I’ve been trying to find time to post some photos from my recent trip to Cape Town for a while …and finally here they are. I should back up first though and say that on this visit to the Cape I went to the renowned Strandfontein Sewage Works (SSW), a fragrant hot-spot on the coast which attracts birders like flies around…er, you know where I’m going with this.
Despite many previous visits to Cape Town I’d never been to the SSW before, a fact which my host for the day, Brian Vanderwalt of Brian’s Birding, a) couldn’t believe, and b) was determined to put right. He couldn’t believe it because every birder on the Cape goes to SSW: I hadn’t as for some reason I’d thought that permits were needed, and that sewage-farms were okay but not THAT good…Wrong on both scores: no permit necessary (though the site is waaay bigger than I thought and a car is essential), and this one is VERY good indeed.
Taken through the window of a moving car – I wasn’t driving – the SSW is the series of lagoons top left.
The mountains in the background of this photo are across False Bay and tower above the hot spot of Rooiels.
More like a series of large lagoons, dense reedbeds, and insect-ridden mudflats (319ha of aquatic habitats and 58ha of terrestrial habitats) than the rather dull, small fenced-in areas of fetid water that your average sewage-farm in the UK tends to resemble, every waterbird that finds itself in the Cape eventually ends up at Strandfontein, where it feasts on a never-ending supply of flies and mosquitoes etc etc.
Around 200 species have been seen here (including a good number of endemic waterbirds) and over the last few years such national rarities as Garganey Anas querquedela, American Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinica, American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica, Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, Common Redshank Tringa totanus, Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus, Franklin’s Gull Larus pipixcan and Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea have all been seen here (http://wiki.sabirding.co.za)!
We weren’t actually looking for rarities on this visit though – I looked hard but there weren’t any present anyway. I’d said to Brian that if the weather was good (which it was) I’d like to get some decent photos of commoner SA birds which I’d not photographed before (which I did). In fact if you’re in the Cape this time of year, the sun is shining, and you want to get photos of regionally common species like Reed/Long-tailed Cormorant, Kelp Gull, Hartlaub’s Gull, Swift Tern, Greater Flamingo, White Pelican, Glossy and Sacred Ibises, and a good range of widespread southern African ducks then there’s probably no better place to go. The birds are not exactly habituated to people, but there’s no hunting on the site and disturbance is pretty minimal so its not difficult to get some pretty good shots (IMHO)…
Reed Cormorant Phalacrocorax africanus: a common species found on most waterways throughout much of Africa
Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus: a common species found in wetlands in much of sub-Saharan Africa
Greater Flamingoes Phoenicopterus roseus: the most widespread flamingo in Africa, we probably saw about 200 in total
Hartlaub’s Gull Chroicocephalus/Larus hartlaubii, a common endemic about half of the total population, currently estimated at c) 30 000 birds, are found within the Greater Cape Town area
Eastern/Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus: Locally common, this large pelican occurs from southeastern Europe through Asia and into Africa south to the Cape.
Swift Terns Sterna bergii: a common resident along the south African coast
The ‘common’ ducks I mentioned earlier consisted of a number of species that probably won’t be familiar to anyone who’s not been to the southern Africa – and hence are well worth seeing – and include such beauties as the tiny Hottentot Teal (uncommon and often tucked away in vegetation), South African Shelduck, the Maccoa Duck (a relation of the well-known Ruddy Duck), Cape Shoveler, both Cape and Red-billed Teals, and Yellow-billed Duck. Both Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese are umnmissable, as are oddly large numbers of Dabchicks (aka Little Grebes). Not a bad bunch really…
Male Maccoa Duck Oxyura maccoa: the region’s only ‘stifftail’.
Cape Teal Anas capensis: the region’s palest duck, the combination of pink bill and speckled head are diagnostic.
Red-billed Teal Anas erythrorhyncha: similar to the Cape Teal but the dark cap and pale cheeks are distinctive.
Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata
Dabchick/Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
I said earlier that there were no rarities at the SSW but I did spark a minor twitch when I rather casually remarked to Brian that I’d just seen a Sand/Bank Martin amongst a small flock of Barn Swallows and Brown-throated Martins perched on a bare shrub at the side of one of the lagoons. They (there were at least two) were the first he’d seen for a couple of years – and one of the very few species I have on my ‘garden list’. He hit the cellphone immediately and several birders were down at the SSW before the day’s end. Just goes to show that overseas visitors really need to know what’s ‘rare’ and what’s not when they go on their travels!
Sand Martin Riparia riparia (centre), with Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica (left) and Brown-throated Martin Riparia paludicola (right)
So what else did we see? Brian managed to get me on to my ‘life’ Red-breasted Sparrowhawk Accipiter rufiventris which was small, very fast, and very beautiful. Most of the northern hemisphere migrants has already left (the Sand Martins were a little late for the site), but there were good numbers of Pied Avocets and a single Common Greenshank.
One of my favourite sightings was of a small flock of African White-rumped Swifts, a species I don’t get to see very often – but which are very tough to photograph…
Pied Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta: very widespread, Pied Avocets breed in temperate Europe and western and Central Asia. Most winter in Africa and southern Asia.
African White-rumped Swift Apus caffer: the rump on this long-tailed species is very narrow and sometimes difficult to see
We probably spent no more than two hours at the SSW (we had places to go, people to see etc) but it’s long enough to cover the site fairly well. I’m sure a birder spending all day there will see a fair bit more (especially at the right time of year and if they stayed until dusk when rallids might be more visible) and I have to admit that had I known how good it was I’d certainly have gone there before today (shows how much I know eh?)…
The earliest residents of this area were the Khoisan, which consisted of two groups, the San and the Khoisan. They got their drinking water from a fountain on the beach, and the name ‘Strandfontein’ literally translates to fountain on the beach. (http://www.namakwa.com/dorpe/Strandfontein/strandfontein.htm)
The easiest way to enter the sewage works is from the Zeekoeivlei side. From the M5 freeway, turn left into Ottery road at the Ottery turn-off, then turn right into Strandfontein road. Continue along this road then turn right at the Zeekoeivlei sign, just after the Shell petrol station. Continue through a eucalypt plantation (there is a manned barrier here but birders are apparently allowed in without problem) and past Zeekoeivlei. The road enters the sewage works via a sharp right alongside the Sewage Works HQ.