Western South Africa, comprising the Western and Northern Cape Provinces, is one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots and is legendary among international and local birders alike for the remarkable variety of birds that are found here and nowhere else. It is an indispensable destination for the eco-tourist and there are no other areas in Africa that offer such a high level of endemism in such a uniquely accessible setting. A staggering 47 of South Africa’s 58 endemic and near-endemic bird species occur here, as well as 76% of southern Africa’s 181. New innovations to assist the eco-traveler include a new birding site guide that covers the region, and the Cape Birding Route that links the up-to-date birding information with practical routes to follow and accommodation options.
Local and international bird-watchers are inevitably drawn to the region by the tourism gem of Cape Town, the capital of the Western Cape Province, and by the region’s scenic and cultural diversity, well-developed infrastructure, high standard of accommodation, and excellent network of national parks and provincial and private nature reserves. A total of 615 bird species have been recorded in the Western and Northern Cape Provinces, and a two-week trip could expect to yield in excess of 300 species. Indeed, over 220 species have even been seen around Cape Town in a single day! Although the sheer diversity of southern Africa’s more tropical eastern region is inevitably higher, most of these species have wide distributions and extend over much of eastern Africa. The west, by contrast, is rich in species largely restricted to this region, making the Western and Northern Cape Provinces an essential destination in both global and local terms.
Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus ©Stephen Hammer
Top 10 Species in the Western Cape: Cape Sugarbird, Cape Rockjumper, Black Harrier, Knysna Warbler, Protea Canary, Southern Black Korhaan, Hottentot Buttonquail, Agulhas Long-billed Lark, African Penguin, Bank Cormorant.
The Western Cape Province has a wide diversity of birding habitats including the unique Fynbos, Succulent Karoo, Nama Karoo, Afromontane Forest and internationally renowned wetlands. The smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms, the tiny Cape Floral Kingdom is one of the richest biodiversity hotspots on earth, and is almost totally restricted to the winter-rainfall climate of the Western Cape. Despite occupying less than 0.05 per cent of the earth’s land surface, this small pocket of diverse vegetation lying at Africa’s southern extremity holds an astronomical 8 700 species of plants and Fynbos, the largest and most prominent subset of the Cape Floral Kingdom, has some notable endemics, namely Hottentot Buttonquail, Cape Rockjumper, Victorin’s Warbler, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Siskin and Protea Canary.
The Karoo is a vast semi-desert area that is divided into two botanically very different regions and dominates the arid western half of South Africa. It forms part of the most ancient desert system in the world, and is an open area of stony plains, scattered with small shrubs, punctuated by low dunes and hills koppies, and is very sparsely inhabited. The Succulent Karoo Biome is characterized by small succulent plants, supported by low but predictable winter rainfall, whereas the summer-rainfall Nama Karoo Biome is dominated by grasses and low, woody shrubs. The Succulent Karoo Biome is one of Africa’s biodiversity hotspots, and has the highest diversity of succulent plant species in the world. Despite these fundamental climatic and vegetation differences, most Karoo bird specials occur in both biomes.
Karoo endemics and near-endemics in the Western Cape include Karoo Korhaan, Ludwig’s Bustard, Karoo Long-billed Lark, Black-eared Finchlark, Karoo and Tractrac Chats, Karoo Eremomela, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Namaqua Warbler, Pale-winged Starling and Black-headed Canary.
Swee Waxbill Coccopygia melanotis ©©John Tinkler Birding Ecotours
Afromontane Forest is scattered discontinuously across central and east Africa’s montane peaks, with the temperate forests of the Cape constituting its southern remnants. Knysna Warbler and Knysna Woodpecker are local endemics. Both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans flank this region, merging at Africa’s southernmost point, Cape Agulhas. The productive Benguela Current surges up the Atlantic coast, bringing chilly, nutrient-rich waters from Antarctica, while the warmer Agulhas Current moves down the east coast of Africa from more tropical climes. The birds endemic or near-endemic to the plentiful waters of the Benguela Current of southern Africa’s west coast are African Penguin, Cape Gannet (breeding endemic only); Cape, Bank and Crowned Cormorants, African Black Oystercatcher, Hartlaub’s and Cape Gulls and Damara Tern (breeding endemic only) Furthermore, huge numbers of migrant pelagic seabirds are attracted to offshore waters (see Pelagic Birding off South Africa).
Foreign birders visiting the Western Cape Province as part of a longer tour around the country will need a week based in Cape Town as the city can be conveniently used a base to explore the surrounding regions described below. The best time to go birding in the Western Cape is undoubtedly springtime – birding picks up significantly towards the end of August, and the very best birding months are September, October and November.
With the meeting of the warm Agulhas current and the cold Benguela current just offshore, this creates upwelling and hence a feeding Mecca for many Southern Ocean seabirds. Trips throughout the year produce numbers of pelagic species, but the sheer quantities of birds experienced on winter trips has to be seen to be believed. At least 3 species of albatross and a number of petrels, shearwaters, skuas and other specials are seen on most trips with an average of 19 true pelagic species being seen on a day trip at any time of the year. There are also outstanding opportunities to see whales and other marine mammals.
Cape Sugarbird Promerops cafer ©John Tinkler Birding Ecotours
Birding Hotspots include: Rietvlei wetland, which is situated between Milnerton and Table View in the Cape Metropole. This is one of the more important sites for waders in the Western Cape and is a popular venue for birders. Rooi Els; a quiet holiday town with excellent chance to see Cape Rockjumper, Cape Rock Thrush, Verreaux’s Eagle, Cape Sisken & Ground Woodpecker mid-day. Follow the gravel road along the mountain and stop at gate for a walk along the foot of the mountain. Sir Lowry’s Pass an area predominated by Montane fynbos that is probably one of the best spots to track down a number of endemics in the Western Cape. The most sought after species here are Cape Rockjumper and Victorin’s Warbler, while other specials like Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Siskin, Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrush and Striped Flufftail also occur. The best known and possibly the easiest spot are the famed Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, a Superb starting destination and good for fynbos and forest endemics, including Cape Sugarbird, Orangebreasted Sunbird and occasionally Knysna Warbler. Very scenic, a mere fifteen minutes drive from the city centre. A must for everyone, whether interested in birds or not, is Boulder’s Beach where you can get up close and personal with African Penguin.
This area of South Africa is not most well known for other wildlife attractions, the blue ribbon goes to the eastern provinces in gerneral and Kruger national Park in particuklar but that is not to say the Western Cape is without interest. There are a number of private game reserves such as Aquila, Fairy Glen and Inverdoorn with Wildebeast, Giraffe, Zebra, Leopard and the rest of the ‘big five’. Of course many of the good birding areas are just as good for the smaller mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
Major Source: Fatbirder
Map Source: Google Maps