Wednesday 17 August 2016

South Africa - August 2016 : Part 1

Blue Crane - South Africa's national bird


Africa is a vast continent with much to offer in terms of birding, it is also the place to go if you wish to see some of the world's most impressive land mammals, in fact the number of species you may encounter can be overwhelming for anyone who have yet to set foot on this great continent.

South Africa has one of the richest biodiversities in the world, it also boasts one of the richest plant diversity on earth. When it comes to avifauna the country has some of the world's most interesting and sought after species, there are plenty of endemic species and even a few endemic families that make up the defining characteristic that is South Africa. Therefore, South Africa is a must for any serious birder who wishes to see some of the most interesting and unique species in the world!

Protea bushes - one of the major flora characteristics of South Africa

In general, South Africa have very good infrastructure, you will find good quality road networks and good accommodation everywhere you go. Food is also in general excellent and inexpensive. Although South Africa have had some shaky political times in the past, the country is now fairly stable and peaceful, being Africa's second largest economy, making it one of the best African country to visit.

R44 along False Bay - no doubt one of the most scenic drive around Cape Town

It was Captain's idea to go for a trip to South Africa at the beginning of the year, he had been there once and wanted to go again along with his wife and daughter, Yuen decided to join as well. My parents and I did not want to miss this chance so we decided to go for it!


Once we started planning, we heard from various sources amongst friends concerned about our safety. It's true that safety had been one of the main concerns for tourists who wanted to visit South Africa, and you will hear tales and stories about robbery in broad day light as well as thievery. This therefore became one if our priority when planning for the trip. We later found that although the dangers were real, situations could be avoided through common sense which applies to anywhere you travel. So, my recommendation is that look up for safer neighborhoods and areas to stay and avoid going out alone while in town, but don't be put off to this magnificent country because it offers some of the best people, animals and sceneries that you will ever encounter in the world.


Whenever people talk about going to Africa, most imagine the cost to be quite high, it is indeed true for some places such as Kenya or Tanzania, however the general cost in South Africa was actually quite wallet friendly, meals were in general good quality and reasonably priced as were the accommodation we stayed in. Car rental costed around 3,500HKD for 7 days. So, if you're looking for a more budget friendly African tour, South Africa will no doubt be one of your top choices. If you deduct the cost of our plane ticket, we only spent around 5,000HKD per person for 11 days there.


Being in the Southern hemisphere, South Africa enjoys dry cool winter months from June to August and wet and warm summer months from December to February. The same can't be spoken for Cape Town however as the warmer indian ocean current brings it wetter winters and drier summers. Temperature was pleasant during our visit, with cool mornings down to 8 degrees Celsius and warm afternoons up to 28 degrees Celsius. Temperature was considerably milder at Cape Town with less extreme fluctuations in temperature. We enjoyed wonderful sunshine during all of our stay.

We had extremely clear skies during our stay


Captain only planned to visit Kruger National Park as well as Blyde River Canyon for this trip, I however thought it was such a waste that we didn't get to visit the endemic rich Cape area, so I planned to visit Cape Town a few days before Captain and his family arrives at Johannesburg. We were then to drive together from Joburg to Crocodile Bridge Gate outside Kruger National Park and stay for two nights before moving north to Satara and Letaba Rest Camps, finally exiting the park and drive to the Forever Resort at Blyde River Canyon for a night before driving back to Johannesburg.

4th August - Day 1:

It was extremely unfortunate that our visit to Cape town was cut short by Typhoon Nida which struck Hong Kong on the day of our flight, we were suppose to fly out on the 1st of August and arriving at Cape Town on 2nd August, but the typhoon delayed our flight till the 3rd, we did not arrive to Cape Town until the 4th!

We originally booked three full days of birding at Cape Town with local bird guide Brian Vanderwalt, in the end we only got one full day and two half days with Brian, we tried to make the best out of what little time we had. Therefore Brian proposed to pick us up at the airport so we can get working straight away!

Our transfer flight from Joburg was smooth so we arrived at Cape Town around 12pm, it was already 1pm by the time we got our luggage and met Brian at the arrivals hall. We booked the outings with Brian through birding ecotours, he was very experienced and friendly, providing wonderful company through out our stay.

Overlooking Table Mountain from the distance

We quickly loaded our luggage onto the van and headed to our first birding site, Brian drove northwards from Cape Town and brought us along to a small estuary where he introduced us to some common species including Red-eyed Dove, Blacksmith Lapwing, Hartleab's Gull, Egyptian Goose and Hadeda Ibis, there were also a flock of Swift Tern (Lesser Crested Tern) resting on the sand. Kelp Gulls were very common along the beach.

