Enjoy the best endemic birding in this rich fynbos area of the Western Cape. Peter Chadwick goes birding in Kogelberg…
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick, www.peterchadwick.co.za
If the Cape Floristic Kingdom could be compared to the human body, then the Kogelberg Biosphere is its heart. Considered by many to be the core of our fynbos kingdom, with extremely diverse species of flora in an area that stretches from the rugged Western Cape coastline to the mountains that make up most of its landscape. As an enthusiastic birder keen on finding special endemic species, the Kogelberg couldn’t be a better destination.
I had risen well before dawn and set off from my cottage in Rooi-Els. It was a two-hour’s drive to an isolated patch of fynbos set against a steep mountain slope, where I hoped to find the Cape Rockjumper (8 on checklist), a highly sought-after endemic.
Mist swirled around me, making bird-watching conditions rather poor, but not 200 metres along the road was a stunningly beautiful specimen. He was perched on a boulder with half-cocked tail and relaxed as can be.
Nearby, his female partner scratched on the ground in search of breakfast and they obviously had chicks hidden away somewhere, as they both collected food before flying out of sight.
Rooi-Els is well known for its rockjumpers and there’s a small hiking trail that leads through coastal fynbos where these birds can be found. I was lucky to find them alongside dozens of Orange-breasted Sunbird males, displaying with Cape Sugarbirds and an occasional dazzling metallic green Malachite Sunbird.
During other visits here, I have also encountered Cape Siskin and Ground Woodpecker along this route, and some people have been lucky enough to see a leopard skulking along the higher slopes. Verreaux’s Eagle, Jackal Buzzard (4) and Rock Kestrel are also regularly encountered soaring next to the ridge of the mountain.
I was so elated with my early discoveries as I set off for Stony Point in Betty’s Bay, just a few minutes’ drive from Rooi-Els. In the early 1980s, this rather uninteresting jumble of rocks lining the coastline became famous when a small group of the endangered African Penguin (1) decided it would become their first mainland breeding colony. Since then, the colony has steadily grown into one of the most important breeding colonies for the species. Wooden boardwalks and viewing platforms now transect the colony, allowing thousands of visitors each year to watch the antics of these quaint birds.
Cape Cormorants and White-breasted Cormorants (6) also breed beside the penguins and fortunate visitors might also see Crowned- and Bank Cormorants. At the most seaward point of the boardwalk, I scanned out to sea with binocs in the hope of sighting Pomarine Jaegers and Sub-Antarctic Skuas that sometimes visit the area to scavenge.
On this trip I was out of luck, but I did view a small pod of bottlenose dolphins feeding off-shore. In the distance, a southern right whale and her young calf lazed on the surface, occasionally tail- or fin-slapping the water.
Eastwards from the colony, as I walked along the sandy beaches and rocky outcrops, it wasn’t long before I saw African Black Oystercatchers, White-fronted Plovers, Hartlaub’s Gulls, African Sacred Ibis and, of course, the ever-present Kelp Gulls. On the breakwater of the small harbour, flocks of Swift, Sandwich- and Common Terns enjoyed their daytime roost, sleeping or carefully preening each feather into place.
From the time I first visited Betty’s Bay as a young boy, the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden has always been a favourite birding destination for me, and one of my most memorable experiences was finding the first record for the Western Cape of a Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher in the forested Disa Kloof.
This time at Harold Porter, the mist finally began to lift, and birds of all varieties began singing loudly as the sun came out. Olive Thrushes and Cape Robin Chats hopped and scurried across the lawns probing for fat earthworms. In the shade, small families of Cape Spurfowl dozed sleepily with half-open eyes.
From trees laden with small fruit, Cape White-eyes and Sombre Greenbuls (2) called and fed, called and fed. Male African Paradise Flycatchers with long tails chased after females. Speckled Mousebirds (5), Spotted Prinias, Fiscal Flycatchers, Common Fiscals and Cape- and White-throated Canaries (3) darted about in the colourful indigenous gardens. Butterflies and dragonflies flitted among the flowers and the occasional angulate tortoises emerged as the day warmed up.
Seed-laden grasses attracted small flocks of Common- and Swee Waxbills that deftly husked the outer shells of the seed to swallow the softer insides. I wandered across the cement bridge that arched over a tannin-laden stream, and flushed out a pair of Giant Kingfishers that dashed off at high speed with loud alarm calls.
