At some point I wasn’t even sure I’d be on board the Mango flight to Durban to spend a week with the family in KZN. Having started a new job in February, and with a pile of work hitting during June, my participation in my favourite holidays of all time – Buckham Road Trips – was in doubt. Jeanie was equally disorganised having embarked a few months ago on an ambitious new business, which had her available time at an absolute premium and her stress levels at an absolute maximum.
Thank goodness for our good friends who booked a segment of our holiday for us about a year ago otherwise we would have had nothing. We had been sent a three night stay at Fugitive’s Drift as a holiday option and we were asked “are you in or are you out?”
We were certainly in, but it only accounted for three days. Truth be told it also accounted for a week at a South Coast holiday house but given our work constraints we had to sadly turn that down at the last minute.
So, we had a midweek slot at Fugitive’s Drift booked but nothing else.
It may be fair to say that Jeanie is incredibly patient with my birding exploits. Many of our holidays are designed around birds I want to see and photograph and, provided there is a decent amount of running trails for Jeanie to explore and comfortable accommodation, she is usually game.
With the Malagasy Pond Heron being discovered in the first few weeks of June, I didn’t need much more incentive to structure a little pre-Battlefields excursion to the Hluhluwe area and throw in a new SA bird for good measure.
So, with about 10 days’ lead time, I dived onto the internet and, remarkably, got accommodation at Hluhluwe River Lodge, no more than 30 minutes away from the MPH. I also booked us on the Sunday afternoon game drive at Phinda in the Mziki share block and all was set. Well, sort of. It was a bit of a mad scramble to get flights, but we secured those and then it was an even madder scramble to find a car big enough for the Buckhams on the Durban July weekend, but that’s another story altogether.
There was one thing missing for Jeanie. If one had to think of her in birding terms, she’s more of a Green Woodhoopoe than a skulking Knysna Warbler. You see, she is more of the cackling, gregarious sort and she needed some company while Tommy, Adam and I were out hunting birds.
So, we enticed some good friends of ours to join us in the bush on the promise of gin and tonics, gourmet food and top quality company. All it really took was a simple whatsapp message promising them all of the above and they were in. There was no mention of rabid birding tendencies and creepy crawlies that go bump in the night but we’d break them into that gently once they’d firmed their commitment.
As it turned out the company was a winner. Jeanie had her cup filled by endless chats with Sue on the veranda overlooking the St Lucia floodplain and Dean helped entertain countless children that were not into birding. Even better, I managed to rope Dean and his oldest daughter, Jasmine, into two of our birding expeditions (including the MPH mission) and before long they were both peering through our spare pair of binoculars at birds they had never even have dreamed of.
I guess one would expect that this sub-blog (as part one of the road trip) would be focused on the MPH twitch but, to be honest, much has been written about this bird and it has thankfully been incredibly reliable for the last five weeks and so it was one of the easier twitches I have ever done. Yes, we took almost an hour to find it where it was sitting quietly in the shade but our guide, Zandri, had little doubt that we would get it and so her relaxed demeanour set me at ease.
Once Tommy spotted it we had a field day with the photography as it fed constantly on the shoreline picking up one morsel after another, seemingly oblivious to the paparazzi-like camera fire coming from all three of us. What added a special edge to the twitch was sharing it with Dean and Jasmine who were introduced to this weird and wonderful world of ours. If Dean started his bird list there and then, the first bird he may have added would have been the MPH. I still think I have some way to go before he is hooked, but he and Jazzy seemed to enjoy themselves on a balmy winter’s afternoon just chilling and watching Tommy, Adam and I exchange high fives.
The MPH twitch was juxtaposed perfectly for me against the normal, run-of-the-mill birding that I have grown to love so much. It allowed me an opportunity to compare the rather high stress, frenetic twitching component of my love for birding with the more sedate, patient search for the normal birds that inhabit an area.
Hluhluwe River Lodge is situated on the western shores of the False Bay section of the Isamangaliso Wetland Reserve (for the old fogies – the St Lucia Estuary) on a hillside that overlooks the floodplain. The relatively small property harbours no dangerous game, which was a critical factor in Jeanie accepting it as our accommodation option as it meant she could run the small tracks to her heart’s content. It is also set amongst pristine sand forest which was a perfect habitat for us to explore on foot, which we did regularly.
I just loved the slow meanders along the path slowly squeezing out the specials like Rudd’s Apalis, Woodward’s Batis, Narina Trogon, Pink-throated Twinspots and Gorgeous Bush Shrike. We searched hard for that all elusive African Broadbill but to no avail. It is a bird that is on my list from a single sighting at Ndumu about 15 years ago but it is still a vacancy on the boys’ lists.
