Thursday, 31 May 2012

Bay of Plenty of Marine Wildlife

After a week of too much work and not enough play, it was time to leave the confines of Cape Town and start a slow journey back home to my mountain stronghold. My broad aim was to see how the fynbos was growing along Clarence Drive, that heads from Somerset West towards Betty's Bay. It was a beautiful and sunny start to the day, with just a touch of coastal mist to add an air of atmosphere to the scenery.

My vague plans to conduct some point counts (bird surveys) on the road to the Steenbras Dam were hijacked when from the parking lot at the entrance gate, which has an amazing view of False Bay below, I spotted a dark shape not far off the coast. My first Southern Right Whales! Thoughts of birds were abandoned as I dashed back down the hill to a viewpoint where the whales were frolicking about half a kilometer out. I spent half an hour watching them and listening to their bugle like noises.

Then out of the corner of my eye black shapes flashed out from the blinding background of sun reflected off sea – a pod of Common Dolphins were passing within scores of meters of me! They were moving rapidly down the coast, and I followed, trying to find view points ahead of them to watch them pass. At one stage I thought I'd found them really close to a rocky bay – but it turned out to be a hot-tub of Cape Fur Seals. These seals are only found around southern Africa – but they are plentiful (probably over 1.5 million of them).

Common Dolphin in full leap

A young dolphin pops its head up

Cape Fur Seals pretending to be dolphins

Cape Sugarbird female - few flowers now, so this one was busy gleaning for insects
Having lost the pod of dolphins, my next stop was the Stony Point African Penguin Colony, nestled within the holiday town of Betty's Bay. This is one of the two mainland colonies, the other being near Simons Town on the Cape Peninsula. I still think of the 'African Penguin' as the 'Jackass Penguin', the name I grew up with and which provides a good description of what they sound like. During my visit, several females were sitting on eggs, and I managed to get a view of a chick in one of the artificial nesting shelters provided for the penguins. There is no shortage of nesting sites for the penguins – instead the population of these poor birds is declining due to a probable shortage of available food resources (small fish species like anchovies and sardines). A chick needs 25kg of fish before it fledges.

The rest of the afternoon I spent as what appeared to be the sole visitor at the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens. Although a flexible working schedule that allows me to take a day off during the week is nice – it was almost eery having an entire huge restaurant and peaceful gardens to myself after the hustle and bustle of Cape Town. I better get used to it – Baviaanskloof will be quieter yet!

African Penguin - front and back
Proud Penguin mom and chick

The three Penguineers

African Penguin aka Jackass Penguin

I'm Cute! Love me!

Hi ho, hi ho, its off to the burrow we go.

Southern Right Whale waving at admirers on the Clarence Drive, with Table mountain in the background

Juvenile African Harrier-Hawk (Gymnogene) taking off from a roof top in Hermanus

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Bontebok vs Blesbok

As Elena and Anja head off to Germany for a long while, we decided to take a short family holiday on the way to point of departure – Cape Town. Anja wanted to see Cape Agulhas and apart from us being busy pre-departure, we didn’t have internet again to do any research for accommodation and activities. As such we picked up our Slingsby Map of the Overberg and decided Swellendam would be a good base – as we knew it, had stayed at Kadis Cottage before, and knew what we were in for. It would be an acceptable base for exploring the Overberg.

Our first excursion was to Bontebok National Park – which has the unique distinction of being South Africa’s smallest national park, protecting one of the largest intact remnants of the endangered ‘Renosterveld’ fynbos habitats– with several endemic plants, and of course, the odd looking Bontebok. The fire that swept the Langeberge also burnt the fynbos near the entrance area between gate and reception, so spotting Bontebok was very easy as they were all attracted to the fresh flush of grass.

The Bontebok  (Damaliscus pygargus) is an antelope endemic to the Fynbos and considered a sub-species of the more widespread Blesbok (which can be seen in many parks, reserves and most game reserves across South Africa – they do not need big game fences to keep them from wandering). The Bontebok is darker than the Blesbok, with a large white rear-end and continuous white blaze down the face. Although classified as Endangered, with a population of c3000, Bontebok are easily seen at both Bontebok National Park and De Hoop Nature Reserve.

Bontebok National Park has a nice day-visitor area near the Breede River, and although there is a demarcated swimming area, I would not recommend it as both Elena and I were in need of a good supply of toilet paper the next day after dipping our feet in the water. However, with Swellendam and large agricultural areas upriver, that was not too surprising.  Due to the small size of the park, all the roads can be driven and trails walked in a matter of hours, so really a day visit suffices to get the full scope of the park. There is of course camping and accommodation that can be booked via the sanparks website.
Bontebok family - youngster on the right is a bit lighter

Classic horn - form the emblem of the original CapeNature logo

Bontebok doing the doggy thing

A Blesbok - for comparison - noncontinuous blaze and less white on the rump

Hartebeest - from Bontebok National Park - the only other similar looking antelope
Fields of Ericas in the Renosterveld in the shadow of Eenuurkop of the Langeberge

Our next stop was the De Hoop Nature Reserve – which at over 30 000ha is about ten times larger than Bontebok National Park. Although you might be asking why one is a National Park and the other a Nature Reserve – I don’t know the answer as to why some protected areas fall under the supervision of one organisation and others designated under management from provincial bodies.

De Hoop Nature Reserve is very popular for a number of reasons. Not only are there plentiful Bontebok and other antelope that graze right up to and around the Cape Dutch style guest accommodation and restaurant, but there are also whales to be seen from June to October – Southern Right Whales calve just off the coast – and the nature reserve protects the best example of Limestone Fynbos – so it has several plant species (round 30) which are found only in the Nature Reserve.  This reserve is very popular with overseas tourists, but during our visit we saw only two other visiting groups and felt as though we had the rolling Fynbos hills and sand-dunes to ourselves. We were a bit too early for whales, but the weather was superb considering we are knocking on winter’s door right now.

Generally, I’d recommend both in a tour of the Overberg – they are a reminder of what the rolling hills under agriculture once used to look like, and protect a very special area of the Cape Floristic Region.

Black Oystercatcher - restricted to southern African coasts

Cape Crow - or Black Crow - is also restricted to southern Africa, and suffers a contracting range, possibly  due to loosing out to Pied Crow - which is expanding its range across the country

Cape Francolin

Cape Longclaw - formerly Orange-throated Longclaw - a name that makes more since since that throat is not Cape colored.

The Cape Dutch-style accommodation adds to the appeal of De Hoop Nature Reserve

Young Ostriches are not always known for their good manners in public.

Protea obtusifolia - Limestone Protea - a special from De Hoop

A sunbathing Striped Fieldmouse kept an eye on us as we enjoyed our lunch

Big Ears - young baboons are very cute

Baboon troops of the Western Cape are not shy - when you see them coming make sure your windows are shut!

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