There’s little to beat a bird-watching break that coincides with the annual eruption of flowers…
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick www.peterchadwick.co.za
Flowers, flowers and more flowers in shades of orange, yellow, white, pink, purple and red is what the West Coast is known for in springtime. But, there is so much more to this spectacular corner of our country – vast open spaces with remarkable and diverse landscapes, a wide range of birds and mammal species, and such friendly and interesting people. It’s what makes a holiday here a must.
For my family and me, this West Coast trip is an annual pilgrimage when we explore back roads and visit the protected areas of Namaqua National Park, and Bird Island in Lambert’s Bay, and finish off at the tranquil Langebaan Lagoon in the West Coast National Park.
Skilpad Rest Camp in Namaqua National Park is always our first stop, and there is nothing better after a day’s driving than sitting on the veranda of our comfortable chalet and watching the sun slip away that evening, casting deep shadows against the distant hills. Then darkness comes, bringing with it such a spectacle of stars, and a silence only occasionally punctuated by hooting Spotted Eagle-Owls.
Early next morning, as the carpets of flowers open up in the sun, my daughters Suné and Xanté point out scrub hares, steenbok and springbok feeding between the daisies and gazanias. Sonja, my wife, suggests we switch off the vehicle and listen to the dawn chorus of Southern Black Korhaans (8 on checklist), Bokmakieries, Large-billed Larks (5), Ant-eating Chats (9), Cape Robin-Chats and Karoo Scrub-Robins.
Leaving behind the flat areas around Skilpad, we follow a winding road to Soebatsfontein and then on to the coastal section of the park. On the large grey boulders that channel our path sit huddles of rock hyrax families. We also spot the occasional silhouetted klipspringer.
Such are the astonishing splashes of colour that we often have to stop. But it’s also a chance for us to devour our wildflower reference book, and discover that the delicate pale-purple bushes are the rooisalie, and that the yellow flowers belong to the kandelaarsbos. To our right are upside-down red cotyledons, and then there are the strandrose.
Crag lizards and rock agamas emerge cautiously to sun themselves, but happily ignore the ostriches and herds of gemsbok and red hartebeest that pick their way through the succulent vegetation adjacent to the koppies. Down in the flatter areas, bird parties of Pririt Batis, Fairy Flycatcher, Karoo Eremomela, Rufous-eared Warbler and Grey Tit move quickly through the yellow-flowering Acacia karoos that line the dry riverbeds.
At the coastline, we head for Boulderbaai, where a Cape fur seal colony lazes among the piles of jumbled boulders that gave the bay its name. As we watch the seals, a Cape Long-billed Lark (4) flies down and has us enthralled as it takes a long and energetic dust bath in the sandy track.
Our overnight campsite at Kwas se Baai is right on the edge of the large bay and, after setting up camp, we explore an isolated piece of coastline that we have all to ourselves. Around us are Kelp Gulls, African Black Oystercatchers, Hartlaub’s Gulls (1) and flocks of Sanderlings that peck incessantly at the invertebrates emerging in their thousands along the sandy beach. Out to sea, small pods of Heaviside dolphins frolic in the waves as the sun sets.
En route to Langebaan the following day, we stop in the quaint coastal town of Lambert’s Bay, and immediately drive to the harbour where crayfish boats are unloading their catch. We wander off past specially erected wooden platforms, a nesting ground for Cape- and Crowned Cormorants, and across the harbour wall to where thousands of Cape Gannets (10) have made a small island their home. The gannets circle, turn and crash-land as Swifts, Common- and Sandwich Terns fly past in droves. In among all this, Xanté is so excited to find a White-fronted Plover pair with two newly hatched chicks.
From Lambert’s Bay, we head off for something different, one of the houseboats anchored at Kraalbaai on the warm Langebaan Lagoon in the West Coast National Park. For my daughters, this is unquestionably the highlight of our trip, and they are constantly leaping from the boat and swimming for hours in their life jackets. And of course there is the canoeing around the houseboat. Best of all, Cape fur seals are their constant companions, occasionally swimming off to snack on fresh mullet before hurrying back.
Our journey on the lagoon towards the famous Preekstoel (Pulpit) rock is filled with squadrons of bull rays and sand sharks feeding on hermit crabs and sand prawns in the clear shallow water. Then from Preekstoel onwards to Geelbek, we see Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, White-backed Mousebirds (2), Grey-winged Francolins (3), Jackal Buzzards and Black-shouldered Kites (7).
