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Grahamstown and surrounding areas

Modified: 2008/10/31 10:42 by admin - Categorized as: Eastern Cape
Grahamstown is better known as an educational and cultural centre than as a base for birding, and there are few species found in this part of the eastern cape which do not also occur at better-known localities. Nevertheless there is a great diversity of bird habitats within easy reach of the town. The Diaz Cross Bird Club has regular meetings and outings, and there is an active bird-ringing group based in the Department of Zoology & Entomology at Rhodes University. The office of Makana Tourism on the north side of Church Square (adjacent to the Standard bank) can provide contact details for the bird club. There is also a branch of the club in Kenton-on-sea, which can be contacted through the staff at the municipal library.

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1: Grahamstown Botanical Gardens

These gardens are being extensively redeveloped after a period of neglect, and are well worth a visit by birders, particularly on weekdays when few people are about. A one-hour walk can produce 30 species; more than 110 species have now been recorded in this small area. From Somerset Street, turn up the road between the Natural History and Cultural History sections of the Albany Museum; the main gates to the gardens are on the left, just beyond the Rhodes University administration building. There is parking just uphill from the entrance gates. The spring flowering of the Erythrina trees attracts flocks of Cape Weaver and Red-winged Starling, as well as Black-headed Oriole and Amethyst Sunbird. In winter when the aloes are in bloom, Malachite Sunbird appear alongside Greater Double-collared Sunbird and Southern Double-collared Sunbird; Grey Sunbird are regular, but inconspicuous, while other species such as Cape White-eye and Fork-tailed Drongo have their foreheads caked with aloe pollen. Wild fig trees in fruit are visited by Speckled Mousebird and Red-faced Mousebird, Dark-capped Bulbul and Sombre Greenbul, Olive Thrush and Black-collared Barbet; recently African Green-Pigeon have also been spotted. Southern Boubou skulk in the thickets, while seedeaters such as the Yellow-fronted Canary, Streaky-headed Seedeater, Swee Waxbill and Bronze Mannikin feed alongside the paths, and Forest Canary appear occasionally. Proteas on the upper slopes and around the 1820 Settlers Monument occasionally host Cape Sugarbird, while Cape Rock-Thrush, Rock Kestrel and Rock Martin have nested on the buildings. There is a resident African Goshawk, and regular visitors include Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Lesser Honeyguide, Klaas's Cuckoo and Olive Woodpecker and Knysna Woodpecker.

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2. Port Alfred and the coast

The seaside towns of Port Alfred and Kenton-on-sea are each about 50 km from Grahamstown. Goliath Heron now occur regularly on the rivers, and there are canoe trails on both the Kowie and Bushmans Rivers, which can provide good birding opportunities. African Black Oystercatcher are frequent along the shoreline, and Cape Gannet are often visible, flying parallel to the coast. The estuaries at Port Alfred and Boknes are good sites for waders in summer, but the best locality in this regard is certainly the Fish river estuary (30 km east of Port Alfred), where rarer species such as Terek Sandpiper are often recorded, and at times Caspian Tern, Swift Tern, Sandwich Tern, Common Tern and Little Tern can be seen side by side on the sandbanks near the mouth. The mudflats on the Kowie river at Port Alfred are best viewed at low tide from the east bank road leading to Centenary Park; Common Greenshank, Common Whimbrel, Grey Plover, Ruff, Common Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstone are common. However, vehicles should not be left unattended in the Centenary Park area, where theft from cars is a common problem. Black-winged Lapwing may be seen on the golf-course at Port Alfred during quiet periods, and on other coastal grasslands in the area. Denham's Bustard can be seen from the coastal road between Kenton-on-sea and Port Alfred, particularly in summer, and interesting waterbirds may occur at roadside dams, including a recent breeding record of Lesser Jacana. Yellow Weaver and Thick-billed Weaver nest at many sites. About 8 km inland from Kenton-on-sea on the road to Grahamstown there is a crossroad, with the western branch marked “Alexandria”; this gravel road leads down to the Bushmans river, and passes the Ghio (or Ngciyo) Wetland Reserve. This area of the valley floor is flooded for long periods after rain, but may also be dry for months on end. The pans can be viewed from the road, and there is also a hide on a peninsula between the main pans. Maximum counts in the past recorded 80 African Spoonbills, 40 Cape Shoveler, 80 Black-winged Stilt, 120 Little Stint, 600 Ruff, and 80 Common Tern; less frequent visitors have included Black Stork and Yellow-billed Stork, Maccoa Duck and Whiskered Tern. However, recent visits to this site have been much less productive.

