The floral displays in Namaqualand can be stunning. Photo: Steve Rooke
In recent years South Africa has become a very popular destination for birdwatchers and a glance at one of its many excellent field guides soon reveals why. Over 700 different bird species occur there, of which over 100 are endemic or near-endemic. Thousands of kilometres of shoreline harbour migrant and resident birds, and offshore congregate some of the largest concentrations of seabirds in the world.
Early September is the absolute best time to visit western South Africa. Spring will be under way and many of the birds will be full in breeding plumage as they busy themselves with the onset of nesting. If the early rains have been good, they will have coaxed life from the desert and we should be treated to some wonderful wildflower displays. Our journey will take us from the rolling red sand dunes of the Kalahari Desert, through the hauntingly beautiful plains of Bushmanland to the Atlantic coast. From there we travel to the vast expanse of the Great Karoo before ending our tour where Africa itself ends and two oceans meet, at the windswept Cape of Good Hope. Steve has been running tours to South Africa for over 20 years and this itinerary has been designed to show us the best birding the Western Cape has to offer at the very best time to visit the region.
Day 1: The tour begins with an overnight flight from London to Johannesburg, arriving early the following day.
Day 2: After arriving in Johannesburg, we’ll connect with an onward flight to Upington, gateway to the Kalahari Desert. Our drive north takes us into an arid environment and we’ll have not gone far before we see the first of many massive Sociable Weaver nests, which are a feature of this region. Other species that will break our journey could include White-backed Vulture, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Pygmy Falcon and possibly Short-toed Rock Thrush. Night near Kgalagadi Reserve.
Day 3: Sandwiched between Namibia and Botswana, the Kgalagadi Trans Frontier Reserve is one of Africa’s wildest and least known National Parks. We’ll have an early start to get to the Reserve gate as they open up for the day. Once inside we’ll head for a small waterhole where we should be treated to flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse coming to drink, hopefully joined by good numbers of Burchell’s Sandgrouse and hordes of other birds such as Namaqua Doves, Cape Sparrows, Grey-backed Sparrow-larks, Red-headed Finches and of course those ubiquitous Sociable Weavers. We are only allowed out of our vehicle in a few designated places, so we’ll spend the morning slowly driving along a road that follows an old river bed, using the vehicle almost as a mobile hide. Small birds that will be instantly obvious will include Chat and Marico Flycatchers, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, and swarms of Scaly-feathered Finches, while some special birds we’ll be looking for include Fawn-coloured Lark, the stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike, Ashy Tit and Kalahari Scrub-Robin.
The Park is also a great place for raptors and we can expect to encounter Gabar Goshawk, Lanner, and possibly Red-necked Falcons, Bateleur, and Martial Eagle. Both Spotted and Verreaux’s Eagles Owls might be found at roost and in the more open areas we stand a chance of finding the strange Secretarybird or a Kori Bustard. Gemsbok are common here, as are Springbok and Blue Wildebeeste while an encounter with an endearing troop of Meerkats is always possible. We may also see a pride of the large black-maned Kalahari Lions or a skulking Cheetah. The countryside outside the Reserve is also good for birds and we’ll be on the lookout for Northern Black Korhaan, African Grey and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Pearl Spotted Owlet, Southern Pied Babble, and Groundscraper Thrush to mention a few. Night near Kgalagadi Reserve.
Day 4: Today we retrace our steps to Upington, stopping on the way to look for Eastern Clapper and Pink-billed Larks. Upington sits on the Orange River and we’ll stop on the banks of this lifeline for the region to look for a variety of birds attracted to the relatively lush vegetation. These should include South African Cliff-Swallow, White-throated Swallow, White-backed and Red-faced Mousebirds, African Hoopoe, Crested Barbet, Red-eyed Bulbul, Orange River White-eye, and Black-throated Canary. Heading westwards we make another stop at Augrabies National Park where the Orange River tumbles into a deep and spectacular gorge before flowing on to form the border with Namibia. We’ll have time to admire the falls and look at some of the plentiful birdlife to be found nearby, including Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Acacia Pied Barbet, Pale-winged Starling, African Reed Warbler, White-throated Canary and Southern Masked Weaver. Night in Pofadder.