The trail that leads to Disa Kloof is surrounded by forest and here I was able to find a Cape Batis, Dusky Flycatcher and Olive Woodpecker. Sadly, the final bridge to Disa Kloof was washed away by heavy flooding and I had to retrace my path to the garden’s entrance.
In the Kogelberg Nature Reserve, fields of pelargoniums painted the hilly slopes of fynbos purple. In places, orange pincushions appeared, which were used by African Stone Chats to launch after insects swarming around the pollen and nectar. In turn, the insects attracted large flocks of White-throated Swallows, Rock Martins, Black- and White-rumped Swifts and Greater-striped Swallows.
My final destination was Stanford, where I joined Peter Hochfelden, chairman of February’s Walker Bay Bird Fair in Stanford, for a superb afternoon’s birding. We clambered into his small aluminium boat and puttered our way up the reed-lined Klein River that fed into the large lagoon. African Darter, Purple Swamphen, Red-knobbed Coot, Yellow-billed Duck, Black Crake, Common Moorhen, Purple Heron (9) and Pied Kingfisher (10) were regular sightings.
Above us a pair of African Fish Eagles called regularly and, perhaps the highlight of the day, a Little Bittern (7) froze ahead in his desperate attempt to avoid detection. It had been a wonderful day and, as the afternoon shadows crept across the landscape, I reflected on how few areas there are that contain such diverse birding in such a splendid landscape.
Season & Weather
A Mediterranean climate has warm summers and mild winters. It’s windy throughout the year, with main rain in the winter months. Always be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. Summers are dry and dusty but in winter the fynbos is lush and largely in flower. The best months to visit are April and September.
Extremely diverse, with habitats of mountain, limestone and coastal fynbos, and numerous wetlands and vleis surrounded by thicket vegetation. There are rugged cliffs and long beaches.
- African Penguin
- Little Bittern
- Cape Rockjumper
- Victorin’s Warbler
- Cape Siskin
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot in the Kogelberg Biosphere
The African Penguin (Brilpikkewyn) gets its Afrikaans name from its loud braying call that is not dissimilar to that of a donkey. It usually brays in breeding colonies, at dawn and dusk.
The Sombre Greenbul (Gewone Willie) is an easily overlooked species that keeps to dense foliage. It is most often found when calling. It mainly forages on small fruits in the upper branches of forest and coastal thicket.
Breeding between August and April, the White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie) makes a small cup-like nest of fine twigs and grass stems lined with plant down. The two to four eggs take 13 days to hatch.
The Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoël) typically inhabits hilly or mountainous countryside, and when it is seen in flight it has characteristic broad wings. It is able to hover, and hunts by stooping or gliding on to prey from a perch.
The six species of mousebird are found only in Africa and are exclusively vegetarian. The Speckled Mousebird (Gevlekte Muisvoël) differs from other mousebird species by occasionally being polygamous. Male mousebirds feed the females as part of a courtship ritual.
The White-breasted Cormorant (Witborsduiker) is part of a family of 30 cormorant species found worldwide, of which five species are found in Southern Africa. A colonial breeder, it lays two to four pale blue eggs in a rough stick nest.
The Little Bittern (Kleinrietreier) is partly nocturnal and usually skulks in reed beds. When alarmed it will adopt a typical bittern posture with bill pointing vertically and the stripes on its neck providing good camouflage.
One of the most sought-after endemic bird species in the Cape Floral Kingdom, the Cape Rockjumper (Kaapse Berglyster) is usually found in pairs on the steeper slopes of the mountains. It is most often seen perched on top of a rock with tail slightly cocked.
The Pied Kingfisher (Bontvisvanger) is one of the most commonly encountered kingfishers in this region. The male has a double, black breastband while the female has a single band. It is able to hover over the water with its body in an almost vertical position.
From Gordon’s Bay follow the R44 coastal road towards Betty’s Bay. To reach the Rooi-Els site, cross the Rooi-Els estuary and take the second turn-off to the right and proceed along a gravel road until you reach the parking circle. The coastal road passes through Betty’s Bay and continues to Kleinmond and Hermanus. The Stony Point penguin colony is well signposted.
Accommodation & Activities
Plenty of accommodation is available in and around Betty’s Bay, Stanford and Pringle Bay. CapeNature recently upgraded its accommodation at the Kogelberg Nature Reserve and these eco-friendly cottages, which also have a superb swimming pool, lie in the heart of the fynbos, with stunning views of the Palmiet River and surrounding mountains.
- CapeNature Central Reservations: 021 659 3500, www.capenature.co.za
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