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South Africa’s Western Cape Province is scenically stunningly beautiful and hugely varied – from rocky sea cliffs and impressive mountains rising straight out of the sea to everything from moist temperate forests to semi-desert, peaceful lakes, and a great deal more.
We begin our Cape birding photo tour in one of the world’s most scenically spectacular cities, Cape Town. The growth of this city is constrained by imposing geographical features – Table Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope, and of course the sea – the whole of Cape Town is on a stunning-looking peninsula that was once an island. The Cape Peninsula is full of localized endemics restricted to the world’s most plant-diverse floral kingdom, the Fynbos Biome (which has more plant species per unit area than even the Amazon). Some of these endemic birds restricted to the fynbos biome are dazzling; they include the likes of Orange-breasted Sunbird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird with its incredibly long tail, and many others. The nearby False Bay coast hosts one of the Cape’s most sought-after birds, the charismatic Cape Rockjumper – along with Cape Rock Thrush, Sentinel Rock Thrush, and many others. We’ll also look for seabirds, such as African Penguin, Cape Gannet, and more. The Cape is also famed for whale watching – Southern Right Whales in particular come very close inshore (seasonal).
After a few days around Cape Town itself we head to the West Coast, which is much drier and has a whole new suite of birds (and other wildlife) we will try to photograph. In the West Coast National Park and other great sites we hope to encounter Common Ostrich, Black Harrier, Southern Black Korhaan, Cape Penduline Tit, Grey-winged Francolin, and other stunning (and often very localized) birds. We will also look for new mammals, such as the West Coast endemic Heaviside’s Dolphin, the strange Rock Hyrax (which looks like a large rodent but is more closely related to elephants!), and others.
We then head inland to the Karoo semi-desert. This area has even more endemics than the Cape Peninsula (Fynbos Biome), and we will look for and try to photograph various larks, Black-headed Canary and other canaries, Karoo Korhaan, Ludwig’s Bustard, and all the others. There is also a chance of encountering some great mammals, which could even include something like a Caracal or Aardvark (both these require a huge dose of luck!).
Eventually we head back to the coast – but this time the East Coast. After crossing imposing mountain ranges, which form rain-shadows that actually create the semi-desert we will have just spent time in, we fairly abruptly find ourselves in a different world in amazing contrast to the arid Karoo – here we see green forests and beautiful lakes. This is the Garden Route – an idyllic area you truly will not want to leave. You could spend two weeks just here, photographing birds and other wildlife and of course the stunning scenery. However, the aim of this tour is to introduce you to the diverse habitats of the entire Western Cape Province. We do this at a pace suited to wildlife photography, though, and rush around a bit less than on a standard birding tour.
En route to the Garden Route, in the Agulhas Plains, we have a great chance at finding the fine-looking Cape Mountain Zebra, the striking Bontebok, and many wondrous birds such as Secretarybird, White Stork, Denham’s Bustard, loads of Blue Cranes (South Africa’s stunning national bird), some localized endemics such as Agulhas Long-billed Lark, Cape Clapper Lark, Southern Tchagra, and, as always, loads more.
In the Garden Route itself we’ll probably find the jewel-like Half-collared Kingfisher, the gorgeous (there is no better word for it) Knysna Turaco with its green body and scarlet underwings, and a rich diversity of other birds – plus some nice mammals, as always.
You can either fly or drive (5 hours) back to Cape Town from the Garden Route, or you can fly from the Garden Route to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport for a 5-day extension at one of Africa’s greatest game parks, the Kruger National Park. Here we have a good chance at photographing the “Big Five” as well as a host of other, smaller mammals. Kruger is one of the richest national parks for mammals on the entire African continent. What’s more, it also has over 500 bird species, most of which are extremely easy to see in the dry woodlands and savanna – you will see multiple species of brightly colored and spectacular rollers, bee-eaters, storks, eagles, vultures, hornbills, and more.
Itinerary (11 days/10 nights)
Day 1. Cape Peninsula
Depending on arrival times today we should have some time to enjoy some late-afternoon photography in the golden light. We will probably pop down to Boulders Beach and visit the African Penguin colony, where we should also come across Cape and Crowned Cormorant, African Oystercatcher, and perhaps a few terrestrial species in the nearby scrub.
Overnight: Mariner Guest House, Simon’s Town
Day 2. Hottentots Holland and False Bay
Today we will spend the day to the east of Cape Town in the Hottentots Holland mountains, where we will be targeting a number of Cape endemics. The drive from Simon’s Town is a spectacular one; the route straddles the coastline with dramatic fold mountains on the opposite side. During the drive we may get lucky with sightings of whales in False Bay, including Bryde’s and Southern Right Whales.
