Going to Ndumo Game Reserve, on the Mozambique border in northern Zululand, about 60km from the coast is an absolute thrill in itself and something I do every summer. The remoteness is a big plus … even though you are aware there are other people around, you never see them! The last few years have not brought any lifers in amongst the hordes of birds, but this year was different!
While the wife – on her first camping trip with me! – was having a mid-day nap (yes, I wore her out with all the birding), I was pottering around camp, spotting what I could.
The scream of a Goldentailed Woodpecker alerted me to its presence in the trees a little way from our camp, but then we had a very special visitor in a Neergaard’s Sunbird in the tree in front of me. He hopped around quite low for a bit, giving me probably my best ever views of this sought-after bird that is restricted to the tropical east coast.
Shortly thereafter, there seemed to be a lot of activity going on up towards the car park so I thought I’d go have a squizz. Four Crowned Hornbill were dashing around in animated fashion so I kept my eye on them … They were mobbing a small raptor and actually chasing it.
I followed the melee for a good 300 metres, from tree-to-tree, the raptor often hiding in thick leaves on top of the trees … before it was eventually driven away from the main camp.
But the telltale grey back, brownish streaks below and heavily banded tail left me in no doubt that I had my first Sooty Falcon. It was a juvenile, but to get it in such exciting fashion also made it a special sighting.
Arriving on April 10, the bush was actually pretty quiet and most of the summer migrants had already left, although I did get a good sighting of a female Diederick Cuckoo sitting on a stump on our way to the main camp on the first afternoon.
The ubiquitous Nyala was the first creature we saw and we had a lovely Pale Flycatcher as our companion at our campsite.
The first morning was spent driving around the acacia woodland in the south-west and we spotted Green Pigeon, Bearded Woodpecker, Crested Guineafowl and Striped Kingfisher, as well as Giraffe, Red Duiker and Kudu among the more common animals.
We had our first look at Nyamithi Pan that afternoon and, although it sounded rather quiet walking down to the hide through the prickly sand forest, accompanied by our ever-present B52 dragonflies, the water levels were receding and there was quite a bit of life around.
Stacks of Yellowbilled Stork were nesting in the Fever Trees on the far side of the pan, while a couple of Pied Avocet, sweeping side-to-side, were a highlight. Wiretailed Swallow had a nest in the hide and there were also Openbilled Stork, Glossy Ibis, Squacco Heron, Woollynecked Stork, Pinkbacked Pelican (sharing the Yellowbilled’s tree) and Purple Heron.
The second morning was spent driving through the sand forest to Red Cliffs, where we had the traditional breakfast overlooking the Usuthu River and Mozambique, at one of the most tranquil spots on earth!
There initially weren’t many birds around though, apart from a White-Eared Barbet sitting high above the river, but then a bird party arrived and Fantailed Flycatcher and Black Saw-Wing Swallow were among the busyness.
On the way back to camp, I finally spotted a Whitebrowed Scrub Robin, which had been calling from hidden lairs for ages, and was interested to note very cinnamon flanks – a bit like the ovamboensis sub-species of northern Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe.
After the thrill of Neergaard’s Sunbird and Sooty Falcon at main camp, we returned to Nyamithi Pan without adding much except some European Swallows which were still around. We did some night driving to see what we could spot before 6pm and, as I turned the car around to head back to camp, there frozen in the headlights, not much bigger than a cat and standing on spindly little legs, was a Suni! It was only my second sighting of this elusive miniature antelope!
We did a guided walk to Paradise Pan, a north-eastern extension of Nyamithi, on our final morning and, on the drive down, spotted Lesser Blackwinged Plover and Palmnut Vulture where we always get them, at the vulture restaurant.
We went on foot from the second hide at Nyamithi, almost immediately flushing a Blackcrowned Night Heron. Water was not flowing over the concourse where the crocodiles normally wait but, in the pool below were two African Finfoot who dashed off in great alarm in a splash of wings and big orange feet.
There was also a Goliath Heron nearby and, after passing a quiet, but promising-looking Paradise Pan, we walked along the shore of Nyamithi Pan, passing close to the trees where all the Yellowbilled Stork, Pinkbacked Pelican and Whitebreasted Cormorant were nesting and allowed us a remarkably close approach without kicking up much fuss.
A delightful group of Whitecrowned Helmetshrikes were our fluttery companions for a while, before Joseph, our excellent guide, spotted that the “wood sandpiper” we were looking at didn’t have the white eyebrow extending beyond the eye – making it a very exciting Green Sandpiper. I was thinking it looked quite dark for its more common cousin, which was lurking just a little further along.
Kittlitz’s Plover was also present in the drying mud, while Yellowbilled Egret completed the set of egrets for us and we were able to marvel at the efficiency of dung beetles in turning piles of warthog poo into finely cut slivers of grass!
On the way back, I spotted Bluecheeked Bee-Eaters wheeling about and there was another sighting of Finfoot! Even Joseph was excited.
The final packing up at camp yielded Scarletchested Sunbird and one last look at the trees at the office yielded two favourites – Plumcoloured Starling and Yellow White-Eye.
A Bateleur was a farewell present from one of my favourite places on earth.
Southern Black Flycatcher
Emeraldspotted Wood Dove
Southern Greyheaded Sparrow
Southern Black Tit
Great White Egret
African Pied Wagtail
Black Saw-Wing Swallow
Whitebrowed Scrub Robin
Lesser Blackwinged Plover
Blackcrowned Night Heron
African Fish Eagle