Birding on the Cape West Coast

Best known for the annual display of wild flowers from July to early October the Cape West Coast also offers a variety of top birding destinations, with no fewer than seven Important Bird Areas registered with Birdlife International.  One of the region’s little known assets is the diversity of species found here. No other areas in Africa offer such a high concentration of endemics in so accessible a setting: over 80% of the birds restricted to South Africa occur here. A total of 450 bird species have been recorded here, and a two-week trip could expect to yield in excess of 350 species. The registration of two wetland systems, the Langebaan lagoon and Verlorenvlei, as RAMSAR sites emphasizes the importance of the region for waterfowl. An application for the Lower Berg River Wetlands system to be awarded RAMSAR status is being considered.

The rich waters of the Benguela current make this region the heart of the country’s fishing industry and the associated sea life supports massive breeding seabird colonies on the scattered offshore islands. It also hosts an amazing range of sought after and often endemic bird species, including Bank*, Cape and Crowned Cormorants, Cape Gannet, African Black Oystercatcher*, African penguin, Orange Breasted Sunbird, Victorin’s Warbler, Protea Seedeater and Cape Siskin.  Many exciting birding opportunities already exist, of which the migratory waders visiting the West Coast National Park in summer are probably the most famous.

Langebaan can be used very effectively as a base to explore the birding delights of destinations such as the Lower Berg River Wetlands, the West Coast National Park and the West Coast Fossil Park.

Birding and flower viewing enhance each other and form perfect partners.  The West Coast is best birded in spring and early summer [from about August to October] when most of the resident birds are breeding and the wild flowers are at their peak. Birding is generally best in the mornings, unless dependent on the tides, as it is usually persistently windy later in the day. The viewing of flowers is best during the hottest time of day between 11:00 and 15:00. October to March is best for migrant waders.  The winter-rainfall Western Cape is at its best from September to November, with pelagic birding most rewarding from August to October.  Western South Africa qualifies as excellent for the following categories: endemism hot spot, infrastructure and ease of travel, health and safety, wildlife viewing, pelagic birding, cost.

Conservation International has proclaimed just two botanical regions in Southern Africa as biodiversity hot spots: the Cape Floral Kingdom and the Succulent Karoo.  Both of these unique plant kingdoms are well represented throughout parts of the Western Cape and host a diverse range of sought-after endemic bird species such as Cape Sugarbird, Victorin’s Warbler, Protea Seedeater, Cape Siskin and many more such as Southern Boubou, Southern Tchagra, Bokmakierie, Yellow Bishop, Knysna Warbler, Swee Waxbill, Black Harrier, Malachite and Orange-breasted Sunbirds, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock-jumper, Cape Rock Thrush, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Familiar Chat. Southern Africa has the third highest level of biological diversity in the world, hosting more breeding bird species than the United States and Canada combined.  Of these species 57 endemic and 32 near-endemic species occur in the Western Cape exclusively.  Unfortunately several of the special birds are under threat due to habitat loss in areas where fynbos occurred in the past, including the “renosterveld” on which the Black Harrier is so dependent.

Langebaan Lookout borders on an old wheat farm that has spectacular floral displays in season and overlooks the lagoon and the islands of Schaapen, Jutten, Meeuw as well as Postberg and Donkergat, ensuring a large variety of birds throughout the year.  If you prefer to go your own way it is well situated for two Important Bird Areas on the West Coast, just five minutes away from the Langebaan entrance to the West Coast National Park [SA105 and RAMSAR site], and half an hour from the Berg River Estuary, with plenty of good birding in between.  Four other IBAs are within easy reach and are included in birding destinations such as the Langebaan Lagoon, the West Coast Fossil Park, the Berg River estuary, SAS Saldanha Bay Nature Reserve, Rocherpan Nature Reserve, Jacobsbaai, Cape Columbine Nature Reserve, St Helena Bay and Aurora. Not much further are Verlorenvlei, Bird Island at Lamberts Bay, Piketberg and the Cederberg Wilderness area.  The diversity of species to be found at these different birding destinations makes it a priority for visiting birders.  A list of the different species and where they can be found can be obtained from the hosts.

Langebaan Lookout is a good springboard for several popular routes – the Flamingo Birding Route, the West Coast Route [stretching along the Atlantic shore from Cape Town northwards to the Olifants River mouth], Bird Life South African Avitourism Division Self Drive Itinerary for Western Cape Birding Route and the Tanqua Karoo Route [the south-western corner of the Karoo, a low-lying, mountainous section of the succulent Karoo biome].  Some of the routes overlap.  We suggest a whole day devoted to similar sections of the routes.

