|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Kruger National Park and KwaZulu- Natal, South Africa, July 19th to August 20th 2007,
This report details a bird and mammal-watching trip made to Kruger and KwaZulu-Natal by Oscar Campbell, Peter Dolton and Eric Palmer in the summer of 2007. It does not provide full details on all species seen, or comprehensive lists by species or day, but does, hopefully (!) provide lots of useful details on the logistics of the trip that will be of use to anyone considering a similar venture. A lot of this trip was winged whilst on the road and the details included are those that either helped us at the time, or that we subsequently picked up and wished we had heard about earlier! Information about each location and some of the particular species seen there is also outlined (in diary form) in the hope of at least giving a flavour of what can be expected and imparting some of the excitement and thrill of a fabulous natural history extravaganza. If you require any further information on anything contained in this report, please consult the relevant contacts noted below or the author at
ojcampbell25 @ yahoo.com (omit spaces if emailing).
Overview This was essentially a trip of two parts. Two weeks were spent in the south Kruger area, mainly in and on the edge of Kruger itself, with a two-day diversion to the Blyde Canyon area. After that, one of us (EP) had to return to the UK and work and after pushing him kicking and screaming into the departure terminal of Johannesburg airport, OC and PD embarked on a 15 day tour of KwaZulu-Natal, essentially a loop south through from Johannesburg along the Drakensburgs, then north and east along the coast bypassing Durban to St Lucia and north and back to Johannesburg via Mkhuze, Ndumo and Wakkerstroom. As two of us had done nil birding in southern Africa before, and one of us had barely sampled the continent at all, the idea was to have a slow, easy time of it, with no rushing at each location, nor more traveling than necessary. In the event, things worked out very well and it is difficult to see how the main route could have been improved on with extensive forward planning, or, indeed, any sort of planning. The final skor was 378 species of birds confirmed, grilled and often photographed (plus a few others glimpsed and discarded) and 55 species of mammals.
Getting there Two of us flew with Emirates from London to Johannesburg (via Dubai) for about £700 and this worked fine, apart from them the trauma of having to deal with Heathrow at the start and finish. OC had flown in from Dubai two days earlier and picked the others up at the airport.
Car hire On recommendation from a friend, we rented from Tony’s Car Hire: http://www.sacarhire.co.za/ and this made life very easy indeed. Costs were very reasonable (in the order of £100 per week) and service and assistance was top-rate and very friendly. In addition, Tony has a comfortable cottage close to the airport that was very useful for OC as he waited the two days for the others to arrive (sparing the need for finding somewhere in Johannesburg, or indeed even having to go into the city at all) and you can also rent a wealth of camping equipment and mobile telephones, all at knock-down prices. We availed ourselves of both.
Driving This was very straightforward. With a good road atlas and a bit of intuition, finding even obscure reserves and minor roads was easy. All main roads are in good condition and, away from the major cities, very lightly used. There are many signposts and most are reliable (!). Petrol is cheap by UK prices and road tolls on the major highways are far from prohibitive. We did see a couple of big pile-ups near Johannesburg causing major delays but always on the other side of the carriageway.
Birding SA inevitably involves driving on dirt tracks, for example around Wakkerstroom and in all the game reserves and bit of caution is required here. We stuck strictly to routes recommended for 2wd and had no problems. It was, however, winter and bone-dry; things may be different in the summer. One issue particular to winter is the dust; it gets absolutely everywhere and there is nothing you can do about it. Re-sealable plastic bags for expensive optics would be a good idea to protect them from the worst.
Finally, we found that copious quantities of Pink Floyd and Metallica at an appropriate volume went a long way to enlivening those long, flat highveld roads. The latter also proved useful during the writing of this trip report.
Security This is inevitably an issue for all tourists, let alone those with thousands of pounds of optical equipment. All the useful precautions and commonsense are required but we had no concerns in the slightest at anytime; not once was anyone and everyone anything but friendly and helpful.
All the above books, plus a variety of maps and others, were available at the CNA bookshop in the international arrivals terminal of Johannesburg airport.
