An Introduction to South African Birds: A Zululand (South Africa) Bonanza, September 18-25, 1999

Wim Vader, South African Museum, Cape Town, South Africa. Permanent address: Tromsø Museum, 9037 Tromsø, Norway;

Ticky Forbes and Nicolette Demetriades had organized this week long tour through Zululand reserves, 18-25 September, starting out in Johannesburg and ending up in Durban. The other participants, besides me, were Joan and Daniel Fine of New York, nature lovers de luxe, but not birders--they probably got a quite different tour from what they had expected, but they were exemplarily patient and gradually got more and more interested also in the smaller birds, while Joan turned out to be a nature talent at bird spotting from the car. This was a wildlife tour, not solely a bird tour, and there was an enormous amount of wildlife to be admired, from the kind-looking kudus to the adorable bushbaby we found spotlighting, and from everybody's favourite the warthog to the elephants playing and often submerging in the Hluhluwe River, one of the absolute highlights of the week. Very special for me were also the at least 50 White Rhinos, as well as the Nyala, a completely new species of antelope for me.

The problem with reporting about the birdlife of this amazing week is that it was so overwhelming, and we moved so quickly from place to place, that the different reserves have more or less melted together in my memory. I do have a bird list for what I saw and heard in the different reserves (and can send that on request), but that is often less than what the leaders saw, and definitely much less than what they heard. Especially Nikki has very sharp hearing and can pick out a single faraway voice from a grand dawn chorus, while I am somewhat hard of hearing. It took me three days before I finally heard the "Good Lord deliver us"-call of the Fiery-necked Nightjar, and that particular bird was very close indeed!

We started out in Itala (or Ithala?), where we stayed in the main Ntshondwe camp with its wonderful vistas, and its curious Natal Robins and Mocking Chats (Turned out to be exactly the same bird I had learned as Cliff Chat many years ago in Kenya!); where there are Mocking Chats, there are Dassies, and these cozy little elephant-nephews were indeed also a fixture of this camp. Willie was present also here, but had not yet started singing, instead the Black-eyed Bulbuls stole the show: in addition to their normal bubbling "you need more adREnalin" calls they also turned out to have an almost (European) Blackbird like dawn song. Tawny-flanked Prinias and Yellow-breasted Apalis also were common songsters near the camp, as were White-browed Robins and Yellow-eyed Canaries, and a new acquaintance was the perky Bleating Warbler, which much reminded me of our Winter Wren, small, with a cocked tail, and jaunty. The song is explosive, so for a day or so I wondered how this bird got its name, but then one "bleated" at me during a morning walk and that solved that problem. White-bellied and Black Sunbirds buzzed the flowering bushes around the chalets, and the sound of the Green-spotted Dove was everywhere, as it would remain all week.

Early start, at first light, was the rule also here, and I'll never forget the majestic Crowned Eagle in silhouette against the morning sky, with the "crown" now and then much in evidence. The "game-runs" brought steadily new birds, from Ostriches all the way down to Red-fronted Tinker Barbets, and including specialties as the flocks of droll Helmetshrikes, the flash of Paradise Flycatchers, and the always different duets of the Southern Boubou. (When I did not recognize a strange call, the best guess was usually boubou, especially if it could be construed as a duet!). But there were also other haunting sounds: the eerie call of the ghostbird, the Greyheaded Bushshrike (that one I never saw), and the konkoit of the Gorgeous Bushshrike, a bird that has well earned its name. We found both Crested and Black-collared Barbets, and regularly Black Tits, another bird that would follow us all week , and the tropical looking Glossy Starlings. A few of the rhinos had small flocks of attendant Red-billed Oxpeckers.

The next stop was Mkuzi, where the famous Nsumo Pan was almost dried out, and the Fig Forest walk only open to guided walks, because of unfortunate robberies. Still, this place is a birder's paradise, and the list grew apace. White-backed Vultures, Fishing Eagles and Bateleurs circled overhead, a Black-bellied Korhaan walked stately across the airstrip (accompanied by screaming Crowned Plovers), and the very special Crested Guineafowl were quite common here; no wonder they are so common in Zulu art!

