4M Birding Weekend trip report.

BLPN Members All!

Manyoni Private Game Reserve is one of the largest (at 23 000ha) privately-owned reserves in Kwazulu-Natal, located on the west side of the N2 in the heart of Zululand, an area that is world renowned for its spectacular game viewing, and fast becoming a top birding destination for sought after KZN specials. A visit to Manyoni is thus the primary purpose of the Kingdom Birding Tours I have undertaken lately, the most recent being over the weekend 27-29 November 2020. This trip was dubbed the 4M Birding weekend which incorporated visits to uMkhuze Game Reserve, Muzi pan, and Mpempe pan. Joining me on this trip were Nicolette and Ticky Forbes, EJ Bartlett and Barbara Cloete, Tyron Dall, Nols Turner, Zach Simpson, Sithembiso Majoka, and Ronnie Herr – all members of BLPN

The majestic Ubombo Mountains form a breath-taking backdrop, coupled with the Msunduzi River which winds its way through the southern portion with its giant Sycamore Figs and Fever Trees, the Manyoni Reserve is one of the most picturesque in the area.

Day 1 – Friday 27 November 2020

The ten of us joined forces in three separate vehicles (to share travel costs and reduce carbon footprint), each making their own way up to Zululand via different birding destinations. Nicky and Ticky mixed ecological research work commitments and travelled through Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve (HiP) to reach Manyoni; EJ, Barbara, Sithembiso and Tyron also routed through HiP after an early 6am meeting with Zach, Nols, Ronnie and I at Umlalazi Nature Reserve in Mtunzini. It was here the eight of us had the most amazing Black Coucal sighting – captured brilliantly in flight by Ronnie, and a few of us getting fleeting views of Red-headed Quelea, and an African Finfoot. My vehicle thereafter took the back roads through Teza (saw our first of many Broad-billed Rollers here), and the Umfolozi Monzi conservancy and sugarcane farms (our first Collared Pratincole for the trip), through to the Lake St Lucia section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and more specifically to Nsombiza pan on the Eastern shores. After much searching our efforts were eventually rewarded when a Rufous-bellied Heron decided to move to a different part of the pan. We also stopped at the bridge going across the Lake St Lucia estuary to marvel at the displaying Southern Brown-throated Weavers, along with Lesser Masked Weaver, Thick-billed Weaver, and an abundance of Eastern Golden Weaver.

Our rendezvous point and accommodation for the weekend was the Bayala Nyala Breeders Lodge, just a few kilometres away from the Manyoni Reserve, on the east side of the N2. Just before the entrance gate, we spotted a small Falcon flying low, and fortunately landed briefly giving us a bit of time for a photo. After some debate about the birds ID, we soon agreed with my initial call of an Amur Falcon – the only one we would get to see all weekend! The lodge comfortably accommodates 16 guests and includes all self-catering commodities to ensure a welcoming stay whether on safari or as in our case “birding it stukkend”. Once we’d all greeted, checked in, made ourselves comfortable, and done some quiet birding in the tranquil surrounds of the lodge looking primarily for Bennett’s Woodpecker (not seen until late on Saturday evening by some), we made our way to the Baobab Inn for what was meant to be an early supper. It was here that I got to see my first KZN lifer for the weekend when a Grey Go-away-bird flew passed the dining area. Zach and I dashed off to get pics whilst the others perused the menu. Although the service was slow (again!), the food was good. 

We eventually got away from the Inn at 7.30pm and made our way to Manyoni’s East gate to meet up with Ivan van Rooyen (Luleka Safaris) for our much eagerly awaited night drive. With five of us armed with spot lights there was no shortage of light for scanning all the trees and bushes for any hint of eyes or movement. For the next two hours we snaked our way along various roads and tracks, through the grasslands, and occasionally thick bush in search of owls, occasionally flushing Common Buttonquails. All the while we could hear the delightful night sounds of serenading owls, but getting a visual was the biggest challenge. Ivor though was not to be deterred and full credit to him for his persistent efforts. The hooting owls gave us hope, and each in turn was investigated. One flew off, whilst others decided to not play ‘Marco Polo’ with us in the dark the closer we approached their position. Patience was duly rewarded and we all got to see both the African Scops Owl (a lifer at last and my first for 2020 – more in the milestones section below) and Southern White-faced Owl. Other notable sightings on the night drive included a Flap-necked ChameleonWhite-tailed Mongoose, and a Red-banded Rubber Frog. Having been up since 3am, tired of mind and heavy eyed, it was really good to eventually climb into our comfy beds around 11.30pm – albeit for just a few short hours as day 2 was to have us all gathered again for the short drive back to Manyoni at 4.30am.

