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Approaching Perfection: Review of Cumberland Nature Reserve

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Last weekend The Birding Life Team went to Cumberland Nature Reserve for an awesome adventure. Cumberland is situated roughly 20km north east of Pietermaritzburg, KZN. I am not going to go into too much detail on the habitats and birds found here, as Gareth Preiss the Manager at Cumberland has already written some in-depth articles on this, which he has posted on our forum.

I will just briefly summarise the habitats as predominantly bushveld, mixed with some grassy semi-wooded plains, as well as the stunning gorge with indigenous forests going down to the Umgeni River.

Right then it was an early start to the day for Adam and me. We left Amanzimtoti at 4:30am, so we could reach Cumberland at sunrise. Calvin and Zach would be heading in a separate car and left at a later lazier time. The real birding in Cumberland actually starts along the gravel road leading up to the reserve. Adam and I birded this road for over an hour and picked up Little Sparrowhawk sitting in a dead tree, as well as hearing the call of the Gorgeous Bushshrike. We even both managed to get a lifer, after first hearing and then briefly seeing a Marsh Warbler at a small dam. Also at the dam were a number of good waterbirds, including White-backed Duck. This was the same dam I had got White-backed Duck and Pygmy Goose last year during Big Birding Day.

Lesser-striped Swallow
Lesser-striped Swallow

Once we eventually made it to the reserve gate and birded for a short while Calvin and Zach arrived and joined us. Soon we had two raptors above us. The first was quickly identified as an African Harrier Hawk, while the second one got us more excited as it was a Brown Snake Eagle, a much more uncommon raptor in our parts.

Brown Snake Eagle
Brown Snake Eagle

We then met Gareth and Candice Preiss, the managers of Cumberland to check in. Gareth and Candice welcomed us and let us check in to our cottage immediately. Gareth and Candice are keen birders themselves and are a big part of why Cumberland is a huge success, but more about that in rating towards the end.

After checking in Adam and Calvin went to interview Gareth and Candice for an upcoming The Birding Life video, whilst myself and Zach had the arduous task of birding in such a stunning environment. So let’s get into it, what is it like to bird at Cumberland?

Firstly I want to clear up a bit of controversy involving Cumberland’s decision to not allow day visitors, which might have upset a few people. Here it is, don’t be upset, be excited. Cumberland is now even better than ever. They have firstly fenced off the first dam before where the entrance used to be, so you can bird by that dam in complete safety. By closing the reserve to day visitors, they have stopped the more unsavoury elements of our society who just used to use the reserve as a party venue, and who had little interest in nature. By having less people on the reserve, it is probably also a lot safer and easier to monitor any poaching attempts. The experience you have at Cumberland is now more enriching. Do yourself a favour save up and stay there for a night, a weekend, or longer. They have a good range of accommodation options from camping to secluded cottages all offering great value. And of course they have not actually completely closed the reserve to day visitors, as they have organised for local bird and other nature related clubs to still do their outings there, as well as offering certain days for paid guided walks. There is also a pensioner’s day available every Thursday it seems.

Ok then back to birding with me and Zach. Birding with Zach is very easy, you don’t really have to try that hard as he is going to hear and see most things before you, and so I just relax and get my own private tour. We both wanted to try and find the Bearded Woodpeckers that were supposedly common by the picnic sites. We of course found plenty of Cardinal and Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, but unfortunately no Bearded. We did also manage to find a number of other species including Golden-breasted Bunting, Southern Black Flycatcher, Long-billed Crombec and Emerald-Spotted Wood Dove to name a few.

It was then back to our Cottage, the Horseshoe for lunch. The Horesshoe cottage is an off the grid and secluded cottage overlooking a small dam, complete with a few crocodiles. The birding is very good in the area, and we picked up Palm-nut Vulture on the way there as well as Purple-banded Sunbird near the cottage.