Birding MBOMBELA
African Birdlife|September/October 2021
The heart of the Lowveld
LEON MARAIS

WITH A FLASH of scarlet underwing, a Purple-crested Turaco flies across the road, its staccato alarm call unexpectedly loud. White-fronted Bee-eaters are far more relaxed about being exposed and hawk insects from bare branches. A White-browed Robin-chat is of similar mind-set to the turaco, calling boldly from a concealed position in a dense thicket, happy to be heard but not necessarily seen. A flowering coral tree is abuzz with sunbirds, Yellow-fronted Canaries, a Black-headed Oriole and a flock of Village Weavers, while African Green Pigeons squawk and flutter in a nearby fig tree. A Red-faced Cisticola pipes loudly from the overgrown stream bed and a curious clicking sound draws your eyes skywards to search for an African Goshawk in display flight.

With all this going on you may think that you’re in the Kruger National Park or some other wild reserve, but you’re actually taking a morning stroll through the suburbs of Mbombela (formerly known as Nelspruit) in Mpumalanga. Indeed, this small city (which feels more like a big town) is home to an enviable array of bird species – roughly 350 species have been recorded since the late 1970s. It also boasts some lovely birding venues, making it worthy of being more than simply a last-minute shopping stop on the way to Kruger.

Lowveld National Botanical Garden

The botanical garden is the first destination for some classic Mbombela birding. If you are Kruger-bound and leave Joburg early enough, you can even pop in for a few hours en route, as it is conveniently situated just off the R40 to White River and beyond, and makes for a great lunch venue.

In a nutshell, the garden is visually spectacular, well maintained and amazingly underutilised – on an average weekday morning, you’ll have it virtually to yourself. There are two entrances, but if birds are your priority, turn right after the security boom towards Entrance 2. This leads you to the Grace Hall Bridge over the Crocodile River, your first birding stop (there’s a pull-over space on the right to get your vehicle out of the way). Park here and walk down to the bridge; here you can scan both sides of the river for African Finfoot as this stretch offers realistic chances to see this elusive species. Three other riverine specials to keep an eye out for here are African Black Duck, Mountain Wagtail and the stunning Half-collared Kingfisher.

Moving on, drive to the parking area and proceed through the entrance gate. From there the garden is yours to explore. If you make your way immediately to the left, you’ll come to a lovely boardwalk and a footbridge over the river, where you can once again check for the riverine specials. Also listen for the fast-paced call of Purple-banded Sunbird, a relatively recent arrival in the area (the first Mbombela record was in July 2010), which seems to be undergoing a range expansion from its traditional northern KwaZulu-Natal haunts. The path leads to the main entrance and restaurant, as well as a viewpoint overlooking the Cascades, which are very impressive when the river is running high.

Back in the main garden, Olive Sunbird is another typical KwaZulu-Natal species found here that will make you feel as though you are birding in Maputaland, so typical are their calls of that area. White-bellied, Amethyst, Scarlet-chested, Collared and even Greater Double-collared complete the sunbird line-up. Listen for the chatty calls of Black-bellied Starlings, another recent arrival in the area, again from KwaZuluNatal and the east coast. The tropical ambience is reinforced by the ‘tink-tin-ktink’ of Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird; this species’ call comprises a few notes followed by a pause, whereas the similar Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird tends to call continuously for extended periods.

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