Western Cape Quickie – Coast to Karoo

Background to our January 2014 Trip

We love Cape Town and the surrounds and take every opportunity to visit – so it was an easy decision when Gerda suggested we “pop down” from Mossel Bay, where we spend the December/January holidays, to say ‘hello’ to the fairest Cape and visit family at the same time. It’s just less than 400 kms with lots of pleasant scenery on the way along good roads and we tend to stop often so 4 hours turns into a comfortable and non-taxing 6 hours for us. Always on the lookout for birding and bird atlasing opportunities, I was eager to start the new year with a Western Cape outing or two……. or even three as it turned out.

We didn’t have too many fixed plans for the 4 days but Gerda wanted to visit her ex-Pretoria hairdresser, now resident in Kommetjie, which would give me a couple of hours to atlas the area. Kirstenbosch is always part of our itinerary and we would surely spend at least 2 hours there, enough to complete a “full Protocol” atlas card. Our last stop was to be Worcester for a couple of days with the family and I was sure I could fit in a pentad or two in the early mornings, knowing how hot it can get in that part of SA in January – not conducive to middle of the day birding.

It almost worked out that way …..

Kommetjie (Pentad 3405_1815)

Having dropped Gerda off at the hairdresser, I set off to explore the pentad covering Kommetjie (a pentad being 5 x 5 minutes in degrees latitude/longitude or about 8 x 8 kms in extent) – about 90% of this pentad is in fact in the sea, so atlasing is limited to a part of Kommetjie jutting into the pentad in the south-east corner. I stopped at the first beach area I came across and was immediately struck by the numbers of seabirds flying past and, looking for their source, noticed huge colonies of them further out on the exposed rocks. Swift Terns and Hartlaub’s Gulls were especially abundant, numbering in the hundreds if not a thousand or more and making quite a sight.

Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie

Walking along the sandy paths towards the next-door bay, I noticed other seabirds in between the massed Terns and Gulls, including African Black Oystercatchers and Little Egrets – the latter not strictly a seabird but I have often found them in this type of habitat. A number of Cormorants were in attendance, mostly  Cape and White-breasted Cormorants but also a few Bank Cormorants with their all black faces – I looked for the white in their rumps but it was not showing, so checked my Roberts bird book (on my Ipad) which confirmed that it only shows when Bank Cormorants are breeding.

Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Hartlaub's Gull
Hartlaub’s Gull

Both African Sacred and Hadeda Ibises were foraging amongst the seaweed-littered rocks, while Barn Swallows swooped low overhead probably catching flying insects attracted to the seaweed litter – never an opportunity missed!

A few White-fronted Plovers were exploring the rocks and seaweed as well, running to the white sandy areas when I approached – I was struck by how amazingly well camouflaged they are against the bright sand when they stand still – I had to look twice to find them even though they were just 5 to 10 metres away.

White-fronted Plover
White-fronted Plover

A short distance down the road I stopped at a vlei which the board informed me was called Skilpadsvlei (Tortoise Vlei) but found it was undergoing rehabilitation and had no water. It’s apparently home to the Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus) which occurs in restricted parts of the Western Cape. However a short walk around the vlei did produce Red-winged Starlings and Rock Martins doing fly-bys plus a Cape Canary in the long grass.

Skilpadsvlei - home to the Western Leopard Frog
Skilpadsvlei – home to the Western Leopard Toad

By this time Gerda was done and I joined her for coffee and a light lunch at a very pleasant outdoor restaurant. From there I closed out the 2 hours minimum time required for a “full protocol” atlas session with a drive to the nearby Slangkop lighthouse and through the suburbia of Kommetjie, adding a few of the regulation western Cape birds in the process and stopping to admire the great views. I ended with a list of 30 species for the pentad – not a large number compared to other pentads, but a stunning area to go atlasing.

Slangkop lighthouse, Kommetjie
Slangkop lighthouse, Kommetjie
A street name in Kommetjie - named for the flower and not the users
A street name in Kommetjie – named for the flower and not the users

Kirstenbosch (Pentad 3355_1825) ….. well almost

The next day we had planned an excursion to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, one of our favourite places to visit, with a walk and lunch in mind. That morning I woke up to a very upset stomach and flu-like aches and pains and wasn’t up to doing much at all. We did go to Kirstenbosch hoping to catch a “golf cart” guided tour, but our timing was out so we just sat in the restaurant and had tea – no scones for me this time!

Saturday was spent getting to Worcester via Tokai (to visit my brother and sister-in-law) and along the coastal road past Strandfontein, where there were Kelp Gulls by the hundred along the beach and kite surfers enjoying the windy conditions that pulled them at high speed across the breaking waves – what a spectacular sport! Then we proceeded through Stellenbosch to Helshoogte on the way to Franschoek for a lunchtime stop at our other favourite venue – Hillcrest Berry farm. There we enjoyed a light lunch and tea with magnificent views of the mountains across the valley and the vineyards spread like patchwork over the lower slopes.

