Updated: Oct 1
South Africa’s Western Cape province is world-renowned for being one of the most biologically diverse places in the world, first and foremost for housing the fynbos biome, the smallest and richest of the world’s floral kingdoms. There are spectacular blooms of spring flowers along the west coast and where two ocean currents meet just off the shores of Cape Agulhas, Africa’s southernmost tip. I sometimes have trouble believing that I live in this place, where you can be watching whales one minute and then a herd of eland the next. I’ve lived in Cape Town for most of my life, but it has only since I’ve taken up birding over the last 5 years that I’ve been able to explore this province’s natural (and sometimes unnatural) wonders. Much of this has been possible through becoming a member of the UCT Birding Club, with whom I have been able to travel from the Tankwa Karoo all the way out onto the Atlantic Ocean and have seen some truly remarkable birds along the way.
Out of all of these places I’ve have been to, a few have really stood out to me as being truly memorable places for birdwatching. This list of my top seven favourite birding sites in the Western Cape draws on my own experiences in these places, what I have learned from my peers in an attempt to provide a basic guide to these places. Some of these sites, like Rooiels and Bettys Bay, are on this list because of a few special birds, and others, like West Coast National Park, because of the sheer number and diversity of species that can be seen there. While there are dozens of other birding sites across the Province that are not listed here, that does not mean that these places are not worth visiting. This is the humble opinion of one birder.
7. Tankwa Karoo Loop
The landscape surrounding the Tankwa Karoo National Park on the south-western edge of the Nama Karoo Desert is one of the driest and least-welcoming landscapes in the country. Yet despite this, it is home to a surprising number of bird species, several of which are endemic to the subregion. One of the best routes to take is to travel past Worcester on the N1 and take the R46 turnoff before turning right off that onto the R355, which runs all the way north to Calvinia. This road takes you past Karoopoort, Eierkop, Skitterykloof and the P2250 track, which leads to the National Park, all of which are greats stops to see the ‘special’ birds of the Karoo. I’ve only been lucky enough to travel this route once with two friends, but it was an amazing introduction to Karoo birding.
Karoopoort is essentially the entrance to the Karoo, and the R355 travels alongside a reed-fringed riverbed through a gap in the southern Swartruggens mountains. Even on the R46 leading there, Rufous-eared Warbler, Rock Kestrel, and Southern Black Korhaan can be seen. The reed beds lining the river on the R355 are ideal for Namaqua Warbler, which is easy to hear, but more difficult to see (we only had fleeting glimpses). Fairy Flycatcher (which was a lifer for me) is also common in the acacia trees growing in the valley, as is Chestnut-vented and Layard’s Tit-Babbler, White-backed Mousebird, Long-billed Crombec, and Grey-backed Cisticola. Once the R355 leaves the mountains behind, the landscape becomes relatively flat and featureless, which makes Eierkop (one of two hills by the roadside) stand out. It is one of the best spots to look for Karoo Eremomela (although we saw them by the roadside too), and Cape Penduline Tit, Malachite Sunbird, and Grey Tit can also be seen here. The Karoo Chat is probably the most common bird along the road, although the further north you drive, the Tractrac Chat takes over. Karoo Korhaan is another bird to look out for here, and it is also possible to see Yellow-bellied Eremomela and Brown-throated Martin here. The Pale-chanting Goshawk is probably the most common raptor here and, if you’re lucky, Martial Eagle can also be seen in the area.
The turnoff to Skitterykloof Pass, which is right at the foot of the Swartruggens Mountains on the very edge of the Karoo, is on the left-hand side close to the Tankwa Padstal. The rocky hillsides on either side of the entrance to the pass are where I saw my first Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, which exists in only a few scattered locations in South Africa and Namibia. A boggy vlei fringed by reedbeds extends from the valley out into the Karoo and supports some birds you wouldn’t expect to see in the Karoo, like African Snipe, African Reed Warbler, Three-banded Plover, Red-knobbed Coot, and Levaillant’s Cisticola. Other birds that I’ve seen in the vicinity include European Bee-eater, Karoo Lark, Mountain Wheatear, Fairy Flycatcher, White-throated Canary, Rock Kestrel, Jackal Buzzard, and Black-headed Canary.
