Michael Graham – January 2013

Mike visits, KZN, Zululand and Pondoland

This trip was planned for me to pick up on specials that eluded me a year ago when I was up here and with using Malcolm Gemmell (Button Birding) as my guide again we were going to get to grips with some Palearctic Migrants.

Day 1 – 7th January
My flight from Cape Town got me into Durban at 3.30pm and having met up with Malcolm we headed for Durban Container Terminal (Bayhead) as it would be low water and a chance to see some waders. We couldn’t find the Heritage Site for love nor money despite GPS so we made do with some mudflats near the Yacht Club. Plenty of birds there including Pink-backed Pelican and Goliath Heron. We did eventually find the Heritage Site at Bayhead but what a mission. Sitting in the heart of the Container Terminal we always seemed to be on the wrong road or being harassed by trucks. It is a short walk from the car park to the shore, past the bird hide that has fallen into disrepair. There were plenty of Bronze Mannikins in the long grass and White-throated Swallows in the air. The shore offers good viewing of the mud flats at low water. Common Ringed Plovers, Grey-hooded Gulls, Greenshanks, a lone Fish Eagle plus some Ruddy Turnstones. Back here tomorrow at dawn now we know where it is.

Day 2 – 8th January
The Docklands Hotel is conveniently placed for the Port of Durban and we were down at the Heritage Site by 0600. Shore birds were plentiful with Whimbrel, Terek Sandpiper (Lifer), Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, Lesser Black-backed Gull (Lifer) and White-fronted Plover. The grassland from the car-park to the shore offered Thick-billed and Spectacled Weaver, Rattling Cisticola, Yellow-billed Kites and Speckled Mousebird. We managed to catch a Peregrine Falcon feasting on a Feral Pigeon atop a silo on our way back for breakfast before setting off for Eshowe. Our journey to Eshowe took us via Umlalazi Nature Reserve where White-backed Night Heron had been reported. A drive around the reserve gave us Osprey, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Great White Pelican, Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Black-crowned Night Heron. We stayed on at the reserve until dark trying for WBN Heron but no luck. We stayed overnight at Birds of Paradise B & B (Birder Friendly Establishment).

Day 3 – 9th January
Up at 5.00am ready for the next leg. Birds of Paradise B & B is a haven for birds. Whilst enjoying a coffee overlooking the garden we can hear Knysna Turaco, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Tambourine and Lemon Dove, Bar-throated Apalis, Terrestial Brownbul, Red-capped Robin Chat and Buff-spotted Flufftail. Grey Sunbird, Crested Barbet, Trumpeter Hornbill, Cape White-eye and Sombre Greenbul call from the trees. We head out to Dlinza Forest at 6.00am to meet up with Sakhamuzi Mhlongo, our local guide trained by BLSA but now free-lance. Sakhamuzi
will take us to his secret sites where we will get many specials.

Entumeni and Ngoye Forests are sites to visit – Chorister Robin-Chat, Olive Bush Shrike, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Grey Cuckoo Shrike and Emerald Cuckoo. The sites require some difficult walking up and downhill through scrub and thickets but when you can get birds like Brown Scrub Robin (with a chick for us), Green Barbet, Yellow-streaked Greenbul (Lifer) and Olive Woodpecker they are worth the visit. You will never find them without a guide.

Sakhamuzi also took us to a small village where House Crow (Lifer) still lives. There is a Birdwatchers Camp on the far side of the Ngoye Forest and here we found Striped Pipit (Lifer). Returning to Umlalazi NR and heading into a corner near the Garden Centre we were looking for Green Twinspot (Lifer). Despite the heat Sakhamuzi was determined to find the bird. It wasn’t in its usual thicket but in the Pine Forest, a pair feeding with Cape White-eyes.

