Birding at the De Mond Nature Reserve

This lengthy description of birding opportunities at the De Mond Nature Reserve is divided into four sections:

It is loosely based on trip reports of several visits to the reserve by members of BirdLife Overberg. 

De Mond – The Access Road

The De Mond Nature Reserve can be approached from various directions, but for practical purposes we only discuss the gravel road that is clearly signposted along the R319 between Bredasdorp and L’Agulhas. Birding along this gravel road can be exceptional – it is recommended that care is taken to travel slowly along here and enjoy the wonderful birds on view. We discuss birding during very dry conditions, as well as when the floodplain is flooded.

It is March 2013 and the area is dry and dusty and some of the specials of the region show themselves almost immediately. Denham’s Bustards and Blue Cranes are seen easily due to their size and most excitingly a magnificent Black Harrier quarters over the landscape. This is Overberg Wheatbelt birding at its best and LBJs abound. We spend some time at one of the windmills with water troughs and witness a continuous stream of birds – lots of drably coloured Southern Red Bishops and Cape Weavers, together with Cape and House Sparrows, Cape and Yellow Canaries and Pied and Common Starlings. This is prime lark and pipit country but we quickly find Large-billed and Red-capped Larks and African Pipit. Now a majestic Secretarybird struts deliberately through the veld, soon to be followed by a pair of Southern Black Korhaan. A lone Jackal Buzzard and three Yellow-billed Kites also stage fly-pasts. Capped Wheatears are plentiful and Grey-backed and Zitting Cisticolas are also on view.

Excitement reaches fever pitch as we find the two hugely sought-after Wheatbelt endemics, first the Cape Clapper Lark and then the Agulhas Long-billed Lark. Several Steppe Buzzards and a pair of Black-shouldered Kites add spice to the birding. We are surprised at the high number of Steenbok seen. This is Wheatbelt birding at its best – keep in mind that we had not yet travelled 10 km along this gravel road.

A Yellow Canary looks over the fields of Overberg Wheatbelt
Yellow Canary (Steve Peck)
A Large-billed Lark scans the fields of the Overberg Wheatbelt.
Large-billed Lark (Steve Peck)
A Secretarybird stalks the fynbos.
Secretarybird (Graeme Hatley)
A Blakc-Harrier soars overhead in its fynbos habitat of the Overberg.
Black Harrier (Steve Peck)
An elusive Cape Clapper Lark skulks through its gravel surroundings in the Overberg.
Cape Clapper Lark (Steve Peck)
An Agulhas Long-billed Lark scans its Overberg environment.
Agulhas Long-biiled Lark (Steve Peck)

Now it is November 2015 and 25 BirdLife Overberg members visit De Mond.

Many of the fields are transformed to large water-masses due to the recent floods and there are waterbirds everywhere – this gives new meaning to ‘the Agulhas Floodplain’ phrase. Whiskered and White-winged Terns are everywhere and Maccoa Duck, African Fish-Eagle, Great White Pelican and many other waterbirds and ducks are easy to pick up. There are vast numbers of Spur-winged Geese and Glossy Ibis, undoubtedly the most that I had ever seen in one spot. 

A Red-knobbed Coot stands with its chicks on a small island in the flooded fields en route to De Mond in the Overberg.
Wet season along the access road (Anton Odendal)

It is also exciting to hear the familiar call of the Common Quail along several of the water-logged areas. There are numerous White Storks and the other migrants are dominated by vast numbers of Barn Swallows. The sighting of the morning is undoubtedly a relatively vagrant European Roller. Most of the region’s LBJs are also seen and the cisticolas, larks and pipits are very prominent with displays all over the place. We also find two beautiful Kudus behind game fences.

The low-water bridge at Vogelgezang just before De Mond Nature Reserve is reached is also very special and some time should be spent here. Some of the species identified include Levaillant’s Cisticola, Diederik Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Egret, Greater Flamingo, African Rail, African Snipe, African Spoonbill and the majority of ducks to be found in the region. A quartering African Marsh-Harrier also causes a stir. Astonishingly, we identify more than fifty species in the short distance to De Mond – I estimate a maximum of 10km. Breathtaking to think that we have not yet reached our destination for the day – the De Mond Nature Reserve!

Birding at the Milkwood trees surrounding the picnic area

Birding at the De Mond Nature Reserve starts at the parking area at the entrance gate as the area is surrounded by ancient Milkwood thickets. This area, together with the picnic spots, hosts a variety of common species that one would normally expect to find in these coastal thickets. On one outing during February we enjoyed a number of very confiding species in the area around the benches where we were having lunch.

