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The Good, the Bad, and the Unkept - An Atlasing Adventure


White-eared Barbet

After a busy few months with some significant changes taking place in my life, I decided to head out and do some atlasing in one of my local pentads. Over the last few years, I have made a concerted effort to atlas as many of my local pentads as often as possible. This approach has really opened my eyes to the amazing bird life that can be found right on my ‘doorstep’.


I decided to atlas pentad number 3010_3045), which covers Umkomaas, a coastal town on the KwaZulu Natal South Coast. The town is found in the Sapphire Coast Tourism area, which I feel is one of the best birding areas in the greater Ethekwini area. After a busy week, I was quite tired so I only ended starting later than I would normally start. I only ticked off the first bird for a card 8:48am (a Hadada Ibis flying over the road as I was starting off). I wanted to head to the grassland near the Sappi Skill Centre to start the day but ended up taking the wrong road, so I started with Empisini Nature Reserve instead.

The way that I bird Empisini Nature Reserve is first stopping the truck turning space outside the entrance, and then as I drive in, I stop probably every ten meters to look and listen to what is around. I then stop at the picnic site, before driving the last section of the road to where I normally start walking. Sadly, Empisini NR is in a shocking state right now, there are still really good birds, but the grass is not cut, and the roads seem to be getting worse and worse. The road once you get into the reserve that overlooks the reed bed is always a great place to bird. Along with Red-capped Robin-Chat that was calling, I also heard Sombre Greenbul, Green-backed Camaroptera, Spectacled Weaver, Terrestrial Brownbul, and an African Dusky Flycatcher calling from the top of a tree. I was treated to fantastic views of a flock of Red-backed Mannikin that were moving along the sides of the reed beds. These birds are always a treat to get to see, especially when you get to observe them only a few meters away! Empisini NR is a reliable spot to see this species, along with the possibility of seeing the less common Magpie Mannikin. The picnic spot is normally a great spot for birds. I managed to observe large, busy flocks of Thick-billed Weaver, Speckled Mousebirds darting between the trees, and a female Cardinal Woodpecker showing just above where I was standing. The last section of the road was a challenge to drive, even with a 4x4! At the end of the road where the small stream goes across the path, I made my way through the thick unkept grass and heard the Scaley-throated Honeyguide calling. This is almost a guaranteed spot for this species. I ended my time at Empisini NR with 31 species (eBird checklist https://ebird.org/checklist/S134550381).

The sad condition of Empisini Nature Reserve

I then did the one-and-a-half-kilometer tar stretch between Empisini NR and Sappi Umkomaas. This road goes along the Umkomaas River in places and is one of the most reliable spots on the Sapphire Coast for Mocking Cliff Chat. When I arrived at the spot where they are found, they were not showing. While I was waiting and looked, a small flock of Red-billed Firefinches shot across the road. I played a little bit of call-back using my Sasol Bird App, and suddenly the Mocking Cliff Chats started to frantically call from deep in the bushes. I had played the call back only a few times as I didn’t want to agitate the birds, but I was happy that after a few minutes a pair showed nicely. As I was about to drive off, a bird caught my eye. I was excited to see a young Cape Robin-chat sitting and showing itself nicely through the branches. This section added another 8 species (eBird checklist https://ebird.org/checklist/S134550891).

The best location on the Sapphire Coast to see Mocking Cliff Chat

I then made my way to the grassland around the Sappi Skill Centre. This is one of my favourite places to bird in the area. Today was a bit quieter that normal, this may have been because of the time of day that I arrived at the area. But I still enjoyed scanning the grasslands and seeing what I could find. As I arrived there was pair of African Fish Eagles flying high overhead and calling to each other. Even though a Fish Eagle is not an uncommon sighting, I always get excited when I hear them calling. Except for a few species such as Southern Fiscal and Natal Spurfowl calling from deep in the grass, I only managed to see and hear 10 species (eBird checklist https://ebird.org/checklist/S134551525).


I then headed along the dust road that winds it way along the Umkomaas River to the Riverview Lodge. The river was badly affected by the floods last year and much of the growth along the sides of the river has still not recovered. This used to be a productive section, but it is definitely a lot quieter now. A lone Grey Heron was on the opposite bank, and like always along the section of road, the Red-faced Cisticola was making its presence known. On the drive out I managed to flush a Black-headed Heron that was tucked in deep in the vegetation between the road and the river. A resident on the road has developed the Riverview Lodge on the road. He has built decks to sit on, along with a kiddie’s area and a petting farm, but sadly it seems like he has cleared away a lot of the vegetation between his house and the river. I managed a measly 8 species on the road (eBird checklist https://ebird.org/checklist/S134552327).


Next stop was the Magabeni Water Treatment Works. The venue consists of four water treatment ponds that at times can hosts some special species. The Water Treatment works has been quiet for some time, but it’s always worth a stop just in case something special is there. As I drove in there was four White-throated Swallows perched on the olds that used to hold the venues sign. There were flocks mixed with White-breasted and Reed Cormorants (5 reed and 4 White-breasted), along with a pair of Egyptian Geese, and a solo Blacksmith Lapwing. As always there was Little Grebes floating around and feeding on the water. The area between the third and forth ponds always seems to be the most popular area for birds to congregate. But I have noticed that the sides of the second and the third ponds are normally best for waders in the summer months. At the end of the road was probably the biggest flock of Pin-tailed Whydahs that I have seen, mixed with Fan-tailed Widowbirds. On the drive back along the pond I was rewarded with views of White-throated Swallows and Brown-throated Martins gliding over the water (eBird checklist https://ebird.org/checklist/S134552851).

A guide to Magabeni Water Treatment Works

I then started to drive toward the main part of Umkomaas, as I was coming towards Empisini NR, I noticed a raptor flying high above the road. I found a place to pull over and when I got out the car above me there was a massive flock of Little Swifts mixed with Palm Swifts. A pair of White-necked Ravens was ‘squawking’ above me, and I managed to identify the raptor – a calling African Harrier-Hawk high in the sky. A Black Sparrowhawk was calling from somewhere in the thick of the Empisini NR trees. Another 6 birds added to the list (eBird checklist https://ebird.org/checklist/S134553276).


The drive past Umkomaas Golf Course added a pair of African Pied Wagtails and Black Saw-wing to the list. From various atlasing trips to Umkomaas, African Pied Wagtail seems to be way more common that Cape Wagtail in the town. I ended the morning by taking a slow drive along the road by Umkomaas beach – no African Black Oystercatchers, but I did set to see a Common Ringer Plover and a flock of five Speckled Pigeons (the best place to see Speckled Pigeons on the Sapphire Coast). I was surprised to see small flocks of Barn Swallow still around. (eBird checklist https://ebird.org/checklist/S134554337).


On the way back home I finally able to add a House Sparrow to the list for the day!

Far from the biggest Full Protocol card that I have done for this pentad, but I was happy to end the day with 65 species.


(Please note that I used both Birdlasser and eBird on the day to record. If you tally all the eBird cards they wont fully tie into the number on the Birdlasser list as there were some birds that I recorded that didn’t get entered on an eBird card)






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