The southern Cape gains its fame as a well-known tourist destination, through the Garden Route and Cango Caves at Oudtshoorn. Within this strip of coastline and mountainous interior there are a wide variety of habitats, ranging from the lush coastal plains and fynbos covered mountains through to the succulent Karoo. The area is also richly endowed with rivers, which provide the perfect opportunity to carry out birding through the relaxed and scenically spectacular method of canoeing.
Canoeing, on rivers, in the southern Cape in most cases allows one to work through a range of habitats starting from the estuary mouth and then moving inland, across salt marshes, reed beds, open river banks and through to overgrown forest edges. Different seasons will also provide a totally different suite of species, with summer providing an influx of migrants. It is not only the traditional range of water birds that are encountered but also many of the shyer forest species and raptors. If one is careful and quite in ones approach, birds are often extremely tolerant of people in canoes, allowing you to get that much closer. This is a great advantage for identification and photography. There is also something special about enjoying the tranquillity and sounds of the outdoors when paddling on water and areas that are often totally inaccessible on land open up, providing a totally new range of experiences.
My two personal favourites are the Kaaimans and Touw Rivers. The Kaaimans River is a real gem in terms of unusual species to be found along its banks. It is a short river and access is easiest from the causeway off the N2 highway. Half collared Kingfisher start occurring along this river and if one is patient African Finfoot may also be observed skulking in amongst the vegetation that overhangs the water. West of the causeway the river extends for less than a kilometre, but provides some really spectacular scenery in the form of a narrow gorge, which stops in a dead end with a waterfall. On the cliffs of the gorge Peregrine Falcon may regularly be observed and Crowned Eagle and Forest Buzzard hunt in the wooded patches. In the quieter stretches of the river Black Duck are often seen.
During the early mornings the forested banks are alive with birdcalls and this is the easiest way to locate a bird party. I have observed Swee Waxbill, Sombre Greenbul, Southern Boubou, Cape Whiteye, Blue Mantled Crested Flycatcher and Spotted Flycatcher and Olive and Knysna Woodpeckers in amongst these birding parties. Greater Double Collared Sunbirds feed off the indigenous aloes during the summer months and Knysna Turaco are often heard and seen flying across from one side of the river to the other. The Narina Trogon is another special of this area and for the extremely lucky it is sometimes viewed on the forests edge.
The Touw River is a well-known destination with the South African National Parks, Wilderness camp falling on its borders. There are a number of options when canoeing on this river, with the two most rewarding being the stretch through the Serpentine River and the stretch inland along the forested banks. The forested banks provide similar birding to that of the Kaaimans, while reed beds largely flank the Serpentine. These reed beds provide opportunity to view the shyer Black Crake, Purple Gallinule, Purple Heron and seldom seen Little Bittern. The Serpentine opens up onto Island Lake, which is largely devoid of bird life apart from along its shores, where Red Knobbed Coot occurs in good numbers.
For the more experienced and adventurous canoer, there is the option of paddling on the sea. Remember that specialised sea kayaks are needed for this type of adventure. Guided tours are lead from Plettenberg Bay and follow the coastline to Robberg Peninsula, where the seal colony may be viewed. Other good areas for sea kayaking are from Fransmanshoek, west of Mosselbay, through to Dana bay or around to Gouritz River mouth. Sea conditions are often very good and this allows one to view Cape Gannets dive bombing into shoals of fish and then being hounded by Sub-Antarctic and Arctic Skua to release their catches. Wilsonís Storm Petrel, Sooty Shearwater and White Chinned Petrel are amongst the pelagic species, which often occur close inshore. Arctic, Antarctic, Common, Sandwich and Swift Terns all feed in the open waters just behind back line and African Penguin can also occasionally be encountered. Along the coastline Black Oystercatchers can be viewed feeding amongst the mussel beds at low tide and alongside Turnstones during the summer months. The sea trips provide the added advantage of unexpected encounters with Southern Right Whales, Bottle Nosed Dolphin and around Gouritz the endangered Humpbacked Dolphin. Great White Sharks are inquisitive to the kayaks and will often come and take a closer look, without posing any threat, but this is definitely not for the faint hearted when a five or six meter shark slips in alongside your rather small looking Kayak!
The southern Cape is endless in its possibilities as a birding destination with a difference and what better way to combine a bit of relaxing bird watching with good exercise in the fresh air and without the pressure of other people around you, than by making use of the waterways and a canoe or Kayak.
This article with wildlife photography was supplied by South African wildlife and conservation photographer Peter Chadwick.