Common resident species included Bar-Throated Apalis, Fork-tailed Drongo, noisy Sombre Greenbuls, African Hoopoe, Cape Robin-Chat, Amethyst, Malachite and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds and Olive Thrush. Cardinal and Olive Woodpeckers were also seen working their way through the branches. Some of the endemics seen were Cape Bulbul, Fiscal Flycatcher, Karoo Scrub-Robin, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Weaver and Cape White-eye. It was a joy watching the ever-popular African Paradise Flycatchers. 

A soaked Spotted Eagle-Owl looks unimpressed.
Wet and sulking owl (Anton Odendal)
A Cape Batis skulks throigh the canopy of a tree at De Mond.
Cape Batis (Richard Masson)

This area is however known for several prize sightings. We find the hugely sought-after Southern Tchagra scuttling through the leaf litter under the Milkwood trees just about every time we visit De Mond – we believe that this is the best spot for this special in our region. One bird was once so habituated that we could approach it within a metre. Another very special endemic that is regarded as near threatened to look out for is the Knysna Woodpecker. One has to locate it by listening for its single skree shriek as it is not known to drum (knock) that often. This, the only spotted woodpecker in the region, is found around the picnic area fairly often. Interesting to note that species such as the Terrestrial Brownbul, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, Tambourine Dove and African Olive Pigeon have also been found according to the bird atlas records. 

A pair of Spotted Eagle-Owls has been breeding in the area around the office complex for many years. Over the years our members have taken vast numbers of photographs of cute little chicks and it seems as if the adults are fairly successful in raising the chicks each year. The bird atlas records indicate that Fiery-necked and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars and Barn Owl are found here – one must assume that these are recorded by people staying over for the night. As far as accipiters are concerned confirmed sightings include African Goshawk and Black and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawks.

On the particular day described we were also fortunate to find several snakes around the picnic area. A magnificent Mole Snake came slithering in between the tables freaking out pairs of hysterical Cape Batis and Southern Boubou. A ladybird caught a lift on the snake and MC Botha got the awesome image included herewith. About twenty Southern Double-collared Sunbirds then created a huge din and after some scanning of the canopy we found the source of the irritation – a rather large Boomslang. On our way out of the reserve a huge Puffadder crossed the road. 

Birders watch a boomslang in a tree at De Mond.
BirdLife Overberg members watching a boomslang (Anton Odendal)
A Ladybird Beetle hitches a ride on the back of a molesnake at De Mond.
Ladybird hitching a ride on molesnake (MC Botha)

The picnic site further offers the viewing of excellent water birds. There were Water Thick-knees on the lawn on the water’s edge and a Black-crowned Night-Heron flew overhead going upstream. Giant Kingfishers often use the hanging bridge as a perch to study the water and Pied Kingfishers are common sightings. We were entertained by “springers” leaping out of the water and a huge mixed flock of swallows, martins and swifts created an identification nightmare as they swirled past the picnic site.

The picnic site alone really offers superb birding, illustrating why the De Mond Nature Reserve should be regarded as one of the most underrated birding destinations in the Western Cape Province. And the best is yet to come as we will now focus on the birding delights of the famous De Mond estuary.

Birding along the De Mond estuary

A group of terns launch into the sky with the incoming tide at De Mond.
Terns taking off on the incoming tide (Carin Malan)

The De Mond Nature Reserve is best known for the vast numbers of terns and waders that occur here during summer months. To this should be added that the reserve often produces rare and rather exotic vagrant waders. The BirdLife Overberg committee decided to organise a morning club outing to De Mond on a Sunday morning in February 2014. On the Saturday afternoon Trevor Hardaker added spice with a SA Rare Bird News report that read as follows: “White-rumped Sandpiper – a single bird located at De Mond Nature Reserve near Arniston this morning. I am still trying to work out how many records there are of this species, but it is certainly less than 25 for Southern Africa ever! The last record of this species in the sub-region was in Walvis Bay back in December 2007! Added distractions included 4 (!!) golden plovers thought to be made up of two American Golden Plovers and two Pacific Golden Plovers, as well as at least one Greater Sand Plovers.” No question, we were off to De Mond on the Sunday morning and we report live as events unfolded.