The White-backed Night Heron was still high on the hit list but Umlalazi NR seemed a non-starter. Sakhamuzi phoned Junior who guides at Amatikulu NR. He had seen WBNH (Lifer) a few days previously on the opposite side of the reserve in grazing land. We hired a boat and paddled across, looking into the trees at the tiny creek to check if it was roosting there. No sign, so we ventured deeper into the grazing land and heavy reeds. A call, seemed close. We trudged through water/mud and reeds hoping for a flush. Nothing. Malcolm and Sakhamuzi went farther in whilst
Junior and myself found a little vantage point and then they worked towards us. They flushed a female, nesting in a Powder-Puff tree and that was sitting on 1 egg. We got a good view of the bird before it settled back in the reeds in an area we couldn’t get to. The bird’s location was placed on SABirdNet and hopefully some work for the guides will come from that. Amatikulu NR is well worth a visit. We also saw Purple Heron, Orange-throated Longclaw and Willow Warbler. Our day done we headed for Richard’s Bay, dropping Sakhamuzi off near Empengeni. He would join
us at 6.30am the next day.

Day 4 – 10th January
Despite our best efforts to get access to Richard’s Bay Port, even trying BLSA to put some pressure on PortNet, they refused a permit (and will be doing so for the foreseeable future) for Southern Sanctuary, the best spot in Richard’s Bay. Still, there was The Casuarinas area which offers good access to shore birds. The dirt road down revealed Osprey, White-eared Barbet, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Red-backed Shrike, Long-crested Eagle. The mudflats were disappointing with only Sandwich Tern and Grey Plover as new birds. Thula Pan is now totally polluted from the Wood-chip Factory and is not worth a visit. Richard’s Bay only has 2 birding spots, one is off-limits and the other polluted.

Day 5 – 11th January
Today we head on up to St Lucia. The weather could be better as we have rain and strong on-shore winds. An early start gets us to the Estuary at low water. We battle along the sands into the wind and rain carrying tripods, scopes and umbrellas. The 2km walk is worthwhile as there are many shore birds roosting – Little, Common, Caspian and Lesser-crested Tern (Lifer), Spoonbill, White-faced Duck, Kittlitz’s Plover. The weather beat us so we returned to the village and the boat cruise jetty. Brown-throated Weaver, Red-breasted Swallow and African Swamphen. Before
the trip up to Vidal we check the small pans and forest outside of St Lucia – Yellow-billed Stork, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Rudd’s Apalis, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Eastern Nicator. The Wetlands Park is now run by Isimangaliso who have jacked up entry prices, but we need to get to Cape Vidal. We see a beautiful leopard sitting in the road on the way. Croaking Cisticola, European Roller and finally just before Cape Vidal in the Dune Forest – Woodward’s Batis (Lifer). Not a bad day despite the weather. Home to our Birder Friendly B
and B (Igwalagwala GH).

Day 6 – 12th January
Weather still not good but we take an early walk (like 6.00am) in the Dune Forest through the Igwalagwala Trail. Crested Guineafowl, Livingstone’s Turaco, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and African Green Pigeon. We hear a Red-capped Robin-Chat impersonating a Fiery-necked Nightjar amongst many calls. After a nice breakfast we head down to the Estuary once again. This time we don’t have to battle rain. Several Eurasian Curlews (Lifer) are there along with what we believed and reported as a Black-headed Gull. A trip to Lake Etaza, where we got permission to look around offered us Whiskered Tern, African Paradise Flycatcher, Wood Sandpiper and Water Thick-knee. The B and B has a Collared Sunbird nest with chicks.

Day 7 – 13th January
After breakfast we head off for Bonamanzi Game Reserve. This normally offers good birding. Look out for Lemon-breasted Canary, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Lesser Honeyguide, Southern Black Tit, Rufous-winged Cisticola, Green Malkoa and Pink-throated Twinspot. The tree-house chalets are all good sites. Grey Waxbill is a possibility as well.