Our first stop will be at the quaint coastal town of Rooi Els, where we will search the rocky mountain slopes for Cape Rockjumper. Other important birds to look for on the mountain slopes include Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrushes, Cape Siskin, Ground Woodpecker, and perhaps Verreaux’s Eagle overhead. The thicker fynbos nearby will be searched for Cape Sugarbird (frequently posing on top of Protea flowers), Orange-breasted and Malachite Sunbirds, Cape Bulbul, Grey-backed Cisticola, and Karoo Prinia.
We will then head around the corner to Betty’s Bay to explore the beautiful Harold Porter National Botanical Garden. Here the birds are often very approachable, allowing for great photographic opportunities. Sunbirds abound in these gardens, including Amethyst, Southern Double-collared, Orange-breasted and Malachite. We should also have the opportunity to become acquainted with Southern Boubou, Olive Thrush, Cape Robin-Chat, and Fiscal Flycatcher.
After enjoying lunch in the gardens we will head to the rocky coast at Stony Point to visit another African Penguin colony; however, the target here will be Bank Cormorant. Four species of marine cormorant breed here (Bank, Crowned, Cape, and White-breasted Cormorants) and often give you a chance to photograph them as they fly back and forth feeding chicks or constructing nests.
If time allows, we will pop into Strandfontein Bird Sanctuary on our way back to Simon’s Town. This area represents the best wetland birding around Cape Town, and we will aim to photograph flying Flamingos (both Lesser and Greater) in the golden afternoon light with Table Mountain and the Hottentots Hollands Mountains serving as beautiful backdrops. Other waterbirds to be enjoyed here include South African Shelduck, Maccoa Duck, Southern Pochard, Black-necked Grebe, and many other common aquatic species. If we run out of time this afternoon we can head back here the following day.
Overnight: Mariner Guest House, Simon’s Town
Day 3. Cape Peninsula
Today will be spent birding and photographing on the Cape Peninsula. We will start the morning by heading south to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, where we will visit the most southwesterly point of the African continent. The views of False Bay and the Atlantic Ocean are truly impressive, and from here we can also enjoy Cape Cormorants nesting on the cliffs below us along with the odd Peregrine Falcon. We may do a sea watch for various seabird species from the cliffs, when we should be able to pick out Cape Gannet, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, and perhaps an albatross or two! Around the reserve we will also keep a lookout for Cape Grassbird, Cape Siskin, Cape Bunting, and Fiscal Flycatcher. Common Eland, Africa’s largest antelope, should be encountered during our time in the reserve as well as good numbers of Common Ostrich.
In the afternoon we will head to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, where we will wander around the picturesque gardens with Table Mountain serving as a stunning backdrop. In the gardens we should find African Olive Pigeon, Cape Bulbul, African Dusky Flycatcher, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape, Brimstone, and Forest Canaries, and the tiny and colorful Swee Waxbill.
Overnight: Mariner Guest House, Simon’s Town
Day 4. West Coast National Park
After a few great days around Cape Town we will head to the scenic west coast to look for a different suite of birds occurring in the strandveld vegetation. We’ll start with some farmland birding around Darling in the glorious early-morning light. Hopefully Blue Cranes will pose for us while European Bee-eaters in their small colony here are often a little more edgy. We’ll search the adjacent strandveld for Cape Clapper Lark, Grey-backed Cisticola, Southern Black Korhaan, Chestnut-vented Warbler, Cloud Cisticola, and Pearl-breasted Swallow. The wheat fields are normally alive with birds, and we can expect to also find Pied Starling, Yellow Canary, African Hoopoe, Red-capped Lark, and Capped Wheatear.
Next we will head farther north along the coast to West Coast National Park. We will try to time it right so that we arrive at the Langebaan Lagoon at a time when the shorebirds are close to the various hides on the lagoon. Here we can expect to see thousands of Palearctic shorebirds, which should still be showing some breeding plumage at this time of year. Species to look for include Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Common Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Grey and Common Ringed Plovers, Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, and occasionally Terek Sandpiper. Of the resident shorebirds we should find White-fronted, Kittlitz’s, Three-banded, and Chestnut-banded Plovers.
The strandveld throughout the park will explored for Grey Tit, Long-billed Crombec, Chestnut-vented Warbler, White-backed Mousebird, Bokmakierie, Cape Penduline Tit, Grey-winged Francolin, Cape Weaver, and our most important target, the graceful Black Harrier.
After leaving the park and before checking into our accommodation in Langebaan we should have time to look for the resident pair of Verreaux’s Eagles just outside of town (if we run out of time today, we will ensure we try the next morning).
Overnight: Le Mahi Guest House, Langebaan
Day 5. West Coast and Tankwa Karoo
This morning we will leave early to explore the farmlands north of Langebaan. Some of the specials we’ll look for here include Blue Crane, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Acacia Pied Barbet, Cape Long-billed and Large-billed Larks, Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark, Sickle-winged and Ant-eating Chats, and perhaps Lanner Falcon.
