Animal life on the upper KZN South Coast
Text and photographs Tim McClurg
Having lived for five decades in paradise, on the edge of Kloof Gorge, the time arrived for relocation and downsizing. After reviewing many options, we chose Renishaw Hills, a retirement village located near Scottburgh on the upper KZN South Coast. It forms part of a larger nodal development known as the Renishaw Precinct. A key factor in our choice was the commitment to restore the degraded grasslands, forests and wetlands within the proposed Precinct. Perhaps more importantly, Elsa Pooley had been contracted to design and oversee the planting and maintenance of the indigenous gardens within Renishaw Hills. We moved in mid-2018. Habitat restoration is in progress and the gardens are spectacular. This article has no specific theme and simply records some observations on the South Coast environment and its wildlife.
Floristically, the KZN Coastal Belt falls (as does the Upper Highway area) within the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot which supports a rich flora with high levels of endemism. The classical view is that, in the coastal area of KZN, the vegetation originally consisted of a mosaic of forest, scrub and savannah, which was modified to some extent by the early pre-colonial settlers as they cleared areas of forest and grassland for their homesteads, farmlands and mining activities. Subsequent Colonial settlement has resulted in large-scale removal of vegetation and extensive degradation of the environment. This is particularly evident in Sugar Cane farming areas where biodiversity has been compromised, soil erosion has been exacerbated, and invasive alien plant encroachment has increased.
The Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) was once a rarity in South Africa, being confined to the Kosi Bay and Mtunzini areas in Northern KZN. While still uncommon, it has extended its range southwards and has occasionally been spotted in Westville and Kloof. There is a small resident population around Clansthal on the upper South Coast. It is a curious bird which has a close relationship with the Kosi Palm (Raphia australis) which provides nesting sites and palm fruit as food. This is supplemented by frogs, crabs and carrion garnered along the seashore. The Raphia Palm is an equally curious plant and has leaves which are among the largest of all plant species. The image above shows an adult perched on what is effectively, a leaf stalk. The image below shows layering of the palm fruit. Nourishment is derived from the orange layer.
Fruit of the Kosi Palm (Raphia australis)
Having had Crowned Eagles on our “doorstep” in Kloof, we were pleased to discover that there are a good number of nests on the Upper South Coast – all under surveillance by researcher Dr Shane McPherson and his colleagues. One, near the Renishaw Chapel dated back decades. We monitored this nest over four years. Regrettably (perhaps inevitably) the bough that supported the nest has collapsed under the weight of accumulated (decaying) nesting material that had become saturated by heavy rains. There have been no signs of rebuilding as yet.
Crowned Eagle in flight
Juvenile Crowned Eagle
Grey Crowned Cranes (Balearica regulorum) on the Mpambanyoni Estuary – this species is unlikely to be spotted in the Upper Highway as they enjoy marshes, pans and dams.
Western Osprey (Pandion halieutus). Uncommon Palearctic migrant and rare visitor to the Mpambanyoni estuary – This species is usually associated with large water bodies and unlikely to be seen in the Upper Highway area.
Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis). Occasionally seen perched on the security fence from where it preys on insects and Vlei Rats. This species is common in the Upper Highway with frequent sightings at the Msinsi Grassland.
African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifera)
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) In a stoop over Renishaw Hills
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) perched near Renishaw Chapel.
Female Narina Trogon (Apaloderm narina)
The Narina Trogon is a resident and nomadic species which is found in forested areas. It has a distinctive call but the bird is seldom seen. This specimen was photographed on the roadside near the old Renishaw Mill.
The Narina Trogon is one of the most sought-after birds by enthusiasts and reasonably common in the forests of Kloof.
Spotted Ground Thrush (Geokichla guttata)
Uncommon and endangered. They migrate from the Eastern Cape to KZN in winter. This one was seen at TC Robertson Nature Reserve. This species has been recorded in Krantzkloof Nature Reserve.
Knysna Turaco (Tauraco corythaix)
This species is a fairly common resident in coastal forests. Is seems to be more common than the Purple-crested Turaco on the Upper South Coast. This one was spotted near the Renishaw Chapel. The Knysna Turaco is also a common resident of the Kloof Scarp Forests.
African Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta)
This species is a breeding intra-African Summer migrant. The photo above was taken on the banks of the Mpambanyoni River.
Butterflies are diverse and abundant on the KZN Upper South Coast They include the Forest Queen (Charaxes wakefieldi). Once found only on the North Coast and as far as Eswatini and the Limpopo River, recent observations have suggested that they are extending their range southwards in response to climate change. (See: Steve Woodhall, Leopards Echo Summer – Autumn 2022)
Forest Queen (Charaxes wakefieldi)
Splendorous Hornet Handmaiden Moth (Euchromia folleti)
While most moths are relatively drab, this day-flying species (Euchromia folleti) is ultra-gaudy. Its common name is Splendorous Hornet Handmaiden Moth.
These observations have clearly targeted (unashamedly) the most colourful and iconic species. A high degree of diversity has been revealed. But does that diversity extend across the board to the less visible taxa that are often overlooked? This remains to be seen. Some insight might be gained from a recently launched iNaturalist project which aims to document and monitor biodiversity, across the board, within the Renishaw Precinct. By 25 May 2023, 34 observers had made 8783 observations and identified 1417 species.
While much of the wildlife on the KZN Upper South is confined to the diminishing, less disturbed, patches of forest and grassland, there are several dedicated conservation areas.
The Crocworld Conservation Centre, located near Clansthal, was established by Crookes Brothers in 1985 with an intention to breed crocodiles commercially. It has since evolved into a major education centre and has broader interests in birds and reptiles.
The TC Robertson Nature Reserve, is located on the north bank of the Mpambanyoni estuary. It was established in 1989, through the efforts of Crookes Brothers, Umdoni Municipality and local enthusiasts. It was named in honour of Thomas Chalmers Robertson, the renowned South African pioneer of ecology and veld management. Though small, it supports a rich array of wildlife. Regrettably municipal support is dwindling and is being increasingly garnered from the public sector.
The Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve, which is located about 16 km inland (near Umzinto), is a very significant conservation area. It was established in 1973 and encompasses 2189 hectares of coastal grasslands and forest. It has a rich and varied vegetation which supports abundant and diverse bird, mammal and invertebrate populations. It is home to the endangered Kloof Frog (Natalobatrachus bonebergi) and the Amakosa Rocksitter butterfly (Durbania amakosa). Currently managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, budget restraints are threatening its integrity. It deserves all the support that it can get.
About the author
Tim McClurg. Retired Marine Scientist. Long term member of Kloof Conservancy.