only had views of flying Verreaux’s Eagles.
Next morning we left for Rietpoort Game Farm outside Trompsburg in Free State. With windy conditions birds were hiding. Just past Three Sisters we had beautiful views of Short-toed Rock Thrush, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Pale-winged Starling and Karoo Prinias. Towards Richmond at a dam we saw numbers of Namaqua Sandgrouse, Cape Shoveler, Greater Flamingoes and Pied Avocets. Between Richmond and Hanover we picked up some Blue Cranes, a couple of Ludwig’s Bustards in the veld and Blue Korhaans. At a road work stop beyond Hanover lots of Black-headed Canaries were feeding in grass next to the road.
Next stop was Gariep Dam to show our largest dam to the overseas people, but also pick up some nice birds like Layard’s Titbabbler, Orange River White-eye, Goliath Heron, Afr Fish Eagle, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and Fairy Flycatcher.
Rietpoort Game Farm was a new venue for me, but was highly surprised by the birds and accommodation. The chalets are neatly and located in the garden with huge trees. Birds included inter alia Black-throated Canary, Giant Kingfisher, Orange River white-eye, Common Moorhen, Swainson’s Spurfowl and Black-crowned Night Heron.
Next morning we left Rietpoort to go via Winburg to Qwantani Resort along the Sterkfontein Dam. Along the way we picked up a couple of Long-tailed Widowbirds which have short tails now, Secretarybird and Northern Black Korhaan. In open field at Paul Roux we found our first Sth Bald Ibis, the furthest west that I see this species.
We drove from Bethlehem via Golden Gate to Qwantani, but by now the cold front from Cape Town already reached the Drakensberg Mountains. Golden Gate was very windy with very few birds and saw Jackal Buzzard and Ant-eating Chats.
Qwantani Resort is on the western side of Sterkfontein Dam on a 20 km road which takes you through the Sterkfontein Dam nature reserve. First 4 km is fair gravel road and then you get to a road which was a tar road long ago. It is in a slow process to return to gravel, but if you drive slowly you will managed. In any case birders are always going slow. The resort itself has brilliant facilities from the chalets to the restaurant and it can be highly recommended.
Birds were also excellent, especially the next morning when it was a beautiful Free Stae morning. Ground Woodpecker was awaited us on the lawn when we arrived. Other birds around were Red-winged Starling, Red Bishop and Malachite Sunbird. Next morning the doves were up early, but then I heard a Red-throated Wryneck. It gave excellent views to all. A pair of Greater Striped Swallows was still present and on the way out we saw Wailing Cisticola, Afr Rock Pipit, Cape Rock Thrush, Cape Longclaw and Long-billed Pipit.
On the way to Bergville, the road between Harrismith and the Natal Border via Oliviershoek Pass has not been worked on for the last couple of years. Although driveable if you have some clearance on the vehicle, don’t think about to do it after sunset. Although there are “Stop / Go” in place, the people working there is just collecting their pay. No control and you have to zig-zag past the oncoming traffic.
Nevertheless, on the way we had great views of Cape Griffons soaring overhead. Below the pass a group of Bald Ibisses was feeding on a field. We tried to find the Spioenkop Vulture Restaurant without success. The gate guard aid it is on the other side of the dam, but getting to the battlefield at last, the guard there said there is no restaurant. The best thing here was beautiful views of a Mocking Cliff-chat.
We continued to Owl & Elephant lodge near the small hamlet of Weenen where we stayed 2 nights. It is more or less the only accom in the area but highly recommended as long as Pat is running it. The grounds around the lodge had good birding with Brubru, Flappet Lark (sorry for the late sleepers), Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Lesser Honeyguide, Golden-tailed Woodpecker and White-bellied Sunbird.
The next day we spent most of the day in Weenen NR, a true jewel. We collected 70 species inside the reserve which is very good for winter. Interesting birds were Golden-breasted Bunting, White-throated Robin-chat, Red-billed Firefinch, Bearded Woodpecker, Streaky-headed Seed-eater, Croaking Cisticola and for a number of clients the bird of the trip, 6 Shelley’s Francolins, walking into the road and calling.
