We joined a tour to KwaZulu-Natal organized by Japie and Ralie Claassen of Karoo Birding Safaris. Over a period of 19 days and travelling some 5000 km, we recorded 359 bird species.
Thanks to Pat Korrubel (LakesBirdClub, Knysna) & Chrisna Joubert (Tygerberg Bird Club), two of the participants, for the report.
On the first day we left Beaufort West and traveled to the Gariep Dam, birding en route. Specials included Ludwig's Bustard, Blue Korhaan, Afr Rock Pipit, Layard's Tit-babbler, Orange River White-eye and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, hundreds of Amur Falcon all the way from the northern parts of China, and large numbers of SA Cliff Swallows building and repairing their nests under road bridges. Our overnight accommodation was at Garingboom Guest Farm (www.garingboom.co.za) near Springfontein where we saw our first widowbirds flapping over the fields. We recorded the elusive Kimberley Pipit and other LBJ's such as Red-capped and Spike-heeled Lark, Grey-backed Sparrowlark, Sickle- winged Chat, a Melodious Lark singing its heart out high in the clouds, Red-throated Wryneck and Karoo Thrush.
Our next destination was Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga. A local bird guide, Norman, accompanied us to the Wakkerstroom Wetland Conservancy. This produced Whiskered Tern, Little Bittern, several African Purple Swamphen feeding their chicks on the reed-cores, African Wattled Lapwing, Buff-streaked Chat, Grey-crowned Crane, Ground Woodpecker, Sentinel Rock- thrush, Swainson's Spurfowl, Long- and Fan-tailed Widowbird, Red-winged Francolin, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Cuckoo Finch and a Red-footed Kestrel. At Fickland Pan, we were, after a lot of searching, rewarded with the tiny Rudd's Lark scurrying through the grass. A detour was made to see the Bush Blackcap and Barrett's Warbler.
After Wakkerstroom we set off in the direction of Piet Retief. We took a detour in the direction of Luneberg to try to see Wattled Cranes without luck.The road surface was horrendous, more potholes than tar, but the scenery made up for the discomfort. Lots of Yellow- billed Kites showed as we descended from 2000 to 270 m.a.m.s.l., leaving Mpumalanga and entering KwaZulu-Natal. In no time we spotted European Roller, Red-billed Hornbill, Grey Go- away-bird, White-backed Vulture flying overhead, Magpie Shrike, Golden-breasted Bunting, Red-backed Shrike, etc.
We stayed for two nights at Nkwazi lodge in the Pongola Nature Reserve,(www.pongolagamereserve.co.za) situated on a cliff overlooking part of the Pongolapoort Dam. The reserve is divided into two sections by a lake and as our game drive would take place on the opposite bank, we were ferried across the lake by boat, a real highlight. We had good sightings of African Jacana, Squacco and Goliath Heron and crocodiles from the boat! We also saw White-browed Scrub-robin, Common Scimitarbill, Lesser Masked- weaver, Flappet Lark, Rattling Cisticola, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Grey Penduline-tit, Little Bee-eater, Lilac-breasted Roller, Fiery-necked Nightjar, Violet-backed Starling, Southern Black Flycatcher, Village Weaver, White-crested Helmet-shrike, Emerald- spotted Wood-dove, African Hawk-Eagle, Martial and Wahlberg's Eagle, Brown Snake-eagle plus a good sighting of a Stierling's Wren-warbler and an African Cuckoo.
We now set off in the direction of Empangeni, soon turning off to the village of Jozini on our way to Ndumo Game Reserve. We had a stunning drive over a mountain pass with excellent views of the Pongolapoort Dam. Ndumo GR, close to the Mozambique border, is a mosaic of many beautiful pans fringed by huge fever trees, wetlands, reed beds, acacia savannah and sand forest. Ndumo is probably best known for its prolific bird life. Driving along the pan was lovely and we saw lots of birds including Pink-backed Pelican, African Openbill, Woolly-necked Stork, Great Egret, etc. Great excitement occurred when a Palm-nut Vulture was spotted sitting in a tree across the pan.
Driving back along the opposite side of the pan and in the forest we recorded African Cuckoo, a Cuckoo Hawk enjoying a meal of a chameleon, Broad-billed Roller, White-eared Barbet, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Puffback, Purple-crested Turaco, Chinspot Batis, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Dark-backed Weaver, Senegal Lapwing, Crested Guineafowl, Striped Kingfisher, while a huge flock of White-crested Helmet-shrikes was special. The beautiful fever trees along the pan impressed us all and when a pair of Fish Eagles called to each other, this was the perfect ending to the morning's outing.
