Wheatbelt Circle Route 3: The Papiesvlei Area

Another worthwhile circle route from Stanford explores the farmlands towards Papiesvlei and the Uilenkraals Valley. Target species along here include most of the endemic species associated with Fynbos habitats, the Denham’s Bustard, Blue Crane, Black Harrier, Agulhas Long-billed and Cape Clapper Larks and Secretarybird. Drive east from Stanford along the R326 towards the Akkedisberg Pass, but turn right towards Papiesvlei and Elim at 34°25’52.20″S 19°30’12.01”E. Slow birding is advised on this gravel road as exceptional birding is on offer.

Several pristine patches of Fynbos are passed and the slopes at the general area around 34°26’27.51”S 19°30’42.67”E are often very productive particularly when proteas and ericas are in bloom. Expect to find endemic species such as the Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds. Other resident species that are very common include the Southern Red and Yellow Bishops, Southern Masked Weaver, Red-faced Mousebird, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Red-winged Starling and Malachite Sunbird.

An Orange-breasted Sunbird sits on top of some yellow flowers.
Orange-breasted Sunbird (Anton Odendal)
A Cape Grassbird sings from the top of the fynbos.
Cape Grassbird in fynbos flowers (Anton Odendal)

A detour that brings a different suite of birds into play is the turn-off to the Beloftebos wedding venue and the Salmonsdam Nature Reserve. This is reached at 34°27’05.16”S 19°34’27.49”E. Follow this road to the gate of the nature reserve and return along it. The Salmonsdam Nature Reserve has huge bird-watching potential as it hosts mature mountain Fynbos habitats. It has unfortunately been closed to the public and a detailed description of birding in the reserve will be added once access is allowed again. It is a pity that officials of CapeNature are not prepared to venture a guess as to when this might occur as this reserve has been shown to be one of the best bird-watching destinations in the Overberg region. This road often passes through well-wooded areas where species such as the Bar-throated Apalis, African Dusky Flycatcher, Fiscal Flycatcher, Sombre Greenbul, African Hoopoe, Cape Weaver and Cape White-eye are common. More difficult to find species include the sought-after Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and African Olive Pigeon. The Cardinal Woodpecker is the most common woodpecker in the region, but listen carefully for the calls of the Knysna and Olive Woodpeckers that are present, but in significantly smaller numbers. The Spotted Flycatcher and African Paradise Flycatcher are star attractions during summer months.

An African Dusky Flycatcher scans for insects to hawk.
African Dusky Flycatcher (Anton Odendal)
A Sombre Greenbul peers out from a thicket.
Sombre Greenbul (Mike Graham)

This road also offers good sightings of birds of prey, notably the Spotted Eagle-Owl, African Goshawk, African Harrier-Hawk, Rock Kestrel, Black-winged Kite and Black Sparrowhawk. The Common Buzzard and Yellow-billed Kite are fairly abundant in summer. The target species along this road however are the Black Harrier, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Crane and Secretarybird.

Return to the main gravel road and turn left towards Papiesvlei. A T-junction is reached some distance later at 34°27’54.05”S 19°35’49.81”E. From here one can either turn right towards Papiesvlei, or turn left for a short detour to the Hermanuspietersfontein vineyards. This farm is reached by turning to the right at the next T-junction at 34°27’39.29”S 19°35’49.46”E. This stretch of road is particularly good for most of the region’s LBJ’s, even though these cryptic birds can be found anywhere along the circle route being described here. The Cloud, Grey-backed, Levaillant’s and Zitting Cisticolas, as well as the Neddicky are all present. The Large-billed and Red-capped Larks, African Pipit and African Stonechat are common. Most birders will undoubtedly be searching for the hugely sought-after and endemic Agulhas Long-billed Larks and Cape Clapper Larks. This area is also very well known for regular sightings of larger species such as the Denham’s Bustard, Blue Crane and White Stork. The Hermanuspietersfontein Vineyards are reached at 34°28’22.20”S 19°38’37.02”E where outstanding garden and Fynbos birding is on offer, but keep in mind that permission should be obtained before the farm is entered.

A Red-capped Lark scans for food through the fields of the Overberg Wheatbelt.
Red-capped Lark (Steve Peck)
An African Pipit looks around its habitat from a fence post.
African Pipit (Graeme Hatley)
A female African Stonechat sits on a wire fence in the Overberg.
African Stonechat female (Steve Peck).
A pair of Blue Cranes stride through a field in the Overberg Wheatbelt.
Blue Cranes (Steve Peck)

Return along this road and continue until the turn-off to Gansbaai near Papiesvlei is reached at 34°28’58.92”S 19°35’42.35”E. This gravel road now passes through several farms where a diversity of waterbirds are on offer as the road basically follows the river as it meanders towards the estuary. Sites where some time should be spent include a dam with a marshy area surrounding it at 34°29’25.74”S 19°35’16.34”E, a water mass to the right at 34°30’59.19”S 19°33’46.69”Eand a small bridge at 34°31’37.09”S 19°32’19.53”E. A well-wooded area surrounding active farms is reached at 34°32’38.59”S 19°30’21.92”E. Investigate the bushes and trees as species such as the Cape Batis, Bokmakierie, Southern Boubou, Cape Bulbul, Cape Canary, Cape Weaver and Cape White-eye are present in abundance. The Cardinal, Knysna and Olive Woodpeckers are often present, even though knowledge of their calls is needed to locate these often difficult-to-find birds. The calls of the Diderick, Klaas’s and Red-chested Cuckoos are regularly prominent during early summer. The African Harrier-Hawk is often on view, but keep a keen lookout for more difficult-to-find birds of prey such as the African Goshawk and Black Sparrowhawk.

A Cape Bulbul grips an old aloe stem.
Cape Bulbul (Wilfred Crous)
A Knysna Woodpecker inspects a small hole for grubs.
Knysna Woodpecker (Riaan Jacobs)

Another interesting spot to try is hilly country overlooking the river more or less at 34°32’53.11”S 19°30’11.70”E. The use of a spotting scope is advised here as exciting species such as the Burchell’s Coucal, Black Crake, Little Bittern, as well as a variety of ducks and herons have been observed in the past. Scan the rocky slopes for the Cape Bunting, Grey-winged Francolin and Cape Grassbird. The Jackal Buzzard and Booted and Verreaux’s Eagle sometimes adorn the skies. Excellent waterbird birding is on offer a short distance further at Lake Lomond. The road passes very close to the water at 34°33’36.33”S 19°29’32.49”E and this spot is of particular importance. Expect to find the Red-knobbed Coot, Reed Cormorant and White-breasted Cormorants, Yellow-billed Duck and Cattle Egret commonly. Also look out for the African Fish Eagle, Little Grebe, all of the region’s common herons, Blacksmith Lapwing, Common Moorhen and Cape Shoveler. Listen for calls of the resident Lesser Swamp Warbler and Little Rush Warbler and in summer the African Reed-Warbler from the reed beds.

The T-junction with the Franskraal to Elim road is reached at 34°34’25.74”S 19°28’41.90”E. From here one can decide to continue to Franskraal and Gansbaai or to indulge in the excellent forest birding available in the Uilenkraal Valley, where the hugely underrated Witkrans and Platbos Forest sites are of particular significance. Alternatively one can travel east to Baardskeerdersbos, Elim and the Agulhas National Park.

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