While staying in Umhlanga over Christmas I managed to drag my Dad up to Stanger to visit the Sappi Mill Bird Hide for the second time this year. My first visit to this spot produced quite a few Lifers and one rather interesting looking Baillon’s Crake – a leucistic form. I was hoping for an equally fun morning and to get in some practice with the waders.
It was a horribly windy morning from the start so that made holding the binoculars still quite hard work. We first stopped in at the hide and the usual characters were present – Great White Pelican, Egyptian Goose, Grey Heron, Common Ringed Plover, Blacksmith Lapwing, Common Moorhen, Goliath Heron, Cormorants and a Black Crake or two! There were also a couple of similar looking waders hanging out with a Black-winged Stilt. A fellow birder pointed out the Marsh Sandpiper compared to the Wood Sandpiper, and now I feel like I have a good grasp of these two species. It really helps to have guidance from people who know, sometimes having someone explain the birds sticks with me more than just reading through the book notes.
A Spotted Crake and Pectoral Sandpiper had also been seen here recently and reported by the South African Rare Bird News. I had seen a Spotted Crake earlier in the year, the famously popular one from Midrand in Gauteng, so I wasn’t desperate to see one again. I was, however, keen to see the Pectoral Sandpiper. This was really just a twitch bird, I needed more birds for my list, I had never even heard of or acknowledged this bird, so it certainly wasn’t on my wish list. I had made sure to read up on the bird and look at photo’s of it from this location so that I at least knew what I was looking for.
We heard that there was a guy with a scope further down the wetland who had located the bird and he could help us see it. However, when we got to him the bird had flown off and he was just checking for other birds. We continued our walk down the path and returned to the spot a bit later on. This was wader heaven, birds everywhere, all busily searching for food, bobbing up and down, occasionally flying off in panic caused by a Yellow-billed Kite.
I was just snapping away so that later on I could sit with the photo’s and my books and work through the ID’s of these birds, although I was picking out the Marsh Sandpipers fairly easily, along with the Ruffs by the dozen!
I read somewhere that the Pectoral had a similar look, build, size to a Ruff so I was checking them extra well. Working our way through the waders and edging ever closer to the car park in preparation to leave, we kept checking the birds saying “is that it?” “Could that be it?” Eventually, and quite surprisingly, “That’s it, I’ve got it, surely that’s it!” After much photo taking and comparing to the books and even YouTube videos to see how it moves, we were 100% happy that we had found the rarity! It is actually quite a pretty wader with a streaked breast that ends abruptly in a distinct line.
Happy with this outing and having added two birds to my list, we drove back down to Umhlanga and stopped in at the Umhlanga Nature Reserve.
As you enter the reserve you walk across (yet another) boardwalk through reeds and bulrushes which are home to many weavers, but the first one I spotted was a bird I hadn’t seen this year, the Yellow Weaver. We walked along more boardwalks and open areas of wetland with little joy in terms of birds. We turned around and tried the trail that leads through the forest. The forest was very quiet and we hardly saw any birds, quite a let down compared to our forest experience at St Lucia.
On Boxing Day we ventured down to the Umhlanga Ponds (a couple of little ponds at the sewage works). Ah, the hobby of birding, always taking you to the most wonderful of locations 🙈 (I have visited 3 different sewage works this year!)
I was impressed with the number of species we found there, and it was quite an active spot. The Wood Sandpipers camouflage so well against the grass that we kept flushing them as we walked around. There was one Marsh Sandpiper, a family of Egyptian Geese, Three-banded Plovers, African Jacana, Hottentot Teals, Common-ringed Plover, Dabchicks, Hadeda, Hamerkop, Spurwing Geese, Lesser Striped Swallow, White-throated Swallow, Southern-masked Weavers and a couple of Black-chested Snake-Eagles flying overhead. Nothing new to add to the list, but still a worthwhile little visit.
Desperate to get new birds, we returned to the Umhlanga Nature Reserve one last time in the hopes of possibly finding something, even if it had just started drizzling as we arrived in the parking lot.
As we were walking along that first boardwalk and trying to look for some new Weaver or something in the reeds, I nearly fell off the boardwalk! In the corner of my eye, I saw something was flying in from the direction of the forests on the opposite side of the river. It was basically a flash of white on the belly and a rich brown/grey on the back, dove shaped! I knew straight away it was a Tambourine Dove, something I was really hoping to see on one of these forest trips! It was so quick, no time for a photo, but I seem to remember flailing my arms around in excitement. It flew in the direction we were going and I hoped it would land just in the forest so we could try find it but alas, it flew way past and was never seen again.
After I recovered from that excitement we took the trail that leads into the forest again. We hadn’t gone far at all when we noticed the presence of birds in the bushes to our left. The combination of dark light and a mangled mess of branches made seeing the birds near impossible. Fortunately we both kept getting glimpses of the birds, of which there were three, including a juvenile. I got a fairly decent look at the juvenile at one point and noted the slightly red marking above its eye…which could only mean one thing…Black-throated Wattled-eye! Another major lifer for me, within the space of a few minutes! The trail we were on seemed to be rather popular that morning and we had to put up with noisy walkers passing us every few minutes, not ideal when you are waiting for an important bird to make an appearance! The chick seemed to stay in the general area, with the adults possibly moving off to fetch food and hen returning. I did eventually get a look at one of the adults, and could definitely confirm the red wattle above the eyes. After that they seemed to move off completely and so did we, to try keep this run of good luck going!
There was much birdsong in one area of the forest in particular, but impossible to see any of the birds! Next time I think an early morning visit is necessary to hopefully see more of these forest dwellers being a bit more active.
We left KwaZulu Natal the next day, so it was going to be up to Gauteng to produce a whole lot more birds to try and reach my target of 350 species.
Although, Natal did give me one more, as we headed north on the highway through the beautiful Natal Midlands, in the form of a Grey Crowned Crane.