Red-eyed Dove

Blacksmith Lapwing

Swift Tern - alternate name of the Lesser Crested Tern

Kelp Gull - the default large gulls at Cape

Brian then drove us to a spot overlooking a few ponds with Greater Flamingoes, Yellow-billed Ducks, African Shoveler, Southern Pochard and Red-knobbed Coots. The fields nearby produced the beautiful and endemic Cape Longclaw, Levailliant's Cisticola, Southern Red Bishops and Common Fiscal. A few Great White Pelicans were observed from afar plus an African Darter drying it's wings.

Greater Flamingo - an extremely flamboyant species

Yellow-billed Duck - settling a dispute between the three...

African Shoveler

Southern Pochard

Red-knobbed Coot

Cape Longclaw

Levailliant's Cisticola

Southern Red Bishop - female

Common Fiscal

African Darter

We wasted no time and Brian drove us to Blaauwberg Nature Reserve, a place where he usually take people birding, the coastal fynbos supports many birds and we were introduced to some of them, including Red-faced Mousebirds, Karoo Scrub Robin (endemic) hopped about on the roadside, Cape Robin Chats gave fleeting views. A Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler made an appearance briefly. Brian soon spotted another endemic species, a pair of Cape Canaries came down to a waterhole to bathe and drink, we enjoyed wonderful views of the pair for quite some time. Southern Masked Weavers made their nests in some tall grass near the waterhole. A Southern Double-collared Sunbird sang from a perch it's chattering song. Cape Spurfowls (yet another endemic) were quite conspicuous unlike our Francolins in Hong Kong. Before we left this patch of coastal fynbos, our second species of Mousebird made an appearance in form of three smart looking White-backed Mousebirds, also a Southern Africa endemic.

Blaauwberg Nature Reserve - coastal fynbos

Red-faced Mousebird

Karoo Scrub Robin

Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler

Cape Canary

Southern Masked Weaver - male

Southern Double-collared Sunbird - male

Cape Spurfowl

White-backed Mousebird

Afterwards Brian drove us to a rocky beach where he found us a pair of White-fronted Plovers, a Cape Cormorants and Crowned Cormorant colony was nearby, giving us two of the three endemic cormorants. Cape Wagtails fed on the lawns along with Hadeda Ibises and Egyptian Geese.

White-fronted Plover

Cape and Crowned Cormorants

Cape Wagtail

Hadeda Ibis

Egyptian Goose

A quick change of scenery, Brian drove inland into an agricultural area, we soon got an endemic Large-billed Lark and a Red-capped Lark in a field, a smart looking Capped Wheatear was also added. It wasn't long before Brian suddenly announced that he spotted a distance single Blue Crane! One of our main target species! The view was however quite far, so Brian drove a bit further up the road and surely spotted more Blue Cranes! This time a pair feeding not too far from the main road! We had some phenomenal views of this elegant South African endemic and national bird!

Large-billed Lark

Red-capped lark

Capped Wheater

Blue Crane - no doubt one of the most elegant birds on earth

A quick visit to a roadside reed bed had us looking at a Cape Weaver (endemic) colony, with males busy building new nests and advertising themselves by hanging upside down. A few females eyed their options from nearby, a few even went inside to inspect the nest. A few Yellow Bishops were also around, the males had just assumed their beautiful breeding plumage, a stark contrast to the drab looking females. On our way back to Cape Town we spotted a raptor on top of an electric pylon, a quick stop revealed it to be a Jackal Buzzard. By that time it was getting quite late, so Brian dropped us off at our hotel and told us to meet him at the hotel front door at 7:30am the next morning.

Cape Weaver - male

Yellow Bishop - male

Yellow Bishop - female

Jackal Buzzard

5th August - Day 2:

This was our only full day at Cape Town, so we really wanted to make the most out of it. After a quick breakfast of fresh cornish pasties, we met Brian at the hotel front door who was bang on time. Brian was taking us to False Bay, the extremely scenic R44 overlooking the bay was very pleasant, and the view towards Hottentots-Holland was equally welcoming.

