North-west Zululand – Vryheid Phongolo Bush Nature Reserve

About the Birding

The Pongola Bush Nature Reserve is situated on the KwaZulu-Natal/Mpumulanga border, about 20km from Wakkerstroom as the crow flies. Ngcaka Cliff and the mountain range around it are blanketed in climax mixed yellowwood forest and high-altitude short grassland. The reserve itself is maintained by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and visitors must seek permission before visiting this extremely remote and rugged area.

These mountains are among the highest in all Zululand and command fantastic views out over the northern rolling hills. Birders should be well-prepared when visiting this site but are likely to be rewarded with an impressive list of bird species including several of the region’s top specials.

Entering the reserve from the south, one passes through extensive moist grasslands. Search these habitats for the Red-winged Francolin (usually detected by its distinctive calls), Eastern Long-billed Lark, and Nicholson’s Pipit. Rocky areas may yield the Ground Woodpecker as well as Buff-streaked Chat and Mountain Wheatear. Damp drainage lines hold Fan-tailed Grassbird in the summer months. This species is best detected during misty and overcast weather, when the birds perform their aerial display flights. As one approaches the forest, listen for the distinctive calls of the African Yellow Warbler and Drakensburg Prinia. The reclusive Barratt’s Warbler prefers the cover of the bracken thickets and, although common, is a challenge to see. Within the forest interior look for the Bush Blackcap, Lesser and Scaly-throated Honeyguides, Buff-spotted Flufftail, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, White-starred Robin, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, and Chorister Robin-chat. The elusive Orange Ground Thrush occurs along forested drainage lines and is best detected by its loud call, though be aware the Olive Thrush also occurs and often utters similar calls to the Ground Thrush. Watch overhead for the Crowned, Martial and Verreaux’s Eagles as all three species nest nearby.

Key species:

Eastern Long-billed Lark, Orange Ground Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Ground Woodpecker, Narina Trogon, Trumpeter Hornbill, Forest Canary

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:

Eastern Long-billed Lark, Orange Ground Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Ground Woodpecker

Other Related Information

To enter the reserve, one has to travel on tracks through private land from -27.3346, 30.4998, and one obviously needs permission first. The services of a guide are recommended, as access is tricky. A 4×4 vehicle is recommended but not compulsory if you have high clearance. The reserve is situated 14km west of the small village of Lüneberg in the Paulpietersburg district.

Other related information:

Recommended accommodation nearby:
A very basic campsite is situated in the forest, in the reserve itself. There is also a stone cottage which is built on private land on top of the mountain in Mpumalanga Province.

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

Key species:

Eastern Long-billed Lark, Orange Ground Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Ground Woodpecker, Narina Trogon, Trumpeter Hornbill, Forest Canary