Northern Zululand – A Summer Odyssey.

Northern Zululand – A Summer Odyssey.

Trip Report by Paul & Sally Bartho

29 Dec 2013 to 11 Jan 2014

Sally and I decided to spend the New Year camping away from home. Northern Zululand was our destination. Our program:

  • 3 nights in Bonamanzi
  • 4 nights in Mkuze
  • 4 nights  in Ndumo
  • 3 nights  in St. Lucia

Bonamanzi.

At Bonamanzi we stayed in Campsite 5 and joined friends who were already there. Campsite 5 is huge and can accommodate 4 camp groups easily – however there is only one toilet/shower and one wash-up area. As pensioners it cost us R90 pppn.

In Bonamanzi as you may know you are able to walk anywhere on the property except in their Game viewing area. This is great for birding. However elephants do use the area as well. One morning when driving to the office we found a huge branch across the road and elephant tracks confirming who was the culprit for this roadblock. Beware.

The first night we had a lot of rain. So the next morning we (our friends and ourselves) decided to visit Hluhluwe rather than bird in the rain around the campsite. It continued raining.

Taking the shortcut to the freeway we went through numerous muddy pools past the Hakuna Mutata accommodation until we got to the bridge. The approach to the bridge was up a short steep bank which looked muddy and badly cambered – so down I went into Low range 4×4 and up we went – well actually did not make it. About a third of the way up the Fortuner slowly drifted off the road onto the trees on the left. Fortunately I was able to reverse out of trouble without damaging the car. Now the long way round to Hluhluwe.

The rain persisted. However we decided to look for the Finfoots (Finfeet?) which our friends had seen the previous day. Taking the immediate right turn as you enter the park we drove round to where they had seen them basking next to the river crossing – no luck! About the only excitement we had were 7 White Rhino crossing the road in front of us. They were the first aminals we saw since entering! Aminals were scarce and the birding was not much better. Eventually we decided to return to Bonamanzi for lunch. Altogether we had seen 35 species of birds in the 3 hours we were in Hluhluwe.

The following day we walked around the camp area and went on a drive to explore other parts of Bonamanzi. In one section we had heard an African Broadbill on a couple of occasions (Pathway E to F). Later we went back with our friends and another couple who had arrived to see if we would have any better luck.

Sally mentioned to Irene that you needed to look on cross branches about head height in the bush. We had not gone more than 20 metres when Irene spotted a Broadbill – unbelievable. I managed to get a few poor shots which you can see in the gallery below. On the way back I popped into the bush to see if I could get a few better shots – no luck finding the Broadbill but I did surprise a Narina Trogon – see pics in Gallery.

After that we visited the office area and drove back in the dark spotting a Shikra on the road munching on its prey – unconcerned with the car’s headlights on him. Poor pictures in the gallery.

Bonamanzi yielded 89 species plus one UI (Unidentified) Raptor – have a go there is a pic in the gallery. Most of the Cuckoos were heard as well as the Green Malkoa. A Black Cuckooshrike in magnificent breeding plumage gave a great display round the campsite – yellow gape and epaulets very strident. A Red-fronted Tinkerbird and a Bearded Scrub-Robin also gave us great displays in the campsite.

Mkuze.

Surprisingly the tent was dry as we packed to leave Bonamanzi. We headed for the new gate to enter Mkuze. On the way we passed Muzi Pan. The water level was so high that it was a raging torrent beneath both bridges along the Muzi Pan dam wall. Not surprisingly there were few bird species about – we saw only 9 in the 10 minutes we stopped there. The Knob-billed Duck being the most interesting.

Mkuze Campsite. Still has water problems – the boreholes run dry regularly and the water is unfiltered so not only is it inadvisable to drink but the silt that comes with it is damaging all their taps – water leaks all the time.

Trying to book a campsite at Mkuze is often difficult because of this. Also they try to restrict the number of bookings to 10 campsites as that is all their one staff member can handle. They have over 30 potential sites. When we arrived on 31st December one man was still trying to cut the knee high grass in 50% of the sites!

