Strandfontein: a fully-fledged birding hotspot

 

Since I joined the UCT Birding Club in 2016, a phrase I have heard repeatedly being mentioned is “birders are the only people who will voluntarily visit sewage works”. It seems hard to believe that anybody would want to visit a sewerage plant full stop, but having been to Strandfontein Sewage Works four times over the last year and a half, I can safely say that there is a very good reason for birders to visit it and others like it.

Strandfontein is located within False Bay Nature Reserve on the Cape Flats, not far from Muizenberg Beach but a fair distance from Cape Town. The waste treatment plant itself makes up only a tiny fraction of the area. The rest is a network of both shallow and deep pans, and channels fringed by dense reed beds and pockets of critically endangered Cape Flats Dune strandveld. As these pans are filling a wetland role in the landscape, Strandfontein and other sewage works are incredibly productive environments, attracting many species sometimes numbering in their thousands. Additionally the water levels of these pans are constantly changing, resulting in a dynamic system and changing composition of the species diversity. Sewage works are also often some of the only available habitat of its kind left in urbanized areas such as the Cape Flats. Strandfontein frequently hosts a large variety of waterfowl species, migratory and resident waders, and other more terrestrial species – even the occasional seabird has been seen on its pans. In fact, the list of recorded bird species at Strandfontein is over 200.

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Greater flamingo (@Callum Evans).

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Cape shoveler resting on the grassy banks (@Callum Evans).

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Glossy ibis in the early morning light (@Callum Evans).

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Water thick-knee facing away from the camera (@Callum Evans).

The first time I visited Strandfontein, I was blown by the sheer number of water birds that were feeding in the pans. Hundreds of Cape teals and Cape shovelers mingle with yellow-billed ducks as flocks of both lesser and greater flamingo’s fly overhead or gather on the pans too. Vast numbers of red-knobbed coots and black-winged stilts also cover the pans and lines of great white pelicans often soar overhead too. In summer, the area becomes the home for vast flocks of barn swallows from Europe and the diversity and number of wading birds increases dramatically with the arrival of large numbers of curlew sandpipers and little stints, as well as smaller numbers of ruddy turnstones, wood sandpipers, ruffs and whimbrels.

Strandfontein gives visitors the opportunity to see birds they normally do not get to see in other birding areas around Cape Town. I have had many of my most memorable encounters with the stunning glossy ibises, water thick-knees, grey-headed gulls, pied avocets and southern pochard’s, not to mention African marsh harriers. Although these species can be seeen at several other sites around Cape Town, their numbers are significantly higher here than at most of the other places. I’ve seen black-shouldered kites hovering right above me and, now and then, fish eagles and black sparrowhawks fly over the wetlands.  I’ve also been lucky enough to get ‘lifers’ at Strandfontein, including African snipe and Hottentot teal.

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A mix of cape shoveler’s, black-winged stilts, pied avocet’s and lesser flamingo (@Callum Evans).

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Hovering black-shouldered kite (@Callum Evans).

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Two curlew sandpipers, one of the many species of waders that visit the area in summer (@Callum Evans).

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Common greenshank preening (@Callum Evans).

Different parts of the reserve have different specialities depending on the seasons. The western-most pan (Pan 2) is where large numbers of terns roost on the banks, including sandwich, swift, white-winged and Caspian terns, and where large groups of flamingo’s, wading birds and pelicans can be found feeding or resting. The large stands of reed beds that grow along the edges of the pans provide shelter for a number of birds including lesser swamp warblers, African swamphen, black crake and purple heron.  The pockets of strandveld contain terrestrial species like Cape longclaw’s, yellow canary, Cape grassbird, zitting cisticola, spotted eagle-owl and Karoo scrub robin.

On top of all that diversity, Strandfontein is also infamous for attracting vagrant bird species. The best time to find rarities are when the summer migrants are around and some years there are a surprisingly large number of such birds around. In one day at Strandfontein, I was able to see a Red-necked phalarope, a pectoral sandpiper and an American golden plover. All three of these birds were classed as rare birds for the region. Another bird I saw that same day, however, was a Temminck’s Stint, which was only the third recorded individual to show up in South Africa. This particular bird caused such a stir that over a 1000 people travelled to see over the course of the three months it was there (2016/17). Before that, there have been a number of other vagrants that have appeared in Strandfontein. A couple of elegant terns have joined the local terns over the years, South Africa’s fourth citrine wagtail stayed for a number of days in 2014 and Southern Africa’s first rufous-tailed scrub-robin drew over 1700 birders from across the region. Other noteworthy birds seen at Strandfontein have spotted crake, African crake, Franklin’s gull and a juvenile palmnut vulture.

Strandfontein is just one example of how sewage works can attract thousands of birds. In South Africa, there are a number of other such places like Paarl Bird Sanctuary and Darvill Wastewater Works. And there are also similar places in other parts of Africa and elsewhere, such as Eilat, Israel, and Melbourne, Australia.  These sewerage works are not only good places to go birding, but each one has also become critically important to the birds that live in and around it, including providing habitat for a number of globally threatened bird species. So a place that is so often associated with human waste has slowly become a place when some amazing birds (not to mention mammals and insects) have decided to visit or live in and where people from all over the world will come and admire them.

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The famous Temminck’s stint that popped up in Strandfontein in 2016/17 (@Callum Evans).

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Pelican coming in to land amid flocks of avocets and shovelers (@Callum Evans).

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Lesser flamingo crowds (@Callum Evans).

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Greater flamingos feeding with cape teals and shovelers (@Callum Evans).

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Cape Teal launch pad (@Callum Evans).

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Black-headed heron (@Callum Evans).

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Sunset over Strandfontein (@Callum Evans).

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