St Francis Bay & Cape St Francis : Blessed with beauty

“The rapidly setting sun was throwing golden reflections across the river channels, making for a magical scene, as the numerous Terns present restlessly took off for a circuit over the wide estuary, settling en-masse on narrow strips of exposed sand

〈Health warning : this post contains descriptions and photos of cars in addition to the usual birding stuff〉

The story so far…

As a follow on to our visit to Port Elizabeth and part of our 10 day trip to the Eastern Cape in April 2013, we chose to spend a few days in St Francis Bay, a small town south-west of PE, which we had never found an opportunity to visit and decided that this was the time to see what it was about. The birding spot descriptions in Roberts VII app were also enticing, promising a variety of waders in particular, so I was looking forward to some scouting around in search of something unusual and perhaps even a lifer for my trouble.

Getting there

We had enjoyed a couple of  days in Addo Elephant Park (covered in an earlier blog post) and left around 10.30 am to cover the short distance to St Francis Bay – with plenty of time on our hands we decided to take a slightly longer route to include Uitenhage, home to the Volkswagen factory in South Africa and very much the driving force (no pun intended, but it works anyway) behind the town. I had heard about a VW Heritage Centre being part of the factory complex and was curious to visit it – my passion for all things motoring comes second to birding but only just, so I don’t like to pass up an opportunity to take in a motor museum or a motoring event.

VW Heritage Centre in Uitenhage
VW Heritage Centre in Uitenhage
Old Studebaker bakkie
Old Studebaker bakkie

Suffice to say the VW Heritage Centre was well worth the trouble and covers most of the history of VW in SA, as well as other makes which were assembled at the same facility, such as DKW, Auto-Union and Studebaker.

A selection of VW’s on view :

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Some of the other makes :

DKW
DKW
Audi
Audi
Studebaker
Studebaker – and a Volvo hiding away

This was Gerda’s favourite :

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After the museum visit and a light lunch at a friendly Coffee Shop, we left Uitenhage and completed the journey to St Francis Bay, where we found our guest house without too much trouble, a short drive from the village centre.

St Francis Bay

We had booked the guest house online before our visit to the Eastern Cape and it met all our expectations – we were the only guests for the few days we spent there and got chatting (well Gerda did, she’s the chatty one) to Joan who owns and runs the guest house in a quietly efficient manner including preparing a full breakfast. In the evenings we followed her advice and tried the local restaurants, which were of a high standard and most enjoyable.

It is always exciting visiting a place for the first time, especially from a birding point of view, not knowing what to expect and with the chance of a surprise waiting just around the corner.

I wasted no time on arrival and followed Joan’s advice to drive to the Kromme River estuary before sunset for a bit of initial exploration –  and atlasing of course. It being low tide, the birds I could see were at quite a distance in the middle of the estuary, so I removed my shoes and socks and waded through the shallow part of the channel to get to the exposed sand banks in the middle of the estuary for a better view.

Turnstone leading 3 Grey Plovers (the black armpits are a feature of the Grey Plover)

Many waders were present, including myself at that point, and some of the smaller species such as Sanderling, Common Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, as well as a selection of larger waders with Whimbrel, Grey Plover and African Black Oystercatcher being most prominent.

Grey Plover
Grey Plover
Grey Plovers and a Ruddy Turnstone
Grey Plovers and a Ruddy Turnstone
Whimbrels and Plovers
Whimbrels and Plovers

The rapidly setting sun was throwing golden reflections across the river channels, making for a magical scene, as the numerous Terns present restlessly took off for a circuit over the wide estuary, settling en masse on narrow strips of exposed sand. Most were Common Terns with a few Swift Terns mingling with them, but standing out with their larger size and bright yellow bills

Sunset on the Kromme River estuary
Sunset on the Kromme River estuary

101_3461 101_3465

Next morning

After a hearty breakfast, we headed into the village to find the knitting shop that Gerda had  heard about from Joan – while she spent an hour or so indulging her passion, I carried on with mine and expanded my atlasing coverage to include as much of the town and residential area as possible.

Not too many species were added and I was really shocked by the state of the roads in the town, which were in a sad state of disrepair and obvious neglect – potholes everywhere and no sign of any attempt to fix anything.

Later we were even more disturbed when we took a drive through the part of St Francis that suffered a massive fire in November 2012, destroying about 70 thatched roof houses which were in the “canalled” area near the river – nothing worse than seeing so many homes razed to the ground, with many bare properties up for sale probably out of despair at the massive loss suffered. Apparently the fire was the result of a braai fire which got out of control in windy conditions and the local fire brigade proved to be useless in the face of it.

But back to more pleasant memories….

Cape St Francis

We took the road to Cape St Francis, a separate town a short distance south of St Francis Bay (all very confusing when you are not in the know), stopping at Port St Francis (now it’s really confusing) on the way to have a look at the small harbour located there. In Cape St Francis we drove to the sea front and stopped to scan the shoreline and sea – a surprise awaited in the form of an African Penguin close inshore and I was once again struck by the agility it was displaying in the rough seas amongst the rocks, diving under the waves as they came rushing in – it hardly seems like a bird species in those conditions. No African Penguins had been listed before in the pentad so it is clearly not a regular sighting in the area.

African Penguin at home in the rough sea
African Penguin at home in the rough sea

Kittlitz’s Plover and White-fronted Plover were both present along the grassed area

On the way out we popped into Sea Point Nature Reserve at the southernmost point of the bay and took a walk along the rocky path beyond the lighthouse, where a few Oystercatchers and Cormorants were visible, while a Cape Gannet flew by offshore and a Bokmakierie proudly claimed his territory in the fynbos.

Lighthouse at Cape St Francis
Lighthouse at Cape St Francis

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Sea Point Nature Reserve
Sea Point Nature Reserve

There were still a couple of hours of daylight left as we returned to our guest house, so we paid a second visit to the estuary where I was thrilled to find a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits on the exposed sand flats – another lifer!

The following day was the last of our Eastern Cape trip and with our flight back to the “big smoke” only being at 6pm we took the “road less travelled” back to PE, via Humansdorp and the surfing hotspot of Jeffreys Bay, stopping frequently along the way.

Phew, and if I get this posted now it means I have posted twice in September, sticking (only just) to my target of two posts a month

 

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