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Much a Cluck About Cuckoos - Exploring the Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

Personally, I would call myself an atlasser before I would say that I am a birder. I find more delight in recording a special bird on a full protocol card, than I do in traveling to some far-flung location and getting a rarity for my life list (although having a rarity of a full protocol card is the ultimate win). Atlassing, which a friend introduced me to a few years ago, ignited a passion that still burns strong

For those that may not know, what is atlassing?

Atlassing is the systematic recording of birds in a defined area (also known as a pentad), following the correct protocols. The area (pentad) is atlassed for a minimum of two dedicated hours and a maximum of five days. (head on over to to read a more detailed explanation of atlassing and the protocols).

What has made atlassing accessible to almost any competent birder is the Birdlasser App. This app, available on both IOS and Android operating systems, allows one to record and submit the data. It also has the atlassing protocol built into the app – so really there is no excuse to not dig in and get started with atlassing.

On a recent birding trip inland with friends, we passed Pietermaritzburg, birding Cedara and Thurlow. On our way back in the late afternoon, we spotted a promising area for birding beside the road. The area was a stunning thorn (Senegalia sp) savannah area just near Ashburton, just east of Pietermaritzburg.

Last week we were trying to decide where to go birding, I looked at the satellite view on Google Maps and the decision was made to head to this location. I went through the SABAP records – the pentad had been atlassed a good amount of times with some good species being recorded.

At 3:30 am, the warmth of my bed couldn't compete with the call of the birds. I crawled out, the pre-dawn air crisp against my skin. It was so early that not even coffee was able to lift the mood as my tired body walked through the house, trying to make sense of why the hell someone would wake up this early! I packed the cooler box and filled the flask knowing the caffeine would make the day just a little sweeter. I left my place just after 4am – strangely enough, the roads still had a thin trail made by the rear lights of traffic – why would anyone wake up this early? I picked up Zach and Tristan, brought another cup of coffee (taking my caffeine count to three cups – yes, three cups – don’t judge), and we headed up the N3 in search of some avian delights.

The early morning car chatter kept the spirits up as we drove through the early morning traffic, we turned off at the Ashburton turnoff and started with some birding in the small town. Bird number one was the not-so-rare Cape Wagtail – bopping its tail with delight as I recorded it in the prime spot on the card. At 6:46 am we recorded a Black-bellied Starling – which was already bird number 50 for the morning. Included in the first 50 birds were Violet-backed Starling, White-bellied Sunbird, Brimstone Canary, Southern Tchagra, Red-chested Cuckoo, Lazy Cisticola, Spotted Thick-knee, Yellow-throated Bush Sparrow, Crowned Lapwing, Ashy Flycatcher, Grey Sunbird and Crowned Eagle. The day had got off to a good start and we had just started (still only three cups of coffee).

Violet-backed Starling

The gate, proclaiming our entry into the Lower Mpushini Conservancy, swung open like an invitation to avian adventure. Stepping past it, we inhaled the earthy scent of the Senegalia sp bushveld, excitement crackling in the air like fallen leaves underfoot.

The conservancy had dust roads which were in good condition – we took the first left turn and headed down into a small valley. This was a good place to stop for coffee and to look for some birds. The Spectacled Weavers were calling all around us (maybe they also like caffeine), we then heard the distinctive insect-like call of the Scaley-throated Honeyguide. All of a sudden a tinge of excitement darted through my inner being as Zach told us he had heard an African Emerald Cuckoo calling. This species had eluded me and taken lots of petrol over three years as I had pursued it. Every time someone told me that they had seen one and it was within traveling distance, I would head there, and again and again leave disappointed. We played a little callback and we were lucky that the bird responded. It flew into a tree about 20 meters away and flew over our heads giving us a great showing. A lifer for the day and it would be on a full protocol card! We managed a few more species such as Cardinal Woodpecker, Hamerkop, Thick-billed Weaver, Burchell’s Coucal, and a Crowned Eagle in a nest.

We headed up to the top of a hill and ended up by a place that looked like a small holding – we managed to see Crowned Hornbill, African Goshawk, and hear the drunken sailor – the Black-crowned Tchagra. The highlight of the time in this place was a second African Emerald Cuckoo that ended up flying into a tree no more than five meters from us allowing us to get stunning photos and video material. From never seeing an African Emerald Cuckoo, all of a sudden they seemed to be showing and calling all around us.

African Emerald Cuckoo

We headed out of the area that we were in and went back to what seemed to be the main road through the conservancy – we found an area where there was a bird party alongside the road and stopped the car. Amongst the small party of birds, we managed to see both the Lesser Honeyguide and the Brown-backed Honeybird. We took some time enjoying the small party of birds and managed to see a majestic Long-crested Eagle soaring overhead.

We kept on driving, keeping the windows open, listening for birds that might have announced their presence and given away their hiding spots. We stopped at an area with some small rocks and shorter grass – this allowed Zach and Tristan to do some herping (looking for snakes and other slithery things). One of my favorite birds – the Orange-breasted Bushshrike was calling in the area. When we arrived at the area there was a flyover by a Black-winged Kite – a smallish raptor with a big attitude. There was a pair of Mocking-cliff Chats in a distant tree, a Brubru was calling in the distance, and a Ring-necked Dove called letting us know that we were out of the city. It’s moments like this that make me love the bush and getting out of the city.

As we drove heading towards Pietermaritzburg, we came to a small river where we parked. This was a good chance to have some snacks and coffee (yes, cup number five) – the Oreo’s that were dipped into the coffee just made the birding a little sweeter. There was a shy but stunning African Black Duck floating in the water amongst the rocks, as well as a Reed Cormorant on a stick near the water. An African Yellow Warbler was in the thicket next to the road and showed us that not all our Warblers are plain, dull, and painful to identify! A Mountain Wagtail with its plain grey back and long tail was moving around in the river area.

We continued our drive through the conservancy and a small dam about 100 meters from the road caught our eye. We parked the car and walked to the dam, the dam was quiet, but in the grassland, just above the dam, we heard the call of a Fan-tailed Grassbird. These birds are small and can be tricky to see, but after much searching, we managed to locate it moving amongst the grass. The bird was one of the highlights of the day – it was a lifer for Tristan and a yearbird for Zach and me. We took some time to scan the trees near the dam and managed to locate a Willow Warbler moving amongst the branches in the trees. We also managed to see a Red-throated Wryneck, Little Grebe, Crested Barbet, and a flock of Black-chested Snake Eagles soaring high in the skies.

Fan-tailed Grassbird

The day far exceeded our expectations – I estimated that we would see around 80 birds but managed to record 108 species in the pentad! I remember when I grew up, we would sometimes get lamb for dinner, and there would be that bone with the hollow center. You would suck the bone and get all the meat out from the inside – making sure you get it all! This is the joy of atlassing – it’s like sucking that bone. Visiting an area and as carefully as possible, looking to record every single bird that is around on that day.


Book to come on our Guided Bird Outing at the Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy on Saturday the 23rd of December 2023 - Limited spaces are available -

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