TEXT ONLY VERSION
Myself and over 100 others visited Cape Town for a few days as a company business trip, and I was fortunate enough to have enough free time to see some superb examples of South African birds while there. We landed on a Tuesday morning, and left on the Friday afternoon, so thanks go to my employers for allowing some free time in amongst the business sessions. There was also opportunity on some of the organised events to see some birds, as in the Cape treasure hunt and plummet up Table Mountain. Since my assumption that over 100 other colleagues would not be too keen to follow my steps over swamp and scrub was probably correct (apart from one poor individual who fell into the trap - well done, James, you deserve a medal!), I planned ahead with a few ideas in mind for the limited free time. Dodging the obvious attractions of shopping, beauty therapy, and being flipped upside down in a helicopter, a car was arranged for me (thanks Caroline), and a short itinerary planned for the prime sites.
From a birding point of view, the city of Cape Town is quite large and relatively sterile in terms of variety, although there are some small oases serving up some of the more common birds. However, the Cape Peninsular itself could have been designed for a short birding break. There is a good mix of habitats, from coastal to mountain, and with inland aquatic and forest in between, with the greatest distance travelled no more than three quarters of an hour from the city. Driving was no problem - it is on the left, and the roads are generally very well marked. An international driving permit is not required.
Safety did appear as a particular issue while I was there. Cape Town is regarded as one of the safer cities in South Africa, but that does not mean that caution should be thrown away, especially after dark. I have not heard of any problems from the birding sites that I visited. For extra piece of mind, it seems that the major mobile phone networks also work in South Africa - I do know that both Vodaphone and Orange had good reception while there.
We weren't allowed to go to the hotel until early afternoon, so, after the compulsory two hour wait to get through customs check and then baggage claim to find the luggage hadn't followed us, the coach drove the half hour to Signal Hill from the airport. This seems to be the usual tourist type of stop, with parking for coaches and cars, from which the high heeled and slipon-ed could trudge up to the magnificent views of Cape Town - plenty of noise here and hustle & bustle, but not many birds from the view point. As usual, it was much better to go in the opposite direction to the general herd. There weren't too many birds in the scrub and bushes below the car park, which may have been due to the amount of people in the general area and the time of day (we were there over midday). However, a little bit of patience found numerous approachable Helmeted Guineafowl, and even better, a flighty Cape Robin, and an equally elusive Karoo Prinia. The latter fellow popped up most obligingly on calling to it. In the air over the hill were 3 White-necked Ravens and a solitary Steppe Buzzard. The chances are that this would be an unlikely birding spot as such but may improve even more at quieter and cooler parts of the day.
Mount Nelson Hotel Gardens
This was to be our rather prestigious home for the week. It is very impressive and quaintly colonial, with all the amenities that the swimmer, sunbather and general lounger would need for a rather relaxing and pampered time. However, the temptations to myself were the potential birding gardens surrounding the main buildings, and parks adjacent to the hotel.
Prospects looked good from the balcony of the hotel room, with a couple of Red-winged Starlings clinging to other balconies, and Speckled Pigeon on an opposing roof. The hotel and gardens were a little different from my expectations. The buildings appear old and colonial style, and fairly well concentrated in one area, with some, although limited, space and vegetation between. In front of the hotel, the gardens are reasonably extensive, with one part much quieter and with more potential than the busier recreation area. The former was lawned with palms, bushes, and ornamental trees forming the body, and was very good for a small variety of the more common garden birds. The water jets sprinkling the lawns provided an added bonus, giving plenty of reason for birds to congregate around them and the pools they created. On the open areas of lawn were plenty of Olive Thrushes, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Pigeons, Red-eyed Doves, & Laughing Doves. An unexpected bonus was a small group of Cape White-eyes, which were partial to the bushes which were being directly pounded by water jets.
From the hotel I took the first right from the main hotel entrance (Buxton Hof), which is a road going up the bank in suburbia to the base of Table Mountain. It passes by De Waal Park, which has plenty of trees, but seemed quiet apart from feral pigeons. Molteno Reservoir is open to the public, but is very sterile, with concrete banks - home to a few Hartlaub's Gulls, Egyptian Geese, and motley but small collection of pigeons and doves. There are security guards here, and many restrictions - haven't a clue why, since the place is pretty well boring. Just below here was a single Fiscal Shrike, which wasn't too easy to view properly, but certainly showed the faded supercilium that seems characteristic of Cape birds. It also seemed to be more of a slate grey than black. The road after the reservoir continues to climb towards Table Mountain, but probably does not contain much of interest until the base of the slopes are reached, since it is basically a small avenue of trees surrounded by suburban houses with small gardens. The predominant birds by both sight and sound are Red-winged Starlings, with Eurasian Starlings a runner-up, along with plenty of Speckled Pigeons and Laughing Doves.
