Mount Sheba Nature Reserve

Mount Sheba is one of Mpumalanga's premier forest-birding localities. Situated in the mountains above Pilgrim's Rest, this private nature reserve offers a good selection of typical Escarpment species and a number of highly localised specials. A full day is needed to cover all habitats adequately, although much can be seen in a morning's birding. An excellent network of walking trails provide good access to the forest. The small hotel and lodges make for a great place to take the family for a weekend - and to get some superb birding in at the same time! Mount Sheba is a private nature reserve so, if you are only visiting for the day, always have the courtesy to stop in at reception and let them know you will be walking on their trails.

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Specials

African Cuckoo Hawk, African Crowned Eagle, Red-winged Francolin, Red-necked Spurfowl, Lemon Dove, Knysna Turaco, African Emerald Cuckoo, Cape Eagle-Owl, Narina Trogon, Olive Woodpecker, Grey Cuckooshrike, Bush Blackcap, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Orange Ground-Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin, Barratt's Warbler, Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher, Mountain Wagtail, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Olive Bush-Shrike, Gurney's Sugarbird and Forest Canary.

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Habitats

The steep hillsides and river valleys are clothed in tall, dense afromontane forest, which merges into impenetrable thorn-thickets at lower altitudes near Pilgrim's Rest. The upper slopes and plateau are predominantly open grassland with scattered copses of Silver Protea (Protea roupelliae) and Highveld Protea (Protea caffra). The quartzite ridge above the hotel has some impressive rock outcrops and boulders, attracting a unique set of birds. The hotel gardens support an interesting mix of forest and grassland birds.

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Facilities

Mount Sheba Country Lodge comprises a number of comfortable lodges on a grassy knoll overlooking the forest, and a number of smaller hotel units adjacent to the offices. The lodges are set-up for self-catering, but a restaurant at reception caters for those who don't feel like the effort. A tennis court and games room are available to keep the non-birders occupied. An impressive network of walking trails have been laid through the forest and grassland, ranging from fairly strenuous to easy. The Marco's Mantle and Waterfall Walks are especially productive for morning birding.

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Birding

1. Forest. Nestled on the watershed between two heavily forested valleys in the mountains above Pilgrim’s Rest, this reserve provides top-class forest birding. A number of walking trails provide access to the forest, enough to keep one occupied for a weekend. As with any forests, the best birding is where there are mixed feeding parties. Listen for the excited calls of Cape White-eye which often herald the approach of a bird party. Typical mixed feeding parties include Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Cape Batis, Olive Woodpecker, White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-Chat, Green-backed Camaroptera, Bar-throated Apalis, Black-backed Puffback, Olive Bush-Shrike, Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher, African Paradise-Flycatcher and Sombre Greenbul. Grey Cuckooshrike is fairly common, usually revealing its presence with a very high-pitched "tseeep". Narina Trogon is a difficult bird to spot in the canopy or mid-stratum, but there are quite a few resident here, so hard work should pay off. Check any stealthy movements in the leaf litter for Orange Ground-Thrush and Lemon Dove. Olive Thrush is also present in fair numbers, so don't assume that any thrush in the forest is the Orange Ground-Thrush. Canopy species to be seen include Black-headed Oriole, Knysna Turaco, African Olive-Pigeon, African Emerald Cuckoo, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike (scarce) and Southern Double-collared Sunbird. Two streams flow through the forest on either side of the lodges and are host to several pairs of Mountain Wagtail. The scrubby forest-grassland ecotone (Samango Trail) is good for "edge" species such as Barratt's Warbler, Red-necked Spurfowl (scarce), Black Saw-wing, Cape Robin-Chat, Bush Blackcap (scarce), African Dusky Flycatcher, Swee Waxbill and Forest Canary. Listen in the evenings for African Wood-Owl and on misty mornings for Buff-spotted Flufftail. Two scarce mammals regularly seen at Mount Sheba are Samango Monkey and red Duiker.

2. Grassland. The road to Mount Sheba passes over an open plateau. Birds to watch out for include Red-winged Francolin, Cape Grassbird, Wing-snapping Cisticola (displaying overhead in summer), Wailing Cisticola, African Pipit, Cape Longclaw, and the occasional Denham's Bustard or Secretarybird. Black-winged Lapwing occasionally wander in after the grasslands have been burnt. Moist depressions are home to Levaillant's Cisticola, Common Waxbill, Yellow-crowned Bishop and Yellow Bishop. After passing through a long grove of gum and oak trees, turn left and follow this road to a parking area on the left; a small sign indicates the trail to the "Lost City". One can park here and follow the path along the ridge. Rocky outcrops have Speckled Pigeon, Buff-streaked Chat, Cape Rock-Thrush, Red-winged Starling, Cape Bunting and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Cape Eagle-Owl has been found in this area in the past. The dense scrub and proteas around the small car park and at the sides of the road have African Stonechat, Wailing Cisticola, Drakensberg Prinia, Cape Grassbird, Gurney's Sugarbird (especially in summer when the proteas are flowering), Malachite Sunbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Bokmakierie, small flocks of Cape Canary, and Streaky-headed Seedeater. Another trail lower down the road leads to Sheba Look-out, an impressive view-point and good spot for raptors during the midday heat. These include Cape Vulture, Verreauxs' Eagle, African Crowned Eagle, Jackal Buzzard (regularly), African Goshawk (early morning or late afternoon), African Harrier-Hawk, Peregrine Falcon and Rock Kestrel (regularly). Also keep an eye out for African Black Swift, Alpine Swift and Rock Martin.

3. Gardens. An early morning walk around the gardens can be surprisingly productive. Check dense thickets, such as the Curry Bush scrub around lodges 1-3, for Barratt's Warbler, Cape Robin-Chat, Bar-throated Apalis, Cape White-eye and others. Flowering plants attract a host of sunbirds, including Malachite Sunbird, Amethyst Sunbird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and Olive Sunbird. Fruiting trees usually attract groups of Knysna Turaco. Open lawns near the forest edge are often attended by small flocks of Swee Waxbill and Cape Canary, and occasionally by Forest Canary. Check lodge roofs for Red-winged Starling, Cape Wagtail, Cape Rock-Thrush and Familiar Chat.

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General

From Johannesburg take the N10 to Witbank, bypassing Witbank and continuing to the Belfast turn-off; take the R33/R540 through Belfast, Dullstroom and Lydenburg. In Lydenburg, take the R36 Ohrigstad/Tzaneen road and drive for about 30km to the Pilgrim’s Rest turn-off (R533) on the right. Take this road up Robber’s Pass, the Mount Sheba turn-off being on the right after 14km (near the top of the pass). The pot-holed tar surface soon becomes dirt and needs careful negotiation after heavy rains. Follow the signboards to the reserve. The condition of the road varies from year to year, so enquire beforehand (013-768 1241/2).

Accommodation is available in the area.

Warren McClelland 2001.