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3. Watersmeet Reserve

This reserve at Bathurst, inland of Port Alfred, lies at the ebb-and-flow of the Kowie river. At the “Pig and Whistle” in Bathurst, turn west following the dirt road which passes the old mill, and continue to the reserve gate. An entrance fee is payable. There is a spectacular viewpoint just beyond the gate, looking down on the horseshoe bend of the Kowie river. A well-known African Crowned Eagle nest site is visible below, and other raptors such as Lanner Falcon, Jackal Buzzard and African Fish-Eagle are often to be seen from here. Descending to the riverside picnic site, there are several walking trails which pass through forest and also provide views of the river or the dam upstream. The road is very steep in places, and should be approached with caution in wet weather. White-backed Night-Heron have been seen occasionally, but Half-collared Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher and Malachite Kingfisher are more likely to be encountered. Forest birds include Knysna Turaco, Olive Woodpecker and Knysna Woodpecker, Green Wood-Hoopoe, Terrestrial Brownbul, Chorister Robin-Chat, Cape Batis, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green-backed Camaroptera, Black-backed Puffback, Dark-backed Weaver, Collared Sunbird and Grey Sunbird. The reserve list exceeds 110 species, with 40-50 typical for a day visit.

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4. Alexandria forest

Now part of the greater Addo National Park, this former forestry station is an hour's drive from Grahamstown. Most of the plantations of exotic trees have been removed and these sections are regenerating, but there were always extensive blocks of Afromontane forest, with a mixture of more coastal elements. Follow the road to Kenton-on-sea, then at Salem take the dirt road to Alexandria, which is more direct and usually in fair condition. In the town of Alexandria, turn into the main street heading west, and just out of town turn left at the Alexandria signpost. This public road crosses the forest, and passes into a farming region along the coast, finally returning to a tarred road at Boknes. Chalet accommodation is available in the park (telephone 046 6530601), and the entry fee is at standard National Park rates. From Port Elizabeth the forest is about 100 km away, and is approached along the N2 to Grahamstown; at the Nanaga interchange, take the road to Alexandria. In this case the turnoff to the park is on the right as you reach the outskirts of the town of Alexandria. The area around the office is worth investigating, as all the local sunbirds can be found at flowering plants here, as well as insectivorous species such as the Southern Black Flycatcher. Long-crested Eagle also favour the forest fringes and former plantation areas. There is a 7-km circular walk starting from the office, which passes through some good natural forest, as well as more open areas. A well-equipped picnic site lies on this route. A two-day hiking trail traverses the forest on the way to the beach, and then crosses the extensive dunefield before re-entering the forested section. On the shoreline, African Black Oystercatcher is regular, and Bird Island (site of one of the world's largest gannet colonies) is visible offshore, so that Cape Gannet often fly past. During summer, migrant Peregrine Falcon and the rare endemic Damara Tern can be encountered in the dunefield. Most of the coastal forest birds for this region can be found here, such as African Crowned Eagle, Forest Buzzard, Trumpeter Hornbill, Narina Trogon, Knysna Turaco, African Olive-Pigeon, Lemon Dove, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Olive Woodpecker, Grey Cuckooshrike, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Knysna Warbler, Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Cape Batis, Crested Francolin, Chorister Robin-Chat, Brown Scrub-Robin, Olive Bush-Shrike, Dark-backed Weaver, Forest Canary, and at times Black-bellied Starling. Buff-spotted Flufftail and African Wood-Owl may be heard at night. African Emerald Cuckoo is a summer breeding migrant along with the Red-chested Cuckoo, Black Cuckoo and Diderik Cuckoo, whereas some Klaas's Cuckoo are resident and may call on warm days in mid-winter. Other species from the inland forests such as White-starred Robin and Barratt's Warbler are usually winter visitors. In spring the huge Erythrina trees provide a spectacular display, and many birds feed at their flowers. A recent day visit in late August yielded 65 species; excluding the birds of the shoreline, the current checklist for the forested area is over 130 species.