Walking back down to the hotel, I found a small waterworks plant within the De Waal Park, right next to a playground. This consists of one football pitch sized lagoon, and another half the size, which are reasonably well vegetated (particularly the smaller one). They turned up a superb and very approachable Blacksmiths Plover, along with a sizable group of Hartlaub's Gulls. I would think that this small oasis has the potential to bring in other birds at different times.
Late in the afternoon, we all trooped on to buses, and were dropped off at the base of Table Mountain. Riding to the top on the revolving cable car is a novel and sometimes worrying experience, but certainly well worth the effort for the excitement of the ride itself. Omens were good when what looked like a Cape Sugarbird flashed in front of the cable car before take off. The plateau itself extends a lot further south than expected (reportedly around 2 miles) when looking up from Cape Town. After clambering off the car with the masses, and bypassing them as they pinpointed the gift shop and cafe, I quickly found better birding territory. The plateau is mainly flat for some distance, with plenty of very low scrub, and one or two small ravines. Birds are few and far between. Most common and equally impressive, with vivid front standing out against green leaves were Orange-breasted Sunbirds, characteristically vocal and also approachable. A juvenile Cape Grassbird also made its presence felt, with a parent not far away. Most impressive was first sighting of a single Black Eagle which appeared low over the plateau. Soon after, 2 were seen circling high over the mountain, showing the distinctive shape of narrow wings pinched in at the base. Hundreds of hirundines and swifts were in what seemed like the same vicinity, but too distant to distinguish. Returning back to the cable car station, more Swifts were seen in front of the mountain face. Most were African, with a few Alpine interspersed.
Treasure Hunt - the Cape Peninsular
The first full day started with a morning business session, after which we were all levered into 15 minibuses and enthused for the company treasure hunt. Not normally top of the wish list, this event seemed to have a lot more potential, since one of the main aims was to cover a circuit so that the sights around the Cape could be seen. This did indeed prove to be the case. Once out of the Cape Town sprawl, we motored down the M3, across the peaks of the Silvermines area, to arrive at the first destination, which was Kommetjie. The clues pointed to the lighthouse, and although time was short, there were a number of interesting coastal birds. We at first landed short of the lighthouse, by a small beach area with exposed rocks off the shoreline. The rocks hosted multitudes of cormorants, which unfortunately were a little too distant to make out most, apart from the obvious Great Cormorants and one or two of the much smaller Crowned Cormorants, whose small crests could be clearly seen. The sandy shoreline had around a dozen Black Oystercatchers, and we could also see the lighthouse a little way further south from here. The required photo taken here, I wandered to the fenced perimeter, and this produced the goods - a couple of not too shy Spotted Thick-knees just over the boundary.
Before going into the Cape Reserve, the itinerary required a stop off for curios at roadside sellers. There were some quite good artefacts here, but the calls of sunbirds on the other side of the road was a much greater draw. Result was one bird seen and identified as Southern Double-collared Sunbird.
Buffels Bay was the designated site for lunch. With coronation chicken thrust quickly down, the Greater Crested & Sandwich Terns on the rocks were scrutinised. Among the smelly tangle on the shoreline were small numbers of Cape Wagtail. Despite a short walk into low scrub behind the beach, not much apart from Cape Bulbuls were seen.
Next stop was Cape Point, which gains almost all of its credence from geographical position - this was greatly diminished by the predictable take over by tourism. The fernicular just had to be taken to the lighthouse, but one benefit of this was the Rock Martins circling beneath.
Last stop before finish was Boulders Point, and the Jackass Penguin colony. This, of course, was also turned into a tourist spot. The sight of penguins in the wild was more than acceptable, but blighted by bathers swimming around them and the attendant commercialisation. On the other side of the car park, to the south, were yet more penguins, which were not quite as encroached upon. Despite all this, the birds seemed totally oblivious to human presence.
Strandfontein Sewage Works
Following a delayed finish to the morning business session, and the signing of tomes to release the hire car, we arrived here at around 2:30pm. The general area was found quite easily - after following Baden Powell Drive (R310) east along the shoreline for around 7km, and then heading north for 4km, the turn for "Zeekoevlei" was obvious. This took us past a large lake behind a line of trees to the right, which looked fairly uninteresting. Looking for the entrance to the actual sewage works was not totally straightforward - the more obvious track before some disused buildings was barriered. The real track was just after the buildings, and much less impressive. The track from here was very sandy, and initially followed the northern and then western edges of the lagoons.