Day 8 – 14th January
It’s still dark but we must be out and ready for the dawn chorus. Neegard’s Sunbird (Lifer) is first up, no sign of Grey Waxbill. Crested Francolin, Black Flycatcher, Long-billed Crombec, Narina Trogon and European Bee-eater. Our next stop is Mkuze. We call in at “The Mkuze Stinks� to see what is around – Blue Waxbill, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-billed Quelea, Green-backed Heron, White-winged Tern. Sewerage Works are always worth a look. We take some lunch at Ghost Mountain Inn and head for the Game Reserve. There are several pans with good hides. Our first pan is busy
– Amethyst Sunbird, Green Woodhoopoe, Common Scimitarbill, Yellow-throated Petronia, Black Cuckoo-shrike, Golden-breasted Bunting, Bearded Woodpecker, Dusky Indigobird and White-crowned Helmet Shrike. We tried the airstrip for Short-tailed Pipit but were disturbed by a large male White Rhino who possibly flushed the bird but it never came back. We did see Flappet Lark and Red-billed Oxpecker. The park was devoid of visitors, 5 in total!!!

Day 9 – 15th January
Out a dawn to the airstrip. No Rhino and no Pipit either. Stierling’s Wren-Warbler, Magpie Shrike, Brubru and Harlequin Quail on the way to the large pan but the recent heavy rains had raised the level and it offered nothing. From Mkuze we headed North to Pongola with some nice birds on the way – Wahlberg’s Eagle, Broad-billed Roller, Lizard Buzzard and Red-faced Cisticola. Mvubu Lodge is very nice accommodation, great staff and food and overlooks the river. Look for Mocking Cliff-Chat, Natal Spurfowl, Peregrine Falcon (nests under the bridge) and the odd Vulture.

Day 10 – 16th January
We are up at 4.00am. Barn Owl, Scops Owl and Fiery-necked Nightjar all calling. It’s still dark !!!!!!! We have permission to bird across the road in a site not generally available and which is undisturbed. Arrow-marked Babbler, Tawny Eagle (very pale version), Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Black Cuckoo, Three-streaked Tchagra and Brown-Snake Eagle. From here we went to the Pongola Nature Reserve. This site is excellent. Our first major sighting is a pair of Melanistic Gabar Goshawks. I have now seen 4 in 6 months and I thought they were uncommon. A slow drive to the
water along the Swaziland border and we see Red-crested Korhaan, Little Sparrowhawk, Swainson’s Spurfowl. On the grasslands – Sabota Lark, Rock Kestrel, Cape Longclaw, Lanner Falcon, Black-bellied Korhaan and Southern Banded Snake-Eagle. Our mission was to find Icterine Warbler (Lifer) which we found sharing a thicket with Olive Tree Warbler. The OTW was in virtually the same place as we saw it in 2012, probably the same bird. Check out the Football Field – Red-billed Buffalo Weaver. After a nice brunch at Mvubu Lodge we head off to Wakkerstroom. The Wetlands there and the surrounding high altitude grasslands are a birdwatchers paradise. The wetlands were busy – Shelduck, Pochard, Glossy Ibis, Grey Crowned Crane, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Little Rush Warbler, Cliff Swallow and Bald Ibis. Wetlands Sheds B & B is a Birder Friendly Establishment and very nice too. Their garden is nice and is frequented by many birds.

Day 11 – 17th January
We meet with Lucky, our BLSA Guide from the Wakerstroom Centre at 6.00am. He will take us to the Blue Korhaan site. We see Orange-throated Longclaw and Mountain Wheatear on the way. Lucky is the best guide at Wakerstroom and he didn’t disappoint – Blue Korhaan (Lifer) found on a hillside. The dirt roads around Amersfoort and Dirkiesdorp are always worth a trip. Ant-Eating Chat, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Blue Crane, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Common Quail and Cuckoofinch (Lifer). Lucky will also show you Botha’s and Rudd’s Larks. We dropped Lucky off back in town and headed for Creighton, via Memel, where we hoped to see Burchell’s Coucal but no luck.
It was nice to stay somewhere for a few days after one-nighters for 9 days. Malcolm’s Guest House is always a treat with Florrie’s great cooking and his wife Gail and cat on hand to assist.

