Return to SA Birding Main Site
Robben Island can only be reached by boat. Several ferries run daily from 09h00 until 18h00, but this schedule is subject to change in winter as well as the weather throughout the year. Boat trips to Robben Island cost R100 per person, and have to be booked in advance with the Robben Island Museum’s offices at the Nelson Mandela Gateway in the Waterfront. Unfortunately for the birder, there are no dedicated bird tours at the island, so one usually has to “tick” the birds while moving around the island on your scheduled bus tour. It may however be possible small groups or individuals to arrange short birding trips with members of the RIM’s Environmental Office, but this is not always guaranteed. There is a shop in the harbour as well as on the boat where one can buy bottled water cold drinks and snacks. DO NOT drink the tap water on the island – it is untreated borehole water! Please respect signage and the wildlife. Keep your distance from them and do not attempt to kill, capture or injure any of the reptiles that you may encounter - they are rather unique to the island. Please also take your empty cans and snack packets back with you or deposit it on the boat. Smoking is only permitted in the harbour area because fire is a very real danger, particularly in summer when the vegetation is tinder dry and fire-fighting facilities are currently inadequate to deal with such an emergency. Take a shady hat, sun protection cream, dark glasses, a warm jacket (even in summer a sudden south-Easter can spring up and chill one to the bone in no time). Robben Island is far from pristine, with irreversible ecological damage well rooted. There are many building dotted around the island, although most form a village at the south- eastern end of the island referred to as Irish Town.



Vegetation is dominated by alien species, notably gums, pine, manatoka and rooikranz, which form very dense thickets in places. Portions of the western side of the island represent a shadow of the indigenous flora.



Chukar Partridge, Common Peacock, Cape Cormorant, Bank Cormorant, African Black Oystercatcher, Parasitic Jaeger, Sabine's Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake.



The boat trip across Table Bay can be quite rewarding from time to time. Sabine's Gull and Parasitic Jaeger are common in summer. Check the Sabine's Gull carefully - Black-legged Kittiwake look similar and one was seen recently in a flock. Subantarctic Skua, White-chinned Petrel and Sooty Shearwater are common in winter. With luck after a blow, Black-browed Albatross and Northern Giant-Petrel can be seen and the possibility of an unusual vagrant pitching up also cannot be ruled out. Various terns, Cape Gannet and African Penguin are regularly sighted throughout the year. Keep a lookout for the endemic Heaviside’s Dolphin, especially in winter, as the boat rounds the breakwater up until the green bouy. They are not conspicuous, usually only providing views of their triangular dorsal fin. Cape Fur Seals are common in the harbour and may be seen in transit as well, but be careful not to confuse their low profile frolicking in the wake with dolphins. Dusky Dolphins are also regularly seen in passage and are best identified by their two-toned dorsal fin. For the very fortunate a southern Right Whale or Basking Shark is a bonus.

As one enters Murray Bay Harbour, check the lee of the northern breakwater for breeding Bank Cormorant. Dozens of Cape Cormorant roost here as well. Keep a lookout for Greater Sheathbill - several have been seen on the breakwater over the last decade. All four marine cormorants roost on the shorter southern breakwater. In summer a pair of White-throated Swallow nest in the harbour. As one leaves the harbour area follow the signs to your right indicating the penguin hide and boardwalk. Very large aggregations of moulting penguins can be seen here in summer (Nov-Jan). Please use the hide provided and under no circumstances approach the shoreline - penguins are particularly vulnerable during their moult and additional stress through running about or involuntarily entering the water could result in them losing additional weight to the norm from which they may not be able to recover. Breeding penguins can be seen amongst the bushes from the boardwalk anytime from March to October.

A bird list of close to 150 species has been recorded for the island, but usually about 30-50 species could be accounted for in a morning. Every birder visiting Robben Island needs to see the Chukar Partridge and Common Peacock. Chukar Partridge can be seen anywhere throughout the year, but is easiest in winter on the lawn of the prison or along the sides of the road near Robert Subukwe house in the early morning or evenings. If a summer visit in unavoidable definitely choose the earliest or latest trips for your visit – this would work well for the Common Peacock as well – in summer both species tend to hide in the shade of the thickets to escape the midday sun. To find Common Peacock requires a bit of patience and stealth. The best place to try is in the bush behind the prison. Walk along the road that follows the jails southern perimeter fence and search the all the dingy thickets carefully. Check also the lower branches of the black Cypress trees near a cement dam - in the heat of the day they sometimes roost there. It is important to note that the Common Peacock are very skittish and may run away the moment they catch sight of you. It is not usually necessary to leave the road to see the birds. The road tracks right around the prison and one should end up at the Muslim Kramat at the jails northern end. All of the habitat on this route, bar a short section of grassland, has potential for both of the wanted birds.

Van Riebeecks Quarry at the southern end of the island, holds permanent freshwater that can provide some interesting birds, e.g. African Darter, Reed Cormorant, Black-crowned Night-Heron, African Black Oystercatcher, kingfishers, ducks, etc. The coastline in summer hosts a rich variety of waders with always a hope of a rarity. Spotted Thick-knee are regularly seen along the edges of alien thickets. The grasslands to the west provide habitat for Common Ostrich, Common Fiscal and Zitting Cisticola, while gum tree stands host Malachite Sunbird and Fiery-necked Nightjar. Be careful of the Ostriches in Spring if venturing far from a vehicle - the males have been known to harass unwanted guests straying too close to a nest. It is always useful to check above for raptors and swifts when not checking over your shoulder for irate ostriches.

In some years, large Hartlaub's Gull and Swift Tern colonies form, but their precise location varies from year to year. Visitors are advised to stay in their vehicles when passing by these colonies. Not only is the noise and smell a little overpowering, but one will cause substantial mortality to small chicks and eggs, which are often fatally attacked by territorial neighbours. Similarly, Robben Island hosts a large conglomerate heronry, made up primarily of Cattle Egret, but also includes Crowned Cormorant, African Sacred Ibis, Little Egret and Black-crowned Night-Heron. Like the gulls, the location of the heronry shifts from year to year. Visitors should not venture into or near these colonies as the devastation you may cause could have dire consequences. It is always useful to report the heronry’s whereabouts to your tour guide should you notice it while moving about.

The grassy plains are also home to a variety of introduced game, e.g. Bontebok, Steenbok and Springbok. In the evenings Fallow deer and Eland emerge from the plantations to browse or to catch a bit of sun. European rabbits abound throughout the island. Feral domestic cats may also be seen from time to time.

There is a unique assortment of reptiles on the island, none of which are poisonous or dangerous. The mole snake is a large black snake, that on Robben Island eats mostly bird eggs and is rarely seen. Burrowing Lizards, Dwarf Chameleons, geckoes, skinks and Girdled Lizards occur but are also quite scarce. Several species of tortoise also occur, the Angulate Tortoise being the most common. In winter the calls of two frog species may be heard. The Sand Rain Frog is very vocal just before and during rain.

A bird list is available at the back of a booklet published by Bright Continent “Wildlife of Robben Island” by Rob Crawford and Bruce Dyer (). Please notify either of the authors should additional species be noted on your trip.



The Robben Island Museum can be contacted on +27 21 409 5100. To book, contact: Nelson Mandela Gateway: Tel: +27 21 413 4200 Fax: +27 21 419 1057 e-mail: .

Robben Island Website

Bruce Dyer.
Afton Grove

Copyright © 2008 SA Birding cc