Expedition Estuary: The Cape Bird Club Explores Zandvlei Estuary Nature Reserve
As a lifelong birdwatcher, it was fairly inevitable that I’d finally scrape my act together and join the Cape Bird Club (CBC), which I did on January 1st 2019 – the one and (probably) only New Years resolution I’ve kept this year. The CBC is a local club that organises frequent outings, lectures, and even camps for bird-watchers, twitchers, and bird geeks such as myself. And so, with my sparkly new membership signed, sealed, and delivered, I joined the first outing of the year, which happened to be to Zandvlei Estuary Nature Reserve, a 300-hectare reserve and recreational area near Muizenberg, Cape Town.
A protected water wilderness
Sunday morning, bright and early, the summer sun well clear of the eastern horizon and already beaming down on the Cape, we made our way to Zandvlei Estuary Nature Reserve, which is sandwiched in by the four rather dense residential areas of Lakeside, Marina da Gama, Muizenberg and Steenberg. This particular nature reserve protects the sole functioning estuary, wetland, and river system combination on the False Bay coast. It also provides a safe harbour for over 149 species of birds, ten threatened plant species (including the critically endangered Cape Flats conebush and gonnabos), and a collection of small mammals.
The reserve is usually closed on weekends for God knows what reason, but the Cape Bird Club has friends in high places and so we were able to gain access for the purpose of a two-hour guided bird walk.
A good start
Upon arrival, I was surprised how many people were there (a good 40 or so), most clad in the unofficial birdwatching uniform of khaki clothing, hiking shoes, and wide-brimmed floppy hats. After a brief by group leader Graham Pringle, who is so schooled and experienced that he can fire off the name of a nondescript brown bird at a range of 200 metres, we commenced our trek into the tangled reeds of Zandvlei Estuary.
The Gods of birds and birding smiled upon us early: we saw a purple heron perched atop a tree, the early morning light highlighting its rich chestnut and white plumage; Caspian terns with their bright red beaks and black yarmulke caps soared along the waterways, scouring the surface for fish; African black swifts scythed through the air like fighter jets; and a pied kingfisher in its handsome tuxedo plumage torpedoed the water for breakfast.
Zandvlei Estuary Nature Reserve is criss-crossed with pathways that lead visitors from one end of this water wonderland to the other. At strategic intervals, there are bird hides stationed overlooking broad expanses of open water or tangled reed beds, allowing visitors to observe the species of birds that prefer either habitat. For the former: Greater flamingos, white-breasted cormorants, little egrets, Egyptian geese, yellow-billed ducks, and Cape teals. The latter: Cape weaverbirds, Levaillant’s cisticolas (named after the famous French naturalist), lesser swamp warblers, and common moorhens.
Of course, these names are likely meaningless to you, just as they were to the bird novice friend I brought along with me. That is, until she saw these birds up close and personal – feeding, interacting, calling, diving, and flitting about. Suddenly, what was before a clump of reeds or open expanse of water became a thriving habitat and wonderland for birds. By the end of the trip, she was trained to notice and even get excited about every movement, every rustle, every bird chirp, and every splash of water in the hope that it was a new bird to add to our list.
We spent about two hours tramping through the reeds, along boardwalks, and into and out of bird hides, racking up a final count of 32 different bird species. Being a nature reserve, there were also animals and evidence of animal life to be spotted: we saw a family of mongoose, the dainty spoor of a small antelope (perhaps a Grysbokkie?), a porcupine quill, and – triumph of all triumphs – three Cape clawless otters paddling in the estuary!
A New Years resolution to be proud of
In the broader scheme of things, the Cape Bird Club provides a forum for bird-watchers to share, interact, and seek advice on all things feathered. This might seem boring to many until you consider the exuberance and variety of birdlife South Africa has to offer and for which we carry an international reputation. Our country is considered a Mecca of sorts to which avid birders from all over the world make their pilgrimage. Besides, you’re never guaranteed to see big game on any trip into the bush but what you can bank on is birdlife. To ignore this facet of the wild is to deny yourself a rich source of intrigue, mystery, thrill, and satisfaction.
At the end of our morning walk, we left with a camera filled with fabulous shots of birds, 5,000 steps on our Fitbit counters, veins alive with fresh air, and the satisfaction that of all the New Years resolutions I could have fulfilled, this is the longest coming and the one I’m most proud of. If this is what we can expect from a standard outing with the Cape Bird Club, there will be many more adventures to come this year!
The Cape Bird Club: www.capebirdclub.org.za