Updated: Oct 1
Birding allows one to transcend that which so often divides such as age, culture and all the other things that so often stand between us as people, as we come together and focus on that which is a common love: birds. On Saturday this was shown as 4 people from differing age groups, countries and probably with some very different world views came together to search for some Zululand specials on a cold and windy day. We were fortunate to have Ian Gordon from IThuba Out There Safaris as our guide for the day, someone who I consider to be one of the best birders that I know and a great bird guide. With Ian, something that stands out is his passion for birds – something that has developed over many years of birding and spending time in nature. We also had Tyron Dall a local birder from Amanzimtoti, who at the moment is fourth in one of our local Birdlasser challenges. We were also fortunate to have Kalin Ocana a young birder from Canada with us, we were all amazed at his knowledge of birds (not only Canadian species but species in South Africa), at the time of the trip he had already seen more than 300 species in South Africa.
Ian, Tyron and I left a cold and windy Amanzimtoti at 5:15 am, we all agreed as we started the trip that this was not the best day to be out birding (probably the understatement of the year). Ian had traveled down from Pietermaritzburg, so he had woken up very, very early. As we got closer towards Mtunzini the drops of rain started to patter against the windscreen, again this seemed like the least desirable weather to go birding in.
We decided to take the Fairbreeze road into Mtunzini, which winds through forest plantations and alongside a train track. We got all the usual KZN suspects such as Drongos, Dark-capped Bulbul, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and a few other birds which didn’t seem to mind the increasing rain. As we neared Mtunzini we got to see which was definitely the bird of the day – the critically endangered Southern Banded Snake Eagle with the global population estimated at between 670 and 2000 birds. For Tyron, this was a lifer and he happily snapped away and got lots of photos. Sadly, we were still on the way to pick up Kalin, so he didn’t get to see this special bird (guess he needs to come back for another trip). What was amazing along the road was Ian’s ability to not only see and identify the birds that we saw, but to hear and identify a vast majority of the calls that we heard as we drove along, this is not something that one learns from a book or a course but from years spent in the field with birds.
We finally fetched Kalin who had spent a few days in St Lucia with his family and eagerly entered the gates of Umlalazi Nature Reserve to do some birding. The weather was still wet and windy and as a result, the birdlife was not as active as normal in this special reserve. We looked for the Mangrove Kingfisher and didn’t get to see it sadly but managed to get amongst other species; African Paradise Flycatcher Red-faced Mousebird, Wire-tailed Swallow, Yellow-breasted Apalis, and Grey Sunbird. After a cup of coffee to warm ourselves and some muffins to get some food in our bellies, we headed off to Ngoye Forrest, entering on the eastern side to try and get some of the species that one would encounter on the way into the forest.
The road in was a lot quieter than due to the cold weather and the strong wind, we were hoping for Striped Pipit on the way in but sadly they were nowhere to be seen. Just before we got into the forest, we saw a pair of Crowned Eagles calling and displaying in the wind, this was something that I had never seen myself before and we spent a bit of time just enjoying the amazing show these birds put on. We also got to see a small flock of Trumpeter Hornbill flying along the top of the trees, crying like babies looking for attention as they did. These hornbills with their abnormally big bills surely must have one of the most interesting calls around.
We entered the forest which was very quiet on the way but while walking through we met up with another group, also with a guide who told us that they had seen the Green Barbet on the Western side of the reserve. We walked back out and while Tyron, Kalin and myself were chatting and eating we hadn’t seen Ian emerge from the forest yet, but when he came out he said that he has seen Green Twinspot fly across the path and he heard Green Barbet calling from in the forest. The rule that we should have established early in the day was – stick with Ian!
We drove the Western side of the reserve and took a walk down the path from the tar road. On the way down we listened carefully for the Green Barbet but alas the forest was quiet. At the stream at the bottom of the valley Kalin got another lifer when he got to see a Mountain Wagtail. We kept walking to the top of the path until we came to a small, rocky grassland on top of the mountain, after finding not that much we walked back down. On the way back towards the path Kalin managed to spot a Blue-mantled Flycatcher in the thick forest, which somehow, we all missed. What was amazing was that he was able to both point out the bird and pretty much identify it – although he had never seen one in person before!
This brought us to the end of the day as we needed to drop Kalin off in Eshowe and do the long trek back to Durban.
I encourage you to do two things in closing:
1) Follow Kalin on Instagram – he is an incredibly talented photographer and knowledgeable birder. (Instagram handle: @birdz.okanagan)
2) Book Ian as a bird guide for the day (or even for the week), he is probably one of the most knowledgeable guides around. Yes, the weather was bad, but Ian didn’t once waver and slack off – he did all that he could to find us birds during the day. Ian was able to add ‘ticks’ to all of our lists, but at the same time, he was able to add much value to our birding by giving us lots of information of what birds we were seeing. Ian is also someone that treats the clients that he has with respect and you feel like he is doing so much more than just trying to make some money for the day. (Contact Ian on +27835706782 or drop him an email)
Kalin's Review of Ian as a guide: 'Ian Gordon was an amazing guide and great company on Saturday’s excursion. Having taken many photos of birds I was unable to identify throughout my trip thus far, after passing my camera around the car Ian would always be able to pull a solid and well backed ID from even the most grainy of pictures. Ian’s ability to speak all of the major languages in the region we were in was also something that should not be overlooked. Whenever we would pass by the locals he would always great them, smile exchange a little small talk, have a laugh and keep driving. Whether in Zulu, Afrikaans or English Ian could always get a laugh out of anyone. His raw skill at birding as well as charisma made him a guide I would highly recommend to anyone trying to squeeze a few lifers out of the region.'