This trip report was provided by Jill Wheater.
It had been a very chilly week in the Western Cape and Saturday 22nd July was no exception. Shadowy figures appeared in the Spar car park in Hermanus, dressed in beanies, thick jackets, gloves and boots. I’m sure anyone watching from under their cosy duvet would have thought we were mad! Despite the icy 3 degrees, enthusiasm was high, as we climbed back into our cars to defrost. As always, the early morning drive out of Hermanus towards Stanford was magnificent. A glowing red sun rose slowly over the mountains, and it was sufficient reward for braving the cold weather.
After a stunning drive through the crisp countryside, we arrived in Napier where we met our guide for the day, Steve Peck. Flasks appeared out of nowhere and suitably warmed with steaming tea and coffee, 9 vehicles with 19 avid birders set off, anticipating an exciting day of birding.
The scenery was spectacular. The cold, crisp air seemed to accentuate the contrast of the deep green wheat fields and the bright yellow canola set against a blue sky with those characteristic swept clouds. It was like an artist’s palette, nature at its best. Fifteen minutes in; walkie-talkie calling; we had to stop admiring the scenery and get on with birding. Pied Starlings, Red-billed Quelea, Capped Wheatear, Blacksmith Lapwings, three elegant Blue Cranes with Spur-winged Geese and a special Namaqua Dove; to mention just a few.
Steve advised us to look for larks, specifically, the Red-capped Lark, the Large-billed Lark and the less common Agulhas Long-billed Lark. I could already feel my eyes glazing over; just identifying a Lark would be amazing. But with Steve’s patient guidance and our resident photographer in our vehicle we managed to identify all three during the day. Learning to look and listen was really valuable.
The sheep are iconic in this area and add to the whole character of the area. Cosy in their woolly coats they were just another aspect to this interesting landscape. Whilst we were raving about the sheep, Steve was watching a Denham’s Bustard in the next field. We all screeched to a halt, binoculars straining to get a look at this beautiful bird. He took flight and gave us a better view.
Guided by the walkie-talkie we managed to identify many birds along the fences, on the ground, in the hedgerows and hopping in the fields. From an African Stonechat to various canaries, Grey-backed and Zitting Cisticola and a Cape Longclaw. Again, the list was much longer.
A small dam on the left revealed an elegant Cape Teal and two Red-billed Teals, swimming serenely in the cold air. The scenery continued with its sharp yellow and green contrasts, deep red aloes reflecting the African flavour of the countryside as we drove through some of the protected renosterveld. A Cape Grass Bird was heard singing enthusiastically and Steve pointed out a Grey-winged Francolin and there were plenty of larks, chats and pipits to keep the binoculars busy. In the sky was a Jackal Buzzard, White-necked Raven, and a Black Sparrowhawk. All the dams were full of water and teaming with birdlife including a Cape Shoveler, some African Spoonbills, Red Knobbed Coots, Black-winged Stilts, Little Grebe and a Great Crested Grebe, a Pied Kingfisher and Yellow-billed Ducks.
Driving from Klipdale Quarry, our picnic stop was quite unique. Rolling hills to the left, historic disused buildings reflecting another era and the road stretching out into the yellow canola. A photographer’s paradise. After this welcome break we proceeded down and past the silos with Steve informing us that round the bend was a field of maybe 60 Blue Cranes with Greater and Lesser Flamingos near the dam on the opposite side of the road. We were beyond excited. The Overberg supports over half of the global population of Blue Cranes. What a privilege… and a responsibility.
As the cars approached the field the Blue Cranes flew into the air, powerful wings lifting them up, making their guttural “pterodactyl” call en masse. It was a sacred experience for beginner birders and experienced birders alike. On the opposite side of the road the Flamingos lifted into the air, their pink feathers shining in the sun as they wheeled overhead. The lenses were clicking away; this was birding at its best. The Flamingos were hesitant to land but finally returned to the dam. In addition, there was a large Grey Heron, Little Egrets and an elegant Black-headed Heron, wondering what all the fuss was about.
Reluctantly we left the Flamingos but there were more surprises in store. Fallow deer could be seen in the fields, along with a lone Bontebok. Next to one of the small dams were Pied Avocets, a Cape Shoveler and Kittilitz’s Plovers darting across the surface of the water. Sharp eyes spotted two Bat-eared Foxes and then a Steenbok caught on the wrong side of the fence. Determination won as he found a gap and treated us to some acrobatics leaping back across the field.
On our last drive, our car was desperate to see the Rock Kestrel and despite Graeme’s best efforts we just always missed it. This time we saw 3 Rock Kestrels: one posing perfectly on a pole and another diving for prey. And finally, with Steve’s assistance, we managed to see all three Larks.
After many hours of excellent birding, it was time to return home. We all felt a little overwhelmed particularly after the huge flock of Blue Cranes and Flamingo sightings. But equally the dramatic countryside and varied animals, reminded us of the power and beauty of nature. Winter in the Overberg is such an experience and the cold, crisp air seemed to make the colours even more vibrant. What a special place to visit.In total, 98 species of birds, were identified. Many thanks to Steve and Johan and everyone involved in organizing such an inspirational birding outing.