After a great morning’s birding we will stop at a nearby salt works to try improve our photos of Chestnut-banded Plover as well as Lesser and Greater Flamingos, Black-necked Grebe, Red-necked Phalarope, and other shorebirds. Heading farther inland (approximately a three hours’ drive) we will travel through some spectacular mountain passes before eventually dropping back down into the vast, dry plains of the Tankwa Karoo, where we will be based for the next two nights.
Overnight: Tanqua B&B, Route 355
Day 6. Tankwa Karoo
The Tankwa Karoo is an endemism hotspot with many of the species we will encounter here are restricted to these endless and seemingly barren plains. Looks, however can certainly be deceiving, as we will spend the day hunting down many of these Karoo-adapted specials. The open plains will be searched for Karoo Korhaan, Karoo Eremomela, Burchell’s Courser, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Greater Kestrel, Black-eared Sparrow-Lark (highly nomadic), Tractrac and Karoo Chats, Rufous-eared Warbler, and a host of lark species including Karoo Long-billed, Karoo, Spike-heeled, Large-billed and Red-capped Larks. In the dry river beds we should be able to find Namaqua Warbler, Fairy Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, Dusky Sunbird, and Acacia Pied Barbet. We will also spend some time exploring rocky outcrops where Cinnamon-breasted Warbler will be our primary target along with Layard’s Warbler, Pale-winged Starling, and perhaps even Black-headed Canary. In the evening we will take a night drive to look for Freckled and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars and perhaps some of the Karoo’s rarer nocturnal mammals.
Overnight: Tanqua B&B, Route 355
Day 7. Agulhas Plains
After some early morning photography in the Tankwa Karoo we will leave the dry plains and head southeast to the Agulhas area, where we will have two nights before continuing further east. The drive (roughly 3.5 hours) is another picturesque one as we make our way through the Cape Fold Mountains. We will keep a lookout for Ground Woodpecker and Verreaux’s Eagle during the drive. Then we will spend some time birding the wheat fields in the Agulhas area, which are good areas for Denham’s Bustard, Karoo Korhaan, Cape Crow, Cape Long-billed Lark, and Blue Cranes (usually in large numbers).
Overnight: De Hoop Collection, De Hoop National Park
Day 8. Agulhas Plains
We will visit the beautiful De Hoop National Park, which has good numbers of antelope and some great birding too. Common Eland, Bontebok, and Cape Mountain Zebra are normally seen easily and can be quite confiding. Top birds to look out for include Agulhas Long-billed Lark, Southern Tchagra, Knysna Woodpecker, Secretarybird, and Black Cuckooshrike. We will visit some impressive dunes which overlook the Indian Ocean, where we should see Southern Right Whales, which come to this stretch of the coastline to calf in winter and spring. We may also get views of Cape Vulture, which has a large breeding colony nearby.
Overnight: De Hoop Collection, De Hoop National Park
Day 9. Garden Route
We’ll take advantage of the morning light to try to improve on photos from the last couple of days before we drive (roughly three hours) further east to the forests and wetlands of Wilderness. En route we will keep a lookout for Forest Buzzard, which is sometimes seen perched on roadside pylons. We should have time this afternoon to visit one of the many wetlands in the area, where we could find African Snipe, African Fish Eagle, Malachite and Pied Kingfishers, and other waterbird species. We may also see small groups of Red-necked Spurfowls feeding on the roadside.
Overnight: Kingfisher Country House, Wilderness
Day 10. Garden Route
Today we will spend time among the various wetlands and forests in the Wilderness area. We will probably start the day at few wetlands, where we may get lucky with sightings of the elusive duo of Red-chested Flufftail and African Rail. We will then walk a few trails through beautiful forest along the Touws River. This will be our first bit of true forest birding on the trip, and there should be many new birds to find. The skulking Knysna Warbler will be searched for in thick tangles of undergrowth, while we could even get incredibly lucky with a sighting of Buff-spotted Flufftail, although it puts Knysna Warbler to shame with its ability to remain hidden. Other forest species to look out for include Back-backed Puffback, Black-headed Oriole, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin, Green-backed Camaroptera, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Narina Trogon, African Emerald Cuckoo, Black-bellied Starling, Green Wood Hoopoe, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Grey Cuckooshrike, Olive and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, and possibly the most beautiful of them all, Knysna Turaco. In the evenings we may get lucky with sightings of African Wood Owl.
Overnight: Kingfisher Country House, Wilderness
Day 11. Departure
Depending on flight times this morning we may have time for some last-minute forest birding, targeting anything we may have missed over the last couple of days. George Airport is only a 20-minute drive from Wilderness, where you can take a flight or a five-hour drive back to Cape Town or a flight to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport for the Kruger National Park extension.