The turnoff for the P2250, the road which leads to the Tankwa Karoo National Park, is situated in one of the most barren landscapes in the region, but it can still produce a significant number of bird species. Capped Wheatear, Karoo Korhaan, Spike-heeled Lark, Karoo Lark, and Large-billed Lark are all common here, as are Pale Chanting Goshawk and Greater Kestrel. Pririt Batis and White-backed Mousebird can be found in the acacia bushes lining the dry riverbeds, and flocks of Namaqua Doves can be seen by the road. While I was unable to see Burchell’s Courser, Ludwig’s Bustard, Black-eared Sparrow-lark or Namaqua Sandgrouse there, this road is still a great place to see these birds, especially in spring after the rains.
The turnoff for the P2250, the road which leads to the Tankwa Karoo National Park, is situated in one of the most barren landscapes in the region, but it can still produce a significant number of bird species. Capped Wheatear, Karoo Korhaan, Spike-heeled Lark, Karoo Lark, and Large-billed Lark are all common here, as are Pale Chanting Goshawk and Greater Kestrel. Pririt Batis and White-backed Mousebird can be found in the acacia bushes lining the dry riverbeds, and flocks of Namaqua Doves can be seen by the road. While I was unable to see Burchell’s Courser, Ludwig’s Bustard, Black-eared Sparrow-lark, or Namaqua Sandgrouse there, this road is still a great place to see these birds, especially in spring after the rains.
6. Cape Point Nature Reserve
On the whole, Table Mountain National Park is not particularly renowned in terms of bird diversity (it has a far more diverse floral community). Yet certain parts of the National Park do support a considerable number of bird species. The Cape Point section of the Park is one such place. I have always loved visiting this place for day trips, as it always seems to produce a surprise sighting without fail, whether it be my first Cape Grysbok, baboons eating shellfish, or a new bird I have never seen before.
Olifantsbos Beach is, in my opinion, the best place in the reserve for birds in both summer and winter. The fynbos on the roadside leading up to the beach is very good for Ostrich, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted and Malachite Sunbird, Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia and Grey-backed Cisticola. Jackal buzzard, Rock Kestrel, and occasionally African Harrier-Hawk can be seen flying overhead. In the bushes surrounding the beach, I’ve regularly seen Fiscal Flycatcher, Speckled Mousebird, Southern Boubou, and Bokmakierie. Cape Bunting and Cape Rock Thrush can be seen on the cliffs above. The beach itself is always packed with birds, with Sacred Ibis, Kelp Gull, African Oystercatcher, White-breasted Cormorant and Grey Heron being the most visible. There are always groups of Kittlitz's and White-fronted Plovers, as well as a few solitary Three-banded Plovers. Little Egrets are also often present, and I’ve seen Spotted Thick-Knees in the strandveld. This is also the most likely place to spot any waders in the reserve, including Ruddy Turnstone and even Curlews. Throughout much of the rest of the reserve, mostly fynbos specialists can be spotted along with Rock Martins and Barn Swallows flying overhead. At Cape Point itself, I always look out for the resident Peregrine Falcons and Rock Kestrels, and at Dias Beach, it is possible to spot groups of Ground woodpeckers.
The oceans surrounding Cape Point are also a great place to look for birds: in fact, they are probably the best place in the world to look for pelagic birds. While some may be seen from the lookout points along the coast during stormy or windy weather, the best way to see these birds is to take a boat trip out from Simons Town. The more common species include Cape Gannet, Arctic Tern, Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Subantarctic Skua, Cape Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Wilson’s and European Storm Petrels, Parasitic Jaeger, Sabine’s Sull, Shy Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, and Indian and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. However, it is also possible to spot some of the rarer (and larger) seabirds included Spectacled Petrel, the Royal Albatrosses, and even Wandering Albatross, which I hope to one day see.
I once read somewhere that birders are probably the only people who will willing to visit sewage works, and after visiting Strandfontein Sewage Works in Cape Town several times, I understand why! Strandfontein forms part of the False Bay Nature Reserve on the Cape Flats and is comprised of a network of pans of varying depths with pockets of strandveld fynbos in between the pans. It is the best place in the Cape Town area to see waterbirds and waders, and it is also home to a variety of coastal and land birds too. I was unsure about what to expect the first time I visited it but what I saw there and what I have seen there since has left me hooked.
