Trip Report: Birding South Africa, The Western Cape

Source: Birding Ecotours
Guide: Mark Harrington
Date: October 5 – 16, 2012

Editor’s note: all trip reports remain in unedited, original condition.

Day 1 (Mostly a ‘travel day’, but also some birding in and around Cape Town):

Cape Rockjumper by Andre Stapelberg.

Cape Rockjumper by Andre Stapelberg.

The day started off with an early morning pick-up of Lew and Doe at their hotel in Cape Town, whereafter we headed off the airport in time for Johan’s flight. From the airport we drove directly and with a good deal of anticipation to Rietvlei lagoon in Milnerton – a Black Skimmer had been seen there the previous afternoon, making it the first confirmed sighting of this species anywhere west of the Americas. On arrival, we had no difficulty following the crowds and we all enjoyed terrific views (perched, in flight and ‘skimming’).

Also, as one would expect on the first day of birding in a new habitat, lifers came thick and fast for Lew, Doe and Johan. African Darter, White-breasted Cormorant, Great White Pelican, Purple heron, Little Egret, African Spoonbill, Cape Spurfowl, Great-crested Grebe, Cape Shoveler, Yellow-billed Duck and Cape Teal were all common, and good views were also enjoyed of African Black Oystercatcher, African Fish Eagle, Caspian Tern,Hartlaub’s- and Kelp Gulls. From Rietvlei, we proceeded to Intaka Island where we’d have an hour or two to bird before retracing our steps back to the airport to collect John. At Intaka, we enjoyed saturation of views of brilliantly coloured Red Bishops in breeding plumage, as well as Southern Masked- and Cape Weavers, and fleeting views of a pair of Black Crake. Little Rush- and Lesser Swamp Warbers were also seen well, as well as Levaillant’s Cisticola, Karoo Prinia, Greater-Striped and White-throated Swallows, Banded- and Brown-throated Martins.

Next stop was the airport to collect John, followed by check-in at Afton Grove in Noordhoek, where the next 3 nights would be spent. The highlight en-route to Afton Grove was undoubtedly a pair of relatively early Steppe Buzzards – an otherwise common summer migrant. After everyone had dropped their bags off and freshened up, we were all set for some late afternoon birding, firstly at the top of Glencairn’s Black Hill, where a short walk into the mountains produced Cape Siskin, Rock Kestrel, Cape Bunting and a ‘full house’ of sunbirds, namely Malachite-, Orange-breasted- and Southern Double Collared. From there, it was a short hop to Kommetjie to see Cape Cormorant, Crowned Cormorant, Swift Tern, Sandwich Tern and a pair of Bokmakierie.

Day 2 (Kirstenbosch, Strandfontein and Silvermine wetlands):

Although a pelagic trip was originally scheduled for today, this was called off due to bad weather and we were accordingly required to re-shuffle the itinerary somewhat. Nonetheless, the day started off well enough in the garden at Afton Grove with a confiding male Pin-Tailed Whydah in breeding plumage, a vocal Klaas’s Cuckoo and a brief, but close, fly-over of a juvenile African Harrier Hawk. At Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, we enjoyed knockout views of the resident pair of Spotted Eagle Owl, while other new additions to the trip list were stunning Swee Waxbills, African Olive Pigeon (albeit brief fly-bys), Olive Thrush, African Goshawk, Black Saw-wing, Sombre Greenbul, White-necked Raven, Cape Batis, African Dusky Flycatcher, Brimstone Canary and Common Chaffinch.

After an hour or two at Kirstenbosch, we proceeded to Strandfontein Sewage Works, which as usual, didn’t disappoint. Large numbers of ducks, teal and other waterbirds were seen well by all, including Southern Pochard, Hottentot Teal, SA Shelduck, Red-billed Teal, Spurwing Goose, Greater Flamingo, Blacknecked and Little Grebe, African Purple Swamphen and Black-crowned Night Heron. Pied Avocet, Common Greenshank and Black-winged Stilt were also seen. We also got our first trip views (albeit distant) of African Marsh Harrier. Zitting Cisticola, African Pipit, Black-headed Heron and Capped Wheatear were also present in the surrounding grasslands.

The next stop was at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in the middle of built-up Rondebosch, where we were hoping to tick the resident pair of Peregrine Falcon, as well as Spotted Thick-knee at its day time roost in the hospital grounds. The Falcons were found at their ‘usual’ spot on the main hospital building and comparisons were made with the north American and European sub-species. There were also at least a dozen Spotted Thick-knee roosting peacefully nearby.

