One of the things I love about Betty’s Bay is how close you feel to nature when there. Case in point, imagine my surprise last year when I bumped into not one, but a group of six Cape Clawless Otters while walking on beach.
Rooi Els seems to have surpassed Sir Lowry’s pass as the place to see one of the Cape’s most alluring endemics, Cape Rockjumper. Just an hours drive from Cape Town, Rooi Els and nearby Betty’s Bay are likely the best Cape localities to see the region’s endemic fynbos species.
Rooi Els map adapted from Google Earth image
In the slightly dated Google image above you can see that the area was flattened by a fire a few years ago, but the vegetation is now making a strong recovery, which can make finding Cape Rockjumper tough at times. Directions to the Rooi Els Cape Rockjumper site are simple. When entering the seaside village from a Gordon’s Bay direction, cross the bridge and take the second road to your right. Drive to the end of this road until you reach a gate where you can park. Be sure to park to the side and not block the gate. From here continue walking along the road birding as you go.
Cape Rock-thrush male
Scan the telephone wires for Cape Rock-thrush and watch the protea bushes for Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird. Karoo Prinia, Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird are also common along this stretch.
Cape Sugarbird male
Orange-breasted Sunbird, male
Finding the rockjumpers can be tricky at times. The easiest method is to walk along the jeep track while scanning the rocky slopes and listening for their piping song or more subtle contact calls. They spend most of their time on the ground searching for grubs, but occasionally they hop onto rocks and flutter short distances. They are typically in small groups of three to five birds. For the more energetic a walk up and along the slope can be more productive, but it can be hard going at times as the fynbos is getting denser by the year. The use of playback to attract rockjumpers does not work at Rooi Els (they are “taped-out”) and, if you do choose to use some form of recording, please do so sparingly.
Cape Rockjumper male
Cape Rockjumper male
Cape Rockjumper female
Once you have found the rockjumpers they can actually be quite confiding if approached slowly. I know birders who have had rockjumpers hopping around their feet! It’s easy to think at times that the rockjumpers are not home, but they are always there. You just need to search a bit harder! Other interesting species to look out for in the area include: Verreaux’s Eagle (see map for nest site), Ground Woodpecker (they can be tricky to pin down – listen for their call), Long-billed Pipit (particularly after a fire), Cape Spurfowl, Victorin’s Warbler (particularly on the upper slopes close to the cliffs, but also in the low lying areas on the sea-side of the road), Sentinel Rock-thrush (not on the phone lines like Cape Rock-thrush – look on the lower slopes), Cape Eagle Owl (scarce, but resident).
Enjoy the birding and please feel free to post interesting or recent sightings in the comments section below.
Grootwit Vlei, Betty’s Bay
I spent one of the few Easter weekend weather gaps at Grootwit Vlei in Betty’s Bay where the water levels are now low enough to walk around the edges. Apart from the expected Water Thick-knee, African Snipe, Little Egret and Sacred Ibis, of note were three South African Shelduck and a calling African Rail. Both of these species are new additions to my Betty’s Bay bird list.
Instead of watching the Boks take on the Welsh at the Millenium Stadium a few Saturdays ago I decided the sunny afternoon was better spent birding at Rooisand Nature Reserve on Bot River Lagoon, near Kleinmond. I’ve birded at Bot River on numerous occasions, but not since the walkway and bird hide were built.
The new infrastructure looks good, but I think I may prefer the original set-up. The area had a certain mystery about it; one rarely bumped into other people and there was a certain quiet charm about it. I must say, however, that the boardwalk does encourage one to explore the far reaches of each pan where before you always felt compelled to stay within the boundary of the parking lot.
The habitat is a mix of open water, lagoon edge, marsh and coastal thicket. I was not surprised to notch up Bar-throated Apalis, Long-billed Crombec, Common Fiscal, Cape Bulbul, Cape Robin-chat, Grassbird, Yellow Bishop and Malachite Sunbird in the first patch of thicket along the boardwalk. A lone Barn Swallow also drifted over, which is unusual for June.
Waterbirds are the biggest draw card at Rooisand and Greater Flamingo, White-breasted Cormorant, Grey and Black-headed Heron, Reed Cormorant, Great White Pelican, Common Whimbrel, Little Egret, Blacksmith and Kitlitz’s Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gull were present. The restios flanking the boardwalk held Levaillant’s Cisticola and at least 10 African Pipits were actively foraging in a few of the dried out pans.
