Birding around Cape Town, South Africa

It has been three weeks since I have been able to post about my trip here in South Africa. Internet access has been hard to come by and I have also been very busy. For this first post, I would like to mention some birding I did in the Cape Town area of South Africa at the beginning of my trip in January.

My first five days here in South Africa were quite hectic. The 16 of us (13 students and 3 professors) officially arrived here on the January 19th, but we have been doing so much moving around that it feels like we are in still in the traveling process and I can’t wait to be settled into a specific location for a while. However, all this moving around and everything we have been doing as offered me the chance to see a variety of habitats and therefore see a lot of birds.

Greater Crested Tern

Cape Town was the first city we spent some time in. On our first full day in Cape Town we took a tour of nearby Robben Island. This island was used as a prison during apartheid, and famously held Nelson Mandela captive. We had to take a ferry from Cape Town across to Robben Island, which acted very nicely as a makeshift mini-pelagic. On the 30 minute ride I was able to add a lot of new species and some other interesting birds. Greater Crested Terns, Sandwich Terns, and Kelp Gulls circled overhead and were present in large numbers. A Parasitic Jaeger flew by, harassing a Greater Crested Tern for its catch. Three species of Cormorants swam and dove for fish around us. Sacred Ibis were flying in flocks to and from the mainland. Once we were on the island, White-throated Swallows and Cape Wagtails were nice to see for the first time. African Black Oystercatchers foraged on the rocky outcroppings alongside a few Whimbrel. Being able to tour this island, which was once the epicenter of the apartheid actions against blacks in South Africa was life-changing.  The rest of the day we spent in downtown Cape Town collecting supplies and preparing for the days ahead. Some new avian additions were Pied Crow, Red-eyed Dove, and Laughing Dove. Back at the hostel we were staying at I sometimes sat up on the roof overlooking the city. One morning I was able to spot a distant Booted Eagle soaring over the nearby ridge.

Our second full day in the Cape Town area was spent traveling along the ocean southward, down the Cape of Good Hope. The scenery in this area was magical; beautiful cliffs plummeting down into the crashing sea. One of the major stops of the day was at Boulders Beach, where there is a famous African Jackass Penguin colony. We were able to get within feet of hundreds of penguins!

African Jackass Penguin

Next stop was Cape Point National Park, at the very tip of the Cape of Good Hope. At the entrance to the park, Cape Sugarbirds, with their unbelievably long tails fed from Protea plants. Offshore, Cape Gannets flew past in long lines. Malachite Sunbirds were racing around the fynbos feeding, and inadvertently collecting pollen. The habitat here was astounding, fynbos scrub as far as the eye could see, and then sudden plummeting cliffs dropping down into the sea. Common Ostrich foraged throughout the park.

Malachite Sunbird

The next day we traveled to a lodge in Somerset West. Along the way we stopped at what is known as a ‘township’. These townships are where black people are forced to live because they don’t have the money to live in the massive houses of the rich. The townships are like nothing I have ever seen. Some families were sharing space, living in shipping containers. Others were packed into hostels that were dirty and decaying. Most ‘houses’ were makeshift shacks, built from scrap pieces of metal and wood. This experience was like nothing I have ever seen, and really opened my eyes to the vast difference between social classes in South Africa.

Once we arrived at our lodge in Somerset West, I spent a few minute before dinner searching for birds on the property grounds. White-necked Ravens called from the tops of pines while a Yellow-billed Kite terrorized the local Speckled Pigeons. This lodge was completely beautiful and outstandingly landscaped. The difference between this and the townships was sickening.

White-necked Raven

The next morning I got up early to bird. Cape Robin-Chats filled the air with their thrush-like calls, Alpine Swifts were darting around the distant cliff, African Saw-wings cut the sky over my head. After breakfast, our group got together and we traveled to the nearby Cheetah Outreach Center. This educational tourist trap offers up close and personal encounters with Cheetahs in order to raise awareness of their quick decline in population. There are fewer than 700 Cheetahs left in South Africa, of which, only a portion are actually in the wild. There was a small pond at this spot, which was full of bird life. Red-knobbed Coots foraged around the reeds, a Booted Eagle soared overhead, Greater Striped Swallows and Little Swifts were shooting around, trying to capture insects. An African Darter, the African version of the Anhinga, flew overhead. Back at the lodge I was able to add a few more species, including the beautiful Cape Rock-Thrush and was sitting nicely at life bird 699 by the morning of January 23rd. On this day we began a long journey to the Knysna area, farther east along the coast. The scenery along this eight hour road trip was breathtaking. It was really nothing like I expected to see in African, and seemed like it would be more appropriate in Central America or Southeastern Arizona. Scrub and fynbos habitat covering massive mountains with giant, deep rips through the rocks created an out-of-this-world sight. Perched on a telephone pole along the road was a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk; life bird number 700! I managed to quickly snap the photo below as we drove past at about 60mph.

Southern Pale-chanting Goshawk

We ended up seeing quite a few as well as Steppe Buzzards, Lesser Kestrels, and the fantastically-named Jackal Buzzard. Other birding highlights of this road trip were seeing the South African national bird; the Blue Crane, foraging in the agricultural fields alongside Hadeda Ibis. I spotted a lone African Spoonbill foraging in a shallow farm pond and Secretarybirds were hunting in the taller grass for snakes. During a lunch stop in Montagu, I walked over to a nearby bird reserve right in the center of the town. Sacred Ibis and Cattle Egrets had a rookery here. There were a few Reed Cormorants sunning themselves in the trees, which was the last of the Southern African cormorants I had to see! Our long trip this day ended at the Hackerville Forest Lodge near Knysna where we were instantly greeted by the beautiful and exotic-looking Knysna Lourie while Little Swifts shot through the sky above our heads.

Little Swift

The birding in this country has been fantastic so far. I am extremely excited about the weeks ahead, as each day is filled with new and outstanding scenery, wildlife, and adventure. Plus each day we get to see a different side of the country, some poor, some rich; but all opening my eyes to the problems this country has had and still continues to struggle with.