The Darling Hills Road is a gravel road that links the R27 West Coast Road to the R307 Old Darling Road inland in the east. The total distance travelled along the Darling Hills Road, including the detour to Groote Post winery, is approximately 17 kms.
The variety of habitats along this road include patches of strandveld vegetation, wheatfields, farms, the Mud River (Modderrivier in Afrikaans), patches of alien vegetation and natural scrub and these make for an interesting morning’s birding.
Before turning right off the R27, a left turn towards Grotto Bay is recommended. This road of about 2 km is good for Grey-winged Francolin, and the fence-posts on your left which form the boundary of the Ganzekraal Conservation Area, and those on the right – the boundary of the Grotto Bay Private Nature Reserve – often have Southern Fiscals and Rock Kestrels perched on them looking for prey on the two roadside fire-break strips. These strips, which are generally home to a number of Spotted Thick-knees, can produce spectacular spring flowers in a good year. Other species which may be seen or heard on the short drive are Cape Spurfowl, Bokmakierie, Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird, and an occasional Black Harrier may be seen patrolling the area. The car-park on the rocky coast is a good spot to scan for Cape Gannet and the rocks at the northern end often have roosting cormorants, mostly Crowned, and African Black Oystercatcher. The surrounding scrub will almost always produce Karoo Scrub Robin.
Thereafter, starting along the Darling Hills Road from the R27 (it can also be done in reverse) Large-billed, Red-capped and less often Clapper Lark can be seen in the natural strandveld vegetation on your right as you drive up the hill. Listen out for their calls! This section is also good for Southern Black Korhaan, and several males may be seen and heard along this short section of road, especially in the early morning in spring
Turning left at the top of the rise, the wheatfields along the way hold Blue Crane and in spring and summer are active with several other species such as Capped Wheatear, African Stonechat and African Pipit. Wattled Starling and Ant-eating Chat may also be present along this section at times.
A large earth dam (unless dry in summer), hidden by a high bank on the right, will often hold water associated birds such as Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Teal, Egyptian and Spur-winged Goose, Three-banded Plover, Kittlitz’s Plover, White-breasted Cormorant, occasionally SA Shelduck along with many Kelp Gulls. In summer look out for migrant waders such as Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and Common Greenshank.
Shortly after the dam, the road edges become quite eroded with high clay banks and as the road swings hard to the right, there are several deep erosion gullies to the left. In spring the clay banks are occupied by breeding European Bee-eaters as well as Banded Martins. The erosion gullies provide breeding sites for Pied Starlings, and African Hoopoe also sometimes nest in this section. Dropping down from the rise, you pass the entrance to Modderrivier Farm on the left. In late winter the flowering aloes at the farm turnoff attract Malachite Sunbirds, and the concrete reservoir near the entrance is a favourite drinking/bathing spot for Barn, Greater Striped and Pearl-breasted Swallows which feed over the surrounding farmlands together with several species of swift during the spring and summer months. Other common species such as Cape Sparrow, Cape, Yellow and Brimstone Canary, Fiscal Flycatcher, Southern Masked and Cape Weaver and all three species of mousebird may be present with White-backed the most common.
The road stays close to the Mud River where alien trees along the banks have Cape and Southern Masked Weaver breeding – look out for attendant parasitic Diederik and Klaas’s Cuckoos. Reed beds along the stream provide breeding sites for both Southern Red and Yellow Bishops in spring. A dense tall reed bed on the right may hold both Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warblers.
The original road followed the river all the way to the Groote Post winery and restaurant (closed during the Corvid-19 pandemic) turn off, but a few years ago the road was rerouted to cross over the Mud River and continue at a higher elevation. (The old road is now incorporated into the fenced Pampoenvlei Private Nature Reserve). White-throated Swallows breed under the low-level bridge over the river in spring, and an occasional Malachite Kingfisher may be spotted here. Where the overhead power lines cross the new section of road, check out the stand of oak trees on the right (inside the nature reserve) as they were for many years the calling area for Lesser Honeyguide. Migrant Yellow-billed Kites sometimes breed in this stand of oak trees during the summer months. Shortly thereafter the tall eucalyptus trees at the right turn to Groote Post may contain Spotted Eagle Owl, Fork-tailed Drongo, Fiscal Flycatcher, Greater Honeyguide and Southern Grey-headed Sparrow. Acacia Pied Barbet and Cardinal Woodpecker also occurred regularly in the past.
The sand road down to Groote Post crosses the Mud River (Gerald’s Crossing) and both species of weaver, canaries, Southern Red Bishop and both Common and Swee Waxbills may be seen bathing in the clear water between the reed beds and the low bridge. The occasional Black Crake may also make an appearance.
The winery is a good place to break the day, to have lunch or do a wine tasting. The trees around the restaurant hold Cape Batis, and Spotted Flycatcher have been seen there in summer. African Paradise Flycatcher breed along the stream behind the winery in summer and there is also a small dam, down past the buildings, that has a bird hide. Look out for species such as Cape Shoveller, Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Teal, Little Grebe and Reed Cormorant on the water and Rufous-vented Titbabbler and Long-billed Crombec in the surrounding natural scrub. White-throated Swallows breed under the hide in summer and Cape and Southern Masked Weavers and Southern Red Bishops nest in the surrounding reed-beds.
The habitat becomes more open for the remaining 7,3 kms from the Groote Post turnoff to the R307 (Old Darling) road. Scan the natural scrub on the right towards the river for species such as Southern Black Korhaan, Namaqua Dove, Yellow Canary, Cape Bunting, Bokmakierie and Karoo Prinia.
Always keep an eye skywards for raptors. Resident Jackal Buzzard is most common, Common (Steppe) Buzzard are present in summer along with Yellow-billed Kite. Black-winged (shouldered) Kite, Lanner Falcon and occasionally Peregrine Falcon. Booted Eagle is also a possibility overhead during summer
Several uncommon species such as Martial Eagle, Black Stork and a very out of range White-backed Vulture have been sighted of late.
Directions: From Cape Town take the R27 West Coast road until you reach the Grotto Bay, Darling Hills Road intersection approximately 60 kms from Cape Town. The gravel road right is your starting point (unless you first drive the short road down to the coast).
Alternatively take the R307 Atlantis/Mamre road (Old Darling Road) turning left onto the Darling Hills Road – this means the information and the route above should be read in reverse.
Mel Tripp / Otto Schmidt