There are many outstanding bird-watching opportunities along the various gravel and tarred roads scattered throughout the Overberg region. This is a generic introductory overview to give visitors an idea of some of the birds to be expected in various habitat types throughout the Overberg Wheatbelt. The description of species abundance is based on findings in SABAP2 (the bird atlas project) report cards throughout the region. The detailed descriptions of specific bird-watching destinations and sites, as well as The Overberg Wheatbelt is recognised as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area by BirdLife International (SA 115).
The Overberg Wheatbelt has been modified through agricultural activities and rambling country roads thread their way through an ever-undulating tapestry of changing colours and hues in these lowland landscapes.
One would think that such a monoculture landscape would not support good birding-watching, but this is certainly not the case. Many of these so-called Overberg Wheatbelt loop roads can be used very effectively for fantastic birding when travelling between the N2 highway and the better known birding destinations such as the Bontebok and Agulhas National Parks and the De Hoop and De Mond Nature Reserves.
Small pockets of remnant fynbos, renosterveld and indigenous forests, as well as open water also increase the species diversity of the area. Specific roads and routes that will follow later should give visitors guidance on where to look for specific species within the Cape Whale Coast region.
More than 300 bird species have been identified in the Overberg Wheatbelt IBA, with the area being best known in birding circles for some iconic bird species and a huge diversity of so-called “Little Brown Jobs” (LBJs). This is Blue Crane country and it is not uncommon to come across flocks of several hundred of these birds in winter with breeding pairs being predominant in summer. The Denham’s Bustard also adds spice to the birding fair throughout the area, as this species occurs commonly. The Southern Black Korhaan is a threatened endemic species affected by habitat fragmentation and huge concern is being expressed in birding circles about its dwindling numbers. The future of this species is largely dependent on conserving remnant stretches of renosterveld habitats and the Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust needs to be supported with its conservation efforts in this regard. Recent surveys have shown a surprise increase in the numbers of the Karoo Korhaan in the region. One can also expect to find the Black Harrier foraging in this transformed landscape, even though (again) this species needs pristine Renosterveld habitats for breeding purposes. Birds from the Cape Vulture breeding colony at Potberg in the De Hoop Nature Reserve also forage throughout the Wheatbelt where their plight is ably supported by several farmers that maintain vulture restaurants. The numbers of Cape Vultures at Potberg have increased in recent years as a result of more vulture-friendly farming practices outside the reserve. All of the mentioned birds have limited distribution ranges and all of them, excluding Karoo Korhaan are globally threatened.
Little Brown Jobs
The Overberg Wheatbelt region is probably the best area where birders can practice their identification skills on LBJs as all of the region’s cisticolas, larks and pipits are found here. An added advantage is that many of the gravel roads can be travelled safely and at leisure in an area very well known for its outstanding landscape and wildlife photographic opportunities.
This affords locals the chance to compare the difficult LBJs of the region and visitors the opportunity to find several of the region’s many endemic species. The Cape Canary and Streaky-headed Seedeater are abundant, with Brimstone and Yellow Canaries less so.
The Levaillant’s Cisticola is very common close to water, while Grey-backed and Zitting Cisticolas can be found fairly easily while traveling towards the top of inclines. All three of these species are very vocal during the breeding season in spring and early summer and their breeding displays are a highlight of bird-watching in the region. Observant birders may find the diminutive Cloud Cisticola closer to the top of hills.
The Large-billed and Red-capped Larks are very common in most areas, with smaller numbers of Cape Clapper Lark being present. The regionally threatened Agulhas Long-billed Lark has its global distribution range restricted to the Wheatbelt area. It is therefore hugely sought-after by visiting birders. The Karoo Lark is also recorded occasionally.
The most numerous pipit is undoubtedly the African Pipit, while Nicholson’s and Plain-backed Pipits and Cape Longclaw are present in significantly smaller numbers.
Other abundant species to take note of include the Karoo Prinia, African Stonechat and Capped Wheatear.
This is often described as the best area in the Western Cape where visitors can systematically observe and learn to identify the LBJs of the region and birding here is recommended strongly.
It is significant to note that many of these LBJs are endemic, thus increasing their popularity with visiting birders.
