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Chasing Forest Phantoms | Darren Johnston

When you meander through the Magoesbaskloof pass for the first time, your mind begins to run wild at the sight of the spectacular mountainous landscape that unfolds around you. What lies beyond those undulating hills of pine plantations, and between the patchwork of tropical fruit groves in the valley below? Venture past the padstals, eateries and homesteads, and wander down the back roads, jeep tracks and pathways, and you begin to peel back the layers of what this forested wonderland has to offer.

In birding circles, the Magoebaskloof area is hallowed ground. Dense pockets of Afromontane forest, deep ravines and mistbelt grasslands are home to a diverse world of birdlife. Here, in and around one of South Africa’s last remaining tracts of indigenous forest, you could be rewarded with sightings of some of southern Africa’s most elusive and sought-after birds. If you look and listen closely, you can encounter blue-mantled crested-flycatchers fluttering through the treetops, black-fronted bush-shrikes foraging in the upper canopy and white-starred robins rummaging through leaf litter in the undergrowth.

Crowned Eagle
Crowned Eagle

But finding specials in this enchanting, yet somewhat unforgiving world, is by no means a walk in the park. Dense thickets, tangled creepers and fern-filled forest floors make this a real needle-in-a-haystack scenario (and the very reason you should hire a local bird guide).

Amble down Woodbush Forest Drive and you’re dwarfed by some of the tallest trees in Africa. The Three Matrons, Misty Grove, and O’Connor Lane – the legacy of forest pioneers from the early 1900s – will leave you gazing skyward in wonder. Indigenous trees like stinkwoods, yellowwoods and bushwillows are the real champions of forest dwellers. These sky-reaching sentinels draw in high flyers like Cape Parrot and crowned eagle. Under the dappled shade of chestnuts and 'hairy Lucys', Grey Cuckooshrike, Cape Batis, Olive Bush-shrike and Yellow-streaked Greenbul congregate in bird parties a strength-in-numbers strategy against resident raptors like the African goshawk. Stumble upon one of these socials and prepare for double-takes and incessant neck-cranking.

Yellow-streaked Greenbul
Yellow-streaked Greenbul

In the open sections and along the forest fringes, Swee Waxbill and Magpie Mannikin waft through clumps of head-high grasses. In the early mornings, these tall strands are draped in silky webs that wrap around your forehead if you’re leading the way. Pollen irritates your nose hairs and tiny ticks get to work on ring-barking exposed leg.

Then the clouds begin to roll in. This is the edge of the Wolksberg and northern reaches of the Drakensberg, and naturally, the weather can turn quickly and the heavens can open in minutes. It’s the last place you want to be when the weather gods are angry, particularly when they're hurling bolts of lightning across the valley.

The odds are stacked against us, but just like that, forest phantoms start to appear out of nowhere.

In my mind’s eye, a Narina Trogon’s ghost glides beneath the leafy treetops. Its darkened silhouette is merely a shadow of its striking green and scarlet self.

Somewhere in deep shrubbery, a low-hanging branch becomes a Barratt’s Warbler that announces its presence by breaking into song. In my periphery, an orange ground thrush is a fallen autumn leaf that miraculously grows legs and darts across the base of a strangler fig.

Then, something small and green comes into view. "Twinspot! There, among the lichen on that log." Could it be? I fumble for my binoculars… it vanishes before I can get a good look.

I rue another missed opportunity by lamenting with David (the legendary David Letsoalo), our bird guide, about the bad luck we’ve been having: “Yesterday, we went to Agatha to look for the bat hawks, but couldn’t find them”. “They’re there – you must just look harder.”

Barratt's Warbler
Barratt's Warbler

I take this in my stride and begin to wonder: what if all of this is real? What if this isn't just my imagination?

David reaches to the ground, picks up a feather and places it in my hand, then whispers: "trogon". I hold the quill up to the light for a closer look. The black with white trailing edge closely resembles those left behind by laughing doves in my garden. But I digress. Is this the forest trying to tell me something? What if that was a trogon after all? I realise this might be the closest I get to seeing one in the flesh, and drop it into my top pocket as a memento.

Later, I fall asleep to the hooting duets of African wood owls amidst trickling streams and whispering trees, and put to bed any preconceiving doubts about whether this mystical world and its forest phantoms exist.


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