Forest Birding in Natures Valley
Having moved to Plettenberg Bay a year ago, I have had the privilege to be only 2o minutes drive from one of the most beautiful places in South Africa; this place is Natures Valley.
From the N2, the R102 turnoff takes you to the town of Natures Valley. Initially the natural vegetation is dominated by Fynbos and autumn is a good time to see the endemic Cape Sugarbirds as they whizz across the road with their magnificent long tails dangling in the air, searching for the next Sugarbush.
Once you make the descent towards Natures Valley which is the only residential area within a National Park, you will notice a change in the vegetation as you are suddenly surrounded by magnificent Outeniqua Yellowwood trees. Some are up to forty meters tall and covered in lichen. Many have been around for more than a century.
My first impression of forest birding was that it would be highly challenging. You never saw birds and only heard them calling. However this changed when in December 1999 I had a unique opportunity to go birding with the late Graeme Winch. After three hours of walking in the Umtiza Forest near East London he showed me my first Narina Trogon. Immediately I forgot the hundreds of mosquito bites on my legs and feet and this wonderful experience left a long lasting impress ion on me.
So I had a sighted a Narina Trogon, but what else is there to look for in the forest? Since my first experience in Natures Valley compared to my current visits I have found that I have gradually got to know the different calls and habits of the forest birds. This is where a PDA becomes handy when trying to identify bird calls. (Remember to use such a device as discreetly as possible and for your own benefit of learning, but not frighten the bird.)
I have also learnt that to cover a lot of ground is not always the best option. It is often better to walk a short distance and listen for bird activity. Once you have heard a bird call stop and try to look for it; spend a couple of minutes in that specific area as there is probably a reason for the bird being there. Possibly there are caterpillars or fruit that have attracted the bird to that specific spot and there could be other birds that you did not originally hear.
You should always take into consideration which trees you may find in the forest. Knysna Turacos love eating the fruits from Outeniqua Yellowwoods. Turacos can be a very common sighting but an unforgettable sighting, especially once you see their crimson wings in flight. These birds can also be very noisy as they jump around from branch to branch; be careful as they have a habit of breaking branches that can fall on your head!
Always remember to take the season and weather into consideration, as you will be going into an area that has a high annual rainfall. In the colder months the activity in the forest may only start late in the morning. I have personally had great sightings in May around 11am.
So in a nutshell, when it comes to forest birding, be well prepared and patient. I have also found it helpful to look at illustrations of the birds you intend on searching for and familiarise yourself with their calls.
These magnificent forests have become one of my favourite habitats for birding and I am extremely thankful to be a few minutes drive away. Every time I walk the forests I am treated to a great experience, even if it is only a Bush Buck wandering through the undergrowth. There is nothing better than being able to show a newcomer their first Knysna Turaco, Yellow-Throated Woodland Warbler, Cape Batis, Olive Woodpecker or Narina Trogon!
There are a variety of B&B’s in Natures Valley but if you prefer camping the De Vasselot Campsite is great place to stay. It is always clean and the birding is very good inside the campsite. If you are lucky you may be kept awake at night by the call of the Wood Owl.
PDA –Personal Digital Assistant: This device is a small computer which can be used as a digital bird book provided you have obtained the correct software.