Posted on the 12th February 2012

KZN and Zululand Birding Extravaganza 24/1 to 4/2

Birding with Malcolm Gemmell (Button Birding) is not for the faint-hearted, wimps, vegetarians or the lazy. This is Hard-Core birding for 10 days but the results speak for themselves.

Day 1 (24th Jan) – After arrival at King Shaka Airport just after lunch, Malcolm and I set off for Ndumo Game Reserve via Mpempe Pan where we hoped to locate Caspian Plover. The journey up the N2 to Mpempe Pan produced Martial and Black-chested Snake Eagle. Mpempe Pan wasn’t the easiest place to find, a GPS is essential but worth a visit. No Caspian Plovers but around 1000 Collared Pratincoles and other waders helped to ease the pain.

We arrived at Ndumo just in time for Maxwell the chef to prepare our evening meal, which after a couple of G & T’s went down a treat. It is 8.30pm and time for bed under the mosquito net. 19 species

Mother of a Black Mamba!


African Cuckoo Hawk






Day 2 (25th Jan) – It is dark and it is 4.15am. A nice mug of Malcolm’s coffee and a couple of rusks and we are fuelled up for the morning. Gate opens at 5 and we are there and ready. The early morning birds are already up, Lesser Striped and Barn Swallow, Palm Swift. Palm Nut Vulture is at the Vulture Restaurant, just like it was 2 years ago when we were there. The recent heavy rains had made part of Nyamithi Pan impenetrable,even for a 4x4, but there were plenty of water birds visible – like Pink-backed Pelican, Squacco Heron, Greater Swamp Warbler, White-faced Duck and numerous Kingfishers.

Ndumo needs to be birded slowly in order to enjoy the many species here – like Yellow-breasted Apalis, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Cuckoos, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Eastern Nicator, Grey Penduline-Tit, Pink-throated Twinspot, just to name a few. The Bateleur nest that has graced the approach road to the camp was destroyed in bad weather but the birds have started building again. This is the most southerly nest of the Bateleur. One needs to be good on calls as locating LBJ’s in the Woodland is done initially by ear before sight. Flycatchers, Cisticolas, Robin-Chats and Tinkerbirds need some expert recognition. The woodland is a great place for Shrikes, including Gorgeous Bush Shrike. The day is broken only by brunch and a “power-snooze” if you want to get numbers. 82 species.

Giant Kingfisher


Jacobin Cuckoo






Day 3 (26th Jan) – We use a local guide for the morning who has 30 years experience at Ndumo and take a guided walk at Shokwe Pan. Golden-breasted Bunting, Narina Trogon, Goliath Heron, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, several Sunbirds (but not Neergard’s which we are looking for), Eurasian Golden Oriole, Retz’s Shrike. After yesterdays bumper 83 species, to-day is not so good. 37 species.

Day 4 (27th Jan) – To-day we move on to Pongola, but that doesn’t mean a lie-in. It is still up at 4.15am and we call in at a small reed bed/vlei that we think may produce Black Coucal before we set off. No luck but Great Swamp Warbler was nice. Pongola Game Reserve is some 90 minutes away but is close to Pongola Nature Reserve. The Game Reserve is nice but we need a guide so we arrange him for the following morning. We do our own thing for a while and find Long-crested Eagle, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Black Cuckoo-shrike. Pongola Nature Reserve is quite diverse in habitat with a large lake, grassland and thickets. A 25 Rand entrance fee is well worth it. Malcolm remembers a small track where he once saw Olive Tree Warbler and the track produced the bird again. There were many Amur Falcons (Summer visitors here), Bronze Mannikins, an Osprey, and many shore waders. Access to all the areas is good. Some nice Rhino here too. 32 species.

