Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Days in South Africa

I am currently in Durban, South Africa for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. My mother and I are attending with the Moravian College delegation, but I am also representing the Inconvenient Youth. The conference begins tomorrow (November 28) in downtown Durban. For the past few days, I was in the Cape Town area, where my mom and I were hosted by the former president of the Moravian Church of South Africa and her husband, both of whom showed us around the city and local attractions within the Western Cape region.

We arrived in South Africa at the Johannesburg International Airport. As the plane landed, my mom and I spotted our first bird of the trip, the unmistakable Long-tailed Widowbird. As we sat in the airport waiting for our flight to Cape Town, we watched through the windows for any new birds. Despite the fact that we were overlooking a sea of concrete, we saw a tremendous number of "life birds." Flocks of twenty or more African Sacred Ibises and several Hadeda Ibises flew overhead. Little Swifts and Rock Martins flew around, while Cape Sparrows and Common Mynas hopped on the ground.

When we arrived in Cape Town, the weather was gorgeous. The sun was shining and there was a nice breeze that cooled that warm air. As soon as we left the airport, we headed to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Swart, but soon headed out for a walk through a canal park in the nearby town of Pinelands. This was my first time to do some birding in a fairly "natural" place on the trip. The park is a small open area with houses on both sides that has a small canal running through the middle. This park gave excellent views of the mountains that lie in the distance. Many of the trees held the tiny Cape White-eyes, while the canal edge was home for small groups of Egyptian Geese and Cape Wagtails. Pied Crows played along the water's edge and flocks of Laughing Doves and Speckled Pigeons wandered through the weeds. Later in the evening, we went to the walkway along the ocean, where we watched the sun set over the water. I managed to find a few new birds here as well, including Cape Cormorant, African Oystercatcher, and Hartlaub's Gull.

Cape Town

The park in Pinelands

Cape Town after sunset
The next morning, we headed to the Cape Town seaboard, where we boarded a ferry to Robben Island. This island was home to a high security prison that is most famous for holding apartheid opposition leaders like Nelson Mandela. For many years, the South African government banished people to this island who hoped to end the strong discrimination against the non-white population of the country. Fortunately, in the 1990s, much of the violence ended and the prisoners were released from the island, ending what was termed the "white regime" of South Africa. Today, the island is a museum that shares the story of the apartheid struggles and the discrimination. The guides, one of whom was a former political prisoner on the island, made a clear message that the museum is not meant to place blame on the white leaders who caused the suffering, but rather to share a message of peace and the importance of treating others with love and respect regardless of skin color and culture.

View of the mainland from Robben Island

The island is also an excellent place for birding, and the ferry ride to the island also produced a good number of exciting bird species. As we pulled out of Cape Town on the boat, Hartlaub's and Kelp Gulls were all over the water's edge and several White-throated Swallows glided low over the water. Soon after pulling into the open water, we began seeing Cape Cormorants flying in long lines low over the water. About 15 minutes into the windy boat ride, I spotted a group of small, white birds flying towards the boat. My first guess with only a quick glimpse without binoculars as that they were terns, but when I finally good a look, I realized that this was a flock of 20 Sabine's Gulls! This is an unusual species near home, so it was treat to see so many of these birds.

Sabine's Gulls
As we approached the jetty near the dock on Robben Island, the overwhelming smell of bird droppings filled the air. Thousands of cormorants (many of which were nesting) lined the jetty. Scanning the flock, I picked out three species. The majority of the birds were Cape Cormorants, with several Bank Cormorants, and a few, scattered Crested Cormorants. As we walked along the dock, I spotted an African Penguin swimming along the beach. Having never seen a wild penguin before, this was pretty exciting! Other birds included Greater Crested Tern, Common Fiscal, and Chukar (there is an established breeding population on the island). 

Cape Cormorants and the globally endangered Bank Comorants

African Penguin
After a few hours on the island, we headed back to the mainland for lunch. As with any outdoor restaurant that I have been to, pigeons, starlings, and sparrows wandered around the ground in search of food scraps. However, these were Speckled Pigeons, Red-winged Starlings, and Cape Sparrows, which made the dining experience a bit more exciting.

