Monday 18 December 2017

South Africa Trip Report - Logistics and Day 1

In December 2017 I went on a fantastic five day trip to the Western Cape of South Africa. I had never been before and having now sampled the avian delights it has to offer I cannot understand why it took me so long. Mick S and I notched up 185 species in less than a week and we didn’t even try that hard, prioritising photographic opportunities over pure birding. Of those species, around 130 were lifers, ie that big Ostrich-shaped gap on my IOC list is now filled.

  • Travel was with BA overnight on Friday, arriving on Saturday morning at 7am. There is only a 2 hour difference between London and Cape Town, so I was able to do a vaguely full day at work and then meet Mick for a leisurely late and fairly boozy lunch at Heathrow before take-off at 6pm and settling down for a nice sleep.
  • The trip was organised by Birding Africa, and was a superb itinerary given our limited time. Most of their clients come for far longer, but my modus operandi is by necessity all about quick-fire trips. They organised all our accommodation, car hire, and guides for three days of the five.
  • We used the SASOL guide to Southern African birds. It was OK, but the Collins it is not. That said there are not too many confusion pairs around, but juveniles and some moults are not typically illustrated.
  • We used Google Maps for navigation, but did not follow the sat-nav blindly in case it took us through some of the vast townships around Cape Town. Apparently you do not want to get lost in one of these and I can well believe it.
  • In SA they drive on the left as in England, and the standard of the paved roads was excellent. The standard of driving was not too bad, but we did see one really bad-looking smash out in the Overberg. Whilst I did all the driving I took it pretty easy and was very careful.
  • I forgot to have any jabs, but this was not (yet!) a problem. We stayed in nice places, drank bottled water and ate nice food.
  • Plug sockets are completely different and regular multi-region travel adaptors will not work.

Day 1: Arrival into CPT, guided birding Kirstenbosch BG during what remained of the morning, and the Strandfontein water treatment plant in the afternoon
Day 2: Early start for dawn near Koeberg and the rest of the day in the West Coast National Park. Guided.
Day 3: East to the Hottentots for Penguin and Rockjumper amongst other things. Guided.
Day 4: Self-drive to the Overberg area, overnight at De Hoop Nature Reserve.
Day 5: Birding De Hoop before overnight flight back to London.

Day 1: 
I think I managed about 5 hours sleep on the way out – not as much as I was hoping, but the evening dinner service and its associated clatter takes quite a while, during which all the lights are on. And then they turn the lights back on for breakfast about 2 hours out, leaving only just over half of the flight undisturbed.  Still, I did not feel too bad and SA is a non jet-lag destination so all good.

Spotted Eagle Owl

We were met at arrivals by Otto from Birding Africa – he took us in his car to Newlands where we picked up our own vehicle, a Nissan Quashqai, and followed him the short distance to Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. Within two minutes we were face to face with a Spotted Eagle Owl! These are actually quite common as it turns out, but as nearly the first bird we saw we were very impressed indeed! Heading into the gardens proper we soon began to increase the list. Kirstenbosch has been planted with a vast array of indigenous plants from the Fynbos and beyond, and whilst the peak flowering season had passed, there were still plants in bloom and thus we picked up Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds very quickly, as well as the much-wanted Cape Sugarbird – whilst the Sunbirds were past their best plumage, the Sugarbirds still looked magnificent and we devoted a fair bit of time to photography.

Cape Sugarbirds

Other birds seen in the garden included pretty tame Hadada Ibis, Cape Spurfowl, Helmeted Guineafowl and Red-eyed Dove, whilst tracking down a Southern Boubou and a Pin-tailed Whydah took a little longer. Cape Canary, Red-winged Starling, Cape White-eye and Cape Bulbul were common, and Egyptian Geese were literally everywhere! But most of all it was the sheer setting that amazed me – Table Mountain towered above us (a path to the top starts here) and the further up into the garden we progressed the better the view of Cape Town below us became.

Cape Bulbul

Helmeted Guineafowl

Cape Spurfowl

Hadada Ibis

Cape Canary

The incredible cycad garden at Kirstenbosch. Not sure on the bird....

We had lunch at the café here before setting off to Strandfontein Water Treatment plant on the south side of the city. This was birding at its best – the lagoons were teeming with birds including almost all the expected ducks. You are able to go right in and simply drive around the dirt tracks that border each pond – in the UK nanny state this would have been deemed a huge health and safety issue years ago and the whole place would be out of bounds. We found Mick’s first Hartlaub’s Gulls here, and whilst conditions were not brilliant for photography he did ok – see here. Blacksmith Lapwing were abundant, and there were some large flocks of Greater Flamingos with a few Lessers out in the middle of one of the larger pans. Waders were everywhere too, mostly Little Stints but also Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, along with a handful of Curlew Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank and Three-banded Plover. Raptors were good too, with African Marsh Harrier, and African Fish Eagle, and best of all several Black-winged Kites – this is rare in a European context but proved to be the most common raptor of the trip and we got excellent views. On the passerine front Cape Wagtails were everywhere, and Levaillant’s Cisticola and various warblers were in the reeds calling away.

Blacksmith Lapwing

Hartlaub's Gull

Black-winged Kite - very common

Water Thick-knee

As we left we were treated to both Water and Spotted Thick-knee, and as the sun set we headed back towards Kirstenbosch and our accommodation. I had booked a table for dinner in close-by Claremont, and so at 8.30 on our first day we were celebrating with some nice food and a list of nearly 100 birds – the overwhelming majority of which were lifers. We could not overdo it however as our next birding adventure started at 4.30am the next morning.

Ex-tripod user....

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