Three members of The Birding Life recently had a wonderful overnight stay at Tala Game Reserve. Tala is situated in a rural area near Eston in KwaZulu Natal, making it a short 45 minute drive from either Durban or Pietermaritzburg.
Adam and I arrived on Friday afternoon, and got into birding in the reserve straight away. Tala is a reserve that we are both fairly familiar with, however what was different this time, is that although the landscape was in its usual winter straw colour, contrasting with the pristine blue dams dotted about, the roads were very wet and muddy, owing to some unseasonal torrential downpours in the preceding days. I was just glad that we were in Adam’s 4x4, and that I didn’t have to deal with the roads in my car. Even before we had signed in at the entrance gate, the bird atlassing had begun, with us seeing some Crowned Lapwings in the short grass, and hearing a number of calls including Cape Turtle Dove, Hadeda, and Egyptain Geese.
We ventured into the reserve and our first stop was of course the big dam. Lots of waterbirds frequent the dam and we easily picked up Red-knobbed Coot, South African Shelduck, African Darter, White-breasted Cormorant and we also got Cape starling and Cardinal Woodpecker in the Acacia shrubs bordering the dam. As we drove farther into the reserve we also encountered some of Tala’s famous wildlife, including Nyala, Impala, Wildebeest and Blesbok. As the sun started to set, we headed to the reception to fetch our keys for the Fisherman’s Cottage, which was our accommodation for the night. We made sure to also bird around the reception area on foot, as this is a prime spot for Cape Rock Thrush, Mocking Cliff Chat, Cape Robin Chat and a variety of Sunbirds.
A short distance before we got to the Fisherman’s cottage was a small vlei, and we were lucky to hear the piercing cry of an African Rail, as well as hearing some birds in the surrounding grasslands who wanted to “Drink our Beer” ( I am of course talking about the Shelley’s Francolins here). We then stopped at the cottage and were greeted to a large flock of Wattled Starlings. This is only the 2nd time I have seen them in KZN, so I was pretty excited. Another feature I absolutely love about Tala in the winter is that all the Aloes are in flower. The starlings were kind enough to land on some of the Aloes, which made for some cool photos.
Now I was pretty happy with the day so far, and would have been more than happy to check in to the cottage and get started on my wine, but Adam thought that it would be a good idea to go on a short drive into the nearby wooded thickets to search for some owls. We proceeded onto a 4x4 only road and Adam was not at all worried about the warning signs of difficult driving terrain. Now because of the floods earlier in the week, and the fact that the thicket areas were in constant shade, the roads were very muddy and slippery. Going downhill at first was not too difficult as gravity seemed to do most of the work, but the road did get trickier and trickier, and rocky. We eventually came to a point where even Adam was getting worried, and instead of continuing on, he decided to turn around and go back the same way we came. However we now needed to go up a fairly steep, muddy and rocky hill. In no time wheels were spinning, mud was flying and rocks were clanging, and then nothing. We were good and proper stuck in the mud.
Luckily for us, but no so much for Charl Fick the reserve manager, was that we had his number saved on our phones. We phoned him to come and rescue us. By this stage it was getting completely dark and cold as well. He eventually found us, but this was only the start of the rescue. The first truck his entourage came in was very reluctant to go down the hill and tow us, and for good reason. It was only by a miracle that this truck too did not get stuck, or roll. Eventually the rescue truck got free, and they made a plan to go back and get another more suitable vehicle to rescue poor Adam’s car. They did inform us though that on the way to us that they saw a Bronze-winged Courser on the road, which would have been one of the best birds of the weekend for us if we had seen it. As we waited in the cold and dark for the 2nd rescue attempt, we tried to listen for owls, but there was none calling. Our attention soon turned to the canvas above, which was the beautiful starlit night sky. I made out the false and southern crosses which is the limit to my celestial knowledge. Adam was lucky to see his best sighting of a shooting star, which I unfortunately missed. Eventually after a 2 hour ordeal and the tireless effort of Charl and his team we were eventually towed out of the mire and could return to our cottage.
We got back to the cottage at about the same time as Calvin, who was joining us for the weekend arrived. Calvin started the braai, but was not too happy, as I had brought wood for the braai instead of charcoal. The plan was of course, to have started the fire a lot earlier, but because of being stuck in the mud for so long, this was not to be. Anyway I uncorked a good bottle of red wine and we all stood around the fire and relaxed. The fire however didn’t get hot enough to cook our meat and Calvin ended up cooking for us inside on the stove. It wasn’t a total disaster, as inside the cottage was comfortable and very warm, thanks to the best, meanest and next-level gas heater that I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
The next morning we woke up just after sunrise, and went for a short walk to the dam below our cottage. On the walk to the dam we saw some bushveld and grassland species including Black-crowned Tchagra, Neddicky, Chinspot Batis and Cape Grassbird. This dam is one of Tala’s best birding spots, and we easily picked up Common Moorhen, Little Grebe, Black Crakes, as well as a very confiding juvenile African Jacana, which let us take some really good pics and videos of. We then made plans to split into two groups. Calvin would go to the various lodges and take footage for his upcoming YouTube video on Tala, and Adam and I would continue atlassing, and take photos, as well as video clips of the biodiversity Tala has to offer.
Adam and I headed towards the Paperbark Lodge side of the reserve, and continued our atlassing. At one point we observed three Cape Longclaws on the road ahead of us, and at the same time a Yellow-throated Longclaw flew in, but much to the annoyance of one of the Cape Longclaws who had a mid air altercation with it. We decided to have breakfast at Paperbark Lodge, and as we arrived there was a contingent of Crowned Lapwings on the lawn in front of the lodge. After breakfast we made our way towards Figtree Lodge, and connected with both Amethyst and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds on the Aloes in front of the lodge. We also managed to see both Blue and Grey Crowned Cranes in the grasslands just before the Growmore Dams.
We then all met up at one of the peaceful and scenic picnic sites near the Fisherman’s Cottage, where Adam and Calvin interviewed Charl Fick the reserve manager for Calvin’s YouTube Video. Whilst they were interviewing him, I picked up a few forest specials including Green-backed Camaroptera and Bar-throated Apalis, as well as photographing a very tame female Mocking Cliff Chat.
After the interview Calvin made his way home, while Adam and I headed to the exclusive Leadwood Lodge to have lunch. Leadwood Lodge is an upmarket lodge featuring an infinity pool overlooking a valley below with a small wetland. I had a divine lamb shank, a glass of Merlot, and finished it off with an English sticky toffee pudding.
After our lazy lunch we did a bit more atlassing, and after a last stop at the big dam, we sighted a pair of White-backed Ducks. All in all I picked up 99 birds in the reserve and atalassed 2 full protocol cards for the Southern Afrcan Bird Atals Project2 (SABAP2). A most enjoyable stay at Tala, and thanks to Adam and Calvin for a wonderful adventure, and for Charl Fick for hosting (and rescuing) us.
If you fancy a birding break in KZN, then check out the accommodation on offer in the KZN section of our birding directory.
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