South Africa is a very popular destination for birdwatchers, and a glance at one of its many excellent field guides soon reveals why. Over 700 different bird species occur here, of which over 100 are endemic or near-endemic. Thousands of kilometers of shoreline harbor migrant and resident birds, and some of the largest concentrations of seabirds in the world congregate offshore.
Early September is the absolute best time to visit western South Africa. Spring will be under way, and many of the birds will be in full breeding plumage as they busy themselves with the onset of nesting. If the early rains have been good, they will have coaxed life from the desert and we should be treated to some wonderful wildflower displays. Our journey will take us from the rolling red sand dunes of the Kalahari Desert through the hauntingly beautiful plains of Bushmanland to the Atlantic coast. From there we’ll travel to the vast expanse of the Great Karoo before ending our tour where Africa itself ends and two oceans meet, at the windswept Cape of Good Hope. We have been running tours to South Africa for over 20 years and this itinerary has been designed to show us the best birding the Western Cape has to offer at the very best time to visit the region.
Day 1: The tour begins with the departure of the Sunbird group on an overnight flight from London to Johannesburg. WINGS participants traveling directly to Johannesburg should arrive no later than this evening (see Note **, below).
Day 2: After meeting the Sunbird group in Johannesburg, we’ll connect with an onward flight to Upington, gateway to the Kalahari. As we drive north from there, the landscape becomes increasingly arid and we’ll have not gone far before we see the first of many massive Sociable Weaver nests, a feature of this region. Other species that could break our journey include White-backed Vulture, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Pygmy Falcon, and possibly Short-toed Rock Thrush. Night near Kgalagadi Reserve.
Day 3: Sandwiched between Namibia and Botswana, the Kgalagadi Trans Frontier Reserve is one of Africa’s wildest and least-known national parks. We’ll make an early start to get to the reserve gate when it opens for the day. Once inside we’ll head for a small waterhole, where we should be treated to flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse coming to drink, hopefully joined by good numbers of Burchell’s Sandgrouse and hordes of other birds such as Namaqua Doves, Cape Sparrows, Grey-backed Sparrowlarks, Red-headed Finches, and of course those ubiquitous Sociable Weavers. We are allowed out of our vehicle in only a few designated places, so we’ll spend the morning slowly driving along a road that follow an old riverbed, using the vehicle almost as a mobile blind. Small birds that will be instantly obvious include Chat and Marico Flycatchers, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, and swarms of Scaly-feathered Finches, while some special birds we’ll be looking for include Fawn-colored Lark, the stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike, Ashy Tit, and Kalahari Scrub-Robin.
The park is a great place for raptors, and we can expect to see Gabar Goshawk, Lanner and possibly Red-necked Falcon, Bateleur, and Martial Eagle. Both Spotted and Verreaux’s Eagle Owls might be found at roost, and in the more open areas we stand a chance of finding the striking Secretarybird or a Kori Bustard. Gemsbok are common here, as are Springbok and Blue Wildebeest, and an encounter with an endearing troop of Meerkats is always possible. We may also see a pride of the large, black-maned Kalahari Lions or a skulking Cheetah.
The countryside outside the reserve is also good for birds, and we’ll be on the lookout for Northern Black Korhaan, African Grey and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Pearl Spotted Owlet, Southern Pied Babbler, and Groundscraper Thrush, to mention a few. Night near Kgalagadi Reserve.
Day 4: We’ll retrace our steps to Upington, stopping on the way to look for Eastern Clapper and Pink-billed Larks. Upington sits on the Orange River, and we’ll explore the banks of this regional lifeline to look for a variety of birds attracted to the relatively lush vegetation. These should include South African Cliff-Swallow, White-throated Swallow, White-backed and Red-faced Mousebirds, African Hoopoe, Crested Barbet, Red-eyed Bulbul, Orange River White-eye, Cape Sparrow, and Black-throated Canary.
Heading westward, we’ll make another stop at Augrabies National Park, where the Orange River tumbles into a deep and spectacular gorge before flowing on to form the border with Namibia. We’ll have time to admire the falls and look at some of the plentiful birdlife to be found nearby, including Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Acacia Pied Barbet, Pale-winged Starling, African Reed Warbler, White-throated Canary, and Southern Masked Weaver. Night in Pofadder.
