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The Crake of Dawn

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

News has been filtering in over the last few weeks of lock-down that there were reliable sightings of a KZN rarity in and around Umlalazi Nature Reserve in Mtunzini. No, I'm not talking about the winter migrating Mangrove Kingfisher or even the highly sought after Black Coucal, but the enigmatic African Crake (Crex egregia).

Land Rover in Mtunzini
We can't imagine a better way to spend a morning

The Roberts Bird Guide 2 app has it listed as an uncommon to locally common breeding intra-African migrant which usually occurs in parts of South Africa during Summer. Sightings of this bird are generally in and around the Northern parts of the country, so an opportunity to add another special bird to my KZN list was there for the taking.

On Saturday 25th of July 2020 (level 3 lock-down), Adam Cruickshank, Vauneen Kerr-Wilson, James Orton and myself set out before dawn towards Umlalazi. The gen we had received from the likes of Hugh Chittenden and others suggested that it prefers the damp grass along jeep tacks. A steady North Easterly breeze greeted us which generally doesn't bode too well for birding, but we persevered and thankfully we were rewarded with a cracking sighting of this skulker. After frantic clicking of 10 frame per second DSLR cameras, we were quite satisfied that we had nailed our target bird for the day, but our luck was only about to begin.

African Crake at Mtunzini, Kwa-Zulu Natal
African Crake

In the very same grassland, the now famous Black Coucal fledgling was seen during brief flights between snags only to disappear in the long grass. Waiting patiently for it to reappear, another vehicle arrived and flushed a bird which flew a lot quicker than the Coucal. The high frame cameras helped us out here immensely as the general consensus was that we saw very clear white windows on the wing and the jiss was clearly that of a Nightjar. A quick team regroup sharing blurry images and all guessing as to what we thought we'd seen, narrowed us down to two options. Either it was a Square-tailed or Swamp Nightjar. Here again the Roberts app came into play. We were quite perplexed given the similarity of the species in appearance until we realised that these species prefer very different habitats. Yes! A lifer for Adam, James and more than 2 years since Vauneen and I had recorded a Swamp.

African Finfoot at Mtunzini
African Finfoot

With three great birds seen within an hour we slowly worked our way back out of the reserve still riding our luck by picking up African Finfoot, Mangrove Kingfisher and Brown-backed Honeybird (lifer for James).

Mtunzini delivers once again.


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