16-Day Mega Tropical South Africa
When you go birding in south Africa, the Eastern Seaboard area is a must. This area of South Africa offers some of the best birding in all of Africa with over 750 species on offer. Except for the fantastic birding opportunities you will get the chance to experience magnificent landscapes and the full big game experience.
Private and small group, customised safaris can be booked on request for your preferred travel dates
Full Itinerary – Mega Tropical South Africa Birding Tour
Start of tour in Johannesburg, birding at Zaagkuildrift and Kgomo-Kgomo floodplain
Our exciting Eastern Extravaganza birding tour starts in Johannesburg (or nearby Pretoria) at your guesthouse or hotel, or even at the O.R. Tambo International Airport if you flew in from somewhere.
After a quick meet-and-greet, we’ll get all the luggage in our comfortable airconditioned vehicle and head straight to our first destination to the north. We will start chatting about the upcoming trip and specific targets that you might have, ensuring everyone has a good time and a great trip list. We are going to see some spectacular scenery, wonderful birds, top African big game, and enjoy excellent accommodation and great local cuisine, along with friendly people and interesting culture. A great trip awaits!
You will quickly see that the road network in South Africa is better than in most African countries and this 90 minute leg is on the main N1 highway (that stretches 2,000 km/1240 mi from the Zimbabwean border in the north all the way to Cape Town), from which you will get a feel for the Highveld grassland biome of the country.
Our first stop is the Rust-de-Winter area, and more specifically the legendary Zaagkuildrift road, an area very popular with local birders and in the latter part of summer, a brilliant spot for warblers. The 25 km (15 mi) gravel road runs east-west close to the Pienaars River, with the small town of the same name at its eastern end and the beautiful and productive Kgomo-Kgomo floodplain on its western side. We will drive slowly with our windows open, looking and listening for our first species to tick on the trip; this is superb acacia thornveld habitat!
Here we can expect a good selection of typical bushveld species but the real drawcard here is a whole host of species more typical of the drier west, here pretty much at the edge of their range. Highlights to look out for include the spectacular Crimson-breasted Shrike, as well as species like Violet-eared and Black-faced Waxbill, African Firefinch, Amur Falcon (summer), Acacia Pied Barbet, Brubru, Kalahari Scrub Robin, several kingfishers, Southern Carmine Bee-eater, White-throated Robin-chat, Marico Flycatcher, Southern Pied Babbler, a whole host of cuckoos in summer, Great Sparrow, Ashy Tit and many more. At the right time of the year some amazing warblers hang out here, including Common Whitethroat, Thrush Nightingale, Olive-tree, Icterine, Marsh and very rare River Warbler, as well as the melodious Barred Wren-warbler.
Further along this road we’ll come to another top birding spot, the Kgomo-Kgomo floodplain. For a couple of weeks in years of good rainfall this place comes alive and arguably offers some of the most spectacular birding in the country. If we are lucky and our timing is right we could see Lesser Moorhen, African Crake, Allen’s Gallinule and Greater Painted-snipe, to name just four!
Even when there is not much water around there is always some rewarding birding to be had. During these drier spells there is usually quite a spectacle with hundreds of Black-winged Pratincoles filling the sky, Temminck’s Courser can be plentiful at times and an added cast made up of Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks, beautiful Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Capped Wheatears, Shaft-tailed Whydahs and even a harrier or two complete the picture.
We will have lunch somewhere en route and there will always be coffee close by; what birding trip doesn’t have good coffee on hand at all times?
We will overnight at a small lodge in the area of the Zaagkuildrift road. This will give us an opportunity to do some owling before or after dinner tonight. We hope to see Western Barn Owl, Spotted and Verreaux’s Eagle-owl, Southern White-faced Owl and some nightjars.
We will enjoy our first dinner together where you will sample some of South Africa’s very tasty fare, and afterwards we will retire for a good night’s rest.
Zaagkuildrift to Polokwane Game Reserve and Magoebaskloof
After an early morning coffee and rusks (a sort of dunking biscuit, and essential food on a birding trip as you will discover!) we head further north along the N1 highway, arriving in the town of Polokwane around lunchtime.
