16th to 19th December 2020

December has been a crazy month for unusual birds in Zululand. Madagascan Cuckoo, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Terek Sandpiper, Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Caspian and American Golden Plovers to name a few.

Sally and I eventually managed to go up there for 3 nights – staying at Sand Forest Lodge just north of Hluhluwe. We drove up early on Wednesday morning going straight to the Madagascan Cuckoo site in Hluhluwe Game Reserve.

The bird was calling well but down in the valley. A pair of White Rhino were in the muddied pool right beside us – keeping us inside the cars. Pin-tailed Whydahs were also on display.

After a few hours waiting for it to make an appearance we mossied off elsewhere in the park before returning at about 13h00. Again the bird was calling but did not visit us at the top of the hill. Eventually we gave up and checked in to the cottage at Sand Forest Lodge.

Sand Forest Lodge itself is a great place to see Zululand birds. We wandered around the grounds catching sight of a number of specials. Particularly nice was the call of the Broad-billed Roller….”Naarr”.

Broad-billed Roller

The following day we visited Nibela and Mpempe Pans with Ian Gordon. Nibela is a vast floodplain with coastal forest along one side – fever trees and bush. A great contrast to the floodplain with a whole different variety of birds calling.

Our goal here was to find the Black-tailed Godwit – a lifer for both Sally and me. However it was not to be. Many hours were spent at the different pans, forever hopeful. There were a goodly variety of waterbirds to keep us entertained. Hundreds of Flamingos and Pelicans, Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, Ringed Plovers, Grey Plovers, Black-winged Stilts, Marsh Sandpipers, Ruffs, some Terns (some too far away to positively ID) and the occasional Lesser Sand Plover.

We took a 3 – 4 km drive along the side of the floodplain and the bush seeing and hearing an array of different species. In particular there were numerous Bee-eaters – predominantly Blue-Cheeked and some European.

Returning to one of the pans we saw a Terek Sandpiper – a bird which we could not remember when nor where we last saw one.

We then visited Mpempe Pan and drove round the surrounding open grassland. Here, we found Crowned, Black-winged and Senegal Lapwings some with young. Sally saw a Greater Sand Plover and there were at least 4 Caspian Plovers with two in partial breeding plumage.

On the Friday we went back -very early- to Hluhluwe to find the Madagascan Cuckoo. This time we had partial glimpses as it traversed from one valley to the next over our vehicles. After many hours waiting we headed off into Hluhluwe birding.

We got lucky and came across a European Honey Buzzard.

That day we made one last effort to find the Cuckoo. Calling from down the valley. As we were about to leave one of the Rangers ascended from the valley with a group of youngsters . They had great sightings of the bird. On impulse Sally organised for us to take a walk with the guide the next morning at 06h00 on our way home.

On arrival the next morning we could hear the Cuckoo calling close to the top of the hill. The rangers led a group of seven hopefuls down through the rugged prickly bush and we managed to get several fleeting sightings. The light was terrible so we continued following it and had several more close calls. Then it decided it needed to head back up the valley. We followed. This time back up to the top and following it down the other side. At one point we hung about a tree it was happy in – eating the caterpillars. As we heard it calling below it took off and flew straight at us landing in the tree above our heads – in the sun of course. After several more efforts to see it well it headed back up the valley – calling as it went.

Not the best of sightings and certainly terrible photos.

Over the three days we were in Zululand we notched up identifying 168 species of different birds. Click below for list.

A thoroughly enjoyable few days away with many special birds seen including our lifer the Madagascan Cuckoo. Dipped on the Black-tailed Godwit.

Sally and Paul Bartho

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