The Swellendam area in the Overberg region of the Western Cape is highly underrated as a bird-watching destination. The town is in close proximity to the Grootvadersbosch, Marloth and De Hoop Nature Reserves, all managed by CapeNature, the Bontebok National Park and the Tradouw Pass.
These destinations host a diverse range of habitat types and afford the visiting birder a great variety of birds to be seen. Most of these destinations give access to so-called Western Cape specials such as Black Harrier, Cape Siskin, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Southern Tchagra and Victorin’s Warbler to mention a few. The flagship birding destination in the area is the Bontebok National Park. Nestled at the foot of the majestic Langeberg Mountains and bordered by the winding Breede River, the Bontebok National Park is a place of simplistic beauty and peaceful charm. The park is situated just off the N2, 210km from both Cape Town and George and in close proximity to the town of Swellendam. Although the smallest of South Africa’s National Parks (only 3,475 ha in extent) it is by no means less diverse.
Bontebok National Park is a well-kept secret and will surprise many a visitor. It definitely offers some pleasant rest camp birding, with a mellow atmosphere – an ideal weekend breakaway! Roads in the park are all gravel and accessible by sedan vehicle. Visitors are allowed to exit vehicles and walk on all vehicle roads – walking into the veld is however not allowed.
The landscape and getting there
Two special types of Fynbos, Suurbraak Grassy Fynbos and Overberg Coastal Renosterveld are found in the Park. The Park protects some of the largest in-tact portions of what is generally referred to as Renosterveld (a type of lowland Fynbos) – the vegetation is however very unique and formally described as Swellendam Silcrete Fynbos, of which 4% of all remaining vegetation of this kind is protected in the park. Due to the virtual destruction and extremely fragmented nature of Renosterveld this vegetation type is regarded as critically endangered and Bontebok National Park is thus of critical importance to national conservation efforts. It represents an important foraging and breeding site for the vulnerable Black Harrier. The bird list for the park now stands on 234 species. A revised checklist is currently in production. The description of species abundance that follows is based on findings in SABAP2 (the bird atlasing project) report cards for sections of the park.
The entrance to Bontebok National Park can now be reached directly off the N2 at 34°03’08”S 20°25’38”E. The entrance gate is at 34°03’13”S 20°25’45”E and the reception offices are a short distance further at 34°03’33”S 20°25’50”E.
Breede River thickets
The thickets along the Breede River are particularly productive for bird-watching and here one can expect to find a diversity of birds that one does not expect in the Rûens country. Excellent spots to search for such species include Die Stroom picnic site (34°05’00”S 20°25’11”E), the two viewing points along the river and the rest camp at Lang Elsie’s Kraal. Keep in mind that these species associated with thickets are often difficult to find due to the habitat within which they prefer to forage – knowledge of their calls often helps to find them. The Cape Batis, Southern Boubou, Acacia Pied Barbet and Sombre Greenbul are particularly abundant. Common species on record include the Olive Bush-Shrike, Long-billed Crombec, Tambourine Dove, African Dusky Flycatcher, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and African Olive-Pigeon. The Southern Tchagra, Grey Tit, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, Cardinal and Olive Woodpeckers are also recorded fairly regularly. Species found less often are the Forest Canary, Blue-nantled Crested-Flycatcher, Lemon Dove, Fairy Flycatcher, Greater and Lesser Honeyguide, Cape Penduline Tit and Knysna Woodpecker. It immediately seems evident that there are several endemic species available in the bushes and thickets along the river and ‘slow birding’ is therefore advised.
Lang Elsie’s Kraal restcamp
The rest camp at Lang Elsie’s Kraal (34°04’33”S 20°27’15”E) along the banks of the Breede River is very well-appointed and the gardens are beautifully maintained. The chalets are comfortable and well-equipped and the views from the patios are something to behold. From here one could explore several of the available hiking trails along the river bank and there are good numbers and diversity of species in the dense riverine thickets. Hundreds of Rock and Brown-throated Martins often skim the water and fair numbers of African Black Ducks could be encountered. Most of the ducks and kingfishers to be found in the region have been recorded here and groups of South African Shelducks fly about regularly. Most of the common crakes and warblers and several waders are also available.
