Rooiels and Betty’s Bay
30 May 2008
Getting up early after such a previously great day’s birding is not all that difficult – actually not difficult at all – and when my guide Brian arrived at 07:30 I was raring to go. Unfortunately so was the rain. In fact I’d been woken up a few hours before by the sound of millions of tin-tacks rattling the windows, and had wondered just how worthwhile another morning out was going to be. But…with the heady chance of seeing birds like Ground Woodpecker, Cape Sugarbird, and Cape Rockjumper driving me on, I was – as I said – raring to go…
Brian, an optimistic chap thankfully, encouraged me as we drove along. Yes, there may be some rain, but it’ll come and go, and the birds will still be around. And photography may be a little difficult, he said, but you never know. Indeed you don’t and before we got back to the hotel in the early afternoon (I had to fly back to London in the evening and some rest was required) we’d seen some great birds and I’d managed to get a few decent photos. We’d also been soaked several times and wandered around a forest where it was so dark and damp that a lifer could have landed on my head and I probably couldn’t have seen it, but such is life and I was still smiling by the time the plane was crossing the English coast almost a day later!
Why? Well, in a couple of words, Ground Woodpecker and Cape Rockjumper. Both are South African endemics and for some reason – and I’m sure we’ve all got birds like this – I have REALLY, REALLY wanted to see a Ground Woodpecker for a long time (and who wouldn’t want to see Cape Rockjumper?). I’ve looked for Ground Woodpeckers on previous trips to the Cape, on several visits to Suikerbosrand (at least up until I learnt that they weren’t there anymore), and on a trip in the north-east corner of South Africa where I was shown a ‘whitewashed’ rock where regularly pooped but were absolutely nowhere to be seen. I was beginning to think that the things didn’t actually exist!
Brian, however, was altogether more confident and had scheduled that we start the day around the small town of Rooiels which was fine by me. When I am finally carried gibbering off the plane for the last time to never travel again, I will miss only a handful of places: Rooiels will be one of them. Just a few hundred metres from the holiday homes and tarmaced main road is a seriously stunningly beautiful area of towering ancient cliffs and boulder-strewn slopes on the eastern side of False Bay. It’s hard to describe just how striking the scenery is here, but it has the feel of tumult and fire as if aeons ago the land reached the sea and one almighty battle began. The cliffs are deeply-lined and battle-scarred and they glow an amazing red at dawn and dusk as if they still burn internally. The sea, charging in from the Antarctic batters itself against the shore like an invading army determined to crush the life out of whatever stands in its way. Visit Rooiels and you can almost envision the formation of the Earth itself – oh, and it has some fantastically good birds too.
The principal draws here are – as I may have mentioned several times – a few breeding pairs of the large, pink-bellied Ground Woodpecker, the world’s only ground-nesting woodpecker, and the wonderful Cape Rockjumper, an enigmatic species that has been taxonomically linked with everything from babblers to thrushes but now appears to be very distantly related to the West African rockfowls and is just one of two endemic South African representatives of one of the oldest avian lineages on the planet (there’s an interesting and authoritative post at montereybay.com/creagrus/rockjumpers.html which makes good sense of what is a very complex discussion). Other good species here include Cape Sugarbird, another member of an endemic southern African family, this time related to sunbirds; Cape Grassbird, a curious-looking long-tailed warbler with a strikingly well-marked face; Victorin’s Warbler, another highly-restricted bird and one which is almost impossible to see unless it’s singing, and incredibly difficult even then; and the gorgeous Orange-breasted Sunbird, an endemic at home amongst the fynbos vegetation of the Cape (and before I leave endemics, how about this for a fact: there are more species of plants found on Table Mountain than in the whole of the UK, and the fynbos itself – a narrow belt just 200km long – is made up of over 9000 plant species, around 6200 of which are endemic!).
