The Hermanus suburb of Onrus River, commonly referred to as Onrus, offers excellent bird-watching opportunities. Many coastal species are readily available, extensive Milkwood groves bring a range of species associated with thickets and forest habitats into play and mature coastal Fynbos habitats add to the diversity of species in this popular seaside suburb. This description will focus on the Harderbaai Marine Reserve and the Vermont, Onrus and Sandbaai (VOS) coastal path, the caravan park and the Onrus lagoon. Also keep in mind that the Vermont Salt Pan is part of the Onrus birding experience. The most enjoyable facet of birding along here is how things change throughout the year. Each month, each season and each weather condition seems to deliver something different and exciting – herewith some examples taken from our reports over the years.
What I appreciate most about bird-watching is how it allows one the opportunity to experience examples of the wonders of nature in all its splendour. To me there is nothing like strolling along a rocky shoreline to replenish the soul and to witness the ever changing moods of the sea. There are several such experiences to be had along the VOS coastal path near Hermanus in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. For most of the way, the VOS coastal path is paved, with wooden bridges across small ravines. As you can imagine, birding here is exceptional – the range of coastal birds plus all the common garden birds and interesting species in the coastal thickets pretty much represent most of the species found along the Overberg coastline. Also keep in mind that the Vermont Salt Pan also forms part of the Onrus birding experience.
The Onrus Lagoon is best investigated from the grass embankment and picnic area along Lagoon Drive at 34°24’51.93”S 19°10’32.40”E. This is reached from van Blommenstein Road at the art gallery. The lagoon has unfortunately been overgrown by exotic reeds over the last few years, limiting one’s ability to visually identify species. At least 171 bird species have been identified over and on the Onrus lagoon over the last 20 years. These include 17 species that are endemic to South Africa, 7 that are near-endemic and 27 migratory species. It is unfortunate that 53 of the species recorded previously had not found for the last four years and these species are dominated by ducks and waders. This can be ascribed to the dramatic increase in reed beds that limits the availability of open water for ducks and foraging space for waders. A proposal for the management and possible eradication of the exotic reeds is currently being investigated and members of BirdLife Overberg had drafted comments in support of the eradication of the reeds. This is however a very emotive issue in the area and the outcomes of these deliberations are being awaited keenly.
The many eucalyptus trees and other exotics along the Onrus River are used for breeding by a variety of raptors that include at least the Forest Buzzard, African Goshawk, African Harrier-Hawk and Black and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawks. Species that are fairly difficult to find in many parts of the Overberg and that ‘twitchers’ come to find here include the secretive Little Bittern, Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, African Swamphen and Southern Tchagra. It is also significant that large numbers of Barn Swallows roost in the reed beds in summer. Most of the common waterbirds that are usually to be expected at these coastal water bodies are often on view. These include the Reed and White-breasted Cormorants, African Darter, Yellow-billed Duck, Giant, Malachite and Pied Kingfishers and Cape Shoveler, together with the Red-knobbed Coot, Cattle Egret, African Sacred Ibis and Common Moorhen. The common garden birds of the region are also available in abundance in the gardens around the grass embankment. This is a wonderful spot for relaxed birding and the hope is expressed that the Onrus lagoon will soon be restored to its former bird-watching glory.
Harderbaai Marine Reserve
The Harderbaai Marine Reserve is best observed in the morning from the parking area at 34°25’10.81”S 19°10’24.97”E. This area is best known for the vast numbers of terns that can be present at day roosts during summer months. These birds regularly adorn the rocks to rest and preen, particularly early in the morning during low tide. It is early in December and we take a group of BirdLife Overberg members to this site as it is an ideal spot to hone tern identification skills. The large Swift Terns are present throughout the year and are easy to identify by pure yellow bills. Now they are however joined by the summer migrants as large numbers of the smaller Common Terns with its characteristic black shoulder patch and Sandwich Terns that feature black bills with yellow tips are present – I state that they have dipped their bills in cheese sandwiches and that always seems to stick with people. The group reacts in awe at the spectacular sight of literally thousands of these birds taking to the skies in a massive flock, only to settle back again. Once these three species, (that in summer usually make up 99% of the terns in our area), have been positively identified by everyone the search begins for other species. The Arctic Tern could add to the excitement seasonally and the Roseate Tern can be found occasionally. The Antarctic Tern is not in play at this time of year, because it is South Africa’s only winter migrant present between May and middle September.
