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  • Luca Tomlinson

Chasing Lifers on the KZN South Coast

Updated: Mar 13

All birders know what a holiday in a different area means - it means chasing lifers! This December, Gabby and I came down to Umhlanga with my family, and even though I have been coming here for many years, there were still a few target species I had in mind that I wanted to try and finally get.

Red-capped Robin Chat at Umhlanga Nature Reserve

A short 2 night stop at Prince's Grant on the north coast for golf produced two of my target species, Eastern Golden Weaver and Grey Sunbird, which I was very pleased with. We also heard a Buff-spotted Flufftail, which is one of the most secretive birds in Southern Africa. Back in the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve, I managed to tick off another species off my target list, Common Square-tailed Drongo. The Eurasian Oystercatcher was nowhere to be found, unfortunately.

Luckily for us, Adam, the founder of The Birding Life and Sapphire Coast expert, and his good friend Blessing Majoka, also a local expert, offered to take us out for a day of birding to try and get us some lifers.

We started the day early, arriving at our first spot, Umdoni Park in Pennington, at around 5:30am. From the onset, Umdoni Park absolutely blew us away, offering some of the best forest birding on the KZN coast! It consists of a wide network of trails through woodland and forest with a golf course in the middle. We parked at the visitors center where we would walk from there. The weather was not ideal, a bit drizzly and the light was bad, so we decided to leave our cameras in the car (HUGE mistake, and so predictable at that)

The amazing forest habitat at Umdoni Park

It didn't take us long to get our first lifer of the day, Brown Scrub Robin, which happened to actually be my 500th species for South Africa! Lemon Dove was another cool sighting and a lifer for Gabby. At a clearing along the golf course, a White-eared Barbet appeared, a lifer for Gabby that we had somehow managed to dip at Prince's Grant. Not long after that did I hear the first Narina Trogon of the day calling in the distance. I had only seen a trogon once before and was keen to get better views of one.

One of the interesting and interactive signboards on the trails

At this stage, we did not feel like running all the way back to the car to get our cameras. Well well well, what happens every time you try to test the laws of birding? Yip, they come back to bite you, and hard. Standing in a clearing in the forest, Gabby spotted a Narina Trogon fly in and land on a dead branch, right out in the open! And when your guides for the day say it's the best views of a trogon they've ever had, that's saying something! We were extremely excited but extremely annoyed at the same time due to not having our cameras on us. But lesson learned, hopefully...

Pain and joy as we look at the Narina Trogon perched in the open

We also heard Gorgeous Bushshrike, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, and ended up getting awesome views of another lifer, Knysna Turaco. Using a bit of playback at a spot the Green Malkohas like to hang around, we managed brief views of one, another lifer. Quick but awesome views of an African Pygmy Kingfisher was another highlight here, while Terrestrial Brownbul, Trumpeter Hornbill and Olive Woodpecker were more cool species to add to the day's list.

Knysna Turaco

Back at the visitors center, we sat at the tables for a couple of minutes, hoping that a group of Green Twinspots would come down to the bird baths for a drink, unfortunately to no avail, probably due to the wet conditions. We were sad to leave Umdoni Park, as we had only scratched the surface of the vast network of trails it had to offer, which should warrant at least a full day of exploring.

The next stop was the nearby Nkomba Site of Conservation Significance, a small wetland with a stream flowing through. We hoped there may be an outside chance of Red-headed Quelea, but unfortunately, we didn't get any, although we were very happy to get an unexpected lifer there, Purple-banded Sunbird, which was actually nesting in a tree alongside the stream. Black-throated Wattle Eye was also heard here. The site looks promising, definitely worth future visits!

From there we head over to Empisini Nature Reserve, part of the Sapphire Coast area. Gabby and I were also blown away by the beauty of Empisini, a lush forest nestled in a valley, with a marshy area at the bottom during the wet season. Unfortunately, most of the trials are quite overgrown, so birding is mostly limited to the bottom section. It would be great to see some more upkeep and perhaps more formalization and facilities at this wonderful venue to drive some more traffic to it.

