Wheatbelt Circle Route 1: Karwyderskraal and Swart River Roads

The Karwyderskraal and Swartrivier loop roads represent high-quality wheatfield birding in close proximity to Hermanus and Cape Town. These roads are situated adjacent to the R43 in the area between Hermanus and the Botriver village and the N2. Note should be taken of seasonal changes in birding conditions. The area is dominated by agricultural activities and in winter and early spring wheat and canola are cultivated. Bird-watching opportunities are then not optimal, but many visitors and particularly landscape photographers then thrive by keeping those camera shutters working. Birding opportunities are however excellent during the dry season in summer and autumn. The description of species abundance in this overview is based on findings of SABAP2 (the bird atlas project) report cards from the region.

The Karwyderskraal Road can be reached from two points (34°15’47”S 19° 10’54”E) and (34°21’35”S 19°08’35”E) along the R43. Caution is advised when stopping along this road – keep well left and be on the lookout for cyclists that often practice here. The landfill site at 34°20’12”S 19°09’27”E is of interest in that a diversity of birds can often be observed from the road, preferably with spotting scopes. Watch out for scavenging crows, gulls, Great White Pelicans and White-necked Ravens and good numbers of birds of prey. In summer Yellow-billed Kites and White Storks are often present in large numbers, and vagrant African Openbills and Marabou Storks have even been photographed here in the past.

The Cape Grassbird and Cape Sugarbird are regularly found in the remnant patches of Fynbos found along this road that is dominated by agricultural activities. Only a few records of the Cape Siskin and Orange-Breasted Sunbird have been recorded. Ensure that enough time is spent at blue gum trees at the farm at 34°17’02”S 19°11’09”E, as well as the single-lane metal bridge just thereafter across the Bot River. The rank vegetation along the river sometimes produces the Tambourine Dove, and species that are found commonly include the Klaas’s Cuckoo, African Dusky Flycatcher, Sombre Greenbul, Cape Robin-Chat, Grey-headed Sparrow and Olive Thrush. The Diderick and Red-chested Cuckoos are very vocal during early summer months. The African Fish Eagle and Black Sparrowhawk breed here regularly and difficult to observe species such as the African Goshawk, African Harrier-Hawk and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk have been recorded occasionally. Only a few records of the Forest Buzzard, Booted Eagle and Western Osprey have been noted, but do keep a lookout for these. Some years ago photographs were taken here of a vagrant Hooded Vulture.

The Bot River often overflows its banks during wet spells and this creates a huge influx of waterfowl to the area between the farm buildings and the metal bridge. The Three-banded Plover and African Spoonbill, as well as the African Black and White-faced Ducks, South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveler, Cape and Red-billed Teals are then particularly numerous. The Hamerkop, African Sacred Ibis, Giant Kingfisher, Spotted and Water Thick-knees occur throughout the year. The Little Egret, Glossy Ibis, Pied Kingfisher, Kittlitz’s Plover, African Snipe and Blue-billed Teal are recorded here rarely and listen carefully for the distinctive call of the Burchell’s Coucal.

Blue Cranes are abundant along both these roads and very large flocks often occur in winter. Photographic opportunities are excellent during breeding season in summer as pairs are regularly found with their chicks close to the roads. This does however sometimes represent a problem in that juvenile cranes get stuck in farm fences when attempting to get to the adults that had flown over it. Be very careful when trying to free these young birds from the fences and ensure that they are released on the side where the adults are. Denham’s Bustards are present in good numbers and raptors to be found fairly regularly include the Black Harrier and African Marsh-harrier, and a pair of Secretarybirds is known to breed in the area. There is great concern about the conservation status of Sectretarybirds and for this reason they were celebrated as the BirdLife South Africa bird of the year in 2019. Kindly report sightings of this species and particularly breeding records, together with GPS reference points to Ernst Retief at ernst.retief@birdlife.org.za

The Swartrivier road (which starts at 34°17’02”S 19°11’09”E) is a gravel road that stretches between the farmstead on the Karwyderskraal road and the N2 at the wine estate close to Botrivier village. This is a fairly quiet road and one can really bird at leisure. Caution is however advised as vehicles often travel along here at high speeds. Birding and photographic opportunities are best when travelling from the farmstead to the N2 in the morning and visa versa in the afternoon. This affords locals the opportunity to compare the difficult LBJs of the region and visitors to record several of the region’s endemics.