Other references A quick dive into cyberspace produced a plethora of trip reports; try http://www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/s_africa/index.htm for starters.
Also worth a look, maybe a much longer one, is http://www.zbr.co.za/. This details the admirably organized Zululand Birding route. As well as providing infinite detail on species and sites, these people can book accommodation and, even better, local guides to show you all the specials. Being us, we only learnt about this on the road, so have a look now and don’t make the same mistake. Reasons for supporting this scheme, and the local guides, are outlined under Guides (below).
Timing We visited in the late winter, simply because two of us, being teachers, can take holidays then. For a number of reasons however, this is an optimum time to visit: the weather is perfect (never too hot, predictably dry and no bugs), bird flocks are easier to locate in the many deciduous (and so leafless) trees and many of the mammals concentrate at the few watering holes, making viewing them easier. Conversely, going in summer, or at least later in spring, means many more species (of birds): Palearctic “winterers” as well as intra-African summer migrants (mainly cuckoos and hirundines), and many key breeding species become easier to find as they sing and set up territories. Unhappily (or happily, depending on your perspective) tricky species like cisticolas and pipits were present but not singing (and so barely noticeable) during our visit and thus we ended up somewhat deficient in them. As for non-breeding Euplectes, abandon all hopes now…We did a little better for larks, until hooking up with stormin’ Norman at Wakkerstroom (see Guides below) and pretty rapidly catching fire.
Weather Dust apart (see above), pretty flawless. We had clear skies and warm sunshine almost universally. It is markedly cool at night (but fine for camping - in the lowveld - if you have a decent sleeping bag) and got up to about 28-300C for a few hours around midday most days; not quite sufficient to enforce a siesta. The highveld was very cold overnight (we spent 5 minutes defrosting the car windscreen early one morning at Wakkerstroom) but fine once the sun got up. Strong, gusty winds made life a little awkward at Mkhuze and Richard’s Bay. The only other issue was a fast-moving cold front that brought a lot of rain and high-winds to the Drakensburgs on our last day there; happily we had been on the Sani Pass in glorious weather the day before, and the Orange Ground-Thrushes we were grilling at Xumeni Forest that day seemed to prefer getting wet fully exposed on the track than having to muddy themselves skulking in the leaf-litter.
Places to stay The accommodation we stayed in varied from a friend’s house to camping (almost two weeks in total), via B & Bs (on the highveld) and chalets run by KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife on a couple of their reserves. Almost all of this was booked only a day or two in advance and was off the order £5 per person per night (camping) and £10-12 (B & Bs and chalets). Camping facilities ranged from good to absurd (baths and cooking hobs in Kruger!). Our policy of booking things at short notice produced no problems, apart from in Kruger where there were very few vacancies anywhere. Here we ended up staying 5 days at two campsites that weren’t our first choice, simply because nowhere else was available. Even so, we saw a ton of goodies in Kruger, ranging from lots of game to great birds every day and were most satisfied with what we managed. However, if you can, plan ahead for Kruger, especially if you have a limited time budget (and/or want to visit the most popular camps in the central section of the park). In contrast, we were on virtually on our own at all other campsites, apart from St Lucia (full of weekend fishermen).
Details re accommodation is provided below:
Call: +27 (0)17 730-0427 E-mail: josborne @ global.co.za (omit spaces if emailing); they can make other suggestions if they have no vacancies.
