Lower Drakensburg Foothills – Marutswa Forest complex

About the Birding

Located immediately on the outskirts of the quaint country village of Bulwer, between the Bulwer Biosphere and Sappi WWF TreeRoutes Partnership, lies the Marutswa Forest Complex. Marutswa Forest has been described as one of the most active and attractive mistbelt forests anywhere in KwaZulu-Natal. The site comprises a network of trails and a boardwalk through the forest including several jetties, decks and viewpoints – though subsequent to its construction in 2004, the site has fallen into disrepair and most of this infrastructure has fallen away.

That said, the trail system persists providing access to the forest along which a high diversity of forest specials may be found. The trails incorporate an early sawmill and several sawpits.

Cape Parrot has been symbolic of Marutswa Forest complex since the early days, providing a last refuge for several hundred of these threatened birds. The best approach to seeing the parrots is to wait patiently above the forest in the early morning and late afternoon as the birds fly between their feeding and roosting areas, squawking loudly. Moreover, scan any exposed snags above the forest canopy as the birds often sun themselves particularly in the early morning. Once the parrots enter the forest to feed, they become extremely difficult to find. While you wait, listen for the trill calls of the shy and reclusive Barratt’s Warbler from bracken at the forest edge as this species is fairly common here. This same habitat is shared by the near-endemic Drakensburg Prinia, Lazy Cisticola, and African Yellow Warbler. Other birds commonly seen over the forest include the Long-crested and African Crowned Eagles, Forest Buzzard, African Goshawk, and occasionally Rufous-breasted and Black Sparrowhawks.

Once you enter the forest, follow the main contour trail for several hundred metres along which the full assemblage of forest specials may be seen. Perhaps the most sought-after species of the forest interior is the shy but beautiful Orange Ground Thrush. Listen for rustling in the leaf-litter and for the species’ rich melodic song, though be careful not to confuse similar calls of the Olive Thrush which is common in the forest and bear in mind that the Ground Thrush calls from high up in large trees. Other notable forest interior species include the Knysna Turaco, White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-chat, Narina Trogon, Bush Blackcap, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Collared and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, Forest Canary, and Swee Waxbill. The mournful calls of Buff-spotted Flufftail are often heard from the dense undergrowth in summer months, particularly on overcast mornings, though seeing this species requires luck and patience.

The nearby Comrie Dam and surrounding farmlands are excellent birding areas and may well produce Denham’s Bustard, Southern Bald Ibis, and Red-winged Francolin. Blue Swallow has historically bred in this area and could well be seen foraging over remnant areas of high-altitude grassland in the summer months. Other common Hirundines include the White-throated, Greater Striped, and Lesser Striped Swallows, as well as Brown-throated and Banded Martins. Reedbeds surrounding Comrie Dam support a healthy population of African Rail and Red-chested Flufftail, though both of these species require luck and patience to see.

Key species:

Orange Ground Thrush, Cape Parrot, African Crowned Eagle, Bush Blackcap, Barratt’s Warbler

About the Birding Site

The Lower Drakensberg Foothills Birding Route lies inland and to the south-west of the Southern KwaZulu-Natal Birding Route and is easily accessible from both Durban and Pietermaritzburg, the two nearest points of entry. The source of this route is found in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site at the majestic Sani Pass where birders get the unique opportunity to view birds in a rugged and stunningly beautiful environment, consisting of five different habitats and ranging in height from 1600m to 3200m.

However, the heart of this route lies in the lowlands below the Sani Pass where numerous beautiful nature reserves and large tracts of pristine mist belt forest and grassland are to be found supporting a plethora of interesting species including several of South Africa’s most sought-after birds. Top specials within this birding route include the critically endangered Blue Swallow, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Cape Parrot, Drakensburg Siskin, Bearded and Cape Vultures, Orange Ground Thrush and Gurney’s Sugarbird among others. Several days are recommended in the area to do the route proper justice and summer visits (September-April) are optimal to ensure that all target species are present and that all sites will be accessible.

Key species:

Orange Ground Thrush, Cape Parrot, African Crowned Eagle, Bush Blackcap, Barratt’s Warbler

Other Related Information

Directions:
From Howick, take the R617 in the direction of Underburg. Travel through the village of Bulwer and, just pass the Police Station, turn to the left in the direction of Marutswa Forest. Travel down this road for a few hundred metres, then turn right towards the parking area and the abandoned educational centre.
From Underburg, take the R617 in the direction of Hilton. As you approach the town of Bulwer, just pass the Engen Garage, turn to the right and follow this road for a few hundred metres in the direction of the forest…

Other related information:

Directions:
… Comrie Dam is accessible on the Donnybrook/Hela-Hela road several kilometres away in the direction of the nearby Gqumeni Forest.
Notable points of interest include the:
Main parking area: -29.8080, 29.7840

The nearest towns to the Marutswa Forest are:
Bulwer: 2.9km
Underberg: 38km
Howick: 80km

Access and facilities:
Most of the infrastructure within the Marutswa Forest have fallen into disrepair and the boardwalk and educational centre, constructed in 2004, are both now largely derelict. The main entrance road (only 100m) is now heavily eroded and the parking area overgrown. However, it is still possible to visit the site and the forest is accessible daily.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Diverse accommodation options are available in the nearby towns of Creighton, Bulwer and Underberg. The nearest Birder Friendly Establishments are in the towns of Himeville, Dargle Valley, Pietermaritzburg, and Balgowan.

For more information, visit:
http://www.birdlife.org.za/go-birding/bird-friendly-establishments/kwazulu-natal/

Local guide information:
For guided excursions to Marutswa Forest, contact:

Button Birding
Tel: +27 (0)39 833 1029
E-mail: buttonbirding@futurenet.co.za

Text prepared by:
Daniel Keith Danckwerts (Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Tours)

Key species:

Orange Ground Thrush, Cape Parrot, African Crowned Eagle, Bush Blackcap, Barratt’s Warbler

Contact details:

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