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Birding Trip Report: South Africa
Western Endemics
16-19 June 2009

Summary: We designed a custom 4-day trip around the Western Cape, South Africa, for Paul Mostyn, an experienced birder from the UK with over 1000 birds on his Africa lifelist. Paul had done two trips in southern Africa before, but never in the Cape region, so the aim of the trip was to get as many of the Cape endemics as possible on his list. On our journey to find these birds, we explored the Cape coastline, West Coast strandveld habitat, farmlands of the Swartland and Overberg, the unique Mountain fynbos and the desert expanses and cliffs of the desolate Tanqua Karoo. Although it was winter, we had perfect weather and many fine encounters including a host of spectacular fynbos and Karoo endemics. Some of the highlights were spending time with a group of Cape Rock-jumpers in the mountains with Verreaux’s Eagle, Cape Sugarbird, Cape Siskin and Orange-breasted Sunbird all around; very close Protea Seedeaters which defied being called skulking; a spectacular territorial dispute between two groups of Karoo Korhaan; tremendous views of Cinnamon-breasted warbler (less than a metre from our feet!); Karoo Eremomelas and Rufous-eared Warbler together on the Karoo plains; all three Long-billed Lark species possible – Cape, Karoo and Agulhas; a single field with over 25 Cape Vultures, Blue Cranes and 4 Denham’s Bustards; Knysna Woodpecker less than 20 metres away; and a host of excellent mammal sightings including Cape Fox and Striped Polecat.

Paul also joined us for a pelagic (see pelagic trip report) and a “Fynbos endemics and Hottentot Buttonquail” day trip from Cape Town (see trip report).

All pictures were taken by Callan Cohen and Campbell Fleming on this 4-day trip.

DAY 1: 16 June 2009, Cape Town and up the West Coast:

After collecting Paul Mostyn from his hotel in Camps bay, we headed in search of his first target species, Bank Cormorant. We had excellent views of the breeding-plumaged birds at a nearby colony on an offshore granite boulder, where their white rumps were conspicuous. The population of this endemic has declined over 75% over the last 30 years, now numbering less than 3000 birds. Recent storms and a strong onshore wind had brought a plethora of usually pelagic seabirds right into the breakers. These included many White-chinned Petrels, a Giant Petrel hulking over the waves and a brief Shy Albatross. A fishing boat making its way towards Cape Town harbour through the rough seas attracted Cape Gannet and small ‘commandos’ of Cape Cormorants were seen flying low over the water in search of their marine breakfast. Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls were hard to miss, calling raucously above the car park. Some further seawatching at Mouille Point yielded a similar variety of birds, before we headed northwards out of Cape Town.

The weather was really starting to look up – the wind died down as we left the coast and there were barely any clouds. On our way out of Cape Town, we stopped at a few roadside wetlands in the Rietvlei vicinity. Our first views of Cape Spurfowl were rather comical with a small covey pottering along the sidewalk much like human pedestrians. Red-knobbed Coot, Cape Shovellor, Red-billed Teal and Little Grebe were present on the water with a pair of Water Thick-knee on the far bank and a Brown-throated Martin flying overhead. Lesser Swamp Warbler was very vocal amongst the reeds and Little Rush Warbler was also heard calling. Some spishing rewarded us almost instantly, with great views of Little Rush Warbler. The Lesser Swamp Warbler was much slower to respond, but was eventually coaxed to the fringe of the reedbed.

We headed up the West Coast, where the first surprise sighting in the Darling farmlands was a Cape Fox! It bolted across an open field, giving good views, and leaped into a patch of tall grass. This was to be the first of many great mammal sightings on the trip. Flocks of Pied Starling and Cape Sparrow were present in the fields and we picked up a few Capped Wheatears on the roadside fenceposts. A colourful African Hoopoe provided some excitement, as did Cape Longclaw. A roadside reedbed was occupied by a very vocal breeding colony of Cape Weavers which were probably attempting to get an early brood out before being parasitized by Diederik Cuckoo which only arrive later in the season. Little Rush and Lesser Swamp Warblers were barely audible over the din of the weavers.

A small covey of Greywing Francolin were eventually located in one of their favourite spots, and we were rewarded with views a family of six of these cryptically-plumaged birds. We had flyovers of Jackal Buzzard, Rock Kestrel and a pair of Black-shouldered Kites. As we neared Darling, we encountered a fallow field filled with hundreds of Spurwing Geese and over 30 Blue Cranes. On the other side of Darling, we entered the Tienie Versveld Wildflower Reserve where we were able to call up a pair of the unique Western Cape subspecies of Cloud Cisticola which alighted on a nearby bush, offering fantastic views of their streaky ‘necklaces’. A pair of Malachite Sunbirds and a Black-headed Heron were also present.