The main track through the extraordinary flora at Rooeils
So did I get some photos? I did, but I would have got plenty more if a huge squall hadn’t come piling in off the sea and smashed into Rooiels. We lost quite a bit of time which we just couldn’t make up sheltering in the doorway of a locked-up summer home (though being stuck in one place did mean we saw a pair of Peregrines putting on a breathtaking display whipping around on the swirling air crashing against the cliffs in front of us and we saw good numbers of Cape Gannet offshore). As a result we couldn’t spend as much time as either Brian or I would have liked at Rooiels, and I just couldn’t get close to the Ground Woodpeckers (but we saw three, so they do exist after all), heard a Victorin’s but couldn’t pin it down, but as a great recompense a pair of Rockjumpers suddenly appeared on top of a rock and gave me the best views I’ve ever had.
Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus
Male Cape Rockjumper Chaetops frenatus
Cape Grassbird Sphenoeacus afer
Orange-breasted Sunbird Anthobaphes violacea (presumably a young male)
By about 11:00a.m. we were forced to run for the van as yet another squall hurtled in and the sky darkened ominously. To be honest I was all for going back to the hotel and drying off, but Brian was made of sterner stuff and reminded me that we still had a few target birds to find – eg Cape Sugarbird which we’d (unusually) not been able to find, White-necked Raven (which, with the sugarbird we eventually picked up en-route), and African Penguin which Brian assured me was waiting for me personally at Betty’s Bay, about thirty minutes away.
It was a good call (and typical of guides of Brian’s ilk that he doesn’t like giving up and REALLY wants his clients to see their target species). As we swung into Betty’s Bay a heavy shower swung out and the skies suddenly cleared. I’d never been to the penguin colony at Betty’s Bay before, but it’s a far less commercial and over-visited site than the more famous one at Boulders, and consequently more relaxing. There are perhaps less passerines in the surrounding bush, but an added draw is a rugged set of rocks (known as Stony Point) that is home to a colony of all four species of cormorant found in the region: Bank, Crowned, White-breasted, and Cape. A real bonus was a Subantarctic Skua that Brian picked up flying past – a very pale bird that looked confusingly like a South Polar Skua but was identified later from a very poor photo I took.
African Penguins Spheniscus demersus
(for a photo-gallery of this mother and chick please go to Motherly love penguin-style)
We added Cape Bulbul here, but a visit to the nearby Harold Porter Botanical Gardens was not so good. The clouds gathered again and within thirty minutes we needed torches to see. Brian pished gallantly and searched diligently, but apart from adding Sombre Bulbul to the day list we soon realised we were wasting our time. A shame, because Harold Porter is an exceptionally beautiful site – a wooded valley with a narrow river cutting through ancient rocks. I will definitely be coming here again – though not in the rain…
And so ended two excellent days of birding. If you’re in the Cape and need a guide I can recommend Brian without any qualms at all: he’s knowledgeable, good fun, and works hard. His website is at http://www.brians-birding.co.za. Hopefully he’s dried off by now and is ready to go next time I hit the Cape, because I’ve still some good birds to see…
Smiling in the rain: a guide realises that it’s time to give up
As a final thought, how about I post a photo I took a few years ago at dusk near Rooiels? This was an altogether different day, and the colours of the cliffs and rocks was just incredible. what a place eh?
Day List (New for the Year underline):
African Penguin Spheniscus demersus 50-80; Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus 1; Cape Gannet Morus capensis 30-40; Bank Cormorant Phalacrocorax neglectus c)10; Crowned Cormorant Phalacrocorax coronatus 4+; White-breasted Cormorant Phalacrocorax lucidus 30+; Cape Cormorant Phalacrocorax capensis 20+; Little Egret Egretta garzetta 2; Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus 100+; Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 2; Cape Spurfowl Pternistis capensis 20+; Subantarctic Skua Stercocarius antarcticus 1; Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus 30+; Hartlaub’s Gull Larus hartlaubii ; Swift Tern Sterna bergii 2; Speckled Mousebird Colius striatus 1+; Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus 3; Cape Bulbul Pycnonotus capensis c)10; Sombre Greenbul Andropadus importunus 1; Neddicky Cisticola fulvicapillus 2; Cape Grassbird Sphenoeacus afer 1; Cape Batis Batis capensis 1; Cape Rockjumper Chaetops frenatus 2; Orange-breasted Sunbird Anthobaphes violacea 4-5; Cape Sugarbird Promerops cafer 2; White-necked Raven Corvus albicollis 1; Red-winged Starling Onychognathus morio 10-12; Cape Bunting Emberiza capensis 1