This story was first published on 7 December 2015 and was updated on 29 January 2019 by Leigh Hermon.
In the far northern reaches of KwaZulu-Natal in the Somkhanda Game Reserve, the birds just come to you. Peter Chadwick rounds up 10 specials to put on your checklist.
About 50km from the Swaziland border, the 12 000ha Somkhanda Game Reserve has rolling hills of woodlands and grasslands that are awash with birds. It’s owned by the Gumbi tribe, who are assisted by African Insight, an environmentally responsible travel and eco-volunteer management company. African Insight and the Wildlands Conservation Trust are assisting the Gumbis in ensuring that this magnificent landscape is properly managed as a top conservation area and tourism destination.
What’s there to see?
At Kudu Lodge, cottages on a ridge catch the breeze as they overlook the valleys, and are the ideal spot for watching a variety of raptors and vultures ride the rising thermals. From my comfortable deck chair under the rough-barked marula trees scattered around the chalets, I watched Bateleurs, Tawny Eagles, Brown Snake Eagles, Wahlberg’s Eagles, Jackal Buzzards, Yellow-billed Kites and White-backed Vultures soar past.
Not only is the camp great for watching these large birds, but there is also a constant flurry of activity from birding parties. Southern Black Flycatchers (2 on checklist), Fork-tailed Drongos, Dark-capped Bulbuls and Kurrichane Thrushes are regulars in the camp, while Bearded Woodpeckers, Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, Cardinal Woodpeckers, Red-billed Queleas (4), Spectacled Weavers, Black-backed Puffbacks, Blue Waxbills (3), Yellow-eyed Canaries, Scimitarbills, African Paradise Flycatchers, Yellow Weavers, Olive Sunbirds and Ashy Flycatchers make repeated appearances.
These small birds entice Little Sparrowhawks, African Goshawks and Shikras that fly in silently to perch against the trunk of a large tree. Out of sight, these voracious predators wait patiently and, when the time is right, launch lightening strikes, chasing and occasionally catching the small birds that scatter in panic with loud alarm calls.
Things to know
Season and Weather
Summer months are extremely hot and humid, often with afternoon thundershowers. This is a malaria area. Winter weather is pleasant with cool temperatures and more stable weather patterns.
Steep wooded hills with grassy slopes and riverine woodland.
- Verreaux’s Eagle Owl
- African Paradise Flycatcher
- Gorgeous Bush Shrike
- Olive Sunbird
- Pink-throated Twinspot
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot at Somkhanda
Easily distinguished from the larger Greater-striped Swallow, the Lesser-striped Swallow (Kleinstreepswael) has a more heavily streaked chest. An intra-African breeding migrant, it visits South Africa between August and March.
Occurring in small family parties of up to five birds, the Southern Black Flycatcher (Swartvlieëvanger) is often found with Fork-tailed Drongos that it closely resembles in appearance and habit. This mimicry of the more aggressive drongo is undoubtedly adaptive.
The Blue Waxbill (Gewone Blousysie) occurs in pairs when breeding, otherwise is a gregarious species found in groups of up to 40 birds. It forages on the ground, flying to the nearest tree or bush when disturbed.
Said to be the most numerous bird in Africa, the Red-billed Quelea (Rooibekkwelea) is a highly nomadic species, its numbers varying according to food availability. Some flocks reach plague proportion of hundreds of thousands. Flocks are densely packed and fly in a highly synchronised, fast flight.
The male Greater Honeyguide (Grootheuningwyser) has fixed call-sites usually high in a tall tree. Some such sites have been known to have been used for more than 20 years. This species does guide people to beehives.
The Sabota Lark (Sabotalewerik) is found in thorny bushveld with tall grass. It often perches and sings from the top of a bush or tree. On the ground, it walks with a crouched posture as it searches for seeds and insect prey.
The Crested Francolin (Bospatrys) is one of the most recognisable calls of the bushveld especially at dawn and dusk, when it is most vocal. It often runs with its tail cocked and prefers to escape by running into dense vegetation rather than flying away.
The White-browed Scrub-Robin (Gestreepte Wipstert) breeds from September to January and builds a bulky cup of coarse grasses that is neatly lined with finer grass and rootlets. Its 2-4-egg clutch is white with light brown spots.
Feeding mainly on large insects, molluscs, frogs and fish, the Woolly-necked Stork (Wolnekooievaar) feeds at the edge of the water, walking slowly or standing still for long periods. It is usually found alone or in pairs.
With a length of up to 65cm, the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (Reuse-ooruil) is largest in Southern Africa. It is fairly common in bushveld areas and is often heard giving a hooting call for long periods. Its extremely varied diet includes small insects and mammals, birds up to the size of guineafowl and even other owl species.
Accommodation & Activities
Accommodation at Somkhanda comprises a number of comfortable, self-catering facilities that share a kitchen. There is a swimming pool and a restaurant, and guided game drives and bush walks.
African Insight operate fully guided tours at Somkhanda with full board packages at Kudu Lodge.
From Durban, head north along the N2, continuing beyond Richard’s Bay and Hluhluwe. After passing Mkhuze, continue for 19km and turn left onto the R69 dirt road. From Joburg, follow the N2 to Pongola. Turn right onto the R66 and after 29km turn left onto the R69. The entrance is a further 15km.
- African Insight: [email protected]
Add more of our birding checklists to your own as you travel the countryside.
Words and Photography Peter Chadwick peterchadwick.co.za