Day 5: South of the Orange River lies the arid and semi-arid regions of Bushmanland, a hauntingly beautiful landscape where, in the not too distant past, San tribes hunted the migrant herds of antelopes. This area is still sparsely populated and it is possible to travel through this stark wilderness all day without seeing another person. Driving along the endless dirt roads that service the remote farms we hope to see Great Kestrel, Karoo Korhaan, Ludwig’s Bustard, Tractrac, and Karoo Chats, Layard’s Tit-babbler, Southern Grey Tit, and Lark-like Bunting, among many other species. In such an arid region, water is a great attraction and we’ll stop at the many small water troughs to see what is coming into drink. In particular we’ll be hoping to find more of the regions larks including Sabota, Sclater’s, Stark’s, Thick-billed, Karoo Long-billed and Spike-heeled Larks. Later in the day we’ll travel to a specific region of red sand dunes to look for the rare Red Lark which is only found in a few tiny areas of the Northern Cape. Night in Pofadder.
Day 6: We’ll leave early this morning to travel west to the town of Springbok, gateway to Namaqualand and the world famous wildflower region. Turning south we drive up into the hills following a maze of dirt tracks that weave through a mosaic of agricultural land and where, if the rains have been good, we should be treated to some spectacular wild flower diplays. Whether the flowers are there or not, there are still birds to see including Ground Woodpecker, Mountain Chat, Bokmakierie, Malachite Sunbird, and Black-headed and Damara Canaries.
Dragging ourselves away from this botanical extravagance will not be easy but an ornithological one awaits us further south at the thriving fishing port of Lambert’s Bay. We’ll arrive in the evening, just in time to sample the delights of an excellent open air fish restaurant on the beach with the Atlantic waves crashing a few yards away. Night at Lambert’s Bay.
Day 7: We’ll begin the day with a dawn visit to the extensive coastal fynbos that surrounds the town looking for Karoo and Cape Clapper Larks, both of which should be performing their aerial song flights. Other species here could include Karoo Scrub Robin, Karoo Prinia, Grey-backed Cisticola, Cape Penduline Tit, and Bar-throated Apalis. After breakfast we visit the famous Cape Gannet colony, which will be teeming with tens of thousands of birds well into their breeding season. The sight, sound and, it must be said, smell of all these birds packed together is unforgettable. In the throng of Cape Gannets we should also find Cape and Crowned Cormorants jostling for space, and we’ll watch Cape Fur Seals basking on the rocks. Leaving Lambert’s Bay we continue south, arriving at Veldriff on the mouth of the Berg River. Swift Terns will be much in evidence along with Caspian Terns, Cape and Hartlaub’s Gulls, and a variety of waders including Pied Avocet and Marsh Sandpiper. There should also be flocks of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos and thousands of Cape Cormorants present. At some small salt pans we hope to find a number of smart Chestnut-banded Plovers and from there we’ll explore the open agricultural areas looking for Cape Long-billed Lark and Sickle-winged Chats. Later we’ll move onto the bustling port of Saldana. Night in Saldana.
Day 8: Nearby is the small town of Langebaan which lies at the head of an enormous inlet that forms the spectacular West Coast Nature Reserve. We’ll visit the Reserve to search for striking Black Harriers quartering the flower-strewn coastal fynbos and spend time searching through the flocks of waders which make this huge natural lagoon their winter home. Among the migrant waders from further north, there will also be resident birds including White-fronted and Kittlitz’s Plover. Around the edge of small pools we will find nesting Cape Weavers while Southern Black Korhaans and Cape and Grey-winged Francolins can frequently be found along the roadside. There should be some superb flower displays here, and if the weather is clear, we’ll get our first distant glimpse of Table Mountain. Leaving this reserve we visit a much smaller one a little way inland which is famous for its display of wild flowers and where we’ll hopefully see Cape Longclaw and Cloud Cisticiola. Moving on, we head inland to the Cedarberg Mountains with stops along the way for our first Blue Cranes. As we climb we reach hillsides covered in Protea bushes and here we’ll stop to look for the elusive Protea Canary. We end the day at a remote guest house high in the hills.
Day 9: We’ll awake to find ourselves surrounded by truly spectacular scenery and to the sound of displaying Cape Clapper Larks. We have a full day to explore these hills and the wonderful karoo habitat. We begin with a visit to a rocky gorge to look for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler as well as Fairy Flycatcher, Pririt Batis and Layard’s Tit Babbler. Moving on we’ll drop down into the karoo, an endless stony plain covered in the most beautiful array of small Euphorbias and succulent scrub. If there has been rain we may find flocks of Black-eared Sparrow-larks displaying while Karoo Korhaan and Burchell’s or Double-banded Coursers could turn up anywhere. This is good ‘chat’ country and we’ll have time to compare Karoo and Tractrac Chats as well as searching for Rufous-eared Warbler, Karoo Eremomela, and the localised Namaqua Warbler. Night in the Cedarberg Mountains.