The lush valley forest at Empisini Nature Reserve

A Lesser Honeyguide was calling, and after nearly giving up, a Scaly-throated Honeyguide responded to our playback, a lifer for Gabby. We also discovered our second nest of the day, that of a pair of Red-backed Mannikins. Gabby and I jumped through the mud in excitement when Blessing suddenly spotted a Crowned Hornbill high up in the canopy, yet another lifer. We definitely want to visit this amazing reserve again sometime in the future and spend at least a few hours exploring the forest. A cherry on top was a Crowned Eagle and African Goshawk flying overhead as we were leaving.

Scaly-throated Honeyguide - Adam Cruickshank
Scaly-throated Honeyguide - Adam Cruickshank

Our next stop on route to the Illovo Estuary was the Magabeni Waste Water Treatment Works, in the hope of possibly getting Pink-backed Pelican, but the main target there was Croaking Cisticola. Unfortunately there were no Pink-backed Pelicans to be found on the pans, but that was to be expected. A solo Wood Sandpiper was a nice edition to the days list however. After the pans, the road curves up a hill next to a rank grassy drainage line, perfect habitat for Croaking Cisticola. Of course, it didn't take long to hear the first one, although we did struggle to get visuals initially. Fortunately after a little bit more playback, we ended up getting awesome close up views and some habitat shots of this lifer.

Croaking Cisticola

After a quick lunch break to refuel, we hit the Illovo Estuary. Our targets were Sanderling, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, and a bogey bird for Gabby and I, the Eurasian Oystercatcher. The beach was fairly quiet due to the time of day, but thankfully we did manage to spot a group of Sanderling foraging on the shoreline. Unfortunately the Eurasian Oystercatcher remains a bogey bird. In fact, at the time of writing this blog post, one was sighted at the Umhlanga Lagoon, on the day we're on our way home!

By now the long day was starting to get to us all, but we did what birders do best and pushed on. We quickly popped to Baggies Beach which is a semi-reliable spot for Red-headed Quelea, although once again, the time of day wasn't on our side. As we still had a little bit of time left, Adam and Blessing decided to take on a bit of a challenge. The challenge was to get one of the birds that has been on the top of my "bucket list" for ages and a bird I didn't think we had a chance of seeing south of Durban - African Pygmy Goose.

Burchell’s Coucal at Empisini Nature Reserve

The potential spot was a small farm dam with a lot of lily pad coverage, hence the habitat seemed promising, even though Adam had only seen them once there out of many many visits. Upon arrival, the reeds surrounding the dam were quite thick, so visibility wasn't great. Nonetheless, we walked up to the dam at one of the gaps in the reeds. No Pygmy Goose, but a pair of White-backed Ducks was a welcome sighting, as White-backed Ducks often inhabit similar habitats to African Pygmy Goose. While we were watching the Ducks, Blessing walked over to have a look around the other corner of the dam. He suddenly excitedly gestured to us to come over, and knowing what he'd probably seen, Gabby and I sprinted through the reeds, Gabby almost twisting her ankle in the process! And there they were, a pair of African Pygmy Goose, swimming on the far side of the dam. High fives all round, we were super stoked to have got these birds, and as Adam said, habitat is king!

The Pygmy Geese with a Blue-billed Teal in the background - Blessing Majoka

In good spirits, we quickly stopped at the nearby canal on the way back, adding probably the sighting of the day for Adam and Blessing, a flock of out-of-range Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. All in all, it was a cracker day out in the field, ending with 8 lifers and Gabby getting 12. We were very impressed with the birding on the Sapphire Coast and beyond on the south coast, and will definitely be visiting some of the spots many more times in the future. Thanks to Adam and Blessing for the awesome day in the field.

Be sure to check out The Birding Life's website, where you can find everything to do with birding, including a shop, blog, podcast and an extensive accommodation directory.

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