Paarl Mountain Reserve is an excellent birding site, specifically for a range of fynbos specials and with a few sections of alien vegetation and one or two water bodies to provide a reasonable diversity of other species in a morning’s visit.
As is always the case when it comes to birding natural areas in South Africa, it is worth being aware of your surroundings from a security perspective but given the level of activity on the road during weekend mornings it is usually a relatively safe locality. It always helps to go in a group with more than one vehicle.
The best way to approach a visit to the Paarl Mountain Reserve is from the south at the Taal Monument where the gravel road, called Rotary Drive, heads north along a relatively flat contour as it twists and turns through vegetated gullies, open fynbos slopes and a few stands of eucalyptus and oak trees. The best time to get started on Paarl Mountain is early morning before the sun is too warm on the slope. In winter the conditions are likely to be pleasant until late into the morning, but a summer’s morning will be baking hot before too long. The best time of year is certainly late winter and into spring as the flowers start blooming and the birds are well into their breeding cycles with a lot of activity with displaying and nest building.
Before you start, zero your odometer and use the measurements as a guide to where to spend your time.
A first stop, a few hundred metres from the turn off from the Taal Monument, at the vegetated gully on the left hand side of the road is a perfect place to start and listen out for birdsong. It helps to know a lot of the bird song in this habitat as some birds can be tricky to eke out unless you know what you are hearing.
The first gully is a good place for some of the common bush birds and you’ll quickly tick Cape Bulbul, Cape White-eye, Cape Robin-chat, Cape Canary and Olive Thrush. Southern Double-collared Sunbird and Malachite Sunbird add plenty of colour and their showy displays above the vegetation should be easy to see. The fynbos margins on the edge of the taller bushes will yield Karoo Prinia, Grey-backed Cisticola, Orange-breasted Sunbird and most likely Cape Sugarbird.
This first gully is the first spot to look for the real special of Paarl Mountain Reserve, which is Protea Seedeater (Canary). The tough part is the fact that Streaky-headed Seedeater is a very common bird in this area, and they are similar looking at a distance and their calls are quite hard to separate without being well-tuned to the slightly more melodic Streaky-heads and the more staccato Protea. This gully has been good in the past, but the density of Protea Seedeater (Canary) has definitely declined in the last 20 years, when this used to be a virtually guaranteed spot.
Once you have tuned into the common birds at your first stop, jump back in your car and head north along the road, with your windows wide open, listening for birdsong. You should have no difficulty picking up the warbling of Cape Grassbird and the harsh shouting of Cape Spurfowl as you drive along Rotary Drive.
Your next stop will be at 1.3kms from the Taal Monument turn off at a relatively large man-made dam to the west of the road. There is a large wire fence, but you should be able to peer through the gaps and scan the dam for a few birds. Reed Cormorants are always in attendance, but you should be on the lookout for Giant Kingfisher and African Black Duck, which are the good birds to tick at this site. Malachite Kingfisher is also common around the margins of the dam and you should pick them up as you see their jewel-like colours as they whizz across the surface of the water. Their soft twittering call will alert you to their presence long before you see them.
It is not only the water body that is worth checking out. The eucalyptus trees and stands of oaks on the east of the road are also quite birdy and you should look out for Red-eyed Dove, African Olive-pigeon, Speckled Pigeon, Fork-tailed Drongo and Cape Canary in the large stands of gums. African Paradise-flycatcher is common in summer as are many of the aerial feeders, particularly around the waterbodies. Look for hirundines such as Barn Swallow, Greater-striped Swallow, White-throated Swallow and the sleeker Black Saw-wing and you may even be lucky enough to pick up a Pearl-breasted Swallow although they are more common in the farmlands lower down. The swift flocks over the reserve can be very impressive and, depending on the conditions, they may fly low over your head as you work through the flocks to pick up the four regular species (African Black, Alpine, White-rumped and Little).
Swee Waxbills are common in the stands of oak trees and feeding on the fynbos and bushy margins and anywhere near water you should pick up small flocks of Common Waxbills. Forest Canaries are now common as well and they are often seen quietly feeding in the bushier vegetation a little bit away from the fynbos. Brimstone Canary are slightly less discerning, and you’ll pick them up in almost any vegetation in this area.
Once you’ve exhausted the options around the dam and the stands of alien trees, climb back in your car and head further along the road until the 5.1km mark at the Meulwater Botanical Gardens. It is useful to stop at several of the bushy gullies along the way to increase your chances of Protea Seedeater (Canary) and some of the birds that you may have missed early on.
The botanical gardens are extremely well laid out and provide a perfect opportunity for a nice slow stroll through the stands of indigenous trees to really concentrate on what is available a little away from the road. There are a few dams near the parking lot, and these provide the opportunity for aquatic birds like Levaillant’s Cisticola and Little Rush-warbler, however, in my experience the dams are relatively low in bird numbers and your focus should again be on the bush birds.
