FLY CAPE TOWN
Our September birdwatching tour to South Africa begins with British Airways overnight flight from London Heathrow to Cape Town.
CAPE PENINSULA, CAPE TOWN SEABIRD PELAGIC BOAT TRIP & HOTTENTOTS HOLLAND MOUNTAINS
We arrive in Cape Town on the morning of day two, where Dalton will be waiting to welcome us at the start of our tour.
Considered to be one of the most scenic stretches of coastal landscape in the world, the Cape Peninsula is among Africa's top tourism destinations. For birdwatchers, it provides an excellent introduction to the exciting and varied birdlife of Cape Province, as well as easy access to a good selection of fynbos, forest and coastal endemics - all looking at their very best now, in the austral spring.
Our base is not far from the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. Widely recognised as one of the finest botanical gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch would be an essential destination for its pleasing landscapes and spectacular floral displays alone. But the well-maintained gardens and adjacent fynbos and indigenous forest also support a diverse selection of bird species. Here we hope for point-blank views of several fynbos endemics, such as Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird, as well as a number of forest species including Forest Canary and Cape Batis.
Situated at the southwesternmost tip of Africa, the rugged coastline and windswept moorlands of the Cape of Good Hope Reserve are now incorporated into the Table Mountain National Park. This spectacular reserve is excellent for seawatching and one of the best places to see Cape Siskin, a fynbos endemic, which is best searched for in the vicinity of the cliff view points at Cape Point. We should also see the remarkable Bontebok antelope, once one of the world’s most threatened species with less than fifty individuals remaining.
Returning from the Cape of Good Hope, Boulders Beach is the site of the larger of the two mainland colonies of the endearing and globally threatened African Penguin. More than 1000 pairs breed, peering suspiciously from their shallow, sheltered burrows at their now considerable following of human visitors!
It is possible to see over 100 species of birds in a day at the extensive Strandfontein sewage works, arguably the best waterbird locality close to Cape Town. We’ll spend a few hours here on one of our days in Cape Town, where specialities include Greater Flamingo, Great White Pelican, Maccoa Duck, African Marsh Harrier, African Swamphen, South African Shelduck and African Fish Eagle.
We will plan to head out to sea on the first day of suitable weather, taking one of the Cape’s world famous seabirding trips. Pelagic species - those that breed on land but which otherwise remain at sea - congregate around the trawlers working offshore, making them easy to locate and approach. The high point of a pelagic birding trip is sure to be that of wallowing behind a trawler with up to 5000 seabirds squabbling for scraps in its wake. At this time of year, day-trippers regularly see up to 30 different species, making it arguably the world's most memorable yet easily accessible seabirding experience. We should also see Southern Right Whales from the boat, for the females migrate to the Cape to calve in the shallow waters here.
[Pelagic boat trip: please note we have a very high success rate at finding trawlers that the seabirds follow - but this is never guaranteed! Note also that the pelagic is entirely weather dependent and we won't go if conditions are unsuitable. For anyone who prefers not to join the boat trip, today offers an ideal opportunity to enjoy some private sightseeing in Cape Town or maybe to return to wonderful Kirstenbosch.]
Across the sandy, low-lying flats to the east of Cape Town, a barrier of mountains interrupts the landscape - the haunt of the Cape Rock-jumper and other fynbos endemics. Our first stop will be to explore the mountain fynbos at Rooiels, a classic Cape birding spot in the Hottentots Holland Mountains. We’ll search a rocky ridge, keeping alert for the loud piping call of the rockjumpers and looking out for Cape Grassbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Neddicky and Karoo Prinia. Victorin's Warblers can be heard singing from the denser vegetation of the hill slopes.
Nearby, at Betty’s Bay, the jumble of lichen-splattered boulders provides a safe roost for good numbers of terns, gulls and cormorants. It’s here we will search for a number of endemic or localised coastal species. These include the Benguela endemics Cape, Crowned and Bank Cormorants, Hartlaub’s and Kelp Gulls, and African Black Oystercatcher. The undoubted highlight here though are the comical African Penguins that rest on the slipway or waddle ashore to their burrows in the village.
