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Birding at Rooi Els and Bettys Bay

Somerset West Bird Club Outing – Rooi Els and Betty’s Bay (16 March 2013)

The day started as any good day of birding does, by waking up far too early. The alarms were set for 5:00, allowing us 45 minutes to wake up, get ready and to grab some snacks/breakfast and put in petrol. Cathryn, my girlfriend – was with me again and today we were going to join the Somerset West Bird Club, of which I’m a member – in visiting the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens in Betty’s Bay. There were a few other stops on the schedule though, including Rooi Els to look for Black Eagles, Cape Rockjumper and Ground Woodpecker. We met with the other members of the club in the usual location at 6:00, the sun still far from making it’s daily appearance, and before long we were on the road. From Somerset West, Rooi Els is around 35km drive, while Betty’s Bay is around 43km. Rose Mills would be leading the group for the day, so we knew we were in for an informative guide. We slowly navigated the cliff side road above Gordon’s Bay in convoy, taking it slowly. The crosses that line the shore below lies testament of just how dangerous the area can be when wreckless, for both fisherman on the cliffs below and drivers on the road above.

Steenbras River Mouth

After driving 15 or so kilometres, we found ourselves stopped off on the road side just passed the Steenbras River Mouth. The area can hold both Cape Buntings and occasional Ground Woodpeckers. Within a few seconds we had located the former, but after a stay of 15 to 20 minutes, there were still no signs of any Ground Woodpeckers, though we weren’t surprised. The sky was overcast and the sun still yet to bring light. A few small drops of rain descended upon us, but spirits remained high and we were hopeful of something interesting further ahead. I should note that I had not yet birded along this route and I was hoping for some lifers to bring me over the 170 mark, while Cathryn too, new to birding – was hoping to reach her 100th species. The Cape Bunting, while by no means a difficult to find bird, was a lifer for me – so the day was already off to a good start. We heard what was a likely Southern Double Collared Sunbird and a Cape Robin Chat calling from across the road, though nothing too interesting.

Rooi Els – The search for the Cape Rockjumper

Before long we were back on the road and passing through the then fog covered road next to Kogelbaai. The next stop would be Rooi Else which was another 25 or so kilometres from where we were. Before long we found ourselves in Rooi Els, the sun had now begun to provide a bit more light and the ability for potential photography, while not great due to completely overcast conditions became at least possible. The Rooi Els visit began and we walked through the entrance to where hundreds, if not thousands of birders have gone before- the area well known for finding the elusive and endemic Cape Rockjumper. Our first species was a Malachite Sunbird, a molting male. Next up were some beautiful Orange-Breasted Sunbirds, followed by a Cape Weaver or two, as well as Cape Bulbuls. While walking, Cathryn whispered into my ear how funny it would be if she were to spot something special, with it being her first day out with a bird club and being new to birding. A few minutes later she hesitantly, but with a sense of certainty asked:

“Um, love… You want your Black Eagle?”

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I was quick to stop in my tracks and ask with skepticism as to whether she had seen one. She pointed out a tiny object on a far ledge on the top of the mountain face, I snapped a few shots with my camera and zoomed in… My God… She had spotted an Eagle in a haystack. I quickly called the rest of the group to show them her sighting, a great sighting and another lifer for me. I may have a few raptor rarities, but yet the Verreaux’s Black Eagle had eluded me. After the entire group had spotted the Eagle, we began to move on along the path, coming across a Neddicky perched on a rock; we also came across a male and female Cape Rock Thrush, a species that while I had seen it in the Drakensberg- I had not yet seen one in the Western Cape.

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We continued walking, scanning the rocks for any sign of the elusive Cape Rockjumper. We were reaching the end of the route without any sign of the bird when suddenly, I saw something jump onto a rock in the distance. I was quick to fire off a few shots in the low light, they were blurry at 1/50 shutter speed, but enough to confirm the ID. “Rockjumper!”, I exclaimed with excitement to the rest of the group – who were quick to respond by scanning for the bird. After explaining where I had seen it, we watched the area for signs of the bird to re-emerge from the bushes. It wasn’t long before he was again up on another rock, a lot of excitement as the group all connected with the bird. We had to have a chuckle at the fact that we, the two youngest birders in the group spotted both the target birds. We were then on our way back as it began to drizzle again, though we were still keeping an eye open for any signs of the Ground Woodpeckers that are found in the area, but no luck.

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Pringle Bay

We then left Rooi Els and headed to Pringle Bay, which is located just a few kilometres away. We basically just passed through the town, and things were quiet with only some Cape Sugarbirds, Fiscal Flycatchers and Speckled Pigeons seen. But on the way out of Pringle Bay, the convoy stopped and we looked at some small grey seed eating birds on the telephone line. I was not sure what species this was, and since we remained in the car, we didn’t hear what the other birders were talking about. I took a few photographs and when I got home attempted to ID; it appears that the bird was in fact a Southern Grey Headed Sparrow, a species which my fairly old Newmans’ guide shows as extremely localized this far south, but after doing a bit of google searching, it appears this species has expanded its range towards the south west, similar to how the Amethyst Sunbird has. This would mark another new species for me.

