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BIRDING ALONG THE OVERBERG WHEATBELT DURING THIS WINTER

Posted on the 28th June 2017

BIRDING ALONG THE OVERBERG WHEATBELT

INTRODUCTION
There are many outstanding bird-watching opportunities along the various gravel and tarred roads scattered throughout the Overberg. These roads include the gravel road between Swellendam and Infanta, the R324 between Buffeljags River and Witsand, the R317 between Riversonderend and Bredasdorp, the R406 between Greyton and Riviersonderend and the Karwyderskraal and Swartrivier roads outside Botrivier village.This is a generic introductory overview to give visitors an idea of some of the birds to be expected in various habitat types throughout the Overberg Wheatbelt. The description of species abundance is based on findings in SABAP2 (the bird atlasing project) report cards throughout the region. The detailed descriptions of specific bird-watching destinations and sites, as well specific roads and routes that will follow later should give visitors guidance on where to look for specific species.

Overberg Wheatfields 1 - Chris Cheetham
Overberg Wheatfields 2 - Anton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Overberg Wheatbelt is recognised as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area by BirdLife International (SA 115) and connects the towns of Caledon in the west and Riversdale in the east with Bredasdorp and Napier to the south. The Overberg Wheatbelt has been modified through agricultural activities and rambling country roads thread their way through an ever-undulating tapestry of changing colours and hues in these lowland landscapes. One would think that such a monoculture landscape would not support good birding-watching, but this is certainly not the case. Many of these so-called Overberg Wheatbelt loop roads can be used very effectively for fantastic birding when travelling between Swellendam and the better known birding destinations such as the Bontebok (34° 04'11.57”S 20° 26'13.31”E) and Agulhas National Parks (34° 43'53,59”S 19° 47'41.59”E) and the De Hoop (34° 25'18.97”S 20° 32'43.31”E) and De Mond Nature Reserves (34° 42'34.07”S 20° 06'13.05”E). Small pockets of remnant fynbos, renosterveld and indigenous forests, as well as open water also increase the species diversity of the area.

Blue Crane landscape - Anton
Cape Vultures - Charles Naude

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



ICONIC SPECIES
304 bird species have been identified in the Overberg Wheatbelt IBA, with the area being best known in birding circles for some iconic bird species and a huge diversity of so-called “Little Brown Jobs” (LBJs). This is BLUE CRANE country and it is not uncommon to come across flocks of several hundred of these birds in winter with breeding pairs being predominant in summer. The DENHAM'S BUSTARD also adds spice to the birding fair throughout the area, as this species occurs commonly. The SOUTHERN BLACK KORHAAN is a threatened endemic species affected by the fragmentation of the landscape, although it can be locally fairly common. A surprise here is that the KAROO KORHAAN also occurs in small numbers. One can also expect to find the BLACK HARRIER foraging in this transformed landscape, even though this species needs pristine Renosterveld habitats for breeding purposes. Birds from the CAPE VULTURE breeding colony at Potberg in the De Hoop Nature Reserve also forage throughout the Wheatbelt where their plight is ably supported by several farmers that maintain vulture restaurants. The numbers of CAPE VULTURES at Potberg has increased in recent years as a result of more vulture friendly farming practices outside the reserve. All of these special birds have limited distribution ranges and and all of them, excluding KAROO KORHAAN are globally threatened.

Karoo Korhaan pair with chick - Louis Alberts
Southern Black Korhaan - Anton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