We will make a stop at the Polokwane Game Reserve just outside the town of Polokwane (previously called Pietersburg). This 3,200 hectare gem of a reserve is characterized by open savannah with scattered Acacia and broadleaved trees. Granite outcrops and riverine thickets add to the habitat diversity, and there are also open areas of grassland that are critical to a number of lark, pipit and cisticola species. Our main targets here are Short-clawed Lark and Northern Black Korhaan, along with the small possibility of seeing Double-banded Courser, Barred Wren-warbler and Tinkling Cisticola.
A short drive in the reserve and a walk at one of the picnic sites should yield some nice birds to add to our trip list. This could include Burnt-necked Eremomela, Blue Waxbill, Southern Black Flycatcher, Magpie Shrike, Black-throated Canary, Black-chested Prinia, Sabota Lark, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Cape Starling, Black-collared and Crested Barbet, Marico Sunbird, Swainson’s Spurfowl, Crowned Lapwing, Ring-necked Dove, Groundscraper Thrush, African Hoopoe, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Fork-tailed Drongo, Southern Boubou and Golden-tailed Woodpecker to new a few. From a mammal point of view the reserve is well stocked, and we should see Plains Zebra, Greater Kudu, Common Wildebeest, Hartebeest (Red subspecies), Tsessebe, Giraffe and maybe even the herd of beautiful Sable Antelope.
After this exciting stop we turn east towards the mountains and their forests. We will make a quick stop in the beautiful town of Tzaneen for Pied Mannikin and, time permitting, even a short visit to a possible nearby stakeout for Bat Hawk if the pair is in residence.
We continue to our destination in beautiful Magoebaskloof, and depending on our arrival time at our overnight accommodation we might have our first taste of forest birding. Our lodge is perfectly situated in the middle of the stunning forest, allowing us to start birding as soon as we step out of the door!
We will do a short walk in the lodge’s gardens and surrounding forests if time permits and look for Green Twinspot, Swee Waxbill, Red-backed Mannikin, Chorister Robin-chat, African Firefinch, Forest Canary, Sombre Greenbul, Lemon Dove and Cape White-eye.
We will then have our first dinner together and get to know each other a bit better. Before returning to our rooms for a good night’s rest remember to listen for the distinctive who-who, who-who-who are-you call of the African Wood Owl.
We will enjoy an early cup of coffee and head out directly afterwards. We have a full day in Magoebaskloof and surrounds and we want to make the most of it! This is undoubtedly the best forest birding spot in the entire Limpopo/Mpumalanga area, if not the country.
We will probably have a packed breakfast, but will enjoy lunch at a nice roadside café. Depending on the current bird movements and weather conditions, we will make a call as to our exact route for the day, but rest assured that we will see some pretty impressive species today!
If we missed it the previous day, we will be on the lookout for Short-clawed Lark, and we might pop in at a nearby stakeout where we have a good chance of finding the elusive Shelley’s Francolin.
During our drives and walks in the beautiful indigenous montane forests we will look for some very special species. These include Cape Parrot, Bat Hawk, Square-tailed Drongo, Black-fronted and Olive Bushshrike, Narina Trogon, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Knysna Turaco, Grey Cuckooshrike, White-starred Robin, Brown Scrub Robin, Orange Ground Thrush, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Cape Batis, Barratt’s Warbler, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Olive Woodpecker, African Emerald Cuckoo, Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk, African Goshawk, African Cuckoo-hawk and Crowned Eagle. An impressive list indeed!
We will also try to fit in a short stop at the very photogenic Debengeni Falls, where we could see Mountain Wagtail. If time permits, we could also search for the elusive Buff-spotted Flufftail at a secret spot where we sometimes find them.
After our superb day in the beautiful forests we will return to our lodge to freshen up, after which we will update our growing lists, enjoy dinner and have a good night’s rest.
Magoebaskloof to Mount Sheba
We’ll start the day with an early breakfast and then we continue our journey towards the historic mining village of Pilgrim’s Rest, about 4 hours away to the southeast. It is a beautiful drive up and over some of the country’s most beautiful mountainous terrain.
We could possibly also make a slight detour to a rugged cliff face on the side of the escarpment close to the J.G. Strijdom tunnel that is one of the best spots in Africa to see the rare Taita Falcon, listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN RedList 2016. A pair used to breed here annually but sightings are now unfortunately far more irregular. Cape Vulture is also common here, so we will definitely scan for them as well.