Guides Being a bit independent-minded, we were slow to make use of these, but it is fair to say that the ones we did use were universally fantastic. We certainly saw over a dozen species of birds that we otherwise did not have a realistic chance of by merely blundering about. Of course, by definition, most of these were monsters. First we went to the Sani Pass with Robin Guy: As well as being a great natural historian, Rob is a walking library of local history, and switched effortlessly from tales of Moshoeshoe, Lesotho’s founder, to geological upheaveals during the breakup of Gondwanaland, via San rock-paintings. We certainly got a hell of a lot more than rockjumpers out of that day. Contact Rob at:
Robin Guy Safaris, Rob Guy, P.O. Box 161, Underberg 3257, South Africa. tel/fax +27-33-7011020 . rguysani @ hotmail.com (omit spaces if emailing); www.robguysani.co.za
At Kruger, Mkhuze and Ndumo we used local guides by signing up for night drives and forest walks. It is pretty much luck of the draw who you get but everyone we ended up with was excellent, invariably sporting an uncanny ability to locate eyeshine or an obscure flicker on a whim. Particularly worth searching out is Joseph at Ndumo (ask on arrival at reception). He ensured two magical mornings in the riverine forest. He doesn’t spot birds, he makes them materialize, and these included species we had struggled with for days. Whatever you do, don’t baulk on this one!
BirdLife International has trained a number of local guides in South Africa who have excellent local knowledge. As well as being a laudable scheme to support, these guys really know their stuff. We cottoned on to this scheme late on, but did have the good fortune to have a super 15 hours (over two days!) with Norman Mncube, an excellent guide for the Wakkerstroom area. He pulled out all the stops, and there is no way Rudd’s Lark or Barrow’s Korhaan would have fallen without him. He can be contacted at:
Norman Mncube PO Box 185, Wakkerstroom, 2480 Cellphone: 082 584 1542
Other guides operate at Eshowe and Richard’s Bay (and, doubtlessly other places) and would be well worth organizing. Almost certainly we (or, to be more precise, one of us) would have sweated a lot less over Narina Trogon had we enlisted help at Eshowe. See details for the Zululand Birding route, above.
What follows is an outline of the areas covered, to give some idea of what species you can expect, at least in July-August, and, hopefully, a taster of some of the excitement of birding South Africa. Enjoy (or skip!)
Around Johannesburg (July 20th – 22nd)
One of us (OC) had 2 ½ days to kill waiting for the others. Based at Kempton Park, day-visiting the following was easy:
1 Marievale Bird Sanctuary This is the major wetland reserve within the greater Joburg area. It lies one hour south east of the city and provided an excellent, easy introduction to highveld wetland birding. There are several hides and tracks allowing access to the swampy edges, pools and (mostly burnt) grassland. A wide variety of common waterfowl, herons and waders were located. Particularly exciting (for the first day) were Goliath Heron, African Fish Eagle, a sublimely photogenic Malachite Kingfisher and chirpy Capped Wheatears. Local specialties included Hottentot Teal, African Marsh Harrier and cracking African Rail (virtually the first bird, from the main causeway). Also of note (as it transpired, as they failed to appear again) were Yellow and Black-rumped Canaries and Black-chested Prinia. Three Marsh Owls appeared at the death, another highveld species not seen in Kruger or Zululand.
2 Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve This is the pre-eminent game reserve on the south side of Joburg. It is an easy drive down the N3 and comprises an extensive ridge of grassland and scrubby bushveld with vegetated campsites and gullies and acacia thornveld (on the south-facing slopes). The 65km loop here took a full day and yielded a super selection of highveld grassland species. The Visitor Centre campsite was especially productive early on and the acacia thornveld threw up a few species characteristic of this habitat (Ashy Tit, Kalahari Scrub-Robin and Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler) not likely further south or east. Of particular note were Red-throated Wryneck, wacky Bokmakerie, the first zany barbets (three species), Red-eyed Bulbul (abundant, but right on the edge of its range), and other highveld species that did not reappear until the Drakensburgs or Wakkerstroom (not least Secretarybird, Mountain Wheatear and the podgy Ant-eating Chat amongst others). Some superficial lark-dabbling resulted in the dapper Spike-healed and a malignant-looking Eastern Long-billed.
