The premier birding paradise in South Africa has got to be KwaZulu-Natal. Regions like the Drakensberg, the bushveld and the wetlands make for a spectacularly wide diversity and spectacular birding. With more than 400 species recorded - including the unique and endangered bearded vulture, largest of Africa's birds of prey - the region is justifiably regarded as a prime destination for South African and international birdwatchers.
Amongst the towering peaks of the majestic Drakensberg, the bearded vulture (more commonly known by domestic birders as the lammergeyer) is undisputed monarch of the skies. To many visitors a morning in the lammergeyer Hide in the Giants Castle Reserve is a lifetime experience. Carrion is laid out to attract the feathered carnivores, and regular diners include whitenecked ravens, lanner falcons, jackal buzzards, black eagles and cape vultures.
But the main attraction is the elusive lammergeyer, a soaring raptor with a wingspan of nearly three metres. Witnessing these giants flying at great height and speeds between the towering peaks and along the crags, dropping bones while in flight in order to shatter them on the rocks below, before swooping down to extract the marrow with their long, scooped tongues, is an unforgettable experience.
The Drakensberg mountain range hosts more than 290 species, including the Natal sugarbird, swifts, sunbirds, kingfishers and the orangebreasted rockjumper.
But the mountains are not where birding ends in the region. Due to the broad variety of habitat - montane forests and valley bushveld, highland sourveld and lowland sweetveld - there is a remarkable diversity of species, with the total current bird count exceeding 400 species.
Amongst the more impressive of these are the wattled, blue and crowned cranes, the ground hornbill, Stanley's bustard and three types of korhaan. New and exciting additions, recently sighted, include purple rollers, the whitebrowed sparrowweaver and the lilacbreasted roller.
Perhaps the most comprehensive and useful guide to bird watching in the region is the Amajuba Birding Meander booklet, published and distributed by Birdlife Northern Natal. It contains user-friendly maps that clearly indicate a range of recommended circle routes to top birding spots, illustrates scenic habitats and includes a range of accommodation establishments convenient for birding enthusiasts.
In the areas around Newcastle, Majuba and Dundee, the Meander recommends birding sites that range from the Newcastle Sewerage Works, local dams, game reserves and the bushveld surrounding Utrecht to outlying areas on the border of the province, such as Wakkerstroom and Memel.
Some of the special birds in the area include the ground woodpecker, Botha's and Rudd's lark, buffstreaked chat, bush blackcap, palecrowned cisticola, black egret, all five of the harriers and most of the kestrels.
The area lists three critically endangered species, 13 vulnerable species and 18 near threatened species.
If you want to get really close to birds of prey, an unusual and exciting experience is the falconry display provided by Falcon Ridge in the Champagne Valley. Here some 20 birds of prey, including peregrine falcons, lanner falcons, crowned eagles and long crested eagles, are put trough their paces daily.
Ladysmith boasts two very worthwhile birding spots: the Malandeni Bird Sanctuary and the Municipal Bird Sanctuary. The former, with a listing of 236 species, is situated at the town's maturation ponds and surrounding flooded areas.
The Colenso Bird Park follows the Tugela River for about 1,5 km, offering an interesting variety of indigenous birdlife, including woodpeckers, cape robins, waxbills, weavers, red bishops and paradise flycatchers.
In the Greytown area birders are attracted to the Umvoti Vlei Bird Hide, which is situated on a wetland rich in water birds and wildlife.
Nearby, at Kranskop, is the Kop, an impressive peak with spectacular views into the Tugela Valley. This is a popular spot for black eagles, rock kestrels, whitenecked ravens, lanner falcons, rock pigeons, swifts, swallows and red winged starlings.
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