We will reach the historic town of Pilgrim’s Rest at about midday. The town was put on the map in the 1870s when gold was discovered in the area, but that boom has long since faded. The town’s original architecture remains largely unchanged since the heyday of the mining era, and is now a National Monument. The village has a variety of museums, tours, accommodation, restaurants and shops. We will have lunch in the area before moving on to our nearby accommodation.
We will stay at Mount Sheba, a superb spot that will offer us some more Afromontane escarpment forest to bird. This is one of the best sites in the country for Orange Ground Thrush and this beautiful skulker will be one of our main targets here. Once we have checked in to our rooms we will start birding!
Forest birding can be hard work but often the reward is worth its weight in gold, with tantalizing species such as Cape Batis, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Crowned Eagle, African Cuckoo-hawk, Knysna Turaco, Narina Trogon, Black-headed Oriole, African Olive Pigeon, Olive Woodpecker, Bush Blackcap, White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-chat, Blue-mantled Crested and African Paradise Flycatcher, Olive Bushshrike, Lemon Dove and African Emerald Cuckoo waiting to be found. There is an excellent network of trails that we will use to bird from, in part from our vehicle and in part on foot.
Birding the surrounding grasslands can be equally rewarding and here we’ll hope to find Wing-snapping Cisticola, Cape Grassbird, Cape Longclaw, Denham’s Bustard and possibly even Secretarybird, whilst the scrub and Protea-dotted slopes hold Gurney’s Sugarbird, Drakensberg Prinia, African Stonechat, Malachite Sunbird, Bokmakierie, Streaky-headed Seedeater, Wailing Cisticola and Buff-streaked Chat.
We will return to the lodge after another exciting day in the forests and enjoy dinner. We will then retire to our rooms for a good night’s sleep; tomorrow we go to Kruger!
Mount Sheba to Kruger National Park
Our morning will start with an early breakfast and some more birding around the gardens at magnificent Mount Sheba, where we could add Barratt’s Warbler, Cape Robin-chat, Bar-throated Apalis, Cape White-eye, many sunbirds, Knysna Turaco, Swee Waxbill, Cape Canary and others.
We then head for the savannahs of the famous Kruger National Park with the odd birding stops and a lunch break en route. We will slowly head east, dropping down from the highveld escarpment via some beautiful mountain passes, going through Graskop (a popular tourist destination and headquarters of the South African timber industry) and Hazyview (the gateway town to the Kruger National Park).
We will then turn east, entering the world famous Kruger National Park at either the Phabeni or Kruger Gate. Once we enter the park our focus, while still on birds, will also divert a bit to the possibility of sightings of any of Africa’s famed Big 5 (Lion, African Elephant, Leopard, African Buffalo and rhinoceros), along with Cheetah, Spotted Hyaena, African Wild Dog and any of the almost 150 species of mammal that have been recorded in this fantastic park.
We will make our way to our camp for the next three nights, Skukuza rest camp, exploring some of the smaller dirt roads and thereby keeping off the main tar roads, for the best birding experience.
The 20,000 km2 Kruger National Park is without doubt the best birding destination in southern Africa. It is a mosaic of lowland savannas and woodlands, bisected by wooded, seasonally flowing rivers, with dams and pans dotted throughout. The park varies in altitude between 200 metres (660 ft) in the east and 840 metres (2,760 ft) in the southwest. This wide range of habitats leads to an incredible wealth of birds, with almost 520 species having been recorded in the park over the years.
Of special interest here is some of the larger terrestrial birds as well as birds of prey that are difficult or near impossible to find reliably outside protected areas such as Kruger. These include Kori Bustard, Southern Ground Hornbill, Martial Eagle, Bateleur, Lappet-faced Vulture and Saddle-billed Stork. These five, together with the very rare Pel’s Fishing Owl, make up Kruger’s so-called “Big 6” birds.
Other typical bushveld birds that we will encounter are Bateleur, Tawny Eagle, Secretarybird, Southern Yellow-billed and Southern Red-billed Hornbill, Southern White-crowned and Magpie Shrike, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Brown-headed Parrot, Purple-crested Turaco, Crested and Swainson’s Francolin, White-crowned Lapwing, Grey-headed Bushshrike and African Mourning Dove, to name just a few.
