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Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Widely recognized as one of the world’s finest botanical gardens, Kirstenbosch would be an essential destination for its pleasing landscapes and spectacular floral displays alone. Additionally, the well-maintained gardens and adjacent fynbos and indigenous forest support an attractive diversity of bird species. Here, it is possible to approach a number of Cape endemics at close quarters, including such desirable species as Cape Sugarbird (p.33*), Orange-breasted Sunbird (p.33*) and Cape Francolin.

The modern Visitors’ Centre (1 on site map overleaf), located near the main entrance, is well worth exploring. Here one can enjoy a meal, browse the well-stocked tourist shop, consult the information kiosk, or search the excellent bookshop — offering arguably Cape Town’s best selection of natural history titles. The Visitors’ Centre is also home to a world-class glasshouse (the Conservatory), which contains a variety of succulent plants from South Africa’s arid areas. Ranging from a huge baobab to tiny stone-plants, this fascinating display is highly recommended for those with even the most casual botanical interest. A pair of Spotted Eagle Owls nests annually in the camphor trees just behind the Visitors’ Centre, and the staff usually know their precise whereabouts.

Castle Buttress stands sentinel above the gardens, flanked by Skeleton Gorge and Nursery Ravine. These are two of the numerous gorges that cut through the steep and moist eastern face of Table Mountain, providing welcome refuge from the often baking summer heat of the surrounding fynbos. In the ravines, two metres of annual rainfall maintains pockets of pristine afromontane forest, through which acidic, fast-flowing streams course over moss-swathed boulders and decaying trunks festooned with ferns. Clinging, well-concealed, to the shaggy moss of these streams is the very rare Table Mountain Ghost Frog (Heleophryne rosei), which is globally restricted to just a handful of gorges on these eastern slopes. Despite the idyllic setting, however, birders may find the Peninsula’s forests disappointingly quiet relative to the diversity that abounds farther east — although there are rewards for those who are patient.

The most accessible forest is along the Braille Trail (2 on map opposite) an easy walk that loops gently through the trees. It begins on a broad gravel path opposite the Fragrance Garden, which is just a short stroll across the lower lawns from the main entrance and Visitors’ Centre. It is best to start here as early as possible, as human activity increases steadily during the morning. Knysna Warbler (p.32*) sometimes lurks along the streams and thickets here, but the Constantia Greenbelts (p.18) and Skeleton Gorge (p.19) are more reliable places to search for it. Cinnamon Dove is a true forest species that is often found shuffling through the leaf litter in the dappled shade of the understorey. For the best chance of seeing it, make an early start up the gravel track mentioned above (2), concentrating your search at the sharp corner after about 300 m (3). Other forest birds found here and along the Braille Trail also extend down into the formal gardens. These include Rameron Pigeon, Sombre Bulbul, Olive Thrush (p.13), Cape Batis, Paradise and Dusky Flycatchers, and Forest Canary — the latter a relatively recent arrival on the Peninsula (see page on recent arrivals on the Peninsula). The whole of Kirstenbosch is also a fine area for raptors: early mornings and evenings are when forest hawks, such as Red-breasted and Black Sparrowhawks and African Goshawk, are most likely to be seen (see box, p.18).

Next, visit the small, tranquil forest patch, known as the Dell, which surrounds Colonel Bird’s Bath, a clear spring welling up in the middle of the gardens (4). The huge trees overlooking the spring invariably hold perched Rameron Pigeons. From the Dell, one can ascend through the jumble of the Cycad Garden into the upper part of Kirstenbosch (5), where protea and erica plants abound. Their flowerheads are adorned with Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds respectively, whose approachability will be much appreciated by photographers. Fynbos vegetation is globally renowned for its remarkable diversity of bird-pollinated plant species, and Kirstenbosch is a perfect place to observe this mutualism in action.

Make your way downhill from the protea section, along the right hand edge of the Dell, following one of the myriad paths that eventually lead to the lower gardens. Common and conspicuous birds of the cultivated gardens are Cape Francolin, Helmeted Guineafowl, Cape Robin, Karoo Prinia, Southern Boubou and Lesser Double-collared Sunbird. Species found here that are characteristic of more wooded environments in the Cape are Red-chested Cuckoo (calling September— November), Black Saw-wing Swallow (summer), Speckled Mousebird and Bully Canary. Passing the Aloe Garden (6), look carefully at Kirstenbosch’s unusual Fiscal Shrikes, which show a patchy white eyebrow, characteristic of the northern Cape subspecies. Before leaving, it is worth visiting the small marsh (7) that lies below the old parking area. Here, the noisy Grassbird, Levaillant’s Cisticola and Common Waxbill vie with the ceaseless chorus of Cape Chirping Frogs (Arthroleptella lightfooti) and Clicking Stream Frogs (Strongylopus grayii).