The gardens have almost all of the species already mentioned, and you should clean up on most of the things you missed earlier. In addition, look for Cape Batis and African Dusky-flycatcher as they enjoy the forest fringes where they feed from perches over the paths.
Other possible birds in the gardens include Olive and Cardinal Woodpecker, both of which can be found mostly in the alien oak trees near the picnic site.
In the recent past, I have found that the gardens are the best spot for Protea Seedeater (Canary) and specifically in an open stand of King Protea trees on the open slope to the north of the parking lot. There is an upper path above the proteas and it is a good idea to spend plenty of time watching and listening as the Protea Seedeaters tend to pass through quietly before sitting on top of the trees and hopefully giving their telltale call. Once again, be very careful of the large numbers of Streaky-headed Seedeaters that move through the gardens as well. The best way to pick them apart visually is the streaked crown of the streaky-headed seedeater and the black chin and two white wing bars of the Protea Seedeater. Protea Seedeater also has a pinkish bill that appears slightly chunkier than the streaky-heads.
Even if you miss the canaries you will be entertained by the view of birds flying over the large granite rocks on the slopes in the distance. Paarl Mountain Reserve is an absolute hotspot for raptor activity and if you time your visit to the Meulwater Gardens a little later in the morning when the heat has created the thermals, you’ll be treated to plenty of action.
The raptor species count is one of the best in the Cape and a good hour spent scanning the skies can produce most of the following raptors: Rock Kestrel, Jackal Buzzard, Common (Steppe) Buzzard (in summer), Forest Buzzard, European Honey-buzzard (irregular in summer but definitely possible), Booted Eagle, Lanner and Peregrine Falcon, Yellow-billed Kite (summer), Black Sparrowhawk, African Goshawk, Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk (there is a regular pair near the Taal Monument and this is one of the most reliable spots for this tricky local raptor), African Harrier Hawk and possibly even a Verreaux’s Eagle (although these are more common across the valley in the Du Toit’s mountains).
Attending the raptors are other open-sky birds like White-necked Raven, Pied Crow and Red-winged Starling.
The paths around the botanical gardens are steep in some places but there is a short loop that is easy for most reasonably able-bodied birders. For the more adventurous, there are countless numbers of paths and trails over the top of the mountain itself and that would give access to more difficult species like Cape Rock-thrush, Sentinel Rock-thrush, Familiar Chat and Ground Woodpecker although you are far more likely to pick up these special species in more easily accessible sites like Rooi Els.
After a cup of coffee and a few rusks at the very neat picnic site in the gardens, it is worth moving on. There are very clean ablution facilities at the picnic site, although there are no shops for purchasing drinks and snacks and you should arrive with your own provisions.
Once you have spent some time at the gardens there is the option to carry on further north where Rotary Drive terminates in amongst some vineyards at about 8.9kms, before dropping down to Paarl Main Road or you can backtrack to the Taal Monument from where the N1 motorway is more easily accessible. It can be quite nice to head down to the Paarl Bird Sanctuary (Sewerage Works) on the north-eastern side of town to add waterbirds to your morning species count although that site has become quite a significant security concern for birders and it wouldn’t be an option unless you are in a sizeable group.
Paarl Mountain Reserve, as described, can be well-covered in a time period of 4 hours and a species count in summer can be as high as 60 species, but the real appeal of this site is the very easy access to many of the Cape’s endemic species so it fits very well for an overseas birder hoping to see some good birds in a relaxed environment.
It is a comfortable drive on the N1 from Cape Town, being reached from the city centre in just less than an hour, travelling at a leisurely pace. Take the N1 north of the city and travel towards the town of Paarl. At the first exit for the town of Paarl, take exit 55 which is a slip road onto the beginning of Paarl Main Street (which is reputedly the longest Main Street of any city/town in South Africa). There should be clear signs immediately marking the route to the Taal Monument but if you miss those it is quite easy. After a few hundred metres from exiting the motorway turn left in Flambeau Street and then immediately left again to stay in Flambeau Street. Follow Flambeau Street until you turn left again into Chappelle Street, which soon turns into a T-Junction which is Gabbema Doordrift Street. Turn right here and drive up the winding road, through a large stone pine plantation until you reach the Taal Monument in front of you. Rotary Drive (which is your main access road for the site) is on your right.
Rotary Drive is a good quality gravel road that traverses the eastern slope of the mountain on a contour that stretches from the Taal Monument in the south to the far northern edge of the town as the road slips down off the mountain back into suburbia. The road can be busy on weekend mornings as it is a popular destination for runners and mountain bikers, however, there are ample opportunities for birders to park their car on the edge of the road and wander along the edge of the habitat for bird viewing.