Vryheid Route

Home to about 350 species, this region of Zululand provides the birder with 50 endemic or near-endemic species.The Vryheid Route is situated at the highest altitude in the Zululand Birding Route, and lies on the ecotone of the extensive grasslands in the west and the bushveld areas to the east. This, combined with the many wetlands and mountains in the area, ensures that the birder is always kept busy.
Some noteworthy endemics such as Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, Ground Woodpecker, South African Cliff Swallow, Bush Blackcap, Buff-streaked Chat and Gurney's Sugarbird occur alongside near-endemics such as Eastern Long-billed and Spike Heeled Lark, Mountain Wheatear, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler, Olive Bush Shrike and Swee Waxbill.
All five of Zululand's major rivers have all or some of their catchments in this area, resulting in many wetlands. These wetlands provide nationally important numbers of Grey Crowned Crane, as well as shy rallids such as Red-chested Flufftail, African Rail and Baillon's Crake. Thousands of duck and geese moult at Blood River Vlei in winter, and the Klipfontein Bird Sanctuary is one of the best places in South Africa to view rails, crakes and flufftails.
Phongola Bush Nature Reserve in the north is one of Zululand's best-kept secrets, and is home to breeding African Crowned, Verreaux's and Martial Eagles, Orange Ground Thrush and White-starred Robin. The setting is magnificent, climax mistbelt forest against high cliffs and rolling grasslands.
Between Blood River Vlei and Phongola Bush lies a mountain called Skurweberg (rough mountain). Birds characteristic of higher altitudes are found up here, including Blue Crane, Eastern Long-billed Lark and Denham's Bustard.
Vryheid Hill Nature Reserve borders on the town and is well known for its diversity of forest, woodland and grassland species. African Crowned Eagles breed in the reserve, and Broad-tailed Warbler, African Cuckoo Hawk, Bush Blackcap, Buffy, Long-billed and Striped Pipits and Chorister Robin-Chat also occur here.
Just south of Vryheid lies Esikhuma mountain and its surrounding thornveld, home to an interesting mix of mountain and woodland species such as Mocking Cliff-Chat, Jacobin and African Cuckoo, Jackal Buzzard and Verreaux's Eagle.
Natal Spa boasts a resident pair of African Crowned Eagles, the nest being visible from close quarters.
Leopard Rock is situated 70km south of Vryheid along the White Umfolozi River. Here birders will find a different mix of bushveld and woodland than further north, and different bird species. Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Tawny Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, White-backed Vulture and Purple-crested Turaco are some of the interesting species.
Interests and Attractions

Phongola Bush

This breathtaking reserve is situated on the KwaZulu-Natal/Mpumalanga border, about 20km from Wakkerstroom as the crow flies. Ngcaka Cliff and the mountain range around it are covered in climax mixed Yellowwood forest with high altitude short grassland above and tall grassland below. KZN Wildlife maintains the reserve, and permission is required from the Officer in charge in Vryheid before visiting this extremely remote, rugged area. These mountains are the highest in all Zululand, and command fantastic views out over the northern rolling hills.
To enter the reserve, one has to travel on tracks through private land, and one obviously needs permission first. The services of a guide are recommended, as access is tricky. A 4x4 vehicle is compulsory. Contact Duncan McKenzie This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at 083 330 1170 to arrange entry and for guiding. The reserve is situated 14km west of the small village of L√ľneberg in the Paulpietersburg district.
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.
Although the reserve lacks comfortable facilities, it will appeal to the true outdoor enthusiast. Birders and botanists will find hidden treasures around every corner. Orchids, proteas and streptocarpus flowers, a Chorister Robin-Chat nest in a fallen branch or a magnificent Martial Eagle catching a Rock Hyrax in one swoop from the forest - this is the world of the timeless.
Entering the reserve from the south, one passes through tall, moist grassland, which hosts Red-winged Francolin and Broad-tailed Warbler in summer. The forest fringes are home to Tambourine Dove, Bush Blackcap, Lesser Honeyguide, Forest Canary, Forest Buzzard, African Pygmy-Kingfisher, Barratt's Warbler and Greater Double-collared Sunbird.
Deeper forest is the haunt of Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin, Buff-spotted Flufftail, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Grey Cuckooshrike, Southern Double-collared Sunbird and Olive Thrush. The elusive Orange Ground-Thrush favours forested drainage lines.
African Crowned, Martial and Verreaux's Eagle all breed in the forest or on the cliffs. It is an awesome sight to see them patrolling the skies; the lucky birder can see all three species soaring from one spot. Secretarybirds are often encountered, as are African Goshawk, Black Sparrowhawk, Lanner Falcon, Common Kestrel and the endemic Jackal Buzzard.
The short grasslands and rocky gorges on top of the mountain host Gurney's Sugarbird, Mountain Wheatear, Cape Eagle Owl, Alpine Swift, Buff-streaked Chat, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Long-billed Pipit and Malachite Sunbird.
The forest is well known as the southernmost range for many plant species. The forest and grasslands are home to a fascinating variety of plants, many of which are endangered.

