Breede River, Port Beaufort
25 – 27 May 2018
Was the fishing better than the birding?
Members who attended the camp, with a bent for fishing may have wondered, given the tales of days gone by when “White Steenbras as big as men” were reportedly caught in this famous fishing estuary.
The surrounding dry agricultural areas resembling semi-desert from the drought, combined with heavy lingering mists did not make for ideal birding conditions. But, on the Friday, travelling down, the drought broke… well we experienced a fair amount of rain.
The shorter, more direct, gravel R324 road turned into a dodgy skid patch. Some members in saloon cars wisely turned back for the longer tarred route near Heidelberg.
After arriving at our accommodation, Breede River Lodge, which was very well appointed, and a briefing from the leaders Simon and Mel, and to make the most of the time, we had a late afternoon field trip along the dry Slang River. The sun now breaking through the clouds gave a warm glow as we ventured along a riverside track. “Listen… Vic-tor, Vic-tor”… the call of a Greater Honeyguide was heard. We were unable to locate it, but Vic Smith was chuffed to have heard his name called from yonder hill. Bar-throated Apalis’, Cape Weavers, Speckled Mousebirds and Cape Bulbuls inhabited the riverside acacia scrub and some stands of Aloe ferox, (but what were those other Aloes*?) Young Ben spotted a Black Sparrowhawk flying over, which we were all able to get onto. Bokmakerie, Southern Boubou and Pied Barbet called from across the river. Evidence of Porcupine activity and spoor was seen all along the path and perhaps even mongoose or otter spoor.
The setting sun now creating dramatic skyscapes, we headed back. A brief look into some cattle kraals produced sparrows, both Cape and House, Blacksmith Plover (CRON) and Three-banded Plovers.
Roger Cope, coped (sorry for the pun) very ably as braai master that evening.
The following morning mist covered the estuary and surrounding lands. Undaunted we headed slowly, in anticipation of the mist clearing, across the lands towards a spot upstream on the Breede River. Two tech savvy members, Mendel Karpul and Andrew Hodgson had a pair of 2 way radios. Four ways that kept the convoy in touch with what was seen and to look out for, as we snaked across the lands in the mist. At one point taking a wrong turn and getting lost. One of our target birds was spotted… the range restricted Agulhas Long-billed Lark. Unfortunately not everyone got onto it but other sightings were made. Small and large flocks of Blue Cranes were active in many of the stubble fields.
Descending to the river the sun started to break through. A pleasant amble along the north bank with a low tide, gave us a few water species, Black-winged Stilt, Spoonbill, Yellow-billed Duck, White-breasted and Reed Cormorant. An African Rail called in response to a play back, with Levaillant’s Cisticola, Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warbler (members of CRON will know their old names) calling from the reeds. The bush fringing the banks was very quiet, but as the morning warmed up so did the birds, Sombre Greenbul (Bulbul CRON) being the most vocal. An African Fish Eagle was spotted sitting up on the hillside then taking flight across the river. Another predator of fish, an Osprey slowly flapped downstream, now against a clear blue sky. Interesting that this is a summer migrant still hanging around in May. The Breede River is surprisingly wide and large, historically it was navigated by quite sizable schooners up as far as Malgas (50kms upstream), a port, which in the early 1800s supplied provisions from Cape Town to farmers and settlers in the area.
After a coffee break on the banks we headed slowly back. Climbing out of the river valley, the word went out “big birds up in the sky!” Another target species, seven Cape Vultures now catching the thermals, circling up, up, up. Cape Vulture was voted bird of the trip. Larks; Red-capped, Thick-billed (CRON) and another Agulhas Long-billed were seen and the challenge of pipits… after some debate Grassveld (CRON) African Pipit was settled on, even though the stony bare fields seemed more suitable for Plain-backed Pipit.
After lunch we headed to some large stands of Proteas, an area locally known as Protea Valley. Cape Sugarbirds were in abundance, noisy and flighty with the onset of the breeding season. Against the far hill a raptor glided towards us, some thought Red-breasted Sparrowhawk at first, as the underparts did have a reddish hue. As the bird got closer, the long wings and distinctive buoyant flight confirmed African Marsh Harrier. A Black-shouldered Kite hovered above (sorry, I refuse to use the new name for this, perhaps many of you might not know, the Australians have stolen this name for their bird. Our BSK is now BWK). Time was getting the better of us, so we headed for Brakkekuil farm. En route seeing the first of several Stanley’s (CRON), Denham’s Bustard, another target special of the region and a Jackal Buzzard feeding on a scavenged dead lamb, proudly defiant against a fish eagle that wanted a piece of the action.
At the farm among some large stands of eucalyptus a Greater Honeyguide was seen on the recce, however, not this time, but we did have good views of a Lesser Honeyguide (a lifer for some). Standing in the pleasant late afternoon sun, watching a few other active species in the gums, Fiscal Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Drongo, Cape Weaver, Cape Sparrow, a new species was spotted… Cape Canary.
A brief visit to some nearby renosterveld proved to have no birds, but an African Hoopoe (the main host of the Greater Honeyguide) was seen in adjacent gums. Saving a good bird for the last of the day, a Peregrine Falcon sat atop a telephone pole. 9 birds of prey in the day seemed a good tally, including a Rock Kestrel not mentioned above.
A clear night around the braai fire, provoked some star gazing and astronomy debates before turning in for the night, although the UEFA Champions League Final on TV kept some members up later than usual.
Sunday heralded another misty morning. A Giant Kingfisher took off from its hunting perch as we all gathered on a damp deck overlooking the estuary to do the final bird list; 87 plus 4 heards. A short foray down to a public jetty in the hope that the mist would clear to try for roosting seabirds on sand banks at low tide only held hazy views of African Black Oystercatcher, Kelp Gull and a few cormorants. Defeated by the mist, some headed off to Cape Town, some going on else where. A few went back via the Malgas road, crossing the Breede on the ‘man powered’ pontoon. Cracking views of Agulhas Long-billed Lark, Denham’s Bustard and Karoo Korhaan rounded off an enjoyable camp.
So, in spite of the conditions, the birding was better than the fishing in the end.
* Alison James checked these up when she got home and sent me this:
“The aloes we saw at the Slang River are Aloe speciosa – the tilt head aloe, they are beautiful when they flower. There were also the odd Aloe ferox in-between.
Benjamin Mayes (14 years)
I really enjoyed the Breede River Camp, and saw many new lifers including the Agulhas Long-Billed Lark, and the Lesser Honeyguide. I also enjoyed the evening braais and meeting new people. I am looking forward to my next camp with the CBC.
We arrived at the Breede River Lodge in Witsand on Friday. After settling in we met the leaders Simon and Mel, and attended a meeting discussing the plans for the next few days.
Our first outing was that evening to the slang river followed by an evening braai
On Saturday morning, we looked for birds in the surrounding farmlands, and on the river banks. After lunch we travelled inland to Protea valley followed by a stopover to see the lesser honeyguide. We had a communal braai again that night.
On Sunday morning we met up to count the sightings of the past two days. We then travelled to the estuary to look for birds on the banks exposed during low tide. Some of the group then continued on to Malgas and others returned home.