Wild Frontiers

Kingdom of the birds, a pied piper and a vegetarian vulture

Original Source: yearinthewild.com

Ndumo may have been proclaimed in April 1924 to conserve some of the last hippo in KwaZulu-Natal, but it’s the bird life which makes Ndumo world famous among avifaunal fanatics. Amazingly, Ndumo is home to about 85% of the 500 species in the region, making it probably one of the best birding spots in the country.

Early morning, looking out over the Pongola River valley. This photo taken from the camp at Ndumo.

Early morning, looking out over the Pongola River valley. This photo taken from the camp at Ndumo.

Deneys Reitz, Minister of Lands at the time under Jan Smuts, was responsible for the proclamation of Ndumo, and declared famously: “When I had Ndumu game reserve proclaimed, I did my duty to God and to the hippo.” Little did he know that he would inadvertently contribute enormously to bird conservation.

Hippo lurking in the water of Nyamithi Pan.

Hippo lurking in the water of Nyamithi Pan.

Last time I was at Ndumo, it rained for several days. Fortunately, this time the weather was perfect. Late April and early May is a fantastic time to be up in northern KwaZulu-Natal. During summer the tropical climate can be excessively humid and hot, but autumn and winter heralds the onset of cooler nights and milder days, with gentle sunshine and minimal wind.

The early morning dew of autumn highlights the thousands of spider webs... it's incredible to see how many festoon the plants and trees.

The early morning dew of autumn highlights the thousands of spider webs… it’s incredible to see how many festoon the plants and trees.

Blackwinged lapwings in typical, favoured habitat of short grassland.

Blackwinged lapwings in typical, favoured habitat of short grassland.

Without a doubt, the highlights of any stay at Ndumo are the guided bird walks with rangers. I went on several with Sonto Tembe, who has been at Ndumo since 1981. He was born in the reserve in 1952!

Sonto Tembe, bird guide and naturalist.

Sonto Tembe, bird guide and naturalist.

Sonto is an affable, quietly-spoken and gentle soul of the bush, and with his portly tummy and slow amble, you’d think he’s ready for retirement. Not so. When the subject of birds arises, his eyes light up, his smile widens prodigously, and he starts chatting excitedly in his broken English. Despite guiding visitors for three decades, his enthusiasm is infectious.

Sonto Tembe explaining the "wag n bietjie" bush...or buffalo thorn. This tree has pairings of thorns on each side of it's branches - one thorn pointing forwards, and the other pointing backwards.

Sonto Tembe explaining the “wag n bietjie” bush, or buffalo thorn. This tree has pairings of thorns on each side of it’s branches – one thorn pointing forwards, and the other pointing backwards.

For seasoned and beginner birders alike, a walk with Sonto is a must-do. The highlight is no doubt his imitation of the bird calls… not only can Sonto identify every bird by sight, but also by call. And he can imitate each bird in pitch perfect tone… a remarkable skill that I’ve not encountered anywhere else during my work in Southern Africa’s protected areas. I’d say that Sonto is one of South Africa’s most talented and knowledgeable naturalists, and as such should be recognised and commended officially.

Plenty of yellow-billed storks on their nests at Nyamithi Pan. This photo taken from the Ezulwini Hide.

Plenty of yellow-billed storks on their nests at Nyamithi Pan. This photo taken from the Ezulwini Hide.

I went on several walks with Sonto and other guests. The first was on the Pongola floodplain, where we saw white-eared barbet, tawny-flanked prinia, dark-backed weaver, blue-mantled crested flycatcher, purple-crested loerie, african finfoot, juvenile harrier hawk, yellow-breasted apalis and grey sunbird.

While walking with Sonto, we spotted this fish eagle sitting in thick forest alongside one of the small tributaries of the Pongola River.

While walking with Sonto, we spotted this fish eagle sitting in thick forest alongside one of the small tributaries of the Pongola River.

The scenery along the Pongola floodplain is superb, with huge fig trees, dense riparian forest and large swamp areas with good numbers of nyala and blue wildebeest. We were hoping to see a Pel’s fishing owl, but according to Sonto, the best time of year is July, when the water has subsided, and the owls have to concentrate their feeding efforts at fewer pools.

Nyala bull, in early morning mist during a walk on the Pongola floodplain with Sonto

Nyala bull, in early morning mist during a walk on the Pongola floodplain with Sonto.