Then on to the Silvermine Wetlands, where the target bird was Cape Grassbird and it didn’t take long to find a vocal and confiding specimen. We also enjoyed good views of Common Waxbill and Yellow Bishop.

Day 3 (The West Coast up to the Darling farmlands and Paarl Sewage Works):

Unfortunately, the scheduled pelagic was ‘blown out’ for a second day and so, in order to make the most of the extra day of land-based birding, we decided to head up the R27 West Coast road as far as Darling, birding all the while, and then to return to Cape Town via the sewage works at Paarl. Our first stop at a bridge near the Rietvlei wetland system saw everyone coming to grips with African Black Swift, White-rumped Swift, Alpine Swift and Little Swift, amongst others. The road northwards then produced several Yellow-billed Kite, while the Darling Hills road produced Blue Crane, a single Jackal Buzzard, Black-shouldered Kite, Large-billed Lark, Red-capped Lark, Cape Bulbul, Grey-backed Ciosticola, Pied Starling and Yellow Canary. A stop at the Tienie Versfeld Reserve just outside the town of Darling provided prolonged views of Cape Longclaw, slightly briefer views of African Snipe and Pearl-breasted Swallow and terrific, scoped views of the target bird for the area, Cloud Cisticola (clearly showing the streaked breast of the south-western subspecies). Although we’d gotten caught in a brief rain shower at Tienie Versfeld, the weather had cleared by the time we reached Paarl.

The Sewage Works didn’t disappoint and several near waterbirds were seen almost on arrival. White-faced Duck, Fulvous Duck (still something of a regional rarity in the Western Cape), Maccoa Duck and African Black Duck were all seen well, with the latter posing uncharacteristically on a mound of builder’s rubble! Three-banded Plover, Common Sandpiper, Water Thick-knee, African Hoopoe, Fork-tailed Drongo, Fiscal Flycatcher and African Reed Warbler all provided good viewing, but the highlight (at least for the guide!) were brief, but excellent, views of Tambourine Dove. Large numbers of breeding Grey-headed Gulls and more Greater Flamingo rounded off a typically productive visit.

Day 4 (West Coast National Park and surrounds): 

After an early start from Afton Grove, with our bags packed for our next overnight stop in Langebaan, we headed directly for the West Coast National Park looking for all of the typical West Coast specials. On arrival, we quickly ticked Karoo Scrub Robin, more Cape Bunting, Yellow Canary, White-throated Canary, Long-billed Crombec, Bar-throated Apalis, Yellow Bishop, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, our first ‘tickable’ Ostrich and White-backed Mousebird (the first of several sightings). A detour to Abrahamskraal gave us good views of Black Harrier quartering low over the fynbos and African Marsh Harrier, and further on, past Churchhaven, we had several good mammal sightings including Black Wildebeest, Gemsbok, Kudu, Springbok and Eland. Fleeting views of several Grey-winged Francolin were also enjoyed. En route to the Geelbek Manor House, we also saw Karoo Lark, Spotted Eagle Owl and Namaqua Dove, while at the Manor House itself, the resident Cape Weavers, Yellow Bishop and Cape Spurfowl insisted on having their picture taken while foraging for scraps! As the Geelbek bird hide is at its best for wader watching either on the incoming or the outgoing tide, it was now time to make our way in that direction. Kittlitz’s Plover and Little Stint were seen on the salt marshes from the boardwalk en route to the hide, while the hide revealed large numbers of Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Little Stint, Marsh.

Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone, as well as Eurasian Curlew, Common Whimbrel and Caspian Tern. Our first Lesser Flamingo for the trip, amongst the more common Greater-, proved to be the highlight for Geelbek From Geelbek, we decided to continue our search for remaining target birds such as Southern Black Korhaan and Grey-winged Francolin. A trip up the dirt road to the Seeberg lookout proved most productive with outstanding views of male and female Southern Black Korhaan, and a chick. Black Harrier showed itself soon afterwards as well.

By now it was time to head for the Seeberg hide, where we had slightly improved views of Grey-winged Francolin. From the hide itself, we had our first views of White-fronted Plover, and John picked out a definite Golden Plover in eclipse plumage. Unfortunately, it was too distant to say for certain whether it was American or Pacific (either one would be a rarity), but the majority view seemed to be in favour of Pacific Golden Plover.

