A coastal birding hotspot
Umlalazi Nature Reserve (UMNR) is recognised by birders as a great place to go bird watching. The diversity of habitats is wonderful, attracting a very interesting assortment of birds of the KZN coastal region. There is also a fascinating ensemble of other creatures to admire within this jewel of a protected area.
UMNR lies between the quiet town of Mtunzini a little way south of Richards Bay, and the vast Indian Ocean. Once you enter the reserve you will be struck by the natural beauty of the area – coastal forests, wetlands, mangroves, lagoon, and miles of beach. Shortly before the entrance is a track off to the right leading to the Raphia Palm Monument which is a magnificent ‘forest’ of huge Raphia palm trees.
The roads through the reserve make for comfortable walking and easy forest birding. One is likely to see the White-eared Barbet, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds, flocks of Trumpeter Hornbills (which sound like babies crying), and specimens of the Red-capped Robin Chat that spends more time imitating other birds than doing its own (rather dull) call! A stroll around the campground could add birds such as the quiet little Green Twinspot and Purple-banded Sunbird, while having close-up views of that diminutive and shy antelope – the red duiker. For the more adventurous there are a few trails that go through the forest where one can enjoy more birds including Spotted Ground Thrush in winter, whilst also taking in the peace and quiet that the forest affords. But take care as the beautiful but not often seen, highly camouflaged Gaboon Adder has been introduced to these forests in an effort to create another population of this endangered species of snake whose forest habitat near St Lucia has suffered the consequences of human invasion and exploitation.
Whilst walking the roads the large reed-bed wetland is certainly worth taking time to explore as it supports birds the likes of the Rufous-winged Cisticola, African Yellow Warbler (for a warbler, easy to identify!), the bright Eastern Golden Weaver, and with luck, the Red-headed Quelea. You might also spot a Palm-nut Vulture flying over (much smaller than the local Fish Eagle, and it can appear anywhere in UMNR)! These interesting birds only appeared in the area once the Raphia Palm grove was planted many years ago.
Another great walk is through the Mangrove Forest. The trail starts at the lagoon car park, and walking upstream there are a series of board walks that just HAVE to be explored. In winter the magnificent Mangrove Kingfisher is present (It has been seen as late as mid-October), and it flushes readily, sometimes before you see it properly – just a flash of blue – so walk slowly and quietly. Also look down on the beckoning antics of Fiddler Crabs, and the quaint Mudskipper fish on the mudflats at your feet. Throughout the year an African Finfoot might be flushed, Woolly-necked Storks strut around, and in summer there are numerous waders. As one walks further north along the trail keep looking out over the lagoon as the Finfoot is often seen swimming along the edges. A copy of one of the many field guides to coastal birds, as well as a pair of binoculars, is a must.
Finally, do yourself a favour and visit the Raphia Palm Monument. Apart from looking in awe of these huge palm trees (which has the biggest leaf of any plant in the world) there is an excellent chance that you will see a Palm-nut Vulture perched like a white beacon on one of these palms as you approach the monument along the dirt track. Part of this monument is a Swamp Forest with a board walk and it is like being in the Amazon (albeit on a tiny scale). Here you may see the cute little Black-throated Wattle-eye flitting around, and numerous Olive Sunbirds.
So don’t underestimate Umlalazi Nature Reserve – it is well worth spending some quality birding time there. So get your twitching gear out!
See the accompanying article on accommodation and things to do at Umlalazi Nature Reserve.