Helderberg Nature Reserve

The map on the left represents the records of bird sightings I have personally made at the Helderberg Nature Reserve, along with where I saw them. This will hopefully help others in targeting certain species in the reserve. (Clicking on an icon will provide the species name and some information about it.)

The Helderberg Nature Reserve is located in Somerset West, about 45 kilometers East of Cape Town. This is my ‘home patch’ for birding and have spent likely hundreds of days at the reserve. Entry to the reserve is R10 a person and R5 for a car, but if one is a local resident it is definitely worth becoming a member, an annual membership costs one less than R200 and gets one free unlimited access for both the membership holder and their car. This makes regular short visits an easy thing, without spending money for a short visit.

As far as the wildlife and in particular, the birding goes – there is an impressive list of species recordings for the reserve, with over 180 species of bird recorded at the Helderberg Nature Reserve. Through my visits, I have now recorded around 80 different species myself and continue to have the list growing, slowly but surely.

Below is some information on the birding at the reserve, from what I have experienced. Information may not be completely accurate, but this is what I have seen over my many visits.

As one enters the gates of the reserve, there are two patches of forest on the right – I have noted both an adult and a juvenile Black Sparrowhawk perched between these two areas on a few occasions. Continuing on just opposite the second forest, on the left hand side of the road, there is a grass embankment which leads down to some oak trees and a small river, this is just before the picnic area. This area seems to be a fairly common place to find the Olive Woodpecker during the winter months, I have on several occasions counted more than 7 different birds pecking away at the bark of the trees along the river. On the leafless tree branches near the road Common Fiscal and Fiscal Flycatchers are often seen. Along the river itself a common species seen here is the Swee Waxbill as well as the Olive Thrush, Robin Chats can also be found here.

Next is the picnic area, species commonly seen here include Hadeda Ibis, Fiscal Flycatchers, Egyptian Geese, Pied Crow and some Forked-Tailed Drongos – seemingly more in the winter months. Though it is important to note that the Helderberg Nature Reserve is quite a ‘family friendly’ reserve and the picnic area can often be populated by people, some of which tend to be quite noisy.

When you continue past the picnic area you will arrive at the main parking area with the museum center on the right and the restaurant on the left. On the hill next to the museum center you will find Fork-Tailed Drongo, Fiscal Flycatchers, Common Fiscals, Robin Chats and the occasional Southern Boubou.

On the left hand side, by the restaurant you are likely to come across Cape Spurfowl. A walk past the restaurant gets one to the pond area, where the bird life tends to get more exciting at times. At this pond you will usually find Yellow-Billed Ducks, Common Moorhen, Little Grebe, Spurwinged Geese and Egyptian Geese in the water. There was a resident Reed Cormorant who I saw there a lot in the winter of 2011, but have only seen him a few times this year. African Darter also visit the pond, along with the occasional Three-Banded Plover when the pond level is low. A Purple Heron visits the pond occasionally, after spending more time there when he was a juvenile, last year. The pond has an island which is home to numerous Cape Weaver nests, which also spill out onto the reeds alongside the pond. If you’re lucky you can also see the local resident Malachite Kingfisher resting on these reeds. The water also houses Marsh Terrapins which can sometimes be seen bathing on top of some of the objects in the water.

Alongside the outer areas of the pond Cape Bulbul, Robin Chat, Karoo Prinia, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Cape White-eyes, Common Fiscal, Fiscal Flycatcher and Cape Sugarbird are commonly seen. Also present occasionally are both Speckled and Red Faced Mousebirds. During the summer months you will see a variety of Martins and Swallows flying over the water here, usually Greater Stripped Swallows and Barn Swallows. The outer areas of the pond is also a great place for finding the elusive De Villiers Moss Frog.

Taking the left route from the pond, up the side of the mountain will lead one towards a forest, on the west side of the reserve, this forest is where the Jackal Buzzards nest and you are very likely to see them coming out from the trees as the sun heats up around 10 to 11am in summer and usually early afternoon in the winter. If you follow the main path you will then pass a small house on your left, the area around the house can often reveal the Cape Grassbird, Yellow Bishop, Common Waxbills, Levaillant’s Cisticola and more. Higher up on this path you will come across the short grass now recovering over the burn area from last year in April, this area is good for finding both African and Long-Billed Pipits, higher up will also sometimes reveal some White-Necked Ravens.

If you had gone right from the pond you’d reach an area of several paths, where the main hiking trails begin the two paths that head towards the mountain will bring one into the sunbird territory. There are vast amounts of sunbird here and one can usually see Southern Lesser Collared Sunbirds, Orange Breasted Sunbird, Malachite Sunbird and even Amethyst Sunbirds which have been extending their range westwards over the last few years – the Cape Sugarbird can also be seen in abundance in this area.

If you decide to take the right path instead you will move towards another one of the rivers and another small, but very reedy pond. This pond houses Lesser Swamp Warblers and the occasional Bar-Throated Apalis. Sombre Greenbul, Dusky Flycatchers and the occasional Olive Woodpecker can also be found near the river.

Higher up on the mountain, along the rocky areas I have encountered numerous Neddickies and Familiar Chats. The sky above the reserve definitely does bring some good raptor sightings at times, but from my experience the most likely sights as far as raptors go would be the Jackal Buzzard, Black Sparrowhawk and Gymnogene. I have also seen African Fish Eagle, Rufous-Chested Sparrowhawk and Peregrine Falcon. Though there is a much bigger list, I just haven’t seen them yet, I know Yellow-Billed Kites and Verreaux’s Eagle are occasionally seen.

This reserve has also played host to some rare sightings, between May and September 2012 I managed to encounter a Green Backed Heron, Long Crested Eagle and an Eagle which is either a Lesser Spotted Eagle, Steppe Eagle or Tawny Eagle – regardless of which one, it is an amazing rarity.

The reserve does ringings on Friday mornings.

Should you want any more information on birding at the Helderberg Nature Reserve, don’t hesitate to contact me and I will try and help.

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