Avian Utopia

A fortuitous turn off the beaten track took Peter Chadwick to the bird-lover’s paradise of Umlalazi

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As I lay in my tent, below the massive deciduous tree, whose branches split up the clear starry sky, I listened to a pair of calling African wood owls, the distant screeching of Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit-bats and the crying of thick-tailed bushbabies. To me this was the perfect way to drift away into sleep – and to think that I had only turned off the N2, to pass through the town of Mtunzini and drive to Umlalazi Nature Reserve on a last minute whim!

My intentions had initially been to head north from Durban and visit the more famous Zululand reserves, which are renowned for their birding and good game viewing. It was however mid-morning and I was craving a snack and an opportunity to stretch my legs. My deviation off the N2 lead me to the raffia palm forest on the outskirts of the town, where i was soon viewing a pair of adult palm-nut vultures, and that were having a mid-air brawl with a pair of African fish eagles. With such a great introduction, I decided to spend a while longer walking amongst the raffia palms and the thick coastal vegetation to see what other birds I could add to my list. Square-tailed drongos, red-fronted tinkerbirds, black-bellied starlings and African paradise flycatchers were soon ticked off. Red-capped robin-chat called softly from the thick undergrowth and a troop of vervet monkeys bounced through the branches above me, chattering at an African goshawk that had made a brief and swooping appearance. The moist forest floor attracted large numbers of butterflies with the most notable being the large and dazzling green-veined charaxes, mother-of-pearl butterfly and large swallowtails. Walking below the raffia palms, whose fronds where so densely packed that they blocked out the rays of the sun, I was fortunate enough to see a pair of black-throated wattle-eyes as they made repeated launches after flying insects. eastern olive sunbirds flew rapidly amongst the upper canopy and both sombre greenbul and yellow-bellied greenbul were heard calling amongst the thickets.

Once back at my vehicle and with the entrance to Umlalazi Nature Reserve being close by, I decided to drive through the gates to the reserve and see what was on offer. Close to the gate, a pair of trumpeter hornbills sat preening one another in a dead tree whilst above them hundreds of little Swifts wheeled and turned, constantly screaming with high-pitched calls. Turning immediately left along a tar road, I crawled along at snails pace, craning my neck to see into the dense overhanging thicket. This was very soon rewarded with a yellow-rumped tinkerbird, african yellow white-eyes and a juvenile orange-breasted bush-shrike. Next to the road a brightly colored blood lilly pushed up from the forest floor detritus and in the shadows small mushrooms erupted next to a decaying tree stump. The roadway soon opened up into the picnic sites alongside the lagoon, where families sat fishing and enjoying a weekend break. Scanning along the far side of the lagoon with binoculars, little egrets, white-breasted and reed cormorants and African darters were quickly ignored as I sighted a goliath heron standing motionless in the water, patiently waiting for a passing fish. The real highlight however was a mangrove kingfisher sitting on a torn mangrove branch. Both pied and giant kingfishers sat on branches overhanging the water and along the grassy banks African pied wagtails walked confidingly amongst the feet of the fishermen. A small herd of very relaxed Burchells zebra blocked the roadway and when they eventually moved off onto the grassy verges, they were joined by a fork-tailed drongo who used the animals to chase up insects that it then quickly snatched up.

Another troop of vervet monkeys fed on the gum oozing from acacia trees which they were careful not to get on their fur. The troop soon left the trees and wandered over to the mangrove swamps and mud flats that were now exposed due to the low tide. Hundreds of red-clawed mangrove crabs were emerging from their burrows in the mud and were busy collecting fallen leaves and posturing to one another with their hugely enlarged pincers. The vervets cautiously stalked and pounced upon these crabs and then sat chewing the crabs, occasionally spitting out the hard pieces of shells. Wooly-necked stork, Egyptian goose, blacksmith lapwings and three-banded and kitlitz plovers also fed amongst the mangroves, making the most of the rich food sources that the mudflats provided. On a nearby pole, truncated mangrove snails were densely packed and out of reach of the high water mark.

Passing through the mangroves, the vegetation changed into a small patch of acacia woodland with long densely matted grasses lying below the trees. Off in the distance a long-crested eagle perched high up and cardinal and Bennett’s woodpecker drummed into dead branches. A small birding party comprising of long-billed crombec, yellow-breasted and bar-throated apalis’s, black-backed puffback, cape white-eyes and dark-capped bulbul all moved together through the trees. Tawny-flanked prinias and zitting and rattling cisticolas sat on top of wavy grass stems and called loudly proclaiming their territories to their neighbors. Further on, spectacled weaver, spotted flycatcher, brown-hooded kingfisher and a striped kingfisher were added to a very rapidly growing bird list. Returning along the same road I disturbed a squacco Heron standing motionless up against the river bed and nearby, on a small causeway, a pair of wire-tailed swallows rested briefly before once again taking to the air to hawk insects over the lagoon, together with black saw-wings.

On returning to the entrance gate to the reserve, I followed the road towards the campsites and coastline. The road passed through a large reed-bed where thick-billed weavers were collecting nesting material for their oven shaped nests and a pair of hamerkops flew overhead carrying large sticks in their bills which would be added to their massive nests. In a large fruiting fig-tree black-collared barbets, flocks of black-bellied starlings, black-headed orioles, southern boubous, African dusky flycatchers and white-eared barbets all fed on either the ripe fruits or on the insects that were attracted to the tree.

Passing the campsite where a small flock of green twinspots, red-eyed doves and Cape wagtails fed on the ground, I entered the dense coastal dune forest and watched as numerous red duikers and the occasional bushbuck fed amongst the openings in the forest. Above them purple-crested turacos hopped around the branches, intermittently flashing their crimson wings. The short stretch of road led down to the parking area near the beach from where a short boardwalk took me down onto a large curving bay overlooking the deep blue Indian Ocean that crashed upon pristine beaches in long rolling waves. On the beaches, kelp and grey-headed gulls and swift terns huddled in small groupings with heads tucked into their wings and white-fronted plovers scurried to and fro together with the incoming and receding waves.

After spending an hour reflecting the hustle and bustle of life on top of one of the sand dunes, I returned to the campsite and decided that it would be well worth setting up camp and spending a night in this small, compact but yet extremely diverse nature reserve which had presented such an exciting array of bird, animal and insect life.

Contact information:

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Reservations:

Tel: 033 8451000

Email: bookings@kznwildlife.com

www.kznwildlife.com

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