This relatively small area lies just south of the suburb of Observatory, and is about a 10 minute drive from the City Centre. It is bounded by the Black River Parkway (east), Liesbeek Parkway/Malta Road (west), Settler’s Way (south) and the Salt River railway yards (north). Through this long and fairly narrow area flows the Liesbeek River until it meets the Black River alongside the Black River Parkway.
Surrounded by roads, access is relatively easy. Two bird hides have been constructed, one on the property of the River Club at the junction of the two rivers, the other within the grounds of the SA Astronomical Observatory overlooking a temporary wetland alongside the Black River.
If one wants to combine birding with a pleasant walk, a good starting point is to take Observatory Road which comes off Liesbeek Parkway, crossing the Liesbeek River opposite the Hartleyvale Sports Complex. Once over the river, turn right onto Liesbeek Avenue which eventually ends at the Wild Fig Restaurant. There are several parking areas along this road, the largest one just below the Wild Fig. From here a gravel track, much favoured by dog walkers, runs around a large temporary wetland and along the river.
When the winter rains have filled the wetland, duck species such as Yellow-billed, Cape Shoveler and Red-billed Teal frequent the area, as do Purple Heron, Yellow-billed and Little Egret. Levaillant’s Cisticola and Lesser Swamp Warbler can be seen and heard in the reed beds as can flocks of Common Waxbill. On the adjacent river, African Black Duck are often spotted, and there is always a collection of Hartlaub’s Gulls with the occasional Grey-headed, Kelp Gulls and African Sacred Ibis. A couple of Reed Cormorants are generally to be found and the sand islands in the river should be checked for Three-banded Plover. Both Cape and Southern Masked Weaver breed here in spring, and with a plentiful supply of Rock Doves about, there is always the chance of a Peregrine Falcon. Other raptors which have been seen hunting in the area are Black Sparrowhawk and African Goshawk. Keep a lookout for kingfishers, as Giant, Pied and Malachite may be spotted.
After a walk along the river, one can drive back along the road and park at the River Club, then walk down the edge of the golfcourse along the river, canalised in this section, toward the River Club’s bird hide. Here the chance of spotting a kingfisher is increased, and roosting Black-crowned Night-Heron and Black-winged (Black-shouldered) Kite (a pair nests in the area) are possible. Coffee or lunch at the River Club restaurant makes a good end to a morning’s birding.
The second hide, in the grounds of the SA Astronomical Observatory, can be readily accessed after signing in at the entrance boom. There is parking at the hide, and in winter, when the wetland is full, some good birds may be seen from the spacious hide. A number of water birds roost in the wetland, and Grey, Black-headed and Purple Heron may be spotted, together with African Spoonbill and a good selection of ducks. Some of the less common duck species seen here include White-faced Duck and Hottentot Teal, and a White-backed Duck was a highlight sighting on a Cape Bird Club outing. Greater Flamingo has become fairly regular in recent years, and even Great White Pelican may drop in from time to time. Black-winged Stilt are fairly common, Pied Avocet a little less regular. Scouring the bush and trees adjacent to the hide can produce Cape Canary, Red-faced Mousebird, Southern Fiscal, Karoo Prinia and others, and Helmeted Guineafowl and Cape Spurfowl are generally scurrying about.
The historical buildings and a possible visit to the famed McLean telescope could be interesting additions to a visit.
An alternate approach, accessing the site from the Black River Parkway, allows good views of the river’s edge obscured from the hides. Travelling north along the M5/Black River Parkway (heading towards the NI), take the Berkley Road off-ramp from the Parkway and pull over onto the grass bank opposite the River Club hide. This gives one the chance to survey the Black River’s edge, as well as look some way up the Liesbeek. Unfortunately the amount of debris strung along the riverside vegetation is a little off-putting, but some good birds such a Little Bittern and Water Thick-knee may be spotted here. This is also a good spot for African Black Duck, roosting African Darters, White-breasted and Reed Cormorants and Pied Kingfishers are frequently spotted. Little Grebe and Common Moorhen are generally present. Cape clawless otter may also make an appearance if one is lucky. This section of the river was the scene of one of South Africa’s biggest twitches when a Snowy Egret (the 2nd sighting for southern Africa) arrived here in June 2015, attracting birders from far and wide. More recently, in January 2018, a Green-backed Heron, a Regional rarity, stopped off in the same area.
Spring into early summer would certainly be the best time to bird this area, and then a mix of swifts, swallows and martins may frequently be seen overhead. However, even a CBC outing in mid-summer and during our recent drought produced a good bird list despite the wetlands all being dry. Although I’m not aware of a “formal” bird list being available for this area, a couple of hours of very pleasant birding covering all the spots mentioned above should produce a species total of 40-50, with the chance of something unusual always there. And the area is practically on our “doorstep”.