This area is also remarkably diverse in Erica species and we’ll see many mountain fynbos specials. It’s also an excellent spot to see and understand the critical effect that fire has on these ecosystems.
Throughout our stay of three nights here we will be based at a comfortable guesthouse on the Cape Peninsula, which has superb birding from the garden! Three nights on the Cape Peninsula
WEST COAST NATIONAL PARK
The southwestern Cape’s western seaboard - which stretches along the Atlantic shore from Cape Town northwards to the Olifants River - is known for its superb beaches, bountiful sea-life, internationally-recognised coastal wetlands and spring wildflower displays... which are nothing short of spectacular!
Birding here is wonderful, too - not only for the abundance of passage waders and other wetland birds to watch for, but for the rewarding strandveld, where highlights could well include the quiet elegance of a Black Harrier, hunting low over the scrublands of the West Coast National Park, or catching sight of a secretive Chestnut-vented Warbler or Bar-throated Apalis.
We’ll drive up from Cape Town, birding our way along the coast and eventually ending up in the West Coast National Park, where a two-night stay at Langebaan will afford ample time to explore. Southern Black Korhaan is a notable local speciality, and we should enjoy waterbirds such as Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Great White Pelican and Chestnut-banded Plover. Two nights Langebaan (at the edge of West Coast National Park)
After enjoying some final birding on South Africa's West Coast, we'll head east (inland) towards Ceres, which will our base for two nights as we explore the Tankwa Karoo and adjacent areas.
The Tankwa Karoo is best known for the unpredictable yet spectacular spring floral displays that provide such a colourful, though ephemeral, façade to a fascinating region. This winter-rainfall desert is home to a unique arid-land flora that is unparalleled globally in terms of its diverse mixture of both species and growth forms. The region forms the largest portion of the Succulent Karoo Biome, recognised as the only desert biodiversity hotspot on Earth and hosting the world’s greatest variety of succulent plants.
The parched brown expanses, aloe-lined escarpments and lonely isolated hills of the region provide an apt setting for some sought-after dry western endemics and a whole new view of the botany! Emerging from the hills and onto the semi-desert plains of the Tankwa Karoo, one enters a whole new habitat for birds, too – where almost everything is an endemic! We’ll take the R355 towards Calvinia, famous as ‘the longest road in South Africa uninterrupted by a town’ (250km in all).
Common birds of the relatively moist scrublands just north of the road fork are Pale Chanting Goshawk, Karoo Lark, Karoo Chat, Rufous-eared Warbler, Grey-backed Cisticola and Yellow Canary. We’ll search for the yellow-eyed Karoo Eremomela; a co-operative breeder, it occurs in small, agitated flocks that remain constantly on the move, thoroughly gleaning low bushes before the birds follow each other onwards. We’ll also visit a special rocky hillside, where we might be lucky to find the elusive and little-known Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, one of the tougher Karoo endemics to set eyes on!
As we head north, bushes are few and far between and the ground gleams with the mineral patina of the desert pebbles. This is classic Tractrac Chat country: birds are most often spotted as they flush near the road and display their white rumps as they fly a short distance to perch again on a fence or low bush. Spike-heeled Lark is also regularly seen.
From this point on, we’ll be alert for flocks of nomadic Black-eared Sparrow-larks, which is found throughout the Karoo. It is worth keeping an eye out for pairs of superbly camouflaged Karoo Korhaan, and also Springbok, an antelope occurring in the arid areas of southern Africa.
If we are lucky enough to visit after recent rain, we will see that pools forming close to the road invariably attract South African Shelduck and thirsty flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse. We’ll search for Namaqua Warbler in the watercourses - and if we’re really fortunate, may even spot a Burchell’s Courser on the plains in areas where we’ve seen them in the past. Two nights Ceres
Today we head across the mountains to reach Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve. In the late afternoon, we will arrive at our accommodation for the next two nights, a comfortable guest farm at Grootvadersbosch. The endemic Forest Buzzard (recently split from Mountain Buzzard) often soars below our hillside cottages - and the home-cooked meals here are always excellent!
