Trip Impressions: Cape Town and Off-Shore (South Africa), January 1999

Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum, 9037 Tromsø, Norway;

A Visit To South Africa: First Impressions

Early in January I had the opportunity to flee the dark, frost and snow of my hometown Tromsø, N. Norway, and for the first time in my life to visit South Africa. The "meat" of the visit was to participate in a 3 weeks benthic fisheries survey along the west coast of S. Africa on the RV "Africana", and my most attentive host was collections manager Michelle van der Merwe of the South African Museum.

I find it always extremely fascinating to come to an entirely new place in the world, walk around in the neighbourhood and try to come to grips with its common birds. Suburban gardens are much the same most places, so the theatre is the same, only the players vary from place to place.

I arrived in Cape Town on an unseasonably rainy and cool day. Still, the contrast with Tromsø on a winter day was of course enormous: here clearly it was full summer and some kind of Mediterranean summer at that. In the suburb where I spend the first day, and where I walked around in the rain to collect these first impressions, most people had small villas with often walled gardens, bristling with "armed response" signs (reminding me strongly of the area of La Jolla in California where I lived for some months). The gardens contained mostly large numbers of dense green bushes and conifers, and birding there often reminded me uncomfortably of snooping. When one arrives at a new place as a newcomer one does not know what to expect, and it takes some time before one gradually begins to bring some order in the bewildering array of peeps and whistles that emanate from the bushes; I am one of those people who does most of his bird-spotting by ear.

My host has 7 cats and yearns for more, so clearly her garden is not among the most bird-rich in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, as soon as I stepped into this garden (and virtually everywhere and always that whole afternoon) my ear was struck by a soft, but insistent whistling, coming from nearby bushes. These turned out to be the contact calls of small flocks of Cape White-eyes Zosterops capensis, probably the most common bird of all in these suburban gardens. They are to European eyes something of a cross between Willow Warblers and tits, but with a character all their own, unafraid, but always in movement. As a great contrast, the very next sound I heard was the hooting "name-calling " of the Hadeda Ibis Bostrychia hagedash! These too are suburban birds, and make up by volume what they lack in numbers.

Walking around, the most conspicuous birds were the various doves; I can not remember having seen a suburban environment with quite so many doves! They were intrepid singers even now in mid summer, and also quite easy to see well. But there were clearly several species, some with, some without the black neck-patch. The former also seemed to come in several sizes. And all had their own intricate pattern of cooing. The very common Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis I knew from elsewhere, but the neck-patch clan were all new to me, although the smaller type reminded me quite strongly of the Collared Dove of Europe, both in appearance and in voice. This was the Cape Turtle Dove S. capensis. The other neck-patch dove was quite a bit bigger, the size of a feral pigeon, with a bigger neck-patch and a more elaborate pattern of cooing. These were the Red-eyed Doves S. semitorquata. Feral Pigeons there were also, and some buildings had yet another pigeon, with speckled mantle and a red patch around the eye, Columba guinea, the somewhat confusingly named Rock Pigeon.

The next sounds I managed to sort out were the clear musical whistles of the Red-winged Starlings Onychognathus morio, a mostly black bird with startlingly red wing-patches in flight. These starlings really still treat house-roofs as cliffs and often cling to them in the most unexpected postures. They also raided the fruit trees in the gardens.

Another cheerful, although somewhat uncoordinated whistle-call ("peet peet patata," says the book, something I would never have guessed) belonged indeed, as I already had surmised, to a bulbul, in this case the Cape Bulbul Pycnonotus capensis. They appear to have the same perky and jaunty personality as all these garden bulbuls, in this case still accentuated by the white around the eye.

After these early successes, augmented by the Barn Swallows and Common Swifts (I think) overhead, and the sonorous caws of pairs of Black Crows Corvus capensis flying over, things became more difficult, and many voices from the gardens remained just that in the rain. A few birds obligingly showed themselves, however, long enough to be identified: Some Olive Thrushes Turdus olivaceus popped up in a fruiting bush, a female-coloured long-billed sunbird I made, I hope correctly, into a Greater Double-collared Sunbird Nectarinia afra, and a largish black-and-white bird turned out to be not, as I immediately and too hastily concluded, a Fiscal Shrike, but its lookalike the Fiscal Flycatcher Sigelus silens.

