MICHAEL GRAHAM – 22 OCTOBER 2009

Day 1. An early start from Hermanus at 0300 in order to catch the 0615 Mango flight to Durban. A strong tail wind gets us into Durban 25 minutes early at 0800. The first lifer for the trip is sitting on the tarmac, a Mynah Bird.

Malcolm Gemmell of Button Birding, an ex-farmer and our guide for the 8 days meets us at arrivals and we head for Beaconvlei, Balgowan, a small guest house in The Midlands where we stay for 1 night.

On the way we stop at Karkloof Reserve, known habitat of the Wattled Crane. A small reserve but which can reveal some good birds. Unfortunately the Cranes have gone for the day but we do see Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Black-headed Oriole and Diederik Cuckoo at close quarters.

And so on to Beaconvlei. The property stands in large grounds with a good sized dam surrounded by grassland and forest. Plenty of water birds here including African Black Duck – another lifer. A walk around the property is essential to seek out birds like Golden-breasted Bunting, Broad-tailed Warbler, Village Weaver. There are plenty of swallows and swifts in the sky including Black Swift, Little Swift and Black Saw-wing Swallows. The goal however is the elusive African Rail. We know where they are and can hear them calling. We wait by a pump-house and narrow sluice at a dirt road sheltering under umbrellas from the rain. Finally one appears and nearly catches us by surprise as it comes from the opposite direction of the calls. Not clear enough for a photo as we peer through a wire fence in the pouring rain but a great sighting none the less.

56 Species and 7 “lifers”

Day 2. In the morning before it gets light we are off around the property again before setting out for Malcolm’s home in Creighton. We hear Red-chested Flufftail only feet from us in the reeds but cannot get a view and despite all our efforts it goes unsighted. Drakensberg Prinia, Red-shouldered Widow, Puffback, Long-crested Eagle, Thick-billed Weaver, Marsh Harrier are all seen along with the Hottentot Teal, Pochard, Sunbirds and Canaries.

After breakfast we head off to Creighton. Malcolm’s garden is an aviary in its own right with Buff-spotted Flufftail, Dusky Indigo Bird, Pin-tailed Whydah, Red-billed Quelea, Long-crested Eagle (known as Fred), Paradise Flycatcher, to name but a few.

After a snack lunch we are off to a dairy farm. Malcolm has been told that there is a vagrant swimming in the second-stage sewage filtration pond. We sneak up with the owner of the farm and there is a Grey Phalarope, all on its own happily feeding. I get some good photos. Rameron Pigeons in the trees too. Off we go again, this time to Umzimkhulu and down a small lane and into the hills by a river. 4×4 is essential. We are looking for swallows, not just any swallow but a pair of Blue Swallows. We eventually find them feeding in the track where overhanging trees and bushes create a tunnel. They are fast and impossible to photograph but another great sighting. Whilst we are there Malcolm sees a raptor perched on a dead tree. We get the scope out and after much viewing and deliberation we agree on a Eurasian Hobby Falcon, a “lifer” for Malcolm as well.

On the way back we sight Red-throated Wryneck, Yellow-throated Longclaw and simply hundreds and hundreds of Amur Falcons perched on wires and posts. They come to this area for 3 months over the summer where they feed on insects. At dusk we head for the sports club car park and the plane trees. We are armed with wine, nibbles and a chair. As darkness draws in the Amur Falcons begin to arrive overhead and circle. Finally one goes to roost and the others follow. Ten, twenty, hundred, five hundred and counting. We estimated well over 1000 birds came in. The noise was tremendous and then suddenly it all went quiet. They were there for the night. Dinner at one of Malcolm’s friend’s farm ended a good day.

52 Species and 7 “lifers”

Day 3. Malcolm has got it in for me. It is 04h00 and we are on the road. First bird we sight on the main road is a road kill. It is still warm, a Bronze-winged Courser, a rare visitor for this region. Malcolm knows of Pennant-wing Nightjars in the vicinity. We drive and drive, only a Barn Owl and Spotted Eagle Owl is all we get.

We walk the railway line for a few kilometres back to Malcolm’s home. The line runs through reed beds and grassland. We do quite well with White-winged Widow, Orange-throated Longclaw, Black-crowned Tchagra. Cisticolas are plentiful. After breakfast we head out to some of the farms where Malcolm has permission to bird. Bald-headed Ibis feeding in the fields, still plenty of Martins, Swifts and Swallows. We hear Black-rumped Buttonquail, a bird more often heard than seen unless you know where to go and how to flush them out. Rufous-naped Lark, Pale-crowned Cisticola and Common Quail are all seen.