Suikerbosrand also supports a great selection of big (safe!) mammals, not least Black Wildebeest (a highveld specialty) and – screech to a halt! – Meerkats, which are just as great in real life as on the BBC (more than can be said for a lot of what fills today’s airwaves…)
3 Reitvlei Nature Reserve This large dam and grassland reserve is a handy 30 minutes north of the airport and perfect for keeping the wheels turning whilst waiting for a midday flight. Ostriches, rhinos and hippos have all been re-introduced and a number of common highveld species gave themselves up here. The only Red-headed Finches of the trip were logged, and cisticola fun-and-games began in earnest: two Levaillant’s that, surprisingly survived all subsequent revisions, back-peddling and cursing. Far better was a male Northern Black Korhaan, magically materializing as due reward for some in-depth pipit grilling (999 out of 1000 are African [=Grassveld] Pips, by the way!)
Sabie Park and day-tripping into Kruger July 23rd – 26th
For this leg of the trip, we had the good fortune to stay with our friends Steve and Carol James, who have a house in Sabie Park. This private game reserve is separated from Kruger by the Sabie River (and an interestingly insubstantial fence) close to the Paul Kruger Gate. We spent a full two days birding Sabie and two more touring the nearby parts of Kruger. With Steve’s assistance, this gave us an easy and thorough introduction to lowveld, South African birding. The delight of Sabie is that you can tromp it on foot (at your own risk!) whereas in the national park you are strictly confined to your car. This can be very frustrating when you hit a fast-moving mixed flock, unless you are partial to contortionism. Basically it is a miserable way to see birds period, but there is nothing you can do, and it does result in masses of close game and many photo opportunities. Hence, if keen to do some real birding in Kruger, factor in plenty of time at picnic spots and the major campsites and take in as many dams and viewpoints as possible.
Some high points from an epic four days included:
Blyde River Canyon area July 27th – 29th
We temporarily departed Kruger for two days, basing ourselves at Graskop, about 90 minutes drive away, but, more importantly, firmly back on the highveld.
The first day was spent on the tourist run from Graskop up to World’s End, plus the birder’s extension into the Erasmus Gorge. This day’s key prize was, of course, Taita Falcon, zooming around like a tiny, blunt-handed Peregrine but at least as awe-inspiring were six Verreaux’s Eagles, including four jousting far below us at the Three Rondavels. We also scratched up Southern Bald Ibis and the only White-throated Robin-chat we saw (at World’s End).
The next day and the following morning were spent on peering into Graskop Gorge (easy from our accommodation) and at Mount Sheba, a private reserve that protects a sensational tract of Afro-montane mist forest – a.k.a. rainforest, minus the bugs and sweating. We telephoned the night before and they were quite happy for us to wander the trails ourselves, so gaining access to a whole range of new birds, and Samango Monkeys. Star finds didn’t include Starred Robin (oddly) but instead we had Chorister Scrub-Robin, a Lemon Dove risking trampling, the amazing Cape Batis, Swee Waxbills, Cape Canaries and several skulky Orange Ground-Thrushes (listen for the leaf rustles). Two of us clinched Narina Trogon here and it took the third a full and tormented three weeks to catch up.
Finally mention goes to the peculiar and puny Brown-backed Honeyguide and, especially, Gurney’s Sugarbird on the edge of Graskop Gorge – these stretched sunbirds were not easy to find otherwise (being winter?)
Camping in Kruger (at Crocodile Bridge and Berg-en-Dal) July 29th – August 4th
We had five days based on the south edge of Kruger. Each day was broadly similar; out the camp gates as soon as they opened and back in as late as possible to get the braai stoked up and expunge the day’s dust. The campsite at Crocodile Bridge is a bit small and limited for serious birding but Berg-en-Dal is large and varied and we saw a number of species here not seen since Sabie, plus a few extras.
Mammals were prolific around both camps. We managed 16 White Rhinos in day from Crocodile Bridge and later 50 each of Buffalo and Elephant near Berg-en-Dal. Lions appeared on four days, including 12 at once, and out of another two leopards, one provided on the single best five minutes of the trip: crouching on a low branch whilst canon-fodder (= impalas) wandered below, pouncing at the fifth, missing (just) and then ambling unconcernedly across the road in front of us. Ting-a-ling!