After the meal, we made our way to Table Mountain, which was recently named one of the "New Seven Wonders of Nature." This beautiful mountain is covered with a habitat known as fynbos, a fire-dependent shrubland unique to southern Africa. This park is an extremely popular destination, so the area was loaded with people in line to take the cable car to the very top of the mountain. When we parked the car, we immediately heard birds around us. We spotted a Karoo Prinia building a nest near where we parked the car. We also saw a beautiful Cape Canary singing in the pine tree over the road.

As we traveled up the cable car, we had incredible views of Cape Town and the surrounding landscape. The view from the top was unbelievable in every direction. We decided to hike out to explore the top of the mountain. As with many parks in the United States, very few people venture outside the sight of the visitor center, so we had the trails more or less to ourselves. The farther we got from the building, the windier it became. Before long, it was impossible to wear a hat without it soon blowing off. The wind brought in the infamous "tablecloth," a thick layer of fog, that often covers the top of Table Mountain. The weather conditions kept many of the birds away, but we spotted several Orange-breasted Sunbirds fluttering in the shrubs, although they stayed sheltered and hidden for most of the time. Before we went back down the mountain, we spotted an African Rock Hyrax (also known as a Cape Dassie) on the cliff edge. We soon found several more of these small mammals lounging on the rock ledges

One of many spectacular views from the top of Table Mountain
African Rock Hyrax
On Saturday morning, we got an early start and headed east to the village of Genadendal, a former Moravian Church mission in the mountains of the Western Cape. The small town holds many old buildings that were built by the Moravians in the 1730s. The site now holds a Moravian museum that holds many pieces of history from the village as well as information about the Moravian Church as a whole. Much of this information was very interesting to learn, as I attend a school that was founded by the Moravian Church. We also had a small amount of time to bird around the Genadendal gardens, where birds seemed to be everywhere. Showy birds like the African Paradise-Flycatchers and Yellow Bishops were common, as were smaller, drabber species like the Spotted Flycatcher. Malachite and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds visited the flowers in the gardens and were constantly flying through the dense rose bushes and other vines.

The church in Genadendal
The drive to and from Genadendal was beautiful. Close to Cape Town, the landscape looks very green, as the natural areas are mostly covered with fynbos. Once we crossed the mountains, the hills were covered with apple orchards and vineyards. A bit farther down the road, the primary crop is wheat, so the landscape was covered with various shades of brown. Southern Red Bishops lined the fence wires and several Steppe Buzzards patrolled from the utility poles along the highway. My favorite sightings along this route were the small groups of Blue Cranes feeding in the wheat fields. This beautiful bird is the national bird of South Africa, so it had particular importance for me as well as the South African residents in the car. 

After Genadendal, we headed to the coast along the town of Hermanus, a famous location where whales congregate to breed. Along the windy coast, Kelp Gulls were flying around, while the Hartlaub's Gulls, Greater Crested Terns, and a single Grey-headed Gull were perched on the rocks. While I was taking photos of the landscape, my mom spotted a seabird headed towards the coast. I got on the bird and watched it as it approached the point on which we were standing. As the dark bird came close, I got a good look, then quickly switched lenses and photographed the bird as it turned back around and headed back towards the ocean. Based on the views that I did get, I am pretty sure that this bird was a Northern Giant Petrel.

As we started to leave without having seen a whale, my mom wanted to check the bay on last time. Several Greater Striped Swallows circled over the parking lot while we scanned the water. Within a minute, I spotted the tail of a whale on the other side of the bay! For several minutes, the whale (or whales) were visible above the surface of the water. This area is well-known for the breeding population of Southern Right Whales that breed in the sheltered bay east of Hermanus.

Southern Right Whale at Hermanus
After Hermanus, we headed back to Cape Town along the ocean route, where we were greeted with fantastic views over the ocean. We stopped at a few places along the way to take pictures, and we also managed to see a few birds. The highlight was a small group of Cape Sugarbirds that were perched on the shrubs in a roadside fynbos habitat.

The endemic Cape Sugarbird


Today, we flew from Cape Town to Durban, where we will spend the next week at the UNFCCC COP17. So far, the weather has been hot, humid, and rainy. Hopefully the rest of the week will bring nicer weather!


1 comment:

Kwai Lin Kennedy said...

Your trip sounds absolutely magnificent! Enjoy the rest of your trip and I'll be keeping up with your blogs! See you when you get home!