The bird hide is quite an impressive structure, but it’s positioned such that it’s difficult not to let the birds know you’re approaching. Nevertheless, there were a few Cape Shovellor and Yellow-billed Ducks that hung around and I imagine there must be African Snipe around the pan fringes as well.
A key bird for the area, which we missed, is Osprey. I don’t know of any other area in the Western Cape, apart from Langebaan, where Osprey is frequently seen. So keep an eye out for them, even in winter I hear.
Bird list for the afternoon:
Greater Flamingo, Reed Cormorant, White-breasted Cormorant, Common Fiscal, Malachite Sunbird, Hartlaub’s Gull, Kelp Gull, Yellow-billed Duck, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Sacred Ibis, Little Egret, Grassbird, Cape Bulbul, African Pipit, Barn Swallow, Long-billed Crombec, Bar-throated Apalis, Cape Turtle Dove, Egyptian Goose, Great White Pelican, Swift Tern, Black-winged Stilt, Kitlitz’s Plover, Grey Heron.
I’ve neglected Betty’s Bay’s wetlands on previous visits so this past weekend was spent scouring Grootwitvlei, the central of the three unique black water lakes in the area. Of the three lakes, from a birding perspective, Rondevlei and Malkopsvlei (Bass Lake) can largely be ignored because most of the action is typically at Grootwitvlei.
There is a network of roads that circle the vlei, but the easiest access point is from the south, as marked on the map above. The “entrance” is not obvious (there are no signs) so keep an eye out for a parting in the bushes opposite the lake’s central island. I usually leave my shoes in the car because it can be quite wet, especially in winter.
This weekend the vlei was rather dry so walking around the perimeter was easy going. The vlei is a well-known roosting site for gulls and terns (usually Swift and Sandwich), especially when the water level is low enough to allow for rock exposure. Interestingly, there weren’t any terns in attendance this weekend, but the usual Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls were abundant. There were a few fishermen on the northern side of the vlei and I wonder if the terns are perhaps less tolerant than gulls?
It was nice to see good numbers of Water Thicknee this visit – there were at least 10 birds roosting on the southern shore. I don’t often take photos of non-birding subjects, but the “specimen” below did catch my eye. What we have here is, I believe, Cape Clawless Otter droppings, which is very exciting. You can clearly see the shell and crab carapaces in the dropping. Some of you may have read my previous post here about my otter sighting on Betty’s Bay main beach – an individual that likely lives in Malkopsvlei so I’d assume this to be a different individual.
Grootwitvlei is surrounded by Phragmites reeds, which hold Levaillant’s Cisticola’s, Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warblers. Black Crake and Red-chested Flufftail, although uncommon, have also been recorded in these reed beds, but require a bit (perhaps a lot!) of luck. The Levaillant’s Cisticola in the image below was enjoying an easy meal fishing trapped insects from a spiders web.
Typical of water bodies in this region, Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot, Little Egret, Reed Cormorant and White-breasted Cormorant were all in attendance. The vlei is also very good for African Snipe – they can be very difficult to see on the ground, but when walking along the shore edge you are almost certainly guaranteed to flush one. I did manage to snap one dodgy image of a snipe feeding…
Below are a few other random photos from the weekend. I believe the middle image is a Cape Grysbok spoor, a relatively common species of antelope in the area – the spoor was imprinted in the soft vlei mud.
For those also interested in amphibians, you probably know this already, but Betty’s Bay’s vleis are also well known for the occurrence of the rare Micro Frog (Micro-batrachella capensis). I’ve personally never found them here, but when looking have bumped into Arum Lily Frog, a very cool little amphibian that hunts from the flower of the Arum Lily.
Bird list for the weekend (Grootwitvlei and environs):
Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot, Little Egret, Sacred Ibis, Hadeda Ibis, Blacksmith Plover, Water Thicknee, Hartlaub’s Gull, Kelp Gull, Swift Tern, White-fronted Plover, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Little Rush Warbler, Fiery-necked Nightjar, Red-chested Flufftail, White-necked Raven, Cape Bulbul, Cape Spurfowl, Black-shouldered Kite, African Snipe, African Marsh Harrier, Cape Turtle Dove, African Shelduck, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-winged Starling, Common Starling, Cape Rock Thrush, African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Wagtail, Cape Sugarbird, Cape Robin-chat, Swee Waxbill, Speckled Pigeon, Fiscal Flycatcher, Malachite Sunbird, Egyptian Goose.
