Northern Zululand Birding

Sunrise at Nibela
Sunrise at Nibela

I love weekends away in the bush. I live for them and organise as many as I possibly can to keep myself sane 🙂 This particular one was a rather late addition to my 2014 plans and it was great not having to wait too long to enjoy it.

James was invited to ring up at Bhekula Lodge near Tembe in northern Zululand and we quickly evolved this into a full birding trip. Having visited a few birding hotspots on the way up to Ndumo in March this year, I suggested we visit them on the way up again. Initially we planned on Nibela Peninsula and Muzi Pan but a friend suggested Mpempe Pan as well, and after reading a blog or two it was decided that this would definitely be worth the extra time.

Armed with atlas lists of what birds we could expect to see in each pentad, gps co-ordinates, our Roberts birds apps and binoculars, of course, we set out very early from Mtunzini to ensure we reached our first stop, Nibela in time for sunrise. We arrived with a few minutes to spare and made the most of the last sips of hot coffee before bracing the cold outside. It. was. freezing. Well, ok, just fractionally above freezing. But, I’ve grown up in Zululand and it’s not meant to get that cold!

Initially we set out to the north-east of where we parked (see co-ords below) to a pan that I had visited with friends in March. Back then there had been some heavy downpours and the area was rather flooded. But with it being winter, the ground was mostly dry. We found a couple small pools of water but the bird count was initially slow. We’d heard some loud bird calls coming from the south-western side as we set out, and with a quick look at Google Maps on my phone (a definite must for rural birding outings!) we saw a pan system just above the lake which looked like it would be more promising in winter. Parking at Nibela is literally just on the side of the dirt road and initially, we parked the car out in the open. Although it would probably have been safe, one never really knows so we moved it down a small dirt track further into some bushes, just in case. Following a cattle path and Google Maps we made our way to the pan system and it was awesome to pop out of some thick bushes and take in a magnificent view of a large pan filled with waterbirds.

Nibela
Nibela

I have to digress here quickly and apologise for the lack of scenic shots. I took some great ones with an app on my new Samsung S5, only to realise at the end of the day that said app has an extra button that needs to be tapped before the photo is actually saved. So I lost everything I took 🙁 Still not happy about that!

We made our way across the very muddy ground to get a closer look at the birds. I was very thankful for my gumboots at this stage and laughed as James struggled in his Crocs 🙂 My smugness was short-lived though as we made our way across some serious mud a while later and James asked me to take a photo of his muddy self to send to his girls back home. As I turned to take the photo, my right boot got seriously sucked into some mud and I continued to turn, yanking my foot completely out the boot and planting it firmly into some thick mud, sock and all! A good laugh for James!

Very muddy!
Very muddy!

Back to the birds… We picked up both Greater and Lesser Flamingo and I was very excited to see the much pinker Lesser Flamingo for the first time . They stand out so beautifully! The Great White Pelican as well as Pink-backed were both present too. Other birds included the Pied Avocet (lifer), Caspian Tern (lifer), Grey-rumped Swallow (another lifer), Kittlitz’s Plover, Hottentot and Cape Teals, Black-winged Stilt and Yellow-billed Stork. Unfortuantely we dipped on the Rosy-throated Longclaw (seen earlier this year) and Lemon-breasted Canary (would have been a lifer for both of us).

We spent a good 3 hours at Nibela and could easily have explored further.  We parked at co-ordinates 27°51’37.86″S 32°25’51.49″E and ventured out from there.

Mpempe
Mpempe

Next stop was Mpempe. I was pleasantly surprised at just how many birds were around. The pan is very close to a rural community and some ladies were harvesting a few bulbs but the birds seemed undisturbed. Common Starlings were a bit of a surprise and not on any previous atlas list for the area, meaning an Out of Range form from SABAP2. This pan is also apparently a good place for Lemon-breasted Canaries but again we dipped on this species. We did get Black-winged Lapwing shortly after arriving, which was a lovely lifer for me.  While walking the edge of the pan, we spotted Grey-rumped Swallow, African Wattled, Crowned and Blacksmith Lapwings, African Spoonbill, Black Cuckooshrike, Sacred Ibis, Grey, Black-headed, Goliath and Purple Herons, Red-billed and Hottentot Teals, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler and lots more.

Mpempe Pan is located at co-ordinates: 27°42’52.86″S 32°28’23.37″E.

We then made our way to Muzi Pan, a 15km stretch of water within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. On the R22 north, take the left turn signposted for Mkhuze Game Reserve (D820 road) and the pan spans both sides of the road about 2 kilometres from the turnoff. From the tar road, you can explore sections on both sides of the road. In March, I had been disappointed to see how run down the community project run by Themba had become. There didn’t seem to be any sign of him back then and nothing was running. The community had moved in with their cows, bushes were overgrown and buildings taking serious strain. But this time, there were workers restoring it and Themba was there to greet us. Things are getting back up and running again which is great to see. Walks and canoe rides can be booked with Themba Mazibuko on +27 73 161 8189 and you may just be lucky enough to see the very special Pel’s Fishing Owl.

We spent about 2 hours here and managed to get 52 species, the highlights being Kittlitz’s Plover, Black Sparrowhawk, Black-winged Stilt, Pink-backed Pelican, African Spoonbill, Long-billed Crombec, Grey-rumped Swallow, Little Bee-eater and Whiskered Tern.

The co-ordinates for Muzi are  27°39’15.30″S 32°24’7.78″E.

After a great morning’s birding, we drove on to our accommodation for the weekend, Bhekula Lodge.

Me at Nibela
Me at Nibela
Palms at Mpempe
Cows at Mpempe
Cows at Mpempe

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