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Birding South Africa

A selection of photos and observations from a birding trip to Cape Town, in January 2017. If you are interested in Penguins, raging fires, Sugarbirds, poisonous snakes and Ostriches, then read on...
(all photos, Michael O'Clery)

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(African) Black Oystercatcher, Cape Town.

Take a stroll along the Cape Town seafront, and you will certainly meet with this bird, a globally endangered species, with only about 6-7000 birds. The Cape region seems to suit it however, and most coastal areas around Cape Town have a few, doing exactly what our own Oystercatchers do, pecking for shellfish, calling loudly and refining their recipes for filo pastry. Or maybe two of those three.

Cape Bulbul, Cape Town.

A common scrub and garden bird throughout the country, and endemic to the SW of South Africa. They're noisy, and despite the initial delight at seeing them, what with their almost comical white eye ring thing going on, their constant calls throughout the day, in all sorts of habitat, becomes increasingly irritating. Jesus lads. Give it a rest.

Juvenile Dusky Flycatcher, Kirstenbosch.

A much more dainty and subtle species. And quieter. January being late summer in South Africa, many species had finished breeding, so woodland habitats in particular were often strangely quiet (except for Bulbuls), the adults more concerned with feeding young than defending territories with song. More often than not, it was the persistent calls of begging youngsters, like this dainty little flycatcher, that drew attention.

Typical fynbos habitat on the slopes of Table Mountain, Cape Town.

Most of the hugely varied flowers and shrubs in this region are endemic to the Cape area. The books on the local flora are enormous. Giant doorstoppers of books that take two hands to lift. There are a lot of flowers out there people.

Karoo Prinia, Kistenbosch.

Yet another Cape endemic, and pretty common in shrubs and fynbos.

Ostriches, West Coast NR, north of Cape Town.

Virtually all 'wild' ostriches in the whole of southern Africa are descended from escaped or released birds from the formerly lucrative Ostrich plume trade. Many are still farmed for meat in the area, though there are now also many established wild populations.

Ostriches, near Oudtshoorn.

Almost a photographic negative of a Kerry hillside... In Kerry, white blobs on a green hillside = sheep. In South Africa, black blobs on a brown hillside = Ostriches.

Ostrich, in it's most frequently encountered habitat in South Africa, the supermarket shelf. A single drumstick could feed a family for a month.

Though I love and espouse vegetarianism, I am, at the end of the day, a quietly committed carnivore. I've eaten Ostrich steak, and it's not half bad, though I wouldn't want to catch my own. Mind you, I could say the same about beef, or even lamb. Ostriches have a ferocious kick. Cows can trample you. And lambs can, well, I'm not sure what they can do, but I don't trust them...

Puff Adder, Cape Point.

And here's one to absolutely never trust. You really don't want to be bitten by this fella... The poison kills the nerves in the affected area, resulting in months of agony as your limb gently rots away. Nice. Most people kept a safe and respectful distance from this snake when it appeared on a fairly busy public path, though one stupid tourist stepped over it at one point. Sheesh. Could have bitten him in the nuts. The snake, I mean. Not me.

Rock Bunting, Cape Point.

Like so many other birds in this area, this striking bunting was remarkably tame, running around cafe tables and under the chairs of tourists for tidbits. Why are birds so much tamer in South Africa? 

Rock Kestrel, Signal Hill, Cape Town.

And here's another example. Another tame bird which, at one point, dropped to the ground beside us and started dust-bathing. You wouldn't get a Kestrel in Ireland doing that. But, like in South Africa, these birds aren't hunted or persecuted as such. So how come they are so much more tolerant of humans in SA?


Just to illustrate that, even when you travel far from home, that you realise more than ever that some things, like family values, an intrinsic love of nature, Coca-cola, and builders crack, are universal.

Sugarbird, Table Mountain, Cape Town.

These are incredible looking birds, and again, are endemic to the SW of Africa. They are nectar- and insect-eaters, so are reliant on flowering shrubs for the most part. One area of flowering trees on Table Mountain had well over 100 of these beauties.

Sugarbird, Table Mountain, Cape Town.