The only time our pace quickened on those walks was when we glanced at our watches after hours of walking, which seemed like minutes, and we were late for a crucial rendezvous back at the lodge for a breakfast, lunch or dinner. So, it always meant a route march back with me telling the boys that we only stop for Egyptian Vultures or African Pittas.
Even better than the sand forest wanderings was the walk we did down to the floodplain. Last year we had visited False Bay and had been saddened by the dry estuary bed that greeted us, but fortunately Zululand had a bit of rain earlier in the year and the False Bay section had quite a bit of water which made for more productive birding. This is where my comparison to the MPH is relevant. A bird we missed last year, and on previous visits to Zululand, was the localised Rosy-throated Longclaw. I had it on my list from a visit to this part of the world, many years back (incidentally on the same trip as the one where I added African Broadbill), but it was a serious target for me to photograph and for Adam and Tommy to get on to their lists.
Adam and I awoke on our first morning at the lodge, long before the sun even looked like rising, and we started our stroll down to the floodplain. In addition to the longclaw we would set about completing an atlas card for the pentad in which the reserve resides. The potential species list would be relatively large and we set ourselves a target of 100 species for the three days. Quite bizarrely we almost hit that target on that first stroll down to the floodplain. The weather was perfect and the birds were out. The variation in habitat from sand forest to riverine bush to grassed floodplains and flooded pans allowed for the list to accelerate very easily. At times the ticking on Birdlasser was too frantic and I felt we were missing some good birds as our attention was focussed on the app.
But my main concern was finding the longclaw. I had seen this bird on the Nibela Peninsula many years ago, as well in the Zimbabwe vleis, but on both occasions I had been led by a guide. I was confident I would be able to find the bird if it was there but how dense was the population, particularly bearing in mind the recent drought? There were also tens of African Pipits creeping through the grassed section of the floodplain and that caused a few false alarms. I needn’t have worried as I had eagle-eye Adam with me and, after only about 20 minutes, he shouted across at me “dad, I got it!”
And, there it was. We had our target bird that easily. It wasn’t a classic adult bird with a rosy throat but it was good enough for the two of us and we enjoyed the photographic opportunities in the golden early morning light.
The one person missing was Tommy. He had chosen to sleep in and so he missed the opportunity. But in this case he would not live to regret his decision as Adam and I offered to take him down the next day. We even roped Dean and Jazzy into this stroll and we were lucky enough to find two birds this time, one of which was a classic adult. The weather was completely different to the day before with the wind whistling across the floodplain and the gloomy skies threatening rain at any minute. I guess it made the adventure that much more wholesome as it is the birds you work hardest for that live longest in the memories.
So, the MPH twitch and the solid birding around the lodge gave me an opportunity to compare the two and determine what truly appeals to me. I have no doubt that I will find ways to chase rare birds in the future, but at no stage during the time we were walking through the sand forest or along the edge of the floodplain was I worried about rarities. Adam, Tommy and I have settled into a rhythm of working through some wonderful habitat in the places we visit in order to find the special birds of those areas. The Rosy-throated Longclaw on the floodplain, where it was supposed to be, had far more enjoyment value to me than the Pond Heron that had found itself a long way from home.
The rest of our time at the lodge was spent covering as much ground as we could to add birds to our pentad lists. When we weren’t birding we were seemingly eating, mostly at the lodge, where a tame Large-spotted Genet (who had affectionately been named Jenny by the lodge owners) fed on the left-over scraps the kids hadn’t eaten (my plate is never anything other than empty).
Our last night was spent with local well-known nature guide Ryan Tippett who took us on a spider walk in the surrounds of the lodge. I had been concerned that we wouldn’t see too many spiders but I needn’t have feared, particularly with seven kids in tow. We saw plenty. In fact, we had barely moved more than 20 metres from the lodge parking lot before Ryan had already shown us a fair selection. The highlights for me were the Brown Button Spider which Ryan suggested we approach with care as it would land us in hospital following a bite, and the cork-lid trapdoor spider, which is an extremely localised and endangered species and particularly hard to find. The small trap doors are perfectly woven above a smooth tunnel where the spider lives. The trapdoor is used as a concealment for hunting prey that the spider feels from vibrations on the ground surrounding the trap door. When prey is near it bursts out of the door and grabs its prey. Unfortunately it was particularly difficult photographing the actual spider at the end of the curved tunnel.
It was a wonderful three days shared with good friends in a beautiful place. We ultimately finished with 121 species for the pentad which was a lot more than I expected given the time of the year. It just shows how rich this area is. We’ll have to arrange a summer trip to add all the migrants one day. Here are a few random pics of some of the other birds we saw (the African Crowned Eagle being particularly noteworthy as it was a lifer for Tommy and Adam).
So, sadly the McCoubreys headed south, back to Durban as we headed inland to spend our next three days at Fugitive’s Drift where I would be exposed to some culture for a change.