The first two pans on either side of the entrance to the Sewage Works are probably my favorites, as they are always crowded with huge flocks of Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Red-Knobbed Coot, Black-necked and Little Grebe, along with Maccoa Ducks, White-backed Ducks, and Southern Pochards. Spotted and Water Thick-Knees regularly shelter under the trees by the fence of the Treatment Plant on the far side of the pans and Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warblers inhabit the reed beds of all the pans. African Swamphens are common on the smaller pans, as are Hottentot and Red-billed Teals (I saw my first Hottentot Teal here). The hundreds of Greater and Lesser Flamingos are everywhere, although Great White Pelicans prefer to roost on Pan 2 on the far side of the reserve, where White Storks, Glossy Ibis, African Oystercatcher, and South African Shelduck can also be seen. This same pan is a popular tern roost, where I’ve seen Sandwich, Caspian, Whiskered, White-winged, and Common terns. The wading birds that I’ve seen here include Little Stint, Wood, and Curlew Sandpiper, Ruff, Marsh Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, and Greenshank. Barn Swallows, African Reed Warbler, and Brown-throated Martins are some of the other migratory species that spend the summer here. African Fish Eagles and African Marsh Harriers sometimes fly overhead and I’ve also seen Black Crakes, White-faced Whistling Ducks, Purple Heron, and African Snipes once or twice. While land birds are not the main drawcard to Strandfontein, it is one of the few spots in the Cape Town area where Cape Longclaw and Karoo Scrub-Robin can be seen. Black-winged Kite, Spotted Eagle-Owl, and Jackal Buzzard is the more common raptors I’ve seen here, along with Black Sparrowhawk, Rock Kestrel, and Steppe Buzzard. This is also the place where I have seen the greatest number of rarities and vagrant birds, including a Little tern, Sand Martins, an African Jacana, a Red-necked Phalarope, Pectoral Sandpipers, an American Golden Plover and a Temminck’s Stint.
4. De Hoop Nature Reserve
I first visited De Hoop Nature Reserve when I was about 12 and as soon as my family and I drove through the gates and saw the immense low-lying plain covered in fynbos and the bright blue ocean, I was captivated by it. I’ve since visited the Reserve twice with my friends, and I’ve been lucky enough to explore different parts of this incredible piece of the Cape Floral Kingdom, from the Potberg Mountains in the east to the stunning coastline. De Hoop is of course world-famous as being one of the best whale-watching sights in the world, as hundreds of Southern right whales visit in winter and early spring to mate and give, but it is also an important place for birds in the Western Cape.
The Potberg Mountains are home to the last colony of the endangered Cape Vulture in the Western Cape and I have been lucky to have seen these birds both flying overhead and resting in the agricultural fields surrounding the reserve. They are just magnificent to see. In addition to this, the Potberg Mountains are also great for Ground Woodpecker, Cape Siskin, and Cape Rock Thrush. There are several stands of eucalyptus trees around the dormitories and the staff village at Potberg, which are good places to look for Olive Woodpecker, Klaas’s Cuckoo, African Hoopoe and Bar-throated Apalis. In the farmlands outside the reserve, I’ve been lucky enough to spot my first Karoo Korhaans and Agulhas Long-billed Larks. Southern Black Korhaan, Blue Crane, African Fish Eagle, and Large-billed Lark are usually quite common and if you drive the road to De Hoop in the evening, sightings of Spotted Eagle-Owl and Fiery-necked Nightjar are pretty much guaranteed. The best place for birding with the main section of De Hoop Nature Reserve is definitely the De Hoop Vlei. The Trails by the Main Camp offer good views of the Vlei and usually produce sightings of Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Great-crested Grebe, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Great White Pelican, Hamerkop and Grey-headed Gulls among others. The bushes in and around the Camp are great for Southern Boubou and Bokmakierie and in the surrounding fynbos, I’ve seen Pale-chanting Goshawk, Cape Sugarbird, Spotted Thick-Knee, Capped wheatear and African Harrier-Hawk.
3. Rooiels & Bettys Bay
Rooiels is a small coastal town situated on the eastern side of False Bay at the base of a mountain. The Boulder strewn slopes on the far side of the town are perhaps the best (and my favourite place) place in the world to see the endemic and incredibly beautiful Cape Rockjumper. This bird is one of the species I love the most, and there are several families living in the area. They are often found in small groups hoping between the boulders (which they nest under and hunt around) and if you are patient, they can come quite close. Groups of Ground Woodpeckers are another bird that I love to look for here, along with Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrushes. A pair of Verreaux’s Eagle’s nests on the high cliffs of the mountain and Cape Bunting, Cape Grassbird, Cape Sugarbird, Neddicky, Orange-breasted, and Malachite Sunbird are also common here.
