Chelmsford Nature Reserve (CNR) is approximately 30 km south of Newcastle, off the Newcastle – Ladysmith main road, and consists of extensive areas of grassland. The bulk of the nature reserve is on the northern side of Ntshingwayo Dam, (formerly the Chelmsford Dam) with a smaller section called Richgate on the southern shore. There is an extensive network of dirt roads in the north section allowing visitors great bird watching and game viewing.
As you arrive at the parking lot of the reception area at the office there is a mix of thorn trees, with large exotic trees along the boundary fence line. Spend a bit of time exploring these trees as the thorn trees support various Sparrows, Cape Weavers and Southern Masked Weavers, Fiscal Flycatchers, and Willow Warblers (in summer). Also look to the large exotic trees along the fence line where a pair of Black Sparrowhawks nest, and where Jackal Buzzards and Steppe Buzzards often perch. The lovely woodpecker-like Red-throated Wryneck also inhabits the trees in this area, as do Spotted Eagle Owls.
Once past the office you move into the open grassland area where there is a variety of Cisticolas, including the easier-to-identify Pale-crowned Cisticola (in wet years), and the attractive little African Stonechat. Further west is the game park proper, with herds of black wildebeest (endemic to South Africa), springbok, zebra and, with luck, the endangered oribi. This dry grassland is good for larks, with Spike-heeled Larks and Pink-billed Larks being quite abundant at times. CNR is one of very few areas in KwaZulu-Natal where Pink-billed Larks occur. The little dams within the grassland usually have White-throated Swallows and Brown-throated Martins whizzing around, including the uncommon brown form of the latter.
In the early morning there is a good chance of some very special birds like the White-bellied Korhaan, Blue Korhaan and Black-bellied Bustard, while Marsh Owls could pop up at almost any time and are often seen coursing low over the grass and intermittently making sudden crash landings when spotting a tasty morsel of mouse or bird! With really good luck in the very early morning or at dusk a Grass Owl may put in an appearance. Blue Cranes nest in the shorter grasslands in summer, and burnt areas are a magnet for the Southern Bald Ibis and numerous Herons, all this while one can see a yellow mongoose dash across the open ground. When driving near the edge of the dam almost every inlet has formed a small marsh/reed bed. This habitat may cough up sightings of the Grey Crowned Crane, African Snipe, African Jacana (the famous lily trotter), Squacco Heron, and even a Goliath Heron. Over the dam itself are Fish Eagles, Western Ospreys in summer, and the massive gull-like Caspian Tern.
With directions from the office one may be able to access the wetland area in the south east corner of the dam. Here enriched shallow water attracts both species of Flamingos, large flotillas of a variety of waterfowl including the small Hottentot Teal, Knob-billed Duck, magnificent looking Pied Avocets with their thin upturned bills scything through the water, Whiskered Terns, and the special and impressive Great Crested Grebe.
Chelmsford Nature Reserve is truly a forgotten gem, but for the birding enthusiast it offers some wonderful opportunities. So – if you haven’t yet had a twitch or two at Chelmsford, do yourself a big favour and spend some time up there. It can be very rewarding.
For more information about Chelmsford Nature Reserve and Resort please see our Resort of the Month article in this newsletter.