R44 - False Bay

We headed to the small town of Rooi-Els, famous amongst birders as the most accessible site for Cape Rockjumpers. We soon started seeing birds in the early morning sun, Karoo Prinias (endemic) were calling everywhere, one perched in the open and sang it's buzzy song. Brian pointed to a small bird ontop of a bush and announced it to be Brimstone Canary, a Canary species with very stout bill. Another endemic species came in form of a Cape Grassbird! A very handsome and striking macrosphenid warbler, it's general shape does recall resemblance to the Chinese Grassbird that we get in Hong Kong, although not exactly related genetically.

Karoo Prinia

Brimstone Canary

Cape Grassbird

Things got quite busy when we saw another crucial Cape endemic; a few Cape Sugarbirds started feeding on the protea bushes and had us fumbling around in the van for better views, their extremely long tails floats behind them like ribbons as they glides through the air from one protea bush to the other. Sugarbird is a family unique to Southern Africa, there are only two species in the world, the Cape Sugarbird which can be found in the Cape area, and the Gurney's Sugarbird found on the eastern highlands. Turned out, they were very common in this area.

Cape Grassbird - one of the main attraction of birding in Cape Town

Brian drove to the end of the tarmac road and parked the van outside a gate. The first thing we noticed was the big sign hung outside the gate with "Cape Rock-Jumper" printed on it. Always a good sign! We entered through the gate and started scanning the rocky slopes. The first interesting endemic species was however not a Rockjumper but two Cape Siskins, they only stopped very briefly for a quick view before fluttering off again, only manged a record shot.

Rockjumper footpath at Rooi-Els

Cape Siskin

Another interesting and also an endemic species was the Orange-breasted Sunbird, the male have a bright metallic green cap with violet breast stripe that compliments very nicely with the bright orange belly. Females on the other hand was pretty much uniform olive green. They were quite common along this stretch of fynbos, constantly flying back and forth from one side of the footpath to the other.

Orange-breasted Sunbird - male

Orange-breasted Sunbird - female

We walked further along the rocky footpath, Brian scanning the rocks constantly. Suddenly, Brian announced that he spotted the Rockjumpers from further up the slope, we quickly looked at where he was pointing and surely saw a pair of birds foraging amongst the boulders! Even at a distance their colours really show well, their smart looking moustache and eyebrows contrasts very nicely with their deep red eyes, which in turn echoes their deep maroon rump and belly, all in all a very handsome bird indeed! After a good look, Brian told us to walk slowly up the slope to get some better photos, we did just that and one gave amazing views at close range! They are actually quite confiding and have such charisma when seen up close.

Brian looking out for the Rockjumpers

Cape Rockjumper - the star bird of Rooi-Els

One of the bird caught what looks to be a moth amongst the tall grass, it carried the moth and glided to a big boulder not far off, clearly a sign of breeding! We soon spotted a female perched quietly near the boulder, as if guarding something. The male soon reappeared and it was clear that they got a nest with chicks under that boulder. Brian, whom have never seen a Rockjumper nest in all his birding years here decided to investigate while we watched from afar. Surely enough he came back with a photo of what looks like a grassy tunnel at the base of the boulder, in the middle of the tunnel some fluffy feathers which was obviously a chick of some sort. We saw the pair took turns delivering food and decided to leave them to care for their chicks. On our way out a Cape Sugarbird gave us an exceedingly good look under the sun.

Cape Rockjumper - breeding pair

Cape Sugarbird

Mission accomplished, we left Rooi-Els and drove towards Harold Porter National Botanical Garden where we were to have a quick lunch at the cafe. Just as we got off the van Brian spotted a few Swee Waxbills feeding on the lawn just next to the car park's entrance! Another one of our target species! They are again a Southern Africa endemic, usually found near the forest edge. After getting some good photos, we ate lunch at the garden's cafe but was soon interrupted by an intruder in form of a Cape Baboon! Obviously attracted to our sandwiches just as much as we were!

Swee Waxbill - male above, female below

Cape Baboon

Another creature came along as we ate lunch, this time a more friendly species in form of a Familiar Chat. This dull looking chat may not be a looker, but what it lacks in looks was surely made up with it's boldness! It's certainly not a shy bird and will love to share your lunch with you if given the chance!

Familiar Chat

After lunch, we headed up to the gardens to look for some more birds. We got yet another Brimstone Canary, plus a lot more Cape Sugarbirds! A Fiscal Flycatcher nearly had me mistaken it as a Common Fiscal, but it's smaller size and shorter tail ultimately gave it's true identity away. Cape Robin-Chats bounced in and out of the undergrowth, occasionally giving good views under the sun, revealing it's bright orange throat and tail.

