North-west Zululand – Vryheid Blood River Vlei

About the Birding

Covering an area well in excess of 5 000 hectares, the Blood River Vlei is one of the largest inland wetlands in KwaZulu-Natal. The wetland is situated on the western boundary of Zululand and forms part of the Thukela River catchment, the largest river in the province. Virtually the entire wetland is on private land and birders must seek the assistance of a guide when visiting this site. Together with the surrounding grasslands and agricultural lands, the wetland supports in excess of 140 species of bird.

The vlei is well known for its numbers of waterbirds, especially in the winter months when ducks, geese and cranes gather at this site to moult. The irrigated pastures also serve as an additional attractant, particularly for geese. Numbers of Spur-winged Geese can exceed 2000, Egyptian Geese can exceed 1500, and flocks of up to 140 Grey Crowned Cranes are known to occur; some of the largest congregations of these species anywhere in South Africa. Up to 13 species of duck have been recorded including the Fulvous and White-faced Whistling Ducks, the White-backed and Knob-billed Ducks, South African Shelduck, Blue-billed Teal and Cape Shoveler. Twelve heron species occur including the Goliath, Squacco, and Black Herons. Marshy areas support the Kittlitz’s Plover, African Snipe, Red-chested Flufftail, African Rail, Baillon’s Crake and African Swamphen. The African and Lesser Jacanas are resident. Summer visitors to the site include the Marsh, Wood and Curlew Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Whiskered Tern and Amur Falcon in the surrounding grasslands. Raptors include the Secretarybird, African Fish Eagle and African Marsh Harrier.

The grasslands and agricultural pastures surrounding the wetland host the Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, Southern Bald Ibis, Ant-eating Chat and Cape Longclaw. Other species include the White-bellied Bustard, Spike-heeled Lark, Buffy and Plain-backed Pipits, Long-tailed Widowbird, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Common Quail, African Quailfinch, Red-billed Quelea and Cape Canary. African Grass Owl is fairly common and is best seen quartering low over the lush grasslands at dusk.

Key species:

Southern Bald Ibis, Grey Crowned and Blue Cranes, White-backed Duck, Red-chested Flufftail

About the Birding Site

North-west Zululand is one of the most varied of the birding routes in KwaZulu-Natal ranging in habitat from high altitude temperate grasslands in the west, to low lying subtropical thickets in the east including several large wetlands. Given this incredibly high habitat diversity, it is no surprise that the route also boasts an impressive checklist of birds including 58 of Southern Africa’s endemic and near-endemic species, many of which are confined to the extensive grasslands and wetlands.

Birding is generally best in the warmer summer months (September-April) when the resident species are supplemented by the influx of migrants, though the dry winter months often facilitate large congregations of birds around several nationally important wetlands. Many sites on the route are easy to access on fair roads though drivers are cautioned that gravel roads may become impassable during the wet season limiting access to a few sites. Moreover, given the size of the sub-route in general, the region is further divided into five distinct birding areas each treated individually. These include the Louwsberg, Pongola, Ulundi, Umfolozi, and Vryheid areas.

Vryheid is situated in the highest altitude area in the Zululand Birding Route and lies on the ecotone between the extensive grasslands in the west and the bushveld areas in the west. Combined with many wetlands and mountains, this area supports an incredible diversity of bird species including many noteworthy endemics. Among these are the Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, Ground Woodpecker, South African Cliff Swallow, Bush Blackcap and Gurney’s Sugarbird among others. All five of Zululand’s major rivers have all or at least some of their catchments within this area, resulting in many wetlands. These are home to nationally important populations of Grey Crowned Crane, Red-chested Flufftail and other species. The wider area is thus one of Zululand’s best kept secrets featuring a number of key sites including the Pongola Bush Nature Reserve, Skurweberg, and the Blood River Vlei to name a few.

Key species:

Southern Bald Ibis, Grey Crowned and Blue Cranes, White-backed Duck, Red-chested Flufftail

Other Related Information

Directions:
From Vryheid, drive out for about 15km towards Dundee (R33) and turn right at the sign “Scheepersnek”. Continue for about 6km, the wetland is on your left. For more detailed directions, please contact AP Keeve on cell: +27 (0)83 679 1763.

Access and facilities:
Refer to Contact Details.

Other related information:

Recommended accommodation nearby:
The nearest Birder Friendly Establishments are in the towns of Pongola and Jozini. For more information, please visit:
http://www.birdlife.org.za/go-birding/bird-friendly-establishments/kwazulu-natal/

Local guide information:
No BirdLife Community Guides are currently available for the Vryheid area.

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

Key species:

Southern Bald Ibis, Grey Crowned and Blue Cranes, White-backed Duck, Red-chested Flufftail

Contact details:

Access to the best spots is on private land, and permission is required.

Current contact details are not known - please update us if you have this information.

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