Day 12 – 18th January
No peace for the wicked – off out at dawn for Cape Eagle Owl. Not at it’s roost unfortunately. Onward and upward to the Blue Swallow sites (a depreciating number of nest sites) and Red-headed Quelea site (they are not a home) but nice sightings of Broad-tailed and Dark-capped Yellow Warblers. Back for breakfast. Malcolm’s garden hosts good birds also – breeding Red-throated Wryneck, Long-crested Eagle, Drakensberg Prinia, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Pin-tailed Whydah, Black-headed Oriole, Kurrichane Thrush. This afternoons quarry is Short-tailed Pipit (Lifer), located on the hillside behind Umzimkulu and where 4×4 access is paramount. After some tramping through the grass in wellies and humid temperatures we flush one lone bird.

Day 13 – 19th January
To-day we head for Ntsikeni Vlei, 2000 metres ASL with stores and spares for the caretaker plus another go at Eurasian Bittern. The trip in is always good with Forest Buzzard, Bush Blackcap, Swee Waxbill down in the glade and once on our way across the high grasslands – Wing-snapping and Pale-crowned Cisticola, Bearded Vulture, Yellow Bishop, Secretarybird, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Wattled Crane and Denham’s Bustard. There are very beautiful Golden-tailed Gnus here. The afternoon sees heavy rain and poor visibility, so Eurasian Bittern is out.

Day 14 – 20th January
It’s 0400, dark but not raining. So we head off 0500 in wellies and long trousers for a 3 hour walk in the Vlei. Striped Flufftail calls and many Common Quail are disturbed by our footsteps. Quailfinch also are numerous. Red-winged Francolin calls from the hillside. Whilst looking for African Rail and playing the call tape a mysterious bird appears. Malcolm suspects it is a White-winged Flufftail, highly sought after and rare. I manage to get a couple of photos which we will submit to Trevor Hardaker for confirmation when we get back. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a Juvenile Baillon’s Crake (Lifer). Whilst not dissimilar to WWF it is a first sighting at Ntsikeni. Malcolm was pleased. This is his patch. We head back to Creighton after my superb breakfast and see Cape Rock Thrush on the way

Day 15 – 21st January
Off for Cape Eagle Owl whilst it is still dark hoping to get a sighting as it comes back to roost. Unfortunately a Spotted Eagle Owl has moved into its patch and CEO has gone. We go to see Blue Swallows again and see dozens of Red-headed Queleas flying up the valley. Malcolm has some chores to do so it is a quiet afternoon before we head
off to Cremorne.

Day 16 – 22nd January
We set off at 0600 for Cremorne. Our route is torturous and we suffer many delays from roadworks and lots of trucks. A 4.5 hour journey takes us almost 7 hours but we eventually arrive at Umngaza River Mouth. Nice sighting of Eurasian Honey Buzzard as we head for the mangroves and home to Mangrove Kingfisher (Lifer) at this time of year. We call by tape and the bird duly appears on the opposite island. Wonderful colour to the bill. We celebrate with a beer from a shop, a Horus Swift at the cliff-top and then head for Cremorne Resort. Nice place on the river, very much like Ebb and Flow at Wilderness.

Day 17 – 23rd January
The last few hours before heading to King Shaka and the flight home. We call in at Vernon Crookes NR. Chance of Green Twinspot, Short-tailed Pipit. The grass is too long for the Pipit and no sign of Twinspot. We do get Eastern Long-billed Lark as a final bird.

This type of trip is not for the unfit or those who can’t get up until 0800. This is a “Real Man’s� expedition !!!!! If you want the birds then you must sacrifice sleep. Malcolm does a wonderful job and his call knowledge and site knowledge is essential. You cannot do this type of trip without Malcolm or local guides. You would simply not know where to go or more than likely have the vehicle capable of doing it.

We finished up with 345 species (around 75% of those listed for KZN) and for me 18 lifers bringing my SA lifelist up to 692 birds.

Next trip is May to Kenya – Nairobi NP, Meru and the Mathews Range. 85 lifers on my list !!!!!!