Day 10: We have time this morning to look for any species we may have missed yesterday before we drive on to the town of Ceres where we’ll stop in the local park to look for African Black Duck, Olive Woodpecker, and Giant Kingfisher. Much of the rest of today is taken up with travelling. Our drive once again takes us through some dramatic scenery before we reach the quaint town of Swellendam where we spend the night. Night in Swellendam.
Day 11: Close to the town lies a reserve established to protect that beautifully marked antelope, the Bontebok and we’ll see good numbers of this endangered antelope. This reserve comprises of some extensive fynbos and driving along the tracks we should find Stanley’s Bustard, possibly with some males performing their dramatic display. Elsewhere there should be more Black Harriers along with Pearl-breasted Swallow, ‘Agulhas’ Cape Clapper Lark, Yellow Bishops, Malachite Sunbirds, and African Stonechats. Fiscal Flycatchers are common here and we may encounter a Greater Double-collared Sunbird as we are just on the Western edge of their range here. Later we’ll head south, driving through undulating arable fields where we’ll look for Agulhas Long-billed Lark amongst the many Red-capped and Large-billed Larks and where we should find large groups of Blue Cranes. We cross the Breede River at the Malgas ferry – the last working ferry in South Africa – and drive down to Potberg, a towering hill which is one of the last strongholds of Cape Vulture and where we should have good views of these magnificent birds circling overhead. As the day draws to a close we’ll head west and follow the road into Cape Town, crossing the Overberg Mountains at Sir Lowry’s pass which can give superb views of False Bay, the Cape Flats and Table Mountain. Night in Cape Town.
Days 12-15: We’ll have four days in which to sample the delights that birding around the tip of Africa has to offer. The weather here is notoriously fickle, but if conditions permit we’ll venture out one day into the South Atlantic in search of seabirds. Our objective is to find a deep-sea trawler which will hopefully be followed by a throng of thousands of seabirds, mostly albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters. We’ll cruise among this mass where binoculars will hardly be necessary, as many of the birds will be almost too close to focus on. The mix of birds is variable with a wide variety possible. We should see Shy, Black-browed and with luck, both Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Southern Giant, Pintado and White-chinned Petrels, Sooty and Great Shearwaters, Sub-antarctic Skua, and Wilson’s Storm-petrel. Less common possibilities include Antarctic Fulmar, Wandering Albatross, and Soft-plumaged Petrel, and there is always the chance of a real seabird rarity. There may be a few Antarctic Terns heading to their southern breeding grounds, or a Sabine’s Gull freshly arrived from the north, and all of these will be mingling with thousands of Cape Gannets, Cape Gulls and Cape Fur Seals joining in the feeding frenzy.
Back on dry land, we’ll explore the Cape’s verdant mountains, passes and valleys looking for special birds such as Cape Grassbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, and Cape Siskin. We will take time to visit the world famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, lying in the shadow of Table Mountain. These gardens are not just a wonderful place for plants – there are plenty of birds to be seen as well. A resident Spotted Eagle Owl can usually be found at its daytime roost, Cape Batis and Forest Canaries feed among the undergrowth while Cape Sugarbirds, Cape White Eyes and Lesser Double-collared Sunbirds buzz around the masses of flowers and Sombre Greenbuls call loudly from the undergrowth. Black Saw-wings skim overhead and there is a good chance of seeing a majestic Black Eagle or a Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk soaring around the slopes of Table Mountain.
One day we’ll cross to the other side of False Bay to an area famed for giving close views of Southern Right Whales and where we’ll search the rocky slopes for Cape Rockjumper and the shy Victorin’s Warbler. A visit to the famous Strandfontein Sewage Farm should give us close encounters with Greater Flamingos, Glossy Ibis, Pied Avocets and a number of ducks including Southern Pochard and Maccoa Duck. We’ll visit an African Penguin colony and of course, we’ll fit in a visit to the Cape of Good Hope itself. Nights in Cape Town.
During the evening of Day 15 we’ll catch an overnight flight back to London where the tour ends on Day 16.
Updated: 22 September 2016