Two further night drives resulted in great (albeit jammy) sightings of Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and White-faced Scops-Owl, roosting Tawny Eagle (in torchlight!) and a very close, stationary, Fiery-necked Nightjar. Amongst a number of mammals we noted Porcupine and Spotted Hyenas (memorable until one loped brazenly along the Sabie fence on our very last morning: some send-off!)
Birds of note evident at this end of the park included African Black Duck with young, the cuddly-looking Southern White-crowned Shrike, a Bushveld Pipit amazingly detected from the roadside, some nice swallow parties including both Mosque and Red-breasted, Black-bellied Korhaan and the only really authentic-looking Ostriches of the trip. We put in some time at Berg-en-Dal to good effect, with both Bennett’s and Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, and Red-billed Firefinch all finally nailed. African Scops Owl was calling here, but don’t miss the celebrity roosting bird at Afsaal Picnic Spot, located within 30 seconds of arrival (by two of us!)
The Drakensburgs August 5th – 7th
Down to two, we next spent three days dipping into the main range of the Drakensburgs, on the border of Lesotho and Zululand. Being winter, many breeding species are either absent or difficult to locate (or identify!) but the totally empty trails, invigorating air and sensational scenery (even given that one of us had recently visited Tibet!) counter-balance this.
First we spent one day at Giant’s Castle, hiking in as far as the main cave paintings. Seeing the icon of the Drakensburgs – Lammergeier – was easy and we also found a Forest Buzzard and glimpsed the ethereal Fairy Flycatcher. Predictable highveld species also featured whilst three cisticolas (two new) comprised our best daily score of the trip. Suspecting a fourth and then converting it into a Cape Grassbird, a jazzy cisticola-prinia cross on steroids, was a better result still.
After Giant’s Castle, we made the long, convoluted run to Underburg, the launching point for trips up the Sani Pass and onto the Lesotho plateau. In superb weather, this lived up to all expectations and beyond. It’s a must-do! Thanks to Robin Guy, we got the full treatment and so were able to punctuate Drakensburg endemics with geological and botanical snippets amidst lashings of history. Our first two rockjumpers, point-blank in a gale, just below the pass were easily birds of the trip (until Pels!), we found the coveted Ground Woodpeckers alongside Buff-streaked Chats and enjoyed a Black Stork sharing the updraughts with vultures far above larks flocks roaming the tundra-like landscape. Lower down around Underberg, Robin had a few tricks up his sleeve, so we ended with all three south African cranes sharing fields with Denham’s Bustards and then threw in a Spotted Eagle Owl for good measure right at the end. Ting-a-ling again!
The next day was dominated by fast-moving front that swamped the mountains in fog, and drenched the highveld and us. More hot tips had pointed up towards Half-collared Kingfisher and masses of waterfowl pre-breakfast, so keeping us going until breakfast itself, when we were joined by Malachite Sunbirds on the patio feeders. We then tried nearby soggy Xumeni Forest where the mist cleared just long enough for two Cape Parrots to fly over and disturb us as we scraped the aforementioned Orange Ground-Thrushes off the track.
Descending coastwards, we cleared the front (or rather, it cleared us) and arrived at a breezy Oribi Gorge for a fine sunset from our amazingly situated KZN-Wildlife chalet. Imagine English Nature, or whatever name they go by now, providing similar at Holkham!
Oribi Gorge August 8th
Here we finally dropped more or less off the highveld and, for the first time, into the lowland coastal zone. There were loads of new species for us on the coastal strip, and they started to appear today. Hiking into the gorge at dawn yielded crippling views of Knysna Turaco and our second exhibitionist Lemon Dove. We then had a long, chilly wait for the rising sun to hit our slope but when it (finally) did, Brown Scrub-Robins sang with gusto, hornbills called everywhere and mixed feeding flocks included new weavers, some really dinky finches (Green Twinspot [go real easy along the roadside] and African Blue-billed Firefinch: for sure all the ones he had pondered over at Kruger were Jameson’s), and Knysna Woodpecker (along with the turaco a species that runs Cape-wards from here, so no others as we headed east). Oribi was our only site for the dapper Mountain (Long-tailed) Wagtail and yielded more Forest Canaries than anywhere else, plus a host of commoner species so all-in-all we had a superb day here in idyllic surroundings. Omit at your peril!
