iSimangaliso Wetland Park… where lakes, swamps, dunes, coastal forest and the Indian Ocean add up to a birding paradise
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick
A flock of prehistoric-looking Greater Flamingos flew low across Lake St Lucia, where I stood barefoot on the wooden jetty near Charters Creek.
On the muddy beaches in the early light, I could see the spoor of hippo, crocodile, waterbuck, Burchell’s zebra, common reedbuck, porcupine and water mongoose – signs of the rich life in what is one of South Africa’s most diverse and special places.
Lake St Lucia is surrounded in places by mangrove swamps, dense reed beds and rims of water lilies, and forms the core of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site. The park extends from Kosi Bay in the north to Mapelane in the south and across to Mkuze Game Reserve in the west.
To the east of the lake are long ridges of forested dunes that lead to extensive, pristine beaches, where thousands of ghost crabs scurry about for food. These titanium-rich beaches are, in turn, the gateway to the warm, tropical and coral-rich waters of the Maputaland Marine Protected Area.
The vast lake – 80km long and 23km at its widest point – is one of the most important breeding areas for waterbirds in South Africa, and supports healthy numbers of Great White Pelicans, Marabou Storks (8 on checklist), Yellow-billed Storks, African Spoonbills and, of course, healthy populations of African Fish Eagles (3) whose calls can be heard repeatedly along its shoreline.
The best way to view the bird life of the lake is on a late-afternoon cruise on one of the fully equipped boats that leave from near the entrance to St Lucia town. African Openbills, Woolly-necked Storks, Goliath Herons, Grey-headed Gulls, Whiskered Terns (9), numerous kingfishers, ducks and geese and dainty African Jacanas can all be seen among the hippos and crocodiles that are always there.
Frequent patches of forest and dense vegetation lie on the Western Shores of the lake and these hold breeding Bateleurs, Long-crested Eagles, Lizard Buzzards (5), African Goshawks and many smaller birds such as Pale Flycatchers (7), African Paradise Flycatchers, Yellow-bellied Greenbuls, Gorgeous Bushshrikes, Red-capped Robin-Chats, Narina Trogons and Eastern Nicators.
Vast open grasslands dotted with raffia- and wild date palms extend away from these forest patches and, although game numbers are not high here, bird watching is excellent, with highly sought-after species such as Rosy-throated Longclaw, Rudd’s Apalis, Swamp Nightjar and Black Coucal, encountered alongside the more common Yellow-fronted Canaries (6), Little Bee-eaters, Rattling Cisticolas, Crowned Hornbills, Brown-crowned Tchagras (2), African Pied Wagtails (1) and African Stone Chats (10).
One of my favourite areas of iSimangaliso has always been the Eastern Shores of the lake, with its good network of roads for game viewing. They run through swampy grassland and forest patches and lead to viewing points where lake and sea can be seen at the same time. Roaming herds of blue wildebeest, Burchell’s zebra, giraffe, waterbuck, common reedbuck and Cape buffalo are regularly encountered in the open, with shy red duikers and samango monkeys in the forest thickets.
Around Lake Bhangazi – a freshwater lake in the St Lucia lake system – the marshlands are thick with hippo trails and the reed beds resonate with the singing of painted reed frogs. Kittlitz’s Plover and African Wattled Lapwing pairs stalk in the short grasses while, above them, White-fronted- and Little Bee-eaters snatch insects in mid air. Pied- and Malachite Kingfishers balance on flimsy reeds as they watch intently for any movement. Forest birds abound at Cape Vidal.
In summer, there are usually good sightings of African Pygmy Kingfisher (4), Bearded- and Brown Scrub Robin, Green Twinspot, Green Malkoha, Grey Waxbill and Red-backed Mannikin. Butterflies, spiders and insects also occur in jaw-dropping diversity and colour in these forest patches.
Well worthwhile is a climb up one of Vidal’s high dunes, as there are excellent views out to sea. The Marine Protected Area is rich with life and, during winter and spring, there is a continual stream of humpback whales migrating between their feeding and breeding grounds. I have also regularly seen tiger sharks, whale sharks, marlin, sailfish and pods of bottlenose-, spotted-, common- and spinner dolphins. Sometimes after big storms, seabirds such as the Yellow-nosed Albatross, Giant Petrel, Tropicbirds, Frigatebirds and Sooty- and Noddy Terns are blown closer to shore, and you can see these unusual birds up close.
Far in the north, and reputed to be the most pristine lake system in South Africa, Kosi Bay has four lakes and a series of interconnecting channels. It is certainly one of the best areas to see the elusive Pels Fishing Owl, and the Palm Nut Vulture is regularly seen from the campsite, where it feeds from the raffia palm trees.
