Birding at Fernkloof Nature Reserve

Birders, plant fundis and lovers of nature will revel in this Overberg haven. Peter Chadwick heads out to Fernkloof Nature Reserve for a spot of birding…

Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick, www.peterchadwick.co.za

Portrait of a Helmeted Guineafowl

The Jackal Buzzard glided effortlessly past and circled slowly. Then swung close by once again before turning to have a good look at me on top of the ridge. Satisfied that I was not a threat, it threw back its head and called loudly and was quickly answered by its partner on a cliff a little further along the crest.

From my vantage point were views of the town of Hermanus, the Klein River Estuary and Walker Bay, with Gansbaai showing itself in the distance. Behind me, at 748m above sea level, the Olifantsberg and Platberg formed the high points of a line of ridges and valleys covered in mountain fynbos.

It was hard to believe that, in all the years I had lived in the Overberg, this was the first time I had properly explored the Fernkloof Nature Reserve, a jewel in the crown of the Cape Floristic Region.

My visit to Fernkloof began at sunrise, to get the best of the birds, and to locate some of the shier ones as they sang in the new day. First stop was the indigenous garden close to the entrance of the reserve, where I wandered along the short trails through undergrowth and on the open lawns. Olive Thrushes (1 on checklist) scuttled about in the open, stopping every now and again to cock their head to one side and plunge their bill into the ground to pull out worms.

A Cape Robin-Chat building a nest flew backwards and forwards with small twigs and rootlets that it took into the middle of a dense shrub, well concealed from view. In the heavily laden Cape fig trees, Sombre Greenbuls, Cape Bulbuls (8) and Red-winged Starlings gorged themselves, and the insects around the fruit in turn attracted Spotted Flycatchers and the beautifully russet, black and white Cape Batis (5).

Cape Sugarbirds (9) and Malachite Sunbirds flew over the stands of protea and pincushions, displaying and feeding on the flower heads. The smaller Orange-breasted and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds preferred to hang around the yellow, red, pink and white erica flowers. The males of these brightly coloured birds flittered about and chased one another and, on the arrival of a female, puffed out their feathers and sang as best they could in the hope of attracting her attention.

In among the aloes, Cape White-eyes, Cape Weavers, Southern Boubous (3) and Streaky-headed Seed-eaters (10) fed on the seed or rich nectar. The lawns were ideal for family picnics, and for Helmeted Guineafowls, Cape Spurfowls (4), Cape Wagtails and Red-eyed Doves, but they scattered in flight on the arrival of a resident troop of chacma baboons.

The adult baboons took no notice of me, intent as they were on finding a sunny patch on the grass where they could flop down and bask. The youngsters had other ideas, and bounded about, chasing and tackling each other, occasionally taking the chance of running up to the alpha male and softly pulling at his fur. With a large yawn that bared his long fangs, the male quickly put an end to the harassment and the youngsters scampered to the safety of their mothers.

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I walked to the end of the road, past the indigenous nursery and the small information centre, and headed up along the Red Trail to a small waterfall. At the wooden bridge at the start, I found dainty pinkish-white Gladiolus hirsutus next to the path, and a well-camouflaged angulate tortoise nearby.

Carnivorous Drosera hilaris (sundew), with their sticky leaves that curl up and trapp any small insects, were also plentiful along the route and, as I climbed, the mountain slope showed where a fire had run through it within the last two years.

All around, the previously burnt vegetation was sprouting into life and colour as a result of the recent winter rains. Bulbous plants of numerous varieties grew alongside seed-laden grasses, and these attracted flocks of Common Waxbill, Swee Waxbill and Cape Canary (6). Familiar Chats and Cape Rock Thrushes perched on the rocky boulders, occasionally hopping to the ground to snatch up an insect. Below us, a tannin-rich stream burbled its way to the sea.

As I neared the waterfall, the vegetation became thicker and I soon found myself in a small riparian forest where trees were laden with lichen and moss. Dotted border butterflies perched on the Podalyria calyptrata flowers. Fiscal Flycatchers, Bar-throated Apalises, African Paradise Flycatchers and Olive Woodpeckers were added to my growing bird list. I could hear clicking stream frogs and Cape river frogs in the stream but, no matter how hard I tried to find them, they always stopped calling and disappeared as I approached.

From the waterfall, the trail backtracked slightly and then climbed onto the open ridges where there were spectacular views. On the other trails I could see hikers, botanists, nature lovers and trail runners enjoying themselves.

