This nature reserve in the south of KwaZulu-Natal is not just a gem for birders, it’s a place to renew your soul
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick
See-saw, see-saw. The soft sound came from the thick undergrowth a few metres away, and I could barely make out the outline of the Red-capped Robin-Chat that called. Light rain pattered onto the thatch roof of my rondavel from where I watched. There was no wind, and I felt such peace, particularly after a week of aeroplanes, dodging taxi drivers with a death wish, and rushing between meetings and appointments.
When I first turned off the N2 highway en route to the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, and drove through endless sugarcane fields, I had not been particularly hopeful of enjoying a wilderness experience. But once I entered the gates of the Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve, I realised I was somewhere extremely special.
From the gate a steep track was bordered by dense vegetation, where blue-veined swallowtail and green-veined charaxy butterflies danced in the shafts of sunlight filtering through the dense treetops. Both Knysna and Purple-crested Turacos called from deep within the forest, and my patience was rewarded with glimpses of crimson as the birds flared their wings.
From behind some large boughs, a troop of vervet monkeys peered at me cautiously, and I waited quietly until the youngsters couldn’t restrain themselves from bounding down the trunks and cavorting in the open. I also saw a passing bird party led by noisy Square-tailed Drongos. Among them were Black-backed Puffbacks, Amethyst Sunbirds, Bar-throated Apalises, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatchers, a Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird and a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers tapping dead branches as they looked for wood-boring insects.
The narrow track eventually emerged onto a vast expanse of waving, green-gold, seed-laden grasses, where flocks of Yellow-crowned Bishops, Southern Red Bishops, and White-winged Widowbirds (6 on checklist) and Fan-tailed Widowbirds rose and fell as they moved from one feeding site to another. Zitting Cisticolas did as their name implies and ‘zitted’ (the call they make in flight) constantly just above the grasslands, probably trying to impress some disinterested female Cisticolas.
Yellow-throated Longclaw pairs called from the tops of small shrubs, and African Stonechat pairs used similar shrubs as lookout points, from which to launch after insect prey. Above the grasslands, Banded Martins (9), Black Saw-wings and Barn Swallows swooped after aerial plankton, scooping it up in their wide-open mouths. Dainty pinkish-white diorama flowers, pink watsonias and a variety of other yellow and pink flowers added colour to the grasslands that, in turn, attracted countless grasshoppers, butterflies and other insects to their colourful nectar-laden bounty.
On the final approach to the camp itself, I came across a large dam overflowing into the surrounding grasses, where blue wildebeest, blesbok, impala and Burchell’s zebra lazed on its banks. It was a privilege to watch a pair of Grey Crowned Cranes feeding their recently hatched chicks while on the open water. Yellow-billed Ducks and Spur-winged Geese floated with their heads tucked under their wings. Cape Longclaws, African Pipits and African Pied Wagtails (2) walked in the shorter grasses along the dam wall, stopping to peck at insects.
In the long sedges and reeds, Thick-billed Weavers built oval nests that looked like little ovens, and Pin-tailed Whydah males (1), with their distinctive black and white markings and long, trailing tails, closely followed a small flock of Common Waxbills (3).
After a quick check-in, I settled into the basic but comfortable rondavels at Nyengelezi hutted camp, and wandered in the camp surrounds to see what birding could be had. Not to disappoint, African Green Pigeons fed high in the tree canopy and the small flock of these parrot-like pigeons was soon joined by a pair of noisy Crowned Hornbills, which flew off shortly afterwards, looking unimpressed by the meal on offer. Black-collared Barbets, Dark-capped Bulbuls, Black-bellied Starlings and Black-headed Orioles were next to arrive, and the constantly wailing Trumpeter Hornbills could not hide their arrival to join in the feast of fruit on high.
In the undergrowth around the camp, tall stands of purple flowers attracted bees, butterflies and moths, and Eastern Olive Sunbirds and Grey Sunbirds (8) seemed to be more interested in feeding on the plentiful, small spiders around the plants, than on the nectar.
Mid-afternoon, heavy cloud quickly darkened the skies and, amid the thunder, large raindrops began to splatter earthwards. When it became heavier, I made a beeline back to the rondavel. But typical of most summer thundershowers in this region, the storm didn’t last and, as it eased, the Red-capped Robin-Chat began its distinctive call.
Just before dark, the birds seemed even more energetic and visible and a quick walk along one of the walking trails in the reserve took me past thickets of scarp forest where a Green Malkoha, a Black Cuckooshrike, Magpie Mannikins, Bronze Mannikins, Sombre Greenbuls, Cape Glossy Starlings (7), a Lemon Dove and, very specially, a male White-starred Robin-Chat were all seen. Kite spiders and bark spiders were quick to spin their orb-shaped webs in the gaps of branches, knowing the rain would activate an insect swarm that would hopefully end up in their larder.
As darkness fell, the rain returned, this time without the lightening and rumbling thunder, and the light patter of the raindrops quickly had me in a deep sleep. Only a dawn chorus of the Olive Thrush, Orange Ground Thrush, Cape White-eye and a high-flying, territorial African Goshawk disturbed me.
Sadly, with only a little time left, I took a short drive around a section of the reserve’s rolling hillsides that, in the crisp morning light, provided views of the distant Indian Ocean. The early rays brought a Burchell’s Coucal, Spectacled Weavers, Tawny-flanked Prinia (5)pairs and Red-eyed Doves to their own private north-facing perches, where they lapped up the vitamin D.
On the forest edge, Common Fiscals, Fiscal Flycatchers, Diderick’s Cuckoos, Dusky Flycatchers and Terrestrial Brownbuls were new additions to the previous days sightings, while the grasslands added Crowned Lapwings, Southern Masked Weavers and Rattling Cisticolas.
As I exited the gate and entered the monotonous sugarcane fields, I reflected on the brochure advertising Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve as a hidden gem, where birds, flowers and insects abound. It was indeed correct but it had left out the important bit of being the perfect spot to refresh your soul.
CHECKLIST 10 specials to try and spot in Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve
- The Pin-Tailed Whydah (Koningrooibekkie) is polygamous when breeding. Common Waxbills are primary hosts with Orange-breasted- and Swee Waxbills secondary.
- A common resident that mainly feeds on invertebrates, the African Pied Wagtail (Bontkwikkie) will occasionally take seeds.
- The Common Waxbill (Rooibeksysie) builds a pear-shaped nest of grass that is placed low down near the ground. Animal fur and scat are often added to the outside of the nest, presumably to deter predators.
- The Red-collared Widowbird (Rooikeelflap) is a common resident of tall grasslands. It mainly feeds on grass seed but will take insects and small berries on occasion.
- Usually found in pairs or small family groups, the Tawny-flanked Prinia (Bruinsylangstertjie) calls constantly while moving through the bushes in search of food, and utters a repetitive teep-teep-teep.
- During the breeding season, the male White-winged Widowbird (Witvlerkflap) gets his distinctive black plumage with yellow shoulder patch and white wing bars.
- The Cape Glossy Starling (Kleinglanspreeu) occurs across the east and north of South Africa. It is monogamous and usually builds its nest in the natural hollows of trees.
- Restricted to the eastern coastal belt where it inhabits forests and dry woodland, the Grey Sunbird (Grysuikerbekkie) feeds on insects and spiders.
- The Banded Martin (Gebande Oewerswael) favours grasslands and marshy areas where it hunts on the wing, taking flying insects as prey. It is an intra-African migrant that is present during the summer months.
- A common Palearctic migrant between October and April, the Steppe Buzzard (Bruinjakkalsvoël) is best viewed when it perches on a prominent position low to the ground and launches after prey.