The following extracts are taken from "Southern African Birdfinder: where to find 1,400 birds in southern Africa and Madagascar" by Callan Cohen, Claire Spottiswoode and Jonathan Rossouw, released by Struik Publishers in 2006.
Malalotja Nature Reserve
The 1,800 hectare Malalotja Nature Reserve is home to one of Southern Africa's rarest birds, the magnificent Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea. It is arguably Swaziland's most attractive reserve, lying on the edge of the Drakensberg Escarpment and protecting a wide variety of habitats that range in altitude from below 800m to above 1,800m. The birdlist of over 280 species is correspondingly diverse and it is possible in summer to see more than 100 species in a day here.
Specials: Denham’s Bustard Neotis denhami, Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, Striped Flufftail Sarothrura affinis, Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus, Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus, Sentinel Rock-Thrush Monticola explorator, Buff-streaked Chat Oenanthe bifasciata, Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea, Broad-tailed Warbler Schoenicola brevirostris, Eastern Long-billed Lark Certhilauda semitorquata and Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi.
Season: The Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea is present only in summer. This is the best time also for most of the grassland specials, although the Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus colonies are active only from June to October.
Habitats: Habitats include montane grassland, gorges and rocky slopes, wetlands in the form of montane vleis, dams and tropical rivers, with patches of mist belt and riverine forest in the valleys.
Access and facilities: The reserve lies approximately 30 km north of Mbabane on the road to Pigg's Peak and is well signposted. Log cabins and camping facilities are available near the reserve entrance. Excellent leaflets covering recommended walks, along with bird and mammal lists, are available from the informative museum at the entrance gate.
Birding: Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea is undoubtedly the star attraction here and a few pairs of this endangered species breed in sinkholes in the pristine montane grassland. These elegant birds are best viewed by walking in the area between the entrance gate and Malalotja Vlei, or along the Upper Majalomba Gorge Walk. Malalotja Vlei is worth checking for Broad-tailed Warbler Schoenicola brevirostris and a variety of commoner waterbirds. After dark, the elusive Striped Flufftail Sarothrura affinis has been heard booming from vlei fringes.
The 20 km of gravel road in the eastern part of the park are passable easily by 2WD vehicles and provide access to good grassland and rocky slope habitat. Driving slowly and scanning the surroundings should turn up coveys of Red-winged Francolin Francolinus levaillantii (especially in the early morning), Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, Denham’s Bustard Neotis denhami, Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus, Cape Monticola rupestris and Sentinel Rock-Thrushes M. explorator, Buff-streaked Chat Oenanthe bifasciata, Cliff Chat Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris and Eastern Long-billed Lark Certhilauda semitorquata. Cisticolas are particularly well represented and are best identified by their breeding displays in summer. Listen for Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis and Croaking Cisticola C. natalensis (widespread), Cloud Cisticola C. textrix and Ayre's Cisticola C. ayresii (gentle, short-grass slopes), Wailing Cisticola C. lais (tall-grass slopes), Rock-loving Cisticola C. aberrans (rocky slopes), Levaillant's Cisticola C. tinniens (wetlands) and Piping Cisticola C. fulvicapilla (thicker cover), as well as for the jumbled melody of Grassbird Sphenoeacus afer (rank vegetation).
Two colonies of Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus are present during winter, one on the remote cliffs above the Nkomati River and a more visible colony on the cliffs above Malalotja Falls. Keep an eye out here for Black Stork Ciconia nigra (a year-round resident of the park), Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus, Verreaux’s Eagle Aquila verreauxii and African Cuckoo Hawk Aviceda cuculoides, which is seen occasionally quartering the forest patches in the upper Malalotja Valley.
Hiking into some of the more remote sectors of the park should reward the energetic birder with Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi (Protea stands on Ngwenya Mountain) and, in the forest patches along the Malalotja River, a host of Afromontane forest birds.
Other animals: Malalotja is an excellent area for viewing a variety of grassland mammals, the most interesting of which include Black Wildebeest, Blesbok, Oribi, Mountain and Common Reedbuck, Grey Rhebok, and Klipspringer. Serval, Caracal, Leopard and South African Porcupine are also present but recorded rarely. Cape Clawless Otter is regularly encountered on the dams.