We head off to Ntsikeni Reserve for some real specials. On the road in we get Eastern Long-billed Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Quail Finch, Gymnogene and Plain-backed Pipit. At the reserve itself where the pan is off limits and has to be viewed from distance with a good scope there are 2 pairs of Wattled Crane each with a chick. Verraux’s Eagle soars over the cliff tops and there is a Black Sparrowhawk as well. This is a great place to stay and bird in real peace and quiet.

Early evening before dinner we go to a small reed bed where Red-headed Quelea have nests amongst the Red Bishops. We peer into the reed beds from all angles and see just 1 male. Croaking Cisticola sits on a fence post. It is a long day and we have another early departure tomorrow.

33 Species and 8 “lifers”

Day 4. The weather hasn’t really improved. It has been dull and rainy since we arrived and so a trip to Marutswa Forest for Cape Parrot, Bush Blackcap and Ground Thrush is abandoned as the forest will be shrouded in cloud. Just as well I saw them in October. We decide to head North towards Bonamanzi earlier than planned.

We make good speed and do a quick call at a small reserve on the N2 north of Stanger to look for Lesser Jacana. No luck as the road to the river is closed off and it is too far to walk. We do see Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird at the car-park though, another “lifer”. We arrive at Bonamanzi at lunchtime and sit beside the pan with our sandwiches. Wood Sandpiper, Yellow Weaver, Eurasian Bee-eater, Eurasian Roller, Malachite Kingfisher are all around the pan.
After lunch we meet up with our local guide who will take us to where a real special hides. On our way to the river and grasslands we see Rattling Cisticola, Spotted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike and Tawny-flanked Prinia. The grasslands are large and are home to local farmers with their cattle. Wattled Plover graces the grassland and several pure white Greater Flamingos sift the mud flats for food.

We drive around the grasslands for a long time, flushing out Orange-throated and Yellow-throated Longclaws. We reach the end of the grassland and turn back for one last try to flush the quarry. Eventually we find 2 and get very close for some great pictures. The bird is the Pink-throated Longclaw and what a superb colour it turns out to be. This is a great “lifer” as it is an uncommon resident. On the way back to camp we see Southern Banded Snake Eagle. A good day and the weather had improved also.

25 Species and 6 “lifers”

Day 5. One thing I have learnt if you want to see specials is that time and weather won’t wait and at 04h30 we are out again in the forest and thickets in poor light and rain. Of the first 8 birds we see seven are “lifers”, Natal Robin, Yellow-bellied Bulbul, Forest Weaver, Square-tailed Drongo, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Purple-crested Touraco and the cream on the cake, African Broadbill as close a 3 metres. Light for pictures is diabolical especially in the undergrowth but with flash we get a picture. We move on a little way and see Rudd’s Apalis, Eastern Nicator (one of the hardest birds to locate in the canopy), Black-bellied Starling, Black-bellied Bustard, Green Pigeon, Black-breasted Snake eagle. Bonamanzi is a haven for some great specials.

We pick up a picnic breakfast and head for Muzi Pan where another local guide will meet us. Lesser Jacana is still the quarry.

Muzi Pan is large and is host to many great species. There are the usuals like Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank, Pink-backed Pelican, Goliath Heron, Spoonbill, Black Stork, Yellow-billed Stork, Black Egret and then there are the specials like Pygmy Goose, Red-faced Cisticola, Grey-rumped Swallow, Knob-billed Duck, Green-spotted Dove, Trumpeter Hornbill, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Red-winged Pratincole. But still no Lesser Jacana.

Muzi Pan is a must if birding in this area and it can captivate you all day. We return for a nap as we are out again in the late afternoon on the river. The river cruise and “sundowner” is a relaxing break and with only myself, Margaret and Malcolm. The guide lets us call the tune. We do well for birds again. Purple Gallinule, Brown-throated Weaver, Hooded Vulture, Little Bee-eater, Yellow White-eye, Red-billed Firefinch, Green-backed Heron and Squacco Heron. We have a quick dinner as we have Bernie (short for Bernice), one of the camp guides taking us out for 90 minutes to find Nightjars. We are successful and find European and Fiery-necked and possibly Pennant-winged although that was not a confirmed sighting. A good day again.

