This was my fourth trip to Africa, following previous visits to Morocco (September 1994), The Gambia (November 1998) and Ethiopia (February 1998), and therefore my first to southern Africa. Having decided on a visit to the region, my next decision was which areas to visit. I only had two weeks at my disposal, am no more than an average quality birder, and was accompanied by Sara, my non-birding wife. I therefore decided against trying to cover the whole country, and instead decided to select one region, and try to cover it thoroughly.
Having examined a number of areas, including Namibia, Natal and the Kruger N.P., I eventually decided on the Cape Province area, for a number of reasons. One of the main factors was that the weather is pretty reliable there at that time of year, which was important for Sara. It also contains a high number of endemics, and I felt that the number of potential species would be a little less overwhelming than in Natal for example. The general feedback I have received is that the Cape is considered a relatively poor area in terms of species, compared with other parts of Southern Africa, but I was certainly not disappointed, and felt that the birding was of the highest quality.
The timing of the trip was also not ideal. Most birders visiting the Cape do so in their spring, with September being especially popular. The general impression I got was that February was a pretty poor time to visit. However, I was limited in terms of when I could take two consecutive weeks' holiday from work, and besides had already set my heart on a Cape Province trip, and so decided to press ahead. I certainly didn't regret this decision.
I usually plan trips around a number of key species, and trust that others will be seen as a result. I therefore planned this trip around a number of species which are either restricted to the Western and Northern Cape, or are seen more easily in that area than anywhere else. In case this strategy is of interest to any other birders, I have listed below these species.
Bank Cormorant, Crowned Cormorant, Cape Francolin, Karoo Korhaan, Southern Black Korhaan, Burchell's Courser, Hartlaub's Gull, Knysna Woodpecker, Karoo Lark, Barlow's Lark, Cape Long-billed Lark, Karoo Long-billed Lark, Agulhas Long-billed Lark, Cape Clapper Lark, Agulhas Clapper Lark, "Bradfield's" Sabota Lark, Red Lark, Sclater's Lark, Black-eared Finchlark, Cape Bulbul, Cape Rockjumper, Knysna Warbler, Victorin's Warbler, Karoo Eremomela, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Namaqua Warbler, Cape Sugarbird, Cape White-eye, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Siskin, Protea Canary
In the event, I believe that the trip was a great success. I saw a total of 239 species, including 149 lifers, and the vast majority of the above, dipping on just 5. Not bad for 11 days' birding in one of the least diverse areas of South Africa at "the wrong time of year"!!
A great deal of work is currently being carried out on the taxonomic status of many South African birds, especially those in the Cape region.
In 1998, a new species, Barlow's Lark Certhilauda barlowi, was recognised, following work by Peter Ryan and colleagues at the University of Cape Town. This species has had an unstable taxonomic history, and has been considered to belong to both Karoo C. albescens and Dune Lark C. erythroclamys in the past. It is restricted to a relatively small geographical area, in the coastal dunes between Port Nolloth in South Africa and Lüderitz in Namibia. This bird forms part of the Karoo Lark superspecies, together with Red, Dune and Karoo Larks. For an excellent account of the new taxonomy, and how to identify them, see Peter Ryan's article "Barlow's Lark - a new endemic lark for southern Africa" in Africa: Birds & Birding Vol 1, No. 6 (Oct/Nov 1996). This situation is complicated by the existence of a narrow zone of hybridisation between Barlow's and Karoo Larks, which is most accessible in the vicinity of Port Nolloth on the coast of the north-west Cape. This zone has been the subject of a recent study by Callan Cohen and Peter Ryan of the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town. While this area is the best place to get to grips with the localised Barlow's Lark, there is also the possibility of finding hybrids, so contact Callan Cohen (details below) for further information about exactly where to look and how to distinguish the hybrids.
Work has been carried out recently on Long-billed Lark Certhilauda curvirostris, with the result that it has now been split into no fewer than 5 species! A summary appears below, but consult Peter Ryan and Paulette Bloomer's article "The Longbilled Lark complex: a species complex in southwest Africa" in the Jan 1999 issue of Auk.
Callan informs me that similar work carried out on Clapper Lark Mirafra apiata in South Africa (by Peter Ryan, Andrew Hester and colleagues) also indicates that this should be split into at least 3 species, although this is still in the early stages.
Other potential future splits may include some or all of the following, which may therefore be worth adding to your target lists, just in case they're split in the future:
Our usual preferred way of travelling is to book flights and a car in advance, and take the rest as it comes. This is largely what we did on this trip, although we did book the first 6 nights accommodation in advance.
The flights were booked via a cheap flights offer in the Guardian and Observer newspapers. The agent dealing with the offer were Leisure Direction Limited (0181 324 4050). We flew with Air France from London Heathrow (LHR) via Paris (Charles de Gaulle) (CDG) to Cape Town (CT). The fare was 349 pounds per person, all-inclusive, which was a bit of a bargain. Flight times were as follows:
Outwards: Depart Heathrow 19.2.99 20:00, arrive Cape Town 20.2.99 14:30
Return:Depart Cape Town 6.3.99 17:05, arrive Heathrow 7.3.99 07:25
Note that Cape Town is two hours ahead of the UK (1 hour ahead of France) in February.
Transport from Cardiff to LHR was by National Express bus, at a cost of 29 pounds per person.
Car hire was arranged in advance through Budget, and again proved great value. We opted for a Group B car, in order to ensure air conditioning and a radio/cassette, neither of which were available on a cheaper Group A car. The total price, fully inclusive, for 15 days was an outstanding 308 pounds.
Insurance was booked through CGU Direct (Tel 0800 121007) who I have consistently found to offer cheap premiums. Fortunately, I have not yet had to make any claims on their policies, but they are certainly very efficient at sending out paperwork, dealing with telephone enquiries etc. (I'm not on commission, by the way!!)
I decided to take out an annual policy for myself, as I am planning future trips in the next 12 months. An annual premium cost 70 pounds. I also took out a policy for Sara just for the 2 week trip, which cost 35 pounds. The only major disadvantage to this policy, which I suspect is the same for most such policies unless you specify otherwise, is that the maximum claim limit per single item (e.g. bins, scopes etc) is 250 pounds, with an excess of, I think, 25 pounds. However, this wasn't a concern, as my house contents insurance, arranged through Endsleigh, allows unrestricted cover up to 2,500 pounds on any of my possessions, home or abroad. I believe that the cost of this extension to my policy is very little, maybe 20 pounds per annum, so it might be worth considering.
The South African currency is the Rand (R), divided into 100 cents. The exchange rate during the time of my visit was approximately 1 pound = R9.60. This is the rate of exchange I have used in translating costs throughout this report.
Visa, Mastercard seems to be widely accepted in hotels, restaurants, shops etc and we used cards for such purchases throughout. Petrol stations were more variable. Some chains accepted them quite widely (Engen were especially good in this respect), although it became much less widely accepted northwards into Bushmanland. However, many garages refused to accept them at all, while others charged a surcharge of anything up to 10% for credit card payment - BP seemed to be especially expensive in this respect.
I didn't bother with travellers' cheques, taking my money in a mixture of Rand and Sterling cash. Changing Sterling into Rand was no problem at all - we had no trouble finding a bank when we needed one.
I was extremely fortunate in enjoying the company of two excellent local guides during the first week of my trip. These were as follows:
Callan Cohen (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, tel +27 (0)21 683 1898, fax +27 (0)21 612990) runs Batis Bird Guiding in partnership with Claire Spottiswoode (e-mail email@example.com, tel. +27 (0)21 643356, fax +27 (0)21 683 2596). I hired Callan for four full days, and virtually cleaned up on the specials during this time. Callan is only 22 years old, and is probably one of the best birders I have ever met, with an astonishing knowledge of both the birds and sites in the Cape, and throughout Southern Africa. He charged R650 (68 pounds) per day for guiding. He was also extremely helpful in assisting me extensively with planning the Bushmanland part of the trip, and gave me accurate stakeouts for many of the key species.
Trevor Hardaker (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, tel +27 (0)21 581318 - home, 082 7800376 - mobile) was hired for Sunday 21.2.99, and was also one of the leaders on the pelagic trip on 28.2.99. Trevor is a superb birder and one of South Africa's leading twitchers. He guides part-time, and I believe that he is therefore only available on weekends and in the evenings. He again charged R650 (68 pounds) per day for his services.
I was absolutely delighted with the assistance provided by both Callan and Trevor, and would heartily recommend employing them for as long as you can afford. I found them both great company and absolutely tireless in search of birds on my behalf, and I have no doubt whatsoever that I saw birds in their company which I would have stood very little chance of finding on my own.
The standard of accommodation was excellent throughout and, especially outside the Cape Town area, astonishingly good value for money.
We spent the first seven nights at Afton Grove, Noordhoek (tel +27 (0)21 785 2992, e-mail email@example.com) in a self-catering cottage, at a cost of R275 (29 pounds) per night. This was a wonderful place, run by Chris Spengler, a keen local birder, and his family. Some may consider it a little distant from some of the best sites, although it is very convenient for local sites such as Kommetjie, Boulders, Cape of Good Hope, Strandfontein, Rondevlei etc. Personally I found the extra travelling distance worth putting up with for the pleasant and relaxing atmosphere at Afton Grove, the feeling of security and the friendliness of the Spengler family.
