BeKZN Day Tripping – Bluff Nature Reserve and uMlazi Canal

Sunday, 13 March 2022

An enthusiastic group of 16 birders assembled at the entrance to the Bluff Nature Reserve from 6.15am onwards, with some having to park precariously on the side of road, pending gate opening time. The official gate opening time is 7.30am according to the notice board at the entrance, but 7.00am is touted on various pages on the world wide web. I had made various enquiries on the days preceding our visit with various officials at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and my last point of contact having happily agreed to open early for us, duly arrived circa 6.30am. Grateful thanks to Mfondini (Contact No. 079 3313141) – long may your enthusiasm last beyond your first month of starting work at the reserve, and for relieving us of possibly an hour wait outside.

Forest birding can be tricky at the best of times, and with a large number assembled it was prudent to split up into two groups. Many thanks to Ismail Vahed for succumbing to a rubber arm twist and “volunteering” to lead a group. Ismail’s group headed off east towards the hide and forest walk, whilst those with me took the fence line route south alongside the reed fringed dam.  The grassy fringes of the path, thankfully mown since the previous outing in February, provided us with a few seed-eaters (Bronze Mannikin, Yellow-fronted Canary, Southern Red Bishop), and one wader (African Jacana), whilst overhead we had distance views of African Palm Swift, White-rumped Swift, Barn Swallow – the latter resplendent in their new shiny blue flight feathers and tail streamers ready for their long voyage back to Europe following their austral summer with us. Also putting in an appearance was a Cardinal Woodpecker, Cape White-eye, Black-collared Barbet, Black-bellied Starling, Amethyst and Olive Sunbird, along with distant views of a Black Sparrowhawk along the west side ridge. Not to be outdone, the ventriloquists from within the forest canopy serenaded us with their calls and remained out of sight, among the usual culprits being the Tambourine Dove, Terrestrial Brownbul, and Sombre Greenbul.

Black-collared Barbet (Photo credit – Andre van der Westhuizen)
Black Sparrowhawk (Photo credit – Andre van der Westhuizen)

Once in the forest proper, our entrance was met with an eerie silence, and the unusual quietness prevailed for a while. We prospered on ever hopeful of a sighting. The first entrance to the “Bird song” trail was blocked off so we proceeded to the next entrance. Here we were rewarded with ‘screeching’ views of a Yellow-bellied Greenbul, whilst above us a Black-backed Puffback, Collared Sunbird and a Common Square-tailed Drongo flitted about in the upper canopy. Once back on the main trail along the east side we were rewarded with great views of an African Paradise-flycatcher, a small number of White-eared Barbets, all the while listening to Green-backed Camaroptera, Purple-crested Turaco, Bar-throated Apalis and Southern Boubou calling from the depths of the forest. 

White-eared Barbet (Photo credit – Andre van der Westhuizen)
Collared Sunbird (Photo credit – Andre van der Westhuizen)

In due course, the two groups crossed paths and eagerly swapped stories of their respective sightings. Virginia excitedly told us to keep an eye out 250m back or so to look out for two ‘strelitzia’ stumps protruding from the forest canopy, one of which had a nesting hole. Here, she and the rest of Ismail’s group had witnessed a wonderful interaction between a pair of White-eared Barbets who were presumably the owners of the nest hole, with a Cardinal Woodpecker also showing an animated interest in their hole. Alas, we located the spot but all activity had since ended, with the Cardinal Woodpecker presumably having been given its marching orders and told to go and make its own nest hole, or find an unoccupied site.

Cardinal Woodpecker (Photo credit – Mark Liptrot)

Our groups turn at the hide yielded views of a solitary Southern Red Bishop, and vocalisations emitted from Common Moorhen and Little Rush Warbler emanating from the reed beds. Unfortunately, views down the “open” channel were thwarted by the overgrown vegetation, and neither were we lucky enough to see the Malachite Kingfisher that had put in an appearance earlier for Ismail’s entourage.

Following a break for refreshments, (and a chin-wag of course!!) at the picnic site, some members opted to leave us for other family commitments. The rest of the group piled back into our cars, paid our conservation levies to the gate officials, and then proceeded to travel in convoy past the Engen refinery and southwards on to the canal. We made our way to the end point of the concrete lined canal of the Umlazi River where it exits into the sea and commenced with our canal side birding from here. Overhead we had Rock Martins, Barn Swallows, and Lesser Striped Swallows flying around, whilst a scan over the beach and beyond the surf zone unfortunately yielded no birds. The storm water channel to the side of the canal access road / parking area however gave us delightful close-up views of Brown-throated Martins flitting around and clinging to the sides of the small drainage holes along the sides of the concrete walls. The river canal itself afforded us a few bird sightings at this point, including African Pied Wagtail, Blacksmith Lapwing, Little Egret, and Cape Wagtail.

At this point it should be noted that birding along the uMlazi canal has unfortunately had some issues with regards safety in the past, so one always has to be observant of what is going on around you. As the group leader I always need to be assured that everyone is accounted for. At one point, one person was ‘missing’ and on enquiring with Cecily as to Mark’s whereabouts she said “no need to worry about him, he must be chasing butterflies somewhere!” And indeed, he was. Numerous butterflies were encountered during the course of the morning, and particularly the African Blue Pansy, of which there were plentiful along the grass fringes of the canal. Thanks to Mark Liptrot for all the lovely butterfly photographs. 