Worcester / Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens (Pentad 3335_1925)

In complete contrast to Kommetjie, the area around Worcester, just 110 kms from Cape Town, presents typical Karoo habitats, although not as stark and barren as further inland in the “real” Karoo, as well as suburbia and farms with extensive vineyards.

I started out at 6h30, still too early for the Botanical Gardens which I discovered only open at 7h00, so I drove around suburbia and up a lonely road which dead-ended at a quarry. Once I gained entry to the Gardens, I drove to the upper parking area and took a walk through the various desert-like biomes represented there, with displays of desert and semi-desert plants – fortunately there is enough signage to inform you on what you are seeing – a good thing when your knowledge of trees and plants is as limited as mine. I do know Quiver trees from our trip to Namaqualand last year and there were a number of magnificent specimens to admire.

Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
The bugs are big here - actually the work of a local artist
The bugs are big here – actually the work of a local artist
Quiver trees in the botanical Gardens
Quiver trees in the botanical Gardens

The Gardens have an interesting history, having been established at a site near Matjiesfontein in 1921 but due to serious water supply problems it was moved to its current site in Worcester in 1945, along with many of the unique plants, some of which are still present in the gardens, including the Quiver trees mentioned above.

Birds are plentiful throughout the Gardens but restricetd in the number of species, with the feature birds being Bokmakierie calling vociferously in the early morning, White-backed Mousebirds and Red-faced Mousebirds flying about in groups between the larger bushes and trees, Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds enjoying the flowering aloes. Common Fiscals and Acacia Pied Barbets added to the mix with their distinctive calls, the Barbets outdoing all the others with their piercing, nasal call heard at a distance.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird
Southern Double-collared Sunbird

Overhead White-rumped Swifts and Greater-striped Swallows competed for flying insects. Exiting the gardens, a winding road took me up the hill to Brandwacht which is mainly vineyards with large farm dams, the latter quite productive around the fringes with the likes of Yellow bishop, Common Waxbill, Stonechat and Familiar Chat helping to boost the pentad list to 43 for the 2-3 hours spent atlasing.

Paths meander through the various biomes
Paths meander through the various biomes
Quiver trees are a special sight
Quiver trees are a special sight

Worcester / Hex River Valley (Pentad 3330_1930)

Just north of Worcester lies the Hex River valley and the pentad I had targeted for my third and last atlasing outing of the trip, comprising mostly mountains with the N1 national road bisecting them through the valley, with the flat sections along the river taken up by vineyards and the lower slopes of the mountains covered in fynbos. This is a very attractive part and some of the last vineyards before getting into the flatter and drier  Karoo further down the N1.

Hex River
Hex River
Hex River
Hex River
Aloe
Aloe

My first stop was at the Seekoeigat Padstal (Farm stall) where I kicked off with some regulation birds such as Red-winged Starling, Steppe (Common) Buzzard and White-rumped Swift amongst others. At the first opportunity I turned off, glad to get off the busy N1 with large trucks thundering past each time I slowed and pulled over to check out a bird seen fleetingly. This was a far more peaceful birding environment and quickly produced Pied Barbet, African Stonechat, Bar-throated Apalis, African Hoopoe and several Southern Double-collared Sunbirds.

Returning reluctantly to the N1 and continuing cautiously through the cutting that makes its way through the mountains, I spied a pair of White-necked Ravens. Further on a broader verge allowed a safe roadside stop with a view down the slopes to the river below, where I spotted Cape Rock-Thrush, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Robin-Chat and Cape … sorry Karoo Prinia. A bit further on I was able to get closer to the river where an unexpected Giant Kingfisher was watching over one of the deeper pools in the river and not far from him a Cape Bunting was hopping about on the railway tracks.

Hex River
Hex River
Cape Bunting
Cape Bunting

The next turnoff took me into prime farming area with vineyards on both sides of the road – nice to look at with bunches of grapes just about ready for harvesting but quite a sterile environment for birding so I didn’t dawdle too long and returned to the N1 for the last stretch before reaching the northern boundary of the pentad. There I found a large dam some way off the road but close enough to make out a few cormorants and coots plus a good old “gyppo” or Egyptian Goose. Turning back, I spotted a raptor soaring high above and was able to ID it as a Booted Eagle, which seems to have a fondness for the Western Cape as I have seen several in my trips around this province.

All in all a nice variety of birding and habitats about as far removed from each other as you can get, each one with its own beauty and attraction.

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