Day 5: South of the Orange River lie the arid and semi-arid regions of Bushmanland, a primeval landscape where, in the not too distant past, San tribes hunted the migrant herds of antelopes. This area is still sparsely populated, and it’s possible to travel through the stark wilderness all day without seeing another person. Driving along the endless dirt roads that service the remote farms, we’ll hope to see Great Kestrel, Karoo Korhaan, Ludwig’s Bustard, Tractrac and Karoo Chats, Layard’s Tit-babbler, Southern Grey Tit, and Lark-like Bunting, among many others. In such an arid region, water is a great attraction, and we’ll stop at the many small drinking troughs to see what’s about. In particular we hope to find more of the region’s larks, including Sabota, Sclater’s, Stark’s, Thick-billed, Karoo Long-billed, and Spike-heeled. Later we’ll travel to a specific area of red sand dunes to look for the rare Red Lark, which is found in only a few tiny areas of the Northern Cape. Night in Pofadder.
Day 6: We’ll leave early to travel west to the town of Springbok, gateway to Namaqualand and the world-famous wildflower region. Turning south, we’ll drive into the hills following a maze of dirt tracks that weave through a mosaic of agricultural land where, if the rains have been generous, we should be treated to some fabulous wildflower displays. Whether or not the flowers are there, we’ll still have many birds to see, including Ground Woodpecker, Mountain Chat, Bokmakierie, Malachite Sunbird, and Black-headed and Damara Canaries.
Dragging ourselves away from what we hope will be a botanical extravagance will not be easy, but an ornithological one awaits us farther south at the thriving fishing port of Lambert’s Bay. We’ll arrive in the evening, just in time to sample the delights of an excellent open-air fish restaurant on the beach with the Atlantic waves crashing just a few yards away. Night at Lambert’s Bay.
Day 7: We’ll begin with a dawn visit to the extensive coastal fynbos that surrounds the town, looking for Karoo and Cape Clapper Larks, both of which should be performing their aerial song displays. Other species could include Karoo Scrub Robin, Karoo Prinia, Grey-backed Cisticola, Cape Penduline Tit, and Bar-throated Apalis. After breakfast we’ll visit the famous Cape Gannet colony, which will be teeming with tens of thousands of birds well into their breeding season. The sight, sound, and, it must be said, smell of all these birds packed together is memorable. In the throngs of Cape Gannets we should also find Cape and Crowned Cormorants jostling for space, and we’ll watch Cape Fur Seals basking on the rocks. Leaving Lambert’s Bay, we’ll continue south, arriving at Veldriff at the mouth of the Berg River. Swift Terns will be much in evidence along with Caspian Terns, Cape and Hartlaub’s Gulls, and a variety of waders including Pied Avocet and Marsh Sandpiper. There should also be flocks of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos and thousands of Cape Cormorants. At some small salt pans we hope to find a number of smart Chestnut-banded Plovers, and from there we’ll explore the open agricultural areas, looking for Cape Long-billed Lark and Sickle-winged Chat. Later we’ll move on to the bustling port of Saldana. Night in Saldana.
Day 8: The small town of Langebaan lies at the head of an enormous inlet that forms the splendid West Coast Nature Reserve. Here we’ll look for striking Black Harriers quartering the flower-strewn coastal fynbos, and we’ll spend time searching through the flocks of waders that make this huge natural lagoon their winter home. Among the migrants from farther north, there will also be resident birds such as White-fronted and Kittlitz’s Plovers. Around the edge of small pools we’ll find nesting Cape Weavers, and Southern Black Korhaans and Cape and Grey-winged Francolins can frequently be seen along the roadside. There should be some superb flower displays here, and if the weather is clear, we’ll get our first distant glimpse of Table Mountain. A little ways inland, we’ll also visit a much smaller nature reserve famous for its display of wildflowers and where we hope to see Cape Longclaw and Cloud Cisticola. Moving on, we’ll head further inland to the Cedarberg Mountains, stopping along the way for our first Blue Cranes. As we climb, we’ll reach hillsides covered in Protea bushes where we’ll stop to look for the elusive Protea Canary before ending the day at a remote guest house high in the hills.
