TWO TOP BIRDING SPOTS ON THE WEST COASTPosted on the 31st July 2009
THE WEST COAST NATIONAL PARK AND THE BERG RIVER ESTUARY AT VELDDRIF -
THE BEST OF CAPE WEST COAST BIRD-WATCHING
Text and photographs by Dr. Anton Odendal
The West Coast Flamingo Birding Route is one of six birding routes in the Western Cape province being developed under the auspices of BirdLife South Africa. This article focuses on two bird-watching destinations that represent the best of West Coast birding in the central section of the Flamingo Birding Route. There are so many top bird-watching destinations in this region that several spots had to be omitted due to restrictions to the length of the article. A visit to the Cape West Coast of South Africa represents a celebration of diversity of peoples, landscapes, culinary delights, internationally recognized wetlands and spectacular wildflower displays. This arid region offers splendid white beaches and coastal plains dominated by strandveld fynbos studded with picturesque granite outcrops. The tourism infrastructure is well developed with quaint seaside fishing villages and inland country towns. The area is known for its “salt of the earth” unpretentious locals, exquisite cuisine and fine award-winning local wines. Tourist attractions vary from famous eco-tourism destinations such as the West Coast Fossil Park, the West Coast National Park, and the Berg River estuary, through to upmarket facilities such as Club Mykonos, Paternoster and Port Owen.
The central West Coast has a number of different eco-systems and offers the enthusiast the opportunity of birding in coastal, sandveld and estuarine habitats. Birders will delight in the many special and endemic birds, including the Blue Crane, Black Harrier, Southern Black Korhaan, Cape Penduline Tit, Protea Seedeater, Cape Siskin and Cape Rockjumper. These terrestrial species are often overlooked as the West Coast has the reputation for being the home of rare and vagrant migrating waders during summer. Here “mythical” names such as Common Redshank, Pectoral and Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope and Dunlin spring to mind. Some of these waders are discussed elsewhere in this publication.
The West Coast National Park is regarded as the flagship birding destination along the Cape West Coast. The park incorporates the beach and dunelands between Yzerfontein and Langebaan, the beautiful Langebaan lagoon itself, as well as the four islands. Terrestrial birding should not be underestimated, even though the reserve in best known for its vast numbers of migratory waders during summer. The birder’s visit is further enhanced by several hides. The two hides close to the restaurant and environmental education centre at Geelbek are best visited on the ebb tide - four and a half hours after high tide in Table Bay. The hides and the walkways leading to it offer great birding and photographic opportunities throughout the year – special waders here could include Common Redshank, Terek Sandpiper, Greater Sandplover, Common Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit. The two salt-marsh hides are a 15 minutes walk south-west from the Geelbek EE centre and is best visited at high tide. This is a popular roosting area and special species here include Osprey, Common Greenshank, Ringed and Grey Plover and Chestnut-banded Plover. The Seeberg hide is situated close to the Langebaan entrance gate and in winter hundreds of flamingos could be viewed here. This hide is also excellent for terns and waders in summer. Vagrant species such as Hudsonian and Black-tailed Godwit, White-rumped and Broad-billed Sandpiper and Dunlin have been recorded here. A new hide hide has been built at Abrahamskraal where water birds such as Wood Sandpiper and African Rail are regularly seen. A visit to Tsaarbank on the Atlantic seaboard is always recommended as cormorants, gulls, African Black Oystercatchers and the occasional passing pelagic bird could be found.
It is strongly recommended that visitors do not merely travel between the West Coast National Park and Velddrif along the R27, but that the so-called peninsula drive along Vredenburg , Paternoster, Cape Colombine and St Helena Bay be used. Jacobsbaai and Mauritz Bay that are accessed off the road between Saldanha and Vredenburg are rapidly becoming known as birding hot spots particularly as far as terns are concerned. Birds that are reported along the peninsula route regularly include Burchell’s Coursers, Sickle-winged Chats, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks, Greater Kestrels, Spotted Eagle-Owls and Pied Avocets. In winter, there is a large roost of Antarctic Terns at Cape Colombine, just west of Paternoster. Britannica Heights in St Helena Bay is known as “five larks country”: a steep incline to the reservoir at the top of the hill gives birders the opportunity to test their identification skills at trying to identify all five species of larks that are found here.
The area of the Lower Berg River at Velddrif includes a variety of habitats and nearly 350 bird species have been identified here. Excellent birding from various viewing points is to be had along the banks of the river. The estuary is saline and tidal and therefore interesting at all tidal stages. The salt pans are non-tidal and here birds like Chestnut-banded Plover, Red-necked Phalarope and Cape Long-billed Lark could be seen. Many believe that in summer the mudflats and river edges support the highest diversity of waders along the Atlantic seaboard. Recent vagrant rarities include Little Blue Heron, Lesser Yellowlegs and Hudsonian Godwit. A visit to Flaminkevlei “A” is highly recommended and is accessed from he R399 linking Velddrif and Vredenburg: a mixed heronry can be studied at the blue gum trees between July and December, African Sacred Ibis breed on the islands in spring, as do Little Terns in summer. Towards evening Marsh Owls and African Marsh Harrier often fly over the reed beds. Swartjiesbaai, that is accessed from the road linking Velddrif and Hopefield, offers Red-necked Phalarope, Goliath Heron, Osprey, Common Redshank, African Purple Swamphen, White-winged Tern and many more. Birds can be viewed throughout the year from the hide close to the Riviera Hotel in Velddrif. This hide overlooks mudflats and salt marshes and the best time for birding is 1.5 hours after high tide and 1 hour after low tide in Table Bay. Birds that are seen here regularly include Goliath, Purple, Grey and Black-headed Herons, African Spoonbill, African Darter and Pied Avocet. Further up the river at Bokkom Lane a visit to the traditional fishing businesses is well worth the effort. Both Lesser and Greater Flamingos, White Pelicans, Malachite and Pied Kingfishers, Grey-headed Gulls, Common Greenshank and many other species could be observed and easily photographed here. Even further up the river “De Plaat” is accessed from the R399 to Piketberg. This mudflat area is ideal for birding and more so 3.5 hours after high tide and 1 hour after low tide in Table Bay. At times more than 30,000 Cape Cormorants can be seen going to the salt pans to roost in the late afternoon. It is estimated that between 70,000 and 80,000 birds use this area at night. The Lower Berg River is certainly one of the greatest birding destinations along the Cape West Coast.
Two annual birding weekends at these two great destinations further enhance its reputation as top bird-watching venues. “The Wader Bash” organised by the honorary rangers of the West Coast National Park takes place in autumn and the “Feathers, Fossils and Flowers weekend” organised by the West Coast Bird Club takes place in August. Much more information on birding destinations, rare sightings and wonderful events could be found on the Flamingo Birding Route section of www.westerncapebirding.co.za.