The Cape Canary is abundant, with Brimstone and Yellow Canaries less so. Levaillant’s Cisticola is very common close to water, while Grey-Backed and Zitting Cisticolas can be found fairly easily while travelling towards the top of inclines. All three of these species are very vocal and display beautifully during breeding season. Observant birders may find the diminutive Cloud Cisticola at the top of hills. Large-billed and Red-capped Larks are abundant along the Swartrivier road, with smaller numbers of Cape Clapper Lark being present mostly at the top of inclines. The most numerous pipit is undoubtedly the African Pipit, while Plain-Backed Pipit and Cape Longclaw are fairly uncommon. Nicholson’s Pipit occurs rarely. Karoo Prinia, African Stonechat and Capped Wheatear are very common. This is probably the best area in the Western Cape Province where visitors can systematically observe and learn to identify the LBJs of the region and birding here is recommended strongly. Overgrazed areas deserve specific attention, because many of the LBJs thrive in such conditions.

There are a few important spots along the Swartrivier road that needs attention when travelling from the Karwyderskraal road to the N2. There is a small dam to the right at 34°16’52.20”S 19°11’34.20”E. Yellow-Billed Duck and Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese are abundant when conditions are optimal and can often be observed with large clutches of ducklings. Reed Cormorants and Red-knobbed Coots are very common, with African Darter, White-breasted Cormorant, Little Grebe and Malachite Kingfisher available occasionally. Another small dam is found to the left a small distance further at 34°16’37.53”S 19°12’22.41”E and some interesting sightings are regularly found here. Ensure that slow birding is observed as this is of the best Denham’s Bustard, Blue Crane and LBJ habitat around. Namaqua Doves are also common during dry months.

A small bridge crosses a water course at 34°15’55.50”S 19°13’03.18”E. This general area produces large numbers of swallows, swifts and martins in summer, particularly early in the day. Vast numbers of Brown-throated Martins, Barn, Greater Striped and White-throated Swallows and Alpine and White-rumped Swifts occur regularly. The Rock Martin, Black Sawwing and African Black and Little Swifts are less numerous, but the impressive part of this spectacle is certainly the massive mixed flocks that occur in misty weather. Also be on the lookout for far less common species such as the Banded Martin, Pearl-breasted Swallow and Common Swift, but the latter only during very wet years.

The hilly area that now follows should be investigated for some exciting species for this wheatfield dominated area. The Jackal Buzzard is very common and Rock Kestrel is also seen fairly often. Study the rocks and cliff faces carefully as the Cape Bunting, Familiar Chat, Grey-Winged Francolin, Cape Rock Thrush and Ground Woodpecker are present, but in very small numbers. Look carefully as Barn Owl and Spotted Eagle-Owl also sometimes roost among the rocks. The Black-winged Kite is common and in summer expect to find good numbers of Common Buzzards and Yellow-billed Kites. The Martial and Verreaux’s Eagles and Lanner and Peregrine Falcons are seen sometimes, but can produce great photographic opportunities.

The low-water bridge over the Swartrivier at 34°15’34.48”S 19°13’28.72”E is certainly the highlight along this road. Black Crake, Grey Heron, Common Moorhen and most of the region’s ducks are numerous on the open water at the bridge. Unfortunately the river is increasingly overgrown with exotic reeds reducing the availability of open water. The extensive reed beds and vegetation along the river host Southern Red and Yellow Bishop, Southern Masked-weaver, Common Waxbills, Cape White-eye and Pin-tailed Whydah. In summer expect to find African Paradise Flycatcher and Common Quail. Listen for the distinctive calls of African Reed-Warbler (summer) and Little Rush-Warbler and Lesser Swamp-Warbler. Purple Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron breed here, but are difficult to find due to their secretive behaviour. Neddicky and Swee Waxbill are scarce. Also look for Southern Boubou, Speckled Mousebird, Karoo Scrub Robin, Streaky-headed Seedeater and Chestnut-vented Warbler in the thickets along the river. The rest of the road to the N2 needs to be travelled very slowly in spring and summer as the display flights of the majority of LBJs mentioned earlier create wonderful entertainment.

The Swartrivier road is also very well known for vagrant species that are recorded sometimes. African and Common Cuckoos, Goliath Heron, European Honey Buzzard, African Openbill, European Roller, Red-backed Shrike, Lesser Grey Shrike and Marabou Stork serve as examples in this regard. African Crowned Eagles, probably from the Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve near Heidelberg and Cape Vultures from the Potberg breeding colony are also seen occasionally. 

The Karwyderskraal and Swartrivier roads certainly offer the best Overberg wheatfield bird-watching in close proximity to Hermanus and Cape Town and should be included in the itinerary of all bird-watchers visiting the region. An added bonus along the Swartrivier road is a wine estate at 34°14’19”S, 19°15’9”E – an ideal venue to visit for tea, breakfast or lunch, and even some wine tasting.

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