During the second week we toured the Bushmanland and Namaqualand area of the Northern Cape. Almost every town in this region seemed to have at least one hotel. We just turned up and found rooms on the spot in these areas, rather than booking in advance. Look out for very useful guides sold in petrol stations, called "A Tourism Blueprint Travel Guide" - one for each of the country's provinces. They're cheap at R18 (2 pounds) and have a wealth of information, including details of accommodation in various towns and villages, including telephone numbers.
Another extremely useful publication, especially for the Cape Town area is the Accommodation Guide produced by Satour, and available from the South African Tourist Board.
We stayed at the following establishments:
23.2 - Hotel Belmont, Ceres (R350 - 36 pounds) Tel. +27 (0)233 21150
27.2 - Lord Nelson Inn, Simon's Town (R310 - 32 pounds) Tel +27 (0)21 786 1386
28.2 - Hotel Clanwilliam, Clanwilliam (R290 - 30 pounds) Tel +27 (0)27 482 1101
01.3 - Hotel Brandvlei, Brandvlei (R140 - 15 pounds) Tel +27 (0)2702 2
02.3 - Augrabies Falls N.P. (R145 - 15 pounds) Tel +27 (0)12 343 1991
03.3 - Hotel Pofadder, Pofadder (R200 - 21 pounds) Tel +27 (0)54 933 0063
04.3 - Hotel Garies, Garies (R120 - 12 pounds) Tel +27 (0)27 652 1042
05.3 - Dune Lodge, Hout Bay (R342 - 36 pounds) Tel +27 (0)21 790 5847
Food was again very reasonable compared to the UK, and the quality was excellent. We self-catered for most of the first week, but quickly realised that it was almost cheaper to eat out. Thereafter we usually ate in the restaurant in the hotel at which we were staying. A typical meal for two of soup, steak, beer and a soft drink would often leave change from R100 (10 pounds).
Almost non-existent. No visas were required for UK citizens, although I'm not sure about other nationalities. After arrival at the airport, we were never asked to produce passports or any other documentation, except at banks when changing money.
Public phones were plentiful and convenient to use. Some took coins while others took pre-paid phone cards. The international code for South Africa is 27. To make an international call from South Africa dial 09 followed by the relevant country code (44 for the UK). For directory enquiries (free) call 1023.
I would suggest that a hire car is pretty much essential to get the most out of this area, and especially to do justice to the desert areas of Northern Cape. The sheer scale of the country takes a little getting used to for someone whose whole country (Wales) is only some 200 km by 100 km!
We hired a car in advance from the UK through Budget. The cheapest cars (Group A) don't have air conditioning, which I though was vital in the February heat, although I couldn't speak for September/October which is the South African spring. Consequently we splashed out a little and went for a Group B. I spent quite a while shopping around for quotes before coming up with the figure of 308 pounds for 15 days, which was at least 120 pounds cheaper than the next best price. The excess level was R500 (52 pounds), which increased to R1,000 (104 pounds) for any damage sustained while on gravel roads.
The car turned out to be a Toyota Corolla 1.6 which was really excellent. It easily coped with even the excessive amount of luggage we took along (2 people), and was very comfortable throughout, even on some of the steep mountain roads on which we travelled.
We ended up driving a little under 6,100 kilometres in two weeks, which is a frightening figure. However, it honestly never felt that much, and I was astonished when I worked out the figure at the end of the trip. The condition of South African tar roads was generally superb and, combined with generally light traffic, allowed a good pace to be sustained. As a result, the miles flew by. The only place we encountered anything like heavy traffic was in Cape Town itself. South African drivers were generally very courteous, and even lorry drivers pulled well over to the side to let you pass.
However, be aware of potholes (slaggate in Afrikaans) on some of these roads as in places the edges of the road can break up into the gravel verges. This seemed especially common on parts of the N7 north from Cape Town to Springbok. We had one very alarming moment late one evening as I lost a little concentration and hit one of these at some 130 kph, instantly blowing out the left front tyre, and badly buckling the wheel itself. Fortunately, I kept control of the car, and managed to pull safely into the side to change the wheel, but it could have been much nastier.
The condition of the many gravel roads is also generally excellent. They can get corrugated at times, are very slippery after rain, and often have quite a steep camber at the edges. Some of the trucks and pick-ups (bakkies) tear along these at a terrifying speed, but I rarely got above 80 kph. The accident rate on these is inevitably higher than on tar, hence the higher insurance excess levels. One thing to be alert for is that large rocks often lie around in the road, and could do a lot of damage if you hit one. This seemed to be particularly a problem after they had been recently re-graded, whereby they are scraped with a device on the back of a truck. This leaves a line of debris, often including very sizeable rocks in the middle of the road. I often felt a little nervous on these roads due to the low traffic levels and feeling of isolation in the event of accident or breakdown. However, if you want to get into the best birding areas, you'll have to drive on them, and as long as you drive carefully, you should have no problems.
The weather was generally warm and pleasant, usually around 25°C (77°F). We had a little drizzle on 22.3.99 and 28.3.99, but it was never a problem. The weather can vary over quite a small area - on 21.3.99 it was glorious on the West Coast as far south as Langebaan, but overcast with a little rain in Cape Town, an hour to the south.
Cape Town enjoys hot dry summers (November to March) and wet colder winters (April to October). The weather is somewhat cooler in September (typically 14°C/57°F), with about double the rainfall experienced in February.
No vaccinations are compulsory, but I always keep up to date with my jabs, including tetanus, typhoid, polio and hepatitis - just in case (most of these are useful in the UK, in any case). I was glad I had on 22.3.99 when I speared my hand on a very unpleasant and rusty piece of barbed wire while indulging in some illicit fence climbing!
Just before I went there was some discussion on SABirdnet about malaria, which had tragically just claimed the lives of two South African birders in the east of the country. As a result, I put out an enquiry about the likelihood of malaria in my travel area. The replies I had were somewhat contradictory, but the general consensus was that malaria is certainly a problem in the north and east of South Africa. The main problem areas appear to be the Natal national parks near the border with Mozambique, Swaziland, Kruger National Park, extending in a crescent westwards across northern Transvaal along the border with Zimbabwe. I believe that this is also the more dangerous cerebral strain, and it was in this area that the two deaths recently occurred.
It is certainly much less of a risk in the Cape, with opinions varying from no risk at all to a slight risk in the extreme north of the Cape. I have quoted below part of a response I received from Barry Bredenkamp (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the National Malaria Research Programme in Durban (thanks Barry!):
"There is no malaria risk whatsoever in the Western Cape. The Northern Cape has experienced very occasional epidemic outbreaks in the past along watercourses such as the Molopo River. These epidemics are generally associated with unusually good rains and occur in late summer."
The Molopo River forms the boundary between South Africa and Botswana and links with the Nossob and Auob rivers which "flow" through the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. There have also been outbreaks along the Orange River, which flows through Augrabies Falls, Kakamas and on through Upington. The risk seems to be quite low, and in fact we saw very few mosquitoes at all during our stay.
Should you take prophylactics? There seems to be a bit of a debate going on in South Africa about this. The basic problem is that you need to take the tablets for a week before and four weeks after visiting a potentially malarial area. If you live and regularly bird in South Africa, that could mean you being on them full-time, which has its own health risks. Of course, as a tourist from a non-malarial area, it is much less of a problem. If I were visiting the east of the country, I would definitely take tablets. The large majority of people, including Barry Bredenkamp, advised that they considered prophylaxis to be unnecessary in the Northern Cape. As Barry said:
"If I were going there now I would not take prophylaxis but would take precautions against mosquito bites. This includes use of insect repellents after dark, wearing clothing that covers forearms, ankles and feet, keeping insect screens on windows closed etc. If informed locals say that there have been cases in the area it is not too late to take the prophylaxis."
As well as prevention methods, the main thing is to be aware of the symptoms, and to take immediate medical advice if infection is suspected. In the event, I only got bitten once, well outside the problem area. I spent very little time in the problem area (one night in Augrabies), so it didn't become an issue. I think that if I had continued north to Kalahari Gemsbok I might have taken them for peace of mind.
There were very few other nuisances apparent. Ticks do occur in places, but I didn't pick up any. I understand that Lyme Disease hasn't yet arrived in the area, although some ticks are suspected of transmitting meningitis. The area has six species of poisonous snake, of which the slow moving Puff Adder is probably the biggest risk. We didn't see any despite a fair amount of thrashing through undergrowth, but be on your guard.
A lot has been said about the current level of violence on South Africa. Cape Town certainly has its share, with a high incidence of violent burglary and car-jackings. Guns are widespread. You will see plenty of evidence of this as you drive around Cape Town, in the form of house security systems, including barbed wire and electric fencing, big dogs, and signs proclaiming protection by Armed Response Units. Parts of the Cape Flats are definite no-go areas, and other areas cause you involuntarily to lock your car doors, and cruise slowly up to red traffic lights. Having said that, it was no different to how I have felt in London, or parts of the US.