Orange-breasted Sunbird, Table Mountain, Cape Town.

Knock the eyes outta yer head, this one. Guaranteed to bring a smile to your face the first time you see one.

Not a great landscape photo, but it shows a section of Table Mountain which I walked the day before, just before this happened, below. Me being there shortly before was just a COINCIDENCE. Ok? A fluke. Sheer bad luck. There is no way you can prove a THING. There was NO direct evidence, NO reliable witnesses...

Massive fire on Table Mountain, Cape Town.

Holy shit.
One of the worst fires in the area in years took hold about 11pm that night. Fanned by unseasonal gale force winds, it resulted in the evacuation of a whole section of the outlying city suburbs, including three tower blocks (one visible in the clip). All that beautiful fynbos habitat, full of the calls of Sugarbirds, Sunbirds and Cape Siskins was reduced to ashes in a few frightening hours. There's been a bit a drought in the Southern Cape this year, so these fires have been increasingly common of late. Thankfully, no human casualties, or major damage to property - thanks to the largely volunteer firefighters - but the wildlife of the area took a huge hit.

Lark-like Bunting, West Coast NR.

Of course, like any region in the world, every area has its 'little-brown-jobs'. This species is really poorly illustrated in contemporary field guides, and for an outsider, could be dismissed as some juvenile bunting or canary or lark. Like our Garden Warbler, the field guides make a point of mentioning its' lack of field characters, but actually it is quite distinctive if seen well. Nevertheless, definitely one that could slip under the radar for a visiting birder.

Blacksmith Lapwing, Strandfontein, Cape Town.

No such issues with this striking wader. This species features in tourist literature and leaflets along the likes of, "Twenty Of The Most Bleedin' Obvious Birds of South Africa That You Can Identify Even From A Speeding Car". I mean, if you had to design a bird that is easy to identify...

Lesser Flamingoes, West Coast NR.

Now we're talking. Now we know we are somewhere exotic, when a flock of Flamingoes goes by. As they say in the Star Trek movies, "Set your faces to 'stunned'". Beautiful.

Malachite Kingfisher, Wildernis.

The common Kingfisher of this region, and another beautiful bird.

Cape Longclaw, West Coast NR.

This bird looks like a lanky Skylark, until it turns around and "BOOM!". Check out that blast of colour.

White Pelican, Strandfontein, Cape Town.

I don't have a decent photo of it, but close to this site was the largest landfill site I've ever seen, presumably most of the Cape Town detritus, poorly recycled, and gradually and inexorably forming a massive mountain of rubbish. Dump trucks queuing 30 vehicles long for their go at unloading the next 10 tons of trash. And pitching into this massive pile of rubbish, hundreds of Kelp Gulls, a few Yellow-billed Kites and, unexpectedly, White Pelicans. It seemed a little undignified, to my eye, for such an iconic species to be squabbling on a landfill for the horrendous contents of nappies, dead pets and week-old Macdonald's burgers.

Jackass, or African Penguin, Boulders Beach.

There's only a few birding experiences in a lifetime that truly blow your mind - sure, a major rarity on an autumn headland in Kerry, a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a Californian Condor at eye level, witnessing a huge 'murmuration' of half a million Starlings going to roost - but this one took me by surprise. To walk down a beach boardwalk and come face to face with 100s of penguins within touching distance... magic.

African Penguins, Boulders Beach.

You might think this colony would have to be on some remote island. Not so, for just above this mainland beach are numerous holiday homes and beach houses. About 200 pairs now nest in burrows, some of them 'nest-box-burrows', in the undergrowth above the beach. This is a relatively recent colony, only present at this site in the past twenty years. Part of the success of the colony is actually down to human presence as one of their main predators - Leopard - largely avoids built-up areas. 

Yellow Canary, West Coast NR.

A bright male. females and juveniles are less impressive.

Black-shouldered Kite, near Ceres.

Surely a contender for a 'likely o be split' species? The world range currently includes birds from Portugal, to Asia, to the southern two-thirds of Africa, but these populations are isolated. The Australian version has already been split, but surely there are several more 'species' awaiting the world lister's favourite pastime, 'armchair ticking'?