Anybody who has visited Cape Town knows that these meagre notes give a most misleading impression of the richness of birdlife also in suburban Cape Town. This was just a short walk in the rain, on my first day in a foreign country, without a guide, and in the late summer, not the best time to watch birds by ear. But I find such first impressions always intriguing, and they raise questions as: why are there just here so very many doves and pigeons, but no sparrows at all? A longer stay would probably give the answer to these questions, but that will not happen this time around.

Cape Town Harbour

The purpose of my visit to Cape Town was participation in a fisheries benthic fish survey cruise with the RV "Africana". Departure was some hours delayed, so that I had the opportunity to see a little of the birdlife here, so different a surroundings from the leafy suburb where I stayed before.

All the warehouses along the quays were festooned with gulls, nicely showing the individual distance that every gull demands, and squabbling as soon as this was threatened; curiously so late in the season, there was also a great deal of copulation still going on.

The gulls here were predominantly Hartlaub's Gulls Larus hartlaubi, so close a relative of my old friend the Silver Gull from Australia, that they used to be considered to be a single species. In my impression, both the exterior and the behaviour of these gulls deviated in many respects from the Silver Gulls, although they share their elegance and their Black-headed Gull-type incessant shrieking. The display gestures of these small gulls seem to be almost overdeveloped compared to their relatives; all the posturing seem somehow exaggerated.

These are really harbour gulls, and we lost them as soon as we left the shore. When we e.g. anchored up for many hours near Robben island in the Table Bay, we never saw Hartlaub's Gulls there; the only gulls to visit us there were the Kelp Gulls L. dominicanus, who also roam out to the fishing banks. Also these black-mantled medium large gulls with their dark eyes, olive-green feet, and white-rimmed black wings were common in the harbour.

The harbour also had several species of terns. The largest, Swift Terns Sterna bergii, only rested here, while the two smaller species , Common and Sandwich terns S. hirundo and S. sandvicensis, also fished in the harbour. This happened often in conjunction with small flocks or single cormorants, in the harbour most often the smallish Crowned Cormorants Phalacrocorax coronatus, while outside the harbour the long skeins of the Cape Cormorants Ph. capensis dominated. The third species, the largest of all, the Bank Cormorant Ph. neglectus, appeared to be quite uncommon just here.

Out in the Table bay our ship got visits not only from the irrepressible Cape Fur Seals that also loafed and fished inside the harbour proper, but also from the surprisingly large Jackass Penguins Spheniscus demersus, often two parents with a single young, of which there is a famous colony on Robben Island just outside the bay. The only shorebird I saw was a single Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini.

On the quays a mixed flock of House Sparrows and Cape Sparrows Passer capensis, of which the males have much darker faces, and the females conspicuous light eye stripes. I saw no differences whatsoever in their behaviour in these flocks. The starlings here were the European Starling, and also here doves and pigeons were common; I saw both feral pigeons, Rock Pigeons, Cape Turtle Doves and Laughing Doves.

The only other bird in this rather stark harbour landscape was the Cape Wagtail Motacilla capensis, often surprisingly tame, and acting as "sparrows" at some pavement cafes. The Afrikaanders have then also called this bird "het Gewone Kwikkie"!

Trawling On Agulhas Bank

As previously told, I came to S. Africa in order to take part in a benthic fisheries survey with the RV "Africana", and I am most grateful to the Fisheries Research Institute of S. Africa for this opportunity. My particular quest, as always, were the amphipods, in this case new and interesting species from inside hermit crabs -- this turned out a bit of a wild goose chase, and as a birder I should have known that there are no wild geese in S. Africa. But the cruise as such concentrated on bottom fish and squids, with trawling as the main collecting tool.

The Agulhas bank lies off the Cape peninsula and has trawling grounds at 150-300 m. These first days I needed to find my sea legs, learn to identify the different fish species caught (all scientists take part in the sorting and processing of the catch), and generally learn the routines of work on this ship. But one could not help noticing all the many seabirds around, such a different mix from what I am accustomed to from N. Norwegian waters.

We started from Cape Town in late afternoon and soon began seeing Cape Gannets, a few White-chinned Petrels, and a lone Subantarctic Skua. The first true surprise for me was a flock of 100's of Sabine's Gulls resting on the sea; these daintily elegant gulls are a real prize in our Barents Sea area when we see one or two near the arctic breeding grounds, so suddenly coming across hundreds of them was a bit of a shock!