The highlights of our night drive were seeing an African Scops Owl and a Southern White-faced Owl

Day 2 – Saturday 28 November 2020

As our trip coincided with the BLSA National Birding Big Day (BBD), we entered a team under the Community category. After some careful thought for a team name inspired by Nols, we settled on “BLPN MankhuzimpeKings”, incorporating snippets of the club name, our 4 birding destinations of the weekend, and the tour organiser. And so, from 4.30am it was all eyes and ears to see and hear as many birds as possible, and reach majority consensus. We met up with Ivor at 5am, and commenced with our day drive in an open OSV. The Manyoni reserve is largely acacia bushveld but with a sufficient mix of varied and diverse habitat changes, and some spectacular scenery which offers up a smorgasbord of different birds to be seen (or sometimes frustratingly only just heard!). 

We started off in some of the short grassland sections, occasionally flushing Common Buttonquail – ever hopeful one would at least be a Black-rumped Buttonquail or Harlequin Quail. Then it was into the Acacia thickets which gave us our best, but not great Gorgeous Bushshrike sighting. A couple of Pink-throated Twinspots also put in a brief appearance, and if anyone in the group was able to photograph one in the poor overcast light, they did well. After three hours, and our BBD count reaching 89 species, it was time to change from an open-topped vehicle to one with a roof to protect us from the sun and possibly rain. Fortunately, apart from a few droplets, it was a dry drive. By this stage of the morning, we had seen and heard a great variety of birds – the noteworthy and those that gave us the most pleasure being Woodland’s KingfisherRudd’s ApalisJameson’s FirefinchJacobin CuckooLesser Grey ShrikeGrey Penduline-tit, and Flappet Lark.

During the vehicle changeover, some wandered off to the reservoir to look for frogs finding a mating pair of Banded Rubber Frogs, and a Foam-nest Frog adding copious amounts of froth to its nest, whilst others went off to photograph a Woodlands Kingfisher, as well as a Martial Eagle overhead. Once all aboard the truck again, we traversed back through the grasslands looking for Quail and Buttonquail. This time however it was a small flock of Quailfinch that were flushed and took off into the distance – a few decided the road was a good landing spot affording us great views and photo opportunities. And on we ventured, enthralled with the ever-changing vistas as we moved into varied habitats. The rocky cliffs stood proud as we dropped into the sandy river bed of the Msunduzi river. A scan of the cliff face revealed to a few on board a Woolly-necked Stork on a nest. But getting everyone to see it proved a challenge, the description of landmark features, tree shapes, rock colours etc. being repeated – and still some needed further assistance. A Bateleur soon ended the charade as it soared down the valley. Its presence got the two Storks hurriedly airborne and were promptly in hot pursuit of the airspace intruder, mindful of protecting their nest and perhaps even offspring on the nest. 

Photo 21. Quailfinch (Tyron Dall)

Great coffee and home-made muffins was made all the more pleasant accompanied by the sounds of calling Narina TrogonStriped PipitBlack CuckooGreen-backed CamaropteraYellow-rumped Tinkerbird. A couple of male Mocking Cliff Chats put on a brief display to woo a female partner close by, and a Brown Snake-eagle glided into view. Climbing later out of the valley floor, we encountered a small group of Long-tailed Paradise Whydah’s, whereafter the overhead power lines came into view. This piqued my interest as it was along these same lines on the previous trip that we’d tried to find Red-headed Weavers and their nest – one of my personal drawcards for wanting to visit from the outset. We pulled up adjacent to the nest site, one of which was supposedly active, and remnants of other nests from earlier building attempts that had got blown down the lines by strong winds! No birds to be seen, so we stuck around for a bit. Perhaps it was a ten-minute wait, or maybe even longer when a female was noticed on the pole next to the nest. She was soon joined by her partner, sporting his dazzling red headgear. The sighting was brief and the photos poor from shooting into the light. Time to climb up the slope a bit and at least get a better angle to shoot from when they return. Lo and behold, return he does – not to the nest or overhead poles, but to the tree right above me. What a stunning sighting it was – chuffed now to have added this one to my KZN list!!

