North-west Zululand – Vryheid Chelmsford Dam Nature Reserve

About the Birding

Chelmsford Nature Reserve lays 23km to the south of Newcastle and comprises the vast Ntshingwayo Dam – the third largest dam in all of KwaZulu-Natal – and the surrounding grasslands. The dam itself is renowned as a fishing destination, but also boasts small numbers of game and an impressive list of over 210 bird species.

The Ntshingwayo Dam itself supports large flocks of both the Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese and is one of the only sites in KwaZulu-Natal where Great Crested Grebe is regularly reported. The dam is also well-known as a moulting site for Yellow-billed Ducks with impressive rafts of these nomadic birds arriving at the site in the winter months. Other notable species include Caspian Tern, Pied Avocet, Greater and Lesser Flamingo, Knob-billed Duck, Southern Pochard, Red-billed Teal, and White-winged Tern. The eastern edge of the dam is shallow and regularly holds impressive numbers of waders, especially in the summer months when resident populations are supplemented by the arrival of Palearctic and intra-African migrants. A small inlet in the top section of the dam is difficult to access but worthwhile for African Jacana, African Snipe, and Squacco Heron.

The lush grasslands surrounding the dam support the Eastern Long-billed, Pink-billed and Spike-heeled Larks as well as Eastern Clapper Lark; the latter, best detected in the spring months when their display calls echo through the landscape. The Cloud, Zitting, Pale-crowned and Desert Cisticolas are all abundant though can be challenging to see well and differentiate given their small size. Large terrestrial species include the Blue Korhaan, and White-bellied, Black-bellied and Denham’s Bustards, and Secretarybird. The African Grass and Marsh Owls are easiest to see in the early mornings and late afternoons, alongside the Black Harrier. Blue Crane nest in the summer months and are often seen alongside the Grey Crowned Crane.

The area below the dam wall supports a number of rocky slopes. Search this area for the Ground Woodpecker, Mountain Wheatear, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Rock Martin, Speckled Pigeon and Bokmakierie.

Key species:

Great Crested Grebe, Know-billed Duck, Pink-billed and Easter Long-billed Larks, White-bellied Bustard, African Grass Owl

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:

Great Crested Grebe, Know-billed Duck, Pink-billed and Easter Long-billed Larks, White-bellied Bustard, African Grass Owl

Other Related Information

Travelling south from Newcastle along the N11, turn along the D210 towards Normandien. The gate to the reserve is located 6km along this road. Access to the eastern edge of the dam is possible through the Richgate section.

The nearest towns to Chelmsford Nature Reserve are:
Newcastle: 25km
Ladysmith: 80km

Other related information:

Access and facilities:
Chelmsford Nature Reserve is under the administration of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. A detailed network of tarred and gravel roads covers most areas of the reserve, though some are quite rocky and require high clearance.

Gate times are as follows:
Summer (October-March): 05:00-20:00
Winter (April-September): 06:00-19:00
Office Hours: 07:30-11:30 and 13:00-16:00

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife offers a number of accommodation options withing the Chelmsford Nature Reserve, fully-equipped self-catering chalets and a large electrified campsite. For more information or to make a reservation, please use the contact details listed above.
The nearest Birder Friendly Establishments are in the towns of Ladysmith, Pongola and Jozini. For more information, please visit:

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

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

Key species:

Great Crested Grebe, Know-billed Duck, Pink-billed and Easter Long-billed Larks, White-bellied Bustard, African Grass Owl

Contact details:

For more information, please contact:

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
Tel: +27 (0)76 159 2960 (camp)
Tel: +27 (0)34 351 1753/4/5 (camp)
Tel: +27 (0)33 845 1000 (reservations)