The Fig Forest walk was quite a bit hampered by strong winds (no Fish Owl!), but there was still a lot to discover: a Greater Honeyguide crying victory in a an enormous fig tree, various flycatchers, of which the Fan-tailed and Wattle-eyed Flycatchers were the greatest trophies, Black-bellied Starlings and Square-tailed Drongos, White-eared Barbets, and of course the dominant birds of this fruit-rich area, the Trumpeter Hornbills with their petulant wailing and seemingly only half-coordinated movements.

Later, we also found Crowned and Yellow-billed Hornbills, Red-billed and Scimitar-billed Woodhoopoes , Little Bee-eaters, and three species of woodpeckers, while a beautiful Orange-breasted Bush Shrike added to our suite of these exquisite birds. But this can easily become a dry listing of birds seen, so let us leave Mkuzi and move a small distance to the private reserve of Bonamanzi.

Bonamanzi lies on very sandy ground not too far from the St Lucia estuary, and we resided here in a wonderful lodge overlooking an open area and a sadly once more bone dry pool. Also here there were new birds. Behind the house the roving white-eyes were Yellow White-eyes, and a Yellow-bellied Bulbul was uncommonly forthcoming in its quest for bananas somebody had thrown out, so much so that the resident Black-eyed Bulbuls reacted with elaborate threat displays each time their rival came too near. The yellow-belly turned out to be easily able to outshout the more common species, though; these birds have a lot of voice! Another newcomer here were the colourful Forest Weavers, first spotted through the toilet-window---a birder's work is never done! There were Purple-banded and Collared Sunbirds here, in addition to the already more usual White-bellied, Grey and Black Sunbirds; there were Rudd's Apalis, in addition to the more common species, the local tinkerbird was the Goldenrumped, and the local longclaw the Yellow-throated.

But for me Bonnamanzi became first and foremost the place of the broadbills! I had never ever seen a broadbill in my life, and when the leaders picked up the unmistakable dry trill of the display, I was therefore extra anxious to see this new family of birds. That turned out to be not a very easy task, although at the end of half an hour's search I was the only one in the group who had glimpsed the birds, a stocky yellow-brownish bird, that by sheer luck I could just see through "a window" in all the greenery, and that disappeared every time the strange dry rattle sounded. But then came suddenly the break-through, and we could watch the entire display in comparative comfort, and almost in the open: the "blossoming" of the white back-patch, the droll tight circle display flight, and always that sound!! I guessed that the sound must be produced mechanically, but the experts disagreed and said it is a vocal sound. However this may be, these broadbills were really something, and the whole experience as special as it should be to see a new bird family!

And yes, we did add the Lemon-breasted Canaries to our lists near the entrance, and I know this is an uncommon bird. A nice bird too, but still far from the Broadbill experience.

The last major reserve we visited was Hluhluwe, the place of the bathing and frolicking elephants. Also here we had great bird moments: an Emerald Cuckoo calling its Pretty Georgie in full view, a Tambourine Dove for once walking quietly on a path, finally a view of the Yellow-spotted Nicator that was rapidly becoming my nemesis-bird (everybody else had seen it two-three reserves ago), my first Marico Sunbirds and Wire-tailed Swallows. But maybe best I remember a mixed group of Yellow-billed and Openbill Storks along the river, near the elephant bathing place, and the last minute stop somewhere else along the river, where we surprised an African Finfoot on the shore, so we could admire his startlingly red feet, while a Black Crake revealed itself as a bonus. A boat-trip on the St Lucia river ended this wonderful week. This was of course mostly designed to show us the hippos, but yielded a Giant Kingfisher and a Caspian Tern, plus great views of Pied Kingfishers near their nesting hole. I could not have wished for a better and more pleasant introduction to S African birding than this leisurely, but quite intensive week of birding, with everything taken care of, so one did concentrate on the birding, the mammals, and the wonderful landscape all the time, before being transported comfortably to the next place, and pampered there again. Thank you very much, Nikki and Ticky, and also Joan and Dan! I would gladly do it again!!

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