Birding the Burn: Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park, South Africa

Traveling for birds will inevitably lead to unique experiences and while we were able to enjoy the incredible landscape and wildlife of one of South Africa’s most amazing parks, we also witnessed the dramatic aftermath of an immense grassland fire. We arrived at the gate to St. Lucia Wetland Park on the east coast of KwalaZulu-Natal in the late afternoon and were advised that we still had a long distance to drive to the camp at Cape Vidal. In addition, there was a large bushfire, but it was under control, in other words it just happened to burn away from camp. We stocked up on supplies in the relaxed beach town of St. Lucia and then drove into the park in the early evening.

Fire in St. Lucia Wetland Park Photo Stephan Lorenz

Plenty of wildlife slowed us down and by the time the sun set we could clearly see the large fire burning bright on the distant horizon. Cape Vidal campsite sits right on the beach just behind steep vegetated sand dunes rising nearly fifty feet. Dense scrub and sand forest surround the camp, which has sites tucked under sprawling shade trees. By our estimates it is one the prettiest campsites in South Africa and just a quick climb over sand from the beach.

Reedbuck Photo Stephan Lorenz

The next morning started out promising, with the special birds coming relatively easy. In the weak dawn light filtering through the dense canopy, I found a singing Brown Scrub-Robin, a plain bird with a fluty song. Endemic to South Africa and Mozambique it has a limited coastal distribution. Another special of the sand forest, the localized Woodward’s Batis, gave itself up by its call and I followed a pair for several minutes. Sunbirds frequented the canopy and I came across a few Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds. Eventually near our own campsite the last special of the sand forest showed, the shy Livingstone’s Turaco. These large birds have an amazing ability to disappear quickly.

Brown Scrub-Robin Photo Stephan Lorenz

Heading out from camp we veered off the main road and took the gravel that led past immense wetlands full of hippos and waterbuck. Flocks of White-faced Whistling-Ducks loafed near reedy areas and the common herons were present in good numbers. A few kilometers along this road we caught up to the bushfire. As far as the eye could see stretched torched grassland, still smoldering in places. Smoke from the continuing fire left the horizons to the north hazy. We followed the gravel winding past parched earth, here and there wetter areas were unscathed, but otherwise almost all cover was gone. In little patches of grass, cisticolas, fluttered by the dozens. Normally these shy birds skulk in thickets and dense grass, but without cover they ran across the road and up to five would cling to a single surviving blade of green.

Croaking Cisticola Photo Stephan Lorenz

In an area where a small flame was still devouring what was left and Burchell’s Coucal foraged for fleeing insects. A troop of Chacma baboons wandered methodically across the black plain, searching for easy food. Turning a sharp corner we surprised a Black-bellied Bustard stepping off the road and unsuccessfully attempting to blend with the charred grasses. The bird wandered in full view away from the road. Stopping for another group if cisticolas, mainly Zitting’s with a few large Croaking mixed in, I spotted a shorebird and then another. Suspecting Senegal Lapwing (which frequent recent burns, these moved in fast) I stepped out a got great flight views of half a dozen birds, which clearly showed the key field marks of black in the wings. Senegal Lapwings are apparently tough to see in South Africa, but have a large distribution within the continent.

Senegal Lapwing St. Lucia Wetland Park Photo Stephan Lorenz

The road swung back towards the coast and wetlands that had escaped the burns. The majority of woodlands were left untouched.

Black-bellied Bustard St. Lucia Wetland Park Photo Stephan Lorenz




One response to this post.

  1. hope we see more of the Africa trip. Saw a small family group of scissortailed flycatchers yesterday. Must have bred at Addick’s reservoir. JoAnn


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