WEEKLY FEATURE 9: THE BITOU RIVER FLOODPLAIN OUTSIDE PLETTENBERG BAY
Posted on the 27th February 2015
The Bitou River floodplain lies along the R340 outside Plettenberg Bay towards Wittedrift and Uniondale. The floodplain offers limitless birding potential as vast numbers of waterbirds, waders and species associated with thickets and forest habitats are found in the same area. From a birding perspective it is unfortunate that most of the floodplain lies on privately owned land and that there are very few safe spots to park when trying to bird along the R340. Extreme caution is advised, as vehicles often travel along this road at high speed. Privately owned land can only be accessed with the permission of owners. Contact Gareth Robbins of Golden Orb Tours to assist with birding along the floodplain – see information elsewhere on this web page.
Good numbers of coastal and waterbirds are often present along the bridge where the N2 crosses the Bitou River. It is best to park at a small parking area to the left immediately after the R340 has been taken. Expect to find REED and WHITE-BREASTED CORMORANTS, AFRICAN DARTER, several egrets species, GREY and PURPLE HERONS, SOUTHERN POCHARD and CASPIAN and SWIFT TERNS. KELP GULL and AFRICAN BLACK OYSTERCATCHER are abundant and CAPE CORMORANT can be spotted occasionally. COMMON and SANDWICH TERNS are present in summer.
Waterbirds abound along the floodplain, but the use of spotting scopes is advised when birding from the R340. RED-KNOBBED COOT, COMMON MOORHEN and THREE-BANDED PLOVER are numerous, as are YELLOW-BILLED DUCK, CAPE SHOVELER and all three teals. The reeds fringing the water attract species such as LEVAILLANT'S CISTICOLA and LESSER SWAMP-WARBLER. Secretive and evasive species include LITTLE BITTERN, BLACK CRAKE, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON, AFRICAN PURPLE SWAMPHEN and LITTLE RUSH-WARBLER. Waders are also plentiful. PIED AVOCET and BLACK-WINGED STILT are resident and in summer expect to find species such as COMMON GREENSHANK, GREY PLOVER, COMMON RINGED PLOVER, RUFF, COMMON, MARSH and WOOD SANDPIPERS, LITTLE STINT, RUDDY TURNSTONE and COMMON WHIMBREL.
Birding along the Bitou is however not only about waterbirds and waders. The fringes and thickets along the river hold species such as BRIMSTONE CANARY, FORK-TAILED DRONGO, SOMBRE GREENBUL, BROWN-HOODED KINGFISHER, AFRICAN OLIVE-PIGEON, BLACK-HEADED ORIOLE and AFRICAN PARADISE-FLYCATCHER in summer. Remnants of forest patches to the east of the river may produce a selection of forest species such as TERRESTRIAL BROWNBUL, GREEN-BACKED CAMEROPTERA, BLUE-MANTLED CRESTED-FLYCATCHER, BLACK and GREY CUCKOOSHRIKES, SCALY-THROATED HONEYGUIDE, BLACK-BACKED PUFFBACK, BLACK-BELLIED STARLING and OLIVE WOODPECKER. Other notable specials include OLIVE BUSH-SHRIKE, FOREST CANARY, CHORISTER ROBIN-CHAT, KNYSNA TURACO and KNYSNA WOODPECKER.
African Purple Swamphen
A safe and secure spot for birding is the road bridge just after the turn-off to Wittedrift has been taken at 33° 99' 84'S 23° 23' 18.8”E. The upstream section of the river is narrow and shallow and birding is spectacular. Look out for BURCHELL'S COUCAL, DIDERICK CUCKOO, TAMBOURINE DOVE, AFRICAN HOOPOE, GIANT, MALACHITE and PIED KINGFISHERS, KAROO PRINIA and GREEN WOOD-HOOPOE, besides those species already mentioned. Interesting birds seen along the Bitou River in recent years and that have caused quite a stir in birding circles include BLUE CRANE, GREATER and LESSER FLAMINGOS, AFRICAN JACANA, BLACK-WINGED LAPWING and EURASIAN GOLDEN ORIOLE. Overhead and across the river one should look out for raptors like FOREST and JACKAL BUZZARD, AFRICAN FISH-EAGLE, AFRICAN MARSH-HARRIER and WESTERN OSPREY. Summer migrants include STEPPE BUZZARD and YELLOW-BILLED KITE. These are just a few of the many birds of prey to be found along the Bitou River.
This brief overview of birds and birding along the Bitou River floodplain clearly illustrates the vast birding potential of the area. The relative inaccessibility of the floodplain remains a problem and for this reason it is recommended that visiting birders investigate the BITOU RIVER LODGE. The lodge is unfortunately only accessible to resident guests and casual birders can only gain access if accompanied by Gareth Robbins of Golden Orb Tours. Canoes are available and the river is narrow, but quite navigable from Bitou River Lodge. Birding upstream comprises a slow paddle of some 30 minutes to the weir, but downstream visitors can paddle and bird for at least an hour.
Bitou River Lodge (Image provided)
The majority of species discussed earlier can be spotted and casual garden birding can produce BAR-THROATED APALIS, SOUTHERN RED and YELLOW BISHOPS, AFRICAN DUSKY FLYCATCHER, SOUTHERN BOUBOU, BROWN-HOODED KINGFISHER, CAPE LONGCLAW, AFRICAN PIPIT, CAPE ROBIN-CHAT, CAPE and RED-NECKED SPURFOWLS, both weavers and CAPE WHITE-EYE. All of the region's sunbirds are present and AMETHYST, COLLARED and GREY SUNBIRDS deserve mention. SPOTTED EAGLE-OWL and FIERY-NECKED NIGHTJAR are also present. A recent discovery at the Bitou River Lodge was AFRICAN GRASS-OWL – a much sought-after bird in the Western Cape.
BITOU RIVER LODGE CONTACT DETAILS:
PHONE: +27 (0) 44 535 9577
MOBILE: +27 (0) 82 978 6164
The diversity of species available along the Bitou River floodplain certainly makes this one of the prime birding spots in the greater Plettenberg Bay region and needs to be investigated by visiting birders.