There are birds aplenty at this idyllic spot of sun, sea, river and beach. Peter Chadwick goes birding in Still Bay…
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick www.peterchadwick.co.za
Over the sea rolls in a fog that soon engulfs the Still Bay landscape and sets free a pleasant drizzle to cool the day. It’s just what a family of Spotted Eagle-Owls (2 on the below checklist) has been waiting for and they are quick to emerge from the bushes.
One of the adult owls flies up to a window ledge, while the other lands on a gate, yellow eyes blinking at the passersby on the road a few metres away.
The recently fledged chicks fly backwards and forwards between the rows of houses, trying to master the art of flight, exercising their wing muscles and getting to grips with perfecting their landings. I watch all this in happening in a town clearly proud of its wildlife heritage.
It’s one of those idyllic South African coastal spots on the southern Cape coast that offers the best of sun, sea, river and beach. The Goukou River flows into an estuary that opens into a bay bordered by long beaches and countless patches of indigenous thicket vegetation.
On the river, ski-boats putter upstream to fish in quieter waters. Yachts and kite-surfers sail, and waterskiers whizz behind their powerboats. Enthusiastic kayakers pull hard on their paddles and snorkellers drift with the current. At dawn, runners and mountain bikers enjoy the scenery on numerous specially built pathways.
Here, a variety of habitats is found in a small area, which amounts to excellent birding that is only boosted by the natural corridors that run between a network of proclaimed nature reserves.
At dawn, I walk the cobbled roads along the western bank of the Goukou River to the upper reaches of the river, where it passes through smallholdings of sheep and cattle grazing in the fields among flocks of Egyptian Geese, Spur-winged Geese and Sacred Ibises.
The thicket vegetation reveals relaxed bushbuck that browse in the openings, watching me with big brown eyes as Sombre Greenbuls give their liquid call nearby. Cape Robin-Chats, Southern Boubous, Speckled Mousebirds, Speckled Pigeons (6) and Bar-throated Apalises are regularly seen. And what adds to the excitement is the chance of sighting Olive Bush-Shrikes and Klaas’s Cuckoos.
In the quiet upper reaches of the river are flashes of colour along the banks, as Half-collared- and Malachite Kingfishers shoot like arrows from perch to perch. Their larger relatives, the Giant- and Pied Kingfishers (10) are also common as they hunt over open water, where Reed Cormorants, African Darters and White-breasted Cormorants (3) dry their wings on tree stumps.
The patches of sedge and reeds along the river banks echo with the calls of clicking stream frogs and Cape river frogs, and are a favourite haunt of Levalliant’s Cisticolas and Lesser Swamp Warblers. In spring and summer, Cape Weavers and Southern Red Bishops (1) build their oval nests in the reeds.
At the river mouth, the estuary is a rich environment of mud flats and salt marshes where invertebrates thrive. This smorgasbord of hidden worms, crustaceans and molluscs attracts waders in large variety and numbers. Black-winged Stilts (8), with their super-long, bright-red legs and black bills, are the most easily visible and common, together with the much smaller Three-banded- and Kittlitz’s Plovers. In summer, Grey Plovers, Whimbrels, Greenshanks, Marsh Sandpipers and Common Ringed Plovers fly in from their northern climes to join the resident waders.
To the west of the small fishing harbour lies Skulpiesbaai Nature Reserve, excellent for watching seabirds and African Black Oystercatchers, Ruddy Turnstones and White-fronted Plovers that scurry among the boulders in search of marine invertebrates. At the rocky point, there is a small roost of Kelp Gulls, Swift Terns and Sandwich Terns, and scan out to sea with binoculars and you’ll often see dolphins. Further out are Cape Gannets, Sub-Antarctic Skuas, White-chinned Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters, Black-browed Albatrosses and, in summer, the Parasitic and the Pomarine Jaegers. A short stroll along the rocky coastline leads to archaeological fish traps that are also a Natural Heritage Site. These traps, best viewed at low tide, have low walls of stone still carefully maintained and in use today by locals with permits.
Inland from the traps are the settling ponds and a small, wooden bird hide. Although the ponds are quite small, there are Little Grebes, Common Moorhens, Yellow-billed Ducks, Black Ducks, Cape Teals, Red-billed Teals (4) and Cape Shovellers, and Grey Herons, Little Egrets (5) and African Spoonbills that hunt in the shallows.
On the opposite bank of the estuary, up on the hillside overlooking Still Bay, lies the Pauline Bohnen Nature Reserve, where the low coastal fynbos is rich in flowers, and where angulate tortoises and the occasional parrot-beaked tortoise wander through the undergrowth.
These are often followed by Karoo Scrub-Robins quick to snap up insects disturbed by the vegetarian tortoises. Karoo Prinias (9), Orange-breasted Sunbirds, Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, Malachite Sunbirds, Pied Starlings, Cape Bulbuls and Yellow Canaries feed within this endemic vegetation, as Black Harriers, Rock Kestrels, Black-shouldered Kites and Jackal Buzzards hunt from above.
As if this isn’t enough for bird lovers, even the airfield outside town always brings a surprise. Large-billed Larks (7), African Pipits and Crowned Lapwings live and breed in the mowed grassland there, at the end of the road.
Season and Weather
The climate is Mediterranean with warm summers and mild winters. Wind is present throughout the year, with rain mainly in the winter months. Always be prepared for sudden weather changes. Summers are dry and dusty, while in winter the veld is green and in flower.
- Coastal thicket
- Half-collared Kingfisher
- Knysna Woodpecker
- Knysna Warbler
- Olive Bush-Shrike
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot in Still Bay
The Spotted Eagle-Owl (Gevlekte Ooruil) breeds between July and January and uses a shallow scrape on the ground or a ledge in which to lay its 2-4 rounded white eggs. The female incubates the eggs that take about 30 days to hatch.
A common nomadic species found on most inland waters, the Red-billed Teal (Rooibekeend) can occur in flocks of thousands, feeding mainly by immersing its head or upending. It grazes on aquatic plants.
Easily recognisable by its yellow feet and black legs, the Little Egret (Kleinwitreier) is usually solitary when hunting, but may gather in hundreds at good food sources. It feeds mainly on small fish but will also hunt frogs, insects and crustaceans.
Found across most of South Africa, the Speckled Pigeon (Kransduif) is one of about 290 pigeon and dove species found worldwide. In flight the wings make a characteristic clapping sound.
Most easily found when it is calling or is perched on top of a fence pole or boulder, the Large-billed Lark (Dikbeklewerik) is easily identified from the other members of the lark family by its large size and heavy bill that has a diagnostic yellow base.
Unmistakable with its very long bright red legs and long black bill, the Black-winged Stilt (Rooipootelsie) is highly nomadic, moving between shallow waters. It feeds on small aquatic insects, crustaceans and molluscs and on occasion may gather in flocks of up to 500 birds.
The Karoo Prinia (Karoolangstertjie) is a common resident of the fynbos and coastal scrubveld. It forages low in the grass and bushes. When disturbed, it climbs to the top of a small bush and flick its tail and alarm calls.
The Pied Kingfisher (Bontvisvanger) is one of 90 kingfisher species, of which 10 occur in Southern Africa. It hunts from a perch or by hovering over the water, and beats its prey on a perch before swallowing it.
Still Bay lies 28km south of the N2, 10km east of Riversdale.
Accommodation & Activities
There are a variety of B&Bs as well as caravan parks and camping grounds. Activities include mountain biking, boating, fishing, swimming, snorkelling, diving, kite-surfing and hiking
Add more of our birding checklists to your own as you travel the countryside.