Spotting the Spotted Ground-thrush

Melis and I were lucky enough to have a brief trip down to the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal province this last weekend. Officially we were there for a wedding; unofficially we were there to enjoy the magnificent forests and the incredible birds that live in them. We started our explorations at Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve, just inland from Port Shepstone. The reserve is famous for its majestic scenery which includes a massive canyon carved by the Umzimkulwana River. Among birders, it is known as one of the few places in the province where one can see the endemic Knysna Woodpecker (Campethera notata).

We headed down the gorge stopping to enjoy some Samango Monkeys (Cercopithecus albogularis) as well as some ridiculously tame Lemon Doves feeding in the road (Columba larvata). Another stop yielded a Square-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus ludwigii) as well as a near encounter with a Knysna Woodpecker. The woodpecker was knocking away on a tree before it called and darted away, yielding only untickable views. Ashy Flycatchers (Fraseria caerulescens) were common all the way down to the river. Perhaps the best sighting on the drive down though was a stunning male Narina Trogon (Apaloderma narina) perched in the open less than five meters away from the car. A close second was a single Green Twinspot (Mandingoa nitidula).

Narina Trogon 3 - Oribi Gorge, KZN

Once we arrived at the bottom of the gorge, we walked the Hoopoe Falls trail and found some magnificent species. Our good luck began with a Brown Scrub-robin (Cercotrichas signata) flicking leaves next to the trail. This was the first of many with at least six individuals during our walk. A Narina Trogon alerted us to the presence of an incredible bird party. Often in winter, forest and woodland birds group up to forage together. This allows them to have many eyes looking out for predators while feeding. In the forest, Square-tailed Drongos tend to be the first to alert the mixed flocks to predators (or passing birders). Our particular mixed flock had an incredible list of species including a noisy group of Terrestrial Brownbuls (Phyllastrephus terrestris), a Chorister Robin-chat (Cossypha dichroa), and a couple Square-tailed Drongos. A single sub-adult White-starred Robin (Pogonocichla stellata) popped in briefly followed by the highlight of my morning, a handsome Scaly-throated Honeyguide (Indicator variegatus) who peered down at us from a branch. Other nice species on our walk included Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler (Phylloscopus ruficapilla), Blue-mantled Crested-flycatcher (Trochocercus cyanomelas), and Crowned Hornbill (Lophoceros alboterminatus).

Brown Scrub-Robin - Oribi Gorge, KZN

Knysna Turaco 1 - Oribi Gorge, KZN

Scaly-throated Honeyguide 3 - Oribi Gorge, KZN

On our drive out, we got lucky enough to hit a second bird party that added another group of fantastic species including an adult and sub-adult Olive Bushshrike (Telophorus olivaceus), a beautiful male Olive Woodpecker (Dendropicos griseocephalus), Yellow-breasted (Apalis flavida) and Bar-throated Apalises (A. thoracica), and African Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis). The top of the gorge also yielded a cheeky little Lazy Cisticola (Cisticola aberrans) popping around the beautiful blooming Aloe ferox and a group of White-necked Ravens (Corvus albicollis) eating insects in horse poo. We also picked up our only invasive species for the pentad in the form of Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). A quick flyover by a Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres) was also a welcome addition. Overall, we picked up a solid 60 species in the pentad.

Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler 1 - Oribi Gorge, KZN

After Oribi, we headed to Mpenjeti Nature Reserve, one of the largest patches of dune forest left on the south coast. It was very, very quiet at midday but we picked up a couple forest species including Red-capped Robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis), Square-tailed Drongo, and Olive (Cyanomitra olivacea) and Collared Sunbirds (Hedydipna collaris). On the beach we enjoyed some Kelp Gulls (Larus dominicanus) of various ages and the estuary helped us add Three-banded (Charadrius tricollaris) and White-fronted Plover (C. marginatus), and African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla aguimp). I think this spot definitely could have yielded more species in the morning as the habitat was fairly good!

Kelp Gull 1 - Mpetjane, KZN

White-fronted Plover 47 - Mpetjane, KZN

Our last stop on Sunday morning for a quick pre-drive birding walk was the beautiful Umtavuna Nature Reserve. Umtavuna is the southernmost of the KwaZulu-Natal province’s reserves, right on the border with Eastern Cape. We popped in through the Pont entrance and walked the Lourie Trail. The trail circles up into beautiful, rocky forest and then down along the Umtavuna River. We saw many of the species from Oribi including another sub-adult White-starred Robin, two Blue-mantled Crested-flycatchers, and several Knsyna Turaco (Tauraco corythaix). Crowned Hornbills called from trees along the whole river and Brown Scrub-robins jumped around the forest floor. The highlight of the walk was unquestionably a Spotted Ground-thrush (Zoothera guttata) foraging with scrub-robins and Terrestrial Brownbuls. This species can be tricky with only around 600 mature individuals according the Eskom Red Data Book of South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Globally, they are regarded as Endangered due to seemingly rapid declines across their range which is attributed to habitat loss and fragmentation. So needless to say, it was the cherry on top of an incredible trip. A truly incredible and localized species!

Butterfly - Umtamvuna Nature Reserve, KZNCrowned Hornbill Female 6 - Umtamvuna Nature Reserve, KZN

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