Umgeni Valley NR and Greater Ambers, Howick. 15 Feb.

Report by Norman Freeman.

Sunday morning 06h30 saw 16 intrepid birders gather at the entrance to the Umgeni Valley NR in spite of the very overcast weather with an occasional light shower and general mist.

The intention was to park above Cascades Falls and to bird the grasslands above with possible sightings over the top of the canopy and across the krantze’s bordering the Nkongongo Stream, a tributary of the Umgeni River. Our plan was then to bird down through ravine forest to Shelter Falls and Bush Camp. Partially due to the wet conditions and steep gradient the last leg of this route was considered too ambitious and the group turned back.

In spite of this though 50 birds were recorded here before we took our leave of this area and headed to Amber Valley. Amongst the sightings were Diderick Cuckoo, Jackal Buzzard, Zitting Cisticola, Common House-Martin, Natal Spurfowl, Brimstone Canary, Cape Crow, Rufous-naped Lark and Lazy Cisticola.

The weather, although still overcast, lifted slightly and we headed along the game trail within the Ambers. This area is more open grassland parallel to streams and wetland, dropping down to Mimosa and Acacia thickets.

On arrival, all were greeted at the parking by a herd of Impala, Blesbok with calves a little way off, Warthog and Zebra. A male Grey Duiker broke cover, ran a while and turned to view us intruders.

The birding along this short trail added further to our list. Amongst the most exciting birds seen and heard were Neddicky, a melanistic Black Sparrowhawk, Cape Grassbird, Cape Canary, Steppe Buzzard, Dark-Capped Yellow Warbler, Willow Warbler, African Firefinch, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Long-crested Eagle and African Harrier-Hawk.

Time for tea found us under the trees alongside Falcon Dam while YBK’s posed for Dave Rimmer in a near-by Mimosa. Photography had been difficult due to the weather conditions.

Yellow-billed Kite
Yellow-billed Kite

Good fellowship was had with all the general chitter-chatter and leg-pulling. At this point the group split with a number heading for the Karkloof Conservancy area and hide.

The majority opted to bird the Amber lakes which turned out very productive. Good sightings included Sacred Ibis, another Black Sparrowhawk but with the white chest markings, Reed and White-Breasted Cormorant, Little Rush Warbler, African Darter, Cape Weaver, Familiar Chat, Purple Heron, Cape and Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Lanner Falcon, Lesser Swamp Warbler, African Rail and Malachite Kingfisher.

All in all 16 birders listed 81 birds for the mornings outing and a good time had been had by all. It was lunch time and each went their separate ways, most to amber further within the beautiful Natal Midlands.

Support for Sneeuwberg Protected Environment Required

Hi All

During the last number of years BirdLife South Africa in partnership with WWF-SA, have been assisting the Free State Provincial Government to formally proclaim certain farms in the Memel area as a Protected Environment. These farms are extremely important for bird conservation as they host habitats such as grasslands and wetlands, which are used by species such as the globally Vulnerable Wattled (Bugeranus carunculatus) and Blue (Anthropoides paradiseus) cranes and the Endangered Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum). The area is also important for other threatened bird species such as Southern Bald Ibis (Geronticus calvus), Blue Korhaan (Eupodotis caerulescens), Denham’s Bustard (Neotis denhami), Yellow-breasted Pipit (Anthus chloris) and Rudd’s Lark (Heteromirafra ruddi). By proclaiming these properties a protected area, it provides protection from unsuitable land use practices for this area, such as mining. Management plans will be developed to improve the habitats in the area, for example through the removal of alien plants and improved burning practices.

On Friday 16 January 2015 the intention to declare this Protected Environment was published in the Free State Provincial Gazette Notice No. 91 (see attached document) and members of the public are now invited to comment on this proposal. BirdLife South Africa would like to obtain as many letters of support as possible. To indicate your support for this initiative please consider adding your name and email address to an online letter created by BirdLife South Africa:


BirdLife South Africa will print the letters and, under a cover letter from BirdLife South Africa, submit them to the MEC. For more information about this initiative please contact Ernst Retief at

Please distribute this request to your bird club members and friends.


Kind regards,


Ernst Retief

Regional Conservation Manager: Gauteng, North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Free State

Lewis House, 239 Barkston Drive, Blairgowrie 2194, Gauteng

P.O. Box 515, Randburg 2125, Gauteng, South Africa

Tel: +27 (0)11 789 1122 / 0860 BIRDER

Fax: +27 (0)11 789 5188

Cell: +27 (0) 72 223 2160


Solving the mystery surrounding the decline of the Drakensberg Bone Breaker

Scientists have turned to outer space to explain the mysterious disappearing act of one of Africa’s most famous birds.

Satellite trackers attached to 18 Bearded Vultures have confirmed conservationists’ worst fears: humans are largely to blame for the rapid demise of the species.

Once widespread throughout much of Southern Africa, the Bearded Vulture is now critically endangered in the sub-continent, with a nearly 50 percent reduction in nesting sites since the 1960s.

And the main reasons for their decline are collisions with power lines and poisoning, two major vulture hazards that killed half of the birds in the satellite tracking survey.

Once widespread across South Africa, the Bearded Vulture population is now restricted to the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho and South Africa. But even in these isolated mountains the population continues to decline due to human encroachment on nesting sites and feeding territory.

These are some of the key findings contained in two new research projects published this month. The studies paint the most detailed picture to date of the challenges facing the Bearded Vulture, also known as the ‘bone breaker’ due to its habit of dropping bones from a height to feed off the marrow inside.