We will reach Skukuza in the late afternoon and check in to our comfortable bungalows. We will have some time to freshen up and then we head to the restaurant situated right on the Sabie river, where we will update our growing lists and have a wonderful dinner. Afterwards we will get a good night’s rest. Remember to look up at the Milky Way on your way to the room, it really is spectacular out here in the bush!
Kruger National Park
Today we have our first full day of birding and game viewing in “Kruger”, as the locals call it. We will enjoy a packed breakfast (so that we can get on the roads early) and stop at one of the many picnic spots or rest camps for lunch. Driving around in Kruger will soon make you realise why it is such a legendary and well-loved park.
We will focus our attention of the different habitats that Kruger is rightly famous for. We will decide (with everybody’s input of course) on the best course of action for the day in terms of the route to follow, but rest assured we will cover most of the important birding areas in the southern section of Kruger.
Areas of open grassland and broad-leaved woodland host species such as African Cuckoo-hawk, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Green-capped Eremomela and even Bushveld Pipit. The damp depressions around streams sometimes yield Black Coucal and in season after good rainfall, the odd Corn Crake.
The area to the north of Skukuza is good for species like Common Ostrich, Kori Bustard, Southern Ground Hornbill, Secretarybird, Sabota Lark, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark, Lesser Grey Shrike, Montagu’s and Pallid Harrier, Red-billed Quelea, Burchell’s Starling, Bennett’s Woodpecker and many more. This area is also particularly good for the elusive Black Rhinoceros and Lichtenstein’s subspecies of Hartebeest, along with all the usual fantastic and numerous Kruger mammals.
We will be back at Skukuza in the late afternoon and if time permits, it is always a good idea to walk around the camp grounds in search of some special fauna and flora species. Skukuza is the park’s headquarters and its largest camp, and the camp grounds are well foliaged, with some lofty trees along the river’s edge. Facilities are diverse, as are the animals and plants found within the camp’s boundary fence. The camp is a great place to spot the dove-sized Wahlberg’s Epauletted Fruit Bat and the very cute South African Thick-tailed Galago. Birds like Crowned Hornbill, Grey-headed Bushshrike and African Green Pigeon are regularly seen in the camp.
We will again do our lists and enjoy dinner at the restaurant overlooking the Sabie river and enjoy a good night’s rest, falling asleep to the sounds of the African bush.
Kruger National Park
We will have another full day to explore the southern part of Kruger. Depending on what we have seen so far and which species we need, we will make our way either south towards Lower Sabie rest camp, or head west on the Doispane road towards Pretoriuskop rest camp. There are many tar and dirt roads to explore in the area, so we will certainly not be bored! We will enjoy breakfast and lunch in one of the many camps in the area, or at a lovely picnic site.
The habitat around Skukuza comprises riparian zones, with large trees lining the river banks, and thickets away from the river courses. The permanent water sources here attract large numbers of Impala, one of the main prey items of Leopard, so be on the lookout for these and other predators such as Lion, African Wild Dog and Spotted Hyaena. The riverbanks also play host to huge numbers of bird species, and some uncommon ones like Crowned Eagle, African Finfoot and Pel’s Fishing Owl are seen here fairly regularly.
Other birds we will look for in this area of the park include Terrestrial Brownbul, Bearded Scrub Robin, Green-backed Camaroptera, Kurrichane Thrush, Grey Tit-flycatcher, Black-headed Oriole, Brubru, Retz’s Helmetshrike, Black Cuckooshrike, Marico, Collared and White-bellied Sunbird, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Southern Black Tit, Pied and Giant Kingfisher, Red-billed and African Firefinch, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Cardinal and Bearded Woodpecker, Coqui Francolin, Brown-crowned and Black-crowned Tchagra, Burnt-necked and Yellow-bellied Eremomela and many others.
We will return to Skukuza late in the afternoon to have dinner together and another good night’s sleep in wonderful Kruger.
