JIM & MORNA – 29 November 2004

(EXCERPTS FROM A KWAZULU-NATAL BIRDING TRIP)

Greetings, All!

Before the joys of our recent KwaZulu Natal birding trip are completely submerged in the pre-Christmas rush, I thought I`d drop you a line to tell you of fresh wonders awaiting you all out there … in case any of you are looking for new places to visit.
We had been invited by our good friends, Anne & Ant Salusbury, to join them at Mkuze Falls Lodge near Pongolo for a celebration with other good friends of theirs from Joburg, who had been unable to join us on the Namibian trip. My approach on such occasions is ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ so I set about making the journey there and back more interesting.
I stumbled across a venture on the internet, called Button Birding, situated near Ixopo. Intrigued, I discovered that Malcolm and Gail Gemmell run a guest house there, and that Malcolm guides birders to see the likes of Cape Parrot, Blue Swallow and Black-rumped Buttonquail. In our 16 years of birding, Jim and I have never had the pleasure of being guided by an expert, and we found the ‘specials’ irresistible.

Accordingly, Nov. 29th saw us driving into the Gemmel`s lovely home – Smithfield – at lunchtime on a sweltering summer`s day, having night-stopped in Umtata. Gail had set out out a delicious light lunch on the lawn in the deep green shade of massive trees. Here, I must mention that her cuisine is worth a visit in its own right – both the dinner she served that evening, and the brunch we were treated to the following morning, were 5 star standard. We were spoilt rotten!
I had sneakily been entertaining thoughts of a dip in the inviting pool and a quick nap in the crisp cotton sheets, but Malcolm insisted that we get moving right after lunch. ‘Weather`s changing’ he announced, with an expert glance at the sky. He was proved right – it was; and half an hour later, as he had us frog-marching across a huge field to flush the buttonquail, the heavens opened. We dashed for the car, and he took us driving through the grasslands, where he pointed out such unexpected delights as Broadtailed Warbler and Redheaded Quelea – 2 birds I had not imagined I was ever likely to find. Then it was into the open patches in the midst of a nearby forest – Blue Swallow country. Malcolm knew where there was a nesting pair. He treats such birds with the greatest respect – we were strictly controlled in our approach etc – the emphasis at all times being on avoiding any undue stress to the birds. Exactly as it should be. Within half an hour, the pair came flying in, looping and soaring across the sky. We watched them for a while, until I lamented that I could not see the famous streamers on the male against the darkening sky; as if he heard me, the male flew towards us, endorsing his identity by dipping low over our heads – streamers clearly etched, like a benediction! I felt so blessed. Our final stop that evening fulfilled another on my long-held wish list: Malcolm drove us to a field near their home and had us walk close together. Within minutes a Grass owl rose from the thick grasses, flew and then plummeted back ground-wards. ‘Change direction’ from Malcolm, and as we headed at right angles, the mate flew into the air, flying rapidly away from us. ‘Turn around’ instructed Malcolm, and sure enough, this glorious creature circled round, his white white face gazing steadily at us, before he too dived to join his mate. I tell you, friends, birding does not come much better than that! All those birds – not to mention all the others we had encountered that afternoon – were clearly engraved in my mind`s eye – which is the only way I feel I can lay claim to a bird!

The following morning Malcolm woke us at 3.30! Wisely, he does not expect one to be genial or even functioning at that hour; all you are expected to do is dress yourself – the rest is laid on. We were driven through the lightening dawn to the Hlabeni forest, and then up, up, on strictly 4X4 trails. He had emphasised that the Cape Parrots fly at 5am. At 4.50 we arrived on a mountain top;behind us the forest – below us, clothed in gently floating mists, the valleys and hills. Within 5 minutes, the sky was filled with a familiar shriek – Cape Parrots … on queue, flying to forage. Little did we know what treat lay ahead of us, though. Malcolm`s ‘Dawn Chorus’ While Jim and Ant had set up our deck chairs, Malcolm had assembled his state-of-the-art sound equipment; the Brodan microphone disc which he slowly adjusted from east to west so that it gathered the kaleidoscope of birdsong. We sat in our chairs, munching on rusks and steaming coffee while a symphony of song poured through our headphones, amplified through Malcolm`s disc, with every call being identified by him as it was caught! This is an experience I recommend to any and every birder, and any others simply desperate to escape workday or city stresses. Its magic! When we could tear ourselves away, we traipsed after Malcolm into an utterly enchanting fairyland forest of quite exquisite beauty. One almost dreaded to tread upon the ferns carpeting this pristine floor, where birds such as the Orange Thrush hopped unconcerned.
The final prize in our impressive line-up was the flushing of 2 Blackrumped Buttonquail in a field on the way back to brunch. Like the legendary Schwarzeneger[sp?], we`ll be back!

Love to you all
Morna