About 10 minutes down the coast from Rooiels is Betty’s Bay, a town famous for its land-based colony of endangered African Penguins. Four species of Cormorant (Cape, Bank, Crowned, and White-breasted) also breed here, whereas African Oystercatchers prefer to breed on the beaches close by. This is also a good spot to look for pelagic birds, especially under windy conditions, and I’ve managed to spot Cape Gannets, Subantarctic Skua, and Northern Giant Petrel from here. But the best birding site around Bettys Bay has to be Harold Porter Botanical Gardens. Situated at the base of the Kogelberg Mountain and nestled between two river valleys (Disa and Leopard Kloof’s), the Gardens are comprised of a cultivated section showcasing the diversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom and natural riparian forests and fynbos. Cape Sugarbirds, Orange-breasted Sunbirds, and Malachite Sunbirds are probably the most visible and flamboyant residents, while Streaky-headed Seedeater, Fiscal Flycatcher, Yellow bishop, and Swee Waxbill are more unobtrusive. The bridge over the Disa Kloof river at the start of that trail is a good spot to listen for Victorin’s Warbler, which is easy to hear but ridiculously difficult to spot (I got lucky once though). Further up the trail, the calmer sections of the river are a good spot to search for the resident pair of African Black ducks and even Giant Kingfisher. The forests that shroud the banks of the river are home to Cape Batis, African Olive Pigeon, Olive Thrush, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Bar-throated Apalis, and, in summer, African Paradise Flycatchers and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher (the latter of which I first saw here). In addition, a troop of baboons visits the Gardens, and once I was also lucky enough to see a Cape mountain leopard here too.
2. West Coast National Park
The West Coast National Park is one of my favourite places to visit in the Western Cape. I saw my first wild caracal here and I always love watching the herds of eland. The spring flowers in the Potberg section are what draw many people here and for good reason! Added to this, the viewpoints from Seeberg and Potberg overlooking the Langebaan Lagoon are a sight to behold. But most of my visits here have been to see the diverse birdlife that can be found here. Although the best time for birders to visit is in summer, when over 20 000 wading birds arrive at the Lagoon, there are still plenty of species to be seen even in winter.
There are three bird hides throughout the Park, with two of them (Geelbek and Seeberg) positioned on the shores of the Lagoon. Geelbek is by far the most popular, and in summer the flocks of Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts, and Pied Avocets are joined by Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knots, Whimbrels, Little Stints, Curlew Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Ruffs, and Ruddy Turnstones. African Fish Eagles, African Marsh Harriers, and occasionally Ospreys can be all be seen hunting over the Lagoon. I’ve seen Banded Martins flying with the more common Brown-throated Martins and in the small pools by the walkway leading to the hide, Kittlitz, Three-banded, and Common Ringed Plovers are often around. The stands of eucalyptus surrounding the Geelbek restaurant often produce great sightings of Rock Kestrel, Cardinal Woodpecker, Wattled Starling, African Hoopoe, and Spotted Eagle-Owl. The fynbos that makes up much of the reserve doesn’t support a great diversity of species, but Bokmakierie, Pied Starling, Cape Spurfowl, Malachite Sunbird, Karoo Scrub-Robin, Grey-winged Francolin, Yellow Canary, and Grey Tit are all regularly seen in this habitat, and the endangered Black Harrier and even Pale-Chanting Goshawk can be seen hunting overhead. At the far north of the Park, Seeberg Bird Hide is a good spot to see African Oystercatcher, Whimbrel, Grey Plover, Cape Teal, and Caspian Terns. A pair of Cape Penduline Tits regularly build their nest next to the walkway, and Chestnut-vented Warbler, Karoo Lark, Cape Bunting, and White-fronted Canary can also be seen here.
The third hide in West Coast, Abrahaamskraal, overlooks the only fresh-water source in the Park that can be accessed by visitors. African Spoonbill, Little Grebe, Cape Shoveler, Common Moorhen, African Swamphen, and Black Crake are usually present here, and it is also home to the elusive African Rail (though I have yet to see one). Cape Bulbul, Yellow Canary, Cape Longclaw, Cape Bunting, and even Black-headed Canaries visit the wetland to drink, and Southern Black Korhaan are common on the open areas surrounding the hide. While the Potberg section may be more famous for its flowers, I’ve seen Cape Clapper Lark, Large-billed Lark, Crowned Lapwing, Grey Tit, Zitting Cisticola, Brimstone Canary and Cape Gannet here.
