Home to 8% of the world’s bird species, South Africa is an awesome bird watching destination but can Cape Town’s birding compete against established bird watching destinations such as the Kruger Park or KwaZulu Natal? It depends where you go.
Bird watchers may initially feel dismayed at the birdlife in Cape Town. There are plenty of recognisable imports – Feral Pigeons (Columba livia domestica), European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) – but apparently little worth lifting the binoculars for.
Drive a little out of the city, however, and even the most famous and well-visited places on the Cape Peninsula turn out to be bird watching hotspots. And that’s before you start going off the beaten path for some of the best bird watching sites in the Western Cape, all within a forty minute drive of Cape Town.
Tripods at the ready? Accessible, diverse and rewarding – here (in no particular order) are Cape Town’s Top 5 birding destinations.
1: TABLE MOUNTAIN
I usually advise birders to stay away from Table Mountain. After all, most visitors take the cable car to the windswept, sun-roasted Table Top which is pretty thin on birdlife although you’ll always see a Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio) – see image above. But the mountain is home to many of the Cape’s mountain birds – Ravens (Corvus albicollis), Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus), and Speckled Pigeons (Columba guinea) – as well as fynbos specialists such as the Orange-breasted Sunbird (Anthobaphes violacea) and Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer);. Indeed, these two species can easily be seen from Table Mountain Road, just past the Lower Cable Car Station in the thick stands of proteas that line the road.
Alternatively, a walk along the meandering 12 Apostles Pipe Track will give bird watchers plenty of mountain and fynbos birds along with thicket species – Cape Bulbul (Pycnonotus capensis), Southern Boubou (Laniarius ferrugineus) and Cape Robin-chat (Cossypha caffra). Fitter bird watchers can hike up into the wilder parts of Table Mountain for mountain rarities such as Ground Woodpecker (Geocolaptes olivaceus) and should plan a route to include patches of indigenous forest for the Cape’s forest birds such as Olive Thrush (Turdus olivaceus), Cape White-eye (Zosterops virens) and Cape Batis (Batis capensis).
2: KIRSTENBOSCH BOTANICAL GARDENS
With dozens of indigenous habitats set against natural forest and lawns swept by flocks of Egyptian Geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca), Helmeted Guinea Fowl (Numida meleagris) and Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis), Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is as rewarding for the bird watcher as it is for the botanist. Go early before the crowds arrive and keep an eye on the sky above you – Forest (Buteo trizonatus) and Jackal Buzzards (Buteo rufofuscus) often drift overhead – and don’t forget to ask where the Spotted Eagle-owls (Bubo africanus) are: there are at least two resident pairs and they are often very obliging when it comes to having their photograph taken.
Beds of flowering heathers and proteas make spotting the Cape’s sunbirds easy and birders usually get all three local species – Orange-breasted (Anthobaphes violacea); Malachite (Nectarinia famosa) and Southern Double-collared (Cinnyris chalybeus). Cape Sugarbirds (Promerops cafer) are often seen feeding on protea bushes in the higher areas of the gardens, and every patch of trees is alive with the whoops and whistles of Cape Bulbuls (Pycnonotus capensis), Sombre Greenbuls (Andropadus importunus) Southern Boubous (Laniarius ferrugineus), Olive Thrushes (Turdus olivaceus) and Cape Robin-chats (Cossypha caffra). Stroll into the dappled embrace of the forest and you should find the Cape Batis (Batis capensis) and – in summer – the Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis). Kirstenbosch is also very good for canaries – you should get three species fairly easily: Cape Canary (Serinus canicollis), Forest Canary (Crithagra scotops) and the Brimstone Canary (Crithagra sulphuratus).
3: CAPE OF GOOD HOPE RESERVE
Ignore the temptation to drive straight down to Cape Point: the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve is 57 square kilometres of virtually deserted wilderness and there are excellent birding corners to explore before you marvel at the views at Cape Point itself.
Head for the Olifantsbos area and its Atlantic beaches. Flat and flanked by coastal fynbos and bushy strandveld vegetation, the beaches are home to large numbers of seabirds like Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus), Hartlaub’s Gull (Chroicocephalus hartlaubii), Great Crested Tern (Thalasseus bergii) and Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis), There are plenty of White-breasted Cormorants (Phalacrocorax lucidus) and Cape Cormorants (Phalacrocorax capensis) as well as shore birds such as Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus) and Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus). Look out to sea and you may spot ocean birds like Cape Gannet (Morus capensis) and, in winter, perhaps a passing Storm Petrel (Hydrobates spp).
Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are one of the big draw cards here. Once part of the suite of big animals that roamed the Cape, they seem out of place when juxtaposed against a blue ocean but they are as natural here as they are on the African savannah.
You can usually see ostriches as you drive through the quieter areas of the reserve – the road to the Cape of Good Hope is especially good for them – but it is worth walking a bit too. Just back from the coast are fynbos habitats with the usual fynbos birds plus more unusual one like Cape Siskin (Crithagra totta) and Cape Bunting (Emberiza capensis) as well as Cape Grassbird (Sphenoeacus afer) and Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis) in wetter areas.
4: STRANDFONTEIN SEWAGE WORKS & RONDEVLEI NATURE RESERVE
Connecting the Cape Peninsula to the mountains of the Winelands, the Cape Flats is now a mostly flat and featureless expanse of housing and alien vegetation. Go back a couple of hundred years and it was a rolling landscape of tall, thickly vegetated dunes and shallow wetlands – take a trip to Strandfontein Sewage Works or its smaller sister the Rondevlei Nature Reserve and you can see for yourself what the Flats used to look like.
At Strandfontein, the first birds to catch your eye are usually the flamingos. Hundreds of them, often in large groups feeding, preening and squabbling – it’s like an East African soda lake at times. Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) are by far the more common species but scan the lines for the smaller, pinker Lesser Flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor) too. And then there are Great White Pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) huge birds that fly in on wings that span over six feet, as well as dozens of wader and wildfowl species – standout species include Cape Teal (Anas capensis), Maccoa Duck, (Oxyura maccoa), Hottentot Teal (Spatula hottentota) and South African Shelduck (Tadorna cana). Strandfontein is a good place for rarities too – the African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis), Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis) and even African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus) are usually seen there plus raptors like African Marsh Harrier (Circus ranivorus), Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus) and African Fish-eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer).
It is car-based birding at Strandfontein – the area is too big to walk around in comfort – but it is an on-foot birding experience at nearby Rondevlei Nature Reserve.
Best visited in the early to mid morning, Rondevlei is a destination designed for the bird watcher. Photographic hides are set over water and tall observation towers give you grand views over reed beds and backwaters. Even the picnic site is rewarding – Red-eyed (Streptopelia semitorquata)and Laughing Doves (Spilopelia senegalensis), Fiscal Shrikes (Lanius collaris), and Dusky Fly-catchers (Muscicapa adusta) flit about in the trees above you, and the reserve’s thick indigenous bush is home to skulking Levalliant’s Cisticolas (Cisticola tinniens), Red-headed Prinias (Cisticola subruficapilla) and both Southern Masked (Ploceus velatus) and Cape Weavers (Ploceus capensis). Local specials include African Spoonbill (Platalea alba), both Malachite (Corythornis cristatus) and Pied Kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) and African Snipe (Gallinago nigripennis) plus a wealth of other waders and wildfowl.
5: BOULDERS BEACH PENGUIN COLONY
Honking like a donkey and waddling like a drunkard, the African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) may be the star of the show at Simons Town’s Boulders Beach but birders who get there as the gates open will enjoy another side to the world-famous penguin colony.
Before they head out to sea, large numbers of cormorants share the early morning beach with the penguins. Most are Cape Cormorants (Phalacrocorax capensis) but there will be a few White-breasted (Phalacrocorax lucidus) and if you are lucky, one or two of the rarer ones – Bank (Phalacrocorax neglectus) and Crowned (Microcarbo coronatus) cormorants. Piping away among them are African Black Oyster-catchers (Haematopus moquini), and everywhere you see the cheerful bobbing up and down of the Cape Wagtail (Motacilla capensis).
Boulders Beach is a good place to tick off a few seabirds too – Kelp (Larus dominicanus) and Hartlaub’s Gull (Chroicocephalus hartlaubii) and Great Crested Terns (Thalasseus bergii) are all there – and an amble along the wooden boardwalk that connects the colony’s two beaches usually delivers a nice set of birds – Red-winged Starlings (Onychognathus morio), Cape Bulbuls (Pycnonotus capensis), Speckled Mousebirds (Onychognathus morio), Southern Double-collared (Cinnyris chalybeus) and Malachite Sunbirds (Nectarinia famosa) plus Cape White-eyes (Zosterops virens)and the Cape Robin-chat (Cossypha caffra). Keep a lookout for Red-headed Prinia (Cisticola subruficapilla), the Karoo Prinia (Prinia maculosa) and the Southern Boubou (Laniarius ferrugineus) too