49 Species and 18 “lifers”

Day 6. This early rise at 04h15 is killing me, just as well it is only 8 days!!! We head out into the forest again, scratching around in the undergrowth, binoculars on anything that moves or sings. It is drizzling again and the light is appalling. Still we pick up on White-throated Robin, Long-billed Crombec, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Bearded Scrub Robin, Black Cuckooshrike, Wire-tailed Swallow and Crowned Hornbill. After breakfast we begin short journey to Hluhluwe, but via the old office complex at Bonamanzi. We get Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Grey Sunbird and Collared Sunbird. One of the specials we had been looking for at Bonamanzi was Lemon-breasted Canary but we never really got a good sighting until we left and found several on the road out. We did get a really good sighting of an African Cuckoohawk, close enough for a good photo and then we seemed to find an abundance of raptors – Brown Snake Eagle, Bateleur, Cape Vulture, White-back Vulture, and Wahlberg’s Eagle.

My final lifers for the day were Klaas’s Cuckoo and Yellow-throated Sparrow.

28 Species and 10 “lifers”

Day 7. Malcolm and I head out at 0500 as soon as the gates open to the park. We head west to take in a small loop road and river. A baby White Rhino blocks our path on the tarred road and we can’t see Mum, so we wait until baby heads into the bush to find her. More Blue Waxbills feeding on grass seeds and a several Scimitarbill in the trees along with Cardinal Woodpecker. We pick up on Flappet Lark, the unmistakeable noise from it’s wings, Black-collared Barbet shouts from the trees, Helmet Shrike and White-bellied Sunbird are there too. The prize for the morning was Gorgeous Bushshrike which we had heard previously but not seen. With those bright colours it’s no wonder that it cowers in the shrubbery.

After breakfast we head out of Hluhluwe Reserve via Umfolozi Reserve. A quick visit to the Rondavel site for Green Twinspot doesn’t produce any of them because we spot a Little Sparrowhawk patrolling their domain. A stop for coffee on the road produces Mocking Chat, both male and female and Crested Barbet.

It’s quite a drive from Umfolozi to Eshowe via Melmoth but the road is good and the scenery quite something. It is what I call “very rural”.

Our destination once we reach Eshowe is the Dlinza Forest and the canopy tower. We pick up another local guide as this forest will reveal some excellent specials. Our goal for the afternoon is Spotted Ground Thrush, which we find hunting food. It stands motionless with the head cocked to one side, listening for movement in the leaves on the forest floor. It knows no fear and we get very close for good pictures.

The tower is a must visit, 30 metres up right at the canopy. The view for birding is great. In the distance a Crowned Eagle and Delegorgue’s Pigeon and Palm Swifts cruise the skies. A White-eared Barbet and Grey Cuckooshrike are easily visible in the trees below. Dinner beckons and our day ends with steak at Spur. 17 Species and 7 “lifers”
Day 8. It’s raining, the cloud base isn’t much higher than the canopy tower and the light levels are awful again. We are up the tower by 05h30 and only get to see Delegorgue’s Pigeon at close range. We hear Narina Trogon but no sighting. We head down to the forest floor and things are looking up. We see several Spotted Ground Thrush again plus Eastern Olive Sunbird and at last a Narina Trogon up in the branches. We enjoy a nice breakfast at our B and B, Birds of a Feather and then head off towards Durban for our flight but via a few sites where we expect some specials.
We try 4 separate locations for Palm-nut Vulture but no joy so we go for lunch. After lunch we head for a tiny forest reserve just to get one bird, the Green Barbet. We are successful and move on to another small reserve. If you don’t have a local guide you will never find a lot of these birds. The guides are worth their weight in gold and must be supported. We hunt the trees especially where there are a lot of creepers growing. There it is, Green Malkoa, just one but that is enough and we get a clear sighting.

Our last venue before we drop our guide and head for Durban Airport is to locate Swamp Nightjar – during the day. The guide knows where it is and we must try to flush it out. We are successful and allow the bird some peace by only disturbing it once.

6 Species and 5 “lifers”

This was a really successful trip. Malcolm Gemmill plus the local guides make this the success that it is. It was worth every cent to see so much in such good company.

Malcolm is already putting a 9 day trip together for me in Northern Kruger for September. Can’t wait.

The final tally was 256 species and 68 lifers.

The next story will be from the Zambezi/Chobe in April.