Tonight might be a good opportunity to partake in probably one of the best optional activities one can do here in the park, namely a night drive with Kruger’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic rangers. One this drive you may encounter some of the rarer nocturnal mammals such as African Civet, genets, Side-striped Jackal, the beautiful Serval, White-tailed Mongoose and even African Wildcat, along with several species of owl and nightjar. These include Spotted and Verreaux’s Eagle-owl, African Scops Owl, Southern White-faced Owl, and Square-tailed and Fiery-necked Nightjar. Please inform us well in advance of the trip if you plan to do a night drive, as this is a very popular activity that is normally filled up as soon as bookings open.
Kruger National Park to Wakkerstroom
Today after breakfast we make our way out of the park. It is a fairly long but scenic drive to our next destination.
We will travel through some beautiful areas of the country, passing through the towns of Barberton (which has its origin in the 1880s gold rush in the region), Carolina and historic Amersfoort before reaching our destination of Wakkerstroom. We will have lunch en route in one of the towns on the way.
The quaint village of Wakkerstroom (literally translated from Afrikaans as “awake stream”) is situated on the Highveld plateau, dominated by rolling hills and upland grassland, in stark contrast to the habitats we’ve visited thus far. A total of 13 bird species are endemic (or nearly so) to South Africa’s grassland biome and another 33 southern African endemics or near-endemics occur here, making it easy to see why the area is a magnet for foreign as well as keen South African birders.
We should arrive in time for some late afternoon birding. Our first port of call usually is the wetland marsh on the outskirts of town. Here we have a good chance of finding skulkers like Little Rush Warbler, African Rail and who knows, maybe even a Red-chested Flufftail if we are very lucky. African Swamphen, Purple Heron, Cape Shoveler and Cape Weaver are some of the commoner species roosting here in the late afternoons.
We will also look for Pale-crowned Cisticola, Black-crowned Night Heron, Little Bittern, African Snipe, Little Grebe, Maccoa Duck, Southern Pochard, Purple Heron and Intermediate Egret. If we are very quiet we could even see an African Clawless Otter, a special mammal indeed. Remember to also look up if you want to see South African Cliff, White-throated and Greater Striped Swallow, and Little and White-rumped Swift.
We will check in to our comfortable accommodation in town or just outside it, and have dinner at one of the many excellent establishments in town. Be sure to sample some of the local craft beer if that’s your sort of thing. We’ll return to our accommodation for a good night’s rest.
After an early morning coffee we head out in search of Wakkerstroom’s two very special and endemic larks, namely Rudd’s and Botha’s, the former critically endangered. In our search for these two denizens of the grasslands, we’ll also be on the lookout for their more common cousins, Eastern Clapper, Eastern Long-billed, Pink-billed and Red-capped Larks.
The area surrounding the town is mountainous with kloofs, mountain springs, vlei areas, dams, conservation and heritage sites. Due to the occurrence of high priority wetlands and the proximity to the sources of three rivers, the Vaal, Tugela and Pongola, it was declared a National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Area. It is also a protected area under the Protected Areas Act, which means that mining is generally not allowed.
Wakkerstroom isn’t just about larks though; endemics like Yellow-breasted Pipit, Blue Korhaan and Cape Canary will add a subtle touch of colour. In the village, the striking Bokmakierie is usually an easy find alongside the peculiar Red-throated Wryneck.
After lunch in town we’ll also visit a local site in search of White-bellied and Denham’s Bustard. At another spot, we’ll look for the enigmatic African Rock Pipit and Buff-streaked Chat.
Some of the other birds that we might encounter include Southern Bald Ibis, Jackal Buzzard, Pied Starling, Cape Crow, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Mountain Wheatear, Bush Blackcap, Drakensberg Prinia, Amur Falcon and Lesser Kestrel (summer), the very odd Ground Woodpecker, Denham’s Bustard, Grey Crowned and Blue Crane (South Africa’s national bird), Grey-winged and Red-winged Francolin and the ‘often-heard-but-rarely-seen’ Quailfinch. Also, all 5 of the South African species of harrier visit Wakkerstroom at certain times of the year, so we’ll keep an eye out for those too. Research on the critically endangered White-winged Flufftail also takes place around the Wakkerstroom area, although we would have to be extremely lucky to see or even just hear one.
