Year in the Wild Blog

Kingdom of the birds, a pied piper called Sonto, and a vegetarian vulture

Ndumo may have been proclaimed in April 1924 to conserve some of the last hippo in KwaZulu-Natal, but it’s the bird life which makes Ndumo world famous among avifaunal fanatics. Amazingly, Ndumo is home to about 85% of the 500 species in the region, making it probably one of the best birding spots in the country.

(Deneys Reitz, Minister of Lands at the time under Jan Smuts, was responsible for the proclamation of Ndumo, and declared famously: “When I had Ndumu game reserve proclaimed, I did my duty to God and to the hippo.” Little did he know that he would inadvertently contribute enormously to bird conservation.)

Last time I was at Ndumo, it rained for several days. Fortunately, this time the weather was perfect. Late April and early May is a fantastic time to be up in northern KwaZulu-Natal. During summer the tropical climate can be excessively humid and hot, but autumn and winter heralds the onset of cooler nights and milder days, with gentle sunshine and minimal wind.

Without a doubt, the highlights of any stay at Ndumo are the guided bird walks with rangers. I went on several with Sonto Tembe, who has been at Ndumo since 1981. (He was born in the reserve in 1952!)

Sonto is an affable, quietly-spoken and gentle soul of the bush, and with his portly tummy and slow amble, you’d think he’s ready for retirement. Not so. When the subject of birds arises, his eyes light up, his smile widens prodigously, and he starts chatting excitedly in his broken English. Despite guiding visitors for three decades, his enthusiasm is infectious.

For seasoned and beginner birders alike, a walk with Sonto is a must-do. The highlight is no doubt his imitation of the bird calls…not only can Sonto identify every bird by sight, but also by call. (And he can imitate each bird in pitch perfect tone…a remarkable skill that I’ve not encountered anywhere else during my work in Southern Africa’s protected areas. I’d say that Sonto is one of South Africa’s most talented and knowledgeable naturalists, and as such should be recognised and commended officially).

I went on several walks with Sonto and other guests. The first was on the Pongola floodplain, where we saw white-eared barbet, tawny-flanked prinia, dark-backed weaver, blue-mantled crested flycatcher, purple-crested loerie, african finfoot, juvenile harrier hawk, yellow-breasted apalis and grey sunbird.

The scenery along the Pongola floodplain is superb, with huge fig trees, dense riparian forest and large swamp areas with good numbers of nyala and blue wildebeest. We were hoping to see a Pel’s fishing owl, but according to Sonto, the best time of year is July, when the water has subsided, and the owls have to concentrate their feeding efforts at fewer pools.

The second walk I did with Sonto was along the banks of Nyamithi Pan. We saw Kittlitz’s plover, black-headed oriole, chinspot batis, yellow-breasted apalis and yellow-bellied greenbul. The pans at Ndumo define the reserve, and Nyamithi’s fever trees cast a golden glow across the still waters. Hippos grunt, fish eagles call, and crocodiles lurk…it’s a wonderful scene.

(I can’t help but think, however, that the landscape misses elephants. They were shot out by hunters more than a century ago, and Ndumo’s atmosphere seems to be mourning their absence. It must have been amazing to see elephants moving through the floodplains, pans and fever tree forests. I also think the so-called Mahemane bush is excessively thick, making it difficult for even forest species like nyala to move through it. Elephants would surely help open it up again.)

On our last walk, we explored Shokwe Pan in the west of the park. This beautiful pan is shaped like a big horse-shoe, and is lined with extensive fig tree forests, under which we walked with Sonto. This area can only be reached on foot, and for me, it’s probably the most beautiful part of Ndumo.

We saw yellow-rumped tinkerbird, red-fronted tinkerbird, chinspot batis, rudd’s apalis, black-bellied starling, green pigeon, emerald-spotted wood dove, collared sunbird, long-billed crombec, ashy flycatcher, burnt-necked eremomela, orange-breasted bush shrike, natal robin, yellow white-eye, cardinal wood-pecker, puffback shrike and grey sunbird.

Then, early one morning, I spotted what I thought was a juvenile fish eagle standing in open grassland. The bird was about 100 metres away, so I took a photo with my 500mm lens and only looked at the photo later to zoom in. I was sitting at Ezulwini bird hide on Nyamithi Pan, and so were Anton and Renate Kruger, and Tiaan and Catherine de Witt from Pretoria.