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5. Great Fish and other reserves

Three adjoining reserves (Andries Vosloo Kudu Reserve, Sam Knott Nature Reserve, and Double Drift Game Reserve) now constitute the Great Fish Reserve, covering an area of some 50 000 hectares in the valley bushveld of the Great Fish river. From Grahamstown take the road to Kingwilliamstown, then turn north to Fort Beaufort. After the Ecca Pass there is a crossroads, with the great Fish Reserve signposted. The gravel roads may be eroded after rain. There is currently no entrance fee; overnight chalet accommodation is available and can be reserved through Eastern Cape Parks Board in east London. Once inside the reserve gates, the first road to the left leads to the Kwalamanzi hide. This overlooks a dam (known as Kentucky Dam from a former farm in this sector) which can dry out during droughts, but often has good numbers of duck and other waterbirds. African Snipe and Baillon's Crake have been seen from the hide, also cape clawless otter and water mongoose. Following the main road through the reserve takes you across “Bucklands” farm, then back into the Sam Knott sector, and down to the Fish river at Double Drift Fort, an outpost during the Frontier Wars. Barn Owl have roosted here, and Cape Rock-Thrush and Mocking Cliff-Chat may perch on the stone walls. For a day outing, the picnic site on the rivers edge here may be far enough; the causeway over the river is passable for vehicles with high clearance, and the road then climbs steeply out of the valley to a fine vantage point know as Adam’s Krans. African Pied Wagtail and African Fish-Eagle are regular along the river, as are African Black Duck; African Finfoot also occur, but are more likely to be seen on quieter reaches. Walking is restricted since both black rhino and buffalo are on the reserve, and hippo have been reintroduced, but generally not much game is encountered during the day. Night drives can be arranged with local tour operators. Here coastal and forest elements follow the river valley inland (e.g. Yellow Weaver), while dry country species intrude from the north – we have mist-netted Pririt Batis and Cape Batis at the same site, and also both African Firefinch and Red-billed Firefinch. Species regularly encountered in the thornveld include Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Greater Honeyguide, Cardinal Woodpecker, Knysna Woodpecker, Red-throated Wryneck, Southern Black Tit, Sombre Greenbul, White-browed Scrub-Robin, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, Fiscal Flycatcher, Cape Glossy Starling, Spectacled Weaver and Golden-breasted Bunting. Among the summer migrants, Ruff (on the dams), Jacobin Cuckoo and Diderick Cuckoo, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Willow Warbler, African Paradise-Flycatcher and Red-backed Shrike are often conspicuous. Red-billed Oxpecker have been reintroduced, and may be sighted on kudu or eland (the buffalo are primarily nocturnal in this reserve). In well-wooded kloofs there are Knysna Turaco, Olive Woodpecker, Olive Bush-Shrike, and Dark-backed Weaver. At night the black-backed jackal provide an attractive serenade, and African Scops-Owl is heard regularly; Fiery-necked Nightjar are sometimes common on the dirt roads. Club outings to this venue have logged 100 species in a day, and the checklist for the reserve now exceeds 250 species. For the affluent visitor, there are now numerous private game reserves in this area, which offer the mammalian “big five”, five-star accommodation and guided tours with rangers, who are generally also well-informed about the local birdlife. However, all the species found within these exclusive properties can also be located more cheaply outside their borders!

Adrian Craig 2008



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