The violence seems to pass tourists by, and I certainly did not feel threatened at any time during my stay. Most hotels in the Cape Town have the necessary precautions to protect your car and belongings, and Afton Grove, for example, was protected by a high fence and remote-controlled security front gates. Outside the Cape Town area itself, these precautions quickly become a distant memory, and there appears to be very little trouble in the countryside. I certainly don't feel that this factor should in any way put you off visiting this fabulous part of the world. Just take the usual precautions that you would take when visiting an unfamiliar part of the world, particularly a large metropolitan area, and be especially careful when out after dark.
Note the strong bias towards August - October trips - you'd think I'd have taken the hint!! Most of these were obtained from Urs Geiser's really excellent trip report web site
Others were kindly sent to me directly by the authors.
One really excellent site, namely http://www.sabirding.co.za/. This is organised by Guy Gibbon, and is absolutely invaluable, covering the whole of Southern Africa, including Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Loads of detailed site information, contact details for local organisations, bird tapes and books for sale, and lots more. You must check this out during the planning stages.
I used a 1:2,400,000 map published by Globetrotter, which was fine, especially for the trips up-country. Funnily enough, the most useful map we found for Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula area was the free one (sponsored by Engen) that we were given by Budget at the airport - very clear and detailed!
Sites visited were as follows:
p.m. Arrived Cape Town, drove to Afton Grove, Noordhoek
Local birding for the rest of the day - Kommetjie, Boulders, Wildevoelvlei Overnight Noordhoek
Various sites along the west coast, north of Cape Town:
Clanwilliam, Lambert's Bay, Wadrif, Verlorenvlei, Rocher Pan, Velddrif, Langebaan, West Coast N.P. Overnight Noordhoek
Various sites along south coast, east of Cape Town:
Caledon, Napier, De Hoop, Potberg, Malgas, Buffelsjagsrivier. Overnight Noordhoek
|23.2.99||Tokai Plantation, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Paarl Sewage Ponds, Bain's Kloof, Karoopoort. Overnight Ceres|
|24.2.99||Karoopoort, Katbakkies, Sir Lowry's Pass, Strandfontein. Overnight Noordhoek.|
|25.2.99||Day off birding (short visits to Cape Point, Wildevoelvlei). Overnight Noordhoek|
|Constantia, Darling, Vredenburg, Paternoster, Lion's Head. Overnight Noordhoek|
|27.2.99||Day off birding. Overnight Simon's Town|
|28.2.99||Pelagic trip out of Simon's Town. Overnight Clanwilliam|
|1.3.99||Slow drive from Clanwilliam through Calvinia to Brandvlei. Overnight Brandvlei|
|2.3.99||Brandvlei, drive to Augrabies. Overnight Augrabies Falls N.P.|
|3.3.99||Augrabies Falls, Kenhardt, Aggeneys, Pofadder. Overnight Pofadder|
|4.3.99||Pofadder, Port Nolloth, Goegap. Overnight Garies|
|5.3.99||Garies, slow drive back to Cape Town|
|6.3.99||a.m. morning off birding. P.m. fly home|
We had originally planned on continuing northwards from Upington to the Kalahari Gemsbok N.P. However, the opportunity arose to go on a Pelagic out of Simon's Town, and so we delayed our departure northwards by two days. Unfortunately, this didn't leave enough time to take in Kalahari Gemsbok. As it was we covered over 6,000 km so we feel that Kalahari Gemsbok might have been too much.
Many thanks to everyone who assisted me with this trip. Callan Cohen and Claire Spottiswoode of Batis Bird Tours, not only for guiding me for four days while in Cape Town, but for the enormous amount of help they gave me both before and during my trip. Callan in particular gave me a great deal of assistance in planning the Bushmanland section of my trip, and also proof read this report for me. Thanks to Trevor Hardaker for the day's guiding, and more making sure I got on the pelagic trip. Graham Tebb gave me an enormous amount of assistance in the planning stages, and even sent me on loan his copy of the Cape bird finding guide all the way from Vienna!
Thanks to Chris Spengler and his family for the wonderful welcome at Afton Grove, the birding tips and the late night chats. Sincere thanks to the following for their help and advice prior to the trip: Anne Gray, Carol de Bruin, Annika Forsten, Erik Hirschfeld, Georges Olioso, Giles Mulholland, Guy Gibbon, Hans Christophersen, Ingrid Balzer, Jean-Marc Bourdoncle, Jenny Norman, Jeroen Huyghe, Jim Yurchenco, Nicolette Demetriades, Pete Holt, Peter Browne, Peter Lonsdale, Peter Turner, Richard Grant, Stefano Brambilla, Peter Thompson, John Carter, Barry Bredenkamp, Craig Thom, David Bishop, Etienne Marais, Henk Bouwman, Louis van Nieuwenhuizen, Mark Anderson, Mike Pope, Rick Nuttall, Schalk Niewoudt, Tertius Gous, Koos van Dyk and William Hofmeyr. As you can see, a lot of people were very kind and helpful!
Finally, thanks to my non-birding wife Sara for putting up with yet another totally bird-orientated trip, with only a little complaining! Just kidding, Sara!!
Arrived Cape Town (Kaapstad) 14.30 after a long journey via Paris and Johannesburg. Picked up our hire car with very little fuss and drove to Afton Grove, Noordhoek to check in. Drove down to Kommetjie for a brief introduction to Cape coastal birds. Drive through the village of Kommetjie on the way to Scarborough and take the last turn right past the Kommetjie Hotel. Follow this road down to the beach, where there is room to park. The best spot is the lagoon just before the car park, and the rocks beyond. Highlights on this first day were a Bank Cormorant and a Crowned Cormorant among the large flock of Cape and White-breasted Cormorants, 3 Sacred Ibises, several African Black Oystercatchers, 4 White-fronted Plovers, many Kelp and Hartlaub's Gulls and a Bokmakierie.
Then, I headed back to Noordhoek to collect Sara for a trip to Boulders Beach and the Jackass Penguin colony. The beach is signposted to the left on the way out of Simon's Town, southwards. There were large numbers of penguins (100+) at the colony, and the first of these were seen walking around the car park! Check under your car before your drive off! They were extremely tame, allowing close approach and study. It was all a bit bizarre for a European birder. Two birds appeared to have a broken second black breast band - this is shown by a minority of birds, which are sometimes mistaken for Magellanic Penguins. On the way back to the car a nice bonus was 3 Cape Sugarbirds in the bushes by the coffee house.
A brief visit to Wildevoelvlei between Noordhoek and Kommetjie (turn right into the housing estate just after Compass Bakery) in rapidly fading light produced 2 probable Cape Shovelers, and a short list of commoner water birds.
An early start to drive to Trevor Hardaker's house in Monte Vista by 6 a.m. Trevor was taking Paul (sorry, didn't get your surname!), an English birder living in Jo'burg, up to the west coast for a day's birding, and had invited me along. First stop was at a spot known as Kransvlei Poort, which is found by turning left (west) 10 km south of Clanwilliam on a road signposted for Paleishuwel. Continue along this road for about 2 km until it enters a gorge.
This is reputed to be the most reliable site in the world for the often elusive Protea Canary. They are usually easy to find here, but on our visit it was overcast, and bird activity was generally subdued. Eventually, after about 1.5 hours one bird was located. It was a little distant, but the views were good enough to discern the plain plumage and diagnostic small black chin. In the meantime, we had enjoyed a range of birds including Jackal Buzzard, Fiscal Flycatcher, Layard's Titbabbler and Long-billed Crombec. It was also an excellent introduction to some of the commoner Cape birds such as Cape Bulbul, Cape Bunting, Cape Robin, Speckled Mousebird, Cape White-eye, Rock Martin, Karoo Robin, Lesser Double-collared Sunbird and Familiar Chat.
Next stop was Lambert's Bay (Lambertsbaai). We firstly headed to the river estuary, hoping to find some waders. A brief spot produced several Kittlitz's Plovers, Swift Terns, Grey-backed Cisticola, White-throated Swallow and Black-headed Heron. We then drove to the fishing port for a visit to Bird Island. This is actually a promontory connected to the mainland by a causeway, and which is famous for its enormous colony of Cape Gannets (small admission fee). The birds allowed extremely close approach via a purpose build concrete hide, with some birds perched on the roof. Cape Cormorants were common in the harbour, with some even nesting on fishing boats. Other birds seen included White-winged Black Tern, Swift Tern, Jackass Penguin, White-throated Swallow and Pied Kingfisher. A lunch stop attracted a number of gulls, allowing a couple of winter plumaged Grey-headed Gulls to be identified in with the Hartlaub's.
From Lambert's Bay we headed southwards on the gravel road towards Elandsbaai, passing Wadrif saltpan (soutpan). Roadside stops produced White-throated Canary, Lanner, Chestnut-banded Plover (immature), Kittlitz's Plover and the first of millions of African Pied Starlings.
The next birding location we came to was Verlorenvlei, a long and narrow lake (vlei), which the road skirts for much of its length. We drove slowly along the vlei, stopping periodically to bird. Good birds included South African Shelduck, African Marsh Harrier, Darter, Mountain Chat, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, White Pelican and African Spoonbill, with the highlight probably the Southern Grey Tit we found in the roadside scrub. A little to the south of Verlorenvlei a roadside stop produced a Capped Wheatear and 2 Southern Anteating Chats.
