Ntsikeni Vlei – trip report by Jon Cilliers

 

Jackal Buzzard
Jackal Buzzard

The amount of planning that went into this trip is comparable to running a local election.  When we started planning 5 months (!) ago, Button Birding had just handed the administration of the lodge over to EKZNW.  After speaking to 5 different people, over a period of 4 months, EKZNW phoned me on the afternoon before we were supposed to depart at 5am to tell me that we couldn’t go because the lodge had no diesel for the generator, petrol for the brush cutters or gas for the stoves and fridge!  This was after numerous confirmations and re-confirmations from them.  I lost it and told him that we were coming anyway and that we would just basically “camp” in the lodge – there was too much effort already to simply just not go!  Great way to start the trip.

 

Grey-crowned Crane
Grey-crowned Crane

We left Durban at 5am on Friday morning, and made a bee-line for Richmond where we had arranged with a contact there to take us to a Blue Swallow nest on his property.  Arriving on the farm we had Grey-crowned Crane, Olive Woodpecker, and Red-collared, Long-tailed and Fan-tailed Widowbirds.  We walked 5 mins and flushed a Red-necked Spurfowl before we came upon the nest – built in a seemingly bottomless hole on the hillside.  We had a pair of Blue Swallows flying around us as we retreated further up the hill to try and take photos for about 25 mins.  Nigh impossible to shoot a small dark bird against a dawn sky when it is shooting around like a Diwali firework!  An awesome little bird and a lifer for ¾ of the party.  We left Richmond a little more stoked than we had left Durban.

 

Blue Swallow
Blue Swallow

 

The drive from Richmond to Creighton is a beautiful one.  The scenery is breath-taking in places, and it takes you through some of the best valley bushveld in KZN (Umkomasi River valley).  We ticked African Black Duck in the Umzimkulu river, and Common House Martin, Greater Striped and Barn Swallows on the way.  It is well worth a cheeky little stop every now and again to check out some of the surrounding hillsides – especially the particularly boulder strewn ones.  On one such stop we picked up Pied Starling and Mountain Wheatear, Southern Bald Ibis, and African Pipit is everywhere.

African Pipit
African Pipit

Coming into Creighton we had 3 Cape Vultures over some of the farmland – they had come far from their mountain stronghold.  Although it was 11.15 in the morning we were all starving, but there is obviously no fast food outlets there.  Not so keen to buy “walkie talkies” for lunch from the local superstore we tried the sports club that advertised steak and potato lunches – farmers staple diet.  There were several big 4x4s parked out front, but obviously they don’t take kindly to non-members as they wouldn’t even answer the doorbell for us!  The only other place in town that filled us with any sort of expectation was the Creighton Hotel.  We went in, and the owner very helpfully informed us that he only served lunch from 12, so unlucky.  Clearly business is booming to such an extent that 4 hungry travellers can be turned away for being 45 mins early.  When Mary and Joseph were turned away from the Inn, Jesus was born.  When we were turned away from the Inn, the miracle at Ntsikeni happened!  Maybe we should be thanking the proprietor…

 

Leaving Creighton a little bemused, and trying our best to enjoy the lunch of dry Provitas and Doritos, we headed for Ntsikeni town, and on the way stopped at the bustling metropolis of Riverside, which is in East Griqualand, now under KZN but until 2007 under the Eastern Cape, to try and get some candles for our electricity-less trip.  The only spaza / supply store there didn’t have any candles – but stocked about 500 enema syringes in every shape, size and colour.  Just the essentials then!  We had scoped out some of the forestry in the area, and there were some tracts of indigenous forest on the way that we wanted to try for Cape Parrot and a few other specials.  It is always helpful to do your homework before you leave for a trip.  For this trip, to an area that I had never been before, I found the following resources quite helpful:  http://sabirding.co.za ; http://birdingroutes.co.za/southern_kzn/sbr/sites/skznbrbs8.1_ntsikeni_reserve.html .  Malcolm Gemmel from Button Birding also does private tours in the area.  We had decided to forgo Marutswa on the trip even though it is only around 45 km away, and just check out the small tracts on the way.  Thanks to google earth, we had a fairly good idea of where we wanted to go.  By the time we reached the forest it was already almost 1 pm, as we had taken a slow drive, stopping for a lot of birds on the way.  There are only small patches of forest in amongst the plantations, but we managed to tick Forest Buzzard, Swee Waxbill and Red Chested Cuckoo.  By now we just wanted to get to the reserve, so left the forest a bit early.  It looks like a good area to explore though.

 

Black Harrier
Black Harrier

Arriving at the reserve gate we realised that we had made a few schoolboy errors – it was freezing and the wind literally cut straight through us.  None of us had brought appropriate warm clothes – we had all packed for wetlands in low lying KZN – waders and rain suits.  Not sure what the Durban boys were expecting, but heck it was cold.  And misty.  And windy.  And beautiful.  All in equal measure.  Just over 6km from the entrance gate is a bunch of buildings.  We thought it was a good place to stop and look around.  There were Cacos calling everywhere, Bronze and Common, as well as a surprising number of Bushveld Rain Frogs.  Having a quick look around we ticked our first bird in the reserve – Black Harrier!  What a cracker of a bird and a good bird to get for the KZN list.  Opposite the lodge was a seperate wetland that was massive – and it wasn’t even the main wetland.  Harriers quartered over it, Grey-crowned Cranes and Denhams Bustards littered it, and Black Wildebeest ran panicking as is their custom.  We jumped back in the car and headed off to our lodge.  It blew our minds that this, an awesome wetland, wasn’t even part of the main wetland.