Day 9: We’ll awake to the sound of displaying Cape Clapper Larks amid incomparable scenery. We’ll have a full day to explore the hills and the wonderful karoo habitat. We’ll begin with a visit to a rocky gorge to look for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler as well as Fairy Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, and Layard’s Tit Babbler. Later we’ll drop down into the karoo, an endless stony plain covered in a beautiful array of small euphorbias and succulent scrub. If there has been rain, we may find flocks of Black-eared Sparrowlarks displaying, while Karoo Korhaan and Burchell’s or Double-banded Courser could turn up anywhere. This is good “chat” country, and we’ll have time to compare Karoo and Tractrac Chats. Elsewhere we’ll search for Rufous-eared Warbler, Karoo Eremomela, and the localized Namaqua Warbler. Night in the Cedarberg Mountains.
Day 10: We’ll have time this morning to search for any species we may have missed yesterday before we drive on to the town of Ceres, where we’ll stop at the local park to look for African Black Duck, Olive Woodpecker, and Giant Kingfisher. Much of the rest of today will be taken up with traveling, often through dramatic scenery, before we reach the quaint town of Swellendam, where we’ll spend the night.
Day 11: Close to the town is a reserve established to protect that beautifully marked antelope, the Bontebok, and we’ll see good numbers of this endangered animal. The reserve comprises some extensive fynbos, and driving along the tracks we should find Stanley’s Bustard, possibly with some males performing their impressive display. Elsewhere there should be more Black Harriers along with Pearl-breasted Swallow, “Agulhas” Cape Clapper Lark, Yellow Bishop, Malachite Sunbird, and African Stonechat. Fiscal Flycatchers are common here, and we may encounter a Greater Double-collared Sunbird, just on the western edge of its range. Later we’ll head south, driving through undulating arable fields where we’ll look for Agulhas Long-billed Lark among the many Red-capped and Large-billed Larks and where we should find large groups of Blue Cranes. We’ll cross the Breede River at the Malgas ferry—the last working ferry in South Africa—and drive down to Potberg, a towering hill that is one of the last strongholds of Cape Vulture. Here we should have good views of these magnificent birds circling overhead. As the day draws to a close, we’ll head west and follow the road into Cape Town, crossing the Overberg Mountains at Sir Lowry’s Pass, with its superb views of False Bay, the Cape Flats, and Table Mountain. Night in Cape Town.
Days 12-15: We’ll have four days in which to sample the delights that birding around the tip of Africa has to offer. The weather here is notoriously fickle, but if conditions permit we’ll venture out on a boat one day into the South Atlantic in search of seabirds. Our objective is to find a deep-sea trawler, which is likely to be followed by thousands of seabirds, mostly albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters. If we find one, binoculars will hardly be necessary as many of the birds will be almost too close to focus on. The mix of birds is variable with a wide range possible, and we should see Shy, Black-browed, and with luck both Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Southern Giant, Pintado, and White-chinned Petrels, Sooty and Great Shearwaters, Sub-antarctic Skua, and Wilson’s Storm-petrel. Less common possibilities include Antarctic Fulmar, Wandering Albatross, and Soft-plumaged Petrel, and there is always the chance of a real seabird rarity. There may be a few Antarctic Terns heading to their southern breeding grounds, or a Sabine’s Gull freshly arrived from the north, and all of these will be mingling in the feeding frenzy with thousands of Cape Gannets, Cape Gulls, and Cape Fur Seals.
Back on land, we’ll explore the Cape’s verdant mountains, passes, and valleys looking for special birds such as Cape Grassbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, and Cape Siskin. We’ll take time to visit the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, lying in the shadow of Table Mountain. These gardens are not just a wonderful place for plants—there are plenty of birds to be seen as well. A resident Spotted Eagle Owl can usually be found at its daytime roost, Cape Batis and Forest Canaries feed among the undergrowth, while Cape Sugarbirds, Cape White-eyes, and Lesser Double-collared Sunbirds buzz around the masses of flowers and Sombre Greenbuls call loudly from the undergrowth. Black Saw-wings skim overhead, and we have a good chance of seeing a majestic Black Eagle or a Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk soaring around the slopes of Table Mountain.
One day we’ll cross to the other side of False Bay to an area noted for providing close views of Southern Right Whales and where the rocky slopes are home to Cape Rockjumper and the shy Victorin’s Warbler. A visit to the famous Strandfontein Sewage Farm should give us close encounters with Greater Flamingos, Glossy Ibis, Pied Avocets, and a number of ducks including Southern Pochard and Maccoa Duck. We’ll visit an African Penguin colony, and of course, we’ll fit in a visit to the Cape of Good Hope itself. Nights in Cape Town.
The tour concludes the afternoon of day 15 in Cape Town.