We had lunch in the Geelbek Restaurant in the West Coast National Park, being entertained by Cape Weavers that were quick to jump onto the tables of unsuspecting patrons! The strandveld vegetation of the West Coast National Park held many of Paul’s target birds. In one of the shallow valleys, we witnessed a pair of Black Harriers engaged in a spectacular display flight which produced smiles all round. A Southern Black Korhaan (a bustard) flushed from the vegetation, taking flight and calling harshly, and allowing good views of the distinctive black primaries. We also encountered a pair of obliging Karoo Larks and a small family of minute Cape Penduline Tit. Other sightings included Cape Bulbul, a single Little Swift, Karoo Scrub-Robin, Grey-backed Cisticola, Karoo Prinia, Long-billed Crombec, White-backed Mousebird, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Rock Martin, two Wattled Starlings and a single, unseasonal Barn Swallow with a group of Rock Martin.

The next destination was further north, on the Vredenberg Peninsula, where the shale soils and agricultural lands hold a different suite of birds. A field had hordes of Yellow Canary in the sedges and perched on the fence, Large-billed Lark and Capped Wheatear. Further along the road, we found a very productive field that yielded Cape Long-billed Lark, Sickle-winged Chat, a female Namaqua Sandgrouse (superbly spotted by Campbell) and White-necked Raven.

We made a stop at the coast nearby where we picked up a roost of about 300 Antarctic Terns, with a few Swift Terns mixed in, Ruddy Turnstone, Grey Heron and African Black Oystercatcher. A pair of Spotted Eagle-Owls were also seen very well.
Crossing the Berg River at Velddrif, we saw Lesser and Greater Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt and Caspian Tern. We headed across the coastal plains and ascended the Piketberg mountains where we overnighted where friends of ours have a cottage up in the mountains. It was very chilly and we were glad to have a warm fire burning!

Day 2: 17 June 2009, Fynbos mountains to Tanqua Karoo:

We headed out on foot at sunrise to do some birding before breakfast. In the vicinity of the cottage, we found Cape Sugarbird, Cape Grassbird and our first Protea Seedeater of the day. Further on, we found Cape Siskin, Cape Canary and Malachite and Orange-breasted Sunbird. Upon seeing us, a male Cape Rock Thrush started emitting a grating alarm call to which other birds responded by coming together into a ‘party’. At one point, the pair of Cape Rock Thrushes was joined by Cape Bunting, Cape Siskin and Cape Robin Chat, all in the same bush! After the fantastic early morning birding, our hunger was sated by a fantastic homemade fry-up breakfast. We also added had Ground Woodpecker, a Rock Kestrel and a stunning male Orange-breasted Sunbird. The fynbos vegetation was looking excellent and we found a few interesting plant species on our walk too.

En route to the Tanqua Karoo, we watched a Verreaux’s Eagle perched on mountain cliffs, and enjoyed about half an hour with an obliging group of Cape Rock-jumpers in a mountain pass. While we sat quietly among the rocks watching the rock-jumpers, a male Cape Siskin landed nearby and we had superb views. Neddicky and Cape Bunting hopped around near our feet.

We later added Levaillant’s Cisticola , African Spoonbill, Red-billed Teal, South African Shelduck, Yellow-billed Duck and African Stonechat at a wetland. Chacma Baboons peered at us from a rocky perched, and we found an out of range pair of Cape Crows with some White-necked Ravens.

Once we were in the Karoo proper, we made a brief stop at Skitterykloof, a spectacular gorge on the edge of the Karoo which is good for rocky hillside specials. Here we had views of Fairy Flycatcher, White-throated Canary and Mountain Wheatear (and heard a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler). On the barren Karoo plains, we located four Karoo Eremomelas at one of their territories. We had good views once they left the low vegetation and even briefly perched on the fence! While we were watching the eremomelas, a Rufous-eared Warbler called, and then responded well to playback, alighting on the fence about five metres from where we were standing. On the stroll back to the car, we saw Karoo Chat and Yellow Canary.

One of the highlights of the day was witnessing a spectacular territorial dispute between two groups of Karoo Korhaan (a trio and a pair). This included fervent calling and brief leaps into the air. An experience like this made a fitting end to a fantastic day’s birding. We enjoyed a hearty meal at our remote lodge up in the mountains, before doing the day’s birdlist and having an early night.