The deep "boom" of the Samango Monkeys, here on their western distribution limit, is often heard throughout the forest. Baboon, Rock Hyrax (dassies), Bushpig and Porcupine arealso found and Leopards occur in small numbers..

Natal Spa

Natal Spa is one of the provinces oldest hot mineral bath resorts, and is built on the northern bank of the Bivane River. Mixed bush and large boulders line the river, with grassland and bushclumps dominating the area.
From Vryheid, take the R69 towards Louwsburg and turn left 1km outside town at the sign marked "Paulpietersburg". Drive on till the T-junction, turn left, and carry on for about 25km. The spa turn off is on the right hand side of the road.
Available at the resort.
The resort is home to a breeding pair of African Crowned Eagles, whose lives have been intensely studied by Denise James, the manager's wife. A hide has been built from which the eagles can be observed on the nest, and during the breeding season (September to January) observers can be rewarded with breathtaking interactions between the pair and their chicks.
Many of the birds at Natal Spa have become habituated to the presence of humans, and are tame and confiding.
A number of endemic species occur at the resort, including Bald Ibis, Jackal Buzzard, Cape Rock-Thrush, Grassbird, Fiscal and Southern Black Flycatchers, Cape Batis, Cape Longclaw, Southern Boubou, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Cape White-eye and Cape Weaver. All these birds can be recorded around the gardens and surrounding vegetation.
Mocking Cliff-Chats hop around the restaurant, and the House Sparrows have taken a liking to eating out of the sugar-bowls. Emerald-spotted Dove, Kurrichane and Ground-scraper Thrushes, Red-throated Wryneck, Black-headed Oriole, African Harrier-Hawk and African Pied Wagtail are all commonly recorded from the gardens around the pools.
The riverine bush provides perhaps the best chance of seeing Grey-headed Bush-Shrike, African Paradise Flycatcher and Spectacled Weaver.
Along the river, Giant and Pied Kingfishers, African Black Duck, Egyptian Goose and Hamerkop are all often seen, while African Fish Eagle pays the resort frequent visits.
A resident bird guide, Simon Zwane, is at hand to show guests around.

Blood River Vlei

Covering a total area of 5000ha, Blood River Vlei is one of the largest inland wetlands in KwaZulu-Natal. The wetland is situated on the western boundary of Zululand and part of the Thukela River catchment, which is the largest river in the province. The wetland is situated on private land, and the service of a guide is recommended. Pristine grasslands, as well as agricultural lands surround the wetland, and the three habitats combined, host around 140 species of birds.
From Vryheid, drive out for about 15km towards Dundee (R33) and turn right at the sign "Scheepersnek". Continue for about 6km, the wetland is on your left. Access to the best spots is on private land, and permission is required. Contact Duncan McKenzie on 083 330 1170 for details.
All types of accommodation is available in Vryheid, 25km away.
Blood River Vlei is well known for its numbers of waterbirds, especially in winter when ducks, geese and cranes gather to over-winter and moult. The irrigated pastures also attract many geese. Spur-winged Goose numbers reach 2000, while Egyptian Goose numbers reach 1500. Grey Crowned Crane gather in a flock of 140 birds, one of the largest in the country.
Thirteen duck species have been recorded, including Fulvous, White-backed and Comb Duck, South African Shelduck, Hottentot Teal and Cape Shoveller.
Twelve heron species have been recorded; specials include Goliath, Squacco, Black and Black-Crowned Night-Herons.
The marshy areas are home to Kittlitz's Plover, African Snipe, Red-chested Flufftail, African Rail, Baillon's Crake and African Purple Swamphen. African and Lesser Jacana are resident, as well as African Spoonbill and African Wattled Lapwing.
Grassland at Blood River Vlei photo by Duncan MckenzieSummer visitors include Marsh, Wood and Curlew Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Whiskered Tern and Amur Falcons.
Raptors are represented by Secretarybird, African Fish Eagle, African Marsh-Harrier and in summer, Western Marsh-Harrier and Amur Falcon already mentioned.
The grasslands surrounding the wetland host important endemics such as Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, Bald Ibis, Jackal Buzzard, Anteating Chat and Cape Longclaw. Other grassland specials include Barrow's Korhaan, Spike-heeled Lark, Buffy and Plain-backed Pipits, Long-tailed Widowbird, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Common Quail, Small Buttonquail and African Grass-Owl. African Quailfinch, Red-billed Quelea and Cape Canary can be seasonally abundant.
Cape Clawless Otter are sometimes seen amongst the sedges and reeds, especially in the early morning. Yellow Mongoose and Cape Fox are also resident around the wetland.