Female Amur Falcon


Thick-billed Weaver







Day 5 (28th Jan) – We start early AGAIN, 5.00am with the guide. Scops Owl and Fiery-necked Nightjar called overnight. We were hunting Striped Pipit but no calls heard and no sighting. The road is very rocky and steep and requires a good vehicle. Self-drive is not permitted. Whilst Striped Pipit eluded us we did see Purple Heron, Spotted Flycatcher, White Helmet-Shrike, Bennett’s Woodpecker and Black-Crowned Tchagra. After a deserved breakfast and another “power snooze” (compulsory if you rise at 4.15am and want to last the day) we headed off to the Nature Reserve again as our morning guide had advised us where we might see Black Coucal. The area is off-limits normally, but a friendly gate attendant said we could go but don’t be long. The guide was right and we picked up on 4 Black Coucals, initially at distance but one within 100 metres. We headed down to the water again and saw Peregrine Falcon, Ground-scraper Thrush, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Gabar Goshawk and Brown-headed Parrot. Malcolm has many contacts and is able to access areas that the general public are refused entry to. 33 species

Day 6 (29th Jan) – Moving on again now up to Ithala but still an early departure. 6.00am is a “lie-in”!!!!! Barn Owl had called over night but we see Lanner Falcon and our first common species – Pied Crow.



Mocking Cliff-Chat







Ithala Game Reserve is also an area of diverse habitat – granite outcrops, grassland, variable altitude, Acacia thicket and broad-leaved woodland. The lodges are comfortable and you can have self-catering or D, B & B. There are a number of loop roads and a good 4x4 is advisable. The Ngubhu Loop takes you past the cliffs and out to the basin. The Dakeneni Loop goes to the Pongola River and the Onverwacht Loop consists almost entirely of open grassland. The Ngubhu Loop saw us witness a Jackall Buzzard swoop some 2 km to hit a Juvenile Black Eagle, the ensuing collision sending up a shower of feathers. The Jackie attacked the Eagle twice so we can only assume it was within it’s hunting area.

It is a long loop and you could spend all day on it. Bushveld Pipit eluded us at the picnic site but we did see Croaking Cisticola, Ashy Flycatcher, Cape Grassbird (call nothing like the call in WC) and Karoo Prinia. We did find a pair of Blue Crane. Ntshondwe Camp is also good for birding with Willow Warbler, Mocking Cliff-Chat, Emerald Cuckoo, Cape Rock Thrush and Familiar Chat. It is a large camp, some 40+ chalets and well worth a minimum of 2 days here. Food was also very good in the restaurant. 25 species.

Day 7 (30th Jan) – It would be easier to stay up for 24 hours as the night never lasts long enough to grab some sleep before coffee at 4.15am. Still this is hard-core birding and if you want the results you need to be willing to work as hard as this. Casual birding doesn’t produce the goods. We tried the Dakaneni Loop to the Pongola River but it was disappointing for birds. Even the river didn’t give up the Finfoot.

The afternoon was grassland birding on the Onverwacht Loop and this proved to be rewarding. Black-bellied Bustard, Barrow’s Korhaan, Ostrich, 4 Secretarybirds and Dusky Indigobird. Buffy Pipit eluded us as well here. Pipits weren’t calling at all. Wrong time of year so must go back in September. 10 species.

Day 8 (31st Jan) – Today we head for Malcolm’s Guest House in Creighton, so an early start as we are scheduled to stop in Ladysmith and met with Dave Marshall who will show us some sites there. It is 8.00am when we arrive there via Vryheid (Hermanus Refuse Tip is tidier than that town). Dave takes us to the Ladysmith Sewage Works. This is a site well worth a visit. There are numerous waterbirds here. We hear Baillon’s Crake and a big surprise was to hear Great Bittern. Dave Marshall was aware one had been sighted there but not recently. Purple Swamphen, Shelduck and Black Heron graced the fringes. We went to a very nice Dam from there on the way to Spioenkop Nature Reserve. Plenty of ducks etc but a nice flock of Bald Ibis in the fields with the cattle.

