In spring and early summer, the flowers are a magnet for birds and insects. Peter Chadwick heads out to Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden for a spot of birding
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick, www.peterchadwick.co.za
On the outskirts of Worcester in the Western Cape, set against the mighty Hex River Mountains, the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden might only be 154 hectares in size, but it has all the beauty and diversity to bowl you over.
One of nine botanical gardens in the country managed by the South African National Biodiversity Institute, it lies in the vegetation types of Worcester-Robertson Karoo and the threatened Breede Shale Renosterveld. The gardens focus on plants from the arid and semi-arid regions of South Africa, with 400 species occurring naturally and another 2 500 species maintained in greenhouses.
Here, on an excellent network of well-planned paths, you can get down to some serious exploring and birding in the 11-hectare cultivated section of the gardens. Bird species and numbers are low in comparison to the bushveld regions, but the birds are relaxed, which means brilliant opportunities to study their beauty and behaviour close up.
I always try and visit the gardens during spring or early summer when many of the aloes and smaller bulbous plants are flowering, and attract birds and insects. Four-striped mice scurry around in the undergrowth and, with a little bit of patience, I occasionally see them dart from flower to flower, burying their heads deep into the petals, and playing a critical role in pollination. As it gets a little warmer, angulate and leopard tortoises wander between the plants and munch away on juicy succulent flowers.
My favourite area of the gardens is in the Richtersveld and Namibian sections, where quiver trees make the perfect silhouettes for photography. The beds of orange Namaqualand daisies and delicate purple Pelargonium sericifolium provide splashes of colour. Flowering aloes attract Malachite- and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds (6 on checklist) and I spend hours watching the iridescent males chase one another, and probe the flowers. It soon becomes apparent that the sunbirds have a set rotation between the plants, which means the nectar levels are always restocked.
Cape Weavers and Cape White-eyes (8) also love feeding on the aloes, and the Fiscal Flycatchers (4) perch on the tall inflorescences, using them as launching pads to catch insects on the ground. Streaky-headed Seed-eaters prefer the aloe seeds, and Yellow Canaries and White-throated Canaries (2) also can be seen in this section, either calling from the top of a small tree or feeding on the ground.
There’s an area of upper lawns with protective overhanging trees, where you can hear the beautiful calls of Cape Robin-Chats and Karoo Thrushes, and see them searching the lawn for food. Acacia Pied Barbets and Cape Bulbuls nest in these trees, and Red-eyed Doves hide shyly in the dense foliage. Klaas’s Cuckoos follow the Southern Masked Weavers (7) as they feed in the upper branches.
In the early mornings, White-backed Mousebirds (5) clamber to the treetops in their small family groups and puff their bellies towards the sun. It warms up the birds and helps them to digest the fresh shoots that make up the majority of their diet.
The upper lawns are also the start of the 1km Shale Trail and the slightly longer 3.5km Grysbokkie Hiking Trail. Both lead up to the indigenous sections of the gardens, with views over the steep mountains on one side and the town of Worcester on the other. The peace on these trails is soul refreshing, especially when sitting in the quiet and watching pairs of Verreaux’s Eagles fly above the cliffs.
Rock Kestrels and Jackal Buzzards are usually present, and Alpine Swifts, White-rumped Swifts, Black Swifts and Rock Martins sweep the skies for aerial insects.
In the scrubby vegetation, Cape Buntings (10) can be seen on the ground in open patches, and the harsh, churring alarm calls of Karoo Scrub Robins (1) often give away the presence of a small grey mongoose or
a snake. Speckled Pigeons (3) and Red-winged Starlings fly in small flocks between the ridges and, on occasion, I have been lucky enough to see Cape Rock Thrushes.
After walking both mountain trails, I usually wander back past the Namaqualand gardens and through the spekboom forest to the Karoo Adventure Trail. Gifbos plants, with their long, green, finger-like stems and small, pungent, yellow flowers, are common here and attract scores of insects. In between the bees, I watch small butterflies, hover flies, dung flies and brommer flies drink the nectar. A careful search usually shows small crab spiders that lie in wait on these plants for a hapless victim to come into range of their lightning-fast grabs that inject deadly venom.
