Review of King’s Grant Country Retreat, Ixopo, KZN

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

With leisure travel officially opened on an intra-provincial basis, I decided to take the family on a holiday to an area in KZN that I had yet to discover. King’s Grant Country Retreat is near the southern KZN town of Ixopo. The thing that really puts it on the map in terms of birding of course is that it’s in the fragile mistbelt grasslands, the home of arguably Africa’s most endangered bird, the Blue Swallow. However, the Blue Swallows are summer migrants, so I had no chance of seeing them unfortunately.

King's Grant Country Retreat

I arrived at King’s Grant at 9am (I had arranged an early check in, something you should always strive to achieve). The check in staff were friendly, and I was informed of the restaurant meal times, as well as the wifi code (I can’t survive without wifi). The room I checked into was called “The Monks Recreation Room” (There is a lot of history to the place, which you can read more about on their website if you are so inclined). The room was very spacious, with a beautiful balcony, and the bathroom featured an enormous Victorian styled bath.

Victorian Bath

After relaxing for a while, I set off with my binos and camera to explore the property. I was soon to discover that it was a haven for canaries, particularly Forest Canaries. They were ever present throughout the retreat gorging themselves on the plentiful seeding grasses. They were also joined by their cousins the Cape and Yellow-fronted Canaries. Other birds to be found in the park-like gardens were Cape Robin-Chat, Terrestrial Brownbul, Southern Boubou, and Black-headed Orioles.

Forest Canary
Forest Canary

After returning to my room, my wife informed me that she had rescued a Cape-Robin-Chat and a Brown-hooded Kingfisher that had been stuck in the Chapel on the property. She seemed to have got a better photo with her phone, than I had got with my expensive camera.

I was then alerted to the calls of some crows. I went outside to see which type they were, and saw they were Cape Crows, but while I was looking at them I noticed something more sinister flying a lot higher above. I snapped some quick photos, and discovered it was a magnificent adult Martial Eagle.

Martial Eagle
Cape Robin-Chat

I then received a phone call from the manager of King’s Grant. She informed me that it was her weekend off, but that she wanted to tell me about the various birding destinations on the farm and in the nearby vicinity. I was told about 2 dams on the way to the property, as well as a region of thornveld. There were quite a lot of directions involved, and me being not too good with directions would have just preferred a map. Nevertheless in the afternoon we took a drive to the two dams. The first dam was very large, and had areas of marginal bushveld, grasslands and timber plantations on the upper slopes of the nearby hills. The dam didn’t produce many exciting birds, just the stock standard Egyptian Geese, South African Shelduck Little Grebes and Spur-winged Geese. Red-throated Wrynecks were seen in the bushveld around the dam.

South African Shelduck

We then headed farther up the road to the second smaller dam. It was teaming with birds, with large numbers of White-faced Whistling and Yellow-billed Ducks. I scanned relentlessly hoping for something special like a Maccoa Duck or even a Southern Pochard. Not to be though and we eventually headed back to the retreat for a steak dinner (with no wine, the horror)

Early the next morning I decided to walk to the larger dam to explore more of the bushveld and paths around the dam. I soon picked up two year birds for me, being the Grey-headed Bushshrike and Cape Grassbird, with the latter proving to be fairly common around the paths and grasslands around the dam. Other birds which were common around the dam were Levaillant’s Cisticola, African Stonechat, Common Waxbills, Amethyst and Greater Double-Collared Sunbirds, African Firefinches, and yet another species of Canary, this time the Brimstone Canary.

Grey-headed Bushshrike
Brimstone Canary
Cape Grassbird

I also managed to pick up two species of Tchagra, when I heard the “drunken sailor” call of the Black-crowned and for me a rare sighting of a Southern Tchagra that I unfortunately didn’t get a photo of.

During the heat of the day, the birding dried up and i went into full heathen mode by looking for butterflies. I managed to add two lifers to my extensive list of now 19. African Joker and Yellow Pansy being my latest additions to my side hobby.

African Joker
Yellow Pansy

After a long walk, I arrived back at the retreat and relaxed over lunchtime. In the late afternoon I went for a walk around the gardens and discovered large amounts of seed eating birds on the lawns. Canaries of course as well as Village and Cape Weavers, and a single Red-billed Quelea.

Village Weaver

Supper that night was another steak dinner, and by that stage I had manged to log 74 species for the holiday so far. The next morning I went back to the dam, but the birding wasn’t too good, and I only managed to add Brown-throated Martin and Sombre Greenbul, bringing my tally to 76.

Accommodation Rating: 6.5/10 The room was very nice, the restaurant decent, but there wasn’t much else to do for the family at the retreat and the price was slightly above what I would normally pay for the equivalent accommodation elsewhere. Still a peaceful and enjoyable place to visit.

Birding Rating: 6.5/10 I didn’t manage to find the main thornveld area for birding, so I may need to return at a later stage. Overall the birding was a little underwhelming, and my highlights were Martial Eagle and Southern Tchagra. Again judging this in just 2 days is always difficult, especially in Winter, and I’m sure that a Summer visit yielding Blue Swallow could be a different kettle of fish.

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