I showed them the photo, asking them which species it was, and Anton quickly pointed out to me that it was a palm-nut vulture! This species is very rare in South Africa, limited to the north-east coastline of the country, and southern Mozambique. It feeds, remarkably for a vulture, on the fruit of Raphia palm trees, which only grow in this tropical part of Southern Africa. (Fancy that, a vegetarian vulture! Although it’s not strictly vegetarian, because it does feed sometime on carrion).

Some of the birds we saw at Ndumo are highly restricted in their distributions, and Ndumo is proably the best place to see them in South Africa. For example, the yellow white-eye and Rudd’s apalis is only found in northern KwaZulu-Natal near Ndumo. Full credit to Sonto for managing to find all these special birds for us…and for imitating their calls.

I’m a beginner birder, but a walk with Sonto has inspired me again to learn more about this region’s 500-odd bird species.

Here’s a video of Sonto which I recorded, in which he imitates some bird calls. If you can’t see it here, then click here to watch in on YouTube.

Sonto Tembe, bird guide and naturalist

Sonto Tembe explaining the "wag n bietjie" bush...or buffalo thorn. This tree has pairings of thorns on each side of it's branches - one thorn pointing forwards, and the other pointing backwards.

Guests on a walk with Sonto Tembe, at Nyamithi Pan

While walking with Sonto, we spotted this fish eagle sitting in thick forest alongside one of the small tributaries of the Pongola River

Yellow-billed stork flying over Nyamithi Pan

The view over Nyamithi Pan, with fever trees in the background. The definitive view of Ndumo, and one by which most people remember the reserve.

A pair of yellow-billed storks, close to Ezulwini Hide on Nyamithi Pan

Birders Anton and Renate Kruger, with Sonto Tembe

Trumpeter hornbill

The beautiful fig tree forest at Shokwe Pan, which can only be accessed on foot by walking with one of the guides

More fig trees at Shokwe Pan

Early morning, looking out over the Pongola River valley. This photo taken from the camp at Ndumo

Blackwinged lapwings in typical, favoured habitat of short grassland

Palm nut vulture! I took this photo with my 500mm lens, and only later zoomed in to check which species it was. At first I thought it was a juvenile fish eagle, but then fellow visitor Anton Kruger corrected me and identified it! These rare birds are only found in this part of the world, along the north-east coastline of Southern Africa. They feed on the fruits of raffia palm trees, but they also scavenge on old carcasses and bones. This one was feeding at the so-called "vulture restaurant", a place where rangers place an animal's carcass, in order to supplement the food of vultures and other scavenging birds.

Impala lilly

Nyamithi Pan, late afternoon...with fever trees reflecting on the water

Hippo lurking in the water of Nyamithi Pan

Late afternoon at Nyamithi Pan

Crocodile at Nyamithi

The chalets at Ndumo camp. This is one of the best settings I've seen. The chalets don't have toilets or showers, but there are communal ablutions. There is also a small kitchenette with fridge, microwave and kettle in each chalet, but no stove or oven, so you'll need to use the communal cooking facilities

The thick bush of the so-called Mahemane Forest, made up primarily of acacia and albizia woodland. One of the things that struck me was how thick the bush is at Ndumo...and it seems like even nyala have a difficult time moving through the undergrowth. Elephants were shot out here over a century ago, but I would think that the landcape needs them back. Without them, the bush seems to be choking itself.

Early morning light on grass

The view from Red Cliffs picnic site, of the Usuthu River which forms the border with Mozambique.

I watched this croc on the banks of the Usuthu River for a while...he seemed very happy lying there in the early morning sun.

The view of Nyamithi Pan from the viewing tower near the entrance gate to Ndumo

The entrance to Ndumo

Nyala bull, in early morning mist during a walk on the Pongola floodplain with Sonto

The early morning dew of autumn highlights the thousands of spider webs...it's incredible to see how many festoon the plants and trees

These signs are now all over the reserves of KwaZulu Natal...wherever there is rhino. Ndumo has lost many rhino to poachers in the last few years, and those that remain are very skittish.

Plenty of yellow-billed storks on their nests at Nyamithi Pan. This photo taken from the Ezulwini Hide

Early morning on the main road to the camp at Ndumo.

Ndumo is located in a highly populated area. When Ndumo was proclaimed, people were evicted from the reserve, and today increasing pressure outside it's borders is all too evident. These cattle were wandering along the southern fenceline of the reserve.

Golden orb spider...one of the millions that profilerate at Ndumo. This is a fascinating place if you like your spiders, butterflies and beetles!

Bees hovering near a water lilly flower

Hey! This giraffe was in an inquisitive mood, poking her head towards my window.

For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as WildCardEeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

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