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Birding in the Eastern Cape of South Africa

Updated on July 16, 2016
Secretary Birds
Secretary Birds | Source
Forked-tailed Drongo
Forked-tailed Drongo | Source
Avocet and Black-winged Stilt
Avocet and Black-winged Stilt | Source
Most common raptor at Addo: Pale-chanting Goshawk
Most common raptor at Addo: Pale-chanting Goshawk | Source
Grey-headed Gull - Sunday's River
Grey-headed Gull - Sunday's River | Source
Magnificent Kudu
Magnificent Kudu | Source
"Hapoor" in Educational Centre
"Hapoor" in Educational Centre | Source

Birding in the Eastern Cape of South Africa

I’m sitting on a deck chair at Golden Sands, a picnic spot on the Sunday’s River about 50 kilometers from Port Elizabeth. The sun is setting over the white dunes and turning them yellow, giving this place its name. Our list of birds for the day has reached 40. Earlier in the day we travelled into the Addo Elephant Park and travelled some 60 kilometers visiting various water holes and hides along the way. Now at the nearby Sunday’s River Mouth a group of Flamingoes feed in the water and a Grey-headed Gull comes to investigate our fishing area, just in case we leave a sardine lying about. On the opposite bank a Western Great Egret feeds in the shallows while a Giant Kingfisher flies past patrolling the late evening water that is reflecting the images of the majestic sand dunes on the opposite bank. Surely there are not many places in the world that are more beautiful.

The Eastern Cape is situated in between the Mediterranean Climatic Zone to the South and the Tropical Zone to the North, giving it a Sub-tropical designation. It is mid-July at present, and so also the middle of winter. It has been classified as a tension zone where summer and winter rainfall areas meet. Although the evenings are cold enough to wear a coat and beanie, the days are glorious. The Addo Elephant Park stretches some 200 kilometers from the coast to the Darlington Dam in the Zuurberg Mountain Rage in the north. It lays claim to having five of the seven vegetation biomes found in Southern Africa namely Cape fynbos (heath), grassland, forest, subtropical thicket and Nama-Karoo. Botanists have identified 43 vegetation units, each having its own unique mix of species. Here in Addo the main vegetation type seems to be spekboom and this is a favourite browsing vegetation for animals such as Elephant and Kudu.

As we left our campsite on the beautiful Sunday’s River this morning, we had what we refer to as a “Great Addo Day”. Although we did not see the “big five” we listed 27 bird species and saw many Elephant, Buffalo and antelope species. There is always a surprise somewhere along the way and the pair of Secretary Birds provided that today. They were on our wish list and as we approached a waterhole in the southern part of the reserve we spotted them in the grass marching along in their majestic way. The Secretary Bird is master of the grassland and although reputed to be snake eaters their main prey is, in fact small mammals and even grasshoppers and other insects. At the same time they can kill a snake to supplement their diet.

A pair of Black-backed Jackal, a group of Ostriches and many baby Elephants kept the grand children entertained. The Education Centre at the main camp also provided a fascinating visit as the history of the area and many interesting artifacts on display held their attention. The magnificent head of the famous elephant named “Hapoor” and the shell of an equally famous tortoise named “Domkrag” required attention and explanation.

One of the water holes that we always visit is named after “Hapoor” the elephant who patrolled that area for many years. He was easy to recognize because of the big gap in his ear that had been removed by another animal in a fight. Here at this dam we were excited to add several birds to our trip list including an Avocet and a pair of South African Shell-ducks.

“Domkrag” means “car jack”. Tortoises protect their area by lifting intruders over onto their backs where they then die. This large tortoise protected his area near the “Domkrag Dam" by getting under motor cars and trying to tip them over, a rather futile exercise even for a very large tortoise. He eventually fell into an aardvark hole and died there.

A lunch break at “Jack’s Place” is also a mandatory stop for us. The Southern Boubou always seems to be on hand to beg for bread crumbs from our table. Jack was a Black Rhino imported from East Africa in the 1960’s who made this area his place until he died many years later, and so this delightful picnic spot is named in his honour.

But being “Birders” we continued to make out trip list and the animals were an obvious added plus. It was rewarding to see how our grandson Zak, began to recognize some of the birds, and with his young eyes also managed to spot some that we may have missed.

A visit to this part of the Easter Cape is guaranteed to add quite a few species to a bird list, be it a life list or just a South African trip list. The Addo Elephant Park that extends from the edge of the Indian Ocean to the mountains some 200 kilometres away offers a variety of habitat that makes for excellent birding opportunities. A visit of four to five days would be ideal and allow for all areas to be visited and birded.


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    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 18 months ago from East London, South Africa

      Thanks for the comment and we really enjoyed our sighting in the late evening light and wished that they were a bit closer, but you have to take what you have.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 18 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Definitely a wonderful trip with equally good photos. Those Secretary Birds are outstanding.