We now start shifting our attention to some other coastal birds on offer. African Black Oystercatchers and the White-fronted Plovers breed on the few patches of sand among the rocks. The latter is special to us given that they have disappeared from several Western Cape beaches in recent years. Most participants believe that finding two diminutive White-fronted Plovers chicks hiding between the rocks and kelp is the ultimate sighting of the day. These two species have now become the focus of BirdLife Overberg’s CleanMarine conservation campaign and news regarding these projects is being released regularly. There are a few Cape Cormorants between the usual White-breasted and Reed Cormorants. I relate the story of the day in 2013 when Cape Cormorants in their tens of thousands moved up the coast and came to rest and preen on the rocks along the Harderbaai shore. This results in me having to promise that I would show them the photographs at some point. We further see summer migrants such as the Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and many Whimbrels. The Bank and Crowned Cormorants and Kittlitz’s Plover are only seen occasionally. Large numbers of Barn Swallows, together with a few Greater Striped and White-throated Swallows are also flying about. What wonderful coastal birding on such a splendid summer’s day.
My favourite short hike is the section of the coastal path along the fence of the Onrus caravan park between Atlantic Drive and Davies Pool (34°25’00.33”S 19°09’59.20”E). It offers the viewing of coastal birds together with species associated with the well-wooded habitats of the caravan park. The calls of the Bar-throated Apalis, Cape Batis, Klaas’s Cuckoo and Sombre Greenbul often echo through the area, but it is usually a mission to get visitors and friends to actually spot them. Large shoals of dolphins are sometimes seen surfing the waves. This section of the coastal path is the best area from which to witness the ever changing moods of the sea and this will be highlighted later.
In winter violent seas dislodge kelp and deposit these plants on the rocky shores. Many insects are attracted to the rotting kelp and we are always fascinated to see the variety of species not usually associated with feeding along the sea to be found at Harderbaai. Species such as the Yellow-billed Duck, Cattle Egret, Egyptian Goose, Little Egret, Grey and Purple Herons, African Sacred Ibis and even Black-crowned Night-Heron then forage successfully. Elaine was very excited when she also found an African Spoonbill foraging recently – a first for us along these rocky shores. These storms with raging north-easterly winds ravaging the coastline create a completely different mood of nature. We then like having a glass of wine at one of the parking areas in the late afternoon and watching the action from the protection of our vehicle. These storms regularly drive pelagic species closer to shore and we have recorded species such as the Southern Giant Petrel, White-Chinned Petrel, Cory’s and Sooty Shearwaters and Subantarctic Skua. Harderbaai has also over the years developed a reputation for delivering somewhat exotic vagrant species such as the White-fronted Bee-Eater, Little Blue Heron, African Openbill, Northern Rockhopper Penguin and Red-Billed Tropicbird.
The short section of the VOS coastal path between Davies Pool and the Jan Rabie tidal pool (34°25’06.68”S 19°09’46.07E) is excellent for the observation of species along the coastal fynbos and thickets, as this morning in September clearly illustrates. At first light it is to be expected that the Olive Thrush will be first to announce the break of day, soon to be followed by the familiar call of the Cape Robin-Chat. We find a large patch of aloes where Malachite and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds in their splendid breeding plumage are already very active despite it being so early. Noisy pairs of Bar-throated Apalis and Karoo Prinia are enjoying the early rays of the sun atop shrubs allowing us the opportunity to compare their calls – the prinia with its surprising loud and rapid ‘kli-kli-kli’ call and the male apalis with its slower, but harsh ‘tillup-tillup-tillup’ notes, with the female responding with her high-pitched ‘ti-ti-ti’. What a privilege to observe this from such close quarters. The area along the wooden boardwalk over the little stream resonates with the calls of many frogs and the Arum Lilies are in full bloom. Ahead of us, southern right whales frolic in the blue. Cormorants, gulls and terns are now flying in different directions along the shore ready for another day’s foraging. We are delighted to see several endemic species such as Southern Boubou, Cape Bulbul, Cape Spurfowl, Fiscal Flycatcher and Cape Weaver in quick succession. Most excitingly a small family group of Cape Clawless Otters scatters from the coastal path as we approach the tidal pool. These otters are seen regularly at several spots along the VOS coastal path.
