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Searching for the Damara Tern

Searching for the Damara Tern

Arniston to Agulhas – De Mond Nature Reserve at Africa’s southernmost tip is one of only two places to view the Damara Tern

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

Cape Mole-Rat burrows on the sandy beach, De Mond Nature Reserve, Western Cape, South Africa

Renowned for its rugged and often storm-ravaged coastline, which has claimed the lives of many a seafarer, Africa’s southernmost tip is also one the best places in South Africa to view a diminutive tern that has a global population of less than 13 500 individuals, and is now listed as endangered in the recently updated Red Data Book of Birds.

Most of these Damara Terns are found along the West African coastline and in Namibia, but in South Africa there is a small local population of between 100 and 120 pairs, making this a highly sought-after species for birding enthusiasts. Measuring only 22cm in length, and with a wingspan of 50cm, these almost uniformly pale-grey birds hunt in the shallows of sheltered coastlines. I used my search for them as an excellent excuse to hike the stunningly beautiful coastline between Arniston and Cape Agulhas.

This 30km stretch is hugely diverse in terms of coastal habitat that varies from jagged sandstone cliffs and rocky platforms to long, white beaches, a rugged boulder-strewn shoreline and what has to be one of the country’s most picturesque estuaries.

Mankind’s history is also deeply etched along the route, with many Khoisan shell middens half-exposed above the high-tide mark. There are also remnants of ancient stone fish-traps or visvywers as they are locally known. These traps have low stone walls that allow fish to enter during the incoming tide, and when the water recedes they are trapped inside.

White daisies with a ship wreck in the background; Agulhas National Park; South Africa

In the coastal hamlet of Struis Bay lies a small fishing harbour where the old wooden fishing boats – or ‘chukkies’ as they are called – of subsistence fishermen are anchored. After long hours and nights at sea, the fishermen and deep-sea anglers offload their catch onto the slipways, and then the price haggling begins. The harbour has also become famous for huge, short-tailed stingrays that come to rest in the sheltered waters of the harbour and then feed between scavenging Cape Cormorants on discarded fish. The stingrays entertain throngs of visitors as they move into the shallows and sweep over your feet in their search for fishy morsels.

Beyond the harbour and the houses of Struis Bay and L’Agulhas, is the historical lighthouse of Cape Agulhas that beams out a nightly warning of just how dangerous the seas off this coastline are. Remnants of numerous wrecks can be found, none more prominent than that of the Meisho Maru just to the west of Africa’s southernmost tip. But more than all these distractions it was the birds that had enticed me to this coastline. So off I set along the coastal cliffs of Arniston at dawn, and it wasn’t long before I found a small breeding colony of Crowned Cormorants that had their nests, built out of seaweed, tucked into the hollow crevices of the cliffs.

Red-winged Starlings, Cape Wagtails and Fiscal Flycatchers fluttered around the colony, snatching at the many small insects attracted to the rotting seaweed. In the stunted coastal vegetation close by were Malachite Sunbirds, Karoo Prinias, Cape Canaries, Cape Bulbuls, Cape Robin-Chats and Southern Boubous, all very busy searching for food.

Beyond the sandstone cliffs and the white beach of Shark Bay, fishermen probed their long, hooked sticks into the rocky outcrops, looking for octopus. I saw Kelp Gulls and a lone Bank Cormorant, as well as Swift-, Sandwich- and Common Terns but, sadly, not the bird I was really hoping for. Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, African Black Oystercatchers and a Whimbrel were also added to my growing list, as they fed between the starfishes and many other marine invertebrates in the rock pools.

Rugged, pristine coastline at dawn, Arniston, Western Cape, South Africa

From the rocky point of Arniston, I ventured along the pristine beaches, where burrows of Cape dune mole rats were etched into the sand. Gentle waves washed in ploughshare snails to search for beach detritus, hundreds of them converging on translucent jellyfish and quickly devouring the wobbly mounds. White-fronted Plovers were common on these beaches and I was extremely fortunate to find a newly hatched and well-camouflaged chick lying motionless on the stony floor of a dune slack.

I still hadn’t found my special, but was teased instead by excellent sightings of Caspian Terns plunge-diving into the surf and emerging with small, wriggling fish. Further out to sea, Cape Gannet flocks flew in extended lines just above the surface, and pods of bottlenose dolphins cavorted in the breaking waves. A large blow of rainbow-tinged spray alerted me to a southern right whale and her calf that surfaced not far behind the backline of waves.

It was only as I neared the Heuningnes River mouth in De Mond Nature Reserve, after a hike of close to 15 kilometres, that I finally saw them. There in front of me were four very special Damara Terns feeding in the water, where the river met the sea.

De Mond is well known as one of only two locations in South Africa where the Damara Terns breed (the other is Algoa Bay on the East Coast) and this population is very carefully monitored by the CapeNature staff. Sadly, human disturbance at their nest sites is the biggest threat to this species and a number of Namibian breeding colonies have been lost to expanding diamond mining, which removes the dune slacks that the birds require to breed in.

Non-breeding birds leave Southern Africa for the shores of West Africa, where strong upwelling off the Ghanaian coast between June and November brings spawning fish inshore for the birds to feed on. A chick that was ringed in De Mond Nature Reserve was recovered 10 months later almost 5 000km away in Benin, West Africa.

