Rooi Els – Penguins and Warblers

The Buckham birding train kept on rolling this weekend.  It was the start of school holidays and our first few days were to be spent at Rooi Els on the eastern tip of the coastal semi-circle that encloses False Bay.  I had come through a tough week at work with our financial year end ticking over and I needed a little bit of R and R.  Rooi Els is a wonderful coastal village and, in my opinion, seriously underrated.  What made the planned weekend even better was the fact that it is certainly the best spot that I know of for Cape Rockjumper and Tommy was clearly excited by the prospect.  He had a number of other potential lifers as well and we would spend some time out in the field.  We rented a beautiful cottage on the edge of the nature reserve with uninterrupted views of False Bay with some good friends of ours and not even the Friday evening traffic could spoil my mood as we curved along the sweeping bends of Clarence drive on the way to Rooi Els.  I even stuck my hand out the window to take some scenic pics!!

With 3 young kids in the family the weekends away often involve intense negotiations as to who is on duty at what time.  I had a mountain bike race on the Sunday morning so it was Jean’s turn on Saturday morning to pound the roads around Rooi Els for her weekend exercise fix.  It actually turned out to be a blessing as I used the time at the house with the kids to put my scope up and do a bit of sea watching out on False Bay in the beautiful morning light. I am quite prepared to admit that pelagic birding is something with which I struggle. I absolutely love being out in the deep blue sea but my body just does not agree with it.  I get terribly seasick.  I have braved a number of trips out to sea including numerous trips from Simonstown on the Zest as well as a 6 day cruise out into the Mozambique channel aboard the MV Madagascar, a rather ailing cruise liner that, as it turned out, was sailing one of its last voyages before being mothballed.  The birding on a tropical ocean sea bird trip is pretty quiet and on one day on that trip we saw more migrant non-seabirds than seabirds (yes, birds like Icterine Warbler, Red-backed Shrike, Common Whimbrel and Sooty Falcon).  It was still a dream trip for most Southern African twitchers with all of us netting some birds which we could only have imagined being included on our SA lists.  The highlights included the two tropicbirds, the two frigatebirds (although Lesser was seen fractionally outside SA waters creating some inner turmoil for some twitchers who were just itching to put that big tick next to a real mega), huge flocks of Sooty Terns, Red-footed Boobies in large numbers and, most exciting of all, some extremely rare petrels including Jouanin’s and Barau’s Petrels.  Anyway, once again, I digress quite spectacularly.  I think the point I am trying to make is that I have braved the deep ocean on more than one occasion and, for the most part, the ocean has won.  I have spent some time curled in the corner of the Zest with albatrosses, petrels, skuas, prions and shearwaters whizzing by above my head but with remarkably little interest in anything other than the next time I would be setting foot on solid ground.  So, for seabirders like me, I have also attempted some land based sea watching which includes braving Force 9 gales at the Cape of Good Hope peering through a telescope in between rain squalls hoping to see a speck on the horizon with just enough features to narrow it down between a Sooty Shearwater and a White-chinned Petrel.  It is pretty desperate stuff for those that are not inclined to brave the seasickness aboard a pelagic trip.

So, here in Rooi Els, it was time to introduce Tommy to this weird pastime of looking through a scope out towards the horizon. We would then try and identify a whole lot of birds with absolutely no amount of certainty, putting him in a position where he couldn’t really tick them anyway! As it turned out, Saturday morning, at Rooi Els, was one of those mornings where there was a huge amount of pelagic bird activity over the water.  Early morning is always the best when the birds are active.  We were treated to views of hundreds of Cape Gannets heading purposefully left and right above the waves with the occasional Sooty Shearwater pumping its wings as it flew over the swell.  One Subantarctic Skua made a lazy and menacing fly-by but most impressive of all were the hundreds of Cory’s Shearwaters that were gathered in a large raft several hundred metres off the coast with equally as many birds fluttering above the water flashing their white underparts as they wheeled up and down.  With Tommy just having grasped the concept of binocular use, the scope was perhaps a bridge too far at his young age and sadly for him we had to leave many of the above-mentioned birds off his list for the time being.

Now, those in birding circles will know that Rooi Els is THE spot for Cape Rockjumpers.  Porter Drive is a safe, easily accessible, beautiful gravel road that hugs the foot of the mountain that overlooks the sleepy little town.  It is minimal fuss to get there and the Rockjumpers are usually extremely obliging.  It certainly beats the Sir Lowry’s Pass birds which require a death defying dash across the N2, a substantial hike to the cannons and a 50/50 chance of actually finding the birds.  Not particularly appropriate for a fledgling birder like Tommy. 