The next morning we were on the banks, and the first thing I noted on looking out in the morning were small groups of largish ashy-brown shearwaters, black-framed whitish underneath. These were Cory's Shearwaters. Later on , and especially after we had commenced trawling ("Over she goes!"), the attending "cloud" of seabirds could grow to a few hundred birds. Dominant among these were three species of albatross, most impressive in the air. On the sea this is tempered by their slightly empty-headed expressions; they are dominant to all other seabirds, but being so ponderously slow to get any message, they often barge in just too late to get the choicest morsels. Their calls at those occasions show clearly that they have had few music lessons as kids.

The three species are two smaller "mollymawks", the Black-browed Albatross and the beautiful Yellow-nosed Albatross, most of which have the immaculate grey heads of the nominate subspecies (though we saw a few white-headed ones of the Indian Ocean subspecies bassi). The third is the larger Shy Albatross (not particularly shy!) with its pinkish bill. In the air these albatrosses are most easily recognized by looking at the underwings (surprisingly easy, as the birds wheel and bank all the time): The Shy has a narrow black frame and "thumbprints" on the near wing, the Yellow-nosed an intermediately thick frame, while the Black-browed has almost more black than white. In all species young birds have more dark on the underwing, but the differences remain fairly straightforward.

The most ubiquitous seabird around the ship, tirelessly following all day, is the White-chinned Petrel, the Shoemaker of the sailors. This is a hefty, dark, almost black petrel, with a strong conspicuous white bill and as the name says, usually a white spot under the chin. They are quite bold and make up in agility what they lack in weight. In squabbling their call is a surprisingly "little-bird-like" high "ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti." (Later, along the west coast, we now and then saw "shoemakers" with much more white on the face, almost like a painted clown face. They were Spectacled Petrels, nesters from the Tristan area.) Great Shearwaters, quite colourful for a seabird with their dark caps and warm brown backs, rather avoid the thickest throngs, but also compete for the outthrow.

The Subantarctic Skuas, a slightly sinister dark presence usually hovering over the melee, dive down and pick the choicest morsels apparently as they please -- these skuas are appreciably darker than the Bonxies of the north, but otherwise seem to have mainly the same habits -- they mercilessly harass the Cape Gannets, who also are not averse to catch some fish behind the ship. Among the skuas our Chief Scientist Rob Leslie, a noted seabird specialist, drew my attention to a single very dark skua with much smaller wing flashes, a very small bill and a clearly higher voice, and declared it probably to be a South Polar Skua, a rarer guest in these waters. Arctic, Long-tailed and Pomarine Skuas appeared now and then and stayed with the ship for a few hours, much as they do in northern waters. They mostly were content to find their own fish behind the ship, and I saw only a few chases.

Other visitors from the north were the Arctic Terns and the Sabine's Gulls, vying for the crown of elegance among the ship followers. The terns were not silent, as I had expected from the books, but uttered short monosyllabic chips, quite different from their calls in the breeding area. Also the Sabine's gulls called now and then, their normal "ternal gull call".

Storm Petrels flitted irregularly through the wake of the ship, avoiding the throngs as much as possible. Both European Storm Petrels and Wilson's were present, and it took me some days to become proficient in recognizing which is which at a glance. It is mostly a question of different flight patterns, I believe, when the birds are too far away to see the wing patterns and leg length.

On the Agulhas bank there are normally only a few Kelp Gulls present, but later, on the western banks, the ship was "covered" with a hanging cloud of gulls, up to hundreds being present. These Kelp Gulls remind one in many respects of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, but they appear to be less specialized: they have not so long wings and consequently lack the great maneuverability of the Lesser Black-backs, and at the other hand they are not really very good at robbing the other seabirds either -- many half-hearted attempts resulted practically never in success. These gulls are a very pretty picture against the ever blue skies; their wings are lined in white both fore and back, and with their dark eyes they give a rather benign impression, probably utterly misleading.

This is the picture as seen from the stern of the ship: a very diverse seabird guild, almost completely dominated by "sail-planes" and with few of the "submarines", the diving birds, that predominate in the north (the Jackass Penguins do not venture very far out to sea).