We continued southwards towards Velddrif, skirting Rocher Pan on its east side. In this area, we found the first of many Cape Francolins, 4 Southern Black Korhaans, Cape Penduline Tit, Grey-backed Cisticolas, Long-billed Crombec, Jackal Buzzard, Thick-billed Larks and Cape Weaver. A flock of Greater Flamingos could be seen on the distant Rocher Pan.
On arriving at Velddrif we found a selection of the commoner waders on the Berg River, as well as a Levaillant's Cisticola nearby. A drive past the Cerebos Saltworks in the town produced 2 Chestnut-banded Plovers, Cape Teal, South African Shelduck, Thick-billed Larks, Caspian Tern, White-winged Black Tern and a Southern Black Korhaan.
On arriving at Langebaan, we headed towards the entrance for the West Coast National Park, stopping for extreme close up views of a Southern Black Korhaan on some waste ground in the town itself. Two others were seen on entering the national park, including one which crossed the road in front of us. Highlights here were undoubtedly the 2 Black Harriers, including one bird quite close on the ground. Several Ostriches were seen, as well as 2 Pearl-breasted Swallows and a White-throated Swallow.
We finished a day at the southern end of the park around Geelbek. The main reason for visiting this site was for a major rarity in these parts - Common Redshank. The bird was found quite quickly with a mixed group of commoner waders (including Kittlitz's Plover), although I was far more interested in a Chestnut-vented Titbabbler in trees by the car. Cape Francolins were very common and ridiculously tame here. A pair of Lesser Sand (Mongolian) Plovers had been here recently, although we failed to find them as water levels were unusually high. In the fading light we found 2 Orange-throated Longclaws, Brown-throated Martins, Thick-billed Lark and South African Shelduck.
I slept most of the way back to Monte Vista (Trevor was driving!), where I picked up my hire car and drove back to Noordhoek to Afton Grove. Thanks Trevor and Paul for a great day out.
Another early start, driving to Callan Cohen's house in Claremont (S of Cape Town) for a 6 a.m. start. We had spoken on the phone the previous night, and had decided to spend the day in the area of coastal plan east of Cape Town, around Bredasdorp and Swellendam.
The first bit of birding was a roadside stop just beyond Caledon on the road towards Napier, when Callan sighted a pair of Blue Cranes. Lovely birds, and the first of many seen today. Other good birds seen on this brief stop included a Crowned Plover and a Levaillant's Cisticola. It was raining lightly at this time, so we pressed on towards Napier. On reaching that town we found our first Greater Striped Swallows of the day, and then had a very nice bonus in the form of an African Goshawk perched on roadside telephone wires, which gave great perched views before taking flight.
We continued to Bredasdorp, then turned north-east on an excellent gravel road towards De Hoop Nature Reserve, where we were to spend most of the day. The main target bird along this road was Stanley's Bustard, and we almost reached De Hoop before spotting 4 birds, two on each side of the road. One pair in particular showed extremely well, at reasonably close range, and 4 more Blue Cranes were also seen here. Eventually, we saw a gravel road signposted north towards Swellendam, and a little past this junction, we turned right (south) into De Hoop reserve (small admission fee payable).
New birds seen shortly after the entrance gate included Grassbird and Common Waxbills, and we also came across a small herd of Cape Mountain Zebras, as well as Bontebok and Ostriches. Callan picked up some Wattled Starlings in flight, but they didn't land. Some 3.5 kilometres after the entrance, a road leads right towards De Hoop Vlei and a parking area adjacent to the Reserve Office, and some tourist huts. Just before getting to the Reserve Office we stopped to scrutinise a flock of starlings feeding around some houses, and duly picked up some more Wattled Starlings mixed in with the more common African Pied Starlings, and giving good views.
Most of De Hoop is covered with fynbos scrub, but there are a lot more trees in the area around the Reserve Office, and this is the area where you have the best chance of finding the elusive and uncommon Knysna Woodpecker. There are a large number of swallows around the Reserve Office, and we had great views of Pearl-breasted and Great Striped Swallows on the ground, as well as White-throated Swallows and Brown-throated Martins. Cape Francolins were extremely tame and common in this area, and a pair of White-throated Canaries showed well.
We headed down from the parking area to the area of tress and scrub on the cliff top overlooking the vlei, and started looking for the woodpecker. Unfortunately, we failed to find one, but in the meantime we found a range of other good birds, most notably Southern Tchagra, 2 African Hoopoes, Southern Boubou, Fiscal Flycatcher, Sombre Bulbul, Bar-throated Apalis, Little and White-rumped Swift, Black-crowned Night Herons, Cape White-eye and Speckled Mousebird.
We eventually gave up on the woodpecker, and headed back out from the reserve the same way we had come in. When we got back to the Bredasdorp road, we turned right towards Potberg, stopping on the way to pick up a Grassveld Pipit, 2 Jackal Buzzards, 4 Orange-throated Longclaws and a flock of Yellow Canaries. 2 more Blue Cranes were seen near the entrance to Potberg.
The main target bird at Potberg was Cape Griffon, at their only breeding site in the SW Cape. This bird has declined across most of its range, although appears to be making something of a comeback. It is restricted to a relatively small number of often isolated breeding sites. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and dull, with sporadic light rain when we arrived, and no raptors could be seen above the Potberg massif. Another Southern Boubou was seen from the car park, and other good birds seen included Fork-tailed Drongo, Malachite Sunbird and 2 Fiscal Flycatchers. Callan got brief views of a Sharp-billed Honeyguide, but unfortunately I failed to get onto it. We slowly wandered back to the car and, just as we were thinking of giving up, we located 1 Cape Griffon flying fairly purposefully along the ridge line. Success at last!
By driving slowly back out from the reserve we located a very large flock of Common Waxbills and Southern Red Bishops, 2 Karoo Robins, several Fan-tailed Cisticolas, 6 Blue Cranes, Black-headed Herons, Grassveld Pipit and Thick-billed Lark.
Before reaching the De Hoop turnoff we took the gravel road to the right (north east) towards Malgas. A stop at a water hole on the left hand side (west) of the road produced superb views of 4 Orange-throated Longclaws and 2 Three-banded Plovers. We crossed the river Breede at Malgas on a hand-pulled pontoon - an incredibly hard way to make a living. A little later, we stopped to check out a flock of small swifts flying around a low earth bank on the left (west) hand side of the road, which turned out to be nesting Horus Swifts - not common in this part of the Cape.
Further roadside stops between Malgas and Buffelsjagdrivier produced 3 Blue Cranes, White-necked Raven, 3 Stanley's Bustards, Red-capped Lark and a flock of Red-backed Mousebird. Hungry and thirsty, we continued to the petrol station at Buffelsjagdrivier for a rest break. We then headed back towards Malgas, but didn't get very far before finding a major Southern Cape rarity - a European Roller perched on a roadside telephone pole! These are very rare birds this far south, although we later found out that two birds had been seen sporadically during the winter in the area east of Swellendam.
The main reason for heading back towards Malgas was to visit an area of farmland where Callan has previously found a recent splits, Agulhas Long-billed Lark (see taxonomic note). The Agulhas subspecies of Clapper Lark is vocally distinct and may well prove to be a future split. We spent the last couple of hours of daylight scouring the area, eventually producing excellent ground views of Agulhas Long-billed Lark. Callan spotted an "Agulhas" Clapper Lark flying low over the ground, but I was unable to pick it out in fading light. Other good birds in this area included Neddicky, Grey-backed Cisticola, Cape Bunting, Quail and many Grassveld Pipits.
Satisfied, we headed back to Cape Town, stopping just once to enjoy a Black Harrier hunting along the roadside between Riviersonderend and Caledon.
Today, Callan and I were heading up to Ceres for an overnight stop, and some karoo birding. Firstly, however, we planned on picking up some more of the SW Cape specials. I drove to Claremont to pick up Callan, then headed to Tokai Forest Reserve for an early morning raptor watch. Raptors here can include Black Sparrowhawk, African Goshawk, Red-chested Sparrowhawk and Forest Buzzard, among others. A path leads up from the parking area until it reaches a T-junction. Turn right along the ridge. A concrete covered reservoir is located just east of this path, and by standing on this you can get a good view of the ridgeline beyond.
Unfortunately, our session was largely unproductive, until 2 distant Red-chested Sparrowhawks put in a late appearance. Other good birds here included Rameron Pigeon and African Black Swifts from the reservoir and Cape Batis along the path on the way down. A lot more birds were heard than were seen - these included the elusive Cape Siskin, African Goshawk, Olive Thrush and the very localised and introduced Chaffinch.
Next stop was Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a little to the north of Tokai. This is a great site for a range of species. Orange-breasted Sunbirds are abundant, while other good birds included Olive Thrushes, Bully Canary, Black Sawwing, Cape Francolins, Helmeted Guineafowl, Rameron Pigeon, Cape Bulbul and 3 Cape Batises. 2 Forest Canaries were heard flying over but could not be picked out.