Dlinza Forest, Eshowe August 9th
Neatly side-stepping Durban, we arrived at Eshowe and were on the Dlinza boardwalk and viewing tower by 7am. The forest here was much closer to a tropical rainforest than that at the much more rugged Oribi or the cooler, epiphyte-laden Mount Sheba and, being a few hundred kilometers further east, we had a new sprinkling of species for the second day running. Epic strangler figs, lianas and noisy kok-kok-kokking turacos (Purple-crested) added to the aura. Here White-eared Barbets and tinkerbirds became dominant along with Olive Sunbirds, Square-tailed Drongos and Yellow-bellied Bulbuls. It appears that we did well here to avoid trogons (someone we met logged three!) but we did scoop a dovish Grey Cuckooshrike and painstakingly creep up on a confiding Spotted Ground-Thrush.
For a change of scene in the afternoon, we bumped along to the dam at Lake Phobane. This was one site where the SA Birdfinder was light on details (and optimistic on possibilities) so we had to settle for a Black Saw-Wing amongst gloriously close Lesser Stripies, Rock Martins and Little Swifts. After a Gymnogene, a second anomalous raptor simply had to be Wahlberg’s Eagle although our wretched field guide steadfastly failed to give us any clues of conviction.
Umlalazi and Richard’s Bay August 10th
We stayed a second night at Eshowe and made an early start to Umlalazi, a KZN-Wildlife reserve on the coast at Mtunzini. This reserve has chalets and a campsite and, with hindsight, would have been a terrific place to stay with easy and prolific early-morning birding. Palm-nut Vulture, at just about its most southerly station, is easy to see and we also gleaned Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and Black-throated Wattle-eye. Smarter than either were two Grey Waxbills, clearly having effectively bypassed colour to go for finesse instead.
We put several hours in early afternoon at Richard’s Bay, concentrating on Thula Pan. This meant we resisted the temptation of tanking up on terns and waders somewhere in the deep recesses of the port (a local guide would be a good idea if you are inclined towards these) and instead put the time in examining a large reed-fringed pan, hemmed in by industry on seemingly all sides. Veterans of Belfast Harbour Estate and Teesside would feel most at home, if it wasn’t for the African Marsh Harriers, White Pelicans and Pygmy-Geese (scan all reedy edges and wait patiently for these).
St Lucia and Cape Vidal August 11th – 12th
We had two days at this total gem of a spot, and easily could have been kept busy with two more. This area boasts a fantastic range of habitat, with dune forest and coastal grassland, pools, the estuary and open sea all juxtaposing in a small area. On the first day we tweaked out most of the specials, which mainly, of course, inhabit the dune forests. There are a number of sites to try, several of which are right by St Lucia itself: Sugarloaf and (especially) Iphiva campsites and the Gwalagwala trail all rewarded the time put in. Goodies such as Tambourine Dove, Woodward’s Batis, Rudd’s Apalis, Livingstone’s Turaco and both Brown and Eastern Bearded Scrub-Robins were not too tricky and in the process we fell in with a number of genuine and memorable bonuses: Bush Blackcap repeatedly emerging to snatch-and-grab in a low berry shrub, a giant distant harrier that became our first Secretarybird when scoped, Wood Owl located by a riot of calling bulbuls and sunbirds and guilty-looking Lesser Black-winged Plovers on the run through a damp depression.