This picture is in many respects misleading, though. When one watches forward from the ship, e.g. from the peculiarly named "monkey island", a contraption on top of the bridge with a wide view to all sides (a somewhat unsafe place to sit when the cloud of Kelp Gulls is in place, for obvious reasons), the picture changes completely. Here, one sees the birds that do not bother to hang around the ship for hours. And suddenly it appears that the most common seabird of all is apparently the Cory's Shearwater ("a Great Shearwater washed in too hot water"). These birds are everywhere, sitting on the water till the ship is almost on top of them, and then stretching their long necks and yellow bills and pattering out of harmÕs way, often helped by their own jetstream. Small Sabine's Gulls fly determinedly from nowhere to nowhere and do not bother about the ship, and Gannets sit on the water, shine whitely in the distance, or even now and then show off their fantastic fishing techniques, dive-bombing in a frenzy, and looking for all the world like one of the better TV documentaries. A few phalaropes skitter out of the way, looking as ever most incongruent "little bird on a big sea"-like, even more almost than the storm petrels. And always the White-chinned Petrels and albatrosses interminably circle around the ship and cross before the bow.

With perpetually sunny days, mild temperatures, white-caps enough to make the sea a wonderful study of white against all the myriad colours of the water itself, but not too much to inconvenience the not too "sea-fast" birder, trawling on the Agulhas bank can be a great experience, even apart from the marine biology, which of course also was overwhelming. Tusen takk therefore to the South African Fisheries Institute, to Chief Scientist Rob Leslie and the other people on the "Africana," and particularly to my host Michelle van der Merwe of the South African Museum, for making this dream come true.

List of Species Seen (Order Follows SASOL-Guide):

Jackass penguin               Spheniscus demersus
Shy Albatross                 Diomedea cauta
Black-browed Albatross        D. melanophrys
Yellow-nosed Albatross        D. c. chlororhynchus
                              D. c. bassi
Southern Giant Petrel         Macronectes giganteus
Northern Giant Petrel         M. halli
White-chinned Petrel          Procellaria aequinoctialis
Spectacled Petrel             P. conspicillata
Sooty Shearwater              Puffinus griseus
Great-winged Petrel           Pterodroma macroptera
Cory's Shearwater             Calonectris diomedea
Great Shearwater              Puffinus gravis
Manx Shearwater               P. puffinus
Wilson's Storm Petrel         Oceanites oceanicus
Leach's Storm Petrel          Oceanodroma leucorhoa (1 only)
European Storm Petrel         Hydrobates pelagicus
Cape Gannet                   Morus capensis
(White-breasted Cormorant     Phalacrocorax carbo) missed that one!
Bank Cormorant                Ph. neglectus (mostly inshore)
Cape Cormorant                Ph. capensis (mostly inshore
Crowned Cormorant             Ph. coronatus (inshore)
Grey Phalarope                Phalaropus fulicarius
Subantarctic Skua             Catharacta antarctica
South Polar Skua              C. maccormicki
Pomarine Skua                 Stercorarius pomarinus
Arctic Skua                   S. parasiticus
Long-tailed Skua              S. longicaudus
Kelp Gull                     Larus dominicanus
Sabine's Gull                 L. sabini
Hartlaub's Gull               L. hartlaubii (harbours only)
Swift Tern                    Sterna bergii (inshore)
Sandwich Tern                 S. sandvicensis (inshore)
Common Tern                   S. hirundo (mostly inshore)
Arctic Tern                   S. paradisaea

A Day In the Karoo

After my three-week cruise along the South African west coast with the "Africana" I had some 5 days in Cape Town, mostly filled with work at the museum and discussions with colleagues. But one Saturday my colleague Rob Leslie of the Fisheries Institute invited me to come with him to the Karoo, the low rainfall semi-desert NE of Cape Town -- the word Karoo comes from a Khoi term signifying "thirst-land", a most appropriate name.

We started out from Cape Town early in the morning and passed the mountain range still in darkness. At first light we crossed the last mountain passes -- where the first bird of the day was the first of many Steppe Buzzards, sitting motionlessly in a roadside tree -- and soon could discern pairs of Pied Crows and Cape Ravens flying overhead, and small flocks of Pied Starlings along the roadsides. As everywhere I visited in this area, doves and pigeons were numerous also here.

At the Karoo Poort we were lucky to see and hear a number of the very beautiful Blue Cranes -- a bird I particularly wanted to see, as its picture graces the label of a good South African wine available in Tromsø. These tall, uniformly grey-bluish birds with the long trailing "tail" and the bulbous light-capped head are among the most elegant of the cranes, a family noted for its regal beauty. Another tallish long-necked bird that flew up in the same area turned out to be a Karoo Korhaan, one of the many bustards of the south-African area.

