Trip Report: Two Catchup Walks in the Overberg (Cape Province, South Africa), November 20-21, 1999

Wim Vader, South African Museum, Cape Town, South Africa. Permanent address: Tromsø Museum, 9037 Tromsø, Norway;

1. Sir Lowry's Pass

During our holidays along the Garden Route coast and through the Karoo we missed the first and last planned walks: the first day's target, the Sir Lowry's Pass area some 60 km East of Cape Town had to be skipped because of a series of mishaps with my old car, and the last, the Vrolijkheid Reserve near Macgregor, because of untoward weather.

This weekend I had the chance to go see these areas anyway, although sadly now once more on my own. After initial hesitations, I once more pointed the car along the N2 out of Cape Town, and of course this time without any mishaps of any sort. So I arrived at the summit of Sir Lowry's Pass at the same time as the first paragliders: these enormous colourful birds would be a constant backdrop for my birding the rest of the morning. Otherwise I met nobody at all (and the same was true for Vrolijkheid the next day); for somebody grown up in overpopulated Holland this is an incredible luxury, more than you can imagine!!

The mountain fijnbos on the stony mountain slopes in this area is very well developed and easy to walk through (how come that so few plants in this vegetation have thorns? Were there never any significant browsers?). There were still a lot of flowers around; as always in the Cape many of these were "bulbs" (irises, lilies and Gladiolus, to my layman's eyes, but in an enormous diversity), several colours and forms of everlastings, sky-blue Lobelia's, confusing Papilionaceae with simple leaves, and lots of plants I could not identify at all. The richness of your flora is tremendous, but the decision of the flower book to group the plants by "month of flowering' and not in any conceivable way otherwise does finding the right one well-nigh impossible (Esp. as sub September one not only finds "May-January", but even" October-February"!). One very plant I think I have got right as a tall white Bruniaceae had only a few plants still in flower, and these were full of large brown beetles, quite similar to the "May-beetles" that I caught and played with as a child in Zeeland.

Also on the chalky paths these were many beetles, mostly quick black large carabids running on tiptoe as if the ground were burning hot. Small lizards were also frequent, and once I came across a small, thin black strangely lethargic snake.

Birds were not at all common, as so often in the fijnbos. The larger still flowering bushes of large yellow Proteaceae (Leucodendron?) often had attendant Cape Sugarbirds on top, who appeared to defend them against all conspecifics--these sugarbirds always look like "sunbirds on steroids" to me: bigger and bulkier, but with the same constant aggression and bickering. the prominent sunbird here was the dainty Orange-breasted, although I also found a few Malachite Sunbirds.

Rock Kestrels, and later also Steppe Buzzards, shared the updraughts with the paragliders, seemingly in full mutual tolerance, Sharp "raptorial" calls that I did not know turned out to belong to a different bird altogether, finally my first Ground Woodpeckers! It is very strange to see these large unmistakable woodpeckers in a jumble of bare rocks, with nary a tree in sight: one can't help hoping that they have completely given up on their drumming and drilling habits!

Otherwise the usual suspects were present: Spotted Prinia, Grey-backed Cisticola, and Neddicky, as well as more Grassbirds than I ever can remember seeing. That is quite a beautiful bird up close! The birdbook was also spot-on in predicting Victorin's Warblers in a certain area -- they were easy enough to hear sing, but it cost me much patience and time before I actually saw their yellow eyes!

I walked into the pass, where the tracks of wagon-wheels are deeply etched into the uneven rocks, bringing home the realization of what a rough and dangerous adventure transport must have been in earlier times. The book placed rockjumpers "on the hillside above the signal cannons", so I traipsed around all over these rocky hills, but in vain. The area is full of thin rocky pinnacles looking quite like birds, but the only animal I found here was a very large fat lizard, clinging to the tip of one of these pinnacles as if he suffered from acute vertigo. I have no idea what make of lizard this was, but it looked very droll!

Walking back, I had almost come to the road again, when I heard a different whistle: this time I was lucky and saw the bird as it landed, not as usually, just as it flew away. That upright stance looked quite special, and the enormous white malar stripes clinched it: I finally had found a Cape Rockjumper, one of the birds I had especially hoped to see while in South Africa. Nor did it disappoint me; these rockjumpers really have a character all their own!

2. Vrolijkheid Reserve

I stayed overnight in Robertson, a quiet small town full of jacarandas, and arrived at the gate of the Vrolijkheid reserve near Macgregor as early as 8 o'clock. (Early for me, that is; I know I should have been here two hours before!)

This is a very different landscape from the mountain fijnbos of Sir Lowry's Pass The vegetation is much scantier and thornier, and there are even veritable coppices of Sweet Acacia, while various succulent Euphorbia, numnumbushes and botterwood are much to the fore.

The weather was glorious, calm and warm, thus ideal for birding, but a lot of pesky small flies made it difficult to stand still. Much fewer flowers, also fewer lizards, but lots of turtles, both on land and in the large dams.

The most conspicuous birds in the morning were the Karoo Robins, especially as the pairs apparently could never meet without a small ceremony of calls and wing-flapping. That ardour decreased with the increasing temperature, it seemed. There also ought to be various larks, eremomelas, and Rufous-eared Warblers in the dry stuff, but I never saw any of them, possibly because I left the drier areas till too late

Instead I walked the Heron trail, and stayed a long time in the two hides overlooking various parts of the large dam. What a peaceful scene! At first I only saw a heraldic Darter sharing an islet with a large fat tortoise close by, and a family of SA Shelducks with 6 largish young paddling at the opposite shore. Then a Spoonbill flew in and started foraging, and a pair of coots came out of the reeds. The longer you look the more you see: Common Sandpipers on one little beach, a Three-banded Plover on another, and even a large shaggy mongoose (Water Mongoose?) eating something dead, half-hidden in the background forbs. None of the birds reacted to him at all! Not even the Blacksmith Plover, who otherwise would not tolerate any sandpipers or plovers on "his beach" at all; neither a Kittlitz Plover nor a Greenshank got the chance to land anywhere -- the Bontkiewiet harrassed them till they left in disgust. He did not react at all, however, to the ducklings, the spoonbill, or to a Cape wagtail. Why this difference?

Somewhat later a pair of Moorhens ventured out of the reeds, and a small Black Crake sprinted across the open area from one clump of reeds to the next one.

In the other hide, things were even quieter, although here a small group of Springbok and a few ostriches came in to drink. The path to this hide led through a sizeable thicket of Acacia. Here there clearly were birds, but they were not all that easy to watch. So I walked that stretch 10-15 times, and very, very slowly birds started to show themselves. First only Cape White-eyes and Karoo Robins, so Titbabblers, then a Pied Barbet, a pair of Crombecs, looking like a cat got their tail, and a Bar-throated Apalis shouting its little song-ditty. Then some different-looking Prinias turned up, close to the border of the reeds: less spotty, long wispy tails, Namaqua Prinias.

And on one of the last runs I had the good fortune to watch and listen to the Fairy Flycatcher, a dainty bird that certainly lives up to its name. As so often, once I had seen it once, I could watch three in a row quite well, and in rapid succession.

I spent 5 hours in the reserve, met nobody at all. Maybe I saw not all that many different birds either, but it was a most satisfactory day anyway.

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; December 9, 1999