We will return to our accommodation to freshen up, before returning to town for another dinner at one of the excellent restaurants where we will update our trip lists and boast about all the lifers thus far. After dinner we will have a good night’s sleep; tomorrow we head into the last province on our birding trip.
Wakkerstroom to Mkuze Game Reserve
Our day will start with an early coffee and a quick spot of birding in the morning for birds we might have dipped on the previous day.
Our journey will then continue southeast, to one of the KwaZulu-Natal province’s premier birding spots, Mkuze Game Reserve. Our drive of about 3 hours will see us pass through Piet Retief (a town in the timber-growing region close to the Eswatini/Swaziland border) and Pongola (a town in a fertile and subtropical valley full of sugarcane and subtropical fruit) before reaching our destination.
We should arrive in the Mkuze area mid to late afternoon and we will waste no time finding some of the spectacular birds that call this remarkable area home. Mkuze is a 40,000 hectare (150 sq mi) game reserve that was proclaimed a protected area in 1912. The reserve has a wide diversity of natural habitats which include acacia savannah, mixed woodland, sand forest, riverine forest, rivers and pans, grassland, cliffs and rocky ridges.
We will definitely drive to the sand forest; this dry and localized type of forest is home to several spectacular species, included Pink-throated Twinspot, the aptly named Gorgeous Bushshrike, Neergaard’s Sunbird, mean-looking African Barred Owlet, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Crested Guineafowl and Rudd’s Apalis.
In terms of other wildlife, Mkuze is also home to several fantastic mammal species, including African Elephant, African Buffalo, Black and White Rhinoceros, Lion, Leopard, African Wild Dog, Cheetah, Hippopotamus and several special antelope species.
Once we have seen some nice birds and a few big game species, we will head to our accommodation just outside the park. We will enjoy a good meal and chat about our awesome trip so far, and maybe start planning our next birding trip somewhere on the planet…then it’s off to bed for a good night’s sleep.
Mkuze Game Reserve
We will enjoy an early breakfast at our lodge before returning to Mkuze.
We have a full day ahead to explore the incredible diversity of Mkuze, not just birds but also a whole host of fascinating mammals, from one of Africa’s smallest antelope, the Suni, to the largest land mammal on the planet, the African Elephant.
Birding wise Mkuze is undoubtedly one of the top birding spots in South Africa, with a list of way over 450 species, and an unpredictability that makes birders return here time after time. It boasts several special and range-restricted species and we’ll keep an eye out for Southern Banded Snake Eagle, the beautiful Sooty Falcon, Pel’s Fishing Owl, the shy Green Malkoha, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, loud Broad-billed Roller, African Broadbill, melodious Eastern Nicator, Olive-tree Warbler, Black-bellied Bustard, Senegal Lapwing, several vulture species, Martial Eagle, White-crested Helmetshrike and Grey Penduline Tit.
We will have a packed lunch today and enjoy it somewhere in the park where there is a nice view of one of the dams or surrounding hills.
At one of the large wetlands, we will look for species such as Pink-backed and Great White Pelican, African Openbill, Yellow-billed and Woolly-necked Stork, the very cute African Pygmy Goose, Lesser Jacana, rare Dwarf Bittern, Goliath Heron, Water Thick-knee, Lesser Masked and Thick-billed Weaver, African Wattled Lapwing and Whiskered Tern. Several good hides are situated in the park, mostly overlooking waterholes and these can be worth a visit, sometimes producing memorable moments. Just don’t wander too close to the water’s edge, as there are some monstrously huge Nile Crocodiles here!
We will return to our lodge outside the reserve for doing our lists, having dinner and enjoying a good night’s rest before we tackle the next exciting leg of our trip from tomorrow onwards.
Mkuze to iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Birding in the gardens of our lodge outside Mkuze can be top-notch and we will spend the early morning here. We often find birds such as Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Bearded Scrub Robin, Green Twinspot, Eastern Nicator and Purple-crested Turaco in the gardens as we sip our coffee and dunk our rusks!
We’ll head out and make our way southeast towards the iSimabgaliso Wetland Park. This 3,280 km2 (1,270 sq mi) park was created to protect the vital wetland of Lake St. Lucia, South Africa’s most important breeding area for waterbirds. iSimangaliso is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site (South Africa’s first, listed in 1999) and a Ramsar Wetland of Importance.
