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Best of birding in Buffalo Bay

Best of birding in Buffalo Bay

Early that morning just before sunrise, my eldest daughter Suné and I slipped out of the house. We had arrived the previous afternoon for a few days of family time at Buffalo Bay, a tiny village on the coast between Sedgefield and Knysna. Now, in the pre-dawn quiet, we left the rest of the family to sleep and wandered down towards the main beach of Buffalo Bay.

A Cape Robin-Chat and a Cape Grassbird started singing in one of the gardens and, a few moments later, were joined by the calls of Olive Thrushes and Cape Turtle- and Red-eyed doves. A Spotted Eagle-Owl perched on a telegraph pole watched us with large, unblinking, yellow eyes.

To find photos of the birds in this article head to: Top 10 birds in Buffalo Bay

Leaving the sea behind

birding in Buffalo Bay

Buffalo Bay, Western Cape, South Africa

We reached the beach at sunrise, where hundreds of Common-, Arctic- and Sandwich Terns were hovering over the waves, and plunging into the turbulence to emerge with small shrimps in their bills. The almost glass-like shrimps were swallowed quickly on the wing, and the birds then repeated the process again and again.

Kelp Gulls, attracted to the activity of the terns, and wanting to exercise their wings after a night in their roost, rode the thermals created by the waves, and showed off their mastery of flight.

Further along the beach, White-fronted Plovers scurried away from us at high speed on short legs, and pairs of African Black Oystercatchers probed their red, dagger-bills into the sand for hidden invertebrates. Ploughshare snails pulled themselves out from the sand in their hundreds and congregated to feast on numerous Portuguese man o’ wars that had been stranded above the high-tide mark.

The beach marked the start of the four-kilometre Buffalo Bay Trail that Suné and I wanted to walk. Leaving the beach behind us, we topped the dune from where we could see across the wide bay to Brenton-on-Sea, home of the famous Brenton blue butterfly, and the western heads of Knysna.

A group of surfers with their super-happy dog had in the meantime arrived on the beach below and were soon paddling out to the backline from where they were able to confirm Buffalo Bay’s reputation as a top surf spot.

We left the sea behind us and hiked across patches of open scrubland that gave good sightings of Bokmakieries, Karoo Prinias and Neddickys. The trail then entered dense, overhanging coastal forest filled with gnarled trees whose bark was covered in colourful moss and lichen.

Along the trail to the scrubland

birding Buffalo Bay

Cape Grassbird, Agulhas National Park, Western Cape, South Africa

On the trail floor, the tracks of porcupine, bushbuck, Cape grysbok, genet and large beetles showed just how much unseen life was about. And it wasn’t long before we came across a birding party of Cape White-eyes, Cape Batises, Speckled Mousebirds, Southern Boubous, Sombre Greenbuls, Fork-tailed Drongos, Amethyst Sunbirds and an Olive Bushshrike.

Then along came another group of African Paradise Flycatchers hopping through the tangled branches around a pair of Blue-mantled Flycatchers that were fanning their tails wide in seeming agitation.

The end of the trail opened out into short scrubland that seemed a hotspot for raptors. Within a few hundred metres, we sighted a Black-shouldered Kite trying to hunt down a three-striped mouse. Overhead, a Jackal Buzzard was being chased by an angry Rock Kestrel, and not far from us a Steppe Buzzard perched on top of a burnt tree stump. To crown it all, a large female Peregrine Falcon swept past just metres away from us, in hot pursuit of a panicking Laughing Dove.

Estuaries and a sea-front

bird watching

Sunset along the beach of the Goukamma Marine Protected Area, Western Cape, South Africa

Back at our house, I split the lazy afternoon between reading and gazing out to sea. Certainly, the view was better and more entertaining than anything on a TV, with passing humpback whales, yachts on the horizon, flocks of hunting Cape Gannets, humpback dolphin pods and even a Cape fur seal that had caught a large fish and was thrashing it to pieces on the surface of the sea, taking out huge chunks of flesh with each bite.

Outside there were endless comings and goings of Cape Bulbuls Cape Weavers, Greater-striped Swallows, Cape Wagtails, Black-headed Orioles, Fiscal Flycatchers, Red-necked Spurfowls and Streaky-headed Seedeaters.

In the late afternoon, my younger daughter Xanté convinced me to explore the estuary and river mouth a few kilometres away, both part of the Goukamma Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area managed by CapeNature. We wandered along the beachfront and, with Wild Card in hand to allow us access to the reserve, started off at the Goukamma River mouth.

White-breasted and Cape Cormorants roosted on the far bank of the estuary and, a little further upstream, we could see schools of spotted grunter fishtailing in the shallows as they fed. African Darter, Red-knobbed Coots, Yellow-billed Ducks and Egyptian Geese were watched over by a pair of African Fish Eagles perched in a large, dead tree on the water’s edge.

Immense beauty and wonderful surprises

buffalo bay birding

A Kelp Gull rests on exposed intertidal rock flats, De Hoop Marine Protected Area, Western Cape, South Africa

In among a small patch of reeds, a juvenile Malachite Kingfisher sat staring intently into the water as several Pied Kingfishers flew up and down the river, plunging occasionally to catch a small fish or tadpole.

By this time, an evening fog had started to blow in and there was a pinky-purple afterglow in the clouds as the sun dipped. Waves washed lazily over the outcrops of rock and there was a strong, fresh smell of the ocean as the Kelp Gulls threw back their heads and called loudly to end off a wonderful day.

Thinking that we had by now seen it all, Xanté and I headed back to the house in near-darkness, only to be surprised by a honey badger that ran out in front of us and disappeared to search for food among the beach detritus. Buffalo Bay certainly is a town of immense beauty and wonderful surprises.

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