Southern Zululand – Mtunzini Ongoye Forest Reserve

About the Birding

The Ongoye Forest Reserve lies about 150km north of Durban, between the towns of Mtunzini, Eshowe and Empangeni. It is a large remnant patch of coastal forest, 3903 hectares in extent and laying along a ridge line overlooking the Indian Ocean. This beautiful forest is interspersed with patches of rolling grasslands between granite outcrops. Ongoye Forest is the only place to see the endemic race of Green Barbet in southern Africa.

The region is dominated by coastal scarp forest where the base rocks comprise two main types, biotite gneiss and hornblende biotite schist; the former, very resistant rock is overlain by the latter which is more easily weathered. Most of the forest is on the gneiss at altitudes of between 300 to 500m above sea level and this is the prime range for the endemic Barbet. The region is drained by the Umhlatuzana River and its tributaries to the north, and the tributaries of the Umlalazi River to the south. Where these streams cut gneiss, the underlying schist is quickly weathered, resulting in deeply incised forest streams. The open wind-exposed areas of the reserve hold extensive patches of grassland. Rocky granite outcrops, with lichen-covered rock domes in the grassland often have bush clumps. The area receives an average of 1 391 mm of rainfall p.a. Ongoye is one of the few forests that has its own endemic mammal, the Ngoye Red Squirrel.

Other notable mentions include the Samango Monkey, Chacma Baboon, several mongooses, Greater Thick-tailed Galago and the secretive Blue Duiker. The Zululand Dwarf Chameleon, a localised KwaZulu Natal endemic, is abundant at Ongoye and the forest green butterfly Euryphene achlys is unique to this forest.

Good birding can be enjoyed by walking along the main track through the forest beyond the main offices, particularly within the first 2km Ongoye is well-known for its ‘green’ birds and, in addition to the endemic race of Green Barbet, other top specials include the Green Twinspot, Green Malkoha, Olive Woodpecker, Olive Bush-shrike and African Emerald Cuckoo (summer). To find the barbet – listen for its hollow calls that resonate through the forest. The twinspot is attracted to seeding grasses and is best detected by its high-pitched contact calls, which are vaguely reminiscent of a cricket. The Green Malkoha and Olive Bush-shrike are both reclusive in nature, but advertise their presence with their loud and distinctive calls. The Olive Woodpecker is not uncommon in the forest interior, frequenting mixed-species foraging flocks, and sometimes also emerges into isolated bush clumps. When birding the forest interior, watch also for the Lemon and Tambourine Doves, Narina Trogon, Grey Cuckooshrike, Grey Sunbird, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, the globally threatened Spotted Ground Thrush, Brown Scrub-robin, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Forest Canary, Natal Spurfowl, Chorister Robin-chat, and Mountain Wagtail. The latter is best searched for near a small weir on a stream about 2km into the forest.

At various lookout points where it is possible to watch over the forest canopy (at the top of open hillsides) look for Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeons and various soaring raptors – including the Crowned Eagle, Black-breasted Snake-eagle, Yellow-billed Kites, Jackal, Common and Forest Buzzards, African Goshawk and Black Sparrowhawk. On the many rocky outcrops at the entrance, look for the Striped Plain-backed Pipits. In the grasslands, search for the Cape and Yellow-throated Longclaws, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Secretarybird, Southern Ground Hornbill and Fan-tailed Grassbird while African Pygmy Kingfisher occasionally nest in road cuttings.

Key species:

Green Barbet, Green Malkoha, Spotted Ground Thrush, Green Twinspot, Crowned Eagle, Mountain Wagtail, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon

About the Birding Site

Southern Zululand is perhaps the premier forest birding route in all of KwaZulu-Natal, home to a rich diversity of species in a mix of different habitats. Starting on the warm coast of Zululand, between Mtunzini and Richard’s Bay, the route offers many estuarine swamp forests supporting impressive numbers of threatened species including the Mangrove Kingfisher and Black-throated Wattle-eye. Coastal forests here are equally rich in species and are perhaps the best areas anywhere in South Africa to search for the Spotted Ground Thrush (mainly a winter visitor) and Palm-nut Vulture.

