Birding in Zululand Game Reserve

The highlight of my recent trip to South Africa,in the month of April, was my stay at the excellent Zululand Game Reserve. Luckily, I was accompanied by Adam Riley (RockJumper fame) and GT Ramani (my dad) who are both avid birders and renowned naturalists. Here’s our complete bird watching adventure in the bush with inputs from daddykins as this is his area of expertise, though I am a birding fanatic myself.

Zululand game reserve

As soon as I entered the reserve, I was impressed by the quality of the veld and the healthy and good looking herds of Impala, Nyala, Zebra and Giraffe which bore testimony to the fact that the whole park was extremely well looked after. The area is well known for the diverse bird life it possesses and falls within the top ten birding destinations in South Africa. After a short drive we reached the Zebra Hills Safari Lodge which was going to be our home for the next six nights.

As soon as we got off our vehicle we were quickly and efficiently checked in into our rooms that were strategically located overlooking a very busy waterhole. Looking out from my window I had my first glimpse of what was in store in the coming days when a large herd of Nyala came to quench their thirst.  Leaving my bags, I promptly refreshed myself to wander out in the swimming pool area. There, I stood beneath the canopies of the trees marveling at the beauty of the lodge and the dense forest surrounding it. It was here I had my first glimpse  of the Red Winged Starling, Black Bellied Starling, Yellow Fronted canaries and common Scimitarbill as they moved about the trees surrounding the pool area.

Stunning Black Bellied Starling

Stunning Black Bellied Starling

Our first safari in the afternoon soon took us to a small water body where I could spot Water Thicknee, Blue Waxbill, Black Headed Oriole and Cardinal woodpecker. A Striped Kingfisher was perched on a thin branch in search for food. Long tailed Paradise Whydah and Southern Grey-headed Sparrows alternately bathed and drank before flying off in the nearby bushes. An exquisite bird of prey was found hovering over us, it was another lifer – a stunning Bateleur. It was a very interesting first day for me and I was excited about my next adventures in the bush.

A cute pair of Blue Waxbills

A cute pair of Blue Waxbills

The next morning I moved onto the deck and pool area of the lodge once again, where a nice refreshing breeze blew away my early morning blues. Crested Francolin could be heard calling frantically in the distance, probably over some predator. Soon we were off on our morning safari, winding our way through the bush. As the sun rose and the temperature with it, I could spot a number of White Backed Vultures as they rode the thermals. While looking for big game we often came up with birds such as an Crowned Eagle calling and later seen flying off. There was a troop of baboons around and that could be the reason for the eagle to be around as they predominantly feed on monkeys.

The magnificent Crowned Eagel

The magnificent Crowned Eagel

Back to the camp, over a hearty breakfast, we were thrilled to see a hunting party of White Crested Helmet-shrikes, Speckled mousebird, and Southern Black Tits in the compound.

Speckled Mousebirds perched on a branch

Speckled Mousebirds perched on a branch

With two rivers,namely, the Pongola and Mkuze forming its northern boundary, it was evident that sooner or later we would come across the typical Zululand species with brilliant plumage such as the Purple Crested Turaco and the Pink -Throated Twinspot. Indeed the next morning safari we were privileged to have a good look of both along with another great bird the Ground Hornbill. Other Hornbill species we saw were Trumpeter Hornbill, Yellow billed Hornbill and Crowned Hornbill.

Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill

Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill

Trumpeter Hornbill

Trumpeter Hornbill

A rare delight - Pair of Ground Hornbills

A rare delight – Pair of Ground Hornbills

A visit to the water body uncovered Water Thicknee and African Spoonbill, Three Banded Plover, Brown Headed kingfisher and Square tailed Drongo.

African Spoonbill

African Spoonbill

As our Land Rover left for the afternoon drive on the fourth day, ominous dark clouds started gathering rapidly and thunder and lightning rumbled in the distance followed by rapid gusts of wind. We carried on undeterred and soon were among mixed herds of animals feeding in the green lush grass. We were soon accosted by a hunting flock of birds including Ratting Cisticola, Southern Black Flycatcher, and Long Billed Crombec. On a tree top, we saw the Grey go-away-bird seemingly blase to the chaos around.

A lovely Grey go-away-bird

A lovely Grey go-away-bird

By this time a very strong wind started whipping the tree tops and our guides decided to call it a day and head back to the resort. Just as well we did because there was total silence with not even a bird call to be heard. A couple of guests and myself decided to try our luck at the special hide which had been carefully erected over another waterhole a small distance from the camp. We were lucky to see Lappet-faced Vulture, Crowned Eagle, Black Cuckoo shrike, Crested Barbet and Black Collared Barbet.

