Coastal forest, grasslands, beaches, estuaries and lush winding hills, are all the ‘ingredients’ that make a ‘rich buffet’ for any birder to explore and ‘feast’ on the birds that these varied habitats promise to deliver!
The Sapphire Coast Birding Route must be one of South Africa’s best-kept birding secrets. The route winds along the upper South Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal, stretching from the eziMbokodweni River in the North, to the aMahlongwa River in the South and about 9km inland from the coast. With everything from coastal birds, to forest specials to soaring raptors, this stretch has it all!
The route has diverse habitats, with close on 270 species of birds being recorded, with rarities and out of range species being reported on more than one occasion.
The northerly reserves on the route, Umbogavango Nature Reserve and Vumbuka Nature Reserve, are both found within the Umbogintwini Industrial Complex. Both reserves are conservation areas that were the result of waste disposal dams being transformed. Umbogavango has trails that lead through exotic and coastal forest as well as dams. The reserve also has three bird hides overlooking the various water habitats. Umbogavango has a wide variety of species including Natal Spurfowl, Violet-backed Starling, Tambourine Dove, Green Twinspot, African Firefinch as well as many rapture species including Crowned Eagle, Black Sparrowhawk, and Long-crested Eagles. If one takes a short drive, Vumbuka is another gem that rises from within the factories in the Industrial Park. A walk through the forests filled with indigenous trees provides one with the opportunity to encounter many KZN Natal forest specials such as White-starred Robin, White-browed Robin-Chat and in winter the Spotted Ground Thrush. To visit the reserves a booking must be made in advance on 031 949-2081.
Just across the road is the Amanzimtoti Bird Sanctuary, this small park makes up for its size with the potential to see many birds. The sanctuary has lost a bit of its glory from former years, with much of the infrastructure not being maintained and unfortunately is in a dilapidated state, but with the species that are seen on a regular basis, it still makes it a well worth visit. The park is made up of a few easy walking trails that wind around the small dam in the coastal forest. Over the years the park has continuously delivered special birds, including Mangrove Kingfisher, Half-collared Kingfisher, Green Twinspot, White-backed Night Heron, Palm-nut Vulture and the annual winter visitor the Spotted Ground Thrush. The sanctuary is a great location to see Malachite Kingfisher, Mountain Wagtail, Black Throated Wattle-eye, Olive Woodpecker, and White-eared Barbet. The size of the park increases the chance of seeing many special species on a morning walk. It is often busy over weekends with picnics and braais, so it is best visited either during the week or early on weekend mornings.
Just a short drive from the park is the aManzimtoti Estuary. The estuary and beach, depending on the season, allows one to potentially see Pink-Backed Pelican, Giant Kingfisher, Grey Plover, Sandwich Tern, Caspian Tern, Swift Tern, Goliath Heron as well as both Reed and White Breasted Cormorant. The estuary provides great sightings both from the car park as well as the beach, and its accessibility means that it is easy to do a quick ‘stop and look’. This site is best to visit in summer when the migrant birds return. Be sure to carefully look through the terns and waders in summer as there may just be a special bird in the mix!
The Amanzimtoti Sports Centre allows birders to walk alongside the Amanzimtoti estuary on well-maintained Trails. The Amanzimtoti Sports Centre, Amanzimtoti Cycle Club and Toti Conservancy do a great work keeping the trails maintained with their small but dedicated workforce. Even though the Sports Centre is right in the middle of the town, once you walk onto the trails it feels like you are far away from any urban location. The trails host many birds including Cardinal and Golden-Tailed Woodpecker, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Mountain Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, and in winter the Spotted Ground Thrush. The trails are relatively safe to walk as they are well used by everyone from people walking dogs to as cyclists exploring the maze of trails that wind through this small piece of natural habitat.
Once one travels further south, the iLovu Estuary provides two great birding locations. The iLovu Estuary mouth is a fantastic spot for various Tern species, African Oystercatchers, White-fronted Plover and Sanderling. If one visits the mouth either in the morning or in the afternoon, it’s not uncommon to see large flocks of terns huddled together and flying around feeding. The late afternoon, just before sunset provide great light for photographing these stunning birds in flight, with the soft sunlight being well-positioned over your shoulder as the birds fly over the waves. Slightly inland from the mouth one can see Osprey and at times Palm-nut Vulture. The park alongside the estuary, at times can be a birder’s delight with various Sunbirds, Weavers, and African Olive Pigeon feeding on the fruit in the trees.
The Burchell’s Coucal Eco trail lies inland on the north bank of the iLovu estuary at the Illovo Business Park. You will need to sign in to access the trails, which ensures that those using the trails are safe. The trails that wind along the banks of the estuary allows one to see Water Thick-Knee, Little Bee-eater, White-Fronted Bee-eater, Southern Brown-throated Weaver, Brad-tailed Warbler, Pygmy Kingfisher, Spotted Eagle-Owl, Barn Owl as well as some great African Fish Eagle sightings up close. When one enters the trails at the gate, be sure to take some time to scan the waters carefully for African Finfoot that has been seen on more than one occasion. The trails are also one of the best local areas on the upper South Coast for raptor sightings with Black Sparrowhawk, Crowned Eagle, Black-chested Snake Eagle and even the occasional European Honey Buzzard. The trails are one of the most popular local birding spots and are well worth a visit.
The Umkomaas area, a little further south on the coastline also provides some magical birding. Empisini Nature Reserve is 120 hectares of natural vegetation, which has a superb forest area that is rich in birdlife including Narina Trogan, Knysna Turaco, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, African Emerald Cuckoo, Trumpeter Hornbill and African Black Duck. A few kilometres inland from Umkomaas lies the KwaCele Tribal Authority Valley area. This area is an area where dust roads wind through grasslands that are teeming with bird species. The area is good for Gorgeous Bushshrike, Grey-headed Bushshrike, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Mountain Wagtail, as well as prime raptor territory, with the mountain tops allowing one to see these majestic birds up close in flight, Black Chested Snake Eagles, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Lanner Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Long-crested Eagles, Jackal Buzzard amongst others that can be seen. This valley area is perfect for packing a picnic basket, slowly driving along the roads and taking in the stunning scenery.
The southernmost point of this Birding Route is located around Renishaw Chapel, this small hidden away area is well known for its Crowned Eagle nest and Trumpeter Hornbills. It is easy to access and is one of the spots that many local birders frequent, because of the great birding that is on offer.
The Sapphire Coast Birding Route allows, one to see great birdlife in its diverse habitats, and allows one to stay within a comfortable traveling distance from KZN’s other famous birding spots.
The Sapphire Coast Birding route is truly an important gateway to KZN’s birding.