Distribution of Black-shouldered Kite. (HBW Alive)

Blue Crane, near Ceres.

An extraordinary-looking bird, and a much sought after species for birders visiting the Cape region. The sight of this bird in a distant stubble field resulted in my first ever, inadvertent, doughnut on the road. Don't tell the car hire company.

Cape Sparrow, near Ceres

Another bird that the field guides don't do justice to. Lookatthaaaaat...


A venture onto the endless rough gravel roads of the Karoo, the South African semi-desert. The corrugated track and sharp stones guaranteed to rattle the fillings out of your teeth and puncture your tyres. Don't tell the car hire company. A huge landscape and, of course, a whole other world of desert-adapted species to see.

Jackal Buzzard, near Prince Albert.

A beautiful and distinctive raptor. They don't hunt Jackals, apparently. But then, Oystercatchers don't eat Oysters, and Wheatears don't have wheat in their ears. Go figure.

Swartberg Pass.

This is a great birding area, if you are ever in the area. One of the best acacia woodlands, a hugely impressive gorge through the mountains, semi-desert and highland species. Another long gravel road though, so make sure your spare tyre is ok. And don't tell the car hire company.

Red-billed Quelea, with Red Bishops and Common Waxbills, near Swartberg Pass.

The Queleas were an unexpected species to see at this site, and is at the far eastern edge of its range. It is in the Guiness Book of World Records as the commonest bird in the world. Flocks of one million - one MILLION - birds are not unusual.

Here's a quote from HBW Alive: "Peak post-breeding population estimated at c. 1,500,000,000 individuals. Aerial surveys in N Cameroon and W Chad estimated 36 million birds, three months later 55 million; colonies in NE Nigeria covered more than 110 ha, and contained estimated 31 million nests. Population of Kruger National Park, in NE South Africa, estimated at 33 million (most abundant bird species there), and in adjacent S and C Mozambique estimated at 20 million individuals."

I'll say it again, holy shit.

Red-capped Lark, Strandfonein, Cape Town.

Let's face it, in Kerry we have Phylloscopus warblers to torture us, juvenile autumn waders to frustrate us, and as for juvenile gull plumages... well, get out the headache tablets. South Africa has cisticolas and larks to do the same. Glad to say, this was the most gratifyingly easy of larks to identify. It does what it says on the tin, It's got a reddish cap. Nice red shoulder patch too, to secure the identification. Red-capped Lark. easy.

Layard's Warbler, near Swartberg Pass

Not high on the glamour scale, but a good birder's bird. Scarce enough, not that easy to identify, and easily missed. Not high on the glamour scale though.

Afro-montane forest, near Plettenberg Bay.

After a few days birding in the Karoo semi-desert, time to move on to the Afro-montane forests. A whole new suite of birds to force you to reach for the field guide with the frustrated mutterings of, "Now what the feck was THAT?"

Black-headed Oriole, Nature's Garden.

Now we're talking! That's glamorous. Good start to the forest stuff. That was easy.

Knysna Turaco, Nature's Valley.

And yes! One of the birds of the trip. Confined to the coastal forests of south and east Africa, this is one of the most characterful birds you will ever see. It hops about the tree canopy, curious to figure out what the hell you are. It looks pretty amazing perched, but when it flies, the outer wings are the most extraordinary bright crimson. Small groups scurry along the branches of huge emergent trees, calling loudly. If you haven't seen one, put it on your bucket list.

Swee Waxbill, Nature's Valley.

Another little gem, frequenting scrub and weeds on the forest edge.

And finally, below, while pausing for a drink, this little forest pigeon strolled across the path, around my legs a few times, and back into the forest. Lemon Dove, and a tick. This clip was taken with an iPhone. So tame.

Lemon Dove, Nature's Valley. Filmed with an iPhone.

I could have included many more photos and experiences crammed into the two week trip, but in summary, fantastic birds and wildlife, impressive scenery, great food and wine, cheap, and with a great road network. Apart from those gravel roads. Don't tell the car hire company.