Kruger National Park extension
(Day 1 of the extension is the same as day 11 of the main tour.)
Days 11 – 15. Kruger National Park
This extension offers a few days of photographing Africa’s “Big Five” as well as small animals and a host of birds – many of them extremely photogenic. Of the big and obvious species we will look for Kori Bustard, Martial Eagle, Bateleur, Saddle-billed Stork, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, Southern Ground Hornbill and Lappet-faced Vulture, while the smaller, more colorful species include Greater Blue-eared Starling, Lilac-breasted Roller, Grey-headed Bushshrike, White-browed Robin-Chat, and a host of kingfishers, barbets, hornbills, and weavers.
Overnight: Rest camps, Kruger National Park
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors.
Diane and I participated in an amazing 12 day Western Cape Bird watching tour through Birding Ecotours in the fall of 2011 with Mark Harrington as our driver/guide. Mark was a very pleasant, good humoured, knowledgeable guide whose knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Western Cape area was outstanding. He was able to identify all of the birds we saw very quickly and took the time to make sure that all of our group was able to clearly see and identify each new bird or animal. As well his knowledge of the cultural history of
South Africa made the trip an excellent learning experience for both of us. He was able to smooth over any rough patches in the tour and made all of us feel special. We hope that in the future that he can be our guide again.
Otto Peter — Canada
Important explanation about the default vehicles we use on our southern African tours:
Whereas the standard birding-tour vehicle in East Africa is the popup-roof stretch Land Cruiser, in southern Africa these are extremely rare and not usually legal except within some parks. Open safari vehicles, on the other hand, are commonly seen in southern African parks but can’t be used outside the parks, and they are extremely unpleasant to be in when the weather is bad even inside the parks. The only tried-and-tested tour vehicle available in southern Africa that allows us to cover the ground we need so we can find the greatest diversity of birds (and other wildlife), and which is comfortable in all weather, is legal, has proper air conditioning, and does not make the overall tour price exorbitant, is the 13-seater Toyota Quantum when we have 6-8 (rarely 9) tour participants (or similar 7-10-seater vans when we have smaller group sizes). In areas where we are not restricted to the vehicle during the tour (such as in the Cape) we usually use unmodified standard Quantum vans – everyone gets out of the vehicle when we see a good bird or animal. In areas in which we are at times restricted to the vehicle because of the presence of dangerous megafauna including lions, elephants, and more (such as the Kruger National Park) we typically use a Quantum van with modified windows for better viewing of birds and other wildlife. In Kruger (and sometimes in Etosha) National Parks we usually do include a day or two in open safari vehicles as part of the tour price. Optional night drives (at nominal cost) in open safari vehicles are available at most southern African parks (including Kruger) for those who have less of a focused interest in birds (as these are operated by the park’s guides, who usually focus mainly on the “Big 5”). You can speak to the tour leader about joining these night drives, but in our experience some tour participants prefer not to join them, and hence we leave them as an optional extra for those willing to pay a (small/nominal) extra fee.
Even the tried-and-tested Toyota Quantum (or similar) vans we use fall far short of being ideal (small windows that are quite low, etc.), and we truly wish there were something better available without breaking the bank. But we use the best available vehicles, and we ensure that everyone has a fair turn in and near the front of the vehicle – we typically swap seating positions daily, but in the parks we can swap positions four times a day as necessary. The vehicles we use are by far the best vehicles available at a reasonable price. All the birding tour companies use the same vans unless their tours have a narrow focus just around Kruger/nearby or another park. It’s a big problem in South Africa that the East African style safari vehicles are, simply, unavailable, except for a handful of very old, shaky ones (and usually in East Africa they don’t have air conditioning anyway, are extremely slow between sites, and, in short, have a different suite of disadvantages). We use the very best vehicles we can without making our trips much more expensive than anyone else’s, but we also feel we have to be clear about what to expect before the tour, hence this note. If you are worried about the vehicle then please:
While we generally allow a window seat for every passenger and like to have at least a couple of free seats available for birding gear etc., it’s better to ask us about the specific tour to be sure what is the case. For photography trips the per-person price is higher because we leave more empty seats available as more tour participants have bulky camera gear!
It is our philosophy only to have one vehicle per tour as it invariably gets very frustrating when one vehicle sees a bird or animal and the other vehicle misses it! And our group sizes are small – maximum of eight (rarely nine). The tour prices would be very high and uncompetitive if we had a second vehicle and driver-guide with twice the guide’s accommodation, food, fuel and toll costs, considering the small group sizes on our tours. Again, if you request a private tour, we can take two or even three vehicles or absolutely whatever you request – a private tour is different. (It is illegal for us to have any person without a local driver’s license and professional driving permit to drive passengers who are paying to be on a tour, so we can’t even suggest that a tour participant drives a second vehicle to allow more space and window seats).
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