The park includes several smaller parks, reserves and conservation areas of critical importance for some unique fauna and flora. The park was previously known as the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, but was renamed in 2007. The word iSimangaliso means “a miracle” or “something wondrous” in the local Zulu language.
The reason for the huge diversity in fauna and flora in the park is the great variety of ecosystems, ranging from coral reefs and sandy beaches to subtropical dune forests, savannahs, and wetlands. Animals occurring on the park include African Elephant, Leopard, Black and White Rhinoceros, African Buffalo, Hippopotamus, Nile Crocodile and in the ocean, whales, dolphins, and marine turtles.
We’ll arrive in the park at about midday and have lunch at one of the many good restaurants in the area. We will have lots of time to head down to the estuary mouth for a rare taste of shore birding. Several tern species (Caspian, Swift, Sandwich, Common and Little Tern) should be present and for the last few seasons a beautiful Sooty Tern has also been a regular at the tern roost.
Other birds we will look for here include Great White and Pink-backed Pelican, Lesser Flamingo, Yellow-billed and Woolly-necked Stork, Ruff, Ruddy Turnstone, Grey Plover, Pied Avocet, Goliath Heron and many more. It is also a rarity hotspot, with recent records of Great Frigatebird, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Brown Noddy, so keep those eyes peeled!
We will check in to our comfortable guest house after another exciting day of birding, and have dinner together as we updated our trip lists. Then it’s off to bed for a good night’s rest.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park and surrounds
An early morning departure from our guest house will see us at the gates of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (Eastern Shores section) in time for a truly magnificent full day’s birding.
Various habitats straddle this section of the park, from coastal dune forest, wetlands and moist coastal grasslands to exotic plantations at Cape Vidal. Several good hides have been built over the last few years and we’ll spend some time at these, ticking several wader species as well as possible African Pygmy Kingfisher, Rufous-bellied Heron and a number of duck species.
At Mission Rocks we’ll search for Woodward’s Batis, Brown Scrub Robin and Livingstone’s Turaco and sometimes we encounter Southern Banded Snake Eagle here. Cape Vidal itself is usually good for Green Twinspot, Grey Waxbill, Green Malkoha, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and Black-throated Wattle-eye. We also have the chance of encountering Samango Monkeys here, alongside their more common cousins the Vervet Monkeys; just watch them closely while we enjoy our packed picnic lunch here; they are clever and agile thieves!
The drive back to town will have slightly fewer birding stops but we’ll keep our eyes peeled for specials such as Crowned Eagle, Yellow-throated Longclaw, African Cuckoo-hawk, Collared Pratincole and Croaking Cisticola.
We will again have dinner and chat about our wonderful trip so far. By now you would have realised why, despite some problems, South Africa should be high on every world birder’s must-visit list. We will retire to our rooms for a good night’s sleep; tomorrow we enter the final phase of our trip.
iSimangaliso to Mtunzini (Umlalazi Nature Reserve)
We’ll start early this morning with a quick coffee before we bird the well-known Gwala Gwala trail at the edge of town before breakfast. Here we often encounter birds such as Lemon Dove, Livingstone’s Turaco, Olive Bushshrike, African Emerald Cuckoo, Trumpeter Hornbill, African Green Pigeon and Brown Scrub Robin.
After breakfast we’ll stop at the bridge over the estuary for some weaver action and we could tick Yellow, Golden and Southern Brown-throated Weaver here. The drive of about 2 to 3 hours to Mtunzini will see us pass close to many of Kwazulu-Natal’s private game reserves and national parks. En route we will stop at several wetlands near Mtubatuba where we might add the likes of Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Red-headed Quelea and many more.
We’ll arrive in beautiful Mtunzini around lunch and check into our comfortable accommodation. The name Mtunzini is a word in the local Zulu language meaning place in the shade. The town boasts pristine beaches and a 9-hole golf course, along with some fantastic birdwatching spots in town itself and nearby. We normally see White-eared Barbet outside our accommodation or just while driving around town!
After lunch we will head out in the hope of finding one of South Africa’s rarest and most fascinating birds of prey, the Palm-nut Vulture. These birds feed mostly on the fruit of the Kosi Palm (Raphia australis) which produces its fruit once every twenty years before dying. We will look for the vultures at the Rafia Palm Monument, which features a raised boardwalk that meanders through to the magnificent palms.