After the mountain passes we arrived in the wine and fruit growing districts around Ceres, and here in the early morning light numbers of the odd-looking Helmeted Guineafowl, an old acquaintance, as they were often kept as farm birds in my native Zeeland, were scratching around on the verges of the road, no doubt in search of grit for their crops. With the guineafowl -- often foolhardily unafraid of the traffic -- were smaller numbers of francolins. These came in two sizes: the partridge-sized Grey-winged Francolins and the larger and darker Cape Francolins. Later during the day we never saw a single grouse, although the many tracks made clear that they were around also in the Karoo itself.

After Ceres the area became progressively drier, and we entered the Karoo proper, a mostly flattish region of low, often thorny bushes, now clearly in the quiescent mode of the dry summers here -- rain, when it falls, comes mainly in winter in the Karoo. A stiff wind made birding not easy -- most birds skulked in or among the low bushes, and when one (read Rob, an expert in Karoo-birding) finally had succeeded in flushing them, they "blew away" with the wind and often landed at a considerable distance. I had probably not found half of the birds we got to see on my own, and am most grateful to Rob for taking the time to show me this fascinating country.

Relatively the easiest birds to come to grips with were the various chats, as these characteristic "sit-and-pounce" predators have a tendency to sit on top of the bushes, and even on the roadside fence-wires. We found no less than 5 different species, all with subtly different habitat exigencies: along the roadsides we found the slender Familiar Chat and, once, the plump dark Anteater Chat; in the somewhat more dense vegetation the large and dark grey Karoo Chat -- one of the many endemics of this area --, and in lower and sparser vegetation the lighter-coloured and white-rumped Tractrac Chat. All these latter three species belong to the genus Cercomela, in Europe best known from the Middle-East Blackstart, one of my favourite birds.

The Wheatears, so dominant among the chats in SE Europe and the Middle East, were here represented by the Mountain Chat, which shares the white rump of the Tractrac Chat, but otherwise is much more contrasty, the males often almost black-and-white; these Mountain Chats lived up to their name by being concentrated in the few hilly sections or river gorges.

Patience and some diligence were usually sufficient to get to see the chats, but they did not suffice for another group of Karoo specialists, the larks. We did not do at all well with this group, and the only bird I saw well was the large and quite contrasty (for a lark, that is) Karoo Lark, another endemic of the area, and easily recognized by its warm brown colours and pale eye-stripe. In flight this looked like an uniformly dark bird, but on the ground its true colours showed up.

The third group that is typical of the low Karoo shrub is the warblers, but once more the stiff wind made it hard to get to see these well, and although Rob called several Eremomelas from short glimpses of wind-swept small nondescript birds, I never saw them sufficiently well to be able to identify them myself. All warblers that I tracked down in the low thorny Karoo bushes, were Spotted (or Karoo) Prinias, a dapper spotted bird, very active and with the usual Prinia long swivel-tail.

One conspicuous group that I forgot to mention hitherto are the swallows and swifts. At the Karoo Port I had watched my first Striped Swallows, but here in the open shrubland we saw either single wide-ranging Barn Swallows or the local Rock Martins, that in their abrupt swooping movements always remind me of the better-succeeded paper planes that we used to fold as kids. Later on the day the swallows were accompanied by swifts, mainly Little Swifts, but I saw also at least one large Alpine Swift.

Birds of prey were not very conspicuous, but we watched repeatedly a beautiful light-morph Booted Eagle and an impressive pair of Black (or Verreaux's) Eagles, as well as Common Kestrels, here confusingly called Rock Kestrels.

A very special habitat was the picnic spot and "kloof" at Katbakkies, an oasis of Acacia trees and other larger bushes, and with free water available (attracting a pair of Three-banded Plovers, the only shorebirds we saw in the Karoo). This greenery attracted a whole suite of different birds (although not all species this day that Rob had hoped to demonstrate -- Is it not always like that?), from the irrepressible Cape Bulbuls and a small flock of White-backed Mousebirds to a Pied Barbet up in the trees, and with both Cape and Karoo Robins on the shadowed ground below them. Although both are called robins, and both belong in the vague area between chats and thrushes, these two species are not very closely related: the Cape Robin, with its clear white eyebrow, its orange outer tail feathers, and its cheerful "Jan Frederik" notes that have earned it its Afrikaans name, is a Cossypha, while the Karoo Robin is one of the Scrub Robins Erythropygia and has the wide white-tipped tail of that genus. Like many of the Karoo birds, it is otherwise mainly decked in earthy inconspicuous colours, but it too has a clear white eye-stripe and also a white chin.

