Finally, after the rains, the drought-ridden landscape of Hluhluwe has on a new skirt. This is Zululand at its best…
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick, www.peterchadwick.co.za
Sunbeams punctured the light mist, and the smell of fresh wet soil filled the air as the white rhino cow and her six-month-old calf emerged from the thicket along the Hluhluwe River in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. Recent rains had transformed the drought-ridden landscape, and the rhinos eagerly munched the flush of new grass.
A flock of active Crested Guineafowls scratched for insects in the rhino dung midden. Occasionally, they’d chase each other in a mad frenzy, and suddenly stop and start preening without an apparent care in the world. Large dung beetles took advantage and used the birds’ feeding gaps to roll away large balls of dung to later bury for their larvae to grow inside and feed on.
Pairs of Gorgeous Bushshrikes, whose beauty of red and green is hidden from the casual observer, called in duet from the surrounding shrubbery. Red-chested Cuckoos joined them in song with their repetitive calls of ‘Piet- my-vrou’. This was undoubtedly Zululand at its best. Hluhluwe Game Reserve was certainly living up to its reputation as one of South Africa’s finest wild places.
I arrived at the Hluhluwe section of the park just as the gates opened, and made the most of numerous looping gravel roads to view the reserve’s diversity. Magangeni Loop was first up, with open grasslands bisected by patches of thicket vegetation.
Pairs of Yellow-throated Longclaws (4 on checklist) and African Pipits wandered about plucking insects from between the grass tufts. Rufous-naped Larks were everywhere as they displayed with penetrating calls from prominent perches.
High in a fever tree, a young Wahlberg’s Eagle was learning to fly. The chocolate-brown raptor, with much encouragement from its loudly calling parents, would fall off the edge of the large stick nest and flap wildly before managing a semblance of balanced flight. After a wide loop, the young bird would return to the nest, often landing in an undignified jumble of feathers.
Small groups of giraffes browsed on the crown of acacia trees as Red-billed Oxpeckers clambered over their hides, preening between the giraffe’s hair for any juicy parasites.
After the rain, the air was filled with thousands of small midges and flying ants, all eagerly devoured by troops of vervet monkeys. Tree agamas and rock monitor lizards joined in the feast, as did Crested Barbets, Rattling Cisticolas, Dark-capped Bulbuls, Fork-tailed Drongos and Cape Glossy Starlings.
Meandering along the banks of the Hluhluwe River, Isivivaneni Loop was largely dry but for a few isolated muddy pools. African Sacred Ibises, African Openbills, Grey Herons, Goliath Herons, Woolly-necked Storks (9) and Hammerkop pairs stood around the water’s edge hoping for fish. African Pied Wagtails, Common- and Wood Sandpipers (7) wandered between the larger birds, pausing occasionally to pluck at a small insect, crustacean or mollusc.
Several Three-banded Plovers took turns to mock mate, irritating the Blacksmith Lapwings that then took out their frustration by chasing the plovers’ smaller relatives. At one of the waterholes, flocks of Wattled Starlings (8), Chestnut-backed Sparrow Larks (5), Purple-crested Turacos and Greater Honeyguides arrived to drink and bath, splashing wildly as Cape Buffalo bulls waded into the mud to wallow away the day.
In the surrounding bushveld, a dainty red duiker moved cautiously with constantly flicking tail, disturbing a small flock of Blue Waxbills and an Eastern Nicator (6) and Red-capped Robin-Chat that sang from a low perch. Amur Falcons, Barn Swallows, Lesser Striped Swallows, Red-breasted Swallows (1) and White-rumped Swifts swooped after aerial insects. A Brown Snake-Eagle hovered for several seconds before plunging to the ground to grab a large writhing snake.
I followed the road to Isivivaneni Lookout and turned back up to Hilltop Camp, where the landscape stretched below the deck. A trio of Cape Buffalo bulls confirmed the nearby signage that dangerous animals could be seen in the area.
On every visit to this special reserve, I always make time to wander through the campsite gardens. There, birding parties in the variety of trees always produce Olive Sunbirds, Orange-breasted Bushshrikes, Black-backed Puffbacks, Brubrus, Green Wood-Hoopoes, Brown-hooded Kingfishers, Ashy Tits, Yellow-breasted Apalises and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls.
