Right, that’s it. I’ve had enough of people laughing at me when I talk about the epic bird watching at Cape Town’s Strandfontein Sewage Works so I’ll prove it. Come on, grab your binoculars and let’s go and see what happens after we flush.
I’d better make it clear straight away that these aren’t my photographs; I was in the company of Hugh Lansdown, a professional wildlife photographer armed with a British sense of humour and a camera that looked like it should have been bolted onto something armoured.
We arrived shortly after dawn at Strandfontein – ‘Beach Spring’ is how it translates literally from Afrikaans and it was once a freshwater wetland but you wouldn’t want to fill your water bottles here these days: this is where much of Cape Town’s bathroom water ends up.
So, clouds of flies and an overwhelming stench? Not at all: Strandfontein barely smells at all – this is water in the process of being cleaned and made ready to use again. But before we get our hands on it, another group of animals are taking their turn first.
Try to keep it a secret but Strandfontein Sewage Works is a de facto nature reserve. Large ponds lie surrounded by thick vegetation and shuffling reed beds against a backdrop of coastal dunes. Mongooses dart across the sandy track as you drive, an occasional antelope breaks cover, insects hum happily past your open car window and there are birds everywhere. Welcome to Cape Town’s best bird watching site.
The Cape Shoveller is one of the ten or so types of ducks and geese you can expect to see at Strandfontein. It uses its giant beak to sift through mud and silt for food and has a reassuringly loud quack – and for some reason, the male has yellower eyes than the female.
One of the biggest drawcards at Strandfontein is the virtual all-year-round presence of Greater and Lesser Flamingos, sometimes in their hundreds, honking away like a farmyard full of geese. They don’t breed here but they certainly feed in the teeming waters of the sewage works, sieving the ponds for tiny crustaceans with an upside-down head and a banana-shaped bill.
The Cape Longclaw lives in the grassy areas of Strandfontein. It is actually one of the Pipits, usually a dull-looking and unremarkable group of birds, but the bold orange throat of this bird makes this one unmistakable. The bright throats of the Longclaws (there are also pink and yellow versions) serve a purpose, however. These are ground-nesting birds and their eggs are vulnerable to the hooves of large and clumsy animals like cattle and antelope. So when faced with the approach of a blundering bovine, a nesting Longclaw will bolt upright with its chin up, resembling nothing less than an open-mouthed snake ready to strike–more than enough motivation to move way!
Absent from the Western Cape when the Europeans arrived, the Hadeda Ibis has extended its original range into Cape Town by taking advantage of the spread of agriculture, golf courses and suburban gardens, all of which provide a home for the Hadeda’s favourite food; wriggling worms. Perhaps the bird which most resembles a Pterodactyl in flight, its odd-looking name is classically onomatopoeic as anyone who has heard its fog-horn strength HAA-DEE-DAH call will know.
Large, loud and aggressive, the Kelp Gull is the skinhead of the bird world and Strandfontein is an important breeding site for them. Thankfully they haven’t taken to raiding plates of fish and chips yet – this is a big bird with a wingspan of up to a metre and a half – but they are a major predator in the Cape, happily taking penguin eggs and nesting birds, as well as shellfish and whatever, washes up on the beach. Incidentally, their specific name – Dominicanus – is a reference to the black and white robes of Dominican monks.
A familiar sight to British bird watchers, the Moorhen is one of the more obvious birds in a group of normally more elusive ones – the Rails. You’ll see Red-knobbed Coots too, squabbling with each other in open water, but you’ll need to scan the reed beds patiently for the African Swamp Hen, a large shiny purple bird with bright red legs that sounds like it should be easy to see but somehow manages to stay hidden for most of the time.
With their matchstick legs, it always confounds me as to how wading birds manage to stay upright in the wind that is usually part of the Strandfontein landscape. The Stilts certainly earn their name – those legs make up 60 per cent of the bird’s height, enabling them to wade into the deep water to pick off floating morsels. Strikingly marked, they are among the easiest waders to identify but bird watchers who enjoy a challenge will be pleased to hear that Strandfontein creaks at the seams with brown non-descript wading birds, especially in Cape Town’s summer months (November to March) when thousands of migrant waders arrive – plovers, sandpipers, greenshanks, stints and turnstones.
Perhaps the least-expected residents at Strandfontein are the pelicans – enormous birds with an endearing pink flush to their white feathers when they are breeding. It’s not a feeding site for them as they require deeper water and lots of fish – after all, the pelican, in the words of Dixon Lanier Merritt, has a beak that can hold more than his belican – but they take refuge at the sewage works, enjoying its sunshine, serenity and fine views. Not unlike its human visitors.