The vast wilderness of the Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve incorporates a 250-hectare indigenous forest, the largest in the southwestern Cape and certainly the region’s richest in bird diversity. A number of more characteristically eastern species reach their westernmost limit here - and most are not too difficult to find with a little patience and persistence.
The forest edge areas are the favoured feeding habitat of several seedeaters, including small flocks of Swee Waxbill, Forest Canary and Cape Siskin. This is also a good place to look for foraging Black Saw-wings, and for birds of prey. African Crowned Eagle reaches its western limit at Grootvadersbosch and is sometimes seen overflying this ridge, while commoner woodland raptors include Forest Buzzard, African Goshawk and Black Sparrowhawk.
The most numerous and conspicuous small birds in the forest are Sombre Greenbul, Cape Batis and Bar-throated Apalis. Before long however, we will intercept a bird party, adding the likes of Olive Woodpecker, Terrestrial Brownbul, African Paradise Flycatcher, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler and Greater Double-collared Sunbird.
While many of these birds are very vocal, some species - such as Olive Bush-shrike - are inconspicuous lurkers and we may well need to invest a little effort before obtaining good views. Other birds we might see today include the ever-elusive Knysna Woodpecker, Knysna Warbler and Grey Cuckooshrike. Two nights Grootvadersbosch
OVERBERG & DE HOOP NATURE RESERVE
In the early morning, we leave Grootvadersbosch and head off into the lowlands in the direction of De Hoop Nature Reserve. The superficially sterile monoculture of the Overberg wheatlands harbours a surprising diversity of birds, including such ‘desirables’ as Black Harrier, Blue Crane, Karoo Korhaan and Grey-winged Francolin. Agulhas Long-billed Lark is endemic to this area and is among the world’s most localised lark species.
The area is pleasantly scenic, with only the scatter of fiery red aloes across the winter hillsides destroying the illusion of a restful southern European landscape. Isolated in the moist grasslands and lowland fynbos of South Africa, ‘Stanley's Bustard’ is currently classified as a subspecies of Denham's Bustard, a bird whose range extends into East Africa. In spring, displaying males retract their heads and inflate their white throat pouches before strutting about in this voluminous ‘Mae West’ state!
The whole of the Overberg region is good raptor country: Secretarybird, African Marsh Harrier and Black Harrier are regularly seen. Common and characteristic species of the agricultural lands include Large-billed and Red-capped Larks, Capped Wheatear, Cape Longclaw, African Pied Starling, Cape Crow, Pin-tailed Whydah, Yellow Canary and, particularly favouring stubble fields, the wonderfully named Cloud Cisticola.
We head to De Hoop Nature Reserve, its 36,000 hectares of lowland fynbos and coastal dunes east of Cape Agulhas encompassing a low fynbos-clad mountain (Potberg) and a coastal lake. The cliffs on the southern side of Potberg Mountain are renowned for hosting the Western Cape's last breeding colony of Cape Vultures, while the coastal thickets of the lowlands conceal such desirable endemics as Southern Tchagra and, more rarely, Knysna Woodpecker.
Late in the afternoon, we will drive down to the dunes where, from a prominent viewpoint over the Indian Ocean, we'll spend time watching the Southern Right Whales – with calves often alongside their mothers at this time of year. Further out, Humpback Whales flash the white undersides of their tails and fins as they breach. Night De Hoop area
DE HOOP TO CAPE TOWN
We’ll enjoy some morning birding in the area in search of any specialities that we might not have had time to try for yesterday. De Hoop’s main entrance gate is located on a range of limestone hills, from which the road winds down onto the lowland fynbos-swathed plains below.
The fynbos is interspersed with open, pasture-like areas - relics of attempted agriculture prior to the proclamation of the reserve. Bontebok, Eland, Cape Mountain Zebra, Chacma Baboon, Angulate Tortoise and Ostrich all favour these pastures, ensuring both an exciting and varied finale to our tour.
We’ll then drive back through the farmlands - perhaps seeing a few more bustards and cranes - before heading to Cape Town. We bid farewell to Dalton and check-in late afternoon for our British Airways evening flight to London.
ARRIVAL IN LONDON
Morning arrival at London Heathrow, where our September tour to South Africa concludes.