On top of this the Ezemvelo Parks Board have fixed the campsite rate at R230 for 3 people – an increase from R180 last year (almost 30%) with no improvement in facilities and no way to get a rate for 2 people. Like Sodwana who charge for 4 people irrespectively, this is a total rip off.

During the 3 full days in Mkuze we never managed to find the newly released Lions perhaps because they are still happy to return to their boma where they were kept originally and also because all the rain the grass was high everywhere.

Some of our more interesting bird sightings include:

  • Black bellied Bustard
  • Lemon-breasted Canaries
  • Cuckoos vociferously calling – Black, African Emerald, Diedrik’s, Klass’s, Jacobin, Levaillant’s and Red-chested. A pair of the latter  chasing each other round the main office.
  • Namaqua Doves
  • Lesser Spotted Eagle.
  • Burn-necked Eremomelas
  • Grey Go-away-bird
  • a juvenile Greater Honeyguide around our camp being fed by Black-bellied Starlings.
  • Woodland Kingfishers
  • Common Quail obligingly walking ahead of us on the road to KwaMalibali Hide
  • Red-backed Shrikes – everywhere
  • Neergaard’s Sunbird – always a pleasure
  • Grey Penduline-Tits in the trees above our campsite
  • Red-throated Wrynecks

At the end of our visit we had identified 140 bird species – the pans were very full discouraging many water birds otherwise we would have expected many more.

Ndumo.

Ndumo is always a special place to visit and the local guides have a reputation of excellence. It is always a pleasure to take advantage of the early morning walks which at R110 pp is really good value.

Again we had 3 full days in the Reserve. On one of these days we spent the morning in Tembe Elephant Park.

Tembe was full of elephants – fortunately in the open swamp area so we could easily see them and not be chased by them as happened twice the last time we visited.

Although it felt like birding was quiet, we managed to identify 66 species in the 4 hours we were there. We were rewarded with sightings of an African Cuckoo-Hawk juvenile and an African Harrier-Hawk – the only place where  we saw each of them. The other special sighting was of a pair of Woodward’s Batis. No Plain-backed Sunbird.

The rest of our time spent in Ndumo.  We went on a morning drive and 2 early morning walks and of course explored the Reserve on our own. In all we identified 142 species including an Eurasian Hobby.

On the last morning I went on the Southern Pongola walk. There were 3 of us and our guide, Sontu. His skills are superb. On the walk we heard the Narina Trogon and an African Golden Oriole – however the highlight was spotting a Black Coucal in the wetland area.

St Lucia

Sugarloaf Campsite in St Lucia was our base for 3 nights. It is a huge camp with 100 sites ideally located right by the sea. It was only about 20% full and the fishermen were well behaved. Watch it on weekends as they can be quite raucous. The three nights was R432 for both of us – very reasonable.

We birded in 3 areas: Eastern and Western Shores and around the campsite.

Western Shores is the newly opened area of the iSimangaliso WetlandPark. It has been very well developed. The habitat is predominantly flat open grassland with outcrops of woodland and forest. There is currently a lot of freestanding water with many wetland areas. There is one hide and a boardwalk to a lookout point overlooking LakeSt Lucia. The picnic site is large, shady and well situated. We spent almost 6 hours there covering the whole road network.

As we approached the hide a herd of elephants – about 15 – saw us and calmly walked away allowing us access. Then at the hide, just as we were about to leave, Sally saw a raptor flying over the pan in front of the hide. Small head and quite barred underside. We got excited. Sally immediately pronounced what she thought it was. The bird then landed in one of the large broad-leafed trees opposite us about 100 metres away. Out came the scope and luckily the bird was not secretly hidden within. On further inspection we had a clear sighting of its head and tail and it was clear that Sally was correct. A lifer for me – a European Honey-Buzzard.

I include some pictures of the habitat and a few of the birds we were lucky enough to photograph. In all we saw 72 species in the 5.5 hours we were there.

Eastern Shores. Similar in habitat to the WesternShores but more hilly with coastal forest and the sea and shore. There are 2 bird hides and several lookout points and picnic sites as well as a number of side loops off the main road to CapeVidal. In the past we have seen both White and Black Rhino and Leopards (one right next to the car park for the large new Mafazana hide).