Most morning game drives provided by the various lodges dotted around Manyoni would have ended by around mid-morning. These trips though are customised drives and we still had most of the day to look forward to. So, on we drove, continuously adding new birds to our growing BBD list, and lifers for most on board – and generally just having a great time focussed on bird watching whilst also enjoying the thrill of seeing animals, dragonflies, butterflies, and a variety of plant species. Most of all, just enjoying the company of friends and like-minded bird nuts. Birds were plentiful and most sightings were good, including two Magpie Shrikes, a pair of Bushveld Pipits scurrying in the short grass, Broad-billed, and Lilac-breasted Roller, a delightful Striped Kingfisher just a few meters away from the truck, Green Wood-hoopoes chuckling away in the distance, and Red-breasted Swallows gracefully going about their business. 

Manyoni is an ideal location for bio-mapping, offering a smorgasbord of birds, bees, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, plants, odonata, and so much more –  as illustrated in the following portfolio of photos.

Photo 29. Bushveld Pipit (Ronnie Herr)

Photo 34. Ground flower (Zach Simpson)

Some nine hours later, our glorious day drive had to come to an end. We bid Ivor our thanks and said good byes, then headed back slowly through the short stretch of reserve before the gate. We stopped to put a writhing Western Natal Green Snake out of its misery that had been run over by a vehicle earlier, whilst up ahead of us EJ and his crew got to see a Lion. They messaged us to join them but on arrival at the spot, all we got to see were a few alert Impala and some frenzied Baboons scurrying off in the opposite direction. We tried a side road adjacent to the fence for a glimpse of the Lion to no avail – but our luck was to flush a Lesser Spotted Eagle, and watch an African Harrier-hawk raiding a Southern Masked Weaver nest. A brief stop outside the reserve and closer to the lodge added Arrow-marked Babbler to our list. 

Once back the lodge, a short casual walk ensued for some, whilst a few remained to rest and recuperate. Despite being a bit jaded there was after all still a BBD list to grow, and to find a Bennett’s Woodpeckerwhich is resident on the property. It duly obliged and gave us a fabulous display and call, albeit a little distant. What a cracking final bird to end the day off with. Our team total for BBD was 158 species and we finished at position 100 overall for the full country entrants (± 350 registered teams) and at position 2 in KZN for the Community challenge.  This is really quite amazing considering we were handicapped by being restricted to basically one area and not using the area of a full 50km radius which most others would have been doing.

The day ended with an open-pit communal braai and fresh salads, lots of banter, a few drinks, and lively discussion about the future of BLPN and various other club related topics. With another long day ahead of us tomorrow, all had retired to their rooms by 10pm.

Day 3 – Sunday 29 November 2020

The plan for day three was to tackle the remaining 3 M’s of the trip commencing with a 4.30am departure for uMkhuze Game Reserve. A half hour trip extended into one hour as we stopped occasionally for road-side sightings, ever hopeful of at least getting an Eastern Nicator sighting or perhaps a Levaillant’s Cuckoo. The latter were always Jacobin’s, and the Nicator elusive. Gate entry was a breeze, Covid-19 protocols complied with and off we set for KwaMalibala Hide. By now the wind had started to pick up and would remain a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the day. A trickle of visitors to the water hole kept up our interest with Green-winged PytiliaRed-faced MousebirdWhite-browed Scrub RobinBlue-cheeked Bee-eaterAcacia Pied Barbet, and a variety of other bush birds. A short walk around the main lodge and reception area didn’t provide much birding value, with the only entertainment being the assistance the group provided to a bird club couple who needed assistance with a tyre change, with the banter from 10 or more people watching on as two of us got the job done. 

