This story was first published in the May 2019 issue of SA COUNTRY LIFE.
🕒 10-minute read
The Ngoye Forest is home to the elusive Green Barbet and Sakhamuzi Mhlongo will help you spot it, says Tania Anderson.
“I live and breathe birding, it’s my passion,” says Sakhamuzi Mhlongo as we follow a winding road shaded by tall trees into Ngoye Forest. We are on our way to see some endangered and very localised birds. Ngoye Forest is not what you would imagine a forest to be like if you have only visited the Knysna Forest. It is a small relict scarp Afromontane forest about 11 kilometres inland and northwest of Mtunzini on the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
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Fig-eaters of the Forests
“This is the only place in Southern Africa where the Green Barbet (1 on the checklist) occurs. And there are only 200 to 300 pairs here,” says Sakhamuzi. With Sakhamuzi or fellow bird guide Junior Gabela’s guidance, birders have a 90 per cent chance of seeing the Green Barbet in Ngoye Forest, while birding on their own drops their chance to around 30 per cent.
“Other specials and some of my favourites to see in Ngoye are the Narina Trogon (2), Green Malkoha (7) and Green Twinspot (6). We usually find the forest birds by listening for their calls and then slowly and quietly walking towards them,” he says. “In spring the ‘pretty Georgie’ call leads you to the brilliant green African Emerald Cuckoo (8),” says Sakhamuzi. There is a rustling in the leaves and we try to glimpse the Spotted Ground Thrush (4).
Knowing Where to Look
Sakhamuzi’s stomping grounds include the swamp forest, dune forest, coastal scarp and mistbelt forests, interspersed with a network of river valleys and rolling grasslands of southern Zululand. He knows these areas intimately.
“To find the special birds, we bird in Ngoye Forest and Umlalazi Nature Reserve near Mtunzini, Nkandla Forest, Dlinza Forest in Eshowe, Amatikulu Nature Reserve, Gingindlovu, and north to Richards Bay,” explains Sakhamuzi.
“But my favourite birding patch is Ngoye Forest. It has nine fig-tree species, more than any other forest around here (they usually have four or five), and the Green Barbets love their fruit. There are figs available throughout the year and this may be why Green Barbets are only found in this forest.
“Did you know that some fig-eating birds only like eating the larger figs in the tree canopies and others prefer to eat smaller figs on the tree stems lower down?” he asks. The vertical distribution of forest fruits is one reason there are so many fruit-eating species in the forest. Each to his own favourite restaurant.
Ngoye Forest has a rich diversity of wildlife. This is also the only purlieu of the Ngoye red squirrel. “Once you’ve ticked the Green Barbet, if you look carefully and spend more time in the forest, you may see the Dhlinza dwarf chameleon, which is very rare and not found in all the forests in this region. There are a great number of rare and localised plants in the forest too, and the Ngoye dwarf cycad is one of the more popular ones to see,” says Sakhamuzi.
For the Love of Birds
His love for birding began in the grasslands at his home village Nyoni (which means birds) near Amatikulu.
“I learnt to identify most of the birds and loved watching them calling and feeding, and got to know their preferred habitats and food,” he recalls.
This is the best place to learn, as you can see up to 300 bird species in the region and in the coastal, riparian and dune forests, grassland, lala palm bushveld and estuary in Amatikulu Nature Reserve. This nature reserve lies at the confluence of the Nyoni and Amatikulu rivers and is his destination for finding specials like the Swamp Nightjar (5) and rare African Finfoot.
“After deciding I wanted to work with birds, I trained as a bird guide in 2000 in Wakkerstroom and became a BirdLife South Africa accredited guide,” says Sakhamuzi. He is too humble to mention that he is recognised as, and won awards for being one of the top guides in South Africa.
“My mentors were Duncan Pritchard, an avitourism professional (now Director of ETC Africa and co-owner of Tidal Tao) and Hugh Chittenden, author and top bird photographer.” With more than 600 birds on his list, Sakhamuzi hopes to be able to travel to Mozambique to see the African Pitta.
“It’s top of my wish list,” he smiles. “But I’m grateful that I live right next to the beautiful Amatikulu Nature Reserve where I can spend time driving around with my wife and 10-year-old twins spotting wildlife and the most colourful birds.”