The second day, devoted to Cape Vidal, surpassed all of the above and, indeed, was one of the very best of the trip. We divided it between hitting the birdy campsite and chalets hard (lots of Scrub-Robins and twinspots and Black Cuckoo-shrike) and nearby beach (two hours of close Humpbacks being buzzed by ponderous White-chinned Petrels and then suddenly a Shy Albatross appearing over the waves, the closest bird!) and game-driving the road in, and especially, the loop road down towards the lake on the way out. We tallied 20 species of mammal all-in and these included White Rhinos, stacks of herbivores on the open, green vistas and both Leopard and Spotted Hyena crossing the road and hanging around for looks within an hour of one another. In between the carnivores came – ye gods! – Andalusian Hemipode (to hell with the bland anonymity of “Small Buttonqail”!) scuttling through the verge with Denham’s Bustard and Woolly-necked Stork close to hand. There was almost nobody else around and we had a fantastic sunset over soft green meadows. The whole experience had a very different slant to it than Kruger and, inevitably, we skidded out the gate a minute before it was closed for the night. On fire!
To Mkhuze August 13th
St Lucia to Mkhuze is an easy two hours, then a third bone-jarring one on the dirt road in. Whilst very tempted with the prospect of more time at St Lucia, we reluctantly quit whilst (far) ahead and decided to leave early and break the journey with a morning at the highly-rated Bonamanzi. This is another private game reserve but having phoned the night before to invite ourselves along, we got a typical warm welcome. Here we took a nice guided bush walk, and had close views of lots more grassland plovers, dikkops, and quite a few grazers, including some recently (re-?) introduced Blesbok. We also had a rather hot and breezy few hours in the sand forest and spent a most frustrating hour with an intractable (and ventriloquistic?) broadbill; singing regularly within a few metres of us but adroitly avoiding all but the most intangible of glimpses. Apart from this, trogons and Lemon-fronted Canaries never really looked on the cards and by lunchtime we were starting to slowly cook. Hence we decided to cut our losses and roll on. We arrived at Mkhuze in time to settle in and head down to the Kumasinga Hide, of which more below!
Mkhuze Game Reserve August 14th – 16th
This is a highly regarded game reserve, famous for its fig forest, birdy Nsumo Pan peppered with breeding pelicans and storks, and, especially, dry season concentrations of mammals. The latter were significantly better than we had seen anywhere and we spent many hours in the famous Kumasinga Hide watching, listening (and smelling!) dozens of zebra, warthogs and wildebeest at very close range. Special mention goes to the magnificently-robed Nyalas, easier to see here than anywhere else. Spotted Hyena and (White) Rhino appeared also (once right alongside each other!) and there were excellent views to be had of a lot of birds coming down to drink. Of these, Purple-crested Turacos, Woolly-necked Stork and, especially African Quailfinch and the peculiar-looking Greater Honeyguide were the best. Other bush birds were plentiful and we enjoyed close-ups of the highly-prized Pink-throated Twinspot alongside Melba Finches and Grey Waxbills, Fiery-necked Nightjar located in the day and two Black-bellied Korhaans amongst many others. There were a lot of sunbirds to work through, but we only managed the briefest whiff of one likely Neergaard’s and the only broadbill was singing distantly and inaccessibly (although persistently). Worse still, the fig forest walk went on one day only (being cancelled, once inexplicably, on two others! Hmmph.) It is quite a slog down there from the reserve center and we were limited to only a bit longer than an hour under the trees – long enough to appreciate the sensational, cathedral-like sycamore figs and dip into many noisy feeding flocks, but not long enough to dig out a trogon, or even come close. If you want a serious and unhurried crack at pristine riverine forest you must go to Ndumo and this was our last lowveld location.
Ndumo Game Reserve August 17th – 18th
The irony is that it was a bit touch and go whether we would fit this small, remote reserve in and, in the end, we had just two full days. That was sufficient, just. This is a magical, friendly and (birdwise) very rich reserve, tucked tight against the Mozambique border. In contrast to Mkhuze, where it sometimes felt we were having to work quite hard for iffy (or no) views of some of the star birds, at Ndumo some real monsters proved well gettable, amongst a varied haul of easier species both bush and wetland, all abundant and easy to view.