Happy with our progress to date, we now headed northeastwards towards Ceres. When we got to Paarl, we decided to take a quick look around the town's sewage lagoons. This proved a very good decision, and we succeeded in adding a lot of new birds to the list in a relatively short space of time. Highlights included White-faced, Maccoa, Yellow-billed and White-backed Duck, Cape Shoveler, Spur-winged Goose, Cape Teal, Malachite Kingfisher, Cape Reed, African Marsh and African Sedge Warblers, Reed Cormorant, White-rumped Swift, Cape Canary, Sacred and Hadeda Ibis.
From Ceres we drove towards Wellington, and then took the R303 towards Ceres. This road climbs over the pass at Bain's Kloof a little before it gets to Ceres. A stop at the entrance to the pass produced Neddicky, Cape Canary, Familiar Chats and a splendid Cape Rock Thrush. Callan has previously found both Cape Rockjumper and Victorin's Warbler on the high ridge on the west side of the road and so, despite the heat, the seemingly ridiculously long and steep climb and my total laziness, we decided to climb up to see what we could find!
We got off to a great start with a pair of Black Eagles flying overhead a short way up the climb. The first ridge, to the left, has produced Cape Rockjumper in the past, but despite much searching we could not locate any. However during this time, we found a female Sentinel Rock Thrush, Plain-backed Pipits and several Neddickies.
We pressed on up the main part of the ridge, and climbed up until the car in the car park was just a speck. At this point my lungs were bursting, my face was sunburned, and I would have swapped my house for a glass of cold beer! In short, I had had enough! I was just about to say so, and start back down, when Callan yelled that he had heard a Victorin's Warbler singing up ahead. Who needs beer?! My legs found a new reserve of strength, and we rushed on up the ridge, until we heard it singing again just ahead of us. A short steep scramble later, and suddenly the bird popped up right in front of us. Victorin's Warbler is a notorious skulker, but this bird put on a real show, perched in the open on a bare branch, and singing its heart out! In February!! We both felt completely elated - feeling like that is what birding is all about. I'm not necessarily saying that I would undertake that climb every day, but seeing the bird after that much effort makes it just that little bit more special.
We decided to forget about Cape Rockjumper for now, and rely on Sir Lowry's Pass later in the trip, and so headed back down the hill to the car. Just as we reached the road, Callan heard a Cape Siskin flying over, and it seemed to land in a small group of pines. We had heard this bird several times in the last 2 days, but seeing one is another matter, so we decided to try for this one. True to form, it frustrated us again and never showed for us, although we saw a Cape Sugarbird while we were looking.
On arriving in Ceres, we just had enough daylight for a quick visit to Karoopoort to try to make a start on the karoo specials. North of Ceres the road soon becomes gravel as it heads north. Karoopoort is Afrikaans and means "gateway to the karoo". The description is very appropriate, as the road enters a low rocky gorge (the "poort"), before opening out again into a flat area of semi-desert (the karoo). The vegetation north of the poort is very different to the fynbos to the south, with succulents being much more prevalent. The name Karoopoort is also given to the building (national monument) on the left-hand side of the road as you enter the gorge.
We stopped here as the reedbeds on the right hand side (east) are excellent for Namaqua Warbler. One bird put in an appearance within seconds of our arrival, and we also picked up a couple of distant Pale-winged Starlings on the rocky slope on the left (west) hand side of the road. We continued northwards hoping to find Karoo Lark, stopping on the way for 2 Mountain Chats.
When we got to the Karoo Lark site, one lark was heard singing, but the light had almost completely gone, and even had we seen one, the views would have been unsatisfactory. We had planned on looking for owls and nightjars on the return drive, so after Callan had prepared his spotlight, off we went. As we entered the poort from the north, Callan detected a shape on a telegraph pole. This turned out to be a Spotted Eagle Owl, which gave wonderful views. A little later, another owl called once, which sounded very much like a Cape Eagle Owl. Unfortunately, it didn't call again, and couldn't be tempted in by playing a tape of its call. We headed back to Ceres and booked into a very comfortable rondavel (round bungalow) at the Hotel Belmont. I would highly recommend this place, and the restaurant was also excellent.
We had two main targets for today, namely Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and Karoo Eremomela. Both are very localised, and can be difficult to find, especially if good views are required. However, both can be found in the karoo area north of Karoopoort. We therefore left Ceres early and headed off into the karoo. At the far (north) end of Karoopoort, the road forks, with the left-hand fork heading towards Calvinia, with the right hand fork leading to Sutherland. We took the (main) Calvinia road, stopping at intervals hoping to find Greywing Francolins. No francolins were seen, but good birds seen included Cape Canary (good views at last!), 4 African Spoonbills flying over, Lanner, Karoo Robin and Grey-backed Cisticola.
We stopped on the left (west) hand side of the road near the entrance to a farm called Groot Kloof to scope a perched Pale Chanting Goshawk, and birdsong led us to several new birds, including Karoo Chat, Rufous-eared Warbler and Karoo Lark. Other good birds in this area included Thick-billed Lark, Rock Martin and White-throated Canary.
A few miles later, we come to a pair of tillite hills (koppies), one on each side of the road. A rough track leads to a parking area at the base of the right hand side koppie. This is a prime site for Karoo Eremomela, and sure enough within about 15 minutes we had picked up several birds. One in particular came quite close and gave excellent views. Other good birds in this area included Fairy Flycatcher and Tractrac Chat.
Having got the first of the target species under our belts, the time had come to try for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. This is a really difficult bird. Many South African birders have not seen one, or have taken years to see their first. They are, however, reasonably regular at a site called Katbakkies. Some 38 km north of Karoopoort, a gravel track leads to the left (west) signposted for Op-die-Berg. The road starts to wind up to a pass over the top of the cliff, and after a few kilometres you will see a picnic area (Katbakkies) on the left. This has an area of trees and green bushes around a vlei, and stands out amidst the arid scrubby countryside.
The rocky slopes in the vicinity of the Katbakkies picnic site are the most accessible spot for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. As we started our scramble up one of the slopes, a troop of baboons walking along the top of the slope must have disturbed one of the warblers, and it gave a burst of song, which told us where to go. We quickly scrambled up the steep and rocky cliff side to the point from where the bird had called, and Callan played a quick burst of song on his tape player. Callan had warned me that this bird can be really elusive, and that, at best, I might only get a quick flight view and possibly a very brief view as it landed.
I had my binoculars poised ready to try and make sure that I got on to this bird, when the bird flew out from behind a rock, landed in the open some 5 metres in front of us, and started singing! I thought it must be the wrong bird! Callan was absolutely dumbstruck as the bird spent the next ten minutes, mostly in the open, feeding, singing and preening the whole time at a range of less than 10 metres. This bird just doesn't give views like that!! Just to top it all, this started another bird calling and singing from the cliff on the other side of the road. Maybe there is something to be said for visiting out of season, when there are no other birders around, and the birds are less skulking as a result. Incidentally, seen close up like this, the bird is infinitely more beautiful than you might think from the pictures in the field guides. The mix of cinnamon and grey in the plumage is extremely subtle, and when the sun catches it this is a very attractive bird.
After 10 minutes, we beat a retreat, although the bird did not seem at all concerned by our presence. Back at the road we had a go at finding Ground Woodpecker, but without success. Both Acacia Pied Barbet and Pririt Batis were heard calling from the tress around the picnic site, so we set off to look for them. The Acacia Pied Barbet was found quite quickly, although the Pririt Batis didn't show. Other good birds seen around the picnic site included Fairy Flycatcher, White-throated Canary, Long-billed Crombec and White-backed Mousebird. Birds heard calling included Southern Grey Tit and Layard's Titbabbler, but by this time it was extremely hot, so we didn't stop to look for these birds, which we had seen previously.
As we left Katbakkies the 2 Cinnamon-breasted Warblers were still duetting on either side of the pass! On arriving back at the main road from Ceres, we turned north to another area of trees where Callan has previously found Pririt Batis to be reliable. Sure enough, as we arrived a beautiful female was seen in the trees around the parking area and gave brilliant views. We now headed back south towards Ceres for lunch, but took a detour to the east that came out at the Sutherland road. We turned south, eventually joining the Calvinia to Ceres road just north of Karoopoort. Along the way, species included more Tractrac Chats and Pale Chanting Goshawks, and excellent views of a flock of Namaqua Sandgrouse on the road and in the nearby scrub.
Over lunch we reviewed our list of target species, and confirmed that we had seen all out target species. We therefore decided to head back to Sir Lowry's Pass to look for Cape Rockjumper which had eluded us at Bain's Kloof the previous day. On the way south we had excellent views of a White-necked Raven in Theronsberg Pass.
On arriving at Sir Lowry's, we parked in the parking area at the summit of the pass, and prepared for the hike to the top of the ridge on the north side of the road. I really didn't fancy another steep climb after the exertions of the previous two days, but that's were the Rockjumpers are usually found, so off we set. We hadn't gone more than twenty yards, when Callan came to a sudden stop - he had heard a Rockjumper calling from the first clump of rocks on the left of the path. Sure enough, we soon had excellent views of a pair of these bizarre but very attractive birds, which were actually visible from the car park - our luck was still holding well, it seemed! This was a real stroke of luck, as they are by no means sure even at the top of the ridge - I have read of one group making 5 trips without success.
