The 27 600 hectare West Coast National Park is one of South Africa’s Important Bird Areas and the Langebaan Lagoon, which forms the centre of this ecologically diverse area, proudly and rightfully holds Ramsar status, which is only allocated to sites of international importance. The park is a hotspot for endemism and is probably best known for its vast fields of spring flowers and for the huge numbers of Palearctic waders that it attracts during the northern hemispheres winter.
Sitting in the cool darkness of the early morning, I let my senses absorb all that was happening around me. It was hard work trying to discern the individual calls of birds amongst what had to be one of the best dawn choruses that I had ever heard. In the distance the roar of the sea was carried across by a slight and fresh breeze after a night of soft rain. Fiery-Necked Nightjars, Spotted Thick-Knee and Spotted Eagle-Owl were perhaps the most expected birds to be calling in the darkness but these were soon drowned out as other birds started awakening. Cape Robin-Chat, Southern Boubou, Karoo Prinia and Bar-Throated Apalis all called from the scrubveld behind me while from the waters edge Black-Winged Stilt and Pied Avocet gave intermittent high-pitched peeps and the gull and tern colony set up a tremendous squawking as they welcomed in the new dawn. Gradually as the eastern skies began to soften with pinks and purples the indistinguishable large whitish blobs moving around in the shallows took better form, transforming into hundreds of Greater and Lesser Flamingos. WOW! Was the thought that went through my mind as I realized how privileged I was to be sitting in the Seeberg Hide on the Langebaan Lagoon within the West Coast National Park.
With the sun now well risen it was possible to watch the Hartlaubs Gull and Tern colony with Swift, Sandwich and the occasional Caspian Terns all stretching and flapping their wings as they took to the skies to begin foraging. The much larger Kelp Gulls made occasional swoops through the colony causing panic amongst the roost. The tide was at its lowest and the water level around the lagoon had receded, exposing vast tracts of mud flats. These were now being covered in thousands of feeding waders. Ruddy Turnstones were the most numerous with Curlew Sandpiper and Sanderling also occurring in huge flocks. Common Whimbrel with their down-curved beaks probed deep into the soil, pulling out a variety of juicy mud dwelling worms. Grey Plover strutted about alongside the much smaller White-Fronted Plover and its rarer relative the Chestnut-Banded Plover. In the shallow water Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper and Common Sandpiper waded purposefully. Terek Sandpipers were the least common and tended to feed on the edge of the water line.
I finally managed to pull myself away from the incredible spectacle and walked back to my vehicle. Numerous vividly colored male Southern Double-Collared Sunbird displayed and called from the tops of bushes, flashing their yellow pectoral feathers to any other sunbird that flew past. On the ground delicate Gladiolus flowers grew on slender stalks, pushing their way through the thicker surrounding scrub. The trail gave away the secrets of the night with the tracks of Cape Grysbok, Porcupine and Honey Badger all being freshly left behind by these mysterious animals.
I drove up to the Seeberg lookout and watched as a brightly colored rainbow formed over the lagoon, with the “pot of gold” end falling over the pink Flamingos far below. Cape Bunting hopped around on the vast granite dome and Pied Starling and Cape Weaver moved quickly and purposefully amongst he bushes. Cape Grasbirds exposed themselves from the tops of bushes singing and proclaiming their territories, while parties of Cape Whiteye gleaned insects from the bushes. White-Backed Mousebird families flew clumsily and crash-landed into the shrubbery while a lone male Ostrich walked below the ark of the rainbow. A pair of Cape Sugarbird fluttered in the valley below, displaying their long tails behind them.
Driving along the tar road towards Geelbek was slow going with the constant movement of feathers along the roadside. A small family of Grey-winged Francolin sunned themselves in the open and Bokmakerie were ever common alerting me to their presence from their distinct calls. Grey Duiker and Steenbok sunned themselves in open patches but quickly dived back into cover as they became aware of my company. Male Southern Black Korhaans repeatedly displayed with their “rusty pump” calls, occasionally flying up to chase one another. Closer to Geelbek, good sightings were made of African Marsh Harrier as they quartered low over the vast reed-beds, while their rarer and iconic relative the Black Harrier preferred to hunt over the low Sandveld. Black-Shouldered Kite and Jackal Buzzard were also common and in the distance a pair of African Fish Eagle circled high over the lagoon.
At the old Geelbek Manor House, which has now been converted into a restaurant and environmental education center, Grey Herons were busy building their nests in the high gum trees. Klaas’s Cuckoos harassed Cape Weavers that were building their nests below the herons, hoping to sneak into the nests and deposit their single egg in order to avoid parenthood. Yellow Canary and Cape Sparrow fed alongside Vlei Rats on the ground in the parking area, while Cape Francolin, Olive Thrush and African Hoopoe searched for food on the green lawns. The approach to the two hides at Geelbek passed through salt-marshes with African Spoonbill, Cape Shoveller, Yellow-Billed Duck, Red-Billed Teal and the delicate Cape Teal all dabbling in the shallows. Avocet scythed their up-turned bills from side to side, snapping up small aquatic insects and on the dry ground Blacksmith Lapwing, Three-Banded and Kitlitz Plover all scurried around purposefully. On the open water of the lagoon a single Glossy Ibis fed alongside more plentiful Sacred Ibis and in the distance a small group of White Pelican encircled a school of fish, with White-Breasted and Reed Cormorant and Great Crested Grebe also making the most of the feast.
Driving around to Abrahamskraal, which is the only freshwater source within the park, Grey-Backed Cisticola, Neddicky, Cape Bulbul and Chestnut-Vented Tit-Babbler all graced me with their presence. In the reed-beds African Black Crake and Common Moorhen skulked, while a Red-Knobbed Coot moved in the open water. On the reeds-edge a Little Egret stood patiently waiting for a passing morsel and an African Darter dried its wings with a Pied Kingfisher sitting above it on an overhanging reed-stalk.
The western bank of the lagoon lies close to the cold and rough Atlantic Ocean and at times both water bodies could be seen simultaneously while driving through the duneveld on my way to Posberg and Tsaarsbank. Begging Hartlaubs Gull greeted me at the Tsaarsbank picnic-site while on the rocky coast African Black Oystercatcher fed amongst the mussel-banks and a lone Crowned Cormorant sat atop a rock pinnacle. A short drive further along the coast brought me to a turn-around point from where I could view Jutten Island, lying close to the coast. Skeins of Cape Cormorant and Cape Gannet flew close to the seas surface and with the use of binoculars I could make out African Penguins sitting in small huddled groups on the island.
The Posberg section of the park is well known for its brilliant displays of spring flowers and is only open to the public during the months of August and September. Presenting my permit at the entrance to Posberg I drove through the gate to see flocks of Cattle Egret and Crowned Lapwing feeding amongst the Bontebok, Gemsbok and Springbok herds. An inquisitive Small Grey Mongoose responded to my “twishing “calls and sat in the open long enough for me to photograph it. Despite being rather windy it was a beautiful warm day and numerous Angulate Tortoises were out and about feeding on the colorful flowers. They were closely followed by Karoo Scrub-Robin pairs and an occasional Karoo Lark, which flew up to perch prominently on top of bushes every time there was the slightest sign of danger. As the sun rose higher in the sky the open vast fields were vividly transformed into a kaleidoscope of color as the spring flowers opened their petals to the sun and I realized that I would be diverted from bird watching for quite some time as I took in the floral splendor.
Text courtesy Peter Chadwick www.peterchadwick.co.za