Doing what he loves best, he often guides for Rockjumper Birding Tours, Lawson’s Safaris, and Birding Ecotours.
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“Many of my international clients really enjoy visiting the Nkandla mistbelt forest to see Orange Ground Thrush (9) and Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon (3), and the lagoon and mangrove forest of Umlalazi Nature Reserve to find the overwintering Mangrove Kingfisher (10) and Palmnut Vulture.
“Many people are blown away by their birding experience in my region and are very grateful. I once took a British lady and her blind husband to Dlinza Forest, and had to identify all the bird calls, describe what the forest looked like, give them fruits to taste and leaves to touch so that he could picture what we could see.
“They loved the experience so much that when I was at the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water in England, two years later, they drove three hours to come and visit me. It was so touching.”
Preserving the Future
It is, however, through environmental education that Sakhamuzi is having the most impact. Over the past decade he has helped with youth education programmes through the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa and works with the Department of Education to conduct weekly environmental education classes in Eshowe, where they learn all about forest ecology.
“I also really enjoy helping to promote the Zululand Birding Route and being a mentor to guides in training.”
Sakhamuzi is a great ambassador for bird conservation and the tourism industry as a whole. “The people in my village and near the reserves see the value of birds and are supporting bird conservation and creating things like crafts to sell,” he says. “So support your local bird guides, it will help grow sustainable ecotourism.”
Sakhamuzi Mhlongo’s Top 10 Birds to Spot in Ngoye Forest
1. The Green Barbet’s (Groenhoutkapper’s) only habitat in South Africa is the Ngoye Forest. Is this because it loves figs and is choosy about its food and nesting tree, or are its numbers so low now because of limited patches of scarp Afromontane forest left?
2. Narina Trogon (Bosloerie) is a popular bird to spot because of its magnificent colours. Most of my clients want to see this bird and I enjoy spotting it every time we come across it.
3. The Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon (Withalsbosduif) is usually above the canopy flying from one patch of forest to the next. It eats mostly fruits, berries, seeds, some insect larvae, and cicada nymphs.
4. The Spotted Ground Thrush (Natallyster) is a difficult bird to spot as it is well-camouflaged and feeds between leaves on the forest floor. It is secretive and has beautiful markings on its chest.
5. The Swamp Nightjar (Natalse Naguil) is always fun to look for and it can best be seen on bare patches as it gets dark. Easy to spot in Amatikulu Nature Reserve, in low-lying wetter areas near swamps. The song of the male is a monotonous ‘chop, chop, chop’.
6. The Green Twinspot (Groenkolpensie) is a favourite because it is so small, with a mix of fabulous colours, but it is easily overlooked in the forest undergrowth. If you know its call, you can find it, and waiting patiently at a spot full of its favourite seeding grasses in forest clearings may be worthwhile.
7. The secretive Green Malkoha (Groenvleiloerie) is green all over except for its yellow bill, which makes it hard to spot. If you find a bird-feeding party or squirrels, you may see it hopping through the tangled vegetation after them to catch the insects they flush. Besides insects, it also feeds on frogs, slugs, fruit, seeds and leaves.
8. The African Emerald Cuckoo (Mooimeisie) males are emerald green with beautiful, goldenyellow breasts. The female is duller with green and brown on its back and a green and white breast. Sometimes it can take a number of expeditions into the forest to find this bird.
9. Orange Ground Thrush (Oranjelyster) has similar habits to the Spotted Ground Thrush, and is only found in montane forests. Its orange throat, breast and flanks make it easier to spot. It is mostly active at dawn and dusk, so that is the best time to be on the lookout for it. (Picture Gareth Chittenden)
10. The Mangrove Kingfisher (Manglietvisvanger) is often seen in the lagoon and mangroves in Umlalazi Nature Reserve during winter. In summer it moves inland to riparian thicket and coastal forests to breed. The combination of bright blue on the wings and its red bill makes it particularly beautiful. It eats fish, crabs, prawns, lizards and insects.
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Words Tania Anderson
Photography Hugh Chittenden, Tania Anderson and Supplied