Another potholed gravel road brought us to a lodge situated in a sand dune forest in the conservation area of the iSimangiliso Wetlands (Lake St Lucia) namely Nibela Lake Lodge (www.dreambreaks.co.za.) Accommodation was in luxurious thatched chalets, connected by raised wooden walkways that lead to the main lodge area. The chalets overlook False Lake, part of Lake St Lucia. We were accompanied by a local bird guide to look for Cape, Yellow-throated and Rosy-throated Longclaw on the shores of Lake St Lucia. We were well rewarded with good sightings of these longclaws.
We then travelled towards Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve. After many potholed gravel roads it was a pleasure to be on tar again. Our overnight accommodation was at Hilltop. After leaving Hilltop Camp we recorded both Black- and Brown- crowned Tchagra, White-winged Widowbird, Croaking and Lazy Cisticola, Dusky Indigobird, Natal Francolin, Red-shouldered Widowbird, Yellow-throated Petronia, Pied Wagtail, Rufous-naped Lark, Tawny Eagle, while Purple-crested Turacos were hopping around in the trees.
We now headed for St Lucia via Matubatuba. St Lucia is surrounded by amazing lush vegetation. We took a drive to the St Lucia Estuary where we had a walk along a boardwalk. There were lots of birds on the mudflats and in the trees such as Lesser Crested Tern, Scarlet-chested Sunbird and Brown-throated Weaver. An early morning walk in the forest in the town produced Green Malkoha, Livingstone's Turaco, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, African Green Pigeon, Woodward's Batis, Black-bellied Starling, Olive and White-bellied Sunbird, Red- capped Robin-chat and Lemon Dove.
After St Lucia we were on our way to Mtunzini. Our accommodation was in the Umlalazi Nature Reserve in wooden chalets. TheUmlalazi swamps are home to several species of mangrove trees and colourful fiddler crabs. Common birds are Purple-banded Sunbird, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Woolly- necked Stork, Ashy Flycatcher, etc. We paid an early morning visit to the Raffia Palm Monument, in search of the Palm-nut Vulture, but without success. A boardwalk takes one under these very tall palms which create the impression of a very large Gothic cathedral. We were well rewarded with a pair of Tambourine Doves in the middle of the road.
While staying at Umlalazi NR we spent a day in the Ngoye and Dlinza Forests. Our main target in the Ngoye Forest Conservation Area was the Green Barbet. After a lot of effort and patience everyone got to see this rare bird. We also saw Black- headed Oriole, Red-backed Mannikin, Olive Pigeon and Green Twinspot. From Ngoye Forest we drove to Eshowe and the 250 ha indigenous Dlinza Forest. We walked the 125 m wooden walkway, 10 m high and then climbed to the 20 m observation platform which gave panoramic views of the magnificent forest giants. Specials here were Narina Trogon, Grey Cuckooshrikes and a lovely sighting of a Spotted Ground-thrush with a chick! The forests were truly amazing. On the way from Eshowe we stopped to see Striped Pipit in the grass, while a Crowned Eagle, flying high above us, was calling all the time.
The next morning we sat off to Weenen. Along the way we stopped at the Sappi Pan where we saw some Maccoa Duck, Striped Kingfisher, Hottentot Teal and Black-crowned Night Heron. We then continued to Imbabala Lodge near Weenen. We had a couple of birds around the lodge like Hamerkop, Arrow-marked Babbler, Brubru and White-faced Owl.
The next morning we set off to visit the Weenen Game Reserve. There were lots of birds and the most game we had seen up to now – white rhino, giraffe, kudu, eland, mountain reedbuck, etc. Birds included Shelley's Francolin, Black-bellied Bustards which flew in and landed in the grass, Jacobin Cuckoo, Lilac-breasted Roller, Red-collared Widowbird and Tawny-flanked Prinia.
Next day we now drove on a beautiful road and over the Van Reenen's Pass, recording Long-crested Eagle, Red-collared Widowbird and the first Amur Falcons on our return journey. We stayed at Glen Reenen Restcamp in the Golden Gate National Park. The mountain scenery was spectacular. Our first stop was the vulture restaurant and as we walked to the bird-hide we were rewarded with the amazing sight of two lammergeyers (Bearded Vulture), circling slowly overhead, low enough to show their facial markings. We drove various loops in the park and recorded Verreaux's Eagle, Drakensberg Prinia, Wing- snapping Cisticola, Cape Canary and Ground Woodpecker.
The end of the KwaZulu-Natal Birding Safari dawned with a beautiful sunrise after some rain during the night, the air crisp and cool, what a pleasure. We arrived back in Beaufort West after traveling almost 5000 km experiencing a diversity of habitats each with its own collection of birdlife.