The forests high above Kirstenbosch are the haunt of the localized and reclusive Knysna Warbler (p.32*), a southern Cape endemic which lurks in the forest understorey, giving a beautiful song but obstinately resisting attempts at a clear view. Birders who enjoy hiking and decide to venture up to the top of Skeleton Gorge in search of Knysna Warbler might consider a round trip, returning behind Castle Buttress and down Nursery Ravine. This moderately strenuous half-day walk along orchid-lined streams quickly elevates one from the hustle and bustle of the city suburbs below and into the calm sanctum of Table Mountain’s southern reaches. Although Knysna Warbler occurs along the length of the Skeleton stream, it is perhaps most easily seen in the bracken-dominated section at the head of the gorge, where the path climbs out of the rocky riverbed. On the mountain top, a pair of Black Eagles regularly hunts, Black Swifts nest in the cliffs at the top of Nursery Ravine, and Cape Siskin (p.33*) and Ground Woodpecker (p.105*) occur on the rocky crags of the buttress proper. The unrivalled elusiveness of the Striped Flufftail will become immediately apparent to anyone following up the bizarre cackles and hoots that emanate from the denser fynbos.

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4 Crassula Way, Pinelands, 7405, Cape Town, South Africa

27/09/09: Dalton Gibbs reports back from Gough Island! Read the blog!

26/09/09: New Cape Town Pelagics trip report from trips of 12 and 19 September 2009.

30/08/09: British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water proved very successful, with sunny weather and over 20,000 visitors. Callan's "Birding Namibia and the Okavango" was the most highly-attended lecture on the Saturday, with over 240 people. Congratulations to the winners of the Birding Africa competition and the African Bird Club raffle that we helped sponsor!

12/08/09: New Cape Town Pelagics trip reports from August and July 2009. Highlights: Little Shearwater and more!

07/08/09: The sub-adult Black Sarrowhawk visits our garden again! Read on about Raptor Research in the Western Cape.

27/07/09: Cape Town's Verreauxs' Eagle Chick has grown! And its sibling never had a chance to hatch. See the pictures of the chick, its nest and the breeding pair. Find out more about the Western Cape Raptor Research Programme.

27/07/09: To follow modern nomenclature and systematics, we've adopted the IOC World Bird List, Version 2.1.

13/07/09: The 8th African Bird ID Challenge has launched! Win a 50% discount on a Cape Town Pelagics trip, a copy of Southern African Birdfinder, or African Bird Club membership for 1 year.

6 July 09: Cape White-eye research in our garden.

2 July 09: Cape Town's Verreauxs' Eagle Chick has hatched! See the pictures of the chick, its nest and the breeding pair. Find out more about the Western Cape Raptor Research Programme.

2 July 09: Campbell Fleming, a Cape Town scholar, avid birder and photographer, joined Birding Africa last month as an intern. Click here, to see what he got up to.

2 July 09: New pelagic trip reports from the Cape Town Pelagics trips in June 2009. Highlights: Slenderbilled Prion and Leach's Storm Petrel

30 july 09: Our latest Cape Fynbos and Karoo trip reports feature Hottentot Buttonquail, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and other fynbos and Karoo endemics...

26 June 09: Tungsten mining threatens RAMSAR site, South Africa's Verlorenvlei. Read the Media Release.

22 June 09: Claire Spottiswoode, one of the Cape Birding Route founders, was part of the exploratory team at Mount Mabu. The mountain is part of the newly discovered largest rainforest in Southern Africa.

11 June 09: A colour-ringed Black Sparrowhawk visits the Birding Africa office garden. Read why it's a 10 months old male!

14 June 09:
Wildlife at the office of The Cape Birding Route, Birding Africa and Cape Town Pelagics.

31 May 09:
Michel Watelet wins the 7th African Bird Club & Birding Africa ID Challenge. Test your African birding skills and WIN a Birding Africa Cape town day trip or a copy of the Birdfinder!

30 May 09: A tragedy unfolds at Kommetjie south of Cape town as 44 beached False Killer Whales were shot. Click here for more details and pictures.

14 March 09: Raptor Watch in Cape Town on 14 March 09