Southern Zululand, a premier forest birding route, is home to a great diversity of bird species. Starting on the warm coast of Zululand between Mtunzini, "place of shade," and Richards Bay, the route moves inland through estuarine swamp forest up to coastal scarp forest in the foothills of Eshowe.
Surrounding Eshowe are a number of forested regions where the endemic Green Barbet of Ngoye Forest is just one of many forest specials which inhabit this region. Further inland are the towns of Melmoth and Nkandla, which, although are in the mistbelt, drop sharply down to dry thornveld habitat providing a range of cliff faces where Lanner Falcons, Rock Kestrels and Bald Ibis breed annually. This area is also rich in Zulu history and culture. Along with the birding routes are self-guided hiking trails and many historical monuments. For the wildlife enthusiast, this region doesn't host the big five, but on foot, encounters with the diminutive Blue Duiker on the forest floor, and in the canopy, Samango and Vervet Monkeys sharing their meal with Delegorgue's Pigeons and Trumpeter Hornbills, are not uncommon.
This region, which includes swamp forest, dune forest, coastal scarp forest, and the mistbelt forests of Nkandla (at 1200m), are joined by a network of river valleys and rolling grasslands which make for some breathtaking scenery. Whether you're a birding enthusiast or simply enjoy the outdoors, the Southern Zululand birding route is a gold mine of diversity. There are deserted gold mines too, so whatever your quest, prospect here and you're bound to be rewarded! by Gareth Chittenden
We have divided the North-West Zululand Birding Route into five different birding areas. Each birding area has its own unique character and set of special bird species. Within each area there is also a variety of accommodation options and birding sites to visit.
Eshowe is centrally positioned in an area surrounded by scarp forest and linked to other neighbouring forests by pockets of indigenous bush and grassland, which make it an excellent base for birding the Zululand forests.
Dlinza Forest, which is in the heart of Eshowe, hosts birds like the elusive Spotted Ground- Thrush which can be seen scratching for earthworms in the forest leaf litter, while above in the forest canopy Delegorgue's Pigeons can be heard throughout the summer months making their loud ascending then descending call. To the west of Eshowe at a higher elevation, is the Entumeni Nature Reserve, which has a forest superficially similar to Dlinza forest but hosting different birds like Yellow-streaked Bulbuls and African Broadbill which do not occur in Dlinza. A trail established by local cane growers meanders through farms and links the two reserves. This is the Prince Dabulamanzi Trail, named after one of the Zulu King Cetshwayo's great generals.
About 15 km north of Eshowe is Lake Phobane, nestled in a valley, which was once the heart of King Shaka's Kingdom. This is a unique birding area and because of the wide range of different habitats in close proximity, a great variety of bird species are to be found here.
At the gateway to the Zulu highlands lies the picturesque town of Melmoth. Founded in 1888 as a "gold rush" town on a portion of the farm Golden Reef owned by Reinhold Ortlepp, it was named after Sir Melmoth Osborn, the resident commissioner of Zululand at that time. The town is situated 800m above sea level with an unsurpassed climate. The area offers good forest, riverine, thornveld and grassland birding with a species count of 295.
Mtunzini, "place of shade," is a coastal town with a wealth of treasures for the birding or wildlife enthusiast. The town, situated on a hill overlooking the coastline, has pristine dune forest and an estuary lined with mangrove swamp forest.
Avenues of indigenous trees lining the streets of the village create corridors for wildlife movement and provide an excellent food source for birds. A striking feature of this area is the stands of Raphia palm (Raphia australis). Their fruits form an essential part of the diet of the Palmnut Vulture of which 3 to 5 pairs breed in Mtunzini. The best spot to see this species is at the Raphia palm monument, along the beach, or in the strips of forest along the drainage lines around the town.
A walk along the edge of the estuary, which also includes the mangrove forest, is good for African Finfoot, which may be flushed out into open water. During the winter months this is the best place to try and track down the elusive Mangrove Kingfisher. Walks in the coastal dune forest can be very productive and it is here that the Spotted Thrush can be located during the winter months. Mtunzini's warm climate and "holiday style" appearance make it an excellent place for some productive self-guided birding.
Richards Bay is one of South Africa's top waterbird areas. The habitats are as diverse as from thornveld, Papyrus swamps, open freshwater lakes, Mangroves, Dune forest to mudflats, open sea and sandbanks. Richards Bay is the area for rarity sightings in Zululand with birds such as among others Crab Plover and Broadbilled Sandpiper being fairly regular every summer. Many forest birds such as Woodwards Batis and Eastern Nicator (Yellowspotted Nicator) reach their southernmost limit around here. Open lakes are home to scores of waterfowl as well as hippos and crocodiles. The entire area has been earmarked by BirdLife South Africa and BirdLife Zululand for major conservation and avi-tourism development - (link here to projects Richard Bay avitourism). Richards Bay also has the advantage of being Zululand's biggest and wealthiest city and can offer visitors to the area a range of first world accommodation, restaurants and other facilities all within very close proximity to excellent birding.
Richards Bay is often overlooked by tourists heading up the coast to the big Zululand Reserves such as Mkhuze and Hluhluwe. Understandable as most people have a image of huge mines and industry when thinking about Richards Bay. This is not totally inaccurate, but tucked away within and around all this industry is some of the best birding to be had in Zululand Over 350 species occur in the immediate Richards Bay area, 73% of South Africa's red data book species and 24 National Rarities have been recorded from here. Within Richards Bay is Thulasihleka Pan, probably the most reliable Lesser Jacanas in South Africa as well as enough variety of waterbirds to keep you busy for most of the morning, we are currently negotiating to erect a new hide on the pan and will keep birders informed of developments. The southern Sanctuary, (Important Bird Area SA079) and Harbour area has also long been a hotspot for rarities in South Africa such as Crab Plover and Broadbilled Sandpiper. According to Dave Allen from the Natural History Museum in Durban, this is some of the best waterbirding in Southern Africa ! Access to the harbour and Sanctuary area has up till now however always been a problem for birders coming from outside the region but now access and bird guides can be organized through the Zululand Birding Route. Less than an hour's drive from Richard's Bay is South Africa's most exciting Forest Birding - Ongoye Forest with its Green Barbet, Delegorges Pigeons, Green Twinspots, Green Coucals, Yellowstreaked Bulbuls as well as its host of endemic plants.
Then there is Dlinza Forest and the Aerial Boardwalk, Spotted Thrush country of note! Nseleni Nature Reserve is also a beautiful little reserve where boat trips can be arranged to see Whitebacked Night Neron and African Finfoot. Mtunzini is also only a short drive away and hosts Palmnut Vulture and in winter months Mangrove Kingfisher as well as many coastal forest species. Lake Pobane (Goedetrou Dam) between Richards Bay and Eshowe is an excellent haunt for Whitebacked Night Herons, African Finfoot, Halfcollared Kingfisher and good bushveld birds such as Gorgeous Bush Shrike. Up towards Melmoth in summer are the Short Tailed Pipit stakeouts as well as many upcountry specials and fantastic scenery. Then if you want, a short drive north takes you to the St Lucia wetlands, the big game of Hluhluwe Umfolozi, and the red hot birding of Mkhuze. In addition to all this Richards Bay and surrounding towns have fantastic selection of accommodation, from log cabins and camping sites in the dune forest to comfortable B&B's and Hotels as well as excellent restaurants and shopping facilities. If you are in the area and need information on birding anywhere in Zululand, please feel free to pop in. We are on the R 34 (main road between Empangeni and Richards Bay) at the Crocodile Sanctuary - look for the Birding Info signs – or contact us.