The day was rounded off perfectly by cracking views of the resident Verreaux’s Eagle at Langebaan quarry, including bird’s eye views of the almost 2 month old chick about to fledge. More African Black Swift and Rock Kestrel completed the picture.

Day 5 (Langebaan to the Tanqua Karoo):

After overnighting at Langebaan, today was set aside mostly as a travel day to the Tanqua Karoo, but not before a trip to the Cerebos saltworks at Velddrif to look for Chestnut-banded Plover. Before that however, one of our target birds for the area was Cape Long-billed Lark and the site near Jacobsbaai again delivered the goods, with one individual calling and displaying. We were also entertained by our first sighting of a family of Yellow Mongoose, and several larks, pipits and wheatears, as well as Southern Ant-eating Chat and Grey-backed Cisticola. Although we had more great views of Spotted Thick Knee, Greater Flamingo, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and several other species at Velddrif, the CB Plover eluded us, much to our disappointment. Some compensation was to be found in our first trip views of Pied Kingfisher, though. Crowned Plovers were also common in the surrounding veld.

From Velddrif, we hit the highway and spent the middle part of the day heading towards our accommodation at Sothemba Lodge in the Tanqua Karoo. Birding stops en route were few and far between, due to the long distance that had to be covered, but a few selective stops proved extremely productive. A pale phase Booted Eagle was seen well, just before the turn-off to Karoopoort, as well as a confiding Namaqua Warbler in its typical phragmites habitat. Jackal Buzzard also showed well, as did European Bee-eater.

By now, we were properly in the Tanqua Karoo and the new habitat started delivering the various Karoo specials. At Karoopoort, we saw fairy Flycatcher, Layard’s Tit-babbler, Familiar Chat and Mountain Wheatear. This was quickly followed by roadside views of Karoo Chat, Sickle-winged Chat, Capped Wheatear, Rufous-eared Warbler, Larklike Bunting, Black-headed Canary and Karoo Prinia.

Other new trip birds for the day were our first sighting of Giant Kingfisher and frustratingly distant views of Spike Heeled Lark.

Day 6 (The Tanqua Karoo):

The next day saw an early start as we decided to bird the area around the Lodge on foot before breakfast and before heading further afield. Our prime target species was the sought after Cinnamon Breasted Warbler, a skulking warbler which has a well-deserved reputation for being extremely difficult to obtain prolonged views of. Having been seen the previous week in a gorge about 500m from the Lodge, we were cautiously optimistic and the warblers certainly didn’t disappoint! Cracking views were obtained of 2 individuals, probably on a nest, as they were both seen returning to the same bush with food items in their bills. Also, an unexpected bonus was provided in the form of a pair of Southern Grey Tits.

After breakfast, we loaded up the Combi with our packed lunches and duly headed north on the R355 dirt road, looking forward to the prime arid country birding on offer. Improved views of Black-headed Canary and Larklike Bunting were quickly obtained, while new birds for the trip included Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Trac-trac Chat, Pririt Batis and Karoo Eremomela. However, the highlights of the day (apart from the CB Warblers) were outstanding, close-up views of a pair of Namaqua Sandgrouse, as well as a pair of Karoo Korhaan.

Although the species count for the day was somewhat down from the previous few days, the Tanqua once again delivered the goods in terms of specials, producing no less than 38 endemic or near endemic species.

Day 7 (From the Tanqua Karoo back to Cape Town, via Ceres):

Today would see us travel back to Cape Town, birding en route, before heading eastwards for another change of habitat. As such, our first stop was the picnic site at the nearby Skitterykloof, only a kilometre or two from Sothemba Lodge. Although the picnic site was surprisingly quiet, we nonetheless added Karoo Thrush and Red-faced Mousebird to the trip list, and also enjoyed more views of Chestnutvented Titbabbler, White-necked Raven, Black Harrier and Peregrine Falcon.

By now it was time to leave the Tanqua Karoo and head for Ceres, via the scenic Swartruggens Conservancy and Katbakkies Pass. Again, as today had been set aside as mostly a travel day, there were relatively few new additions to the trip list, although notable exceptions to the trend were a feeding party of 3 Protea Seedeaters at the foot of Bainskloof Pass, as well as cracking views of Cape Rock Thrush at the top of the pass. A single Ground Woodpecker also performed a rapid ‘fly-by’, but unfortunately, wasn’t seen by everyone. Other notable sightings included a thermalling African Harrier Hawk, more Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk and Jackal Buzzard, African Black Duck, Southern Black Korhaan and a vocal Karoo Long-billed Lark that was heard in the distance, but not seen.

