Updated: Oct 1, 2020
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, Afr