Harold Porter Botanical Gardens is not renowned like it’s big sister, Kirstenbosch, but the birding is arguably much better in terms of available endemics. The gardens and surrounding mountain-side are some of the best areas to find Victorin’s Warbler, while Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Bulbul, Cape Siskin are also resident; Protea Seed-eater is a rare visitor. Following my previous posts about the Betty’s Bay tern roost and otter sighting, Harold Porter is located less than a kilometer from these sights.
Map © Peter Slingsby: www.slingsbymaps.com
The gardens only open at 7am, which is a bit of a nuisance, but a recent morning visit produced a nice smattering of birds. Cape Sugarbirds are generally very common in the upper reaches of the garden; on occasions it can seem that every protea bush has a tail flopping from it!
Victorin’s Warblers were very vocal in the area between Leopards and Disa Kloof, but they weren’t placed in the genera Cryptillas for their extensive aerial display flights! Needless to say, I couldn’t grab a snap of one, but the active Orange-breasted Sunbirds (males and females were in abundance) made up for this.
Harold Porter is also a fairly reliable site for Ground Woodpecker, but this species is probably more easily seen at Rooi Els. The birds tend to sit high up on rocks in either Disa or Leopards Kloof, which can make it difficult to spot them. The bird below was fairly obliging, but this is usually the exception.
Other species recorded on my short walk included: Black Saw-wing Swallow, Cape Robin-chat, Olive Thrush, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Spurfowl, Fork-tailed Drongo, African Dusky Flycatcher, Swee Waxbill, Brimstone Canary, Cape Canary, Sombre Greenbul, Cape Batis, Yellow Bishop, Karoo Prinia, African Black Swift, Alpine Swift, Hadeda Ibis. The gardens are also one of the more regular sites for Brown-backed Honeybird, Olive Woodpecker and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, scarce birds close to Cape Town.
Not exactly a passerine, but I’m always thrilled when I bump into Cape Clawless Otter. My latest otter experience was in Betty’s Bay at “Big” or “Main” beach, one of the busier beaches in the area. It wasn’t picking it’s way between beach towels, but it was about 500m from the busy swim area.
We first spotted it swimming about 20m offshore, pretty close to a fisherman, before it slowly made its way onto the beach.
What surprised me was how slowly it moved up the beach. I would have expected it to make a dash for cover, but it took about 4 minutes for it leave the water and finally disappear over the dune.
What was most striking was its rather rotund belly! We suspected it may be a pregnant female; I remember otter being a lot slimmer and streamlined than this portly individual. Any otter experts have an opinion on this?
The tail and “clawless” paw prints make for a distinctive spoor.
Chatting to a Betty’s Bay resident, Cape Clawless Otter is a regularly seen along this stretch of beach, but usually at an earlier hour in the morning.
Betty’s Bay is just over an hours drive from Cape Town and offers a great opportunity to catch up with some of the Cape’s endemic bird species. What is particularly attractive about the area is the close proximity of the mountains to the coastline, which creates a good mix of fynbos, coastal, freshwater and forest habitats. You can cover the area quite easily in one morning, but if you want to find some of the trickier fynbos endemics (ie. Victorin’s Warbler) you’ll need a bit more time. I recently spent 5 days on holiday in the area and covered most of the good spots.
Map © Peter Slingsby: www.slingsbymaps.com
An area worth taking a look at is the gull and tern roost at the bottom of Waterfall road (road towards sea from Harold Porter Botanical Gardens).
The roost is best on a pushing tide as the birds tend to be a bit closer, but a scope can sort that out easily enough. Sandwich and Swift Terns are the commoner species one can expect, but Common Terns are also regular.
The area is also good for Crowned Cormorant, however these are probably best seen at Stony Point where they breed. White-breasted Cormorants and the odd Bank Cormorant also regularly pass by.
A star attraction at this site are the breeding African Black Oystercatchers. Each year a couple of pairs rear young along this stretch of beach. They aren’t difficult to find, the locals put a lot of energy into keeping walkers out of the breeding area with red danger tape!
Cape Siskin is one of the trickier Cape endemics to pin down, but if you know their nasal “siskiiiiin” call you’ll pick them up more frequently. The bird below was one of a pair actively feeding in the coast thicket close to the tern roost.
White-fronted Plovers are resident breeders along this stretch of coast; the young bird below, in its rather scruffy plumage, is a product of their most recent brood.
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