I digress – back to the birds shall we!! Travancore road runs adjacent to the Umlazi canal for approximately 2kms so we drove and parked at a few places along the route, ever mindful of staying close to our cars. Local security even came to keep an eye on us at two of the stopping points, and seemed ever so grateful to see us go. The water level within the canal was quite high considering the recent rains, and much of the vegetation was cleared during winter last year. This meant the number of waders was significantly fewer than expected with less than a handful of Black-winged Stilts about. The only other waders we encountered, aside from those already mentioned above were Wood Sandpiper, Three-banded Plover, African Sacred Ibis, Common Greenshank and several Water Thick-knee – sadly no Snipes. Scanning upstream almost as far as the eye could see I managed to pick out three Grey Crowned Cranes standing in the canal. On informing the group, and then looking back to where they were …… incredulously they had gone! Fortunately – not for long as they had opted to fly down stream along the south bank and floated effortlessly past us showing off their impressive headgear and beautiful finery. Magical. Some of the other water birds were saw within the canal were Red-billed Teal, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, and Egyptian Goose. On the raptor front, a Lanner Falcon and a juvenile African Harrier Hawk graced us with their presence. 

Our last port of call before calling time on the outing was a small wetland a short distance before the M4 highway. And as if on cue, a plethora of birds were waiting for us – a number of which we’d no yet encountered. These included a Purple Heron, several Blue-billed Teal, an African Spoonbill, a trio of Black-headed HeronYellow-billed Duck, Spur-winged Goose, Common Moorhen, three Intermediate Egrets (a treat to have close-up views to pick out a few key ID features in respect of upper-leg colour, feet colour, and gape extension to enable separating them from Little Egret and Great Egret), Common Waxbill and Pin-tailed Whydah. And with that we called it quits around 11h30. The final tally for the day was 76 species recorded. 

Many thanks to our new club members Andre van der Westhuizen, Priscilla Govender, and Poobalan Naidoo for sharing their photographs for inclusion and adding colour to what would have been a drab report!

Yours in birding,

Report by the walk leader, Dave Rimmer

Bird Species list – Bluff Nature Reserve and Umlazi Canal outing.

Species primary nameSpecies tertiary name
African GoshawkAccipiter tachiro
African Harrier-HawkPolyboroides typus
African JacanaActophilornis africanus
African Olive PigeonColumba arquatrix
African Palm SwiftCypsiurus parvus
African Paradise FlycatcherTerpsiphone viridis
African Pied WagtailMotacilla aguimp
African SpoonbillPlatalea alba
Amethyst SunbirdChalcomitra amethystina
Barn SwallowHirundo rustica
Bar-throated ApalisApalis thoracica
Black SparrowhawkAccipiter melanoleucus
Black-backed PuffbackDryoscopus cubla
Black-bellied StarlingNotopholia corrusca
Black-collared BarbetLybius torquatus
Black-headed HeronArdea melanocephala
Blacksmith LapwingVanellus armatus
Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus
Blue-billed TealAnas hottentota
Bronze MannikinLonchura cucullata
Brown-throated MartinRiparia paludicola
Cape WagtailMotacilla capensis
Cape White-eyeZosterops virens
Cardinal WoodpeckerDendropicos fuscescens
Collared SunbirdHedydipna collaris
Common GreenshankTringa nebularia
Common MoorhenGallinula chloropus
Common MynaAcridotheres tristis
Common Square-tailed DrongoDicrurus ludwigii
Common WaxbillEstrilda astrild
Egyptian GooseAlopochen aegyptiaca
Goliath HeronArdea goliath
Green-backed CamaropteraCamaroptera brachyura
Grey Crowned CraneBalearica regulorum
Grey HeronArdea cinerea
Hadada IbisBostrychia hagedash
HamerkopScopus umbretta
House SparrowPasser domesticus
Intermediate EgretArdea intermedia
Lanner FalconFalco biarmicus
Lesser Striped SwallowCecropis abyssinica
Little Bee-eaterMerops pusillus
Little EgretEgretta garzetta
Little Rush WarblerBradypterus baboecala
Malachite KingfisherCorythornis cristatus
Natal SpurfowlPternistis natalensis
Olive SunbirdCyanomitra olivacea
Pin-tailed WhydahVidua macroura
Purple HeronArdea purpurea
Purple-banded SunbirdCinnyris bifasciatus
Purple-crested TuracoTauraco porphyreolophus
Red-billed TealAnas erythrorhyncha
Red-capped Robin-ChatCossypha natalensis
Red-eyed DoveStreptopelia semitorquata
Reed CormorantMicrocarbo africanus
Rock DoveColumba livia
Rock MartinPtyonoprogne fuligula
Sombre GreenbulAndropadus importunus
Southern Black TitMelaniparus niger
Southern BoubouLaniarius ferrugineus
Southern Red BishopEuplectes orix
Speckled PigeonColumba guinea
Spur-winged GoosePlectropterus gambensis
Tambourine DoveTurtur tympanistria
Tawny-flanked PriniaPrinia subflava
Terrestrial BrownbulPhyllastrephus terrestris
Three-banded PloverCharadrius tricollaris
Water Thick-kneeBurhinus vermiculatus
White-breasted CormorantPhalacrocorax lucidus
White-eared BarbetStactolaema leucotis
White-rumped SwiftApus caffer
Wood SandpiperTringa glareola
Yellow-bellied GreenbulChlorocichla flaviventris
Yellow-billed DuckAnas undulata
Yellow-billed KiteMilvus aegyptius
Yellow-rumped TinkerbirdPogoniulus bilineatus

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