Day 8 (Cape Town to Cape Agulhas):

Our first target bird of the day was the montane fynbos special, Cape Rockjumper and so, after another early start, we headed towards the Hottentots Holland mountain range and the picturesque seaside village of Rooi Els. On arrival, we quickly soaked up knockout views of Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird. Cape Bunting was also relatively common, as were Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Rock Martin, Grey-backed Cisticola, African Black Swift and Cape Grassbird. More good views were enjoyed of Familiar Chat and Cape Rock Thrush as well. Eventually, after a lengthy search, a single male Cape Rockjumper was seen sunning itself and preening. Scopes were quickly set up and saturation views were enjoyed by everyone.

Next was the Stony Point penguin colony where the resident African Penguins provided photo opportunities from every possible angle. Good views were also obtained of the breeding Bank Cormorants, while some sea watching also produced several White-chinned Petrel and Cape Gannets. Then, on arrival at Harold Porter Botanical Gardens, we were greeted by the constant calling of the Sombre Greenbuls which, although more often heard than seen, did also show themselves for long enough to be seen well by everyone. Speckled Mousebird was also picked up easily, while looking for Victorin’s Warbler (although the latter was calling from only metres away, it remained typically out of sight).

After a quick bite to eat, we continued on our way to the village of L’Agulhas, via the farmlands of the Agulhas Plains / the Overberg. New birds included Denham’s Bustard and Cape Crow, and a provincial rarity in Abdim’s Stork (which had been feeding obligingly in the same field for the past few days). Our next stop was the De Mond estuary, where our target bird was the diminutive and highly localised Damara Tern. At least 3 individuals were seen in the distance feeding over the estuary, followed by a gentle ‘fly past’ allowing us to see the diagnostic, full black cap clearly on at least one individual. De Mond also gave us more good views of Water Thick Knees, Caspian Tern, White-fronted Plover, Grey Plover and several other waders.

The road from De Mond to our overnight accommodation provided some spectacular Blue Crane viewing in the adjacent farmlands and fields. One of the trip highlights for all of us was a field of approximately 100 Blue Cranes, with several displaying and performing their courtship dance.

Day 9 (Cape Agulhas to Grootvadersbosch):

After spending the night at the southernmost tip of Africa, we left early the next morning for Honeywood Farm next to the Grootvadersbosch indigenous forest.

Target birds included 2 highly localised endemics, Agulhas Clapper Lark (recently lumped again with Cape Clapper Lark) and Agulhas Long-billed Lark (still split from Cape Long-billed Lark). Both were picked up relatively easily by listening for their distinctive calls and great views were enjoyed of both species, calling and displaying. Another roadside highlight (albeit somewhat unexpectedly in atypical habitat) was an Acacia Pied Barbet.

Our next target bird was Cape Vulture at the Potberg colony – as the birds tend to leave the colony only after the sun has been up for a while and with the help of some decent thermals, we aimed to arrive at Potberg at around 9AM. Our timing was spot on and soon after arrival, several Cape Vultures were picked out against the skyline. An added bonus was provided in the form of a Black Sparrowhawk circling above us, while the vegetation around the Potberg Educational Centre also provided good views of Southern Boubou. From Potberg, the next stop was the western section of the De Hoop Nature Reserve, which (as always) proved extremely productive – new trip birds included Wood Sandpiper, Whiskered Tern, Horus Swift and, after some searching, a confiding pair of Southern Tchagra.

Waterfowl were plentiful in the De Hoop vlei, including large numbers of Cape Shoveller, Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Teal and SA Shelduck, as well as Great Crested Grebe, African Spoonbill, some more Greater Flamingo and a large flock of Black-crowned Night Heron. An undoubted mammal highlight was a pair of Cape Clawless Otter, swimming peacefully in the vlei, while other new mammals for the trip list included the endangered Cape Mountain Zebra and more Bontebok.