Further inland near the towns of Eshowe, Melmoth, and Nkandla are several Afromontane mistbelt and scarp forests where a number of incredibly range-restricted species may be found including the highly localized endemic race of the Green Barbet, as well as Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon. These areas descend sharply down to dry thornveld habitats in a region that is rich in both Zulu history and culture.

The coastal town of Mtunzini – referred to as ‘the place of shade’ – hosts a wealth of treasures for birding and wildlife enthusiasts. The town, situated on a hill overlooking the coastline, is surrounded by pristine dune and swamp forests near the Umlalazi Estuary, which is one of the most lush and complete mangrove ecosystems anywhere in South Africa. Avenues of indigenous trees line the streets of the village and provide corridors for the movement of forest-restricted species through the town itself. A striking feature of the area are the impressive stands of Raphia palm (Raphia australis), which are a primary attractant for the Palm-nut Vulture – perhaps the major drawcard for birders visiting the Mtunzini area. A walk along the estuary also provides excellent chances at finding sought-after species such as the Mangrove Kingfisher, African Finfoot and Spotted Ground Thrush. Within an hour’s drive from Mtunzini are a number of other sites worth visiting including the Ongoye Forest (the only site at which to see the endemic race of Green Barbet), Theunissen’s Dam and the Amatikulu Nature Reserve.

Key species:

Green Barbet, Green Malkoha, Spotted Ground Thrush, Green Twinspot, Crowned Eagle, Mountain Wagtail, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon

Other Related Information

At Mtunzini, turn off the N2 freeway and head inland (west). At a T-junction turn right (north) and take the old road north to Empangeni (R102). About 4km north of the Forest Inn, turn left onto a dirt road, just before what was an old Shell Service station. Follow this road for 4.5km and turn right onto D1554. Continue on this road to just past the Manzamnyama School on your left. After 5Km’s turn right onto a small track …

Other related information:

… The gate into the forest is 3Km’s further on with the camp on your left. The road is well signposted but badly potholed in some areas. Although the camp is accessible by sedan, a high clearance vehicle is advised.

Notable points of interest include the:
Manzamnyama School: -28.8640, 31.7471

The nearest towns to Ongoye Forest are:
Mtunzini: 21km
Eshowe: 50km

Alternatively, Ongoye Forest is also accessible along the newly constructed tar road to Mashishi. Exit off the N2 freeway and head inland (west). At the T-junction, turn south along the R102. After 3km, turn north along the new road passing through the village of Noshungu. The Green Barbet may be seen in primary forest before the summit.

Access and facilities:
A permit is not required to visit the Ongoye Forest Reserve though, upon your arrival, report to the main offices where a minimal gate fee and community levy are payable.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Rustic accommodation is provided through the Ongoye Forest Birders’ Camp, a joint initiative between a wide group of stakeholders including the Mzimela Tribal Authority, Uthungulu District Municipality, BirdLife South Africa, The SAPPI WWF Tree Routes Partnership, The Mtunzini Conservancy and the Umalazi Municipality. The area is undoubtedly one of the province’s most precious biodiverse areas – this project is intended to make a positive difference to the long term conservation of this asset and directly involve the forest’s neighbouring communities, the Mzimela Tribal Authority in the area’s management.

Facilities: 3 bedrooms, each with twin beds. 1 x bathroom with bath, shower and toilet. Linen and towels are provided. Gas stove and fridge, cutlery and crockery all provided for up to 6 people. (camping for extra people is allowed by prior arrangement) The camp is NOT electrified but gas is provided for the stove and geyser, and paraffin lamps for lighting. Cell phone coverage is limited. Open plan lounge, dining room and kitchen. Outside veranda and braai area.
Numerous Birder Friendly Establishments are also available in the towns of Eshowe and Mtunzini.

For more information, please view Birder Friendly Establishments using the following link:

Local guide information:
Several community guides operate within the wider Dlinza/Melmoth/Mtunzini areas. For more information, please use the following link:

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

Key species:

Green Barbet, Green Malkoha, Spotted Ground Thrush, Green Twinspot, Crowned Eagle, Mountain Wagtail, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon

Contact details:

For more information, contact:

Ezemvelo KZN Widlife
Tel: +27 (0)33 845 1999
Fax: +27 (0 086 505 889