1. Garden Route National Park
Without a doubt, the Garden Route National Park deserves its position as my favourite birding destination in the Western Cape. This Park is an amalgamation of several sections: Wilderness, Nature’s Valley, the forests of Diepwalle and Woodville and the Marine Protected Areas off the coast. The largest remaining tracts of indigenous forests are protected here, as are extensive areas of fynbos, beaches, and some of the most important wetland and estuarine habitats in South Africa. Every time I visit any part of the Garden Route, I am blown away by the sheer beauty and grandeur of this place, and I am always excited by the birds I might have the chance to see.
The Wilderness Section is probably my favourite part of the Park. The Touws River runs through a protected valley that is covered with dense forest. The Half-collared Kingfisher Trail starts near the Ebb-and-Flow Campsite and allows you to explore the valley. I saw my first White-starred Robin-chat here (that bird was very relaxed), as well as my first Scaly-throated Honeyguide. Knysna Turaco, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher, and Olive Woodpecker are common, and this is also a good place for Grey Cuckooshrike (I once saw 4 in a feeding party with Olive Woodpeckers and Green Wood-Hoopoes). Forest Buzzard, African Fish Eagle, and Verreaux’s Eagle can all be seen flying overhead and in summer, the Black-headed Orioles sing for all they’re worth. The Touws River is also great for kingfishers, and I’ve seen giant, malachite, and even Half-collared here. The Campsite itself is great for African Hoopoe and Fork-tailed Drongo, and in the reeds at the top of the site, Knysna Warbler can be seen skulking through the tangled vegetation. Rondevlei and Langvlei are within driving distance of Touws River and are great places to see waterbirds, especially Pied and Malachite Kingfishers, African Darter, White-faced Whistling-duck and Purple Heron, not to mention African Marsh Harrier. The roads in between are also good for Spotted Eagle-Owl, African Pipit, and Cape Longclaw (I have friends who’ve seen Black-collared Barbet here too).
After Wilderness, the town of Sedgefield sits on a river estuary that is popular with African Oystercatcher, Greater Striped Swallow, and Common Sandpiper. Knysna Warbler, Diederik Cuckoo, Olive Woodpecker, Amethyst Sunbird, and Red-faced Mousebird can also be seen in the thick vegetation lining the river (if you’re staying near the estuary, it’s a good idea to explore the estuary or sit by a bird feeder). To the north, the forests of Woodville and Diepwalle aren’t as good for bird given the limited visibility, but there’s still a chance of spotting Long-crested Eagle and Amur Falcon in the farmlands nearby and Cape Batis, Terrestrial Brownbul and Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler have been easy enough for me to spot. Knysna itself hasn’t produced too many birds when I’ve visited it but Pezula Estate on the coast (by the Knysna Heads) does protect patches of fynbos that’s support sugarbirds and Yellow Bishop and a forested valley where I was able to see Lesser Honeyguide, White-starred Robin, Red-chested Cuckoo and Chorister Robin-Chat.
Nature’s Valley sits at the end of the Otter Trail and the beginning of the Tsitsikamma Trail and harbours some truly spectacular forests on the banks of the Grootrivier. I’ve managed to see Lesser Honeyguide, Puffback, my first Olive Bushshrike, and Knysna Woodpecker, Lemon Dove, Collared Sunbird, Green-backed Camaroptera, Black-headed Oriole and even the legendary Narina Trogon here and more than half of these can be seen at reasonably close quarters at the De Vasselot Campsite (bushbuck are also common there too). At the bottom of the campsite, a secluded part of the river provides a good spot to look for Half-collared Kingfisher. Red-necked Spurfowl can also be seen on the roads leading into the Valley. While walking the Tsitsikamma Mountain Trail, it’s worth searching the Keurbos Forest on the third day of the Trail for a local pair of Narina Trogon (these were my first trogons actually). And the Otter Trail can offer good sightings of Red-necked Spurfowl, Olive Bushshrike, Giant Kingfisher, and Chorister Robin-Chat (though most of the time you’re focused on walking!). I still haven’t seen Emerald Cuckoo, Crowned Eagle, Cuckoo Hawk. African Rail or African Finfoot in the Garden Route but that just gives me an excuse to come back again!
Follow Callum on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/callumswildlifephotography/