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Birds and birding in Velddrif

By: Trevor Hardaker

Velddrif has long been known as one of the best birding sites in all of Southern Africa, not just for the number of species that call this area home, but also for its unique ability to turn up some of the rarest species that have ever been recorded in the entire subregion.

You would likely have heard how keen birders are on keeping lists, whether it be a lifelist (a list of all the species they have ever seen in their life), country list, province list, site or reserve list or even a garden list. For many local birders, their most important list is the Southern African list. This list is a list of all the species they have seen within the area covered by most of the traditional bird field guide books that have ever been published. It includes the entire region south of the Kunene and Zambezi Rivers, in other words, South Africa, Lesotho, eSwatini, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and the southern two-thirds of Mozambique as well as the coastal waters offshore out to 200 nautical miles offshore all around the coastline of this area. As things currently stand, an impressive total of 990 bird species have been recorded within this overall area, almost 10% of all the birds on the entire planet!

To put things even further into perspective, Southern African birders will travel this entire region regularly trying to see as many birds within it as they possibly can and will also often make specific arrangements to travel to a particular area when a very rare bird gets found there, just to add it to their Southern African lists. This latter phenomenon is known as twitching and causes many adrenaline-filled and unplanned trips all across Southern Africa when a rare bird is found. Incredibly, some 19 birders in Southern Africa have already seen more than 900 species within the region, quite an incredible feat indeed!

So, how does Velddrif compare as a birding destination? Amazingly, over 250 bird species have been recorded around Velddrif. Considering that it is a relatively small area, that’s more than 25% of all the bird species that have ever been recorded in the entire Southern African subregion, a very impressive total indeed!

Velddrif has a variety of habitats which probably is one of the reasons why so many birds occur there. Obviously, there are gardens in the town which offer thicker and taller vegetation, attracting some interesting birds to them and then there are the natural areas of coastal strandveld around the town which attract their own suite of birds. The open farmland areas also have a different suite of birds that call them home but, from a birding perspective though, the main attraction at Velddrif is the Berg River and its tidal mudflats as well as the groups of salt pans along the southern bank of the river. These areas hold the bulk of the species at Velddrif and, during the summer months, numbers of birds are boosted by the arrival of thousands of migrants from the Palearctic region who spend the austral summer here before heading back north to breed again.

Given the significance of the Berg River estuary to bird populations, it has also been declared an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife South Africa and BirdLife International and declared a wetland of importance by the Ramsar Convention (referred to as a Ramsar site), an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The Convention was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and came into force in 1975. Since then, almost 90% of UN member states, from all the world’s geographic regions, have acceded to become “Contracting Parties”. It is then perhaps a little surprizing that the Berg River estuary lacks an official national
conservation status from a South African governmental point of view.

The open farmlands around Velddrif hold many bird species of interest including the majestic Blue Crane, South Africa’s National Bird, while a whole host of LBJs (little brown jobs as they are affectionately known by birders) can also be found in these areas. Large-billed and Red-capped Larks and African Pipits abound with the endemic Cape Long-billed and Cape Clapper Larks also being around in lower numbers while the striking Capped Wheatear is also a regular feature of these areas. In some years, the nomadic Ludwig’s Bustard visits these areas while, if you are really lucky, you can sometimes see the stately Secretarybird patrolling the farmlands as well.

The coastal strandveld, although not necessarily a visually appealing habitat for many non-birders, holds a good array of endemic and near-endemic bird species to Southern Africa. Once again, tones of brown and grey are mostly the theme of the day, but species like Karoo Prinia, Grey-backed Cisticola, Long-billed Crombec, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler, Grey Tit, Cape Penduline Tit and White-throated Canary are commonplace while the monotony of browns and greys is broken by the gaudiness of Bokmakieirie, Yellow Canary and Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds amongst others. Ground-dwelling birds like Cape Spurfowl, Grey-winged Francolin and the striking Southern Black Korhaan also call this habitat home.

The Berg River estuary and salt pans are home to many resident waterbird species. Even for the non-birder, the sight of many hundreds, if not thousands, of Greater and Lesser Flamingos in a large swathe of pink across the area is always an incredible sight. At any point, a quick glance across the river can reveal large numbers of Egyptian Geese, Yellow-billed Ducks, Cape and Red-billed Teals, Cape Shovelers and Red-knobbed Coots swimming around with smaller numbers of Spur-winged Geese, Common Moorhen and maybe even Blue-billed Teals amongst them. The reedbeds along the river edge teem with small brown birds like Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warblers as well as Levaillant’s Cisticolas while the brown tones are also broken up by more colourful reedbed birds like Cape and Southern Masked Weavers and Southern Red Bishops. The reedbeds also hold some more secretive species and, if one is really lucky, you might even spot an African Swamphen, a Black Crake or perhaps even an African Rail. Kingfishers are also a regular feature of the river, particular Pied and Malachite Kingfishers, while raptors are prolific in the area including the African Fish Eagle which is often referred to as the “call of Africa”.