The first paper, published in the international ornithological journal The Condor [1] by scientists from EKZN Wildlife and the Percy FitzPatrick Institute [2] at the University of Cape Town, found that human-related factors were the common denominator in differences between abandoned and occupied Bearded Vulture territories. Lead author on the study Dr Sonja Krueger [3] said:  “We explored where the biggest difference lay between abandoned and occupied territories and found that human related factors such as human settlement density and powerlines were consistently different between these sites”.

Power line density and human settlement density were more than twice as high within abandoned vulture territories compared to occupied territories, the study found.

Results also suggested that food abundance may influence the bird’s overall distribution, and that supplementary vulture feeding schemes may be beneficial.

By contrast climate change was not found to be a major contributing factor in nest abandonment.

“Though not definitive, the results strongly suggest that we humans are our own worst enemies when it comes to conserving one of Africa’s iconic birds,” Krueger said.

The study recommended a new approach to vulture conservation management: “Based on the identified threats and mechanisms of abandonment, we recommend that conservation management focus on actions that will limit increased human densities and associated developments and influence the attitudes of people living within the territories of (vulture) breeding pairs,” the study concluded. “We recommend that mitigation of existing power lines, stricter scrutiny of development proposals, and proactive engagement with developers to influence the placement of structures is essential within the home range of a territorial pair.”

The study’s findings are backed up by a second paper published in open access journal PLOS ONE [4], which relied on data from satellite trackers attached to 18 Bearded Vultures. The trackers not only showed the exact location of the tagged birds every hour, they also provided critical information on movement patterns and mortality. Tagging enabled dead birds to be quickly recovered and their cause of death determined.

The study confirmed that, in addition to power lines, poisoning was considered the main threat to vultures across Africa and was contributing to the so-called “African Vulture Crisis”– a large decline of many vulture species across the continent.

The tracking data also provided new information about the birds’ ranging behaviour. It revealed that non-breeding birds traveled significantly further than breeding birds and were therefore more vulnerable to human impact. Some young non-breeding birds patroled an area the size of Denmark. The average adult bird had a home range of about 286 square kilometres, but the range was much smaller for breeding adults at just 95 square kilometres.

The tracking study, conducted between 2007 and 2014, required some innovative fieldwork. Researchers used meat lures to capture the birds at vulture feeding sites. Each captured bird was then fitted with a 70g solar-powered tracker designed to relay detailed information every hour between 5am and 8pm – including GPS coordinates and flight speed.

Tracking results also prompted the study authors to suggest several possible strategies to combat the threats posed by human infrastructure such as wind farms and power lines. These include: “ i) the mitigation of existing and proposed energy structures to reduce collision risks; ii) the establishment and improved management of supplementary feeding sites to reduce the risk of exposure to human persecution and poisoning incidents; and iii) focussed outreach programmes aimed at reducing poisoning incidents,” the study said.

Dr Arjun Amar [5] from UCT said detailed knowledge about Bearded Vulture home ranges could be hugely beneficial to vulture conservation: “We knew the species was likely to have large home ranges, but our results show just how far these birds travel – and therefore how exposed they are. The more they travel, the more they risk colliding with power lines or falling prey to poisoning.” He continued “what these two new studies suggest is that the impact of human activity on the survival of the Bearded Vulture is even more serious than we suspected. Plans for multiple wind farms in and around the highland regions of Lesotho will likely place even more pressure on this vulnerable species and may be the final death nail in this species coffin”.

Saturday 7th Feb. Outing to iPhiti

During the night we had a very long and heavy downpour – which did not bode well for the Saturday outing. It was overcast and there was a slight drizzle in the morning – only 7 brave/keen birders joined me at iPhiti. It was very wet underfoot and the mozzies were biting but it wasn’t raining and we had an enjoyable walk. Not as wet underfoot as we expected.

Our bird count was in the region of +43 – the bird of the day had to be the Olive Thrush.

Olive Thrush
Olive Thrush

Naturally we had to have a mystery bird – was it a raptor? Some said it was a dove!! It turned out to be a Jackal Buzzard (to be fair it was a long way off and partially hidden in a tall Norfolk pine).

There were a few Golden Weavers nests at the dam but no birds were seen.

The Red-hot pokers are starting to flower in the vlei and should be worth a visit on a sunny day  for sunbirds.

The pics are courtesy of Paul Bartho (under some very difficult lighting conditions he says!).


Elena Russell

Little Little Grebes

A Report by Paul Bartho

Over the past month a pair of Little Grebes have been nesting at Le Domaine, Hillcrest. After numerous attempts in trying to establish a nest they eventually found their perfect spot – a floating nest loosely attached to an overhanging reed.

Patiently nesting
Patiently nesting

They sat on this floating nest for about 3 weeks and we tried hard to see if they were on eggs.

Our first sighting of an egg.
Our first sighting of an egg.

Then viola, three tiny Little Grebes emerged.

The first three emerge
The first three emerge

At this point the nest broke loose and floated away. A fourth egg was seen in it and thought abandoned

Abandoned Nest and Egg - we thought
Abandoned Nest and Egg – we thought

but surprisingly after a full day unattended it too hatched.

At first it was hard to see the young as they hid under one parent or the other’s wings. Now they are no longer little Little Grebes as they get bigger and more visible every day.

We had a surprise in one of the photos that Frank Kihn took. He took a shot of one of the Little Little Grebes taking its first swim. When he got home he was hugely surprised with what he saw – see for yourself.

Surprise. And surprisingly only came to welcome the new arrival.
Surprise. And surprisingly only came to welcome the new arrival.

That was several days ago and still all four are seen regularly attempting to stay under cover of the wings!.

Photos courtesy of Frank Kihn and Paul Bartho.