On the Vlei Loop we saw our first raptor – a Southern-banded Snake-Eagle. It was sitting prominently in a bare tree with the sun directly behind it. We had to work hard to get the right angle to see it clearly enough to identify it.

At the Mafazana hide Sally spotted 2 Saddle-billed Storks on top of a distant tree. We wondered if they were starting to breed early!

The other sighting worth mentioning was surprisingly that of a Lilac-breasted Roller. It was the first and only sighting of one on our whole 2 week trip – most unusual.

In all we identified 73 species in the 6 hours we were there.

St. Lucia, Sugarloaf Camp and the immediate shore.

On setting up camp the monkeys arrived. There were also a couple of Grey Duiker close by. It was hilarious to watch them interact. One approached the other and the next minute they were all chasing each other around the site. Other aminals seen in the camp included Bushbuck, Red Duiker and interestingly Reedbuck – often paying little attention to us Humans.

Right next to the camp is the boardwalk to the sea and the mouth of LakeSt Lucia. Hippos and Crocs were very evident – just waiting for one of the fishermen to get too close.

On the first afternoon after setting up our camp we headed for a walk on the beach. We were surprised by a Palmnut Vulture which flew over our heads  and landed on the inland side of the beach at the mouth of LakeSt. Lucia. We approached slowly watching it nibbling on the base of some of the spindly grass protruding from the muddy edges of the lake – managing to get with 15 metres of it. An unexpected waterbird!

Campsite birding was very good. One R-C R-C (Natal Robin or as Sally says Cossypha Natalensis) joined us for a sundowner doing good imitations of an African Emerald Cuckoo. An African Goshawk landed in the tall pine trees above us to sing his good-bye as we prepared to leave. But probably the highlight was a wonderful view of a male Green Twinspot in vivid plumage.

In all we recorded 57 species in and around the campsite including the walk along the waterfront.

Sadly we returned home to a chilly welcome in a not so sunny Hillcrest.

In total we identified 235 species on our two week odyssey.

If anyone would like a copy of our excel spreadsheet showing which birds we identified in each of the 9 different reserves we visited, then click here to contact me.

Hope you enjoyed the read.

Paul & Sally Bartho

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Ilala Palm Park – A Jewel in Zululand

Ilala Palm Park – A Jewel in Zululand

Outing April 25th to May 2nd 2013

Led by Jane Morris and Mike Roseblade

Attending: Jane Morris and Mike Roseblade, Jenny and Cecil Fenwick, Sally and Paul Bartho, Jenny and Dave Rix, Jackie and Roland Suhr, Rob Jamieson, Lynette Bingham, Sabrina Porritt, Keith Booysens and Kathy Cleggett.

Ilala Palm Park is a 35 hectare site  situated about 6 kms west of Mbazwana on the road to Jozini from the centre of town. It has six campsites – each with their own ablutions and scullery with hot water and power point.  The grassy campsites vary in size and most have sufficient shade. And there is a swimming pool.

The owners are a delight.  We were welcomed with an information pack on each area we were intending to visit and a bird list, they constantly checked that all was well and that we were comfortable and provided all night security – what more could anyone want!!

The habitat consists of sand forest, Ilala Palm savannah and grassland areas.

Contact Details:

Jorrie:            083 960 1192
Adri:               082 855 5643
Email:            ilalapalmpark@live.com.

The beauty of the Park is plentiful. The campsite alone is a birders’ paradise with bird baths dotted about which attract a huge variety of bushveld birds.  Pink-throated Twinspots are regularly seen. Yellow White-eyes, Mannikins, Lesser Honeyguide, Flycatchers, Bulbuls, Greenbuls, Robin-Chats, Scrub-Robins, Starlings, Sunbirds, Doves are all seen around the bird baths. Many other special species were seen in and around the camp including Woodward’s Batis, Rudd’s and Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green Malkoha, all the Bush-Shrikes, Spotted Eagle-Owls, Fiscal and other Flycatchers, Cuckoos. The occasional raptor was seen overhead and the Fiery-necked Nightjars were heard at night along with the Owls.

