North-west Zululand – Vryheid Hill Nature Reserve

About the Birding

Vryheid Hill Nature Reserve is well known for supporting an interesting mix of upland and lowland species. A number of endemics occur and, to date, some 230 species have been recorded from this small reserve. The reserve is accessible using a single road that meets a T-junction. Turning left will take you into mixed woodland, and right enters forest and plateau grassland.

The tall grassland along the main entrance track supports several species of cisticola (Neddicky, Wailing, Croaking, Levaillant’s, Zitting, Cloud, Lazy, Pale-crowned and Wing-snapping), African Stonechat, Buff-streaked Chat, Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrushes, Long-tailed Widowbird, Secretarybird, African Quailfinch, Rufous-naped Lark, Cape Longclaw and the Coqui, Shelley’s and Red-winged Francolins. Damp areas near the main dam and picnic site support the Fan-tailed Grassbird, Dwarf Bittern (summer), Lesser Moorhen (summer) and Black Stork. Southern Bald Ibis and the Black-winged Lapwing prefer lower areas, especially recently burnt areas. Nicholson’s Pipit prefers rocky areas and is best located by its sparrow-like calls.

Mixed woodland near the main T-junction and the Enviro Centre supports the Bushveld Pipit, Brimstone Canary, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Red-capped and Chorister Robin-chats, Chinspot Batis, Brown-backed Honeybird, Blue Waxbill, Cardinal Woodpecker, Golden-breasted Bunting, Bush Blackcap, Black Cuckoo, Black Cuckooshrike, Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, Southern Black Tit, Red-throated Wryneck, and Swee Waxbill. Listen for the sweet song of the Striped Pipit on the rocky slopes above the centre as well as Buff-spotted Flufftail (in summer) around the tents.

The steep drive up through the forest could yield the Bush Blackcap, Cape Batis, Olive Bush-shrike, Olive Thrush, Bar-throated Apalis, Purple-crested Turaco, Tambourine Dove, and Olive Woodpecker. As the road passes through the large forest patch, scan the trees on the left for the resident pair of Crowned Eagle that nest nearby. The grassy slopes in this region of the reserve support the Drakensburg Prinia while flowering bottlebrushes attract the Greater Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds. Scan overhead for African Harrier-hawk, African Goshawk, Black Sparrowhawk, Jackal Buzzard and African Cuckoo-hawk (summer).

Key species:

Red-winged and Shelley’s Francolins, Southern Bald Ibis, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Buff-streaked Chat, Crowned Eagle, Fan-tailed Grassbird

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:

Red-winged and Shelley’s Francolins, Southern Bald Ibis, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Buff-streaked Chat, Crowned Eagle, Fan-tailed Grassbird

Other Related Information

Directions:
Entering Vryheid from Melmoth or Durban, continue along East Street, up over the railway bridge and turn right at the T-junction. Follow the road up to the reserve gate. Travelling from Dundee or Paulpietersburg, continue along Church Street and turn left into East Street. Follow the rest of the directions above.

Notable points of interest include the:
Main entrance: -27.7517, 30.7960

Other related information:

Access and facilities:
Gate times are between 06:00 and 18:00 daily. The overnight Lancaster Trail passes through the reserve, though a number of shorter self-guided trails may also be found.

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:

Red-winged and Shelley’s Francolins, Southern Bald Ibis, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Buff-streaked Chat, Crowned Eagle, Fan-tailed Grassbird

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