 

Arriving at the lodge we were greeted by Ngcobo who is the Lodge Manager.  The accommodation itself is beaut – 4 stone cottages (4 sleepers) with a communal kitchen / diningroom in the middle.  Ngcobo was trained by Malcolm Gemmel through BLSA and is now employed by EKZNW, even though they have left him marooned in the middle of nowhere with no supplies!  I’m not going to digress about my frustrations with EKZNW, except to say that every staff member that I have encountered in the field is a great ambassador for both conservation and hospitality.  The rot is certainly not at grassroots level.  That afternoon we ticked Barratts Warbler, Drakensberg Prinia and Cape Canary around the lodge.  We tried for one of the Striped Flufftail’s that were calling right in front of the lodge, but as expected, it eluded us.  We found a regurgitated Striped Skaapsteker and a Clicking Stream Frog as well.

 

Wattled Crane
Wattled Crane

We awoke at 3:45 so that we could be in the main wetland around sunrise.  The walk is not very strenuous, although walking in waders through wetland margin is quite taxing.  The mist was beginning to clear a little, enough for us to make out Wattled Cranes with a chick 35 m in front of us.  We arrived at the spot where we set up our chairs and scope to await the anticipated sunrise.  During this time we had 4 different African Grass Owl sightings as well as African Marsh Harrier and more Grey-crowned Cranes.  Rails and Red-chested Flufftail’s were calling from the section of wetland to our right.  We spent an hour or so here, drinking in the beauty as well as the sounds of what we were surrounded by.  This is apparently where the Eurasian Bitterns used to be, but Ngcobo says he hasn’t heard them for 2 years now.  On the way back we flushed 4 different African Snipes.  We got to the house to smash a cheeky breakfast, and a quick nap (yes, and I’m not even ashamed, it was glorious), then set about a hike up Ntsikeni Hill.  The lodge is nestled at around 1800 masl, and Ntsikeni Hill rises right next to it to just over 2 000 masl.  We had breeding Malachite Sunbird, Wailing, Wing Snapping and Pale Crowned Cisticolas, Yellow Bishop, and then we heard one of our main targets – Ground Woodpecker.  We managed to get great views of them around half way up the hill, and then our second target popped into view, Drakensberg Rockjumper.  If I had a wide angle lens, I could have shot them both in the same shot!  On the way down we picked up the only target bird for the morning that we were missing – Sentinel Rockthrush.  We hiked to the Eastern Side of the wetland to overlook the main body.  It is a sight to behold.  After lunch we did a quick little drive back to a grassier section and ticked Yellow-breasted Pipit with very little effort.  By now the mist had set in and visibility was down to a couple of metres.  We went home to braai and get some rest in anticipation of the next morning, but not before trying again for Striped Flufftail in front of the lodge.  We had it within 3 m of us, but no sightings!  While we were braaing, no fewer than 5 Black-crowned Night Herons flew over us in the direction of the main wetland.

 

Yellow-breasted Pipit
Yellow-breasted Pipit
View from half way up Ntsikeni hill
View from half way up Ntsikeni hill

We did the pre-dawn shift again, with Ngcobo telling us he has a spot for Baillon’s Crake and African Rail.  The walk was again not too bad, but tricky in waders, and we had spoor of Porcupine, Water Mongoose, African Wildcat and Serval.  Clearly a well worked area.  We set up at the margin of the wetland again, in the company of 2 pairs of Grey-crowned Cranes.  We had Lesser Swamp and Sedge Warblers and Banded Martin all around.  We taped in a Baillons Crake and then it flushed, giving us all a 4 – 5 second view.  There was a Rail calling to our right hand side, so Ngcobo told us to sit tight, and he would try and flush it so we could get a view.  As he went off, he shouted “Flufftail!” as he flushed a bird.  We all got to see it flying back into the wetland for about 4 seconds.  We all just looked at each other without saying anything for a few seconds because we all had the same thought: That bird had clear white secondaries as it flew away from us!  Ngcobo now came and joined us and confirmed what we were all thinking – he had just accidentally flushed a White Winged Flufftail!  This was his first sighting in the 7 years that he has been living in the reserve.  20 minutes later the mist started closing in, so we had literally ticked the bird of our lives, in a small window of opportunity, by mistake!  On the way out we had great views of Rail as it flew over the road, and a Lanner Falcon perched high in a pine tree on the way down the plateau.

 

This reserve is a must see for birders, and is probably one of the most under-utilised reserves in the province.  If one were to do a trip to Ndumo and then Ntsikeni, you give yourself every opportunity to see the most elusive and sought after birds in KZN.  I will be back, and hope that others will too, as the reserve and its staff need our support.

Transvaal Girdled Lizzard
Transvaal Girdled Lizzard

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