Vryheid

Home to about 350 species, this region of Zululand provides the birder with 50 endemic or near-endemic species. The Vryheid Route is situated at the highest altitude in the Zululand Birding Route, and lies on the ecotone of the extensive grasslands in the west and the bushveld areas to the east. This, combined with the many wetlands and mountains in the area, ensures that the birder is always kept busy.

Some noteworthy endemics such as Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Crane, Blue Korhaan, Ground Woodpecker, South African Cliff Swallow, Bush Blackcap, Buff-streaked Chat and Gurney’s Sugarbird occur alongside near-endemics such as Eastern Long-billed and Spike Heeled Lark, Mountain Wheatear, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler, Olive Bush Shrike and Swee Waxbill.

All five of Zululand’s major rivers have all or some of their catchments in this area, resulting in many wetlands. These wetlands provide nationally important numbers of Grey Crowned Crane, as well as shy rallids such as Red-chested Flufftail, African Rail and Baillon’s Crake. Thousands of duck and geese moult at Blood River Vlei in winter, and the Klipfontein Bird Sanctuary is one of the best places in South Africa to view rails, crakes and flufftails.

Phongola Bush Nature Reserve in the north is one of Zululand’s best-kept secrets, and is home to breeding African Crowned, Verreaux’s and Martial Eagles, Orange Ground Thrush and White-starred Robin. The setting is magnificent, climax mistbelt forest against high cliffs and rolling grasslands.

Between Blood River Vlei and Phongola Bush lies a mountain called Skurweberg (“Rough Mountain”). Birds characteristic of higher altitudes are found up here, including Blue Crane, Eastern Long-billed Lark and Denham’s Bustard.

Vryheid Hill Nature Reserve borders on the town and is well known for its diversity of forest, woodland and grassland species. African Crowned Eagles breed in the reserve, and Broad-tailed Warbler, African Cuckoo Hawk, Bush Blackcap, Buffy, Long-billed and Striped Pipits and Chorister Robin-Chat also occur here.

Just south of Vryheid lies Esikhuma mountain and its surrounding thornveld, home to an interesting mix of mountain and woodland species such as Mocking Cliff-Chat, Jacobin and African Cuckoo, Jackal Buzzard and Verreaux’s Eagle.

Natal Spa boasts a resident pair of African Crowned Eagles, the nest being visible from close quarters.

Leopard Rock is situated 70km south of Vryheid along the White Umfolozi River. Here birders will find a different mix of bushveld and woodland than further north, and different bird species. Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Tawny Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, White-backed Vulture and Purple-crested Turaco are some of the interesting species.