The rest camp’s records indicate that many of the Western Cape birds associated with gardens are present in abundance and examples here include the Bar-throated Apalis, Bokmakierie, Cape Bulbul, Fiscal Flycatcher, Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Sparrow, Malachite Sunbird, Cape Wagtail, Cape Weaver and Cape White-eye. The same applies to the Yellow Bishop, Karoo Prinia and Southern Double-collared Sunbird. The African Hoopoe, Streaky-headed Seedeater, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Pied Starling, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Olive Thrush and Common Waxbill are also common.
Species that are recorded less often are the Familiar Chat, Klaas’s Cuckoo, White-backed Mousebird, Amethyst Sunbird, Swee Waxbill and Pin-tailed Whydah. The dawn chorus at the Lang Elsie’s Kraal rest camp is really impressive. The calls of Fiery-necked Nightjar, African Wood-Owl and Buff-Spotted Flufftail feature regularly, soon to be followed by the African Goshawk’s characteristic call from above. Then the Bar-throated Apalis, Southern Boubou, Karoo Prinia, Cape Robin-Chat and several woodpeckers, canaries and doves join in the cacophony. A visit here during winter is also advised as hundreds of Aloes (mostly Marloth’s) are in full bloom at this time of year. It is very interesting to see which species utilize this food source and not uncommon to see up to five different species on one plant at the same time. Birds that one could then have close encounters within the rest camp include the Acacia Pied Barbet, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Southern Tchagra and Cardinal, Olive and Knysna Woodpeckers.
Most of the waterbirds to be found in the Swellendam region have been recorded at or near the rest camp. The Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed Duck and Cape Shoveler are very common and the African Darter, African Fish-Eagle, Spur-winged Goose and African Spoonbill fly about regularly. The White-faced Duck can be encountered and Purple Heron, Half-collared Kingfisher and Black-crowned Night-Heron are more difficult to find due to their habitat preferences. The Reed and White-breasted Cormorants, Hamerkop, Grey Heron, Giant, Malachite and Pied Kingfishers and Cape and Red-billed Teals are fairly common. Common waders include the Kittlitz’s and Three-banded Plovers, Black-winged Stilt and Common Sandpiper in summer. The calls of African Reed-Warbler (summer) and Little Rush-Warbler and Lesser Swamp-Warbler often emerge from the reeds. The Spotted and Water Thick-Knees are present and often allow great photographic opportunities.
A variety of hiking trails are also available from the rest camp and birds recorded on a recent hike through more open habitat included the Southern Red Bishop, Brimstone, Cape, White-Throated and Yellow Canaries, Cape Crow, Cape Longclaw and Pied Starling. Upon the return to the rest camp the Forest Canary was found. This implies five canary species in a matter of 90 minutes – really impressive!
Birding towards the old reception offices
Birding in this reserve does not end here though. The area between the rest camp and the old reception buildings at 34°03’20”S 20°28’23”E consists of Overberg Coastal Renosterveld and this brings another suite of species into play. Popular target species along here include the Denham’s Bustard, Blue Crane, Black Harrier, Southern Black Korhaan and Secretarybird. The Karoo Korhaan and Black Stork are rare and not easily found. This road also represents LBJ heaven and all of the area’s cisticolas, larks and pipits have been recorded. The African Stonechat is abundant and Cape Clapper, Large-billed and Red-capped Larks very common. Most visitors will however be looking for the Agulhas Long-billed Lark. Other sought-after species along here could include the Namaqua Dove, Quail Finch, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Grey-backed Sparrowlark and Capped heatear. Hilly and rocky terrain should be inspected for species such as the Cape Bunting, Booted Eagle, Grey-winged Francolin, Rock Kestrel, Cape Rock-Thrush, Karoo Scrub-Robin, Layard’s Tit-Babbler and Ground Woodpecker.
Ensure that some time is spent around the buildings at the old reception offices. These well-wooded gardens host a huge diversity of species and many birders combine excellent bird-watching (and photography) at this spot with a picnic. The loop roads to the east and north of the Lang Elsie’s Kraal rest camp regularly produce similar species as those discussed above, but are best known for game viewing. Large numbers of bontebok and other antelope are found often adding to the many attractions that the park has to offer. Kindly enquire about the condition of these roads at reception as it could be problematic in adverse weather conditions.
