Birding in Cape Town: Harold Porter Botanical Gardens in Betty’s Bay

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.

Harold porter map w labels

Map © Peter Slingsby:

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!

Cape Sugarbird2

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.

Orange-breasted Sunbird

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.

Ground Woodpecker

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.

Cape Clawless Otter in Betty’s Bay

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.

Cape Clawless Otter

We first spotted it swimming about 20m offshore, pretty close to a fisherman, before it slowly made its way onto the beach.

Cape Clawless Otter1

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.

Cape Clawless Otter2

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?

Cape Clawless Otter spoor

The tail and “clawless” paw prints make for a distinctive spoor.

Cape Clawless Otter spoor1

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.

Birding in Cape Town: Betty’s Bay Tern Roost

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.

Bettys bay tern roost

Map © Peter Slingsby:

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).

Tern roost

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.

Swift Tern

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.

Crowned Cormorant

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!

African Black Oystercatcher

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.

Cape Siskin

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.

White-fronted Plover1

Birding in Cape Town: Jonkershoek Valley, Stellenbosch

The birding at Jonkershoek Nature Reserve in Stellenbosch is not earth shattering at the moment because of a recent fire, however the indigenous forests are still intact and harbour the usual species – see below for details. I visited the reserve last week – not birding, but mountain biking – and was pleasantly surpised to hear Long-billed Pipit calling from the burnt mountain slopes in the valley. Long-billed Pipit is not a rare bird in the Western Cape, but one doesn’t encounter them that often.

Jonkershoek LB Pipit Map

Map © Peter Slingsby:

There’s a nice tea garden at the entrance to the reserve where Paradise Flycatcher is breeding at the moment. This female (photo below) had built her nest just above our table!

Paradise Flycatcher

Other species notched up on our ride included Steppe Buzzard, Peregrine Falcon, Redchested Cuckoo, Malachite Sunbird, Familiar Chat, Bar-throated Apalis, Cape Robin-chat, Olive Thrush, African Black Swift and Cape White-eye. Verreaux Eagle and Cape Rockjumper apparently also occur in the reserve, but I imagine the latter is more easily seen at Rooi Els.

Birding in Cape Town: Raptor watching in Newlands Forest

Raptor watching at Kirstenbosch has not been producing the goods (ie Honey Buzzard) so I decided to give Newlands Forest a try. Newlands (only about 3 kms down the road) has been fairly reliable for Honey Buzzard in previous years and, in addition, a lot of the raptors observed at Kirstenbosch recently are first spotted soaring over the Newlands area. On Monday, with a 7am start, I headed in a northerly direction from the helipad area at Newlands and found an excellent vista with sweeping views from Rhodes Memorial towards Kirstenbosch.

Newlands Map

As with all raptor watching, one does spend a fair amount of time waiting for some action, but there’s usually always something to keep you occupied. In this case, the bracken areas between the pine plantations were alive with the “machine gun” call of Neddicky.


It didn’t take long for a raptor to put in an appearance. First up was a Steppe Buzzard, which didn’t behave too well and only afforded me some relatively distant views and photos.

Steppe Buzzard

Second in line was a Yellow-billed Kite, a less common species (relative to other raptors) in the Newlands area.

Yellow-billed Kite

The rest of the morning was dominated by Steppe Buzzards (6 individuals in total), but I did also manage to notch up Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk, Black Sparrowhawk and Peregrine Falcon (heard).

Steppe Buzzard

Other species recorded for the morning included (in no particular order) Common Chaffinch, Cape White-eye, Grassbird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, African Black Swift, Alpine Swift, White-rumped Swift, Black Saw-wing Swallow, Great Striped Swallow, African Olive Pigeon, Cape Canary, Olive Thrush, Karoo Prinia, Cape Robin-chat, Cape Batis and Paradise Flycatcher. Still no Honey Buzzard, but I’ll persevere!

Birding in Cape Town: Table Mountain and Lions Head

One of Cape Town’s greatest attractions is that it is located on the boundary of the Table Mountain National Park – in fact the park is surrounded by Cape Town! The city centre is located in a bowl flanked by Table Mountain to the south, Lions Head and Signal Hill to the west, and Table Bay (and Robben Island) to the north.

table mountain1

From the centre of Cape Town one can be standing at the foot of Table Mountain or walking up Lions Head within 10 minutes. The fynbos covered slopes do not yield high numbers of birds, but this is certainly made up for by the quality of the species (ie. endemics).

Karoo Prinia

On Saturday evening I popped up Lions Head for 45 minutes to stretch the legs. This Karoo Prinia (above) responded very quickly to some spishing as did a Grey-backed Cisticola (below).

Greybacked Cisticola

Apart from these two LBJs, Cape Grassbird’s melodic song is also commonly heard, particularly on the north-facing slopes. Other good endemics that one can catch up with are Orange-breasted Sunbird (listen for their metallic chinking call), Cape Siskin (a nasal “siskiiiiiiin”), Cape Sugarbird (check the protea bushes on the entrance road to Signal Hill) and the colourful Bokmakierie is also resident.


When not watching your footing, keep an eye out for Rock Kestrel (breeds on the cliffs), Black Sparrowhawk (love feasting on lazy Feral Pigeons), Peregrine Falcon (breed on Table Mountain), Booted Eagle (summer) and Steppe Buzzard (summer).

Don’t be put off climbing Lions Head in summer if there is a strong south-easterly wind blowing; the mountain lies in a wind shadow and can be breathless when the rest of Cape Town is blowing a gale. As for winter, the adage goes that if there is cloud around Lions Head and a north-westerly wind is blowing, one can expect rain within 24 hours. Enjoy!