General information:


  • Malaria is not present in the Cape.
  • Some ticks carry a non-lethal tick-bite-fever and measures should be taken to prevent being bitten.
  • Leopards occur in the mountains on the outskirts of the greater Cape Town area.  They are largely nocturnal, shy and, as they slip away in the distance, are seen by only the most fortunate.  They rarely attack people, but should never be approached.
  • If you are fortunate enough to see a snake or scorpion, please be cautious as some species are potentially dangerous.  In particular, be aware of the superbly camouflaged Puffadder, which lies lethargically across paths and is found fairly commonly over the entire region.
  • Southern Africa is an excellent destination for independent birders wishing to hire a car and explore the region at their own pace.  The road infrastructure is excellent; however there might be potential driving hazards in rural areas for those unaccustomed to gravel roads. Avoid the temptation to drive fast on good quality gravel roads as it is remarkably easy to lose control on corners and when braking.  Never brake hard, even if there is a bustard standing at the roadside! While the roadside often provides excellent birding in rural areas, ask permission at the nearest farmhouse or village if you would like to enter private land.
  • Any sightings of rare birds should be mailed immediately to to enable local birders to view and verify the records.  Further details are available on  Birders can also contribute to other valuable bird monitoring projects such as those run by the Avian Demography Unit.  Please report any ring recoveries or sightings of colour-ringed birds to SAFRING

Informal boat cruises from Langebaan and most of the Western Cape coastal towns, as well as along the Berg River can be arranged while you are in the area, should you wish to include a pelagic outing/day.

Changing bird names:

Southern Africa’s birds have long and distinctive indigenous names.  These common names are often derived from Afrikaans, and many of them have filtered into official English usage.  These include “Korhaan” for small bustards and “Dikkop” for thick-knees.

Birding habitats:

The Western Cape falls into three basic habitat types, the fynbos/Cape Floral Kingdom, the Karoo and the coast and sea.

  • The Cape Floral Kingdom boasts diverse fynbos plant species – 9000 – of which about 70% are endemic. fynbos, the dominant vegetation of the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms, is largely confined to the mountains and coastal lowlands of the winter-rainfall Western Cape.  fynbos is shrubby vegetation type characterized by proteas, ericas and reed-like restios, which thrive in nutrient-poor soils.  Fynbos support a low diversity of birds, but compensates with a high level of endemism.  True fynbos endemics, namely Hottentot Buttonquail*, Cape Rock-jumper*, Victorin’s Warbler*, Cape Sugarbird*, Orange-breasted Sunbird*, Cape Siskin* and Protea Seedeater*, are largely confined to mountain fynbos.  Lowland fynbos specials such as Agulhas Long-billed* and Cape Clapper Larks* also occur in the surrounding renosterveld, a drier vegetation type that occurs on richer soils and has thus been largely converted to agriculture.
  • The Karoo is a vast semi-desert, botanically divided into two very different regions.  It dominates the arid western half of South Africa.  It is a sparsely inhabited open area of stony plains, scattered with small plants, and punctuated by low dunes and small hills.  The winter-rainfall succulent Karoo region is characterized by small succulent plants.  Karoo endemics and near-endemics in this area include Karoo Korhaan*, Ludwig’s Bustard, Black-eared Sparrow-lark , Karoo and Tractrac Chats, Karoo Eremomela*, Namaqua* and Rufous-eared Warblers*, Pale-winged Starling* and Black-headed Canary,* as well as the following larks – Red-capped, Karoo, Barlow’s and Karoo Long-billed*.
  • The Atlantic and Indian oceans meet at Africa’s southernmost point, Cape Agulhas.  The Benguela Current moves up the Atlantic coast, bringing chilly, nutrient-rich waters from Antarctica.  Endemic and near-endemic birds to the Southern African Atlantic coast and near shore islands are African Penguin*, Cape Gannet*, Cape*, Bank* and Crowned* Cormorants, African Black Oystercatcher*, Hartlaubs* and Cape Gulls and Damara* Tern.  Offshore waters and their associated fishing fleets attract impressive numbers of migrant pelagic seabirds from albatrosses to storm-petrels.  Huge numbers of Palearctic-breeding waders frequent coastal mudflats in the summer and are best viewed at the larger lagoons and estuaries on the West Coast, including Langebaan Lagoon.

Two southern African regions have been bestowed the honour of designation as biodiversity hot spots by Conservation International – The Cape Floral Kingdom and the Succulent Karoo.  The Karoo has much to offer the birder as there are no fewer than 18 endemics almost wholly restricted to it, making it an essential birding destination.

Being a relatively new birder I have noticed that several of the local bird lists differ, depending on the areas covered.  I have tried to consolidate the information from several lists that I have managed to collect to date together with the local information in my collection of bird books and several web sites etc, some of which varies greatly, but I am happy to share this information. Special arrangements need to be made to view most of the seabirds and generally they are not included in local bird lists.

The Table Bay Tide Table is useful to have for the waders. Please note that the approximate time changes for tides in different areas can differ greatly. Langebaan Lagoon is + 40 minutes for the Seeberg hide, but Saldanha Bay is + 5 minutes; obviously there is also a big difference between the mouth of the Berg River and further down the river.