Klipfontein Bird Sanctuary

The Klipfontein Bird Sanctuary was created in 1995 through the diversion of treated sewage water from the town sewage works into a neglected grassland. The result is a fairly small but productive wetland yielding some of the highest counts for rails and flufftails in the country. The sanctuary is situated on municipal land, and is managed by the Vryheid branch of the KZN Wildlife Honorary Officers.
The sanctuary is situated 2km south west of Vryheid on the corner of the western bypass road around the town and the dirt road to Babanango. Coming from Dundee, take the right turn off marked "North Coast, Melmoth". Travel along the bypass road for about 3km and take the first turn right marked "Babanango". The sanctuary is on your left. From Durban and Melmoth, turn left just before Vryheid at the sign saying "Paulpietersburg, Newcastle". Travel for about 3km and take the first turn left marked "Babanango". The sanctuary is on your left.
Travel for about 200m down the dirt road and you will see the parking area on the left. To gain access to the bird hide, which is locked, collect a key from Custom Graphics shop in Market Street in Vryheid (opposite municipal buildings). Phone Duncan McKenzie on 083 330 1170 or Charl Oberholster on 082 925 4781 for more information and arrangements.
Looking out the hide at the Sanctuary by Duncan MckenzieAll types of accommodation are provided in Vryheid, 2km away.
From the parking area, follow the path across the bridge and onto the berm wall. From here a number of species can be seen in the reeds on your left. Look for African Rail, Black Crake, Common Moorhen, Painted Snipe and Three-banded Plover amongst the reeds and mudflats. Warblers are prominent here, especially in summer. African Yellow, African Reed, Little Rush, Sedge, Marsh, Lesser Swamp and Great Reed Warblers are all commonly recorded here.
Continue along the path, down the steps and onto the concrete walkway. This area is covered with Leersia grass, and is good for Baillon's Crake, Red-chested Flufftail and African Snipe. The walkway continues through thick Typha rushes, look out for Orange-breasted and Common Waxbills, as well as Fan-tailed Widowbirds and Southern Red Bishop. The rails, crakes and flufftails are often seen on the walkway, especially early morning and late afternoon.
From the Morris Christie Bird Hide, a variety of waterbirds can be seen. Yellow-billed Duck, Hottentot and Red-billed Teal, South African Shelduck, African Rail, African Purple Swamphen, Black Crake and Glossy Ibis are all regularly recorded. A Wahlberg's Eagle nest can be seen from the hide in the tall gum trees on your right. In winter, large congregations of Spur-winged Goose gather to feed. Summer migrants include Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint and Common Greenshank. Look overhead for Palm Swift, White-throated Swallow and Brown-throated Martin.
Baillion's Crake photo by Duncan MckenzieGrey Crowned Crane breed in the reedbeds every year, and can often be seen roosting in the tall trees. Thick-billed Weaver breed in the reeds among the alien gums. Other waterbirds recorded less often include Green-backed Heron, Cape Shoveller, Southern Pochard, African Crake, Burchell's Coucal and African Marsh-Harrier.
The White Umfolozi River forms the western boundary of the bird sanctuary. Here, Giant Kingfisher, African Black Duck and Half-collared Kingfisher can be recorded. The southern portion of the sanctuary comprises of grassland and scattered alien wattle and gum. Some noteworthy species occurring here include Shelley's Francolin, Lesser Honeyguide, Cape Robin and endemics and near endemics such as Red-throated Wryneck, Bokmakierie, Bald Ibis and Grassbird.
The abundant Panicum maximum in the sanctuary provide food for African Firefinch, Bronze Mannikin, Dusky Indigobird, Cape, Yellow-fronted and Black-throated Canaries. Visitors to the sanctuary include Osprey, African Fish-Eagle, Long-crested Eagle and in summer, Amur Falcons.