White-backed Ducks, African Pygmy-Geese and Yellow-billed Ducks feed on the waterweed found in the open water and in the twisting channels of the Kosi lake system, which are also well known for the traditional system of fish traps. In the reed beds, African Black Crake and African Purple Swamphen often can be heard calling, or seen feeding on the open water.
No trip to iSimangaliso would be complete without a visit to Mkuze Game Reserve. This section of the wetland park is a Mecca for bird lovers, with more than 420 bird species recorded. There is an astonishing variety of habitats, ranging from the broad stretches of acacia savannah to the slopes of the Lebombo Mountains.
Patches of sand forest are the habitat of many rare species including suni, Crested Guineafowl, Grey-hooded Kingfisher, African Broadbill, Neergaards Sunbird and Pink-throated Twinspot. In addition, the network of waterholes with hides rewards patient viewers with an ever-present to-ing and fro-ing of game species such as giraffe, kudu, nyala, blue wildebeest and impala.
Purple-crested Turacos, Greater Honeyguides, Blue Waxbills, Emerald-spotted Wood-Doves, Crested Barbets, African Black-headed Orioles and Brown-hooded Kingfishers are among a few of the many species of birds that drink at these hides.
Overall, iSimangaliso offers something for everyone and is not a park that can be absorbed quickly. Each season has its own charm. Winter months are cooler and game viewing is easiest, but summer is undoubtedly the best for bird watching, when migratory species enter the park and give you the chance to see rare vagrants, over and above what is already there.
Season & Weather
Summer is extremely hot and humid and afternoon thundershowers can be expected. Note that this is a malaria area. Winter is more pleasant with cool temperatures and more stable weather patterns.
The diverse Eastern Shores of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park range from coastal grassland to swamp, sand and coastal lowland forest and a variety of aquatic habitats including marshes, rivers, lagoons, estuaries and the marine and coastal environment. Coastal grassland and a variety of aquatic habitats including marshes and rivers are found on the Western Shores. Sand forest and acacia savannah is found at Mkuze.
- Palm Nut Vulture
- Southern-banded Snake Eagle
- Pel’s Fishing Owl
- Pink-backed Pelican
- Broad-billed Roller
- African Broadbill
- Rosy-throated Longclaw
- Neergaards Sunbird
Recommended Viewing Points
A boat trip on Lake St Lucia is particularly rewarding for sightings of waterbirds, hippos and crocodiles. Covering the road network in the Eastern Shores is worthwhile in order to see the variety of habitats. Rocktail Bay has many coastal forest species, and the Kosi Bay lake system is a must.
Birding checklist: 10 specials to try and spot at iSimangaliso Wetland Park
- The African Pied Wagtail (Bontkwikkie) is a common species mainly confined to the eastern side of the country, and along the Vaal and Orange rivers. It walks briskly on the ground and runs after its prey.
- The Brown-crowned Tchagra (Rooivlerktjagra) is a common resident of woodlands and thornveld and mainly forages on the ground or low down in patches of thicket. When disturbed, it usually runs for cover.
- The African Fish Eagle (Visarend) can catch fish up to 3.5 kg but if larger than 2.5kg it planes them along the water to shore. It also feeds on carrion and water birds up to the size of a flamingo.
- At only 12 cm in length, the African Pygmy Kingfisher (Dwergvisvanger) is aptly named. It’s a fairly common breeding migrant to Southern Africa between October and April, and inhabits the clearings of dense woodland and forests.
- The Lizard Buzzard (Akkedisvalk) has a melodious whistling call and is usually seen perching for long periods on a conspicuous perch, scanning the ground for insects, lizards and small snakes.
- Of the 443 species of canaries and buntings worldwide, the Yellow-fronted Canary (Geeloogkanarie) is one of 20 species found in Southern Africa. Out of the breeding season, it can be found in flocks of between 20-30 birds.
- The Pale Flycatcher (Muiskleurvlieëvanger) is a tame, unobtrusive and rather silent bird normally seen perched low on the outer branch of a small tree at the edge of a clearing. It breeds between September and February and makes a thin-walled bowl of roots and grass lined with rootlets.
- The legs of the Marabou Stork (Maraboe) appear white in colour but are in fact black. The white is from the birds defecating on their legs. A gregarious species, it often congregates around the large mammal carcasses.
- The Whiskered Tern (Witbaardsterretjie), is a nomadic species, moving according to the rain. It inhabits inland waters and vleis, and reedy dams, where it flies low over the water with laboured wing-beats.
- The male African Stone Chat (Gewone Bontrokkie) has a black head and tail, which is mottled light brown in the female. Usually found in pairs, they perch on bush tops to watch for insect prey.
Accommodation & Activities
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife offers camping and caravanning sites plus hutted and tented accommodation. There is also plenty in the town of St Lucia and around Sodwana Bay.
Local Bird Guides
The various access points to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park are well signposted from the N2 north of Empangeni and Richards Bay.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
Reservations 033 845 1000
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