Brimstone Canary

Cape Sugarbird - classical pose on top of a Protea flower

Fiscal Flycatcher

Cape Robin-Chat

Brian led us up to the upper sections of the gardens, we spotted an Angulate Tortoise strolling on the lawn. Past the tortoise we arrived at the base of a valley, where Brian led us to a narrower footpath. Here we waited and soon heard a very distinctive rollicking call of the Victorin's Warbler, another South Africa endemic! Like a lot of warblers however, this bird was not keen to show itself. After a fairly long wait we only managed an extremely brief view of a few seconds before it melted back into the undergrowth, leaving me without a photograph of this beautiful looking warbler.

Angulate Tortoise

Hills behind Harold Porter National Botanical Garden - home of the Victorin's Warbler

On our way back down towards the gardens, we got a few confiding Cape Bulbuls. The Cape Batis which we have heard calling throughout the afternoon finally revealed itself to us, the female with it's rufous breast band showed beautifully of all it's diagnostic details of rufous flanks and wings. Cape White-eyes also showed well, the race you get at Cape belongs to capensis, differs by having a greyish belly instead of olive that the eastern race shows.

Cape Bulbul

Cape Batis

Cape White-eye - race capensis

Back on the road towards the Stony Point Penguin Nature Reserve, we spotted a perched on a rooftop as well as a smart looking Jackal Buzzard on a electric pylon, this time front facing and in better lighting.

Rock Kestrel

Jackal Buzzard

We were quickly greeted by the smell of seabird colony when we reached the pebble beach at Stony Point, already we saw a few African Penguins basking on a ramp, doing what Penguin does! A quick scan along the pebble beach had us looking at an African Oystercatcher, also known as the Black Oystercatcher for obvious reasons. A lot of Hartlaub's Gulls were present, including a pair mating, the male was really enthusiastic while the female seemed less so. Rock Hyraxes were also very common and many were seen basking on rocks along the coast.

Stony Point Penguin Nature Reserve

African Oystercatcher

Hartlaub's Gull

Rock Hyrax

The Penguins were of course the star of this site, attracting the attention of tourists and birders alike! You cannot dislike a Penguin by their cute chubby looks, they are natural comedians and just looking at them will make you smile. The ramp provided a perfect "landing" runway for the Penguins coming out of water. The African Penguin is the only Penguin species to be found in the "old world", but looks superficially similar to their south american cousins such as the Humboldt and the Magellanic Penguins. It is now considered an endangered species with ongoing population decrease, the estimated population was 200,000 individuals in 2000, but currently the population is estimated at just 55,000.

African Penguin - also known as the Jackass Penguin

Near the end of their breeding season, a few chicks were still in their fluffy down

Other then Penguins, Stony Point is probably the best place to see all of the three endemic Cormorants. The large Cormorant colony is itself a spectacle, here you can slowly pick out the three species of Cormorants from one another.

Stony Point's Cormorant colony

The Cape Cormorant being the most numerous in this colony, they can be recognised by their bright orange throat pouch and emerald coloured eyes. The Crowned Cormorant is the smallest of the three, having distinctively red facial skin, a short tuft on it's forehead is hardly a crown but that's what they are called. Bank Cormorants nests closest to the sea, looking completely black when seen from afar, you will notice their green eyes once you get a closer inspection. Also present were the largest White-breasted Cormorants, sometimes considered a regional variant of the Great Cormorant.

Cape Cormorant

Crowned Cormorant

Bank Cormorants

Bank Cormorant with two White-breasted Cormorants

The colony is somewhat entertaining to observe, with actions happening everywhere. You will see pairs bickering with their neighbours, or some lovingly preening each other, while others busy bringing back new nesting materials.

Cape Cormorant

Stony Point also proved to be a great sea-watching site, Brian pointed out a Subantarctic Skua which drifted past not far off the coast, while another great pelagic species in form of a Shy Albatross soared a little further out at sea, but close enough for us to appreciate some details of this magnificent seabird! And what a bird to round up Stony Point! As we set off back into Cape Town to end our day.

Subantarctic Skua

Shy Albatross

To be continued...


  1. Great showcase for the wonders of the Cape - pity the HK weather affected the trip start, but it looks like you got most of the endemics anyway !

    1. Thanks John, all with the great help of Brian Vanderwalts that we were able to efficiently added the few desirable endemics. It would have been nice to get two extra days so we could visit Table Mountain as well as West Coast National Park, we now just have more reasons to revisit in the future!

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