Cape Clawless Otter and Water Monitor Lizard are sometimes seen..

Vryheid Hill Nature Reserve

This 900ha reserve is situated just north of Vryheid in municipal lands. The KZN Wildlife service have been managing the reserve since 1986, and an entrance fee is payable on weekends and holidays only.
Lancaster Hill, as the mountain is known, consists of forested south facing slopes, mixed woodland below, and open, rocky grassland above. Many small wetlands, cliffs and gullies complete the picture.
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.
All types of accommodation are available in Vryheid, 1km away. The Ntingonono Environmental Centre provides accommodation in the reserve in the form of all weather safari tents.
Vryheid Hill is well known for hosting a combination of upland and lowland specials. A number of endemics occur, and to date 230 species have been recorded in this small reserve.
Entering the gate, travel up to the T-junction. Look out for Grassbird in the tall grass. At the T-junction, you have a choice of turning left to enter the mixed woodland and right to drive up through the forest and onto the grassland plateau.
The mixed woodland from the T-junction to the Enviro Centre is good for Bushveld Pipit, Brimstone Canary, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Southern Black Tit, Red-throated Wryneck and Swee Waxbill. The area around the small dam and picnic site annually hosts Broad-tailed Warbler, and interesting sightings at the dam include Dwarf Bittern, Lesser Moorhen and Black Stork.
The thicker bush around the Enviro Centre provides Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Red-capped and Chorister Robin-Chats, Forest Canary, Bush Blackcap, Black Cuckoo and Black Cuckooshrike. Listen for Striped Pipit on the rocky slopes above the Centre, as well as Buff-spotted Flufftail (in summer) around the tents.
Chinspot Batis, Blue Waxbill, Brown-backed Honeybird, Cardinal Woodpecker and Golden-breasted Bunting are fond of the area west of the Enviro Centre.
The steep drive up through the forest could yield Bush Blackcap, Cape Batis, Olive Bush-Shrike, Olive Thrush, Bar-throated Apalis, Purple-crested Turaco, Tambourine Dove and Olive Woodpecker. When the road passes through the large forest patch, stop to look for the African Crowned Eagle nest in the trees on the left. The grassy slope on the right is home to Drakensberg Prinia. Check all the aloes and bottlebrushes for Greater Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds.
Other raptors often seen include African Harrier-Hawk, African Goshawk, Black Sparrowhawk, Jackal Buzzard and in summer, African Cuckoo Hawk.
Driving up onto the grassland, look out for Cape Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat (very common) and Stonechat. The grasslands are super productive for cisticolas and pipits, especially in summer. Wailing, Croaking, Levaillant's and Zitting Cisticolas prefer the longer grass while Wing-snapping and Cloud Cisticolas prefer the shorter grass. Lazy Cisticolas prefer the areas with scattered bush and rocks, while on the damper grasslands further west of the radio towers, the Pale-crowned Cisticola is present. On the lower plateau. Neddicky is found wherever there are scattered trees among the grassland. All in all, 9 cisticola species can be found in this reserve.
To add to the LBJ list, 6 pipit species are regularly recorded. Bushveld Pipit occurs below the forest, Striped Pipits reside on the rocky slopes, while Plain-backed, Buffy, African and Long-billed Pipits are found most often on the flatter plateau, where the road loops around. Check any burnt areas, as they are a favourite with these confusing birds. Long-billed Pipit is often found among the rocks on the drive down to the loop road. Bald Ibis and Black-winged Lapwing are fond of the lower plateau as well.
Other species found in the grassland include Secretarybird, Long-tailed Widowbird, African Quailfinch, Sentinel Rock Thrush (winter), Coqui, Shelly's and Red-winged Francolin, Rufous-naped Lark and Cape Long-claw.
A variety of plants and game occur in the reserve. Eland, Burchell's zebra, blesbok, impala, common reedbuck, mountain reedbuck and the rare oribi are all present. The grassland hosts a number of orchids and the moist areas host the carnivorous drosera plant. The common cabbage tree, common wild and broom cluster figs, Cape beech, buffalo thorn and flame thorns, (some of the largest in the province), are among the common trees found in the reserve.
Lancaster Hill was also the site of a battle during the second Anglo-Boer War in 1900, and a memorial grave of an English Lt. Colonel as well as a Boer soldier, are present in the reserve. Numerous rock walls and forts built by the resident 900 English troops are still visible.
The Royal Family visited Lancaster Hill in 1947, and a picture of a ship drawn on a rock by Princess Margaret is still faintly visible.

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