We arrived in St Lucia on a rather overcast, drizzly afternoon so Iwas holding thumbs that this wouldn’t be the norm for the weekend.
After checking into our accommodation and having some lunch we headed out in search of the St Lucia birds, My folks would probably have preferred to just relax for a bit longer after a very long, busy road and slow drive down from Johannesburg. But they are awesome and joined me anyway to help in my search!
Shortly after leaving our Bed and Breakfast I heard the first cool bird for the trip. That tell tale baby cry of a Trumpeter Hornbill. Although a tricky view through many branches, this was the closest I’ve been to this bird, and they really are quite large, funky looking creatures.
Green-backed Camaroptera’s were calling all over the place and actually became “just that annoying bird again”. Closer down to the estuary I spotted some White-eared Barbets, which I’ve only seen once before, and which we saw plenty of during the rest of our stay there.
We took a walk down the road hoping to find anything on that mizzly, cool afternoon when we all heard a rather strange sound. After hearing an initial one ‘note’ of the call I thought Black-backed Puffback, but as the call continued it didn’t sound like any Puffback call I’ve ever heard. The bird was high up, the call was loud and in our face but we just couldn’t lay eyes on this one. Eventually I spotted it, and it was indeed a Puffback, and this became yet another “that annoying bird” call for all our walks in St Lucia. I still don’t know what was up with its call though, I’ve never heard them doing that before.
We walked along the Estuary Boardwalk and far off in the water there were Yellow-billed Storks, Saddle-billed Storks, Great White Pelicans, Grey Herons, Crocodiles and Hippos, African Fish Eagle, Yellow-billed Kites and a Pied Kingfisher.
There had been recent reports of a rather popular rarity in the area of the estuary mouth, a Sooty Tern. I had received info that you need to walk south down from the main beach and go past all the machinery to find this individual bird amongst a tern roost of hundreds of birds. On this particular afternoon it was getting late and was horribly windy so I decided to try on another day.
Early the next morning Dad and I were up early and off to do the GwalaGwala Trail, a well known trail for awesome birding.
We parked the car and climbed out. I was about to start putting on my walking shoes when something got my attention as it flew overhead out of the forest. I turned to look and doing a double take at the bird which had landed on a low branch only a few metres away, I realised it had the shape of a Narina Trogon! I can’t even remember what exactly I did next, but I think I ran around the car to grab my camera and slowly, yet quickly, started to make my way around the large tree in the open parking area. When I first saw the bird, it was silhouetted and dark, I needed to get on the sunny side of it. I snapped a picture and slowly moved around some more and managed another shot, before an extremely rude fisherman who I had seen approaching for a while, walked straight at the bird and it flew off! I could not believe what had just happened…..this is a bird that was obviously on my wish list, but never would I have thought that the Narina Trogon would be the very first bird we would see on this trail, let alone so close. Of the two photo’s, one was shocking and the other only slightly better, but undeniably the silhouette of a much sought after bird.
This was my first walk through a forest since really getting into birding a few years ago and my senses were blown. Forest birding is a tricky thing. I had been trying to learn the calls and songs of the more common forest birds but wow, I’m sure I must have missed about 10 different species in the forest. It is so difficult to separate the calls. Trying to actually lay eyes on the birds is another story all together. They are either high up and just not possible to see or close by in deep shade, and hopping around to fast in the branches to get a decent look. Some highlights we did get were Brown Scrub-Robin, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, African Green Pigeon, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Sombre Greenbul, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Red-capped Robin-chat and as we left the forest I heard the foghorn like ‘dooooo’ of a Buff-spotted Flufftail.
After a delicious breakfast and little rest back at the BnB we headed off for the Western Shores of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. It was close to midday, the sun was high and it was pretty hot as we entered the park so I wasn’t holding out much hope for birding success. It turns out that I was to be extremely pleasantly surprised! A short while into the park and my Mom spotted a Black-bellied Bustard, posing nicely a few metres off the road, and it was doing it’s champagne pop call, although very quietly. This was a bird I learnt when I worked in the Sabi Sands, I always remember it being a favourite find when we went out on staff bumbles. Some other finds were Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Fan-tailed Widowbird, Barn Swallow, about 3 different Osprey, and an awesome Black-chested Snake Eagle.
But now back to the highlights from the Western Shores. We had met some fellow birders in St Lucia village, and we then happened to bump into them whilst driving through the Western Shores. They seemed new to birding (despite having already clocked in over 400 birds this year, I think they’re keen!) so when we stopped to chat they said they had seen some birds just further up the road in a mud wallow, but weren’t 100% sure of the ID so we should go and check it out to confirm. They were 100% correct in their identification of a bird that has for sure been on my wish list, Collared Pratincoles! There were about 10 or so birds, some around the mud, some on the grass and a couple would come and sit right on the road. The light was bad at the time so getting pics was hard, but I really enjoyed seeing these rather unusual looking birds.
