A visit to KwaZulu-Natal is not complete without a stop at the Ongoye Forest. Situated 150km north of Durban between Mtunzini, Eshowe and Empangeni, this 2 000-hectare coastal scarp forest is home to several special residents.
Apart from the green-banded swallowtail butterfly (Papilio nireus yaeus), the forest is also home to the well-known green barbet, which is found in certain East African forests, but not usually south of Malawi. The Ongoye Forest population is the only place in South Africa where you can tick them off your bucket list.
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An abundance of fig trees makes the Ongoye Forest the ideal habitat, as green barbets are specialist frugivores requiring a good supply of fig fruit for most of the year. Although they do sometimes feed on other forest tree fruit when fig fruit is scarce, this is not the norm.
Unlike other forests in the region, Ongoye is especially rich in fig tree diversity. Nine species of fig occur in the forest and forest margins. the most important of which is the Natal fig (Ficus natalensis) and common wild fig (Ficus burket). No other forests in Southern Africa have that same diversity or density of fig trees.
The estimated breeding population in the Ongoye Forest is in the region of 200-300 pairs. They excavate nesting holes in decaying tree limbs during the hottest months of the year, November to March.
Scaly-throated honeyguides sometimes parasitise the barbet nests. where they lay their similarly white-coloured eggs. While in the forest, look out for the other barbet species too – the white-eared and black-collared barbets are also residents.
Your best chance of seeing the green barbet is early in the morning when they are most vocal, and especially in the summer months when they breed. Their unique and distinctive ‘choc, choc, choc· call is easy to recognise.
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To reach the Ongoye Forest, take the R102 just west of Mtunzini. After 5km, turn right onto the tar road, which takes you up the surrounding hills and through the western edge of the forest.
Words and Photography Hugh Chittenden
The green barbet, the exclusive residents of Ongoye Forest originally appeared on Safari.com/news on 22 January 2019.
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