This covers an area from the mouth of the Berg River at the small West Coast town of Laaiplek on St. Helena Bay upstream to the Kersefontein bridge. It provides good estuarine habitat, particularly for viewing migrant Palearctic waders in summer, as well as associated sandveld habitats.
It is recognised as an IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area) by BirdLife South Africa, is an area of global importance but currently has no formal conservation protection.
Above the Sishen/Saldanha railway bridge are extensive floodplains with reed-beds, sedge and ephemeral pans which can become inundated during winter rains and by flooding from the river. However, since the Berg River Dam was constructed and inaugurated in 2009, flooding has become less frequent and particularly during 2017 with the Western Cape experiencing severe drought conditions.
Invasive alien vegetation clearing of mostly Australian gum trees along the banks of the river above and below Kersefontein has improved the natural floodplain systems and the ecological integrity of the river, but the continued drought is impacting negatively.
Much of this land is private agricultural land, and access is limited.
Downstream of the Sishen/Saldanha bridge, habitats are more estuarine and include extensive mudflats and salt marshes, as well as commercial salt works.
Since the Berg River Dam construction, salinity of the water lower down has increased and seawater now pushes up well above the railway bridge, particularly in summer and during spring tides. In fact, upstream as far as the farm Caledonia and beyond, pH measurements of the river water show high levels of salt.
On the south side of the river, around the mouth at Flaminkvlei and upstream on the farms Kuifkopvisvanger, Kliphoek and Langrietvlei, there are patches of dry sandveld that hold a variety of non water associated species. Karoo Scrub Robin, Red-capped, Karoo, Large-billed, and, if lucky, Cape Long-billed Lark, Bokmakerie, Bar-throated Apalis, Rufous-vented Titbabbler, Yellow and White-throated Canary, Cape Bunting, Long-billed Crombec and Cape Spurfowl may be found.
The mouth of the river can be accessed where it flows out into St. Helena Bay at Laaiplek. Cape Cormorant roost in thousands on the causeway walls, along with Crowned and White-breasted Cormorant. Here you can also watch the passage of terns – Swift, and in summer Common and Sandwich Tern – in and out of the estuary, along with Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gull. Single Caspian Terns regularly patrol along the river both here and further upstream.
Many species of water birds are present upstream of the R27 road bridge over the river. In the past there have sometimes been thousands of Red-knobbed Coot, but now with the higher salinity there are very few, as is the case with Little Grebe (Dabchick), Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Shoveller, Cape and Red-billed Teal, South African Shelduck, Egyptian and Spur-winged Goose.
Species that can tolerate higher salinity, including all three species of ibis – Glossy, African Sacred and Hadeda Ibis – along with Little, Yellow-billed and Cattle Egret are present, as are African Darter, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt and Blacksmith Lapwing. Grey, Black-headed and Purple Heron occur and lately Goliath Heron (a western Cape rarity) has been reliably recorded. Both African Spoonbill and Great White Pelican roost on islands in the river and feed in the river and channels.
The main attraction for birders, particularly in summer, are the Palearctic migrant waders that feed and flock on the mudflats. These mudflats support some of the highest densities of waders recorded at any estuary along the eastern edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
Twice annually summer and winter CWAC counts (Co-ordinated Waterbird Counts), are carried out with historical and current data managed by the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) at UCT’s (University of Cape Town) statistical sciences department.
Curlew and Marsh Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Little Stint, Common Ringed Plover, Ruff, Grey Plover, Common Whimbrel and Sanderling are common. Look for these at low tide on the mudflats adjacent to the Rivieria Hotel, on the north bank along the R399 Velddrif/Piketberg road.
De Plaat, another good spot for waders, can be accessed by travelling east along the R399. Passing all the houses and after a few small shops, turn right onto a gravel road at a sign to Bokmakierie Nursery, then right on a sand track just after the last of the abandoned houses. This takes one to the edge of De Plaat. Birding here is best at low tide.
Less common migrants are Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Common and Wood Sandpiper, Eurasian Curlew and rare, Black-tailed Godwit, Caspian Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Terek Sandpiper, Lesser and Greater Sand Plover.
A drive along ‘Bokkomlaan’, a small road running along the edge of the river on the north bank, is worthwhile. (Bokkoms refers to the dried salted fish, a specialty of the West Coast, that used to be cured all along this road, but very little these days, restaurants having taken the place of many of the old fishing industry sheds).
Grey-headed Gulls are being seen more regularly at certain spots along the river, especially along Bokkomlaan and in the vicinity of the river mouth at Laaiplek.
Large numbers of both Lesser and Greater Flamingo can be seen on the commercial salt pans on both sides of the road before the R27 road bridge over the river. Also look out here for Chestnut-banded Plover, Black-necked Grebe (large numbers in winter) and Caspian Tern. Red-necked Phalarope, a rarity, turns up here surprisingly often.
Access into the salt pans is limited, but good viewing can be had by turning off the R27 main road (northbound) just before going over the bridge on the right hand side. A track has been created for fishermen with an area for parking, from here walk to and scan the nearby pans. Many waders roost in the pans at high tide.
Perhaps the best way to access some of the private areas along the south bank, and to see many birds mentioned here, is to stay at one of the farms offering accommodation (Kuifkopvisvanger, Langrietvlei and Kliphoek). Kuifkopvisvanger Farm does allow daily access for birders and fishermen. This farm also has canoes and this may be a good way to access the southern section of De Plaat, across the river, on mid tides, now that this piece of road is closed to the public.
Raptors in the area include African Fish Eagle, Black-shouldered Kite, Rock Kestrel, Jackal Buzzard, African Marsh Harrier. Less common are Booted Eagle, Black Harrier, Peregrine and Lanner Falcon. In summer Yellow-billed Kite, Common (Steppe) Buzzard and the rarer Western Osprey are present.
Good access to the upper flood plain marshes can be had by turning off the Hopefield tar road at the sign for Kersefontein. A dirt road leads to the Kersefontein bridge over the river. Stop and scan both sides of the road. Southern Red and Yellow Bishop, Cape and Southern Masked Weaver, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warbler occur here, along with other wetland birds mentioned above.
Note that the flood plain can be dry in summer, but the rare, in the Western Cape, Palm-nut Vulture and Red-backed Shrike have been recorded here, as has Goliath Heron, another rarity in the Western Cape.