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The steep, rocky slopes and dense acacia thicket of the small picnic site often called Katbakkies, where the Karoo meets the escarpment of the Koue Bokkeveld (‘cold buck-country’) mountains, offers fine and varied birding. It is best known as the classic site for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler (p.85*), a peculiar and often evasive warbler of arid, rocky hillsides. In addition, the acacia thicket offers several dry western specials, including Pririt Batis, Fairy Flycatcher and Layard’s Titbabbler.

This site, which we shall call Katbakkies in keeping with popular birding tradition, is correctly named ‘Peerboomskloof’ or ‘Skitterykloof’; the true, now ignored Katbakkies lies 20 km to the west. The obscure term ‘Katbakkies’ refers to the ‘dickey-seat’ on the rear of old motor cars, and the steep pass is so-named because it had to be ascended backwards, using the more powerful reverse gear. Just 3.5 km west of the R355, the road enters an aloe-lined gap in the mountains and proceeds to wind steeply up into the moister, fynbos-like scrub of the Koue Bokkeveld. Just past the initial passage into the mountains, a small track (1 on map overleaf) leads off to the left and immediately into the picnic site. A few concrete tables, a tap and a rustic toilet are set alongside impenetrable sweet-thorn (Acacia karroo) thicket that bristles with fearsomely huge thorns. Acacia trees line the riverbed leading into the top of the picnic site, where there is also a tiny, reed-bordered dam. Below the picnic site, the valley broadens and there is a small seep (at 2) that feeds a dense reedbed. The rock-strewn valley sides and precipitous, red-cliffed escarpments presiding over the picnic area are covered with a remarkable density of Aloe comosa, an unusually tall aloe restricted to a tiny area in this region.

These slopes are also legendary for being most accessible site in the world to see Cinnamon-breasted Warbler (p.85*). Familiarity with this species’ call is absolutely essential, as it is otherwise almost impossible to locate. The pair on the slopes adjacent to the band of red cliffs at 3, a short walk up the riverbed from the picnic site, are arguably South Africa’s most tape-pressured birds, yet they nest here annually and still regularly respond to provocation. Having said that, we do urge ardent visitors to be very sparing with playback at this site in order to keep disturbance to a minimum. The birds tend to call loudly in short bursts, usually from exposed positions on a rock or aloe, then remain silent for another ten or fifteen minutes — so don’t despair. Even during each bout of calling, they are constantly on the move, delving around the bases of bushes and scurrying rodent-like between rock jumbles.

There are several pairs of birds within a few hundred metres of the picnic site. For the sure-footed, another good area to investigate is the steep ridge that runs parallel to the right-hand side of the road. Begin at the bend in the road at 4, 150 m from the picnic site turn-off. Climb straight up the slope and on to the top of the ridge, aiming to skirt the right-hand edge of the cliff at 5. It is well worth the scramble, as this ridge has the advantage of keeping one above the birds, making them much easier to locate as they call intermittently among the rocks below. It is then possible to search for the birds rather than over-play the tape.

As you bound along the slopes after warblers, you’re also likely to bump into Southern Grey Tit, Layard’s Titbabbler, Mountain Chat and Rock Martin. Pale-winged Starlings regularly overfly the valley, and Ground Woodpeckers (p.105*) sometimes hurl invective from the ridges. Dusky Sunbirds occasionally move into the area. As ever, it is worth keeping an eye skyward for Black and Booted Eagles and Rock Kestrel.

The acacia thicket in the picnic site is usually alive with birds, even at midday. Essentials here are Fairy Flycatcher and Pririt Batis. Other interesting birds of this habitat are Acacia Pied Barbet, White-backed Mousebird, African Marsh Warbler (summer), Yellow-bellied Eremomela, White-throated Canary and Cape Bunting. Three-banded Plover frequent the boggy lower seep, while the adjacent reedbeds host resident Levaillant’s Cisticola and Cape Reed Warbler.

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