Day 3: 18 June 2009, Tanqua Karoo and to the Agulhas Plains:

Once again, we were up at sunrise to get some birding done before breakfast. It was another beautiful day with clear skies but quite windy in places. Our first encounter of the day was a confiding covey of Greywing Francolin on the edge of the road. The feeding group made soft churrs to each other and it was a pleasure to examine their intricate plumage at such close range. Further down the mountain pass, we converted our previous day's “heard only” to a spectacular sighting of the highly furtive Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. We spend a while watching this bird and it hopped and scurried between the boulders. When the sunlight eventually came over the cliffs, we were able to really examine the subtle “cinnamon” chest band of this species.

After returning to our accommodation for breakfast, we made our way back down the pass to do more birding. We saw a pair of Mountain Wheatear as well as White-throated Canaries. Eventually we were rewarded us with good views of Layard's Titbabbler. After waiting for a considerable time, with a few flyovers keeping us hopeful, we finally got good views of Black-headed Canary. Further on, we had our second Cinnamon-breasted Warbler encounter and at one point we had a warbler under a metre from where we were standing! Usually a notorious skulker, this particular bird scurried around and perched on a rock at the side of the road right in the open. What a treat!

We dropped back onto the Karoo plains again and were entertained by a pair of Karoo Larks amongst the roadside scrub, standing upright and raising their crests as they darted from bush to bush. A patch of thick thorny acacia held inquisitive Namaqua Warblers, beautiful Fairy Flycatchers, White-throated Canary, Cape White-Eye, Dusky Sunbird, Cape Turtle-Dove, White-backed Mousebird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird and Karoo Thrush.

Another special that put in an appearance was the Karoo Long-billed Lark. We saw a pair of them about sixty metres from the road and got fantastic views in the scope. In the same area, we found a flowering Hoodia succulent (famous for its appetite-supressing properties and the legal battle between the Bushmen and diet-pill companies) as well as a rather spectacular display of some early wildflowers. Despite thorough scanning of several good areas, we were unable to locate the scarce Burchell's Courser. We stopped for lunch where we saw a mixed flock of Cape Sparrows and Black-headed Canaries, as well as some distant Karoo Eremomelas again.

Later, we encountered a pair of Karoo Korhaan that could have been the same ones from the previous day. Other sightings along the road included Tractrac Chat, Karoo Lark, Cape Bunting and Rufous-eared Warbler. At the Inverdoorn Dam, we saw over 1500 Redknobbed Coot on the water as well as good numbers of South African Shelduck, Egyptian Goose, Cape Shovellor and Greater Flamingo. The edge of the dam was patrolled by Blacksmith Lapwing and there were Black-winged Stilt in the shallows. The distant roar of Lions from the nearby Inversdoorn Game Reserve was a surprise! From here we made up our travel time, driving through the mountains to eventually reach our accommodation on the Agulhas Plains, near the edge of the De Hoop Nature Reserve.

Day 4: 19 June 2009, Agulhas Plains to Cape Town:

We woke up at sunrise for the usual pre-breakfast birding and, right outside the front door, saw a flock of calling Blue Cranes flying past in the golden morning light. On a telephone poll next to our accommodation, we witnessed a European Starling making convincing mimic calls of both Agulhas Long-billed Lark and Fiery-necked Nightjar! In the fallow lands, we had a beautiful, close-up sighting of an Agulhas Long-billed Lark sitting on a fencepost and calling in the soft morning light. After we had all absorbed this incredible bird, we started the car and it flew off and performed a display flight for us!

We stopped at various other fields and found Bokmakierie, more Blue Cranes, Cape Teal, Yellow-billed Duck, Purple Heron, Common Moorhen and Little Grebe. We also picked up Cape (Agulhas) Clapper-Lark calling on a fencepost, and had superb views of a group of Denham’s Bustards in a field. We made our way to a normally-reliable stake-out for Knysna Woodpecker along the Breede River, but things did not look promising as many of the trees had been washed away by the recent floods and we heard none calling. However, slightly further downriver we heard one calling, and Callan recorded it with his microphone, and played the call back. The woodpecker immediately flew directly towards us and landed in the shade of a clump of saplings, under twenty metres from us!

After the superb views of the Knysna Woodpecker, we headed back for a rather well-deserved late breakfast. Near our accommodation, a field had over 25 Cape Vultures sitting on the ground. Other occupants of the field included Denham’s Bustard and Blue Crane! It was a great highlight on which to end the trip, before heading back to Cape Town.

En route, we say a large troop of Chacma Baboons, foraging in a field rather incongruously with a pair of Great White Pelicans! Passing Cape Town International Airport, we completed the Southern African corvid list with House Crow. We reached Paul’s hotel in Camps Bay in the late afternoon. The total mileage for the four day trip was 1332km and it was quality birding all the way!