Upon our arrival in January we immediately set off towards the mouth. It was just beyond low tide and the morning sun was to our left and we decided we not cross the rickety bridge, but explore the eastern side of the estuary. First up we found Whimbrels. There were also good numbers of African Black Oystercatchers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers, vast numbers of Common Ringed Plovers, Curlew en Common Sandpipers and Kittlitz’s Plovers. We were surprised that many White-fronted Plovers were still breeding. Another memorable sighting was the flock of Greater Flamingos with the Indian Ocean waves breaking in the background. I am pretty sure you do not get too many opportunities where you can view Flamingos against the backdrop of the sea. Lesser Flamingos are only reported from here occasionally. 

We studied our first “different” wader in amongst three whimbrels and were delighted to figure that we got our first American Golden Plover. Some distance further we joined John and Greta Graham and two birders that drove all the way from PE to witness this spectacle. The stars of the show however were Pacific Golden Plovers and John painstakingly and patiently pointed out the differences between these and American Golden Plovers close by. To crown it all both Little Terns and a Damara Tern staged flypasts. The Damara Tern is special as De Mond is the only reliable spot in South Africa where these birds breed. 

We then investigated the mudflats closer to the mouth and found Greater Sand Plover and Broad-billed Sandpiper – this day was turning into one of the most memorable outings in the club’s history. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the White-rumped Sandpiper that was reported the previous day.

Bar-tailed Godwits work the De Modn estuary looking for food.
Bar-tailed Godwits (Riaan Jacobs)
Terns and flamingoes take to the sky at Demond.
Tern and flamingos in flight (Anton Odendal)

There were many other waders identified during this outing, but I decided to review these species through an analysis of SABAP2 (the bird atlas project) records. The resident Three-banded Plover and migratory Common Greenshank are found fairly regularly. Reasonable numbers of Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stint normally occur in flocks. Species that are reported less often, even though these are regularly seen and photographed include Eurasian Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling and Common and Terek Sandpipers. Very few or sporadic records of Red Knot, Ruff, Marsh Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone are noted – the latter probably due to the relative lack of rocky shores at De Mond. Note should also be taken of a few isolated records of the Lesser Sand Plover. Need one say more? De Mond offers brilliant wader birding at its best!

Conditions were changing as the tide started coming in and vast numbers of Cape Cormorants and terns were entering the estuary area from the sea. The cormorants settled on the opposite bank and looked somewhat dwarfed by the few White-breasted Cormorants and Grey Herons on show. Then we witnessed really peculiar and comical behaviour: The Cape Cormorants would start running en-mass for about twenty meters and then stop, only to repeat the behaviour. 

But let’s turn our attention to the terns. We had earlier mentioned the spotting of both Damara and Little Terns. Caspian Terns are a regular feature at De Mond and can often be seen fishing and diving along the deeper channels of the estuary. The vast flocks of terns were however comprised of the resident Swift Tern and migratory Common and Sandwich Terns. It is very difficult to describe the extent and sheer numbers of the birds on show. As the tide came in the terns started gathering on the available sand. They often took off in flocks that looked like “red-bill quelea curls” high above the mouth. We have never witnessed so many terns in one spot – there were literally four different “roosts”, each with thousands of birds in it. But let the brilliant images taken by BirdLife Overberg members that accompany this description illustrate the extent of these wonderful birding experiences. 

A mass of terns roost on the sand bank at De Mond.
Massed terns at rest (Carin Malan)
A pair of Damara Terns rest quitely on the sandbank at the De Mond estuary.
Damara Terns (Graeme Hatley)

Most members of the group were ravenous by now and we decided to return to the picnic area for lunch. Birding along the vegetation adjoining the estuary should however not be underestimated. We heard the distinctive calls of the Bokmakierie, Acacia Pied Barbet and Cape Longclaw. There were canaries aplenty and we quickly found Cape Canary, White-throated Canary and Streaky-headed Seedeater. Some novice members created a huge Yellow and Brimstone Canary identification debate and we were able to point out the key differences between the two species from close quarters. A Rock Kestrel shot out of the trees and took a prey item close to us before returning to a perch. The ultimate excitement of a fantastic morning’s birding was a Black Harrier drifting and quartering over vegetation towards the horizon. Was this one of the greatest morning outings in our club’s history? Most probably! 