Other common and special species
The impressive list of species found in the Wheatbelt does however not end with the iconic species and LBJs discussed above. Visitors can look forward to finding a range of common endemic or near-endemic species along these roads, such as the Bokmakierie, Cape Bulbul, Cape Crow, Fiscal Flycatcher, Cape Sparrow, Pied Starling, Cape Weaver and Cape White-eye.
Endemics or near-endemics found less often are the White-backed Mousebird, Cape Spurfowl, Southern and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds and Swee Waxbill. Other fairly common resident species include the Black-headed Heron, Southern Red and Yellow Bishops, Fork-tailed Drongo, Cape Robin-Chat and Malachite Sunbird. Brown-throated and Rock Martins occur throughout the year and Southern Masked Weaver and Pin-tailed Whydah are not as common in the Wheatbelt.
To this should be added a few species that have only arrived in the Overberg in fairly recent times. Here the Namaqua Dove, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and Amethyst Sunbird serve as examples. Red-billed Queleas are also found as vagrant visitors and sightings of this species are on the increase.
Birds associated with open water
The Overberg Wheatbelt region hosts a variety of rivers, farm dams and wetlands where huge numbers of waterbirds are regularly present. Rivers sometimes overflow their banks during wet spells in winter and early spring and this creates a huge influx of waterfowl. The Yellow-billed Duck, Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese and Three-banded Plover are abundant throughout the region, with African Black Duck, South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveler, Cape and Red-billed Teals also being particularly numerous at stages.
The Hamerkop, African Sacred Ibis, African Spoonbill and Spotted and Water Thick-knees are common throughout the year, as are the Reed Cormorant, Grey Heron, Blacksmith Lapwing and Red-knobbed Coot. The Black Crake and Common Moorhen are more difficult to find. Species encountered far less often include the African Darter, White-breasted Cormorant, Little Egret, Little Grebe, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis and Giant, Malachite and Pied Kingfishers and Kittlitz’s Plover. Greater Flamingos are nomadic in the region and Lesser Flamingos are recorded in significantly smaller numbers and only occasionally.
The Burchell’s Coucal, Baillon’s Crake, Black-crowned Night Heron, African Snipe and African Swamphen are present, but are difficult to find due to their secretive behaviour and habitat preferences. The presence of Buff-spotted and Striped Flufftails has been confirmed at a few localities. Species that have arrived in the Western Cape fairly recently and that are present in small numbers include the Maccoa, White-backed and White-faced Ducks, Yellow-billed Egret, Southern Pochard and Blue-billed Teal. The latter is recorded rarely.
In this regard Black Harrier and Cape Vulture are certainly the star attractions in the Overberg Wheatbelt as had been discussed earlier. The Jackal Buzzard, Spotted Eagle Owl, African Fish Eagle, Black-winged Kite and Western Barn Owl are very common throughout the region. The African Marsh Harrier is locally fairly common, but has very specific habitat requirements. Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk numbers are increasing in the region as more sightings are being received. The Forest Buzzard is present near exotic plantations and remnant patches of indigenous forests and common hawks to be expected in and around similar habitat types are the African Goshawk, African Harrier-Hawk and Black Sparrowhawk. Only a few records of Gabar Goshawk and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk have been noted. In summer expect to find good numbers of Common Buzzard and Yellow-billed Kite, while smallish flocks of Amur Falcon and Lesser Kestrel occur in sections of the Overberg Wheatbelt along the Breede River.
Species that are recorded rarely include the African Wood Owl and African Grass Owl, both of which have very specific habitat requirements. A few sightings of the globally threatened Martial Eagle, as well as the similar-looking Black-chested Snake Eagle are on record. There is concern about Secretarybird as it appears as if its distribution range is shrinking and this species is spotted less frequently. This was one of the main reasons for this species being celebrated as BirdLife South Africa’s bird of the year during 2019. All birders are requested to report sightings and particularly breeding records of this species, together with GPS coordinates, to the researchers at BirdLife South Africa.
Birds of mountainous habitats
The impressive mountain range to the north of the Overberg Wheatbelt hosts a variety of species associated with mountainous habitats and some of these often move around in the region. Regionally threatened species in this regard include the Black Stork and Verreaux’s Eagle. Lanner and Peregrine Falcons are rare, but sometimes produce great photographic opportunities. The Jackal Buzzard is very common and Booted Eagle and Rock Kestrel are also seen fairly often. Rocky outcrops and mountainous areas may produce other exciting species such as the Cape Bunting, Familiar Chat, Grey-winged Francolin, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock Thrush and Ground Woodpecker.