Trip Report by Campbell Fleming and Birding Africa tour leader Callan Cohen.

Many of the birding sites on this trip are described in detail in the Southern African Birdfinder which is widely available in South African bookshops and on the internet. (e.g., or However you're always welcome to contact us if you're interested in a guided trip in this area.

Practical tour information:
South Africa: Western Endemics

Please click this link for more detailed information about our upcoming Cape Tours.
Please also visit our tour calendar and description of other South African tours.
Focus Western South Africa rivals any other place in Africa for the number of endemic bird species and accessibility: over 80% of South Africa's endemics occurs here. This varied scenery with dramatic mountain ranges, the unqiue Cape floral Kingdom and the semi-desert plains of the Karoo also offers mammals, chameleons, geckos, butterflies and interesting plants, to suit both keen birders and nature enthusiasts. We also offer pelagic trips out of Cape Town, to see albatross, shearwaters, petrels, whales and dolphins.
Photography Many participants on our tours and day trips are amateur wildlife photographers. And when we get excellent views of a bird or mammal, some time is usually spent watching and photographing it. However, this is not a photographic tour and once the majority of the people have felt that they have absorbed the animal or bird to their satisfaction, then we move on in search of the next encounter. Thus, while the photographic opportunities are very good, the group will only occasionally wait for somebody who wants to spend even longer getting better photos.
Fitness Only a low level of fitness is required.
Timing Throughout the year.
Climate Mediterranean climate, which can be warm in summer (October to March) and chilly in winter (June to September), the rainy season.
Comfort A good standard of accommodation in guest houses, lodges and farm stays.
Transport We travel by minibus or four wheel drive vehicle.
Group Size This depends on the specific tour. Please enquire.
Top birds • Darling area: Cape Clapper Lark, Blue Crane
• West Coast National Park: Southern Black Korhaan, Black Harrier, Chestnut-banded Plover
• Tanqua Karoo, a semi-desert: Karoo Eremomela, Namaqua Warbler, Fairy Flycatcher, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Ludwig’s Bustard, Burchell’s Courser, Black-headed Canary, Layard’s Tit-Babbler, Rufous-eared Warbler, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Karoo Korhaan, Black-eared Sparrowlark
• De Hoop and Agulhas Plains: Cape Vulture, Blue Crane, Denham's Bustard, Damara Tern, Knysna Woodpecker, Agulhas Long-billed Lark, Agulhas Clapper Lark, Southern Tchagra
• Cape coastal Fynbos and mountains: Cape Rock-jumper, Victorin's Scrub-Warbler, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Siskin, Ground Woodpecker, Neddicky and Cape Rock-Thrush
Click here for more practical tour information and a trip report.
Optional extension: Afromontane forest at Grootvaderschbos or Wilderness in the Garden Route.
• Grootvaderschbos: Narina Trogon, Forest Canary, African Crowned Eagle, Knysna Woodpecker, Knysna Warbler, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Olive Bush-Shrike
• Wilderness National Park, Garden Route: Knysna Turaco, Narina Trogon, African Wood Owl, Green-backed Camaroptera, Green Woodhoopoe, Chorister Robin-Chat
Top mammals Whales, Dolphins, Cape Grysbok, Chacma Baboon, Caracal, Striped Polecat, Grey Mongoose, Cape Fox, Bat-eared Fox, Porcupine, Cape Mountain Zebra, Bontebok, Eland
Booking Please contact us if you wish to book a guided or a self-drive tour. You will receive the booking form and conditions and a tour information pack.

About Birding Africa

Birding Africa is a specialist birding tour company customising tours for both world listers and more relaxed holiday birders.  We combine interests in mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, botany and other natural history aspects and will guide you to Africa's and Madagascar's most diverse birding destinations. Our guides' knowledge of African birds and birding areas is our greatest strength and together we have rediscovered species, shared exciting observations with the birding community and had a fun time exploring our home continent.  We've even written two acclaimed guide books on where to find Southern Africa's and Madagascar's best birds. Birding is more than our passion, it's our lifestyle, and we are dedicated to making professional, best value trips filled with endemic species and unique wildlife experiences. Since 1997, we've run bird watching tours in South Africa and further into Africa for individual birders, small birding groups and top international tour companies. We've run Conservation Tours in association with the African Bird Club and work with and consult for a number of other top international tour companies and the BBC Natural History Unit.

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Black Harrier photograph courtesy of Keith Offord.
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