Birds of prey
The presence of birds of prey in the park should also not be underestimated. The Jackal Buzzard, Spotted Eagle-Owl, African Fish-Eagle, Black-winged Kite and Barn Owl are very common and well-wooded areas and thickets should be scrutinised for the African Goshawk, African Harrier-Hawk, Black and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawks. The numbers of Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk and African Marsh-Harrier seem to be increasing, and the Forest Buzzard, Martial and Verreaux’s Eagles and Lanner Falcon often wander into the area. Interesting that sightings of the Cape Eagle-Owl and Marsh Owl are on record, even though these two species are notoriously difficult to find. A few records of the Cape Vultures from the breeding colony at the Potberg Nature Reserve should further be taken note of. The Common Buzzard, Lesser Kestrel and Yellow-billed Kite are common during summer months, but also be on the lookout for the Amur Falcon towards the eastern side of the park and the Western Osprey at the river.
Other summer migrants recorded regularly include the Diederik and Red-chested Cuckoos, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Barn, Greater Striped and Pearl-Breasted Swallows and African Black, Alpine, Little and White-Rumped Swifts. The area around the rest camp often produces Spotted Flycatcher, Banded Martin, Black Sawwing, White-throated Swallow and Willow Warbler. Large numbers of White Storks are also often present. Interesting vagrant sightings recorded recently include European Bee-Eater, Lark-Like Bunting, Kori Bustard, Jacobin Cuckoo, Yellow-Bellied Eremomela, Red-backed Shrike and European Roller.
So why speed along the N2 when traveling between Cape Town and the Garden Route, or between Hermanus, or the southern-most tip at Agulhas or De Hoop and Route 62? Plan your trip to visit this reserve as birding at the Bontebok National Park is most rewarding and represents one of the quickest “summaries” of Western Cape birding – way over 200 species in an area merely 3,475 ha big. To crown it all it is in very close proximity to prime birding spots such as Grootvadersbosch and Marloth Nature Reserves, Tradouw Pass, Suurbraak and Barrydale.
Summary Of Facilities
Each of the 10 self-catering chalets sleeps up to four people (2 adults and 2 children). Each unit comprises a bathroom, an open plan fully equipped kitchen and a private braai area. There are 29 campsites (with or without power), all of which share a communal ablution facility. The camp is well vegetated with acacia trees and Aloes dominating. Day visitors can relax at Die Stroom, also set on the banks of the river and a popular swimming and picnic spot. The newly renovated ablution block and deck at Die Stroom is available to rent as a function venue, accommodating up to 40 people. A new conference facility seating 20 to 25 persons is also available for rental. Visitors can unwind in the beauty and tranquility of the 3 short hiking trails winding through Riparian vegetation and one trail in the more open Renosterveld. There is also a 9km mountain bike trail and cyclists are allowed on all vehicle roads. No shop, restaurant or fuel station is available.
Central Reservations: Cape Town – Tel: +27 (0)21 552 0008
Pretoria – Tel: +27 (0)012 428 9111
Park contact details: Tel: +27 (0)28 514 2735
Fax: +27 (0)28 514 2646
01 October to 30 April – 07h00 – 19h00
01 May to 30 September – 07h00 – 18h00
Bontebok National Park is best known for its role in the conservation of the threatened bontebok, with only around 17 animals remaining in the 1930’s. The establishment of the Park played a pivotal role in saving this species from extinction – bontebok numbers are today at over 200 in the park with a world population in excess of 3,000. Other threatened species, such as Cape Mountain Zebra and Cape Grysbok are also present in the park. Red Hartebeest and Grey Rhebuck are common, not to mention a vast number of smaller mammals and reptiles. Summer months are ideal to spot various snakes (Cape Cobra and Puff Adder being the most common) and tortoises. There are a number of very large Leopard Tortoises in the Park, some of them regular visitors to the rest camp which makes for close encounters and excellent photo opportunities.