The second walk I did with Sonto was along the banks of Nyamithi Pan. We saw Kittlitz’s plover, black-headed oriole, chinspot batis, yellow-breasted apalis and yellow-bellied greenbul. The pans at Ndumo define the reserve, and Nyamithi’s fever trees cast a golden glow across the still waters. Hippos grunt, fish eagles call, and crocodiles lurk… it’s a wonderful scene.

The view over Nyamithi Pan, with fever trees in the background. The definitive view of Ndumo, and one by which most people remember the reserve.

The view over Nyamithi Pan, with fever trees in the background. The definitive view of Ndumo, and one by which most people remember the reserve.

I can’t help but think, however, that the landscape misses elephants. They were shot out by hunters more than a century ago, and Ndumo’s atmosphere seems to be mourning their absence. It must have been amazing to see elephants moving through the floodplains, pans and fever tree forests. I also think the so-called Mahemane bush is excessively thick, making it difficult for even forest species like nyala to move through it. Elephants would surely help open it up again.

This giraffe was in an inquisitive mood, poking her head towards my window.

This giraffe was in an inquisitive mood, poking her head towards my window.

On our last walk, we explored Shokwe Pan in the west of the park. This beautiful pan is shaped like a big horse-shoe, and is lined with extensive fig tree forests, under which we walked with Sonto. This area can only be reached on foot, and for me, it’s probably the most beautiful part of Ndumo.

The beautiful fig tree forest at Shokwe Pan, which can only be accessed on foot by walking with one of the guides.

The beautiful fig tree forest at Shokwe Pan, which can only be accessed on foot by walking with one of the guides.

More fig trees at Shokwe Pan.

More fig trees at Shokwe Pan.

We saw yellow-rumped tinkerbird, red-fronted tinkerbird, chinspot batis, rudd’s apalis, black-bellied starling, green pigeon, emerald-spotted wood dove, collared sunbird, long-billed crombec, ashy flycatcher, burnt-necked eremomela, orange-breasted bush shrike, natal robin, yellow white-eye, cardinal wood-pecker, puffback shrike and grey sunbird.

A pair of yellow-billed storks, close to Ezulwini Hide on Nyamithi Pan.

A pair of yellow-billed storks, close to Ezulwini Hide on Nyamithi Pan.

Then, early one morning, I spotted what I thought was a juvenile fish eagle standing in open grassland. The bird was about 100 metres away, so I took a photo with my 500mm lens and only looked at the photo later to zoom in. I was sitting at Ezulwini bird hide on Nyamithi Pan, and so were Anton and Renate Kruger, and Tiaan and Catherine de Witt from Pretoria. I showed them the photo, asking them which species it was, and Anton quickly pointed out to me that it was a palm-nut vulture! This species is very rare in South Africa, limited to the north-east coastline of the country and southern Mozambique. It feeds, remarkably for a vulture, on the fruit of Raphia palm trees, which only grow in this tropical part of Southern Africa. (Fancy that, a vegetarian vulture! Although it’s not strictly vegetarian, because it does sometimes feed on carrion).

Palm nut vulture! This one was feeding at the so-called "vulture restaurant", a place where rangers place an animal's carcass, in order to supplement the food of vultures and other scavenging birds.

Palm nut vulture! This one was feeding at the so-called “vulture restaurant”, a place where rangers place an animal’s carcass, in order to supplement the food of vultures and other scavenging birds.

Some of the birds we saw at Ndumo are highly restricted in their distributions, and Ndumo is probably the best place to see them in South Africa. For example, the yellow white-eye and Rudd’s apalis is only found in northern KwaZulu-Natal near Ndumo. Full credit to Sonto for managing to find all these special birds for us… and for imitating their calls.

The view of Nyamithi Pan from the viewing tower near the entrance gate to Ndumo.

The view of Nyamithi Pan from the viewing tower near the entrance gate to Ndumo.

I’m a beginner birder, but a walk with Sonto has inspired me again to learn more about this region’s 500-odd bird species.

Trumpeter hornbill.

Trumpeter hornbill.

Scott Ramsay

Photojournalist Scott Ramsay focuses on exploring the national parks, nature reserves and community conservancies in Southern Africa, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in these protected areas. Through his work, he hopes to inspire others to travel to the continent's wild places, which Scott believes are Africa's greatest long term assets. For more, go to www.LoveWildAfrica.com or www.facebook.com/LoveWildAfrica. Partners include Ford Ranger, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Hetzner and Globecomm.

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