North-east Zululand – Mkhuze Game Reserve

About the Birding

Mkhuze Game Reserve (now included into the Greater iSimangaliso Wetlands Park) was proclaimed in 1912 to protect well in excess of 40 000 hectares of open woodland, riverine forest, pristine sand forest, acacia thornveld and numerous large pans. It is widely regarded as one of the premier birding destinations in South Africa, boasting one of the highest checklists for any protected area in the country (exceeding 400 species!). This includes several of South Africa’s most sought-after species, most of which are readily found within the reserve.

Approaching from the west, visit the main campsite near the entrance of the reserve where it is permissible to walk around. Note that, once you enter the reserve proper, birders are required to remain in their vehicles at all times except at a few designated sites. The riverine thicket running along the lower edge of the campsite supports Jameson’s Firefinch, Green-winged Pytilia, Crested Francolin, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, Black-crowned Tchagra, and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike. Yellow-billed Hornbill are tame and approachable, while Striped Kingfisher hunt from exposed perches above the camping sites. This area is also one of the better areas in the park for the aptly-named Gorgeous Bush-shrike, which is best detected by its loud ringing calls. The road between the campsite and the main lodge supports an interesting assemblage of open country species including the Black-bellied Bustard, Senegal Lapwing (especially after fires), and Common Buttonquail. This is also a fantastic area to watch overhead for Bateleur and Lappet-faced Vulture once the thermals have formed.

It is also permissible to walk around the main lodge, though remain mindful of dangerous game that occasionally visits this section of the park. Flowering trees surrounding the tented accommodation – mainly Weeping Boer Bean trees (Schotia brachypetla) – attract a high diversity of sunbird species including the Purple-banded, Collared, Olive, Grey, Scarlet-chested, White-bellied and occasionally Neergaard’s Sunbirds. The latter is best detected by its distinctive calls. Mixed species foraging flocks regularly form here and often contain Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, Grey Penduline-tit, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, and White-crested Helmetshrike. Search the scrubby fringes and river gulleys in this area for the shy Bearded Scrub-robin and Pink-throated Twinspot, both of which are best detected by their calls. A covey of tame Crested Guineafowl also patrol this area in the early mornings offering sublime views of this normally shy species. These birds are often seen on the Riverview Walk, which leaves from the main offices, along which it is also possible to see the Pink-throated Twinspot, Grey Waxbill, Eastern Nicator, and Scaly-throated Honeyguide.

South of the main camp, one enters an area of open thornveld and sand forest. In the open thornveld, look for Burnt-necked Eremomela, Grey Penduline-tit, Bushveld Pipit, Flappet Lark, Grey Go-away-bird, and an assortment of raptors including the Tawny and Lesser Spotted Eagles. The sand forest surrounding the Kubube and Kumasinga hides supports Crested Guineafowl, Eastern Nicator, Bearded Scrub-robin, Stierlings Wren-warbler, Rudd’s Apalis, Common Square-tailed Drongo and Gorgeous Bush-shrikes. This is also one of the premier sites in the country to look for Pink-throated Twinspot, African Broadbill and Neergaard’s Sunbird. Knowledge of the calls is essential to finding these three species. Kumasinga Hide over-looks a small waterhole which attracts an array of seedeaters including the Green Twinspot and Grey Waxbill. While it is permissible to leave one’s vehicle to walk to the hides, remain cautious of dangerous game (including lion!) at all times.

South of the hides, one approaches the extensive Nsumo Pan. This is a wonderland for waterbird species and a visit to one of the hides – where it is again permissible to leave your vehicle – should produce African Spoonbill, both Yellow-billed and Saddle-billed Storks, Intermediate Egret, Black and Goliath Herons, African Openbill as well as an assortment of waterfowl. Scan any areas covered by lily pads for both African Pygmy Goose and Lesser Jacana (a scope is handy), and search the reedbeds for African Swamphen and Allen’s Gallinule (summer). When water levels drop, look for Greater Painted-snipe. Fever Tree forests fringing the main pan support the Woodland Kingfisher, Green-capped Eremomala, and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (summer). Other notable species include the Southern Banded Snake-eagle, Lizard Buzzard, and Dwarf Bittern (where trees are flooded). The fig forest walk situated adjacent to the pan should deliver the Narina Trogon, Green Malkoha, Broad-billed Roller (summer), Black-bellied Starling, Black-throated Wattle-eye and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher; though a walk through this section of the reserve requires an armed escort and must be arranged through the main camp. Enquire as to whether there have been any recent sightings of Pel’s Fishing Owl, as a pair of these impressive birds sometimes roosts in this area.

The eastern sections of the reserve are blanketed in dry thornveld. In the vicinity of the airstrip, look for Senegal Lapwing, African Pipit, Desert Cisticola, and Bronze-winged Courser. This is also the premier site in South Africa for Olive-tree Warbler, which is best found in late summer (March/April) when the birds call prior to their return migration. Finally, the river and fig forest along the eastern boundary of the reserve supports Purple-crested Turaco, Common Square-tailed Drongo, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, and White-eared Barbet. Moreover, watch the vegetated banks of the river from the bridge for the shy African Finfoot.

