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An Elegant Distraction - A KwaZulu Natal Mega Adventure

Updated: Feb 13

This week's newsletter is arriving a bit later than usual, but there's a good reason behind it.

Towards the end of 2023, a photo began circulating in some WhatsApp birding groups. The sender was seeking help identifying the bird in the center of the image. This photo was taken by a young birder, Keelai Fraser on a beach in Amanzimtoti. What broke our hearts as the bird was identified, was that the photo was taken in 2022! What struck us was the identification of the bird as an Elegant Tern, potentially the first confirmed sighting of the species for KwaZulu Natal. Adding to the intrigue, this same birder had previously seen a Christmas Island Frigatebird at Illovo Beach on the 2nd February 2022, marking the first-ever sighting for the African continent. These sightings occurred in the very areas we frequent week after week, prompting feelings of both envy and wonder—life's fairness suddenly called into question.

Nevertheless, these sightings opened our eyes to the possibilities within our area.

Fast forward to Sunday afternoon, February 11, 2024.

The plan was to nap during a bout of load-shedding, followed by podcast editing. However, life had other plans in store.

Illovo Estuary Tern Roost - Tyron Dall
Illovo Estuary Tern Roost - Tyron Dall

After church, Tyron Dall ventured to Illovo Beach for some birdwatching. He was taken surprised by the number of Lesser Crested Terns dotting the shoreline— a bird that is normally not as easy to see on our local beaches. Upon reviewing his photos at home, he noticed a special bird amongst those he had photographed. He promptly shared the image with Trevor Hardaker, the Chairman of the South African Rarities Committee, to verify his suspicions.

Elegant Tern (Long orange bill, long shagggy black crest, and light back) - Tyron Dall
Elegant Tern (Long orange bill, long shaggy black crest, and light back) - Tyron Dall

Trevor's response sparked excitement among KwaZulu Natal birders, drawing them to Illovo Beach, not for a leisurely swim, but in pursuit of a potential avian rarity. His assessment leaned toward an Elegant Tern, citing distinctive features such as bill shape, shaggy crest, and back color resembling nearby Sandwich Terns.

As news of the bird spread, birders started to congregate on Illovo Beach, hopeful to catch a glimpse of the elusive visitor. Despite scanning the tern roost diligently, only Lesser Crested Terns were among a large flock of terns. After a while on a beach, a dog ran up the beach and chased the flock which sadly would not come and sit again in the same spot.

Barry Swaddle, a local Amanzimtoti birder, sent a message through a local WhatsApp birding group saying that he potentially had seen the bird at Amanzimtoti Lagoon - a few kilometers north of where we were stationed. So the chase was on. As quickly as we could, we made our way to where the potential bird had been seen. As luck would have it, when we arrived Barry said that the bird had flown away. He then started to doubt himself, saying that he didn't have any experience with the species.

An anxious wait ensued, with the hopeful crowd gradually thinning as daylight waned. Just as hope seemed to fade, their perseverance paid off. The Elegant Tern, the province's second confirmed sighting, made a dramatic appearance, making our hearts skip a beat. Cameras, binoculars, and scopes were trained on the bird to confirm its identity.

What makes this bird so special is that it is listed as a very rare vagrant, with records mostly in the Western Cape. Trevor Hardaker noted on a local rarities WhatsApp group 'The majority of records come from the west coast of the subregion, with hotspots being the Walvis Bay/Swakopmund area, the Velddrif area and the Cape Peninsula, Cape Flats and False Bay coastline. Once you head further east from there, numbers of records drop off dramatically and it is pretty much still very rare anywhere east of Cape Town.'

Elegant Tern photographed in fading light by Adam Cruickshank

As the evening progressed, more birders arrived, eager for a glimpse of the elusive visitor. The following morning, additional enthusiasts flocked to Amanzimtoti Lagoon, rewarded with sightings of the remarkable bird.

The morning twitchers - photo by Gavin Walter

Once again, the Sapphire Coast lived up to its reputation, treating birders to extraordinary sightings, including the Eurasian Oystercatcher and KwaZulu Natal's first-recorded Thrush Nightingale in recent months.

If you haven't experienced birding on the Sapphire Coast, what are you waiting for? As I've mentioned before, it's undoubtedly one of the finest birding spots in the Durban area.

Read more about Birding on the Sapphire Coast in these two articles:


Before leaving the website, be sure to check out the Accommodation Directory for venues catering specifically to birders. We also encourage you to visit our Online Shop for gear and books at competitive prices.

For more information on Birding on the KwaZulu Natal South Coast, please email


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