The Swellendam area in the Overberg region of the Western Cape is highly underrated as a bird-watching destination. The town is in close proximity to the Grootvadersbosch, Marloth and De Hoop nature reserves, all managed by Cape Nature, the Bontebok National Park and the Tradouw pass. These reserves host a diversity of habitats and afford the visiting birder a great variety of birds to be seen. Most of these destinations gives access to the so-called Western Cape specials such as Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Victorin's Warbler, Cape Siskin, Black Harrier and Southern Tchagra to mention a few.
The area along the river in the Bontebok National Park, where the rest camp is situated is particularly productive. On a recent visit to the park we saw Southern Black Korhaan, Denham's Bustard, Clapper Lark, Grey-winged Francolin, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Giant Kingfisher, Fairy Flycatcher, African Black Duck and Fiery-necked Nightjar. The recent first sighting of a Kori Bustard in the park also adds spice to the region's birds. A bit further afield the De Hoop nature reserve brings beauties such as Cape Griffon, Blue Crane, Karoo Korhaan, Damara Tern, African Black Oystercatcher, Knysna Woodpecker, Agulhas Long-billed Lark and Knysna Turaco into play.
Members of BirdLife Overberg have in the past often visited the sprawling wilderness area at the Grootvadersbosch nature reserve. This reserve represents the largest south-western indigenous forest in the Western Cape and visitors come here to watch species such as Terrestrial Brownbul, Olive Bush-shrike, Forest Buzzard, Forest Canary, African Crowned Eagle, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Narina Trogon, Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler and Knysna Warbler.
We have often wondered why an area with such an amazing diversity of bird species is not on the formal birding map. One gets the impression that birding folk simply race along the N2 to get from Hermanus or Cape Town to the known birding destinations along the Garden Route (or visa versa) and miss out on gems such as Greyton, Swellendam and Stilbaai. Elaine and myself decided to present a Flight for Birders introductory bird identification and conservation course at Swellendam in collaboration with the Bontebok National Park. Aldo Pekeur of this park proved to be a master facilitator and surprisingly pulled sixty participants out of his hat, twenty-two of whom were employees of either CapeNature or SANParks. The enthusiasm of this group was astonishing and several individuals volunteered to become involved in the formation of a formal birding group in the area – read satellite branch of BirdLife Overberg, hopefully leading to an independent branch of BirdLife South Africa.
To namedrop a bit more: we saw great birds at Herberg Roosje van de Kaap where we stayed in Swellendam. Swee Waxbill, Spotted Eagle-Owl, African Paradise Flycatcher, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, oddly enough Pale-winged Starling, African Goshawk, Grey-headed Sparrow and many Western Cape “trash birds” such as Olive Thrush, Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Bulbul and Cape Wagtail. Participants to the course also reported regular sightings in town of specials such Amethyst Sunbird, Tambourine Dove, African Harrier-Hawk and African Wood-Owl. To crown it all we discovered a bluegum roost of Lesser Kestrels that we had not known of before, and this time not surprisingly, again in a local township.
Participants in the course also expressed concern about some of the burning conservation issues issues of the Overberg such as the plight of the African Penguins at Dyer Island, the closing of the estuary mouth at the Uilenkraals river and the proposed development of the Bantamklip nuclear power plant (and particularly the associated power lines through our magnificent landscapes) and the Caledon wind farms. It was decided in principle that the proposed birding group will be developed as a Site Support Group for the reserves in the area and that involvement in conservation issues will be one of the major aims of the group. A further public meeting was held in Swellendam on the 3rd of May and at this meeting Aldo Pekeur was appointed to start formulising a bird club for the area. They have started with morning outings and one such outing to the Bontebok National Park was attended by 24 enthusiastic birders!
The way forward? All concerned are invited to forward the names and contact details of people in the Swellendam region who might be interested in joining the proposed birding group so that they could be invited to a further public meeting where the issue could be discussed and debated. This meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday 28 July. We have also considered doing a Flight for Birders course in Stilbaai in view of establishing a birding infrastructure for the Hessequa municipal area. (Heidelberg, Riversdale, Stilbaai and Albertinia). It is envisaged that such a course will again be presented in the Swellendam area and that the Stilbaai group will be invited to attend this. It is hoped that these actions will contribute towards the conservation of birds and their habitats in this “dead stretch” of the N2 as it is currently perceived.