The Western Cape Birding Route:

Bird Life South Africa Self Drive Itinerary is a day trip covering Langebaan and surrounds; it includes several habitats i.e. seashore, tidal mudflats, salt marshes  strand veld  cultivated fields and renosterveld. From fynbos-like vegetation to the spectacular wetland of Langebaan Lagoon and a wine-tasting if you are in the mood.  They suggest 4-5 hours in the West Coast National Park IBA [SA105], 20 minutes to get to the Darling detour and a further 2-3 hours in this area. There are two excellent restaurants en-route: Geelbek Restaurant in the West Coast National Park or, on the Darling detour, the Groote Post Vineyard which offers wine tasting and lunches Wed – Saturday.  There is an entrance fee at the West Coast National Park; donations are appreciated at the Oudepos Wild Flower Nature Reserve and Wayland’s Wild Flower Nature Reserve.  Entrance to the Tienie Versveld Nature Reserve is free. It is strongly recommended that you time your route according to the tides for the West Coast National Park.  Species you can expect to find on this route are detailed under the West Coast National Park and the Swartland sections of the Flamingo Birding Route below.

The Flamingo Birding Route includes:

  • The West Coast National Park IBA [SA105], rarities, very best and most strategic in terms of ‘top’ species to be seen – more than 300 species of birds have been recorded here;
  • The Swartland region;
  • The Berg River local municipal region;
  • The Lower Berg River Wetlands  De Plaat mudflats, IBA [SA104];
  • The Saldanha Bay region – Langebaan and surrounds;
  • The Saldanha Bay local municipal region – Saldanha to Velddrif;
  • The Cederberg local municipal area includes three IBA’s:  Cederberg-Koue Bokkeveld IBA [SA101], Verlorenvlei IBA [SA103] and RAMSAR site and Lamberts Bay where you will find the Bird Island Nature Reserve IBA [SA100];
  • Matzikama local municipal region is just too far for a day’s outing from Langebaan and would be best viewed en route to the Augrabies National Park and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – this area includes the Olifants River Estuary IBA [SA099].

The West Coast Route starts as you leave Cape Town on R27 and includes:

  • Rietvlei IBA [SA111], just north of Cape Town.
  • Koeberg Nature Reserve
  • Darling Wildflower Route
  • Yzerfontein and the Gypsum Mine hold a number of quality species.
  • West Coast National Park IBA [SA105],
  • Langebaan quarry
  • Berg River Estuary (Velddrif) IBA [SA104]
  • Lambert’s Bay IBA [SA100]
  • Verlorenvlei IBA [SA103]
  • Kransvleipoort/Clanwilliam.
  • Vredenberg to Paternoster and on to the Berg River Estuary at Velddrif.

The Tanqua Karoo Route 

This the south-western corner of the Karoo, a low-lying mountainous section.  This region merits one full day’s exploration.  The parched brown expanses, aloe-lined escarpments and lonely isolated hills are where you will find endemics such as Karoo Eremomela* and Cinnamon-breasted and Namaqua Warblers*.  Darling, Malmesbury and on to the R46 at Ceres, which is a good starting point from which to explore.  All the Karoo birding spots can be reached from the desolate gravel R355 from Karoopoort to Calvinia. This is the old “Great Road to the North”.  Spring is best for birding – August to October, when the region may also burst into flower, is when you will find Black-headed Canary*, Ludwig’s Bustard* and Black-eared Sparrow-lark , though, the majority of specials are accessible year-round.

Give some thought to your fuel and water requirements as there are no towns in the Tanqua Karoo proper and the closest refuelling points are Ceres, Sutherland and Calvinia.

NB NB NB: When you reach Ceres, fill up your tank and a jerry can with petrol.

  • Karoopoort
  • Eierkop. This stretch is the longest road in South Africa uninterrupted by a town [250 km in all].
  • Skitterykloof is a world famous picnic spot and birding site in the Western Cape and is situated at the foot of the Swartrug Mountains and the edge of the Tanqua Karoo.
  • Swartruggens.  This high plateau links Skitterykloof and the small town of Op-die-Berg. The Katbakkies Pass plunges dramatically down towards the Riet River, 20 km west of Skitterykloof.
  • The P2250 is a regional road passing through a desolate and beautiful stretch of semi-desert bounded in the west by the Cederberg range and one of the finest areas for birding in the south-western Karoo.
  • Tanqua Karoo National Park
  • Ouberg Pass to Sutherland.

Cape Town is only 1.5 hours from Langebaan and it would be very rewarding to include one of the Bird Life South Africa scenic self-drive day trips [CP].  [I recommend the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens Route as it is the one that includes most of species not found on the West Coast/Tanqua Karoo routes]:

  • Cape Town Peninsula Day Trip
  • Intaka, Sir Lowry’s Pass, Rooi Els, Harold Porter Botanical Gardens
  • Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Silvermine, Kommetjie and Strandfontein
  • Pelagic boat cruise [about R1500.00+, Saturdays only, weather permitting] is sure to be rewarding offering several Albatross, Shearwater, Petrel, Storm-petrel, Skua, Jaeger and Prion.

Going further afield Birding Africa suggests the following guided day tours:

  • The Hottentots Holland [HH] which has mountain vistas and fynbos.
  • The Overberg [OB] made up of coastal plains, mountains and wetland habitats, harbouring a variety of special and endemic species.