The area covered by these is quite large - each of the dozen or so individual lagoons is quite wide, and seemingly reasonably deep, with at the most only small amounts of reed fringes. The tracks running through them vary from rough or sandy, to almost average. Birding seemed to start quite slowly, and built up nicely as the day went on. First birds seen were a few wildfowl in the form of Cape Teal, and Blacksmiths Plovers and Cattle Egrets. Things looked up when we chanced upon a couple of Orange-throated Longclaws and Mossies. Species such as Crested Coot, Egyptian Goose, and Little Grebe seem to be on almost every lagoon, but sorting through the small groups of wildfowl uncovered Southern Pochard and Yellow-billed Duck. One of the smaller and shallower lagoons chanced upon later had more reeds and some exposed mud, with a varied collection, including good numbers of Red-billed Teal, Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Shoveler, and a single South African Shelduck (which fairly promptly retreated into the reeds), Sacred Ibis and White Pelicans. Good numbers of Plain Swifts had been seen throughout the afternoon, but a late treat were large numbers of White-rumped Swifts & White-throated Swallows, and single Little Swift, hawking close in over the track and adjacent lagoon. At this point, it was time to leave, so naturally as we drove back along the tracks, birds seemed to increase in numbers. The track along the western edge seemed particularly good for Tinkling Cisticola and Cape Bulbul. A single Fiscal Flycatcher was almost passed up as a Fiscal Shrike - too easy a mistake to make! Overall, the view of the area changed as the day went on - at first hard work with few birds, but finally one of wishing for more time to enjoy a good site.
After seeing, but not having the opportunity to identify, the many cormorants on the rocks on treasure hunt day, we tried again by arriving here at 7:45am. Unfortunately, the tide was only just receding, and the birds were somewhere else - the exposed rocks just beyond the shoreline must have been too close to the beach for their comfort. The detour wasn't a total flop, since a couple of very close Hadada Ibis had been passed in the centre of the village, along with numerous Helmeted Guineafowl. The Black Oystercatchers were still among the gulls, although not as approachable as hoped. We also tried for the thick-knees again at the lighthouse. They weren't to be found, but a short seawatch had lines of Cape Cormorants passing eastwards. When watching these from the shore, they seemed all black, including the lack of yellow facial skin. However, the similar Bank Cormorant apparantly does not gather in such numbers away from the breeding areas, and Cape Cormorants from this distance and at this time of year can seem all dark around the gape.
We arrived here a little behind schedule (i.e. 20 minutes after opening time) due to rush hour traffic heading into Cape Town. By this time, the weather had turned to a steady drizzle, but this cleared later in the morning. After picking up the guide map and a few tips from the front desk (one of which was that the Spotted Owls hadn't nested this year), we started on the cultivated gardens immediately outside of the main entrance. Many more birds were heard rather than seen around this part of the gardens, most of being the common species already seen, such as Cape White-eye, Cape Bulbul, Olive Thrush, and good numbers of Southern Double-collared Sunbirds. Much more diversity was found beyond the main pond, in the medicinal plants and erica / useful plants beds. The pond itself was devoid of birds, but shortly after were Cape Robin, Speckled Mousebird, and Black Saw-wing. Deeper into the beds were Southern Double-collared & Orange-breasted Sunbirds, singing Sombre Bulbuls, Southern Boubou, Yellow Canaries, and Rameron Pigeons.
Next on the agenda was the Protea area - one of the parts of the garden worth looking forward to. It is quite an open area, with plentiful mown lawns, and stands of shrubs including sugar bearing Protea. The Orange-breasted Sunbirds seem so much less wary here, and a Cape Sugarbird was perched in the open for some time. We stopped for some water and to reflect on the unique character of the Sugarbird - when we moved on again and rounded the corner there were about another 10 birds together, even closer and less concerned by us than the first bird.
A change of habitat then led to the lower slope of the Nursery Ravine. This proved to be very quiet - we decided it was due to the heat of midday, and returned to the car. From our point of view, the garden deserves its reputation as one of the best sites in the area. For non-birders, the walks are very pleasant, although this time of year is not the best from the botanical minded. We only spent 3 hours there, but missed out not only a major part of the garden, but also varied habitat such as the lower slopes.
This is a particularly well managed and manicured reserve, set alongside suburbia. Only an hour was left on the last afternoon to see the bids here, and we wished more time was available - this is a little gem of a place. We found it fairly easily, by driving south on the M5, where there is an obvious brown sign on the left near to Grassland, and a further sign to the right after a couple of hundred yards. The reserve entrance is at the end of this road. It is actually quite close to Strandfontein sewage works, but despite this proximity, the habitat and species are not the same. Rondevlei consists of a single large brackish lagoon, with significant reed fringes and stands in the centre, a sand bar, and one or two areas of exposed mud and sand amongst the reeds. And all this for only 5 rands. There are two tower hides which overlook the whole reserve, and a generous spattering of hides. Around the lagoon, the tracks weave through low scrub and small bushes, which must harbour a lot of potential, although we saw only Tinkling Cisticola. Predominant birds are Darters, which were not seen at Strandfontein, but are in good numbers and close to here. Others are Sacred Ibis, Great Cormorants on the sandbar, and Reed Cormorants from the hides. Smaller numbers of wildfowl were represented by Cape Shoveler and Red-billed Teal.