Ilala Palm is ideally situated for access to: Muzi Pan, Mkuze, Hluhluwe, Ndumo and Tembe Game Reserves also Lake Sibaya,  Nine Mile Reef & Mabibi, Sodwana and Kosi Bay to name but a few.

Summer time birding ought to be spectacular if you are based at Ilala Palm and visit the variety of habitats all within easy reach.

And to cap it all the cost to stay is better than reasonable!

The Outing.

Mike and Jane set an active program for the time there. And the 15 of us found that although parts of each day might have been spent away from the camp, there was always the camp to return to for rest and resuscitation.

The weather throughout the stay was very pleasant – sunny yet not too hot and a dribble of rain one night. There were no signs of mosquitoes perhaps because it was nippy after the sun went to rest.

Each evening Mike provided a braai around the swimming pool and many a tall tale was told.

Friday 25th:  Arrival day

Two couples arrived a day early and spent Friday morning visiting Kosi Bay Camp and the mouth of Kosi Bay. Birding was slow in both areas with few water birds as you might expect at this time of the year. However there were Greater Flamingos at the mouth, an obliging Malachite Kingfisher and a Black-chested Snake-Eagle circling above.

Saturday 26th:  Camp Birding and Sodwana.

Saturday morning started early with a walk around the farm in the sand forest – perfect weather for birding and the highlight was to watch some Pink-throated Twinspots on the road justoutside the campsite whilst they fed in the sandy tracks. Fiscal Flycatchers were numerous and there was a constant parade of birds to see.

In the afternoon a group went to visit Sodwana – only 20 km down the road – to check out the beach and bird round the campsite.  A Caspian Tern greeted the group at the river mouth, a group of White-fronted Plovers hid in the dune vegetation and 6 Sanderlings posed an ID challenge for us.  Rob and Cecil behaved like city slickers and refusing to take off their shoes hitching a ride across a 30cm deep, 1.2 meter wide stream on a tractor, what the carbon footprint was we can only imagine!!

Sunday 27th: Lake Sibaya and Mabibi.

Fifteen of us packed into four 4×4 vehicles set off on a clear sunny day from camp and picked up our Wakkerstroom trained birdguide, Jabulani Mbonambi, from Mbazwana petrol station – organised through Adri.

Once we had entered Sibaya we drove along a beautiful coastal forest road to the east of the Lake. It was interesting habitat yet relatively quiet – perhaps because we had few stops along the way to our breakfast area beside the Lake. However birding at the breakfast stop was interesting.

In some dead trees beside the lake about 50 White-fronted Cormorants were nesting. A Fish Eagle was roosting comfortable among them. It was interesting to see that the Cormorants took nesting material from the shore and doused it in the lake, apparently to sort out the strands of the material to facilitate nest building.

There were not a lot of birds on the lake it being too deep. However there were Three Banded Plovers, Little Egret, Egyptian Geese, one Greenshank and a Water Thick-knee.  Jabulani heard the Woodward’s Batis calling in the dune forest so we went to investigate. Most of the group had lovely sightings of it. A bird wave came through among which were Forest Weavers, Yellow – breasted Apalis and Blue-mantled Flycatcher.

After tea we carried on through the forest and then through rolling grasslands to Mabibi, quite a long bumpy sandy trek. Jabulani organized a car guard for us and we proceeded down the 139 steps to the beach to do some snorkelling in the protected waters of a reef.  The snorkelling was great and a good variety of fish were seen, a moray eel and some parrot fish among many others.  For those not snorkelling a walk along the beach was lovely, the rock formations were interesting and White-fronted Plovers hid among them.

There was a lovely spot in the camp site for lunch and it wasn’t long before the birds began to call and there were good sightings of Kurrichane Thrush, Woodward’s Batis among others.

After a walk about the campsite we started the long trek back to camp across typical Maputaland vegetation with lots of Ilala Palms to the main road. A thoroughly enjoyable day.

Monday 28th:  Muzi Pan, Ophansi Pan & Mkuze.

By 08h30, our group of 15 arrived at Muzi Pan and spread out along the causeway. The water level had receded almost to its usual position compared to a month earlier.