Birding along the Sterna Trail and more

The brilliant birding at De Mond Nature Reserve does however not end here. The Heuningnes Estuary and the Sterna Trail beyond of the wooden, hanging bridge certainly needs investigation. A hiking trail to the right after the bridge takes one along the shores of the estuary. Spectacular waterbirds are on view throughout most of the year, with large numbers of waders being present in summer. The Southern Red Bishop, Reed Cormorant, Egyptian Goose, Kelp Gull, Pied Kingfisher and Water Thick-knee are found abundantly, with the African Darter, African Fish-Eagle, Little Grebe, Giant Kingfisher, Lesser Swamp-Warbler and Black-winged Stilt being fairly common. Watch out for the African Spoonbill, Black-crowned Night-Heron and Spotted Thick-knee amongst the trees along the opposite shore. The Pied Avocet, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis, Malachite Kingfisher and Little Rush-Warbler are recorded far less often, together with a few isolated records of Goliath Heron, Squacco Heron and Western Osprey. The majority of waders discussed previously are often on view during summer months. Whiskered Terns are then also prominent. 

A view of the estuary at De Mond from the Sterna Trail.
The estuary seen from the start of the Sterna trail (Anton Odendal)
Birders walk along the boardwalk at De Mond estuary.
Along the boardwalk (Anton Odendal)

Large mixed flocks of swallows, swifts and martins can regularly be viewed in summer, with Brown-throated Martin, Barn Swallow, Greater Striped Swallow, Pearl-breasted Swallow, White-throated Swallow and White-rumped Swift often being present in numbers. Expect occasional sightings of Banded Martin and Rock Martins, as well as African Black Swift, Alpine Swift and Little Swifts. Birding along the shores of the Heuningnes Estuary can be spectacular to say the least and comes highly recommended. 

A steep incline at the start of the Sterna Trail on the far side of the hanging bridge allows for outstanding views and photographic opportunities of the Heuningnes Estuary, the river mouth and the ocean beyond it. The Sterna Trail represents a rather strenuous seven kilometres hike though coastal fynbos before joining the beach and leading back past the river mouth and salt marshes. The fynbos clad dunes beyond hanging bridge bring an entirely different suite of birds into play and deserve exploring. Endemic species found regularly amongst the Erica’s and Proteas include the Bokmakierie, Cape Bulbul, Cape Bunting, Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Cape Sugarbird and Orange-Breasted and Lesser-Double Collared Sunbirds. Also look out for Cape, Yellow and White-Throated Canaries and Streaky-headed Seedeaters. 

Enough time should be spent on the dunes overlooking the sea before the beach is reached. African Oystercatchers, White-fronted Plovers and Damara Terns breed here in summer and caution is advised in view of not disturbing the birds at their nests. The De Mond Nature Reserve is the only spot in South Africa where all three of these beach breeding birds of our country actually breed, making it such a unique bird-watching destination. Also look out for small flocks of Sanderling foraging in the shallows along the beach during these summer months. 

Also keep a keen lookout for action out to sea. Cape Gannets are sometimes seen plunging into the water and massive flocks of Cape Cormorants regularly move up and down the coastline in search of pelagic fish. Kelp Gulls are ever present, but this stretch of beach has also developed a reputation for producing sightings of pelagic species out to sea, particularly during stormy weather. Examples here include the Parasitic Jaeger, Southern Giant Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater and Sub-antarctic Skua. The Sterna Trail is certainly worth the effort as it affords the possibility of adding several impressive bird species to the reserve’s already impressive bird list.

Concluding comments

De Mond should be regarded as one of the most underrated birding destinations in the Western Cape Province. This is surely one of the top places to visit during summer months– those terns just have to be seen to be believed. Note that summer months could be dusty and dry and that rain falls mainly in winter. We have found that wind affected birding during most of our visits to the reserve, with the result that visitors should be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. 

The following information provided by CapeNature: De Mond Nature Reserve lies about 26kms south east of Bredasdorp between Arniston and Struisbaai. The reserve may be approached from either the R319 to Struisbaai or the R316 to Arniston. Both routes are well sign-posted. Cars are not allowed past the parking area. Please do not disturb nesting birds, and keep to specified paths to avoid trampling vegetation. Both freshwater and marine angling is permitted with a permit. Overnight accommodation is available in the De Hoop Cottage. This charming self-catering cottage is nestled in the reserve’s milkwood trees and coastal fynbos. The cottage is fully equipped, with three rooms that can sleep six guests.

CapeNature Central Reservations: 

Tel: +27 (0)21 659 3500


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