Mlawula Nature Reserve
This scenic 16,500 hectare reserve, lying in the foothills of the Lebombo mountains along Swaziland’s north-eastern border with Mozambique, incorporates a variety of habitats that range from Lowveld thicket and riverine woodland to grassland and rocky slopes. Its avifauna, which runs to over 350 species, is strongly reminiscent of the more accessible southern Kruger National Park, although a number of special birds typical of the East Coast Littoral are more easily seen here.
Specials: Scaly-throated Honeyguide Indicator variegatus, Thick-billed Cuckoo Pachycoccyx audeberti, Black Coucal Centropus grillii, Lesser Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus lugubris, African Finfoot Podica senegalensis, White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike Prionops retzii, Eastern Bearded Scrub-Robin Cercotrichas quadrivirgata, Eastern Nicator Nicator gularis and a number of species restricted to the East Coast Littoral such as African Broadbill Smithornis capensis, Grey Sunbird Cyanomitra veroxii and Pink-throated Twinspot Hypargos margaritatus.
Habitats include Acacia savanna, moist woodland, riverine forest, grassland and rocky slopes.
Facilities include a road network in variable condition (all 2WD), self-guided trails, a camping site and accommodation in the form of pre-erected tents.
Birding: The 2WD road from the main entrance to the Siphiso campsite runs up the broad Siphiso valley, passing through excellent moist savanna where a variety of typical Lowveld birds may be found. Watch for African Finfoot Podica senegalensis, Black Stork Ciconia nigra and Wire-tailed Swallow Hirundo smithii at the crossing over the Mlawula River, Bennett’s Woodpecker Campethera bennettii and Green-capped Eremomela Eremomela scotops in the taller Camelthorn woodland, and Crested Guineafowl Guttera pucherani, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike Telophorus viridis, Eastern Bearded Scrub-Robin Cercotrichas quadrivirgata and Eastern Nicator Nicator gularis in dense thickets along the Siphiso River. The area around the campsite is productive and easily explored by means of self-guided hiking trails. Watch especially for parties of the characterful Retz’s Helmet-Shrike Prionops retzii and its brood parasite, Thick-billed Cuckoo Pachycoccyx audeberti. The cuckoos are scarce and highly elusive but may occasionally be seen (or more likely, heard) in display flight above the woodland in early summer.
More open savanna areas along the road to Siphiso camping site may produce Black-bellied Bustard Eupodotis melanogaster, Bronze-winged Courser Rhinoptilus chalcopterus and, when burnt, Lesser Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus lugubris. Black Coucals Centropus grillii are occasionally seen in the area after good summer rains, when Harlequin Quail Coturnix delegorguei and African Crake Crex egregia may also be present.
Access to the northern and eastern parts of the reserve is via a road that commences opposite the main entrance, passes the Environmental Centre and follows first the Mlawula and then the large Mbuluzi River towards the Mozambique border. Most of the riparian woodland was decimated by cyclone-created floods, though the few remaining patches still support Scaly-throated Honeyguide Indicator variegatus, Crowned Tockus alboterminatus and Trumpeter Hornbills Bycanistes bucinator, and Brown-headed Parrot Poicephalus cryptoxanthus whilst the thickets are home to African Broadbill Smithornis capensis, Eastern Nicator Nicator gularis, Grey Sunbird Cyanomitra veroxii and Pink-throated Twinspot Hypargos margaritatus. A night drive (request permission at the office) may produce White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus, African Barred Owlet Glaucidium capense or even Pel’s Fishing-owl Scotopelia peli.
Access: The entrance to the reserve lies off the Manzini-Lomahasha road, 10 km north of Simunye. Just south of this village, the road traverses the Hlane National Park which has self-contained cottage accommodation, though the birding is better within the combined Mlawula / Mbuluzi Nature Reserves and camping in one of the two campsites is recommended.