This 306 hectare site, a RAMSAR site and part of the False Bay Nature Reserve is better known to birders as the Strandfontein Sewage Works but is more correctly designated the Cape Flats Waste Water Treatment Works, and about 30 minutes drive from the centre of Cape Town. It is without doubt the premier birding spot close to the city for both casual visitors and serious birders keen on looking for rarities. It boasts a bird list of well over 200 species and a couple of hours spent here at any time of the year should produce a total well in excess of 50 species.
The settling pans hold good numbers of many species of water birds, boosted by a good selection of migrant waders during summer. The adjacent bush, coastal dune and grassed habitats contain many other species, all easily accessible via a system of untarred dirt tracks, although some of these, especially along the southern edge (nearest the sea), should be approached with caution (thick sand).
The area is accessed from Strandfontein Road (M17), which has recently had a major upgrade. Coming from Cape Town on the M17 turn right at the sign to Pelican Park, where the McDonald’s sign can be seen.
After passing through the recent extension of the Pelican Park housing estate, one enters the False Bay Nature Reserve (into which the Works are now incorporated and an area protected by the City of Cape Town) via a boom and continues along a winding tarred road which runs parallel to Zeekoevlei.
The grassy areas along this road are good for Zitting Cisticola and will almost always have one or more Black-headed Herons patrolling through them. Exploring the line of eucalyptus trees with their picnic sites along the eastern edge of Zeekoevlei may produce species such as Fork-tailed Drongo and Cape Canary and even Common Chaffinch has been spotted here. Many Pied Crows roost and forage here.
This area also saw one of the biggest twitches in South African birding history when a Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin was discovered by Cape Bird Club President Peter Steyn in July 2016. A first for the southern African sub-region and only the second African record south of the Equator, this bird obligingly stayed in the area for some time and attracted birders from every South African province and many from farther afield.
After passing (on the right) the buildings housing the headquarters of the False Bay Nature Reserve, a check of the reed beds and surrounding bush at the southern end of Zeekoevlei may give views of Burchell’s Coucal (nE). One then enters the Waste Water Treatment Works and the first large pans (P6 & P7) will quickly produce numbers of duck species such as Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler (nE) and Yellow-billed Duck as well as Little Grebe, seasonally large numbers of Black-necked Grebe and, rather rarer than in the past, Great Crested Grebe. Large numbers of Southern Pochard may also be present as well as smaller numbers of Maccoa Duck. Both here and at other pans in the Works the duck congregations should be carefully scanned for rarer species such as South African Shelduck (nE), Blue-billed (Hottentot) Teal (becoming more regular and now breeding in the Works), White-faced and Fulvous Whistling Ducks and White-backed Duck. A single Knob-billed Duck was also present for a while earlier in 2017. The platforms at the south-eastern end of P6 are often used as roosting sites for White-breasted and Reed Cormorants, Swift Terns and Hartlaub’s Gulls (nE).
The grassed verge of the tarred road approaching the main works will generally have numbers of Blacksmith Lapwings, and in summer, depending on the weather conditions, mixed flocks of swallows and martins may be present on the road. Careful scanning has revealed Sand Martin among the mainly Barn Swallows and Brown-throated Martins.
At the main works gates one turns right and continues through the system of pans, the inner ones being labelled with a P (primary pans) and the outer ones with an S (Secondary pans). By now, Greater Flamingos will have become a common sight, and in recent years Lesser Flamingos have also occasionally been present in good numbers. Other water birds such as Red-knobbed Coot, Common Moorhen and African Swamphen are fairly common, as are Black-winged Stilt and Pied Avocet. Watch the road edges for both Spotted and Water Thick-knees. Large numbers of Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls will be seen, the former breeding on the coastal dunes along Baden Powell Drive and feeding in large numbers at the dump-site on the western side of the Works. This site also attracts Great White Pelican, White-necked Raven and in summer, Yellow-billed Kite.
Other raptors which should be encountered on most visits are African Marsh Harrier and Black-shouldered Kite with African Fish Eagle also now more common than before. Peregrine Falcons breed in the Works and other raptors such as Jackal Buzzard (nE) also occur at times. A pair of Spotted Eagle-Owls were resident in the dunes at the southern end of S6.
The Waste Water Treatment Works did not in the past provide much good wader habitat, but recent conservators have manipulated the water levels of some of the pans, and pans such as P1 and P2 have as a result produced good numbers of waders in the past few summers. These have included a staggering number of Regional and National Rarities, with the 2016/17 summer season drawing large numbers of birders from all over the country to view species such as Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope, American Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Spotted, African and Baillon’s Crake, African Jacana and others.
Manipulation of water levels has also produced sand islands and here tern roosts in summer will contain Swift, Sandwich and Common Terns, a sprinkling of Caspian Terns and there is always the possibility of rarities such as Elegant and Lesser Crested Terns which have been seen. Whiskered Terns sporting full breeding plumage have also been about in the early summer months, but White–winged Terns are less common than in the past. Among the many Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls, Grey-headed Gulls have become more frequent, and specials such as Franklin’s Gull have also turned up in the past.
Apart from the mixed swallow and swift flocks which will be feeding over the pans during the summer months, species such as Cape Longclaw (nE), Cape Bulbul (E), African Pipit, Cape Wagtail (rarities such as Western Yellow and Citrine Wagtails have also been found here), Cape Weaver (E) and Southern Masked Weaver, Common Waxbill, Levaillant’s Cisticola and others will be seen whilst driving around, and Lesser Swamp and Little Rush Warblers will usually be heard many times before they are finally sighted in the reed beds. Some of the outer less often visited habitats containing the endangered Cape Flats Dune Strandveld hold species such as Karoo Scrub-Robin (nE), Bar-throated Apalis, Fiscal Flycatcher (nE), Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird (nE).
The possibility of spotting a rarity regularly draws many of South Africa’s top birders to the Works, and the species list for Strandfontein Birding Area keeps increasing. A visit should be on the itinerary of any keen birder visiting the city, and a couple of hours spent among the pans and dunes will seldom disappoint.
Currently, early 2021, many of the secondary pans are inundated by Water Hyacinth, an alien invasive species. The City of Cape Town, with the Nature Reserve management, has plans to eradicate this, but this will take time with the limited capacity and budgets.