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Betty’s Bay – Beach and Harold Porter Botanical Gardens

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Then it was off to Betty’s Bay where we would be stopping off at Fanie, a member of the bird club’s house for some tea and a snack. On route to his house we came across a Jackal Buzzard that flew in and perched on a telephone pole along the side of the road. We then settled down for a bathroom break and some drinks at Fanie’s place. We were there for around 30 minutes, where we saw a flock of Speckled Mousebirds fly past. In the distance, from the balcony, we could also see the African Penguins and a vast amount of Cormorants lining the rocky shore line.

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After we were done with our relaxing and refueling, we were off to a location just down the road where we would be getting a closer look at some of the sea birds, specifically African Penguins and African Black Oystercatchers. Minutes after arriving and parking, while headed down towards the beach area, I caught a glimpse of a familiar flight sequence, I was confident that it was a Peregrine Falcon which flew in to perch half way up a large radio tower.

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We walked closer towards the penguins, looking at the Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls; a swift tern or two were also present. A number of African Penguins were covering the rocks, while Hyraxes watched us from the rocky outcrops just below the walking path. Rock Martins were abundant in the area, perching on the roofs of local houses, as well as flying between the dunes; other aerial feeders included a Barn Swallow and some White-Throated Swallows. A few African Black Oystercatchers were walking around on the sand, perched on the rocks and flying past. We also came across some White Fronted Plovers, Black Winged Stilts and a Little Egret seemingly doing some salt water fishing. Some visitors from Gauteng who were joining the trip were also surprised by the presence of Egyptian Geese in the shallows of the ocean waters – a sight that has become somewhat common for those of us here in the Cape.

It was then time for Harold Porter, the primary destination of our outing. The Harold Porter Botanical Gardens is a lot like the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in many ways, though with less of a dent on the pocket with entry fees for adults at R18 and R12 for seniors. We made our way along the path way, first coming across some Southern Double Collared Sunbirds, then a Cape Bunting bathing in a pool of water. A Karoo Prinia kept tugging on the leaves of a small bush just a few feet from the Cape Bunting too. Our group leader, Rose Mills – provided us with a wealth of information relating to the various plant species. A Dusky Flycatcher gave us a nice show as it darted down to the ground and back up to a branch repeatedly, within close proximity to us.

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We kept an eye open for Kingfishers, both Giant and Malachite, but there was no luck. We did however come across a single African Black Duck which emerged from the side of the river.

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We moved on further along, heading closer towards the mountains and under the canopies of trees. We came across a Cape Batis and a very outgoing Sombre Greenbul, who was perched out in the open and called with conviction for several minutes as we kept our eyes fixed on what is usually quite a shy species. A discussion then developed around the potential of seeing the Blue-Mantled Flycatcher which has been seen at the gardens before; a few seconds into the conversation the distinct sound of a Paradise Flycatcher echoed from the trees above us. We managed to get a couple of sightings of the bird as it flitted between the trees and small bushes around the river. Some Swee Waxbills were also seen feeding off some of the plants. We then walked back towards the exit, to call an end to the day. But the birds weren’t finished yet, as a Familiar Chat stood perched on top of the entrance.

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Overall it was a very successful day, and thanks must go out to all the members involved. We managed to walk away with an impressive list of species, and I am thrilled to have finally seen both the Verreaux’s Black Eagle and the Cape Rockjumper.

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Bryn De Kocks

Bryn is a passionate and opinionated antinatalist and naturalist with a love for nature, the ocean, photography, severe weather and music. He spends most of his time looking for new birds within the Western Cape, taking landscape photographs or behind his computer being a nerd.

3 thoughts on “Birding at Rooi Els and Bettys Bay

  1. A splendid record of the visit Bryn, thank you . Thanks also due to Rose Mills whose knowledge and determination ensured that the day was memorable. After the young people had left ‘wrinklies’, who didn’t want the day to end raided the local fish and chip shop and then found some cut logs in the local church grounds to eat their lunch out of newspaper. A great birding day.

  2. Absolutely super write-up Bryn, and am very impressed with your super pics…………..love the Familiar Chat, of course the
    Verreaux’s Eagle (what a bit of luck!),Dusky Flycatcher too.
    The scenery pics so nice too, I like the black and white ones too.
    Fantastic that you saw the elusive Rockjumper, hope next time he will be closer. What a bird!!
    Great that Cathryn doing so well, – good luck for number 100! – and both of you spotting such specials.
    Sadly I seem to miss all the outings, mostly work over the weekend, and this time I was at the Wilderness.

    See you soon I hope.

    Jill

  3. Hi Bryn,
    it just shows that patience and determination always turns up special birds. Nice write up and beautiful pictures. It just shows one should not miss any bird club outings.
    Heide

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