We continued our drive and wanted to check out the Charters Creek camp section of the park, which turns out to be completely abandoned and getting overgrown. As we were driving out of that area you pass through quite a dense forest section and we came to a stop to listen to a very loud call, a bird which seemed to be right in your face, but could we find it, of course not. The call was almost Black-headed Oriole like and right there, right next to the road, it shouldn’t be that hard to find the bird responsible for this loud noise. After much searching I caught a movement, and then saw a fairly large bird, olive green in colour with yellow spots on the wings. Even though I’ve never seen one before, I knew it from the books as an Eastern Nicator. Pulling out my phone to compare the songs, and I was spot on. Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa describes its distinctive song perfectly as “a short, rich, explosive, liquid jumble of notes”. Another one for the life list, and a rather unexpected one
We then drove to the uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk, which turned out to be a really amazing and special place! The trail up to the boardwalk starts as just a trail through a forest, so my search for more forest birds continued. We heard the call of a Turaco, but this wasn’t the Purple Crested, this was a Livingstone’s Turaco call, I was quite sure. All of a sudden they appeared. At first we only got short glimpses of the birds through the branches and for a few seconds I was doubting myself and thought they were only Purple-crested Turaco’s, as I only saw the dark lower body and red under the wings. When they stopped moving and I managed a decent look, there was no doubt that they were definitely Livingstone’s Turaco’s, and simply stunning!After the excitement of seeing these wonderful birds we continued our walk up the hill to the beautiful aerial boardwalk section with incredible views of the iSimangaliso wetland park. The end of the boardwalk is set at the top of a hill overlooking the wetlands, situated up in the canopy, with large platforms to walk around to get views in different directions. It felt so peaceful there, and the cool breeze high up on the hill was most welcome. It is the kind of place you could stay all day long, having a picnic and drinking some chilled white wine. The most magical part of the spot for me was the butterflies…..there were so many of them, they were everywhere, floating around gently like something out of a fairytale.
The next morning we went in search of the Narina Trogon again in the hopes of getting a better view with some decent photo’s. The previous morning we had been at the parking area at 5:30 and that is when we saw the bird, so we figured we would aim to be there at 5:30 again on this morning. I climbed out the car not holding out much hope of seeing the bird again. We stood and looked around recalling the events of yesterday morning to my Mom who joined us for this outing. Then I heard it, the deep hoo call of the Narina Trogon. I knew the bird must be close by so we slowly started walking towards the noise. We started walking towards a no-entry road so I hoped we would see it soon before we got too far down this road. All three of us were looking up, trying to find this well camouflaged bird. They have green on their backs which they often turn towards people when they are approaching. However, on the front they have brilliant crimson plumage. I was just explaining to my folks that the bird will probably be difficult to see due to this colouration when Boom, my eyes caught the crimson red of a gorgeous male Narina Trogon. It was sitting fairly out in the open, easy to see and we watched him calling for a few seconds. I managed some better photos this time, at least getting some colour and not just the silhouette. It was probably over in less than a minute and the bird was gone! Mind blown! I still couldn’t believe we had been so lucky with 2 sightings of this much sought after bird.
We then went down to the beach and following all the directions from fellow birders and from social media we eventually found the tern roost. The Sooty Tern had been present on and off for the past month or so around the mouth of the St Lucia estuary. It was this bird, an individual bird, that I was looking for amongst about 100 other terns and gulls. The only Terns I recognised were the Swift Terns, as for the other bunch of much smaller Terns I’m still not sure what they were. We never did find the Sooty Tern, even after working through my photo’s it still wasn’t there. There were only reports of the Tern again a few days after we had left St Lucia. I wasn’t really bummed about missing out on this bird.
We went back to the GwalaGwala Trail in the hopes of finding some more lifers. Due to us being there later in the morning than the previous day the forest had quietened down, but there was still plenty to hear and see, or catch frustrating glimpses of at least. I had a possible sighting of a Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher, but it was so brief and far up in the dark canopy that I don’t feel right putting it on my list for the year. Oh well, just another reason to go back to St Lucia! As we had arrived at the forest I heard the call of the Livingstones Turaco which I now feel like I can differentiate from the similar Purple-crested Turaco call. So I was on the hunt again for another sighting of the Livingstone’s Turaco, in the hope of getting better pics. It was only as we were about to exit the forest trail that I got my wish. My folks had been walking up ahead, and stopped to wait for me, but I guess they got bored and carried on around the corner just as a Livingstone’s appeared right above my head and inquisitively was checking me out. I tried to get my folks attention but they were already gone, so I had this sighting all to myself. The Turaco was making soft croaky noises as it moved down the branches of the tree above me and then flew across the path to another bush where it practically disappeared, but then turned around and popped his head out again and began feeding on the berries of the bush. All the while I was watching this a Brown Scrub-robin burst out of the low bushes nearly giving me heart failure, a Southern Boubou was jumping around in the tree above me and the Square-tailed Drongo’s were chatting loudly. A fantastic sighting and a great way to end our visit to St Lucia! I can’t wait to go back…
We then headed south down the coast to the Dlinza Forest in Eshowe. We arrived there at midday in the blazing heat, not ideal for birding but we gave it a go anyway. There is an aerial boardwalk which takes you through the canopy of the Dlinza Forest and ends at a platform which is accessible by climbing some flights of scary stairs and you end up on top of the canopy looking out across the trees and down into a valley. Down on the boardwalk level there was quite a bit of bird activity, but again we heard a lot more than we saw. I did manage to get one lifer, a Grey Cuckooshrike, so that was great. We did the shorter of the two trails on offer through the forest. It was a really nice walk and I would like to go back to do it again.
We left Dlinza and continued further south down the coast to spend the next week with my sister and her family in Umhlanga. The birding didn’t stop there though, as I dragged my folks on yet a couple more birding outings in that area. Those blog posts to come soon…