Our vehicle procession then made its way slowly to the kuMasinga hide, en route finding a Greater Honeyguide. With the wind relentlessly whistling through the viewing slots we watched and photographed a flock of Red-billed Firefinch come down to drink, followed shortly by Blue WaxbillCommon WaxbillDusky IndigobirdRed-billed Quelea bathing, a juvenile Namaqua DoveYellow-throated Petronia (Bush Sparrow), an African Pygmy Kingfisher darting backwards and forwards over the water for a drink, as well as the ever-present Ring-necked (Cape Turtle) DovesRed-billed Oxpeckers and Marsh Terrapins.

Next stops were the two hides on Nsumo pan, with all the usual water birds on view being on the far side – and not that many of each of the various species. Perhaps it was the wind! Best of the bunch were a few African Openbills being lifers for some. Exiting the reserve around midday at the Ophansi gate on the east side, we then made our way to Muzi Pan. It didn’t take long here for excitement levels to peak when an Allen’s Gallinule was sighted, albeit briefly before flying off behind some reeds. Then another two adult birds were seen some distance away, and everyone scrambled out the cars jostling to get closer to the water’s edge for photographs. High-5’s all round to see these special birds and to celebrate significant milestones for both Zach and Ronnie. An opportune time to also have a lunch stop here at the water’s edge.

Half an hour’s drive later heading south on the R22 then found us at our last of the 4M destinations – Mpempe pan. Somewhat dry, and the pan itself rapidly receding since my previous visit, we proceeded to the pans edge on the east side. EJ’s sharp eyes soon had us all asking for directions to see where he had seen a Western Yellow Wagtail, and with few notable landmarks to guide us with pointers, it was time to unload the spotting scope. Before long, one was located and each took their turn to observe. Overhead, a Grey-rumped Swallow came in for a closer look to see what these crazy humans were doing – a great sighting for Sithembiso’s 400th bird. Whoop whoop, another lifer!! A handful of us strolled down to the pans edge for closer inspection of the waders as scope views through the heat haze and buffeting wind was a mission. There we got good views of Common Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Kittlitz’s Plover, a Sand Martin swooping low over the water, RuffLittle Stint, and a small flock of Lemon-breasted Canaries – but alas nothing special. As Murphy’s law would have it, rare bird alerts coming in a few days later told of Caspian Plovers, a Pacific Golden Plover, as well as a Black-tailed Godwit at nearby Nibela peninsular. FFFt!!! After a long and exhilarating weekend of non-stop birding, we called it quits shortly after 3pm, said our good-byes and headed homewards back to Durban. 

As a combined group on the 4M leg of the trip (Sat and Sun) we recorded a total 230 species (both seen and heard). For the group travelling with me though which included the Friday leg to Mtunzini and St Lucia, I had logged on the Birdlasser app a haul of 250 birds. 

Milestones.

It certainly was a weekend full of lifers and milestones. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the African Scops Owl not only broke my 2020 lifer drought and closed out the Owl sightings book for me, but was also my 700th species photographed in Southern Africa. Muzi Pan will always hold a special memory for Zach and Ronnie as the Allen’s Gallinule sighting here was their 500th and 400th lifer for the sub-region (Southern Africa) respectively. An occasion worthy of a glass of wine, which Ronnie duly produced from his cool-box. Not to be outdone, when we moved on to Mpempe pan, a close-up aerial view of a curious Grey-rumped Swallow within less than 10 meters from us notched up Sithembiso’s 400th Southern Africa lifer. Again, much air-punching and high-5’s as we celebrated another noteworthy milestone.

Great Southern Africa listing milestone celebration pics of Zach (500), Ronnie (400), and Sithembiso (400).

One of the personal joys of leading and guiding bird trips is the camaraderie that goes with sharing milestones, which this trip produced in large doses. All told, the combined group tally for lifers gained on the weekend was 112, broken down as follows:

Yours in birding,

Dave Rimmer (Kingdom Birding)

If you would like to join me on future weekend excursions to Manyoni and/or other parts of KwaZulu-Natal, feel free to drop me a line on either daverimmer@mweb.co.za, or 0824537255, or you can follow me at https://www.facebook.com/KingdomBirding/ for more information.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jenny says:

    All told, the combined group tally for lifers gained on the weekend was 112, broken down as follows:

    I couldn’t find this list – but otherwise a great trip report!

  2. Dave Rimmer says:

    An absolute pleasure Anne.

  3. Anne Robinson says:

    Exciting few days birding, thanks for all the photos & great trip report, thanks Dave.

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