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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.

In the afternoon it was more birding, this time for all of us, and we took a drive down to the edge of the gorge. Zach picked up the call of a very sort after bird, namely the Striped Pipit, but unfortunately even though we all heard it calling again, we didn’t see it. We also saw a large amount of White-necked Ravens flying above the gorge as well as a Lanner Falcon. Adam and Zach proceeded to go on a trail into the forests down in the valley, but that looked like too much hard work for me and I decided to bird more near the cliff edges. The forests are of course famous for birds like Narina Trogon, White-starred Robin, Knysna Turaco, and Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, however due to the heat of the day I don’t think they saw too much. I did manage to find a Brown-backed Honeybird hopping about in a small bush.

It was then back to the cottage for a good braai, and my favourite time of the day, wine time. More about the wine coming in my overall rating at the end.

The next day we headed early to a section of the reserve where some bird ringing was taking place. James Rawdon, who was doing the bird ringing was very friendly and gave us loads of interesting information on all the details, merits and processes involved. He also let us hold, photograph and release some of the ringed birds. A big thank you to James.

We also met the owner of Cumberland, Gary Behn, who was also observing the bird ringing. We had a very interesting chat, and you could see his passion for conservation. He told us that 3 years back, that they had released 43 Red-billed Oxpeckers onto the reserve, and that this had been a triumph, with them having bred successfully. He also told me of his desire to re-introduce Cape Vultures to the reserve as the cliffs near the gorge would serve as a very appropriate breeding site, however he told me that this vision has been met with resistance from certain wildlife organisations.

Kurrichane Thrush
Kurrichane Thrush | Zach Simpson

Red-throated Wryneck
Red-throated Wryneck | Zach Simpson

After the ringing, me and Zach explored more of the reserve, and came to a point high at the edge of the gorge with stunning views of the river below. Zach was desperate to find a Finfoot, and me already feeling a bit guilty that I had seen one a few months earlier at Mtunzini when I was with him, but he dipped, I thought I might as well put in a bigger effort this time. It turned out not too much effort was needed, and a few minutes later I saw something that appeared to be floating downstream. I got it in the binocs and it turned out to be a Finfoot! I shouted to Zach, but then the Finfoot disappeared out of view behind some trees. I frantically tried to relocate it, and the next sighting I had of it was when it was scrambling over some rocks and into a rapid section of the river. Again Zach missed it, but then it appeared again into the more calm waters and a very happy Zach finally saw it, success!

African Finfoot
African Finfoot

The midday and early afternoon saw us doing even more birding, and by far our best sighting was when I saw a Narina Trogon fly right past the car, and land in a tree in the camping site. I got the standard Narina Trogon photo that most people get (back to me and out of focus). Another great sighting at the picnic spot was a group of Swee Waxbills.

Accommodation Rating : 8/10 The accommodation at Cumberland is great value, clean, has everything you need and is in a stunning environment. If you need electricity and a swimming pool, make sure you book the cottage that has access to that (Zebra Cottage if I’m not mistaken) I must mention that all the accommodation is self-catering, so bring your steaks and wine.

Birding Rating: 9.5/10 There are many sought after birds at Cumberland, including Striped Pipit, Narina Trogon, African Finfoot, Southern White Faced Owl, African Wood Owl, and a number of Raptors, but why is my rating so high? Birding is not just about what rare birds are in an area to tick off for a list. Don’t get me wrong that is a big part of it and something I enjoy, but it’s not everything. Birding is also about the experience you have while you are birding. It’s the environment you are in and how happy and safe you feel while you are doing it. It’s also about the accessibility and whether you can walk, drive, or get a guide etc. Cumberland is all of these things. When I bird at Cumberland, I feel happy, safe and the birding is in a pristine and scenic environment.

Overall Rating : 9.3/10

Right I said I would be revealing more about the wine I had with my braai at Cumberland in my rating. The wine I had was “The Owl Post” from Neetlingshof Wine Estate. It’s a 100% Pinotage and was rated 4.5 stars by John Platter and received a Gold Medal from Veritas. The description on the bottle tells you how they have set aside certain parts of their farm to encourage the presence of Owls. Cumberland to me is like this bottle of wine. It’s approaching perfection. It’s a feel good story that you want to be a part of. It’s complex and addictive and you can’t wait to go back for more. I want to applaud Gareth and Candice and the owners Gary, Claire, John and Stella Behn for doing such a good job, and can’t wait to visit again for Big Birding Day.


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