LITTLE BROWN JOBS
The Overberg Wheatbelt region is probably the best area where birders can practice their identification skills on LBJs as all of the region’s cisticolas, larks and pipits are found here. An added advantage is that many of the gravel roads can be travelled safely and at leisure in an area very well known for its outstanding landscape and wildlife photographic opportunities. This affords locals the chance to compare the difficult LBJs of the region and visitors the opportunity to find several of the region’s many endemic species. The CAPE CANARY and STREAKY-HEADED SEEDEATER are abundant, with BRIMSTONE and YELLOW CANARIES less so. The LEVAILLANT'S CISTICOLA is very common close to water, while GREY-BACKED and ZITTING CISTICOLAS can be found fairly easily while travelling towards the top of inclines. All three these species are very vocal during breeding season during spring and early summer and their breeding displays a highlight of bird-watching in the region. Observant birders may find the diminutive CLOUD CISTICOLA closer to the top of hills. The LARGE-BILLED and RED-CAPPED LARKS are very common in most areas, with smaller numbers of CAPE CLAPPER LARK being present. The regionally threatened AGULHAS LONG-BILLED LARK has its global distribution range restricted to the Wheatbelt area. It is therefore hugely sought-after by visiting birders. The KAROO LARK is also recorded occasionally. The most numerous pipit is undoubtedly the AFRICAN PIPIT, while LONG-BILLED and PLAIN-BACKED PIPITS and CAPE LONGCLAW are present in significantly smaller numbers. Other abundant species to take note of in this regard include the KAROO PRINIA, AFRICAN STONECHAT and CAPPED WHEATEAR. This is often described as the best area in the Western Cape where visitors can systematically observe and learn to identify the LBJs of the region and birding here is recommended strongly.

Agulhas Long-billed Lark - Anton
Capped Wheatear - Anton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OTHER COMMON AND SPECIAL SPECIES
The impressive list of species found in the Wheatbelt does however not end with the iconic species and LBJs discussed above. Visitors can look forward to finding a range of common endemic or near-endemic species along these roads, such as the BOKMAKIERIE, CAPE BULBUL, CAPE CROW, FISCAL FLYCATCHER, CAPE SPARROW, PIED STARLING, CAPE WEAVER and CAPE WHITE-EYE. Endemics found less often are the WHITE-BACKED MOUSEBIRD, CAPE SPURFOWL, SOUTHERN and GREATER DOUBLE-COLLARED SUNBIRDS and SWEE WAXBILL. Other fairly common non-endemic resident species include the BLACK-HEADED HERON, SOUTHERN RED and YELLOW BISHOPS, FORK-TAILED DRONGO, CAPE ROBIN-CHAT and MALACHITE SUNBIRD. BROWN-THROATED and ROCK MARTINS occur throughout the year and SOUTHERN MASKED-WEAVER and PIN-TAILED WHYDAH are not as common in the Wheatbelt. To this should be added a few species that have only arrived in the Overberg in fairly recent times. Here the NAMAQUA DOVE, BROWN-HOODED KINGFISHER, SOUTHERN GREY-HEADED SPARROW and AMETHYST SUNBIRD serve as examples.

Cape Spurfowl - Anton
Swee Waxbill - Craig Adam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WATERBIRDS
The Overberg Wheatbelt region hosts a variety of rivers, farm dams and wetlands where huge numbers of waterbirds are regularly present. Rivers sometimes overflow its banks during wet spells in winter and early spring and this creates a huge influx of waterfowl. The YELLOW-BILLED DUCK, EGYPTIAN and SPUR-WINGED GEESE and THREE-BANDED PLOVER are abundant throughout the region, with AFRICAN BLACK DUCK, SOUTH AFRICAN SHELDUCK, CAPE SHOVELER, CAPE and RED-BILLED TEALS also being particularly numerous at stages.

The HAMERKOP, AFRICAN SACRED IBIS, AFRICAN SPOONBILL, SPOTTED and WATER THICK-KNEES are common throughout the year, as are REED CORMORANT, GREY HERON and BLACKSMITH LAPWING. RED-KNOBBED COOTS are very common, with BLACK CRAKE and COMMON MOORHEN less so. Species encountered far less often include the AFRICAN DARTER, WHITE-BREASTED CORMORANT, LITTLE EGRET, LITTLE GREBE, PURPLE HERON, GLOSSY IBIS, GIANT, MALACHITE and PIED KINGFISHERS and KITTLITZ'S PLOVER. GREATER FLAMINGOS are nomadic in the region and LESSER FLAMINGOS are recorded in significantly smaller numbers and only occasionally.