Lappet-Faced vulture

Lappet-Faced vulture

A lovely Pair of Crested Barbets

A lovely Pair of Crested Barbets

Steaming hot coffee and a sandwich had me up early as usual the next day. It was just about light as the dark sky changed from a pinkish purple to orange as the sun peeped over the horizon. Gorgeous Bush Shrike, Black headed oriole,White Throated Robin and Crested Francolin called away in a melodic manner to herald the new day. Soon we were on our way and were greeted by a large herd of Kudus with the ever attending Red Billed Oxpeckers perched on them. Among other birds, Green Wood Hoopoe, African Hoopoe, Groundscraper Thrush were viewed in a fruiting fig tree. The rocky slopes adjacent to ‘the beach’ area came up with mocking cliff chat and a soaring African Goshawk.

Natal Spurfowl

Natal Spurfowl in the muddy waterbed

The last day afternoon drive we drove on the riverbed with the Land Rover churning up the dry sand. We soon approached a huge fig tree and got down to stretch our legs. Trumpeter hornbills and African Green pigeons flew to and fro as did Black Saw wings and Wire Tailed Swallows. Up on the cliffs a pair of Rock Kestrels hovered around looking for prey. Leaving the riverbed by a steep track with thick forest on either side was quite an experience.

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My six nights had gone no soon as they started. I left Zebra Hills with a heavy heart as if I was being asked to leave home. Without doubt my stay in the magnificent Zululand bushveld had left an indelible print on my mind, reminding me in its own way that why staying among nature is so special.

Further Reading

Game Watching in Zululand
Zebra Hills Safari Lodge, Zululand Rhino Reserve 

Have you been to the bush lately? Where did you go and how was your experience? I would love to hear about your birding and game watching adventures.

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  • I admit that I have no knowledge when it comes to different species of bird aside from parrot and owl. Anyhow, I’m glad that you had the chance to see as many birds in Zululand game reserve. I super love the photo of Crested Barbets! They’re cute.

    Annika | 457 Australia

  • Megan Claire

    So many amazing bird species! We’re spending 6 nights in South Africa this coming August, though are basing ourselves in Cape Town. Hopefully we can find a game reserve on that side of the country with just as incredible wildlife experiences 🙂

    • All the best hun. I have only heard about the West coast national park near Cape but I am not sure if there are any big 5 reserves around. Do let me know as well if you find any. I look forward to hearing about it.

  • As a photographer, I gotta give you props for photographing birds. It takes a lot of patience planning that I simply don’t have. It’s cool to see some of these unique species I’ve never before seen in my life. Sounds like you had a great time!

    • Thanks buddy. I do need to work a bit on the settings, I shoot on auto and never post process – I am sure with some minor edits and initial setting alterations, they could’ve been much better. However, you are right it does require patience and since they would probably hop/fly away, you need to be fast (no time to tweak settings -sigh).

  • Wow you have such great photos. And what a fun family activity. It’s good to have a pro by your side.

  • Oh wow those waxbirds are the CUTEST THING ever!! Thanks for sharing – will note down for when we get there!

    Thuymi @ http://www.AdventureFaktory.com

  • Grassroots Nomad

    It is so wonderful that you and your Dad are able to travel together to enjoy a shared hobby like this. Your photos are stunning and it looks like you had a great time 🙂

  • Jess

    I just began birdwatching, and love it. Your photos are great!!! I hope I get to visit there one day and see those birds, too! They’re so big, compared to the little birds where I live.

    • I saw a mix of big and small birds, I just posted few from the 100’s of pics I have 🙂 Birdwatching is so much fun, I am sure you will fall in love with your new hobby. Looking forward to hear about your birding adventures too.

  • Live Learn Venture

    Wow absolutely gorgeous! We checked out a lot of birds in New Zealand and it wa so much fun! Thanks for sharing, Jo!

  • I’ve never seen anything like the Hornbill species before. They really look exotic. I’ve never been bird watching before but did you use binoculars or were you really that close the birds. I can’t wait for my own adventure into the bush one day.

    • Hornbills are my fave bird species , there is just something so majestic about them. Well they were close enough to spot with the naked eye but for detailing, use binoculars.

  • Vyjay Rao

    What a wonderful place. What lovely birds, they look so majestic. Stunning pictures have captured the beautiful bird life.

  • Paige Brown

    Wow! What an amazing variety of birds you were able to see! One of my good friends loves to bird watch here in the states, but I’m going to have to share this post with her! Those Blue Waxbills are INCREDIBLE! I know they’re not as big or I’m sure “impressive” to others as they seem to me. I just love that color and I think small birds are just so darling! Thanks for sharing more about this birding paradise! Cheers!

    • Thanks for sharing – I would love for this to reach some avid birders. I know. i know. I looove those waxbills. I was so thrilled to spot them and they are so tiny and hard to click – I am happy with the shot.

  • This sounds like such a cool trip! The Grey-away bird looks super rockstar!

    • Yup this one is a rock star with that cool crest ain’t it? Its the goaway bird btw also known as the grey lourie 🙂

  • Wow 400 lifers! I felt like you did on my visit to Pangot!