After this exciting excursion we will head to Umlalazi Nature Reserve in town. It is a 10 km2 (4 sq mi) coastal area of dune forests, lakes and a lagoon, and is a good spot to look for two special species, African Finfoot and Mangrove Kingfisher. On a previous trip a client managed to get a photo of both these elusive species in one shot!
We will return to our accommodation in the early evening and have dinner while updating our trip lists, after which we will enjoy a good night’s rest.
Mtunzini (Ongoye and Dlinza forests)
Today we have a big day! We will visit two very famous forests in search of some very special species.
After an early breakfast, our first stop today will be at Ongoye forest, a remnant patch of coastal scarp forest which straddles the hills for about 20km between the towns of Eshowe and Empangeni. It is a short drive of about 30 minutes to reach the forest from Mtunzini.
Ongoye is home to some rare and endemic species of fauna and flora, including the Ongoye Dwarf Cycad (Encephalartos ngoyanus), Ongoye centipede, an endemic subspecies of the Red Bush Squirrel and two undescribed endemic dwarf chameleons. The forest is picture-perfect beautiful, occurring in patches between granite outcrops and rolling grasslands.
Ongoye is an important breeding area for the Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon and home to the endangered Spotted Ground Thrush. At least 165 species of birds have been identified in the forest, and this is the only spot in southern Africa where the Green Barbet can be found, and usually in good numbers! The forest here is also good for Green Twinspot, Narina Trogon, Brown Scrub Robin, Chorister Robin-chat, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Crowned Eagle, Crowned and Trumpeter Hornbill, African Emerald Cuckoo and Striped Pipit.
After leaving Ongoye we will be travelling through rural Zululand, giving us an exciting and eye-opening perspective on the everyday life of the Zulu people. We’ll enjoy lunch in the town of Eshowe before heading out of town to a good stakeout for Southern Tchagra, another endemic for our trip!
We’ll also enjoy more forest birding this afternoon at nearby Dlinza Forest Nature Reserve. This beautiful piece of forest covers an area of 250ha and is one of southern Africa’s prime forest birding spots, and consists almost entirely of climax coastal scarp forest. There are several walking trails we will follow, as well as a 125 metre (410 ft) long and 25 metre (82 ft) high, sturdy canopy walkway that provides an entirely different viewpoint on the forest and its inhabitants.
Here at Dlinza we will look for Spotted Ground Thrush, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Green Malkoha, Olive Woodpecker, Green Twinspot, Red-backed Mannikin, African Firefinch, Crowned Eagle, Narina Trogon, Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbill, Olive and Collared Sunbird, Dark-backed Weaver, Red-fronted and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Chorister Robin-chat, Terrestrial Brownbul, Lemon Dove and many others.
The forest is also home to several duiker species, Bushbuck, Vervet monkeys, Bushpig, beautiful butterflies (Citrus Swallowtail, Dusky-veined Acraea and more), as well as some very impressive trees.
We will make the drive back to Mtunzini to have our final dinner together on this amazing trip. We will have some drinks and a good last chat before retiring to bed.
Mtunzini (Amatikulu Nature Reserve) and Departure
We will have a quick coffee before a last bit of birding at the Amatikulu Nature Reserve about 30 kilometres (18 miles) down the Indian Ocean coastline. Despite its small size (2,100 hectares), the reserve contains many different habitats, including coastal, riparian and dune forest, grassland, lala palm bushveld, an estuary and a freshwater pan. This variety has resulted in a checklist of over 300 birds, and some of the special species we’ll look for here on a short walk and drive include Swamp Nightjar, Black Coucal, White-fronted Bee-eater, Broad-tailed Warbler, Olive Woodpecker, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Grey Waxbill, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Croaking Cisticola and Brown-backed Honeybird. A great way to end the trip!
We will then make our way south to King Shaka International Airport, about an hour away, situated just north of the coastal city of Durban. Here we will say our goodbyes and you will leave on your onward flight after an amazing birding trip.
*Please note: Extensions to the Drakensberg, Cape Town of further afield can easily be arranged. Get in touch with us to arrange this for you.
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