The BURCHELL'S COUCAL, BAILLON'S CRAKE, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON, AFRICAN SNIPE and AFRICAN PURPLE SWAMPHEN are present, but are difficult to find due to their secretive behaviour and habitat preferences. The presence of BUFF-SPOTTED FLUFFTAIL has been confirmed at a few localities. Species that have arrived in the Western Cape fairly recently and that are present in small numbers include KNOB-BILLED, MACCOA, WHITE-BACKED and WHITE-FACED DUCKS, YELLOW-BILLED EGRET, SOUTHERN POCHARD and HOTTENTOT TEAL. The latter is recorded rarely.

African Black Ducks - Anton
Maccoa Duck - Craig Adam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


RAPTORS
In this regard BLACK HARRIER and CAPE VULTURE are certainly the star attractions in the Overberg Wheatbelt and these were discussed earlier. The JACKAL BUZZARD, SPOTTED EAGLE-OWL, AFRICAN FISH-EAGLE, BLACK-SHOULDERED KITE and BARN OWL are very common throughout the region. The AFRICAN MARSH-HARRIER is locally fairly common, but has very specific habitat requirements. SOUTHERN PALE CHANTING GOSHAWK numbers are increasing in the region as more sightings are being received. The FOREST BUZZARD is present near exotic plantations and remnant patches of indigenous forests and common hawks to be expected in and around similar habitat types are the AFRICAN GOSHAWK, AFRICAN HARRIER-HAWK and BLACK SPARROWHAWK. Only a few records of GABAR GOSHAWK and RUFOUS-CHESTED SPARROWHAWK have been noted. In summer expect to find good numbers of STEPPE BUZZARD and YELLOW-BILLED KITE, while smallish flocks of AMUR FALCON and LESSER KESTREL occur in sections of the Overberg Wheatbelt along the Breede River.
Species that are recorded rarely include the AFRICAN WOOD-OWL and AFRICAN GRASS-OWL, both of which have very specific habitat requirements. A few sightings of the globally threatened MARTIAL EAGLE, as well as the similar looking BLACK-CHESTED SNAKE-EAGLE are on record. There is concern about SECRETARYBIRD as it appears as if its distribution range is shrinking and this species is spotted less frequently.

BIRDS OF MOUNTAINOUS HABITATS
The impressive Langeberg and Riviersonderend mountain ranges host a variety of species associated with mountainous habitats and some of these often move around in the Overberg Wheatbelt. Regionally threatened species in this regard include the BLACK STORK and VERREAUX'S EAGLE. LANNER and PEREGRINE FALCONS are rare, but sometimes produce great photographic opportunities. The JACKAL BUZZARD is very common and BOOTED EAGLE and ROCK KESTREL are also seen fairly often. Rocky outcrops and mountainous areas may produce other exciting species such as the CAPE BUNTING, FAMILIAR CHAT, GREY-WINGED FRANCOLIN, CAPE GRASSBIRD, CAPE ROCK-THRUSH and GROUND WOODPECKER.

Black Harrier - Carin Malan
Female Amur Falcon - Anton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE EIGHT FYNBOS ENDEMICS

Remnant patches of fynbos are sparsely scattered through the agriculture dominated farmlands of the Overberg Wheatbelt. The CAPE SUGARBIRD, CAPE SISKIN and ORANGE-BREASTED SUNBIRD are common at such locations, some of which are described at specific spots such as Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve and Bontebok National Park. The SOUTHERN BLACK KORHAAN is locally fairly common. HOTTENTOT BUTTONQUAIL, CAPE ROCK-JUMPER, PROTEA SEEDEATER and VICTORIN'S WARBLER all have very specific habitat requirements and very few if any sightings have been recorded within the Wheatbelt as such. These four species are far more readily available in other areas in the Swellendam region and it is recommended that specialist bird guides be consulted, or send an e-mail to birding@overberg.co.za

Cape Sugarbird - Anton
Cape Siskin - Anton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