I settled down for a re-energising break, and enjoyed watching as the terns hovered and plunged into the shallow water of the estuary as they hunted for little fish. The small colony of less than ten pairs at De Mond breed on the secluded dune slacks between November and February, with the nest a shallow scrape on the ground, sometimes sparsely lined with small stones. Both parents incubate the single, well-camouflaged egg and remain constantly alert, quickly mobbing any approaching intruder.

From the estuary mouth, I had to take an inland detour to cross the river at the large swing bridge near the De Mond Nature Reserve offices. A narrow trail skirted the edge of the estuary, allowing good sightings of the flocks of Greater Flamingos, African Spoonbills, Cape Shovellers, Black-winged Stilts and Pied Avocets. The migrating waders were a little more difficult to identify and I had to check my identifications carefully with binoculars. Little Stints, Sanderlings, Curlew Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers and Grey Plovers were all I saw this time but many a rare species has been known to make an appearance at this important, nutrient-rich estuary.

It was also low tide and I could observe the bizarre-looking shaggy sea hares as they fed in large groups on the sea grass. Evenly spaced circles in the sand had me baffled as to their origin, and it was only later, after much reading, that I was able to discover that they were the feeding patterns of Greater Flamingos that moved their upturned bills in circular patterns to filter out the invertebrates on which they fed. It was the low tide that had exposed these normally unseen patterns.

Late afternoon I arrived at the final resting place of the Meisho Maru shipwreck, a short distance from where the Atlantic and Indian oceans are supposed to meet. It seemed rather fitting that my day closed with a display of colour from the coastal flowers just as the sun began to dip behind the horizon. What a magnificent day of very special birds in a very special place.

Season and Weather

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


The coastline between Arniston and Agulhas is extremely diverse with long sandy beaches, rocky shorelines, a small fishing harbour and an estuary.


  • Damara Tern
  • Caspian Tern
  • Bank Cormorant
  • Crowned Cormorant
  • African Black Oystercatcher

Birding checklist: 10 specials to try and spot in De Mond Nature Reserve

Kelp Gull calling, De Hoop Nature Reserve and marine protected area, Western Cape, South Africa

The red tip of the lower mandible in the Kelp Gull (Kelpmeeu) might serve as a guiding beacon to the youngsters when being fed. The colour of this tip fades or becomes not-existent when not breeding.





Endangered Damara Tern in flight, De Mond Nature Reserve, Western Cape, South Africa

The Damara Tern (Damarasterretjie) is a breeding intra-African migrant whose numbers have been falling considerably. They are monogamous, with incubation by both adults. The nest is a shallow scrape in the ground.




Cape Cormorant waiting for returning fishing boats at the harbour so that it may scavenge fish scraps, Struisbaai Harbour, Western Cape, South Africa.

The Cape Cormorant (Trekduiker) is one of five cormorant species found on South African waters, and is a near-endemic. They actively pursue fish underwater and grab them with their hooked bill. The wings are held closed underwater and are not used for propulsion.




010_Arniston to Agulhas_-¬peterChadwickThe Sanderling (Drietoonstrandloper) possibly derives its name from the Old English ‘sandyrthling’ meaning ‘sand ploughing’, probably a reference to its feeding pattern. A gregarious species, it occurs in flocks of up to 200 birds.




Adult Crowned Cormorants greet at their nest site, Malgas Island, West Coast National Park, Western Cape, South Africa

The smallest of the cormorant species in South Africa, the Crowned Cormorant (Kuifkopduiker) is easily recognised by its raised crown. It forages on bottom-dwelling species, with dives lasting up to a minute.





Greater Flamingo wading in shallow waters, Overberg, Western Cape, South Africa

The colour of the Greater Flamingo (Grootflamink) becomes pinker when breeding due to the carotenoid pigments assimilated from their food. They use foot trembling to disturb bottom sediments, to help them forage.




Pied Avocet standing reflected in shallow water, Overberg, Western Cape, South Africa

The Pied Avocet (Bontelsie) is highly nomadic in response to rainfall and sometimes follows storm fronts. They prefer saline and ephemeral wetlands and the upturned bill is an adaptation for filter feeding on the water surface.




Endangered Bank Cormorant in flight, Bettys Bay Marine Protected Area, Western Cape, South Africa

The Bank Cormorant (Bankduiker) is one of South Africa’s most threatened seabirds, with numbers plummeting as a result of human-induced threats. It is easily identified from other cormorant species by being almost totally black with white on the rump when breeding.




A Caspian Tern calls out in flight, De Hoop Marine Protected Area, Western Cape, South Africa

A large tern measuring up to 55cm in length, the Caspian Tern (Reusesterretjie) has a black cap streaked black and white when not breeding. They can feed on fish up to 250g, although smaller fish 10-20g are the norm.




011_Arniston to Agulhas_-¬peterChadwickBreeding in the extreme north of Siberia, the Curlew Sandpiper (Krombekstrandloper) visits our southern shores during the summer months. It feeds on polychaete worms found in exposed sand and mud flats, and may occur in flocks of up to 2 000 birds.



Accommodation & Activities

The area has plenty of accommodation options with numerous B&Bs in Struis Bay and Arniston. De Mond Nature Reserve and Agulhas National Park offer some self-catering accommodation. The best option for sourcing suitable accommodation and determining the range of activities is through Cape Agulhas Tourism.

Getting There

From Cape Town take the N2 to Caledon and follow the signage through to Napier and on to Bredasdorp. Signage clearly indicates the routes through to Arniston and Agulhas.

Add more of our birding checklists to your own as you travel the countryside.

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