A pair of Rock Kestrels (7) hovered over a cliff face and Speckled Pigeons and Red-winged Starling flocks flew down towards the lower slopes. Little White-rumped- and Alpine Swifts, together with Rock Martins, swept across the sky with open mouths, after aerial insects. Eventually the trail headed back down to the office, passing through mature stands of Protea longifolia, where Karoo Prinias (2) were the last species I found in Fernkloof.

Although this visit focused on the mountainous sections of the reserve, there is a suite of trails that follows the coastline in front of the town and heads towards the Klein River Estuary and Prawn Flats. Visitors to these sections obviously have the extra benefit of seeing the southern right whales from June to October, for which Hermanus is so famous.

Coastal birds such as African Black Oystercatchers, Swift Terns, Sandwich Terns and Bank- and Cape Cormorants can be seen along the shoreline. Out to sea, African Penguins, Cape Gannets and Antarctic Skuas are fairly common. The estuary is also an excellent spot for seeing waders at low tide, and flocks of Greater Flamingo are common as are several duck species.

It will round off any visit to Fernkloof, a reserve that lives up to its promise of great birding in among stunning scenery.

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Season & Weather

The climate has warm summers and mild winters. Wind is present throughout the year with rain falling mainly in winter. Always be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. The summers are dry and dusty, while in winter the fynbos is lush and in flower. The best months to visit are April and September.

Habitats

The Fernkloof Nature Reserve is about 1800 hectares and has a wide variety of habitats from afromontane forest to rocky cliffs and montane fynbos.

Specials
  • Olive Woodpecker
  • Cape Rockjumper
  • Cape Rock Thrush
  • Cape Batis
  • Orange-breasted Sunbird
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot at Fernkloof Nature Reserve

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  1. Distinguished from the very similar-looking Karoo Thrush, the Olive Thrush (Olyflyster) has brighter underparts with an orange central belly. It inhabits overgrown and forested areas and has also adapted
    to well-vegetated gardens.
  2. The Karoo Prinia (Karoolangstertjie) is common in fynbos and Karoo shrubs. It forages for insects low in grass and shrubberies, sometimes in flight. When alarmed, it flicks its tail before diving back for cover.
  3. Normally in dense vegetation, the Southern Boubou (Suidelike Waterfiskaal) forages by creeping and hopping through the undergrowth. It becomes tame around humans and is a highly vocal species.
  4. Endemic to the south-western Cape and the western rim of the Northern Cape, the Cape Spurfowl (Kaapse Fisant) is a common resident of coastal and montane fynbos and riverine scrub. It may be found in coveys
    of up to 20 birds.
  5. The Cape Batis (Kaapse Bosbontrokkie) is one of five batis species found in Southern Africa. Common
    in evergreen forest and densely wooded gorges, it forages for insects, with a loud bill snap.
  6. The Cape Canary (Kaapse Kanarie) breeds between August and December, and has a nest that is a thick
    cup of fine twigs and rootlets lined with plant down. The 2-5 pale greenish eggs take 12-16 days to hatch.
  7. The Rock Kestrel (Kransvalk) has a wide distribution across Africa, Eurasia and the Philippines. It is common in montane grasslands, usually solitary or in pairs. Flying with rapid wing beats, it frequently hovers and drops onto its prey by parachuting downwards in stages.
  8. The Cape Bulbul (Kaapse Tiptol) is easily recognised from other bulbul species by its darker colour and white eye-ring. It is common in taller fynbos and coastal and riverine scrub, usually in noisy pairs on a perch. It feeds on fruit and nectar.
  9. The sexes appear similar in the Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse Suikervoël), but the tail of the female is shorter. The nest built by the female is a bowl of plant material usually placed in a protea bush. Incubation of the two eggs is by the female, but the chicks are fed by both parents.
  10. Feeding on seeds, berries and flowers, the Streaky-headed Seed-Eater (Steepkopkanarie) is particularly fond of the nectar and seeds of aloes. It is usually found in pairs or small flocks of up to eight and, given its quiet nature, is easily overlooked.
Getting There

The reserve is well signposted, off the R43 through Hermanus in the Overberg, Western Cape.

Activities

There are about 60km of walking trails including the cliff path along the coastal strip. Degrees of difficulty vary. An indigenous nursery is found near the entrance of the reserve and picnicking is possible in the lower gardens. The Fernkloof Farmers Market takes place in the reserve every Saturday.

Contact Information

028 313 0819, fernkloof.com [email protected]

READ MORE: Birding in the Overberg Farmlands

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