Key species:

Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd’s Apalis, Neergaard’s Sunbird, Lemon-breasted Canary, Senegal Lapwing, Pel’s Fishing Owl, African Broadbill

About the Birding Site

The Mkhuze area, situated just inland from iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, is world-renowned as a mecca for birders laying at the ecotone between two distinct climatic zones and supporting a high diversity of habitats. Habitats in the region include cliffs, rocky ridges and scarp forests on the eastern slopes of the Lebombo mountains, through to acacia savannah, mixed woodlands and grasslands surrounding Lower Mkhuze. Numerous large pans are also scattered throughout the region and, although water-levels vary from year to year, are widely regarded as the most important waterbird breeding sites anywhere in South Africa.

This habitat diversity translates into an extraordinary diversity of plant and animal species, including well in excess of 450 bird species; one of the highest lists for any region in South Africa. Among these are a number of highly sought-after localized species including the Pink-throated Twinspot, Neergaard’s Sunbird, and Rudd’s Apalis. Other notable mentions include the Pel’s Fishing Owl, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, African Broadbill, Pink-backed Pelican, African Pygmy Goose, and Lesser Jacana. Most habitats are easily accessible at a number of sites along this sub-route and a two to five day stay is recommended in the area, with lists in excess of 200 species being a reasonable target. Birding sites along this sub-route include the Mkhuze Game Reserve (now included into the Greater iSimangaliso Wetlands Park), Leopard Mountain and Lebombo Game Reserves, and Phinda.

Key species:

Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd’s Apalis, Neergaard’s Sunbird, Lemon-breasted Canary, Senegal Lapwing, Pel’s Fishing Owl, African Broadbill

Other Related Information

Directions:
From Hluhluwe town, take the N2 north. Signposted approximately 50km’s north, is the town of Mkuze. Follow the road through town to the T-junction, (avoiding the left-hand fork to the business centre). Here take a right turn and follow the gravel road, suitable for sedan cars, for about 10km. Look out for the signboard which indicates the left turn leading into Mkhuze Game Reserve. If coming from the north, Mkuze village is about 60km from Pongola Town.

Other related information:

Directions:
A new entrance gate to Mkhuze Game Reserve has also been constructed to the east. The Ophansi bridge and all-weather road (now in a poor state) links the Sodwana Bay and Mkhuze sections of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This new route allows visitors to the Wetland Park to enjoy diving activities, birding and canoeing on the Muzi Pan, which is situated between Sodwana Bay and Mkhuze, and excellent game viewing – all within a 70 kilometre radius. The D820 access road on which the bridge is built, can be reached via the Lubombo Road which connects Hluhluwe with Sodwana Bay and Kosi Bay further to the north. The traveling time from Sodwana Bay to the new entrance is a comfortable 40 minutes.

Notable points of interest include the:
Mkhuze western entrance: -27.6435, 32.1531
Mkhuze campsite: -27.6395, 32.1579
Mkhuze main lodge and reception: -27.5991, 32.2160
Kubube hide: -27.6223, 32.2319
Kumasinga hide: -27.6251, 32.2350
Nsumo Pan hide: -27.6684, 32.3071
Mkhuze eastern entrance: -27.6000, 32.2956
The nearest towns to the Mkhuze Nature Reserve are:
Mkhuze: 16km
Hluhluwe: 68km

Access and facilities:
Mkhuze Nature Reserve is open to both day visitors and overnight guests and a conservation fee is payable at the main entrances to the reserve. A detailed network of roads (over 100km!) covers most areas of Mkhuze Nature Reserve including all major habitats. Given the presence of dangerous game, visitors must remain within their vehicles at all times except at a few designates sites (e.g. hides, walking trails). Even then, birders must always remain cautious.

Gate times are as follows:
Summer (October-March): 05:00-19:00
Winter (April-September): 06:00-18:00
The guided fig forest walk is conducted daily, though group size is limited to 8 people. This walk is conducted by a knowledgeable field guide though visitors are advised to make their interests in birds known to the guide. Fig Forest walks can be arranged through the main reception at Mkuze.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
A variety of accommodation options are available through Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife within Mkhuze Game Reserve. The Emshopi Campsite consists of 35 individual stands, all of which are electrified and all sharing communal ablutions. The main camp is divided among 2-bed safari tents with individual deck, a 2-bed fully-equipped chalet with an open plan lounge and kitchen, 2-bed rest chalets sharing a communal bathroom and kitchen, a 6-bed cottage with a separate kitchen and bathroom, and a 4-bed chalet with a fully equipped open plan living area. Visitors are required to be entirely self-sufficient and carry their own food, cooking utensils and fuel.

However, numerous Birder Friendly Establishments are also available within the wider Hluhluwe, Mkuze, Pongola, St Lucia and Sodwana areas.
For more information, please visit:
http://www.birdlife.org.za/go-birding/bird-friendly-establishments/kwazulu-natal/

Local guide information:
Several community guides also operate within the wider Hluhluwe/Mkhuze/St Lucia areas. For more information, please use the following link:
https://www.birdlife.org.za/go-birding/community-bird-guides/

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

Key species:

Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd’s Apalis, Neergaard’s Sunbird, Lemon-breasted Canary, Senegal Lapwing, Pel’s Fishing Owl, African Broadbill

Contact details:

For more information, please contact:

Mkhuze Main Camp
(office hours 08:00-16:30):
Cell: +27 (0)82 799 1491
Tel: +27 (0)35 57 9004
Tel: +27 (0)35 573 9001
Fax: +27 (0)35 573 0031

Download Checklist