The longer sections of coastal path between the Jan Rabie tidal pool and the Bitou Street lookout point (34°25’16.87”S 19°09’17.09”E), as well as the section from the Bitou lookout point to ‘Brekfis Baai’ offer alternative birding experiences. The vegetation along here is rank and dense and the thickets significantly taller than that of the previous section of the coastal path. Birds recorded here regularly include Bokmakierie, Brimstone Canary, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Streaky-Headed Seedeater and both Red-faced and Speckled Mousebirds. The familiar call of the Burchell’s Coucal often associated with water pouring from a long-necked bottle adds to the excitement. I particularly enjoy the antics of the “hyper-active” Long-Billed Crombec as it scurries through branches. To crown it all we regularly find the much sought-after Southern Tchagra along here – its melodious call seems out of place so close to the sea. Hartlaub’s and Kelp Gulls forage continually along the shoreline with Grey-headed Gulls joining them occasionally. A raucous pair of Giant Kingfishers is ever present and Pied Kingfishers often plunge into the water from a dizzy heights thus utilizing prey in deeper waters. This is also an ideal area from which to watch whales in season and large shoals of dolphins often pass by. Huge flocks of Cape Cormorants, together with Cape Gannets, terns and other seabirds are sometimes seen feeding off shore.
Onrus caravan park
The Onrus caravan park deserves to be discussed on its own and is certainly worth investigating. It hosts an interesting suite of birds, but this clearly not during peak holiday seasons. The park is accessed from De Villiers Street at 34°24’52.25”S 19°10’18.28”E. Huge groves of Milkwood thickets along the coastal path allow for lazy birding overlooking Harderbaai. One outing produced a “bird party” of no less than eleven different species chasing a huge boomslang through the trees. The repetitive quick, quick, quick call of the African Goshawk is a feature of early morning birding and the African Harrier-Hawk provides great entertainment, often being mobbed by other birds usually orchestrated by the Fork-tailed Drongo. The timid and inquisitive African Dusky Flycatcher and Swee Waxbill often allow for wonderful photographic opportunities. The Spotted Eagle-Owl, African Olive Pigeon and Cardinal and Olive Woodpeckers are present, but fairly difficult to observe. Knysna Woodpecker has only been recorded once. Look out for Diederik and Red-chested Cuckoos, Spotted Flycatcher and African Paradise Flycatcher during summer months. A friend called during the previous summer: “There is a Cape Wagtail feeding a huge black thing in the caravan park” – a parasitic Red-chested Cuckoo chick being raised by the unfortunate wagtails. Most birders that we have taken to the caravan park describe it as a prime spot for birding in such a well-wooded area.
Visitors and tourists, both locally and from abroad are increasingly being attracted to leisurely slow birding along our shores. Such birding is even more popular and attractive along the Cape Whale Coast shoreline due to the high levels of endemic species to be found here. Keep in mind that many similar experiences of casual coastal birding are to be had, not only in Hermanus, but anywhere along the South African coast – very few birders have however investigated this alternative, but very exciting form of bird-watching. Also consider that the VOS coastal path is in close proximity to many of the top birding destinations in Hermanus, such as the Vermont Salt Pan, Hermanus cliff path, Fernkloof Nature Reserve and the Klein River Estuary. Visitors should further consider the fact that about half of the number of species to be found along the VOS coastal path has not even been mentioned in this description.
The Onrus and Vermont coastline represents one of the many sites along the Cape Whale Coast shoreline where the adverse impact of plastics, fishing line and other pollutants on our environment in general and our coastal birds in particular often seem obvious. Birds are regularly severely injured through entanglement with various forms of ocean litter and the negative visual impact of the litter has detrimental impacts on tourism to the region. The members of BirdLife Overberg recently launched the CleanMarine campaign that features various projects such as regular monthly coastal clean-ups, the erection of bins to collect discarded fishing line and warning placards to inform the public about the presence of African Black Oystercatchers and White-fronted Plovers breeding, or raising their chicks along our beaches and rocky shores. Find out more about these projects at one of the links in the dropdown menu below and assist us by cooperating, thus contributing to the conservation of our beautiful coastline for future generations.
Please report all injured or oiled coastal birds and animals to the Cape Whale Coast stranding network at 072 598 7117 immediately. This dedicated service is provided by the African Penguin and Seabirds Sanctuary (APSS) of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust in Kleinbaai.