Much more colourful and conspicuous is a bird that also occurred in the more open scrubs along the road, and because of its inquisitive nature and clear colours was easy to watch, viz. the Bokmakierie. This is the one species of the colourful Bush-shrikes, that has given up on skulking and has become a quite tame and inquisitive, as well as beautiful bird, common in the bush as well as in suburbia.

Further denizens of the taller trees were i.a. the Long-billed Crombec, easily recognized as it looks like "a cat got its tail", and the diminutive and active "different-looking" grey-and-black Fairy Flycatcher, that to my eyes is a bit Fantail-like in its incessant movements. A much more specialized warbler is the dark rock-hopping Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, a denizen of rocky kloofs and cliffsides, that Rob miraculously succeeded in getting to materialize after we nearly had given up our quest.

Just as the bird books do, I have left the finches and buntings to the last, a bit unfair in this case, as especially the easily recognized stripy-headed Cape Bunting was such a regular denizen of this area, that at the end of the day we called them "just another Cape Bunting", unfairly so, as these are dapper perky birds, well worth watching. Similarly, the canary-yellow Yellow Canaries glowed from faraway in the greyish bushes, and also were among the easiest birds to identify. The other Canary (or Seedeater) in the area, the much smaller and less conspicuous White-throated Canary, was still relatively easily identified because of its greenish-yellow rump.

Altogether the Karoo was a place to get thirsty, sunburned and scratchy-legged, but also a wonderful area to go birding, with that strange strong attractiveness that so many dry areas appear to have. I am very glad that Rob Leslie gave me the chance to get my first superficial acquaintance with this very special habitat.

Mammals were not thick on the ground, but judging from the many holes and heaps, maybe thicker in the ground -- the largest holes were made by the famous Aardvark, the largest burrowing animal in the world. We saw several Duikers, a small group of Springboks, and the inevitable Baboons in the mountain passes.

List Of Bird Species Seen (In Order Of Newman's Guide):

NB: Mark the steady repeat of the words Cape and Karoo in the bird names!

Karoo Korhaan                Eupodotis vigorsii
Blue Crane                   Anthropoides paradisaea
Cape Francolin               Francolinus capensis
Grey-winged Francolin        F. africanus
Helmeted Guineafowl          Numida meleagris
Booted Eagle                 Hieraaetus pennatus
Black Eagle                  Aquila verreauxii
Steppe Buzzard               Buteo b. vulpinus
Black-shouldered Kite        Elanus caeruleus
Rock Kestrel                 Falco tinnunculus
Three-banded Plover          Charadrius tricollaris
Cape Turtle Dove             Streptopelia capicola
Laughing Dove                S. senegalensis
Rock Pigeon                  Columba guinea
Feral Pigeon                 C. livia
Greater Striped Swallow      Hirundo cucullata
European Swallow             H. rustica
Rock Martin                  H. fuligula
Little Swift                 Apus affinis
Alpine Swift                 A.  melba
White-backed Mousebird       Colius colius
Pied Barbet                  Lybius leucomelas
Karoo Lark                   Mirafra albescens
Pied Crow                    Corvus albus
White-necked Raven           C. albicollis
Cape Bulbul                  Pycnonotus capensis
Mountain Chat                Oenanthe monticola
Familiar Chat                Cercomela familiaris
Tractrac Chat                C. tractrac
Karoo Chat                   C. schlegelii
Ant-eating Chat              Myrmecocichla formicivora
Cape Robin                   Cossypha caffra
Karoo Robin                  Erythropygia coryphaeus
Long-billed Crombec          Sylvietta rufescens
Cinnamon-breasted Warbler    Euryptila subcinnamomea
(Karoo Eremomela             Eremomela gregalis)
Spotted (Karoo) Prinia       Prinia maculosa
Fairy Flycatcher             Stenostira scita
Fiscal Shrike                Lanius collaris
Bokmakierie                  Telophorus zeylonus
Pied Starling                Spreo bicolor
Red-winged Starling          Onychognathus morio
Cape White-eye               Zosterops pallidus
Cape Sparrow                 Passer melanurus
Cape Weaver                  Ploceus capensis
Yellow Canary                Serinus flaviventris
White-throated Canary        S. albogularis
Cape Bunting                 Emberiza capensis

Willie, Come Out and Fight!