Muddy edges and shallow waters are often a big attraction to other birds like Grey, Black-headed and Purple Herons which are sometimes even joined by a Goliath Heron, the world’s largest Heron Species, while their smaller cousins like Yellow-billed and Little Egrets may also be present. Great White Pelicans, African Spoonbills and African Sacred and Glossy Ibises can also sometimes be found in the mix while there are also generally Reed and White-breasted Cormorants around too. One of the amazing sights of the Berg River estuary is also the incredible numbers of Cape Cormorants that roost further upstream on the river and then travel down to the mouth and coastline to feed every day. Early mornings and late afternoons can often provide a constant stream of these birds, literally in their thousands, moving to or from their feeding and roosting area, a quite incredible sight indeed!

There are also a number of resident wader species in the area which move between the salt pans but come out on to the river at low tide to feed on the newly exposed mudflats. Larger species include Blacksmith Lapwing, Black-winged Stilt and Pied Avocet while the smaller birds include Three-banded, White-fronted, Kittlitz’s and Chestnut-banded Plovers. For this latter species, the Velddrif region is widely regarded as probably the best place in Southern Africa to see this bird and many birders will add it to their lifelists at Velddrif.

In the austral summer, the numbers of birds are augmented with many species arriving from the Northern Hemisphere. Although the migrant species include Swallows, Swifts and Terns, the real spectacle is made up by the Palearctic waders that arrive here in their thousands. Most numerous are Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, Common Greenshank and Grey and Common Ringed Plovers, but a number of other species also visit in lower numbers like Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Ruff, Marsh, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Red Knot and even the much sought after Terek Sandpiper.

Although Velddrif has always been known as a good birding site, it really first made its mark on the local birding map with lots of birders from all over the subregion traveling to visit the area when a Little Blue Heron was found on the mudflats in front of the Riviera Hotel in April 1992. Why the significance of this particular record? Well, it was the very first time that a Little Blue Heron had ever been recorded in Southern Africa and it was one very lost bird! The natural range of this species is from the southern parts of the USA through the Caribbean and Central America down as far south in South America as Peru and Uruguay. Amazingly, this very lost avian visitor remained in the area for about 4 years until 1996 before eventually disappearing, giving many of the region’s birders an opportunity to come and see it and add it to their Southern African lists. Since then, we’ve only had one other record of this species, a bird which moved around quite a bit. It was first found at Cape Point in August 2000 and only stayed there briefly before disappearing. What is assumed to be the same individual was then re-found in January 2001 at the Onrus River estuary near Hermanus and stayed there until September that year before disappearing again. Incredibly, it was then found at the Olifants River estuary at Papendorp in April 2002 and remained there until at least July 2008. That was the last time anyone saw a Little Blue Heron in Southern Africa! We know that the latter bird was not the earlier Velddrif individual as that bird was an adult bird and the Cape Point bird arrived as a juvenile.

Over the years, Velddrif has continued to entrench its reputation as a birding site that regularly produces rarities i.e. birds that turn up there that are just not supposed to be anywhere near the area. One of the other rarities that Velddrif has become quite famous for is Red-necked Phalarope. This is a species that breeds in the Arctic regions of North America, Europe and Asia and then migrates south during the non-breeding season. The birds that breed in Europe typically move down to the bulge of Africa and not much further south than that but, occasionally, some do travel further south. Although there had been occasional records in the past from Velddrif, a single bird was discovered at the Kliphoek Salt Pans on 1 November 2014 and has been a permanent resident there ever since! It has been observed moulting between breeding and non-breeding plumage every year since then, something which we are not supposed to be seeing here as these birds should be far north in the Arctic circle when they moult into their incredible breeding plumage. It has meant that several thousand Southern African birders have now had the opportunity to come and enjoy this incredible little bird which has made Velddrif a household name in birding circles again.

The list of rarities or out of range birds that have been recorded at Velddrif in pretty extensive and it has a reputation for being one of the best rarity hotspots in Southern Africa! A number of exceeding rare birds with only a handful of records ever in Southern Africa have all being found at Velddrif before including Hudsonian Godwit, Lesser Yellowlegs, White-rumped Sandpiper and Wilson’s Phalarope, each time resulting in hundreds of birders from all over the region traveling there to see these birds. Other rarities that have been enjoyed there over the years include Common Redshank, Pectoral and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Caspian Plover, American and Pacific Golden Plovers, Black-tailed Godwit, Elegant Tern, Franklin’s Gull and even a Greater Frigatebird circling over the river mouth, a tropical seabird looking very out of place in the area. It’s not just rarities of Southern African significance that have been found at Velddrif. It has also played host to a number of regionally out of range species i.e. species which are common in some parts of Southern Africa, but should be nowhere near the west coast. These include species like Bateleur, Palm-nut Vulture, Pink-backed Pelican, Great Egret and Red-backed Shrike amongst others.

Most recently, Velddrif lit up the local birding scene again with the discovery of a Gull-billed Tern at Kliphoek Salt Pans. The bird spent time moving between the salt pans and the mudflats on the river at De Plaat. Known from North and East Africa, this species is still incredibly rare in Southern Africa with probably less than 50 sightings ever (from mostly the northern and eastern parts of Southern Africa), so it proved a particularly popular attraction for many birders who made the journey to see it. Velddrif has a richly-deserved status amongst birders as a top class birding destination and there is probably not a birder anywhere in Southern Africa that has not visited Velddrif for birding multiple times already or has it on their list of “must visit” places for the very near future.

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