I last visited the Eastern Shores of Lake St Lucia and Cape Vidal to study Humpback Whales in the early 1990’s. The road to Cape Vidal was rutted dirt, lined with pine plantations where encounters with heavy trucks made the trip even more hazardously interesting. The work itself though, was brilliant, with glorious days sitting on the high coastal dunes watching whales, dolphins, sailfish and tropical seabirds. Now 20 years on, much has changed and rarely for these days, the changes have been for the better. The whole lake and coastal belt stretching from Maphelane in the south through to Kosi Bay in the north is now part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and World Heritage Site. The road has been tarred all the way through to Cape Vidal and the pine plantations have been removed allowing the return of natural rolling grasslands and forest patches alive with life.
After overnighting in the town of St Lucia, where Crested Guineafowl, Red Duiker and Bushbuck wander the streets in the early mornings, I headed towards Cape Vidal and was greeted by the distant roar of the sea and a dawn beaming long shafts of sunlight through the clouds. Birding began immediately with good sightings of Crowned Hornbills, African Pied Wagtails, Brown-Hooded Kingfishers and mischievous Vervet Monkeys. Passing the St Lucia Crocodile Center, the thick vegetation flashed with vividly colored Collared Sunbirds while their duller cousins the Olive Sunbirds called from high in the treetops. A Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird also put in a brief appearance alongside the larger Black-Collared Barbets and Lesser-Masked Weavers as they fed from the flowers of a Coral Tree.
1 of 12. Long-Crested Eagle
2 of 12. Female Golden-Orb Spider
Driving off the main road to cover all of the loop roads within the park, I was soon at a small pan where a dozing pod of tightly packed hippos lay with just their pink noses sticking out of the water. On the banks of the pan, a pair of Water Thick-Knees rested below a bush and African Jacana’s wandered feeding and plucking at aquatic insects and a pair of Egyptian Geese and Hadedas stood at the feet of a statue-like Waterbuck bull. As the dawn light brightened, calls of Yellow-Throated Longclaws, Emerald-Spotted Wood-Doves, Dark-Capped Bulbuls and the unmistakable wailing of Trumpeter Hornbills filled the air. Birding parties on early morning patrol moved through the tangled forest patches and were filled with the variety of Sombre Greenbul, African Dusky Flycatcher, Black-Backed Puffback, Terrestrial Brownbul, Dark-Backed Weaver and Square-Tailed Drongo. Kurrichane Thrushes, Red-Capped Robin-Chats and Tambourine Doves avoided the busyness above and moved more quietly through the undergrowth.
3 of 12. Giant Kingfisher with a large fish that it is trying to turn head first to swallow
4 of 12. White-eared Barbet
Taking the road to Catalina Bay, I was soon on the edges of the Lake where I was just in time to see an African Fish Eagle swoop down and snatch a large fish. Goliath Herons, African Spoonbills, Grey Herons and Little and Yellow-Billed Egret stood in the shallows amongst flocks of Little Grebe, Red-Knobbed Coots and Black-Winged Stilts. Off to one side a small flock of Great White Pelicans preened and stretched together with a single and much smaller Pink-Backed Pelican. Flittering over the open water Grey Headed Gulls, and Whiskered and White–Winged Terns danced on the water, barely touching its surface as they snatched up food morsels.
5 of 12. Dusky Acraea Butterfly
6 of 12. A hippo exits the protective water of the Lake at dusk
Certainly my favorite area on the Eastern Shores is the area around Lake Bhangazi where marshlands thick with hippo trails and heavily coated in Cape Buffalo dung resonate with the sound of singing Painted Reed Frogs. Kittlitz’s Plover and African Wattled Lapwing pairs stalk the short grasses cropped by Burchells Zebra while above them White-Fronted and Little Bee-Eaters snatch insects in mid air. Amongst the dead trees small families of White-Eared Barbets climb through the branches and at dawn and dusk Burchells Coucals clamber from thickets to a high point where they warm themselves with the suns rays. Pied and Malachite Kingfishers watch intently for movement whilst balancing on wavy reed stems overhanging small bodies of water. African Stonechats are very plentiful with the male and female of the pair staying close to one another and beating any caterpillars that they catch vigorously before swallowing them.
7 of 12. Burchells Coucal sunning after a late afternoon rainstorm.
8 of 12. Mangrove trees line the edge of Lake St Lucia
The rest camp at Cape Vidal itself is one of the best places to view the rare Samango Monkey and in the thick vegetation special birds such as Red-Backed Mannikin, Blue-Mantled Flycatcher, Grey Waxbill and Green Twinspot can often be seen. On the beaches Swift Terns and Kelp Gulls roost and Yellow-Billed Kite have become accustomed to swooping down and snatching tit-bits left by beachgoers.
9 of 12. A Grey-Headed Gull wades in the shallow Lake waters
10 of 12. A Three-Banded Plover
Traveling further north along the coastline, most people would consider Sodwana Bay as a major diving and fishing destination, but the coastal forest creates opportunities for some good birding, particularly during midweek and out of the school holidays when the camps are quiet. Banded Mongoose colonies busily wander the lawns and are joined by Samango Monkey troops who play in the branches above. Butterflies also abound with the large brightly colored Swallowtails being the most obvious amongst a variety of Whites, Acraea and Charaxes. A real special of the area that flashes its crimson wings as it flies through the coastal forest is the Livingston’s Turaco easily distinguished by its long-pointed crest. Black Saw-Wing and Lesser Striped Swallows hawk insects over any of the grassy openings in the forests and the constant sea-saw call of Red-Capped Robin-Chats emanates from the undergrowth. Black-Bellied Starling, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-Breasted Apalis and Green Malkoha are other specials of the forest and are most easily seen at dawn when African Goshawk also fly high and proclaim their territories with a repeated and harsh Chuck-Chuck call.
11 of 12. The Kozi-Bay Fish Traps
12 of 12. A Pied Kingfisher perches over the waters of the Lake.
Right up in the far north of the country lie the lush coastal grasslands amongst the sand, dune and swamp forests of Kosi Bay and birding is always rewarding here with some real specials such as Palm-Nut Vulture, Pel’s Fishing-Owl and Rosy-Throated Longclaw being high on the wanted list. On my journey through the open waters and twisting channels of the Kosi Lake system, which are well known for the traditional system of fish traps, I was rewarded with numerous sightings of snoozing hippo’s, sunning crocodiles and both adult and juvenile Palm-Nut Vultures as they flew between Rafia Palms. In the reed beds African Black Crake and African Swamphen called and fed whilst in the open water African Pygmy-Geese and Yellow-Billed Ducks dabbled amongst the water-weed. On the wide beaches near Kosi estuary, White-Fronted Plovers followed the receding tide together with flocks of Sanderling, Common Whimbrel and Grey Plovers. It is on these beaches during summer nights that Leatherback and Loggerhead Turtles haul themselves out and begin the laborious process of laying their eggs amongst hundreds of ghost crabs that feed in the ebb and flow of the waves breaking on the beaches. Without a doubt, the changes that have led to this area becoming a World Heritage Site will continue to benefit and the area will remain one of the premier birding destinations in the country for long into the future.