(This article is one of four written by Keith Harrison that he originally prepared for “Cape Odyssey”. - Ed.)
I am asked, “Why is the Lower berg River is so special?” Being one of only four perennial estuaries on the West Coast of South Africa and having a flood plain of 61 square km.there is exceptional biodiversity. 127 water bird species and 93 other species have been recorded; including populations of 25 nationally important and at least 5 Red Data listed species. There are 35 species of fish, 80% of the species which use the estuary as a nursery are marine. There are a large variety of insects and invertebrates to feed the birds and fish, also 10 distinct plant communities, and of course the roots serve as filter systems to clean the water.
In fact the whole of the West Coast is a birder’s paradise all the year round. In the summer thousands of waders come from the Russian Arctic to feed on the prolific mud flats, other summer visitors include several species of terns with their pirating Jaegers in attendance that can be seen at the river mouth. Then there are Barn Swallows, European Bee-eaters and other migrating land birds passing through the Berg River system.
The West Coast is driven by the Benguela System, an up welling of cold nutrient rich ocean water with its own endemic bird species, Hartlaub’s Gull and Swift Tern have bred on the salt pans, in the harbour are Cormorant species, Cape, Bank, Crowned and White-breasted can be seen. A spectacular site is to watch the Cape Cormorants flying through the entrance piers towards dusk; over 56,000 have been counted in 3 hours in autumn.
In winter Greater and Lesser Flamingoes, Red-knobbed Coots, Blue Crane and other species migrate from the cold and drought of the interior to use the estuary. With so many bird species the Lower Berg River meets the international criteria for nearly 20 species each of which can class it as an international Important Bird Area (IBA SA 104). Some other important species are Caspian Terns, African Marsh Harrier, Chestnut-banded Plover and Cape Long-billed Lark.
For the birder, especially the less mobile, birds are accessible either viewed from the car or just a few metres walk on good surfaces. There is a hide on the mudflats above the Carinus Bridge where rarity waders are often seen. Most available records are for birds using the area for feed, up to 24,000, however many more use it as a safe sanctuary for a night roost, for example the Cape Cormorants and Terns, possibly a further 70,000 birds.
The Velddrif Area is central, for within an hour of driving are the West Coast National Park (IBA and Ramsar site), the West Coast Fossil Park where about 80 fossils of bird species from 5 million years ago have been found, Rocher Pan, Velorenvlei (IBA), Waddrif Pan, Bird Island Lambert’s Bay (IBA) where the one-way glass of the hide lets one get close to the breeding Cape Gannets. The Namaqualand habitat commences just north of the river.