Posted on the 6th November 2009

Chris van Gass reports:

The Executive Director of BirdLife South Africa, Mark Anderson, has been “blown away” by the potential for birding in the Agulhas National Park (ANP), still one of the country’s undiscovered "twitching" hotspots. Anderson, the guest speaker at the second successful Sasol/Glendower Agulhas birding weekend held in the ANP, said there were areas in the park which were "ideal" to develop and offer avid birders some of the region’s endemic species, which include the Agulhas Long-billed Lark and the Orange-breasted Sunbird - and other “specials” like the Black Harrier, Damara Tern and SA’s national bird, the Blue Crane.

Cape Sugarbird     Images: Anton Odendal

The birding weekend, organised by the SANParks Honorary Rangers of the Overberg region under the direction of seasoned birding project coordinator, Eddie Cassani, saw birders from as far afield as Johannesburg attend – with a significant contingent from the Cape Bird Club, BirdLife Overberg and the Hermanus Bird Club enjoying the delights of avifauna in the ANP. The size of the group which attended, 150 people, confirmed that the ANP is one of the new jewels in the crown of SA’s birding hotspots.

The main activities during the weekend were held at the historic Moravian mission village of Elim where Anderson was the guest speaker. Anderson said that 125 of SA’s 850 bird species were on the red data list and the number of red data listings would probably increase next year when the list was updated. The reason for declining bird numbers and threat to species was due to man-made factors such as urbanisation, agriculture and land degradation. Specific threats to bird groups like the bustards and Blue Crane included power lines, and in the case of seabirds long-line fishing activities off the SA coast.

He said bird-watching played an important role in ecotourism and he was always amazed by the interest shown by birders from countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Britain who make specific trips to SA to view the country’s rich birding heritage. Anderson said, as an example, when a Citrine Wagtail was spotted along the Cape Coast a few years ago - a first sighting of the bird south of the Sahara - it created "immense excitement" which saw hundred of birders flocking to view the bird. This resulted in a “significant” injection of money into the local economy.

Common Whimbrels

One of the offerings in the ANP which impressed Anderson most was the bird habitat around a disused salt works. He said with the right viewing facilities and some modification to improve the area for birders, many more species would breed there in larger numbers. There was also the added possibility of vagrant waders flying into the pan area which would create heightened excitement for obsessed bird watchers, who have been known to take the first plane to such areas where these “specials” could be observed. Anderson, who has been recognised for establishing a permanent breeding island for Lesser Flamingos at Kamfers Dam near Kimberley, said, however, the area around the salt pan was unsuitable to create a similar breeding ground for flamingos.

He said the establishment and expansion of the ANP was an "important contribution" to conservation. In the Agulhas region there were special birds that needed to be conserved, like the Agulhas Long-billed Lark, the Blue Crane, Denham’s Bustard and the Damara Tern.

Bronwyn Botha, regional coordinator in the Western Cape for the SA Crane Working Group, stressed the threat faced by the Blue Crane, SA’s national bird. Among the hazards were discarded bailing twine, power lines, poisoning and barbed-wire fences.

Crowned Cormorants

Cassani said without the sponsorship the Overberg Honorary Rangers received from Sasol and Glendower whisky, the event would not have been the success it was. Other sponsors were Strandveld Wines, Ruens Vervoer, two establishments in nearby Napier (The Fox pub and restaurant and Gunner’s Mess), Glen Apples, Karoo Biltong & Vleis and local L'Agulhas artist Mosie Hope. Many of those attending the birding weekend complemented Cassani on the organisation of this year's event, saying it was a “major” improvement on the first birding weekend in the ANP held last year.

A number of guided birding walks were on offer, covering habitats such as Overberg dune strandveld, freshwater wetlands, Cape inland saltpans, Elim ferricrete fynbos, Agulhas sand fynbos, Agulhas limestone fynbos, agricultural wheatfields and canola, as well as renosterveld. Birding by kayak on the ever-expanding Agulhas flood plains was also one of the highlights of the weekend.