The eight fynbos endemics
Remnant patches of Fynbos are sparsely scattered through the agriculture-dominated farmlands of the Overberg Wheatbelt. The Cape Sugarbird, Cape Siskin and Orange-breasted Sunbird are common at such locations. The Southern Black Korhaan is locally fairly common, particularly in protected areas such as the Agulhas and Bontebok National Parks. Fynbos Buttonquail, Cape Rockjumper, Protea Canary and Victorin’s Warbler all have very specific habitat requirements and very few, if any, sightings have been recorded within the Wheatbelt as such. These four species are far more readily available in other areas in the Overberg region and it is recommended that specialist bird guides be consulted, or send an e-mail to email@example.com
Birds associated with thickets and forest patches
The rank exotic vegetation along water courses, well wooded gardens and the few remaining patches of indigenous forests in the Overberg Wheatbelt bring a different suite of interesting species into play. It appears as if the Bar-throated Apalis, Cape Batis, Southern Boubou, African Dusky Flycatcher, Sombre Greenbul, Speckled Mousebird and Cape Robin-Chat are very common and sometimes even abundant in most of such habitats surveyed. The African Paradise Flycatcher is also very common in summer. Species that are found less commonly include the Klaas’s Cuckoo, Tambourine Dove, Karoo Scrub Robin, Streaky-headed Seedeater, Grey-headed Sparrow, Chestnut-vented Warbler and Olive Thrush. The Diderick and Red-chested Cuckoos are very vocal during summer months.
Only a few records of the Acacia Pied Barbet, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Brown-backed Honeybird, Greater Honeyguide and African Olive Pigeon have been noted. It is best to look for the Forest Canary, Black and Grey Cuckoo-Shrikes, Lemon Dove, Lesser Honeyguide and Cardinal and Olive Woodpeckers at the Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve between Swellendam and Heidelberg.
Species such as the African Paradise Flycatcher, Diderick and Red-chested Cuckoos, Common Buzzard, Yellow-billed Kite, Amur Falcon and Lesser Kestrel have been mentioned earlier. European Bee-eaters are recorded fairly regularly and concern has been expressed about the dwindling numbers of Spotted Flycatcher returning to southern Africa annually. The Overberg Wheatbelt region is perhaps best known for the large numbers of White Storks during summer months.
The Overberg Wheatbelt further has the reputation for producing an increasing number of vagrant species. Fairly recent records include species such as the Lark-like Bunting, Black-headed Canary, Eurasian Hobby, Sand Martin, European and Lilac-breasted Rollers, Red-backed Shrike, Lesser Grey Shrike, Lesser Striped Swallow and Grey Wagtail. Rare cuckoo species recorded are the African, Black and Common Cuckoos. Larger species noted include the Goliath Heron, African Openbill and Abdim’s and Marabou Storks. The arrival of a vagrant Palm-nut Vulture further caused a stir in birding circles at Swellendam recently. Records of the European Honey Buzzard and Lesser Spotted Eagle have now also been reported.
The Overberg Wheatbelt Bird and Biodiversity Area stands central in conservation efforts in the Overberg region and is recognised as such by BirdLife International. Bird-watching opportunities in these magnificent rural landscapes are hugely underrated given the high levels of endemism in the region.
- Birding at the De Mond Nature ReserveBirding at De Mond itself is exceptional. But the approach roads also provide amazing birding.
- Birding in the Bontebok National Park￼The Swellendam area in the Overberg region of the Western Cape is highly underrated as a bird-watching destination. The flagship birding destination in the area is the Bontebok National Park.
- Wheatbelt Circle Route 1: Karwyderskraal and Swart River RoadsThe Karwyderskraal and Swartrivier loop roads represent high-quality wheatfield birding in close proximity to Hermanus and Cape Town.
- Wheatbelt Circle Route 2: The Oudekraal RoadThe Oudekraal road is another excellent option for bird-watchers wanting to savour the birding delights of the Overberg Wheatbelt. This road is not in the Overstrand municipal region as such, but can easily be investigated on an outing from Hermanus or Stanford.
- Wheatbelt Circle Route 3: The Papiesvlei AreaAnother 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.