The next morning we were off to Mtunzini with a stop at Sappi Hide near Stanger. We had a good collection of birds here including Squacco Heron, Spectacled Weaver, Grey Crowned Crane, Woolly-necked Stork, Hottentot Teal, afr Marsh Harrier, Afr Black Duck and Afr Green Pigeon.
In Mtunzini we stayed at Umlalazi NR which has beautiful chalets inside the coastal forest. As we entered the reserve we were immediately welcomed by White-eared Barbets which let the people jumped out of the vehicle and there were the rest like Black-bellied Starling, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Dark-backed weaver, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Natal Robin-chat. Red Duikers were all along the road.
The next day we had Junior Gabela as our guide when we went to Ngoye Forest. Junior is one of the best guides in Natal and I used him a couple of times. He took us with a new way on an all tar road to Ngoye Forest. Arriving at the forest we were immediately into action with Chorister Robin-chat, Olive Sunbird, Olive Bush-shrike, Yellow White-eye, Croaking Cisticola, Golden-rumped Tinkerbird, Blue-mantled Crested-flycatcher, Square-tailed Drongo and many more. We heard Green barbet but they were hard to show themselves. We had great views of Yellow-streaked Greenbul and African Goshawk as well as Grey Cuckooshrike. On our return to the vehicle we had brilliant views of Green Barbet with 4 birds around us. Another lifer to see was Ngoye Red Squirrel.
From Ngoye we continued to Dlinza which was a bit disappointed. Although it was a nice mild day, birds were silence. We had great vies of Lemon Dove at the bird hide. The target birds were very skittish with only some people that had views of Spotted Ground Thrush, but no Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeons. Other birds were Grey Sunbird, Red-backed Mannikins, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Ashy Flycatcher and calling Emerald Cuckoo … or was it perhaps a mimicking Natal Robin-chat? On the way back to Mtunzini Junior took us on a back road to look for Palmnut Vulture. We had good views of Long-crested Eagle and then excellent views of a Palmnut Vulture on a tree. Trying to find more Spotted Ground Thrush for those who missed it in Dlinza, we found Black-throated Wattle-eye. More people had glimpses of the thrush but then darkness chased us away.
The next morning we were out early to look for Mangrove Kingfisher at Umlalazi. We couldn’t find it (probably to early?), but had excellent views of Yellow Weaver, Grey Sunbird, White-crested Helmet-Shrike and then the other cherry on the cake, a Red-chested Flufftail, sunbathing itself in the road. Very unexpected and a hard job to keep the birders quiet not to chase it off to soon.
We left Umlalazi and heading for St Lucia, on the way stopping at Richards Bay to look for the Franklin’s Gull. We were very lucky to find it alone on the beach with the incoming tide where after it disappeared towards the harbour. A lifer for most of the birders including myself!!
In St Lucia we stayed at Ingwenya Lodge which has very good accom next to the indigenous forest. Trumpeter Hornbills are garden birds. A visit to the river’s mouth gave us views of Pink-backed Pelicans, Goliath Heron, Caspian Tern and glimpses of a Southern Banded Snake-Eagle.
We used Themba Mthembu as guide in St Lucia. Very good guide and highly recommended to anyone visiting St Lucia. We walked the Ingwalagwala trail in hope that it will not rain. Plenty of birds like Woodward’s Batis, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, Blue-mantled Crest Flycatcher, Ashy Tit, Crested Guineafowl, Green Malkoha (excellent views), Olive & Grey Sunbirds, Livingston’s Turaco and Spectacled Weaver.
Later we went to an area north of St Lucia where there is a pan and we picked up inter alia Pygmy Goose and Rosy-throated Longclaw. Had very good views of RT Longclaws, but Themba said they are not regulars to this pan.
In the afternoon we went towards Cape Vidal and on the way we saw Yellow-throated Longclaw, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, 2 Crowned Eagles on a nest, Flappet Lark, Croaking Cisticola and Red-billed Oxpecker. We had some Rhino along the road and on the way back a Spotted Hyena.
Next morning we left for Nibela Lodge via Hluhluwe Game Reserve.