Zululand Spectacular Part 1

On the weekend of the 9th to 11th of October I undertook the most epic trip to some of Zululand’s top birding destinations. The weekend was organised by well-known birder Dave Rimmer, and the main part of the trip would see a group of ten of us staying for one night at the Bayala Nyala Breeders Lodge. We would then enjoy both a night and day drive into the exclusive Manyoni Private Game Reserve where we would be guided by another top birder, this time being Ivor van Rooyen of Luleka Safaris.

However the adventure does not begin there, as myself, Dave and Brad Arthur left a day earlier, and would be exploring lots of destinations I had never been to. So this is only part 1 in what will be a trilogy of articles about one of the most amazing birding weekends I have had.

In this part 1, I will be covering our exploits at the Umfolozi Conservancy, Nibela Peninsula, Mpempe and Muzi Pans, as well as Mkhuze Game Reserve.

It all began on Friday at about 7am when we left Durban (Hillcrest actually) and headed straight to the Umfolozi Conservancy. This is one of the places I had never been to, and is situated between St Lucia and the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, and near the town of Mtubatuba.

Soon after turning of the main road and into the conservancy Brad heard what he thought was a Woodland Kingfisher. It soon called again, but it didn’t sound quite right. We tried to get a visual of it, but the best was just a sighting of a bird fly across from one side of the road to another which we thought was it. It did call again, and in the end we were almost certain it had to be a Woodland Kingfisher, but decided not to log it, or only log it as heard.

After driving a bit further we came to a small pan of water, and low and behold there was an immature Saddle-billed Stork there. This is always a stunning bird to find, and even more special to sight one in KZN. The cameras came out and we got a few photos.

Saddle-billed Stork

As we travelled further we came by a local farmer by the name of Steve de Ricquebourg in his bakkie who stopped next to us. He asked if we were birders and we told him we were. He then said that he had a farm nearby, where for the last ten or so years he has had Broad-billed Rollers arriving every year in October and nesting at his property. He then followed this up by saying that they had just arrived today, and that if we wanted he would escort us to his farm for us to see them. We arrived at the farm and searched for them, however they were nowhere to be found. The farm however was stunning and had the most spectacular views of a vast and pristine valley area. Steve really knew his birds, and told us of the most amazing birds he has had on his property over the years, including Southern-banded Snake Eagles, Palm-nut Vultures, and the list goes on and on. We were treated to ice cold glasses of Ginger Beer with the world’s largest ice cubes. As we were just about to leave I discovered that Steve had his very own underground wine cellar, so I had to absolutely check it out. I went down a trap door into a 14 degree Celsius air conditioned paradise. I am not sure if I was left there if I would have had an ever better weekend then I did.

The next destination was the Nibela Peninsula, which as the name suggests is an actual peninsula, but not into the sea, instead it is into the North West section of Lake St Lucia. In birding circles the peninsula is hallowed ground, as it is basically the only reliable place to find the elusive and majestic Rosy-throated Longclaw. This was the reason I had convinced the others to go there, although it didn’t take much to convince them to go there, as it is such a remarkable place. Long story short is we didn’t find the Longclaw, as conditions were a bit too dry for its preferred habitat of damp to waterlogged short grasslands. I did however manage to pick up my first lifer of the trip, with good sightings of Senegal Lapwing. The thing that truly amazed me about Nibela though was the other-worldly feel to the place. I think it would be a great place to film for a sci-fi movie, as it could serve to be an ideal landscape for some exotic alien planet.

Nibela Peninsula
Senegal Lapwing

The next stop was our accommodation for the night which Brad had organised. It was a wonderful pineapple and game farm situated in the Hluhluwe area. The cottage was secluded and tranquil overlooking a largely dried up dam. There birding on the property was good, and we managed to see Crowned and African Watlled Lapwings, Green-winged Pytillias, and even a Black-bellied Bustard which was the first one I had seen for the year. That night we enjoyed a really good braai with lots of salads (come on I’m joking it was just meat of course), and a good bottle of Neetlingshof Shiraz. After the braai we did a quick night drive. Not many birds were seen on the drive, but we did manage to get a cool sighting of a Large-spotted Gennet, fairly close up on the road.

Verandah of our Cottage

The next day we woke up early and headed to Mpempe Pans. It was a very overcast, grey and windy day. It was so windy in fact that while we were at Mpempe we did not even get out the car, but instead scanned the pans for waders from within. Most of the common waders were ticked off easily e.g. Common-ringed, Kittlitz's, and Three-banded Plovers, Ruffs, Black-winged Stilts, etc. We also hit the motherlode of Barn Swallows and a number of African Pygmy Geese. The Barn Swallows seemed to enjoy landing in the moist grasses, and then after a while flying off again. After a while of observing them, I noticed that some of the swallows were a lot smaller. I was really hoping they were Grey-rumped Swallows, as this would be a lifer for me. I asked Dave and Brad to check them out, and Dave said that those were indeed the ones I had been looking for.

After Mpempe we headed to Muzi Pans, which is just outside Mkhuze Game Reserve on the East side. After ticking off some more water birds including Squacco Heron, Greater and Lesser Flamingo, and Pink-backed Pelican, grey struck again. This time it was the tiny (South Africa’s smallest bird) Grey Penduline Tit. This too was a lifer for me. We then headed towards the entrance gate for Mkhuze, and Brad alerted us to a Broad-billed Roller he spotted in some tall dead trees. I only got brief visuals, but it was still a KZN lifer for me. Just before you get into Mkhuze is a bridge going over a river, giving a stunning riparian habitat. Brad informed us that this is where his Big Birding Day team do their dawn chorus, and I can see why.

Grey Penduline Tit

The last stop of the day, before we headed to our overnight accommodation at Bayala Nyala Breeders was the legendary Mkhuze Game Reserve. The reserve of course is hugely rich in bird biodiversity. However with it now being later in the day and insanely windy, we didn’t expect to find too many suprises. We were however pleasantly surprised and were still able to pick up a lot of the more common species including, Bateleur, Wahlberg’ Eagle, Crested Guinefowl, White-backed Vultures, Brown-crowned Tchagra, and Sabota Lark to name a few. The absolute highlight from our drive into Mkhuze was sighting a Black-bellied Bustard just off the road. We all took lots of photos, and then we all took videos getting it doing its charming “pop” call.

Black-bellied Bustard

This concludes Part 1 of my Zululand Spectacular. Look out for Part 2 and Part 3 coming out later.

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