After a leisurely lunch under the Wild Fig trees, we left De Hoop and shortly after crossing the pont at Malgas, were surprised to find a lone Diederick Cuckoo on a fence post. A stop at the dam just outside the small mission village of Suurbraak produced Streaky-headed Seedeater, Amethyst Sunbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and a calling Red Chested Cuckoo in the distance (which, typically, stayed well out of sight!).

By now it was late afternoon and in our haste to get to Grootvadersbosch for some forest birding before it got too late, we nearly missed a lone Forest Buzzard perched on one of the roadside telephone poles. At Grootvadersbosch itself, we had calling Knysna Warbler, seen fleetingly only by John, although the next 48 hours would provide significantly improved views and some spectacular Warbler watching! Honeywood Farm then gave us great views of calling Black Cuckoo, as well as Pearl-breasted Swallow. Finally, the day ended spectacularly with outstanding spotlight views of the resident African Wood Owl.

Day 10 (Grootvadersbosch Forest, Honeywood Farm and Wilderness):

The first few hours of daylight were spent in the forest at Grootvadersbosch with the hope of seeing some of the forest specials normally only found further east. Apart from the usual suspects, we slowly added several new birds to the trip list, including Olive Woodpecker, Grey Cuckooshrike, Olive Bush-Shrike, Bluemantled Crested Flycatcher, Narina Trogon and African Paradise Flycatcher. African Dusky Flycatcher and Cape Batis were also seen well again. After a hearty full English breakfast at Honeywood Farm, a stroll around the gardens gave us brief (but definitive) views of Lesser Honeyguide, while Greater Honeyguide remained another “guide only” sighting.

This was followed by a visit to the Crowned Eagle nest on one of the neighbouring farms, which, although unsuccessful, did produce improved views of an eye-catching, male African Paradise Flycatcher, as well as another sighting of White-faced Duck. The N2 national road to Wilderness then gave us good views of an early arriving Steppe Buzzard, while the Ebb & Flow rest camp in Wilderness delivered the goods immediately on arrival with even better views of the iconic and stunning Knysna Turaco. A short drive to some of the bird hides in the area produced Red-necked Spurfowl, Black-bellied Starling, Neddicky, and SA’s first breeding Common House Martin. Burchell’s Coucal and Malachite Kingfisher were also seen in the rest camp.

On our return to the campsite after dark, we also enjoyed good views of Bushpig, albeit that they rummaging through the dustbins!

Day 11 (Wilderness National Park and Nature’s Valley):

The day started off well enough with saturation views of Black-headed Oriole at Ebb & Flow. We then left for Woodville Forest, where we quickly picked up Green-backed Camaroptera, the endemic Chorister Robin-Chat and the most spectacular views imaginable of a pair of Knysna Warbler: while one remained visible creeping the undergrowth, the other perched comfortably at eye-level, in the open, belting out it’s strident call for what seemed like forever. Woodville also produced White-starred Robin and “guide-only” views of secretive Lemon Dove, although on exiting the forest, we all enjoyed great views of Forest Canary (on the fringes of the parking lot) and Plain-backed Pipit (in the adjacent field). By now the weather had started to turn and it was decidedly wet and miserable – perfect weather for flufftails!

A trip to the Malachite Hide provided fleeting views (for some…) of Red-chested Flufftail, while Little Bittern flew quickly past.Later that afternoon, while on a forest walk, a Buff-spotted Flufftail’s monotonous and far carrying call was also heard. Other forest highlights included a talented Chorister Robin-Chat mimicking Emerald Cuckoo, Red-chested Cuckoo and Knysna Turaco all in quick succession, while a trip to a very wet Nature’s Valley gave us our first sightings of Black-backed Puffback and Green Woodhoopoe, as well as roadside views of an obliging Giant Kingfisher. Day 12 (Wilderness to Cape Town via the N2): After a later than usual start and a leisurely breakfast, we proceeded to make our way back to Cape Town.

But not before having one more attempt at the Red-chested Flufftail for Johan, who didn’t manage to see it previously. Again, only fleeting views were obtained, but they were good enough! John had also been left in the hands of a local birder as his flight was only later in the afternoon from George Airport, and he was able to enjoy good views of Terrestrial Brownbul (which, surprisingly, had eluded the group), as well as Ruff and Common Redshank.

All in all, an extremely enjoyable and productive trip covering around 3,600 kilometres and producing 256 species in total, including 82 endemic or near-endemic species (with 8 others heard, but not seen, and 3 more which were seen by the guide only).

For a complete species list (including mammals, see tags below).

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