The Fernkloof Nature Reserve at Hermanus

An Orange-breasted Sunbird sits on top of some yellow flowers.
Orange-breasted Sunbird (Anton Odendal)

The Fernkloof Nature Reserve in Hermanus (34°23’56.22”S 19°15’57.85”E) is certainly one of the brightest feathers in the Cape Whale Coast’s bird-watching cap. The reserve’s website provides an excellent description of its significance: 

“One of the most beautiful aspects of life in Hermanus is that even when you’re in the centre of the village nature is just a few meters away. Fernkloof Nature Reserve covers 1800 ha in the Kleinrivier Mountains above Hermanus and ranges in altitude from sea level to 842 m. The reserve lies on the northern side of the town with a 60 km network of trails. These provide the opportunity for people of all fitness levels to go out and enjoy some exercise and fresh air. A display of some of the flowers that can be found in the veld is permanently maintained at the Fernkloof Visitors’ Centre. The various trails offer magnificent and unequalled views of Walker Bay, the Hemel en Aarde Valley and Maanskynbaai.

In late 1957, the Reserve was proclaimed by the Provincial Council of the Cape. It protects coastal and fynbos habitats and a small patch of evergreen forest. Parts of the coastal area including the Cliff Path Nature Area (see detailed description elsewhere), the Mossel River valley and the area from De Mond to Kettle Point, including the mouth of the Vogelgat River and part of the Klein River lagoon have recently been incorporated in the Fernkloof Nature Reserve. This means that the coastal area with its unique fynbos – different from that on the mountain slopes – as well as the sensitive lagoon area, are now being included, and for the first time mountain and coastline will be linked.

There is no other place on earth where so many different (plant) species can be seen growing in such close proximity. In Fernkloof 1,474 species have thus far been collected and identified. The name of the principal vegetation type of this region is derived from the Dutch word ‘fijn bosch’ which is the collective name for a myriad of evergreen shrub-like plants with small firm leaves, often rolled – but also includes woody plants with hard leathery leaves, usually broad, often rolled. Grey rhebok, Cape grysbok, klipspringer, baboon, mongoose and dassie are present in small numbers. Others such as porcupine, genet and hare are nocturnal and these mammals are seldom seen. Fernkloof also has a nursery where you can buy indigenous plants and hosts a Wild Flower Show in September each year.”

BirdLife Overberg members prepare for an outing at Fernkloof Nature Reserve.
BirdLife Overberg group preparing for a hike (Anton Odendal)

Fernkloof is however another one of the Cape Whale Coast’s special bird-watching destinations. There are several casual and more strenuous hiking trails that allow sightings of fynbos, mountain and forest species. The lower garden around the Educational Centre is excellent for casual birding and endemic species that are present in abundance include the Cape Bulbul, Fiscal Flycatcher, Karoo Prinia, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Sugarbird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Weaver and Cape White-eye. Other species that occur commonly include the Bar-throated Apalis, Bokmakierie, Cape Canary, Fork-tailed Drongo, Streaky-Headed Seedeater, Cape Sparrow and Olive Thrush. The well-wooded areas in the lower garden further host species such as the Cape Batis, Southern Boubou, Spotted Eagle Owl, African Dusky Flycatcher, Sombre Greenbul, African Harrier Hawk, African Olive Pigeon, Black Sparrowhawk, Swee Waxbill and Cardinal and Olive Woodpeckers. The distinctive calls of the Tambourine Dove and the Fiery-necked Nightjar can sometimes be heard in the early mornings. Make certain of the latter’s call however as a Cape Robin-Chat mimicking this call is on record in this section of the reserve. Recent sightings of the Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher in this section of the reserve have caused a sensation in birding circles. It is also interesting that it seems as if the Brown-backed Honeybird is being recorded with increasing frequency. The African Paradise Flycatchers are very active during summer, while the calls of the Diderick, Klaas’s and Red-chested Cuckoos can often be heard at this time of year.

Another outstanding alternative is to hike from the Visitor Centre to the waterfall. Be on the lookout for the Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock Thrush, Cape Siskin, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird and Ground Woodpecker. The hugely sought-after Victorin’s Warbler is also present along the bracken-clad seeps below the trail, but knowledge of its call is essential to locate this difficult-to-spot species. The forested area at the waterfall is well-known for regular sightings of the popular Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and look for Klipspringers at along the cliffs.

Many visitors visiting Fernkloof for birding often enquire about the possible presence of the Cape Rockjumper. This species, together with Cape Bunting and Ground Woodpecker are present along the higher slopes of the mountain and this usually requires fairly strenuous hikes. These species are more readily available at the Rooiels and Rotary Drive sites. Birds of prey are also present in good numbers. Look for the Jackal Buzzard, Verreaux’s Eagle, African Harrier Hawk, Rock Kestrel and African Goshawk as these species are regularly seen patrolling the skies. A few vagrant sightings during recent summers should also be taken note of. These include Black Cuckooshrike and both Black and Jacobin Cuckoos. More recently in September 2016 a pair of Cape Vultures, most probably from the Postberg breeding colony at De Hoop Nature Reserve soared over the reserve. Note that the coastal section of the reserve is discussed elsewhere as part of the description of the Hermanus cliff path.

Huge public outcry and controversy has in recent times been experienced because of tourism development proposals for the Fernkloof Nature Reserve. The “Hands Off Fernkloof Nature Reserve” organisation has been created and the vast majority of bird-watchers from the area and further afield support the aims and work of the organisation. The Protected Areas Management Plan (popularly referred to as “PAMP”) for the reserve is also currently under review and a variety of criticisms, queries and comments has been submitted on behalf of the birding fraternity to hopefully form an integral part of the review process.

The Fernkloof Nature Reserve in Hermanus is generally regarded as one of the top bird-watching destinations in the Western Cape Province. The sheer natural beauty of the mountains, together with the huge diversity of Fynbos species certainly places this reserve on the wish list of most visitors to the region interested in the natural environment.

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