Among the kapokbossies, Karoo Prinia and Bar-throated Apalises creep through the tangled undergrowth and occasionally clamber up to proclaim their territory. Bokmakierie pairs sing in perfect duet and the Familiar Chats are also easily recognised by their habit of flicking their wings as they land on perches in the low vegetation.
My last stop on each visit to the botanical gardens is the large expansive lawns that surround the Kokerboom restaurant. Among the picnicking families, Cape Spurfowls and Helmeted Guineafowls wander about looking for scraps. Common Fiscals (9) sit regally on the treetops, surveying all around them like kings, sometimes aggressively chasing away other birds that have wandered into their territory. African Hoopoes and Cape Wagtails also wander the lawns, making up the last of a good selection of birds that can be seen on an outing.
For me, birding really is just an excuse to get outdoors and explore the beauty of our splendid countryside. And when I also have the chance to see, learn about and photograph the plants and wildlife of places as special as the Karoo Desert gardens, I leave content and happy.
Season & weather
This is harsh, semi-arid countryside with high summer temperatures and cool winters. Rainfall generally falls in winter, and spring is best for diverse flowers and birding.
There are more than 400 plant species, with a focus on plants from arid and semi-arid regions. Worcester-Robertson Karoo and threatened Breede Shale Renosterveld are the two primary habitats.
- Verreaux’s Eagle
- Karoo Scrub Robin
- Karoo Thrush
- Bar-throated Apalis
- Malachite Sunbird
BIRDING CHECKLIST: 10 specials to try and spot at the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden
- The Karoo Scrub Robin (Slangverklikker) gets its Afrikaans name from its harsh churring alarm call when mobbing predators. It inhabits dry fynbos, Karoo and thorny riverine scrub.
- The White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie) has a greenish-yellow rump that is very conspicuous during flight. It is usually found in pairs and forages on the ground for seeds, berries and insects.
- Inhabiting mountainous and rocky country, the Speckled Pigeon (Kransduif) feeds in open areas, particularly in cultivated lands. In display, the male flies from its perch, clapping its wings below its body
in short bursts that are interspersed with long glides.
- A common resident in most of South Africa, the male Fiscal Flycatcher (Fiskaalvlieëvanger) is jet black on top, the female a duller sooty black or brown. It perches on top of a bush or small tree and catches insects on the ground.
- One of three mousebird species in Southern Africa, the White-backed Mousebird (Witrugmuisvoël) has the peculiar habit of eating the faeces of its young in the nest. It is gregarious, and is seen in the drier parts of Southern Africa.
- The nest of the Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Klein-rooibrand-suikerbekkie) is made of soft plant material bound by spider’s web. The female incubates but both adults feed their young.
- The Southern Masked Weaver (Swartkeelvink) makes an oval nest with no entrance tunnel. Nests that have not been accepted by the female are destroyed by the male, and he can have females in up to 12 nests at a time.
- The Cape White-eye (Kaapse Glasogie) is one of 80 white-eye species worldwide. During breeding it is found in pairs, otherwise it is a gregarious species that, on occasion in winter, is found in flocks of
up to 100 birds.
- The Common Fiscal (Fiskaallaksman) usually perches conspicuously. It sometimes impales its prey of rodents, insects, small reptiles and birds on a large thorn or sharp twig, and feeds on it later.
- The Cape Bunting (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie) forages on the ground, walking with short steps. It sings from a rock or low bush and it has a low jerky flight. It is a common species in rocky ground.
The gardens are well laid out with numerous small trails. Two slightly longer trails, the Shale Trail and the Grysbok Hiking Trail, lead through the foothills of the surrounding mountains and offer panoramic views. There are plenty of shady areas for picnics or you can eat at the Kokerboom Restaurant.
The gardens are situated on Roux Road just west of the N1 highway, on the northern side of Worcester in the Western Cape.
South African National Biodiversity Institute:
023 347 0785
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