BIRDS ASSOCIATED WITH THICKETS AND FOREST PATCHES
The rank exotic vegetation along water courses, well wooded gardens and the few remaining patches of indigenous forests in the Overberg Wheatbelt bring a different suite of interesting species into play. It appears as if BAR-THROATED APALIS, CAPE BATIS, SOUTHERN BOUBOU, AFRICAN DUSKY FLYCATCHER, SOMBRE GREENBUL, SPECKLED MOUSEBIRD and CAPE ROBIN-CHAT are very common and sometimes even abundant in most of such habitats surveyed. AFRICAN PARADISE-FLYCATCHER is also very common in summer. Species that are found less commonly include KLAAS'S CUCKOO, TAMBOURINE DOVE, KAROO SCRUB-ROBIN, STREAKY-HEADED SEEDEATER, GREY-HEADED SPARROW, CHESTNUT-VENTED TIT-BABBLER and OLIVE THRUSH. DIDERICK and RED-CHESTED CUCKOOS are very vocal during summer months. Only a few records of ACACIA PIED BARBET, BLUE-MANTLED CRESTED-FLYCATCHER, BROWN-BACKED HONEYBIRD, GREATER HONEYGUIDE and AFRICAN OLIVE-PIGEON have been noted. It is best to look for FOREST CANARY, BLACK and GREY CUCKOO-SHRIKES, LEMON DOVE, LESSER HONEYGUIDE and CARDINAL and OLIVE WOODPECKERS in other areas of the region, such as Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve and 'Piekniekbos' in the Tradouw Pass.

SUMMER MIGRANTS
Species such as AFRICAN PARADISE-FLYCATCHER, DIDERICK and RED-CHESTED CUCKOOS, STEPPE BUZZARD, YELLOW-BILLED KITE, AMUR FALCON and LESSER KESTREL have been mentioned earlier. EUROPEAN BEE-EATERS are recorded fairly regularly and concern has been expressed about the dwindling numbers of SPOTTED FLYCATCHER returning to southern Africa annually. The Overberg Wheatbelt region is perhaps best known for the large numbers of WHITE STORKS during summer.

This Wheatbelt area produces large numbers of swallows, swifts and martins in summer. Vast numbers of BROWN-THROATED and ROCK MARTINS, BARN, GREATER STRIPED and WHITE-THROATED SWALLOWS and ALPINE and WHITE-RUMPED SWIFTS occur regularly. BLACK SAWWING and AFRICAN BLACK and LITTLE SWIFTS are less numerous, but the impressive part is certainly the massive mixed flocks that often occur particularly during cloudy and misty weather. Also be on the lookout for less common species such as COMMON HOUSE-MARTIN, BANDED MARTIN, PEARL-BREASTED SWALLOW and COMMON SWIFT.

White-throated Swallow - Anton
White-rumped Swift - Carin Malan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VAGRANTS
The Overberg Wheatbelt further has the reputation for producing an increasing number of vagrant species. Fairly recent records include species such as the LARK-LIKE BUNTING, BLACK-HEADED CANARY, EURASIAN HOBBY, SAND MARTIN, RED-BILLED QUELEA, EUROPEAN and LILAC-BREASTED ROLLERS, RED-BACKED SHRIKE, LESSER GREY SHRIKE and GREY WAGTAIL. Rare cuckoo species recorded are AFRICAN, BLACK and COMMON CUCKOOS. Larger species noted include GOLIATH HERON, AFRICAN OPENBILL and ABDIM'S and MARABOU STORKS. The arrival of a vagrant PALMNUT VULTURE further caused a stir in birding circles recently.

Red-backed Shrike - Anton
European Roller - Anton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


CONCLUDING COMMENTS
The Overberg Wheatbelt Bird and Biodiversity Area stands central in conservation efforts in the Overberg region and is recognised as such by BirdLife International. Bird-watching opportunities in these magnificent rural landscapes are hugely underrated given the high levels of endemism in the region. Detailed descriptions of top birding spots along specific rural roads will be given in the birdfinder web pages of both the Theewaterskloof and Swellendam regions.

White Stork - Carin Malan
Dance! - Carin Malan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(All images by members of BirdLife Overberg. - Ed.)

COMMENTS

2187
STEVE (posted: 2016-12-14 14:56:57)
As someone that has recently moved to this area (Napier) I can thoroughly endorse this article as being a very true and accurate reflection of the birding available in this area. The area provides daily great opportunities to see and photograph many of the species mentioned and along with the numerous National Parks within it make it a must for any birder to visit, thank you to members of the BLO for providing this informative and accurate portrayal of the birding available along the Overberg Wheatbelt.