Furthermore, we still had a few hours to kill, so where to go next? We decided to head over to Strandfontein Sewage Ponds to try to find one of the African Marsh Harriers which are often found here. We got here by taking the N2 west, then turning south on Baden Powell Drive. Follow this road until it reaches the sea, then follows the coastline to Strandfontein. The sewage farm can be entered by a turn off to the right (north) a little after the junction with the M17. We had 2 African Black Oystercatchers along this stretch of beach.
Incidentally, this is one of the few roads along which we travelled where I felt a little nervous, as it passes through some very run down and unsavoury areas. Keep your windows closed and your doors locked, and keep the car moving (we didn't stop to look at the oystercatchers!). Callan tells me that the popular Strandfontein Sewage Works themselves are safe, with no birders having had any trouble there. However, while the scenic Baden Powell drive can be used to skirt the edge of False Bay on the way to Somerset-West and Strandfontein S.F., it should be driven cautiously and it is unsafe to stop anywhere along it, even in apparently deserted areas.
Strandfontein itself was a great site, with loads of birds. It didn't take us long to glimpse an African Marsh Harrier flying over the track, and later it, or another, was seen extremely well hunting over the pools and their reed margins. Other good birds included Southern Pochard, Greater Flamingos, Cape Shoveler, Brown-throated Martins, Black-headed Heron, Yellow-billed Duck, South African Shelduck, Three-banded Plover, Swift Tern, Glossy Ibis and a huge flock of Black-necked Grebes. A great end to an excellent day.
Today was basically a non-birding day, to give me some time with Sara, and a chance to recharge the batteries. We first visited the Cape Point area, which is really beautiful with wonderful cliff scenery. For an European, it was quite a sobering experience standing at the Cape of Good Hope, looking south in the direction of Antarctica, the next significant land mass. For us, it was all the more pleasurable, as only eight months ago, we were doing exactly the same at Kongsfjord on the Arctic coast of Norway, looking north!
The area around the car park at Cape Point itself had some good birds, especially the area around the path leading downhill from the toilet block on the right hand side of the car park as you enter. Birds seen here included Fiscal Flycatcher, Grey-backed Cisticola, Red-winged Starling and Cape Bulbul. Two Cape Siskins were seen flying around the funicular railway between the car park and the lighthouse, but true to form they refused to settle or give anything but brief flight views - very frustrating birds!
A quick return visit to Kommetjie again produced Crowned, Bank, Cape and White-breasted Cormorant, White-fronted Plovers, Swift Tern and Hartlaub's Gulls. We also made a brief stop at Wildevoelvlei Sewage Ponds (turn left (north) at the Compass Bakery, east of Kommetjie, and check in at reception). This had the usual common waterbirds, such as Red-billed Teal, Yellow-billed Duck, Black-headed and Purple Heron, Hartlaub's Gull, Cape Shoveler, Reed Cormorant and Sacred Ibis. Time to hang up the binoculars for the day and head into Cape Town, where we spent the afternoon in the V&A Waterfront area.
Met up with Callan early for our last day's birding together. Today was basically a sweeping up operation for target birds not seen previously. First stop was an area of grass, bushes and trees in Constantia, where the main target bird was Burchell's Coucal. One quickly put in an appearance, together with Common Waxbill and Jackal Buzzard, while birds here included Cape White-eye, Grassbird and African Sedge Warbler.
We made a second stop a short distance away where Knysna Warbler can be found earlier in September/October, but without any real expectation of finding one. Surprisingly, we heard two singing, and Callan got a very brief glimpse of what may have been one of the birds, but it could not be relocated. A Rameron Pigeon was also seen here, while birds heard but not seen included Cinnamon Dove, Sombre Bulbul and, yet again, Cape Siskin.
We then headed for the west coast area around Darling, where we were to spend most of the rest of the day. First stop was in an area of sandy roadside scrub, where Callan has located a resident covey of Greywing Francolins. These birds obliged very quickly, with other good birds seen including Karoo Lark, White-backed Mousebird and White-throated Canary, while an Acacia Pied Barbet was heard. At this point we came across a very sick looking dog and, being aware of the risk of rabies, we beat a very hasty retreat back to the car.
Driving on towards Darling, 5 Blue Cranes and a Spur-winged Goose were seen from the road, before we stopped adjacent to some farmland to look for Clapper Lark. These proved much more obliging than the Agulhas subspecies we searched for near Malgas, and a bird was quickly flushed and gave excellent flight views as it fluttered ahead of us. Another White-backed Mousebird was seen at this stop.
Nest stop was at the Duckitt Nurseries on the southern outskirts of Darling. The nursery maintains an area here where there is a spectacular display of wildflowers in September, which can be viewed from a circular grassy driving trail. In the February, the flowers were absent, with just short grass and some scattered low scrubby bushes, but this is a good spot for the Cape race of Cloud Cisticola, with the streaked breast. Driving this track, stopping occasionally soon produced great views of one Cloud Cisticola, as well as Hadeda and Sacred Ibis and Helmeted Guineafowl, and 2 overflying Blue Cranes. Finally, 2 Spotted Dikkops were found resting in the shade of some trees on the left of the entrance to the nursery proper. On to Darling for some lunch and a reassessment of our remaining target birds.
From Darling, we headed north in the direction of Yzerfontein, and turned north onto the R27. On arriving at Vredenburg, we took the dirt road towards Paternoster and soon found a number of good birds. Highlights included Sickle-winged Chats, Cape Long-billed Lark, Grey-backed Finchlark and 2 Lanners, including extreme close-up views of a juvenile bird resting on the ground on the verge.
This meant that we had succeeded in a complete clean sweep of all our original target birds, and it was still only early afternoon. With so much time to spare, we decided on a concerted effort on the one bird which had consistently eluded and taunted us over the last few days, i.e. Cape Siskin. Callan recommended we try the Lion's Head, a large hill on the northern end of Table Mountain, in the suburbs of Cape Town itself. This proved an excellent choice, especially as the weather was absolutely perfect.
We drove back to Cape Town, and took the road towards Signal Hill, parking in a rough parking area on the right hand side of the road, where the track up Lion's Head meets the road (gate blocks vehicular access). The path actually spirals around Lion's Head to the summit, allowing the walker a complete panorama of the surrounding area, including Cape Town, Camps Bay, Table Bay, Signal Hill and Table Mountain - unbeatable views on such a clear day.
Early birds seen included excellent views of large numbers of African Black Swift, as well as an occasional Alpine Swift, Cape Robins and Fiscal Shrikes. As we climbed higher we had great views of a Red-chested Sparrowhawk, and a pair of Black Eagles, with a third bird seen later. Other birds seen included Grassbird, Familiar Chats, Orange-chested Sunbird, Black-shouldered Kite, Red-winged Starlings and Neddicky. Cape Siskins could be heard calling higher up the hill, in an area of trees, but again could not be seen.
We decided to climb higher and try to scan the tress from above, but when we had completed a further circuit of the hill, they had stopped calling and could not be located. Reluctantly, we decided to descend, and I started making plans for one last attempt at Cape Point. Just then, a Cape Siskin was heard calling and was located perched on a dead branch of a tree further down the hill. We scrambled down for a closer look and, for once, it stayed put. At last, we had achieved good views of this highly localised endemic. The satisfaction from finally catching up with this bird was wonderful, and full reward for a hot and often strenuous hike.
Satisfied, we settled on an early finish, and drove back to Afton Grove, Noordhoek for a cold beer to cool us down, and go through some notes Callan and Claire had prepared in preparation for my forthcoming trip to Bushmanland. Just as it was getting dark, a shape was seen flying into one of the trees in the garden. Luckily it had perched right out in the open at the end of a branch - a Spotted Eagle Owl! Nice end to the day, and to my term under Callan's guidance.
The original plan was to participate today in a pelagic trip organised by the local Tygerberg Bird Club, after which we were to make a start on our trip to Bushmanland. Late the previous night, however, I was telephoned by Trevor Hardaker who informed me that the trip had been postponed until the Sunday due to forecast strong winds on the Saturday. We therefore designated today another non-birding day and spent the whole day relaxing at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, after enjoying a rare lie-in and getting up at a very un-birderlike 9.30 a.m.!. Binoculars were strongly discouraged (not by me!!), and so I did very little birding, the only significant sighting being another fly-past Black Sawwing.
Unfortunately, our booking at Afton Grove had expired on Saturday morning, and they were full for Saturday night, so we relocated to Simon's Town for the night, where we stayed at the Lord Nelson Inn on the main road. This was a very nice place, which had the distinct advantage of being within short walking distance from the boat jetty at Jubilee Square, from where the pelagic was leaving the next morning.
Up early to be at the jetty by 7 a.m. for the pelagic. These trips are organised regularly by Anne Gray (tel +27 (0) 21 855 4201, e-mail email@example.com) on behalf of the Tygerberg Bird Club. I am indebted to Anne for keeping me informed about the plans for this trip, and also to Trevor Hardaker for ensuring that a place was reserved for me on the trip.