Spioenkop is also worth a visit – a great vista from there and the ideal spot for Striped Pipit. Again, no pipits calling but we did see Ant-eating and Buff-streaked Chats, Cape Vulture, Booted Eagle and Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler. It is nearly 1.00pm so we head for Creighton before we get a “ticking-off” from Malcolm’s wife Gail for being late. 28 species.

Day 9 (1st Feb) – I had forgotten what 7.00am looked like on a clock. A casual rise and breakfast and then check out the flower beds for Buff-spotted Flufftail before we head for Ntsikeni Vlei. The female Flufftail obliged by putting in a brief appearance under the Agapanthus plants. We left late morning, loaded with food, chairs, waterproofs, scopes, fuel, more food, wellingtons and anything else that 2 old geysers need for an overnight stay.

Barrow's Korhaan


Southern Bald Ibis








We hear Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler at the start of the long climb to the vlei. Ntsikeni Vlei is 1200 hectares at an altitude of some 1850m and is home to some special species, like Yellow-breasted Pipit, 5 pairs of Wattled Crane, Marsh Harrier, Marsh Owl, African Rail, Lammergeyer, Quailfinch, Striped and Red-chested Flufftails. We were scheduled to walk out to the wetland early afternoon but a storm soon put paid to that. Being in the storm (i.e. in the clouds) at 1850m is pretty scary. By 4.30pm it had cleared, so a 30 minute hike through the wetland ensued such that we could find the Great Bittern, or at least hear it. As Malcolm would say – Nix, Nada, Naff-all. Only some Marsh Owls. We trudge back to the lodge in near darkness and I cook a Lasagne. It is raining again. Off to bed as it is 8.30pm and we must be up at 3.00am again (weather permitting). 16 species.

Day 10 (2nd Feb) – 3.00am and still raining. Back to sleep. 4.00am and still raining. 5.00am and it has stopped. Let’s go to the other end of the Vlei and try our luck. No Bittern and even the Cape Vulture Colony has disappeared in the clouds again. Good calls from Red-chested and Striped Flufftails though as the rain sets in again. Back to Creighton. The Bittern will have to wait until September. On the way back we see a Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk, Crowned Crane and Mounain Wheatear.

The weather is better in Creighton so we do a bit of local birding on farms where Malcolm has permission to go. Orange-breasted Waxbill, Streaky-headed Seedeater and Red-headed Quelea along with Drakensberg Prinia in the garden. 12 species.

Day 11 (3rd Feb) – It is the railway line walk this morning from the station to the Guesthouse. This is always a favourite and nice birds like African Reed Warbler, Orange-breasted Waxbill, Widowbirds and Cisticolas are always readily sighted.

After breakfast we head out to Xomeni Forest. I have never ever seen more than 1 Denham’s Bustard at a time yet we found 6 together whilst trying to find Cuckoofinch in a field. Barn Swallows were feeding by the thousand as well. Soon time for them to start the long journey North.

Young Red-backed Shrike


Go figure - post ideas under user comments








Xomeni Forest holds good birds like KnysnaTuraco, Orange Ground Thrush, Terrestial Bulbul, Barratt’s Warbler, Swee Waxbill, Grey Cuckooshrike and on occasion Cape Parrot.

I am sent to the flower beds in the garden after lunch to watch for Buff-spotted Flufftail. Some stealthy work and I get to see male, female and 3 chicks that look like fluffy golf balls on legs. Malcolm is pleased they have young again and he suspects he has a second pair elsewhere in the garden. 12 species

Day 12 (4th Feb) – The long trek home now. Off to the airport at 8.15am for the 12.10pm flight to Cape Town and to finish off a great trip as we drive down the airport approach road an African Crowned Eagle glides overheard carrying a MONKEY!!!! 1 species.

As always, Malcolm puts in a lot of hard work and time to please his clients and this trip was no exception. Despite some failures we still did very well with 307 species. There were 11 lifers for me – 6 visual + 5 audible. I now keep a “heard-only” life list as well.

Best sightings for me: Black Coucal + Olive Tree Warbler


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