Ithala is situated between Ngotshe Mountain in the south and the Phongola River in the north and is 29 000ha in size. With an altitudinal difference in the reserve of 1000m, both lowland and highland birds are present. The topography is dominated by rolling hills and high cliffs, with wooded drainage lines, riverine forest, grassland and thornveld habitats predominating. This diversity of habitats has attracted about 330 species of birds.
Turning right after entering the main gate takes one around the Onverwagt Loop road through grasslands. Look out for Barrow’s Korhaan, Secretarybird, Ostrich, Red-breasted Swallow, Croaking Cisticola, Yellow-throated Longclaw and African Quailfinch.
The next turn off from the main tar road to the Ntshondwe Camp (after the airstrip) takes one either down to the Phongola picnic site, or to the Bergvliet Loop. The Bergvliet Loop follows the ridge of a hill and offers a spectacular view over the Phongola River. Look out for Black-winged Lapwing and Long-billed Pipit in the short grassland.
The loop down to the Phongola picnic site is the most productive in the reserve. In the thick bushclumps listen for Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Grey-headed and Gorgeous Bush-Shrikes, Crowned Hornbill, Eastern Nicator and, in summer, Violet-backed Starling. Striped Pipit is fairly common on the rocky slopes. Look out for Mountain Wagtail at the two stream crossings.
When entering the first riverine forest patch, listed for Narina Trogon, Red-capped Robin-Chat and Collared Sunbird.
The picnic site at the Phongola River is well worth exploring, especially early morning. The tall riverine forest hosts African Green Pigeon, Purple-crested Turaco, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Tambourine Dove, Bearded Scrub-Robin, White-throated Robin-Chat and Red-headed Weaver.
Ntshondwe Camp is situated against the mountain of the same name. Look out for Olive Bush-Shrike, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Red-fronted Tinkerbird and Cape Batis around the bungalows and just before the reception buildings. Two short walks lead up into the mountain from the camp. These areas could produce endemics such as Jackal Buzzard, Cape Rock-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Grassbird, Southern Boubou, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Weaver and Cape White-eye. Scan the cliffs for the resident pair of Verreaux’s Eagle, as well as Alpine and Black Swifts.
The thorn and bushveld areas on the flatter parts host Emerald-spotted Dove, Pale Flycatcher, Shelley’s Francolin, Bearded Woodpecker, Striped Kingfisher, Flappet and Sabota Larks, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Jameson’s Firefinch, Green-winged Pytilia and Golden-breasted Bunting. Check larger mammals for the intriguing Red-billed Oxpecker.
The many seeps in the eastern side of the reserve are home to Red-chested Flufftail, and both Cinnamon-breasted and Cape Buntings can be found on the top of the rocky slopes. Freckled Nightjar is fairly common here too.
African Crowned, Tawny, Martial, Wahlberg’s, Verreaux’s, African Fish and African Hawk-Eagles are all regularly seen in the reserve. Bateleur, White-backed and Lappet-faced Vultures, Common Kestrel and Brown Snake-eagle can be seen soaring over the hills, and Lizard Buzzard, African Goshawk and Shikra are found in the well-wooded areas.
Travelling from Johannesburg, drive through Vryheid and take the R69 to Louwsburg. Turn left to Louwsburg and follow the signs. The reserve lies about 10km past the town. Coming from Durban, travel up the N2, turn off onto the R66 at Phongola, proceed for about 20km and then turn right onto the R69. Continue to the Louwsburg turnoff and follow the signs.