At the end of my short stay in Cape Town I suddenly had an extra day available: as a good professor, I had erred with the date of my flight home. That day my hosts kindly drove me out to the Botanical Garden in Kirstenbosch and promised to pick me up again some hours later. As so often in Cape Town, it was quite a windy day, and the dense scrub gave problems to someone accustomed to alpine and tundra biotopes.

Especially one bird song gave me trouble: I heard it everywhere around me, but for a long time I could not see the bird (or birds, as I first thought this was the sound of a duetting species). The song was in three parts: an emphatic and shrill "wee" or "wee-wee", a short chuckling melodious phrase, and finally -- audible only from nearby -- a sort of weak descending "inhalation".

The birds were quite common and sang all the time. But if you are in unknown country, it is hard to know what to expect, and it was not before I crouched and looked under the bushes that I finally got to see the bird, a rather nondescript brownish bird with white eyes, now easily identified as the Sombre Bulbul Andropadus importunus.

The SASOL guide describes the song as "a piercing wee-wee, followed by a liquid chortle", but the description that ensures that I shall never ever forget this song stands in Newman's guide: "a strident 'Willie!', in the breeding season followed by a babbling trill sounding like 'Willie! Come out and fight!...scaaaared', the last phrase barely audible." It is one of those happy descriptions that, although they make very little sense before one has actually heard the bird, burn themselves in your memory for ever afterwards.

In Afrikaans this bird is known as "Willie", just like the Cape Robin is "Jan Fredrik" and the Bokmakierie also has an onomatopoeic name. Anneke de Vries recently has (in Birdchat) once more given examples of the very many onomatopoeic bird names that exist in Dutch, far more than in English, German or the Scandinavian languages. I have always wondered why that is so and have not found a good answer. But looking through the S. African guides, the same difference clearly exists between Afrikaans and English names, with the Afrikaans names usually far more descriptive and far more often onomatopoeic.

Not only Sombre Bulbul vs. Willie, or Cape Robin vs. Jan Fredrik, but the same trend exists for the cuckoos (Red-chested Cuckoo vs. Piet-my-vrou, Emerald Cuckoo vs. Mooimeissie, and Klaas's Cuckoo vs. Meitjie), or for warblers (Chestnut-vented Warbler vs. (Bosveld)tjeriktik, or Cisticola vs. Klopkloppie or Tinktinkie), to choose only a few examples. Why should this be? This is a distraction, however, and has nothing to do with my wonderful afternoon of strolling through the many great plantings and bush of Kirstenbosch. I did not really see all that many birds that day: I sought in vain for the Sugarbirds, and missed out on many more species that I ought to have found here. Of course there were White-eyes everywhere, I regularly came across the Cape Batis and learned to recognize their soft calls; and I found thrushes, shrikes, canaries, doves and pigeons.

The Helmeted Guineafowl and Cape Francolins were surprisingly tame here and clearly are fed regularly by the visitors. Also very tame, but in a different way (people are of no interest to them at all, neither as a danger or a source of food), were the delightful sunbirds. A field of deep violet-blue flowers (Agapanthus?) attracted them in droves, mostly the Orange-breasted Sunbird, but also a few Lesser Double-collared and at least one Malachite Sunbird. There were so many in fact, that I suspect a sleek well-fed Siamese cat that was invariably present in this area to have specialized on sunbirds, although I never actually saw him catch one.

"Did you really not see more?" people who know Kirstenbosch will no doubt say now. I saw some more birds, a sparrow-hawk in the Silver trees, a pochard strayed into the pump basin, and a few odds and ends here and there. But mostly I just strolled, marveled at the so aptly named Proteaceae (Proteus could change into a thousand different shapes) and enjoyed sun and summer, this last day before my return to snow and mid-winter in Tromsø. I hope to return to Cape Town for a somewhat longer stay later this year, so there was no hurry.

This concludes these "first impressions" from my first-ever visit to Cape Town and South Africa. It has definitely given me the impetus to come back here and enjoy more birds and landscapes. Once more many thank to my hosts for making this possible, and for all their help and hospitality during this month, which passed so all too quickly!

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; March 3, 1999