My only previous experience of pelagic trips had consisted of 2 trips on the Scillonian II out of Penzance, Cornwall. For those not familiar with these trips, they are on board a substantial passenger ferry, with well over a hundred participants. The Simon's Town trips are a completely different set-up. There were only 20 participants, including 3 very experienced and highly respected local birders, namely Peter Ryan, Trevor Hardaker and Alvin Cope. The trip was aboard the Zest II, a fishing boat, and much much smaller than the Scillonian. Also, if you've ever felt seasick off Penzance, you should try the waters south of the Cape of Good Hope. It's not just the size of the waves, but the fact that they seemed to come from every direction, all at the same time! I am embarrassed to admit that, largely thanks to starting with an empty stomach, for the first time in my life I succumbed to the waves, and spent about half the trip lying in the cabin praying for the feel of dry land.
To make things worse, taking along waterproofs had never occurred to me (not needed on the Scillonian on my 2 previous trips). As a result I was completely soaked and extremely cold within 20 minutes of passing the Cape of Good Hope thanks to waves, let alone spray, washing over the side of the boat. The most frustrating part of the trip, however, was that it was almost impossible to use binoculars effectively - you needed both hands to prevent yourself from being flung overboard! In truth the birds came so close that bins were not needed, but the fact that my spectacles were almost permanently covered with spray made picking out individual birds difficult at times.
So, was I glad I had gone? Definitely! I would certainly recommend a trip to anyone visiting the area, but take precautions. These should certainly include full waterproofs, a meal before you start and anything you can think of to prevent seasickness! On the other hand, the birds were spectacular. We only managed to find one trawler, but the number of birds around it were staggering and allowed very close approach, the main advantage of being in such a small boat. Also, at R400 (42 pounds) it was excellent value for money.
As a Western Palaearctic birder, the bird that probably gave me the greatest satisfaction was Great Shearwater, which I have dipped on both my previous pelagics, but which were seen in decent numbers on the Zest trip, including swimming birds right alongside the boat. It was also very satisfying to watch many Wilson's Storm Petrels in amongst the European Stormies. Other highlights included Black-browed, Yellow-nosed and Shy Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty and Cory's Shearwater, Subantarctic Skua, Arctic Skua, Cape Gannet, Sabine's Gulls and Grey Phalaropes (the last were especially exciting for the South Africans on board). All the Yellow-nosed Albatrosses I saw were of the Atlantic chlororhynchos race, but 2 birds of the Indian Ocean bassi race were seen by others. A split of these birds is quite possible in the near future, as allopathic albatross populations come under greater scrutiny.
Luckily, despite losing half the trip through illness, I only missed one lifer, a Northern Giant Petrel, although I also dipped on a White-chinned Petrel of the Spectacled race by just not being able to get on to it through waterlogged spectacles.
Eventually, the rough seas became too much for event the hardened Cape birders, and so we arrived back in Simon's Town at 2.30 p.m., 1.5 hours earlier than planned. Thank God! Having met up with Sara, first priority was a complete change of clothes, closely followed by a nice fried breakfast - just the thing to settle the stomach! Feeling like a new man, we said goodbye to Anne, and started on our journey towards Bushmanland.
We had hoped to get as far as Nieuwoudtville that night, so that I could make an early morning trip the next day in search of Ludwig's Bustard, and then get back to the hotel to collect Sara. We were already struggling a little for time when, just outside Clanwilliam, I hit a pothole at high speed, blew out a tyre and badly buckled a front wheel. It was obviously a priority to get that fixed before venturing into the desert area, so when we saw a tyre repair shop as soon as we entered Clanwilliam, we decided to stay there for the night, and fix the wheel and tyre in the morning. We booked into the Hotel Clanwilliam for the night, and turned in.
I got up early and was at the tyre repair centre by 7.30 a.m. I left the wheel and tyre with this very efficient outfit, and when I went back 45 minutes later, it had all been sorted out. The tyre was undamaged, my concern that the wheel might be beyond repair was unfounded, and the total bill came to just R57 (6 pounds). Phew! Having collected Sara from the hotel we headed north on the N7 to Vanrhynsdorp, and turned eastwards towards Calvinia.
A Pale Chanting Goshawk was seen from the roadside at Vanrhynspas, but the first birding stop was the road between Nieuwoudtville and Calvinia, which Callan had strongly recommended for Ludwig's Bustard. Unfortunately, I had probably missed the best part of the day for these birds, and despite spending all morning driving slowly and scanning along this whole stretch of road, as well as a substantial part of the dirt road from Calvinia to Loerisfontein, none were seen.
Some compensation was provided by South African Cliff Swallows and Greater Kestrel, both of which were lifers. Other good birds along this road, before and after the turning east to Matjiesfontein, included several Southern Anteating Chats, Karoo Lark, Lesser Kestrel, Mountain Chat, Alpine Swift, Rock Martin and Jackal Buzzard. A late lunch stop at the very uninspiring Akkerendam Reserve at Calvinia produced White-backed Mousebird, but it was too hot and the terrain too unappealing to look for anything else.
From Calvinia we pressed on to Brandvlei, where we booked into the Hotel Brandvlei - rather eccentric but cheap and pleasant enough. The main target bird in this area was Sclater's Lark, and there was still enough time for a short try for it before dusk. I took the dirt road northeast from the town towards Van Wyksvlei, taking the left-hand road where the road splits into 3, just after a bridge. Some 10 km further along this road is a flat sparsely vegetated gravel plain on the left (west) hand side of the road - prime Sclater's habitat. In the last couple of hours of daylight I found some nice birds including Spike-heeled Larks (another lifer), Grey-backed Finchlarks, Tractrac Chats and Namaqua Doves, but no Sclater's Larks. Back to the Hotel Brandvlei for dinner and an early night.
Back to the last site visited last night, for another extensive search for Sclater's Lark. Again, no luck despite walking the area extensively. As I was walking around on this private land, a man stopped his bakkie at the side of the road. I walked over half-expecting to be berated by an irate farmer. He was indeed the farmer, but was very relaxed about people birding his land, which stretched on the west side of the road all the way from here to the bridge 12 km south towards Brandvlei. I don't know about the other side of the road, or the situation north of the gravel plain, but I would imagine that his land stretched for quite some way given the desperately poor quality grazing and the lack of any other farmhouses in the area.
I apologised for birding his land without permission, but he wasn't bothered. I asked if other birders should ask permission before doing so, but he said that he didn't mind people birding - he was more worried about sheep rustlers! Please don't abuse his hospitality - the fences are quite low and easy to climb over without causing any damage.
Despite the lack of Sclater's, Karoo Long-billed Lark was another lifer. Plenty of other good birds were again seen, including Jackal Buzzard, Grey-backed Finchlarks, Long-billed Crombec, Spike-heeled Larks, Southern Red Bishops, Masked Weavers, Pale Chanting Goshawks, Karoo Chat, Namaqua Sandgrouse (flying overhead), Yellow-bellied Eremomela and Tractrac Chat. I never fail to be amazed by both the numbers and variety of birds that can be found in even the driest and most inhospitable piece of desert scrub!
By now it was time to collect Sara from the hotel, but almost back at the 3-way fork, some birds were seen flying and landing in the scrub on the side of the road. One bird stayed obligingly in the open, giving me excellent views of Black-eared Finchlark, a bird that is often difficult to see well, and which was also high on my target list. This bird is highly nomadic, and so it is very difficult to predict accurate stakeouts - they could be anywhere in Bushmanland. There was also a party of Red-capped Larks on the outskirts of Brandvlei.
Having collected Sara, I headed back towards Van Wyksvlei, but this time continued a little further along the road. About 12 km from the bridge, you reach a junction to the left, with the main gravel road to Van Wyksvlei veering to the right. A couple of kilometres along this road, we came across a drinking pool on either side of the road, and the left hand one was leaking. Sclater's often come to drinking troughs in the heat of the day, so we settled down for a scan.
Unfortunately, no Sclater's showed up, but a pair of Black-headed Canaries was excellent compensation, as was another lifer in the form of Black-chested Prinia. Other good birds included European Bee-eater, Southern Anteating Chats, Thick-billed Lark and Lesser Double-collared Sunbird.
Regrettably, our itinerary was tight, and as we had one last chance for Sclater's at Pofadder, we pressed on northwards through Kenhardt, Keimoes (crossing the Orange River here) and Kakamas to Augrabies. Our next scheduled stop was at the Augrabies Falls National Park, and we got there just before the gates closed! The cabins here were fabulous, and extremely cheap - probably the best value accommodation throughout our trip.
That night I called Callan to let him know how I was getting on. He was aware that some friends of his had recently birded Bushmanland and had seen good numbers of Sclater's Larks, so he had promised to try to find out where they had seen them. Unfortunately, I really should have phoned him the previous night, because it transpired that they had been seen at some roadside drinking pools about 36 km south of Kenhardt. In other words, 200 km back along the road I had just driven!! Callan's advice was that the site at Pofadder was far from certain, and that they had seen unprecedented numbers (about 30, I believe) at the Kenhardt site, so I should certainly try there.
Understandably, Sara certainly didn't fancy an early start just to go back the way we'd come, and besides the Sclater's come to drink throughout the day, so there was no rush. I therefore got up early and spent a few hours birding around the Augrabies Falls campground. This was a good decision, as it gave me a number of new species, including Ashy Tit, Dusky Sunbird, Red-eyed Bulbul, and the beautiful Pale form of Cape White-eye.
