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.
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Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.