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Berg River Estuary, Velddrif


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The estuary and floodplain cover a vast area, extending 40 km inland along one of the Cape’s biggest rivers. This area encompasses a wide diversity of habitats, including sandy beaches, mudflats, reedbeds, riverine channels, strandveld and floodplain, and it is famously rich in birdlife. The floodplain itself, which is very seasonal and difficult to access, holds few birds that cannot be seen nearer the mouth. Rather, it is the mudflats and saltpans that provide the most rewarding birding, and have proven excellent for rarities (see box, p.50). Ornithologists at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute (see p.57) have studied this region intensively and have shown that these mudflats support the highest density of waders along the entire east Atlantic seaboard.

After 140 rather monotonous kilometres from Cape Town, the R27 coastal road spans the Berg River and enters the town of Velddrif, which sprawls along its northern bank. Just before the road crosses the river (1 on map above), the Cerebos salt works (2) lies to the left. The evaporation pans of this conveniently non-tidal locality are particularly good for Chestnut-banded Plover, and roosting waders that flee the mudflats at high tide. Another advantage here is that the birds are often closely approachable from the comfort of your vehicle; ask permission at the office to drive around (but don’t try this in winter when the rains make the roads extremely slippery).

The pans closest to the offices (2 on map) are the most reliable for Chestnut-banded Plover, which may be seen here in fair numbers. The bulk of South Africa’s population of this localized species occurs on the saline pans of the West Coast. Kittlitz’s Plover is also common here, and often nests on the edges of the roads that skirt the pans. During summer, large numbers of waders feed along the pan margins; the most common species include Little Stint, Ruff, Ringed Plover and Curlew Sandpiper. Other birds here, especially in the vicinity of 3, include Black-necked Grebe, Greater and Lesser Flamingo, Cape Teal and Caspian Tern. It is also worth scanning the pans on the east side of the R27 at 4, which hold a selection of small waders, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet and South African Shelduck. Red-necked Phalarope is recorded here infrequently (but beware of distant Ruff that often feed by spinning in circles in an alarmingly phalarope-like manner!). Also look out for Thick-billed Lark and Capped Wheatear in the salt works.

To reach the back entrance of the salt works, take the R399 Vredenburg road and follow the Flaminkvlei right turn (5). This road initially passes some farmland: Thick-billed Lark and Stonechat occur here, and Jackal Buzzard is often seen in this vicinity (but note that the juveniles can resemble Steppe Buzzard). Greater Flamingo is often observed in this part of the salt works. Just beyond the buildings, a sandy track leads leftwards towards the coast and the strandveld along here (6) holds Cape Long-billed Lark.

Exciting Rarities, including Little Blue Heron and Lesser Yellowlegs, have been viewed from the Riviera
bird hide at Velddrif on the Berg River estuary
(7 on the map)

White Pelicans at the Berg River Estuary

The Riviera mudflat is perhaps the most famous of the Velddrif birding localities, and a number of rarities have been seen here — most famously the only African record of the American Little Blue Heron. The bird hide is situated at 7 (ask at the adjacent filling station or restaurant for the key). As always, it is important to get the tide right: the best viewing begins about 1.5 hours after the ‘High tide in Table Bay’ as listed in Cape Town newspapers. A diverse selection of waterbirds may be observed from here, including White Pelican, African Spoonbill, Greater and Lesser Flamingo, Purple Heron, Little Egret, and a wide selection of terns including Caspian and Little Terns. The mudflats are excellent in summer for migrant waders, and the selection of species is very similar to that at the Geelbek mudflat hide (refer to p.47). Confiding Levaillant’s Cisticola call from the nearby sedges.

The De Plaat mudflat (8) holds similar birds (and Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwit are easier to see here), although it is not as easy to approach them closely. De Plaat can be reached by taking the R399 and turning right into Vrede Road (opposite the ‘Spreewal Kafee’ building). Turn right again, follow this road to its end, and walk down past the eucalyptus trees to the wooden jetty. Again, be sure to visit on the correct tide: the best viewing begins about 3.5 hours after the ‘High tide in Table Bay’.

To reach an area of riverine channels and reedbeds (9 on map), where a variety of herons, warblers and other waterbirds may be found, take the main road east past the bird hide, and turn right along the road signposted ‘Bokkoms Industry’ (referring to a West Coast speciality: malodorous dried fish) and continue to the banks of the river. Wooded residential areas of Velddrif, such as those in this vicinity, usually provide Red-faced Mousebird and Acacia Pied Barbet.

At the harbour on the river mouth in Laaiplek (0), a selection of cormorants, gulls (a good site for the scarce Grey-headed Gull) and terns roost. The latter are harried in summer by Arctic Skua just offshore.

A pair of Spotted Eagle Owl is resident at the copse of eucalyptus and wattle trees at A, along the Hopefield road. An excellent area for strandveld birds may be reached along the R27, 10 km south of Velddrif, opposite the turnoff to ‘St Helena / Stompneus’. Continue along the unsurfaced road to the east for 1 km, and bird the strandveld near the crest of the hill. Birds present here include Southern Black Korhaan (p.57*), White-backed Mousebird, Karoo Lark, Southern Grey Tit, Cape Penduline Tit, Layard’s Titbabbler, Long-billed Crombec, Bar-throated Apalis and White-throated Canary. Cape Long-billed Lark (p.13) is occasionally seen near the R27 roadside, just to the south of here, although beware of confusion with the much more common Thick-billed Lark.

The ephemeral Rocher Pan, a large waterbody protected in a nature reserve 24 km north of Velddrif, may be reached via the hamlet of Dwarskersbos. It often supports an interesting selection of waterbirds, and is flanked by very productive strandveld vege-tation and a lonely coastline. A desolate beach stretches towards the seemingly limitless horizon, populated only by the occasional pair of African Black Oystercatchers.

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