A Squacco Heron (being claimed by some birders as a Dwarf Heron) was on a small pond in the camping area, and miles out of its normal range. Three Pale-winged Starlings were also seen at very close range, having previously only been seen distantly at Karoopoort. Other highlights included Malachite Kingfisher, Karoo and Cape Robin, Southern Masked Weaver and Three-banded Plover.
It was now time to start the long trek back down south to Kenhardt. A quick petrol stop in Kakamas produced excellent views of a White-throated Swallow resting on a concrete post next to the car.
The Sclater's Lark site was some 36 km south of Kenhardt. There are two watering holes, one on either side of the road, at the entrance to a farm called Knapsak. These can be easily scanned from the car, although by 10.30 a.m. when we arrived it was already blisteringly hot. As we arrived I saw 2 larks on one of the troughs which looked very promising, but as I got the binoculars on them, they flew away - very frustrating. I settled down to wait for a hopeful reappearance, the wait made more pleasant by brief views of a male Black-eared Finchlark.
After about half an hour a bird flew down onto the same trough previously occupied by the earlier two birds, and sure enough it proved to be beautifully plumaged Sclater's Lark, with its striking face pattern. I enjoyed excellent scope views of this difficult bird for about 5 minutes, until it flew off. I retrospect, I am fairly sure that the earlier birds were also this species, as the size, posture, behaviour and general coloration was consistent, although I did not see the face pattern on the earlier birds. Still, who cares?! - the third bird was certain enough!!
Interestingly, when I read Etienne Marais' account of his trip in September 1997 he also saw good numbers of Sclater's Larks, especially at what he calls a "reservoir" (drinking pool?) 27 km south of Kenhardt, so this general area was obviously quite reliable this year. Regrettably, the species is highly nomadic, and there is therefore no guarantee that they will be so obliging here in future years.
Overjoyed at having finally seen one of my main Bushmanland targets, we set off for Pofadder in search of another, namely Red Lark. Sociable Weaver colonies were by now extremely numerous, decorating almost every telegraph pole along the side of the road. A few kilometres east of Pofadder, however, I came across a real monster. By coincidence (or is it?!) it was directly adjacent to a picnic site pull-off, so we pulled over for combined lunch and birding. As soon as the car stopped, birds started flying over from the colony, landing in a large tree shadowing the picnic table, and soon gave excellent views feeding on crumbs on the floor. This is a surprisingly attractive bird, with intricate markings on their flanks.
Onwards to Pofadder, and we checked into the very nice Pofadder Hotel. This is rumoured to have Short-toed Rock Thrush nesting somewhere on the premises, but there was no sign of it when I visited. Having settled in, I set off on the long drive to Aggeneys and hopefully Red Lark. Again, distances in South Africa are deceptive, and this short jaunt on the map was in fact about 50 km.
You need to follow the R64 westwards towards Aggeneys, but a little before you reach the village, turn left (south) on the Loop 10 gravel road towards Brandvlei. After some kilometres, another gravel road turns off to the right, a little before you reach a farmhouse called Bloemhoek. Follow this road to the right, until you see cattle enclosures made out of old tyres on each side of the road. Climb the fence here (careful - it's quite high!) and wander around in the lightly vegetated dunes of red sand, looking for a bird scurrying in front of you.
I had several false alarms which turned out to be Spike-heeled Larks, and also picked up Southern Anteating Chat and Pale Chanting Goshawk. At that point, after about half an hour, I heard a lark-like song coming from the distance. I hadn't expected to find a Red Lark singing, but I duly followed the singing, and enjoyed fabulous views of this lovely bird, first in song flight, then extended views at close range of it singing from the top of a bush. The sun was setting, and everything was red - the sky, the ground and the bird - a quite surreal birding experience! The experience was completed by a flock of 10 Namaqua Sandgrouse flying over and calling loudly. What a great day's birding!
I was still missing a few birds, so I got up early and set up south from Pofadder on gravel road 358 towards Kliprand and Kenhardt. Another substantial and active Sociable Weaver colony was located, and Southern Anteating Chats were common along the road. After a while I reached a farmhouse on the left-hand side called Valsvlei, which had a body of water next to the road. This supported a variety of water birds including South African Shelduck, Three-banded and Kittlitz's Plovers. A total of 21 Namaqua Sandgrouse, in three flocks flew over calling loudly. Then, I found another of my Bushmanland target birds - a Chat Flycatcher flitting around in the scrub along the road.
I continued to drive southwards, and eventually hit the jackpot - 2 Ludwig' Bustards flying over the road. The views were brief and a little distant, but the birds were pretty unmistakable. Unfortunately, and very surprisingly, I still hadn't found Karoo Korhaan, and driving around the gravel roads for the remainder of the morning still failed to produce any. This was probably my most disappointing dip of the whole trip.
When road 358 reached Loop 10, I turned left towards Aggeneys, eventually reaching the R64, and drove back east to Pofadder, picking up 2 Greater Kestrels and 3 Pale Chanting Goshawks en route.
Apart from the Korhaan, the only real target bird I had left to find was Barlow's Lark. Having collected Sara from the hotel, we therefore set off on the long drive west to Port Nolloth. By this time, the long miles were beginning to tell, and I was conscious of the fact that we were still a long way from Cape Town. Whereas we had originally planned on staying the night in Port Nolloth, and trying for the larks first thing in the morning, I therefore decided to try in mid afternoon, in the hope that, if I was successful, we could make a start on the long drive south.
On reaching Port Nolloth, turn right on the coast road towards Alexander Bay. This road used to be gravel, but tourists are now being encouraged to the region, and the road has recently been tarred as part of this initiative. The Barlow's Larks are found throughout the sand dunes along both sides of this road, as far as Alexander Bay, and beyond into Namibia, as far as Lüderitz. However, most if this stretch of road traverses a diamond mining area, and access is heavily restricted. The best spot is just about a kilometres out of Port Nolloth, heading northwards. Look out for a fence and sign on the left-hand side of the road denoting the start of the diamond mining area.
After only about five minutes walking, I picked up a likely looking bird on top of a bush. Unfortunately, before I could scrutinise it in detail, it hopped down behind some bushes, and promptly vanished. Unfortunately for birders, this area represents a zone of overlap between Barlow's and Karoo Lark. Not only are both species present, but so are a variety of hybrids, and so it is essential to examine any birds seen in detail.
The key area to focus on is the flanks. Karoo Larks have the breast streaking extending right down the flanks. Barlow's on the other hand have no flank streaking whatsoever, and the neat breast streaking stops abruptly in a band across the lower breast. Hybrids are variable, but always have a degree of flank streaking, although this can be extremely faint. Sadly, I hadn't seen this bird well enough to check out this feature thoroughly enough. I was fairly sure that it wasn't a Karoo Lark, but the possibility of a hybrid hadn't been ruled out.
I carried on tramping around in this area of dunes for a further half an hour, picking up Rufous-eared Warbler, Karoo Robin and Bokmakierie, before detecting 2 brownish birds scurrying around between the bushes in front of me.
The first bird was a classic Barlow's, with pale reddish upperparts, and very neat black breast streaking sharply cut off at the lower breast - a beautiful bird. The second was more problematical, but I eventually decided that it was a hybrid. It was much sandier above than the first bird, almost completely lacking its' rufous tones. Crucially, the breast streaking also extended onto the flanks, although this was very light - maybe three or four faint streaks per flank.
I checked my identification with Callan later (he has done research, together with Peter Ryan, on the hybrid zone between Karoo and Barlow' Larks) and he confirmed it. As he put it "one of the features of hybrids is that the flank streaking is present but so faint that you're not really sure it's there at all". Luckily, I got prolonged views of both birds over about half an hour, at ranges down to 5 metres, so has plenty of opportunity to study the two birds in detail.
Having accomplished my goals at Port Nolloth, we decided to head back south to Springbok, and a visit to the Goegap Nature Reserve near the airport, for a last crack at Karoo Korhaan. Unfortunately, when we got there, we found that the gates were closing in a little over an hour. Furthermore, the Korhaans are found in the eastern part of the reserve, which are only accessible by the 4-wheel drive track, which is not driveable by an ordinary saloon car. Birds seen around the visitor centre included Southern Anteating Chat, White-backed Mousebird and Cape Bunting. We admitted defeat and started our way south towards Cape Town, stopping for the night at Garies.
Callan had recommended the gravel road from Garies towards Groenriviermond as good for Ludwig's Bustard, so I decided on a dawn visit to this area. Unfortunately, no Ludwig's were seen here, but I had a very pleasant morning's birding. I found my last lifer of the trip, in the form of 6 "Bradfield's" Sabota Lark. Other highlights included Karoo and Sickle-winged Chat, Cape Penduline Tit, African Hoopoe, White-backed Mousebird, Red-capped Lark, Cape Bunting and Rock Martin.
This marked the end of my birding on this trip, as we had agreed to spend the rest of the day making our way back to Cape Town, and on a visit to the Waterfront. He stayed the night in the Dune Lodge at Hout Bay, which is a very nice area, convenient for Cape Town itself, and within early morning trip distance of Tokai, Constantia, Kirstenbosch, Kommetjie, Strandfontein etc.
Spent the morning on "normal" non-birding tourist activities, such as shopping and sightseeing, before driving to the airport for our flight home.
The most significant birds missed were as follows:
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