Feathered Feast on father’s day (Part 1)

While holidaying in La Lucia near Durban a couple of years ago, atlasing of the surrounding pentad kept me comfortably in touch with my birding passion – nothing spectacular, although the walks along the long stretch of beach immediately in front of the resort, where we have had a timeshare unit for many years, are always interesting with a mix of Gulls, Terns and Cormorants being the main source of birding entertainment. When the seas are high and stormy there’s even a chance of spotting an Albatross far out to sea,  but identifying them at that distance is very difficult unless you can pick up one of the features that separate the species.

La Lucia beach

Father’s Day Treat

I suspect Gerda saw the signs of me itching for some more exciting birding and with Father’s day coming up she suggested I “take a day off” and do a day trip to Ongoye Forest, knowing that there was a special bird or two to be ticked there (my subtle prompts worked like a charm). I didn’t need much encouragement and soon contacted a local guide, Sakhamuzi Mhlongo and arranged the trip for the upcoming Father’s Day.

Setting out in the dark before dawn, a couple of minor calamities delayed my departure, the first of which was a leaking hot water flask which sent me back to the apartment to get a refill of the essential hot water for my coffee later on, then I managed to miss a turn-off in the dark while trying to get to the highway and ended up in Verulam before I could find a place to turn around.

With my nerves somewhat on edge (it’s hard being a control freak) it took the beauty of a rosy dawn appearing over the lush green hills as I drove northwards and Louis Armstrong doing ” Rock my Soul” on the I-pod plugged into the sound system to bring me back to a semblance of my normal calm self and ready for the day ahead. By 7 am I reached the rendezvous, picked up Sakhamuzi and headed further up the N3  before taking the turn-off at Mtunzimi and heading west towards Ongoye.

Ongoye Forest Reserve

Soon we were at the entrance which, unlike the often impressive ones of many of the larger reserves, was just an open gate in the fence.

Ongoye Forest

By now the road was a track which wound through grassland covered hills towards the forest area, where we parked and ventured on foot into the forest itself.

Sakhamuzi leading the way into Ongoye Forest

I soon realised that Sakhamuzi has a real talent for bird call imitations, as he repeatedly did a near perfect Green Barbet call – no app necessary when you have him at your side! At least one bird responded, but it was still well concealed as we craned our necks and scanned the canopy to find it. However it didn’t take long to trace the call and locate a pair of Green Barbets feeding high up in the canopy, showing themselves briefly now and again.

The Green Barbet has the unenviable distinction of having probably the smallest distribution of any bird in Southern Africa, found only in the 3200 ha Ongoye forest, so any keen birder wanting to see it has only one choice of where to go, unless you happen to be in Tanzania.

It also means that this species is extremely vulnerable, being dependant on this relatively small patch of forest for its continuing existence in Southern Africa – a habitat the size of a typical mid-size farm. It is classified as Endangered in the 2015 Eskom Red Data Book of Birds published by Birdlife SA.

Ongoye Forest

Once I was happy with my sighting (which happened to be my 750th species in Southern Africa) I tried to get a photo, which is always a challenge in the forest against a strong back light, made doubly so by the Barbet’s habit of remaining high in the canopy and not sitting still for longer than a second or two. I eventually had a few photos in the bag which I hoped to be able to edit into something vaguely recognisable and we decided to move on after two hours in this unique birding locality.

Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Of course there is much more to Ongoye than this species as the forest and surrounding grasslands and bush are rich in several other desirable species, amongst them the distinctive Brown Scrub Robin, White-eared Barbet, Trumpeter Hornbill, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-throated Longclaw and others. Striped Pipit on the way out was a surprise bonus.

Trumpeter Hornbill, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Forest birding is quite different from any other habitat – it’s more about audibility of the birds than their visibility. The canopy dwellers are often particularly vocal and the forest rings with multiple calls from the raucous wail of Trumpeter Hornbill to the gentle chop ….. chop of the Green Barbet and the quicker popping of the Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird.

They are joined intermittently by Square-tailed Drongo (strident tweets), Purple-crested Turaco (loud kor-kor-kor), Olive Sunbird (liquid tip-tip-tip), Black-bellied Starling (harsh jumble), Collared Sunbird and others. Seeing them clearly is tricky as mentioned above.

Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Next stop was Mtunzimi …….. but more about that and the rest of the trip in Part two

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