Mongolian Plover at Geelbek hide, West Coast National Park, South Africa

Geelbek hide at Langebaan lagoon has been quiet on the rare wader front this summer, bar a Redshank and Mongolian Plover that have been putting in the odd appearance. I was lucky enough to catch-up with the Mongolian a few weeks ago.

Mongolian Plover

Initially the bird was quite distant, but the rising tide eventually pushed it fairly close to the hide. The wing bar and general upperwing colouration in the shot below is a little overdone in Photoshop – it wasn’t that dark.

Mongolian Plover flight

This image below provides a better idea of the upperwing colouration – this shot has only been cropped.

Mongolian Plover flight1

Apart from the waders, summer is also a time when snakes are more active in the park. I’ve never been lucky enough to see puffadder or any cobras, but molesnakes are fairly common. This individual was just warming up on the road close to the Geelbek hide. The shot only shows a small section of the animal – it was at least a metre long!

Mole Snake

Birding in Cape Town:West Coast National Park, Langebaan

Wednesday, a public holiday in South Africa, was spent birding with mates in the West Coast National Park. Located on the southern leg of Langebaan lagoon, the park is without equal in South Africa when it comes to the number and variety of shorebirds one can see. The Strandveld (local vegetation type) birding is also very good.

West Coast National ParkThere are three excellent hides located on the eastern shores of the lagoon. The older hide (northern hide) at Geelbek is, in my opinion, the best, while Seeberg hide comes into its own at high tide when gulls, terns and shorebirds roost on the sand banks. You need to time the tides quite carefully; the optimal time is either a rising low tide or dropping high tide in the morning (the sun will be at your back). High tide at either of the Geelbek hides is hopeless because there is no exposed mud; Seeberg is less dependent on tides.

marshsandpiper.jpgThe northern Geelbek hide produced: Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Terek Sandpiper, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey, Ringed, White-fronted and Kitlitz’s Plovers.

Curlew Sandpiper

Eurasian Curlew

Interestingly, we spotted this partially leucistic Curlew Sandpiper. The photo is rather poor, but you get the general idea.

Leucistic Curlew Sandpiper1

We only spent the morning in the park, but managed to notch up about 90 species – we limited ourselves to the southern section because we were atlassing that specific pentad for the South African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2). Interesting birds for the park included Lesser Honeyguide, Common Swift (uncommon summer visitor) and Spotted Flycatcher (rare summer visitor in the Western Cape). Both the Lesser Honeyguide and Spotted Flycatcher were in the Spider Gums at the northern Geelbek hide.

Lesser Honeyguide

The Lesser Honeyguide was actively hawking insects, so it wasn’t the best behaved photo subject…

Common Swift

Talking of subject behaviour, swifts in general don’t rank high. We saw a handful of Common Swifts through the morning, usually singletons. The above shot – as with all my other swift shots – was a fluke!

Spotted Flycatcher

I’ve only seen Spotted Flycatcher once before in the Western Cape at Paarl Sewage Treatment Works (in 1993) so it was good to bag this one after a 16 year hiatus. This time gap is more a reflection of my lack of birding rather than the birds status. Our last stop for the day was the Abrahamskraal water hole, a good drinking spot for birds. Namaqua Doves are still very active in the park – I managed to snap this immature bird.

Namaqua Dove immature

Birding in Cape Town: more raptor watching at Kirstenbosch

Some more time was spent raptor watching at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens this last Saturday. A decent number of raptors (for this area) were seen (8 individuals), but species were limited to Steppe Buzzard, Forest Buzzard and Black Sparrowhawk. Admittedly, I got there a little late. The optimal time is probably 8am because by 9am most buzzards are already cliff soaring and difficult to spot.

Here are a few images from the morning:

Forest Buzzard

Not the best picture of a Forest Buzzard, but one can clearly see the distinctive features – pale underwing coverts that do not contrast with the remiges, pale chest and under belly – in flight Forest Buzzard also looks more compact than Steppe Buzzard with, in my opinion, faster wing beats.

Butterfly spp

Does anyone perhaps know what butterfly spp this is? I haven’t had a chance to look it up yet.

Spotted Eagle Owl

Not exactly a cliff-soaring raptor, but the Spotted Eagle Owls were displaying nicely in the Dell so I thought I’d include this pic.

Birding in Cape Town: raptor watching at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Each summer Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, serves up some good raptor watching. The main attraction is the number and variety of buzzards that one can encounter. An average morning will produce between 5 to 10 individual birds; good mornings have produced 12 different species of raptor! Steppe Buzzard Buteo vulpinus (summer migrant) is most common, Forest Buzzard Buteo trizonatus breeds in the area, but the star attraction is Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus a rare summer visitor. Honey Buzzard was first discovered on the Cape Peninsula at Tokai Forest (+/- 10km south of Kirstenbosch) in the 1980s and small numbers of these migrants are now sighted annually.

Below are a few photos from a brief raptor watch on Saturday 5 December: [sorry about the Painted Lady – one tends to photograph other things when the raptors aren’t performing :) ]

Steppe Buzzard worn remiges

Steppe Buzzard

This first buzzard was rather distant [hence the poor image], but note the rather worn remiges. The primaries in particular are well worn.

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard worn tail1

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard worn tail

Steppe Buzzard

This Steppe Buzzard was more obliging – note the worn tail feathers.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

Other species regularly seen whilst raptor watching include: African Harrier Hawk Polyboroides typus, Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus, Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius, Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus, Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk Accipiter rufiventris, Black Sparrowhawk Accipiter melanoleucus, African Goshawk Accipiter tachiro, Rock Kestrel Falco rupicolis, Verreaux’s Eagle Aquila verreauxii and Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus.

I hope to catch up with a Honey Buzzard this summer – watch this space…