“It was a fabulous gathering and made everyone happy,” said Cassani. “All who enrolled for the weekend went home with a prize and we did the sponsors proud,” he said.

The Elim community catered for the event which was held in a flower shed that was transformed into a charming earthy location with decorations consisting of bunches of fynbos and natural wood and straw bales. The Elim Brass Band entertained guests on the first night, while Robyn, a singer who advanced well into the SA Idols competition, provided the entertainment on the second night. The prize-giving was held at a farewell "brunch" on the last day, Sunday. Paul Swart, chairman of the Elim Opsienersraad, stressed the importance of the event and welcomed the financial injection it represented for the Elim community. He lauded the Honorary Rangers for taking this initiative.


Red-backed Shrike photographed in the Overberg

We studied the report cards that were completed by all the birders who took part in the weekend and this made for very interesting reading. In total 183 species were seen and of this 27 were migrants, BUT OF THE 157 RESIDENT SPECIES SEEN 37 WERE ENDEMIC OR NEAR-ENDEMIC! It is not believed that there are many areas in South Africa where such a high proportion of birds seen over a weekend will be endemic. This list of birds become even more significant when one looks at it in a qualitative sense. Here the various habitats that the park has on offer illustrated some interesting clusters of birds: The so-called “fynbos specials” were well represented through birds such as the CAPE SISKIN, CAPE SUGARBIRD, ORANGE-BREASTED SUNBIRD and SOUTHERN TCHAGRA. Shorebirds were also seen by many of the birders and these included CAPE AND CROWNED CORMORANTS, HARTLAUB'S GULL, AFRICAN BLACK OYSTERCATCHER and DAMARA TERN. The more wooded areas of the reserve produced birds such as CAPE BATIS, BOKMAKIERIE, SOUTHERN BOUBOU, CAPE BULBUL and FISCAL FLYCATCHER. In the more open habitats the action really hotted up and reports were received of HOTTENTOT BUTTON-QUAIL, GREY-BACKED CISTICOLA, BLUE CRANES, GREY-WINGED FRANCOLIN, BLACK HARRIER, and AGULHAS LONG-BILLED, CAPE CLAPPER AND LARGE-BILLED LARKS. There were many more great endemic species seen and this in itself should elevate a visit to the AGULHAS NATIONAL PARK as an absolute priority when the Western Cape province is visited.

Kori Bustard

All does not end here though. There are a variety of waterbodies in the ANP and the list of migratory waders here simply boggles the mind: EUROPEAN CURLEW, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, COMMON GREENSHANK, COMMON RINGED and GREY PLOVERS, RUFF, SANDERLING, COMMON and CURLEW SANDPIPERS, LITTLE STINT, several terns and COMMON WHIMBREL were all seen over the weekend. If one further considers that the ANP is in close proximity to a piece of wader heaven that is the DE MOND NATURE RESERVE then the avid birder's bags need to be packed asap. There were a few other birds of real interest seen and these include CAPE EAGLE-OWL, LESSER STRIPED SWALLOW, YELLOW-BILLED EGRET, LARK-LIKE BUNTING and ANT-EATING CHAT. Also great that so many groups saw WHITE-FACED DUCKS and we must accept that they are here to stay now.

As a final comment one should add that in recent years several great sightings were recorded in this area for the first time. This list includes birds such as KORI BUSTARD, GOLIATH HERON, AFRICAN GRASS-OWL, CHORISTER ROBIN-CHAT, OSPREY, COMB DUCK, WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER, LESSER GREY and RED-BACKED SHRIKES, MARABOU STORKS AND GULL-BILLED TERN.

All of this information should certainly suggest that the AGULHAS NATIONAL PARK should now be regarded as one of the top birding destinations in the Western Cape and the park management, the honorary rangers, the weekend's sponsors and the local community should be congratulated with their wonderful development work.

There are many more articles on the birding potential of the AGULHAS NATIONAL PARK on this website. 















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