At Geelbek, wooden boardwalks lead across the nutrient-rich salt marshes to bird hides. There we see Greater Flamingoes land in flashes of pink alongside Grey Herons, Black-winged Stilts, Grey Plovers and Whimbrels. Over the reed beds, Marsh Harriers and Black Harriers are on the hunt, backwards and forwards in quartering flight.
We have to pack and leave, but not before a visit to the Seeberg Lookout and its spectacular views across the West Coast National Park. Red and yellow Cape cowslips push through the sandy soil around the massive granite dome. An adult Rock Kestrel (6) encourages its three recently fledged chicks to follow it in flight. In the distance, Southern Black Korhaans sound their ‘rusty-pump’ calls. Deep memories are being made here, and we’ll be back.
Season & Weather
The Mediterranean climate has warm summers and mild winters. It’s windy all year with rain mainly in winter. Coastal mists and fog are a regular feature of the coastline. Always be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. Summers are dry and dusty, while in winter the fynbos is lush and in flower. The best months to visit are April and September.
Coastal Sandveld dominates, with a variety of smaller habitats within it. On the coast, rocky and sandy shorelines occur. The area is particularly well known for its swathes of spring flowers.
- Cape Gannet
- Bank Cormorant
- Black Harrier
- Cape Long-billed Lark
- Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler
- Dusky Sunbird
- Rufous-eared Warbler
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot along the West Coast
Hartlaub’s Gull (Hartlaubmeeu) is a highly gregarious West Coast endemic. It has adapted well to human habitation where it scavenges for scraps. It breeds between April and September usually on offshore islands.
Using its bill and feet, the White-backed Mousebird (Witrugmuisvoël) climbs well and usually perches by hanging below a branch. It feeds on fruits, new flowers buds and small fresh leaves that are digested while it perches facing the sun with its belly exposed.
Often found in coveys of 5-8 birds, the Grey-winged Francolin (Bergpatrys) roosts on the ground and may be found in a variety of habitats including the fynbos, Karoo scrub and grasslands.
The Cape Long-billed Lark (Weskuslangbeklewerik) is the largest in the region, reaching up to 24cm in length and weighing up to 60g. An endemic species, it’s found in coastal scrub along the West Coast.
A common resident in semi-arid Karoo scrub, the Large-billed Lark (Dikbeklewerik), forages on the ground and feeds on insects, seeds and bulbs. It is very conspicuous when calling from a raised perch.
With a distribution across Africa, Eurasia and the Philippines, the Rock Kestrel (Kransvalk) is a generally common resident that mainly inhabits montane grassland. It mainly feeds on small mammals but will also take lizards, snakes, insects and small birds.
When agitated or threatened, the Black-shouldered Kite (Blouvalk) wags its tail in an exaggerated manner, often accompanying this with a loud, wheezy, repeated scream. Out of breeding season, flocks of up to 100 may roost communally.
The Southern Black Korhaan (Swartvlerkkorhaan) is usually solitary, with the male conspicuous and the female secretive and seldom seen. She lacks his bold, black plumage. Males often stand on an exposed termite mound.
The Ant-Eating Chat (Swartpiek) builds a neat bowl-shaped nest of dry grass and rootlets in an underground chamber at the end of a self-excavated burrow. It lays 2-5 white eggs.
Overfishing the oceans is impacting the Cape Gannet (Witmalgas), with a population decline of one per cent per annum over the last 50 years. Birds now often follow commercial trawlers to scavenge on offal that is less nutrient-rich than their usual sardines and pilchards.
The Cape West Coast, where you will find the West Coast Flamingo Birding Route, is accessed on either the N7 or R21 out of Cape Town.
Accommodation & Activities
Four self-catering cottages are available in the Namaqua National Park, as well as rustic camping along the coastal section. In Lambert’s Bay and Langebaan, a wide range of self-catering accommodation is available. Self-drive options are available in the Namaqua and West Coast national parks, although the coastal section of Namaqua requires a 4×4 vehicle. Bird hides are at Lambert’s Bay and in the West Coast National Park.
Add more of our birding checklists to your own as you travel the countryside.