Pride of place at Ndumo goes to the superbly tall, varied forest along the Pongola floodplain and we spent almost six hours in here over two mornings accompanied by Joesph, one of the reserve guides. Thanks to his unsettling and humbling ability to pull birds out of nothing we fell in with a number of things it really looked like we just weren’t going to locate on our own. Pride of place amongst these was, of course – YEEEEHAAAA – Pel’s Fishing Owl which, after a steady search (the tension of which was ratcheted up even more by the finding of freshly moulted primary!) eventually materialized as a two-foot tall, downy chick peering down at us for over an hour. It fully compensated for the crimson flash that went as a trogon a bit earlier and comprehensively eclipsed the rockjumpers as bird of the trip and, maybe, one of our best ever.
Next morning we were back for more and, freed up from pursuing our primary task with quite the same intensity as the day before, located a lot more species. Eastern Nicator, a truly significant bulbul (if such thing exists) with a meaty bill appeared close to camp and we later culminated, after a motionless and peering Scaly-throated Honeyguide and nearby clumsy Finfoot, by suddenly having a Broadbill materialize in front of us: close, exposed and sticking around for some rapid-fire digiscoping. It was distinctly surreal given the trouble we’d had elsewhere. After this, walking up to some rhinos on the way back seemed merely par for the course!
Branching out on our own, we fell in with plenty of other birds. Water birds, including our first Openbills and freshly arriving Palearctic stints and shanks were on the pans, a pepperminty Klaas’s Cuckoo did a willow-the-wisp, Spotted Eagle Owl called from the campsite, and twinspots, many flycatchers, bush-shrikes and woodpeckers all proved eminently watchable. An afternoon/dusk guided drive got us right round one of the reserve’s main pans and we spotlighted several Thick-tailed Bushbabies; much less kinetic and more viewer-friendly than the Lessers we had chased in Kruger. We ended the last afternoon with a treetop-skimming raptor that anywhere else would have been a fish-eagle but, this being Ndumo, was Crowned – come on!
Wakkerstroom August 19th – 20th.
The last two days of the trip were spent in Wakkerstroom, a tiny, scattered hamlet up on the highveld. It lies midway between Jo’burg and the lowland reserves of eastern KwaZulu-Natal and so is a convenient journey break, but has also became a famous birding spot in its own right, hosting one of the best selections of upland grassland species anywhere in the country, including a couple of show-stopping larks and bustards. With limited time and many species silent and somewhat inconspicuous, we enlisted Norman Mncube for some well-targeted assistance. Despite the short notice, Norman was able to meet up with us early next morning and we headed onto the tracks north of the village. Soon we were firing on all cylinders. Over the next day and a half, we scratched up six larks (out of nine seen all trip), including Pink-billed and Spike-heeled on the roadside and, right at the death, a hard-worn (and highly endangered) Rudd’s; quite a bird to end on! In similar areas, Blue Korhaan was quite conspicuous but persistence, lots of horizon-scanning of lower, ranker slopes, plus some real inside knowledge eventually led us to Barrow’s as well, via a nice displaying Black-bellied Korhaan, the first male of this species we’d seen. We saw several large groups of Meerkets from the tracks and other characteristic, more widespread highveld avifauna (longclaws, chats, wrynecks and Bald Ibis) are as obvious around the Wakkerstroom grasslands as anywhere, whilst Secretarybird verge on the blatant. Another iconic sight here are the cranes and we saw several noisy, dancing flocks of both Blue and Grey-crowned. Searching through these let us dig out only the second Wattled of the trip and gave us the perfect excuse to ignore the heinous Euplectes swarms which will need to wait, along with Yellow-breasted Pipit (absent) and Botha’s Lark (silent and evasive) for a summer trip.
All over On the afternoon of the 20th we made fast progress from Wakkerstroom back to Johannesburg, an easy three hour run on mostly empty roads and were able to quickly and efficiently negotiate airport formalities and relax before our on-time departure. This was great, but made touchdown at a shambolic, verging on the embarrassing, Heathrow twelve hours later all the more traumatic…
Acknowledgements Many people helped to make this trip such a success and their particular contributions are noted as appropriate above. Final thanks go to Steve and Carol James for making us feel so welcome at their house at Sabie and to EP and PD for putting up with me for yet another overseas trip. Some people just don’t learn…