Muzi Pan, as usual, did not disappoint despite the windy conditions. There was abundant bird life – water birds predominantly as you might expect.  Specials seen included African Pygmy Geese, Pink-backed Pelicans, African Spoonbill, Black-winged Stilts, Yellow-billed Storks also Lemon-breasted Canaries, Long-billed Crombec and Yellow-breasted Apalis.  Apparently the following day Lesser Jacana, Black Coucal and Kittlitz Plover were also seen round the Pan from the Adventure Centre.  In all about 40 species were seen. The following pictures show the difference in water level from one month earlier.

After an hour or so the convoy moved to another Pan, nine kilometres beyond the Ophansi Village (instead of turning left to the Mkuze entrance, travel straight on). The Pan is right beside the dirt road on the left. A number of different water birds were seen including African Purple Swamphen, Red-knobbed Coots and Whiskered Terns.

The group then headed for Mkuze. At the gate, the vehicles separated to do their own thing. The rest of the day was spent here, lunch was attempted at Nsumo Pan but the wind was fierce making it most unpleasant.  Some chose to picnic in the parking lot which was protected while others took their lunch to the picnic site at the entrance to the kuMasinga Hide.

Animal viewings were few and far between – perhaps because of the time of day the Park was entered. However a White Rhino did make a lengthy appearance at the kuMasinga Hide.

 In fact the hide attracted a good many different birds over the midday period. It was a good vantage point for photography. There were excellent viewings of Green-winged Pytilia, Crested Barbet, Kurrichane Thrush amongst many others.

Raptors were few – no vultures. Those that were seen included Shikra, Little Sparrowhawk and a Brown Snake-Eagle on the way out. Only about 70 species of birds were seen in Mkuze.

Tuesday 29th. Tembe.

The usual early start led to another productive birding day in Tembe Elephant Park. Only 4×4 vehicles are permitted entry and they ensured an uneventful trip along the many single sandy tracks.

The reserve is known for the potential to find the Plain-backed Sunbird. It was on everyone’s agenda. However only Cecil was able to find it – at the Mahlasela Pan Hide. The Mahlasela Pan Hide is a raised hide at canopy level overlooking the Pan. It is a well designed hide. A webcam from this hide shows activity at the Pan on the internet. Go to http://www.tembe.co.za. The Africam is on the Home page.

The reserve is also known for its large elephants which fortunately showed themselves calmly.

There is a viewing tower near the entrance and another hide at the north end of the Swamp roads – the Poweni Hide. It too is a raised hide at canopy level  and it looks down at a flood plain below.

Most agreed that the swamp area, the east Swamp Road (Umjamgazi Road) in particular, offered most sightings including Grey Waxbills, Yellow Fronted Longclaws, Stonechats, Rudd’s Apalis, Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, Eastern Nicator, Lilac-breasted Roller and Pink-throated Twinspots.  Raptors included Bateleur and Brown Snake-Eagle but no Vultures. The waterhole antics of  small families of elephants provided treasured moments for many of the group, as did the occasional roadside encounter.  In all around 60 species were seen.

Wednesday 30th: Departure Day for some.

Most of the group departed around midday leaving only a few lucky behind.

Birding during the day was spent around the camp and at the several bird baths. Pink-throated Twinspots made their regular appearances along with a number of other specials.

Thursday May 1st: Final departure.

Part of the morning was spent birding around the camp where several Olive Bushshrikes made appearances as well as a very obliging Green Malkoha.

Anecdote:

One amusing incident related to a certain loo which when flushed would not respond. After several attempts to flush, the pot began to boil and the head of a snake appeared!

The next morning in another loo the occupant was chased out by a Bushbaby!

Summary:

Although only about 180 different birds were seen over the period at Illala Palm, there were many specials as you will have noted above. The number of bird species seen around the camp alone was about 88.

The bird list for the weekend can be seen by clicking Total Bird list for Ilala Palm Week.

This will be an excellent place to return to in the summer.

Note:

Credit for pictures has been made where due – other than those taken by Sally and Paul Bartho.