Collared-, White-Bellied- and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds fed on the aloe or Cape honeysuckle flowers, and Trumpeter Hornbills, Crowned Hornbills, Amethyst Starlings, Black-bellied Starlings and White-eared Barbets (3) were regulars in the tree tops. Kurrichane Thrushes, Emerald-spotted Wood-Doves, Hadedahs and Crested Francolins wandered the green lawns between relaxed bushbuck and occasional samango monkeys.
I headed south along the winding tar road to the loop roads that cover the crowns of hilltops around Thiyeni Hide and the Seme and Mnqabatheki lookouts. Adult chacma baboons rested in the shade along the sandy river beds as their youngsters cavorted and played, swinging in the low branches.
As an African Pygmy Kingfisher darted away from the rank grasses next to the river bed, I added White-winged Widowbirds, a Burchell’s Coucal (10) and Red-billed Queleas and to my bird list. A massive Martial Eagle soared regally and effortlessly overhead and European Rollers (2) and Red-backed Shrikes, which had migrated here for the summer, were regularly seen on their prominent perches.
Seme Waterhole, a favourite stopoff point, was caked with dried mud and the Burchell’s zebras could only roll in the dust. Several stood watching a distant pride of lionesses that fed lazily on the remains of one of their brothers. Plenty of White-backed Vultures had gathered in the surrounding dead trees, patiently waiting for their turn.
Certainly the drought had severely gripped this ancient landscape, but after rain came the reminder that life here in the wild was still plentiful and diverse and, as always, the birding splendid. Good enough reason for it to be a perennial Zululand favourite.
Season & Weather
Summer is extremely hot and humid and afternoon thundershowers can be expected. Winter is more pleasant with cool temperatures and stabler weather patterns. This is a malaria area.
Hluhluwe has steep wooded hills with grass-covered slopes and riverine woodland. There are many rivers and streams lined with acacia grassland and combretum woodland.
- Lappet-faced Vulture
- Martial Eagle
- White-faced Bee-eater
- Purple-crested Turaco
- African Pygmy Kingfisher
- Gorgeous Bush-Shrike
- Marico Sunbird
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot in Hluhluwe Game Reserve
The Red-breasted Swallow (Rooiborsswael) is an intra-African migrant that breeds in Southern Africa between August and April. The nest is a bowl of mud pellets with a long tubular entrance, and two to four white eggs are laid.
Inhabiting rank grassland, the Yellow-throated Longclaw (Geelkeelkalkoentjie) is usually found in pairs or small groups of up to five or six birds. It forages on the ground for insects and when disturbed will crouch low before flying to a tree top.
The Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark (Rooiruglewerik) is a common nomad that occurs in large flocks, favouring sparse savannah and recently burnt areas. The male has a rich chestnut back and wings with contrasting black and white head and black belly. The female is a mottled buff.
Breeding in Europe and Asia, the Wood Sandpiper (Bosruiter) migrates to Southern Africa in our summer. When disturbed, it rises suddenly with a three-note whistle and, on landing, will bob its body briefly. It feeds on small molluscs, crustaceans and insects.
The male Wattled Starling (Lelspreeu) has large black wattles on its throat. It is a highly gregarious species that seldom remains in one area for long. Nests are large untidy balls of sticks with a top or side entrance.
The Woolly-necked Stork (Wolnekooievaar) forages for large insects, fish, frogs and molluscs on the water’s edge where it walks along slowly or stands for long periods. It is attracted to burnt veld, and roosts in trees at night.
Accommodation & Activities
A wide network of roads allows self-driving throughout the reserve. There is a self-guided walking trail in the camp grounds of Hilltop Camp, and short walks of about two hours with an experienced field ranger, booked at reception.
Morning and evening game drives are also booked there. Hilltop Camp is on the summit of a forested hill, and has a range of accommodation from safari tents and two-bed rondavels to four-bed, self-contained chalets and cottages. No camping is permitted.
Follow the N2 between Richards Bay and Pongola until the turn-off to Hluhluwe village. Follow the road signs to reach Memorial Gate.
Add more of our birding checklists to your own as you travel the countryside.