I was excited this weekend to spend more time with the well habituated birds in Rooi Els but most of all I had promised Tommy we would see them.  Once again, anyone in birding circles will know that it is foolish talk to make any promises.  It reminds me of the time the ranger at Roy’s Camp in North Eastern Namibia guaranteed me a sighting of Black-faced Babblers before, after and during breakfast.  I think he is still trying to find them.

So, anyway, while my wife was getting her obligatory exercise I took 4 kids on bicycles with me to Porter Drive.  Not ideal birding companions, I know, but while they sped ahead I had plenty of time to listen for the piercing calls reverberating off the rock faces.  It was also a particularly wind free morning enhancing our chances of hearing the birds. 


We walked a little further, listened some more.


Stood still, strained our ears, scanned.

Still nothing.

I am therefore very sad to report that the resident birds seemed to have become pretty scarce.  We didn’t only give it one bash.  We visited the site a second time at a different time of day and we still came up empty handed.  The birding overall on Porter Drive was very disappointing with no sign of any Ground Woodpeckers, Sentinel Rock-thrushes or the Rockjumpers.  We had lots of Sugarbirds, Orange-breasted Sunbirds (one particularly obliging individual had a couple of rings on one foot which, in fact, was the only foot it had!!) and a pair of Verreaux’s Eagle soaring above the cliffs. 

Even though we missed seeing the Rockjumpers I have decided to use a little poetic licence.  I have posted some of the pictures I took of the Rockjumpers about 3 years ago at the same spot.  Not only is this good for my ego but I would like to share the results of my most enjoyable bird photography moment ever.  If anyone thinks these photos are evidence of the fact that I know how to take a good picture I have to confess that these birds were so close most of the time that I actually had to take a number of steps backwards to get them in the frame.

All was not lost for the weekend.  We still had nabbed two lifers for Tommy to that point (the Verreaux’s Eagle was number 2 on his most wanted list of raptors to see and the resident Cape Rock-thrushes were also a nice addition) and we had a planned rendezvous with Dave Winter and Simon Peile at Harold Porter in Betty’s Bay to see if we could eke out a Victorin’s Warbler.  I’ll make that reference to birding circles again.  Those in the know will know what kind of task we had in front of us.  Those that are not really in the know (apparently I have some non-birding friends and family members out there who don’t find these blogs excruciatingly boring) will need to understand that the Victorin’s Warbler is one of our “toughest-to-see” endemics.  It is a very pretty little bird (it is all relative as warblers are generally uniform in colour and very LBJ-like whilst the Victorin’s Warbler is a rich rufous on the chest, brown on the upperparts with a wash of grey on the cheek and a piercing orange eye) but it is restricted to chest high fynbos (which is pretty scratchy stuff) and it generally calls stridently from 2 or 3 metres away just under the thick cover of the vegetation.  I have seen full-grown men on their hands and knees peering into the canopy muttering unmentionable expletives at the hands of the Victorin’s Warbler (once again for the sake of illustrative purposes I will use poetic licence and include my only half decent pic of a Victorin’s Warbler which was not taken on this particular excursion).  It wasn’t long before we met up with Dave and Simon on a trail into Leopard Kloof and they had both certainly assumed the expected the position.  They were both peering into chest high fynbos as two competing warblers shouted at them from the undergrowth.  It was a comical affair waiting for the movement of the bushes to reveal a view of the birds but it took some time before they chased each other across the path giving us all a golden view before they plunged into the darkness to resume their taunting.  I had hoped that Tommy had his eyes trained in the right direction but that was answered soon enough when he turned to look at me, flashed the broadest of grins and gave me the thumbs up.  No words were necessary.  A real little skulker ticked off.

The morning only got better with Tommy finally ticking his most wanted raptor – Peregrine Falcon.  When he started birding about a year ago he wanted to know what the fastest bird in the world was.  Some kids would be more inclined to chase after the fastest cars but Tommy had his heart set on the fastest bird.  I always had to remind him that Peregrine Falcons are “incidental” birds.  They are not easily found on a whim and he would have to be patient to see his first one.  Well, the day finally arrived as we were driving the streets of Betty’s Bay when I noticed the characteristic shape of a Peregrine circling above the car.  We screeched to a halt, jumped out of the car and managed a decent enough view for it to be ticked.

The one remaining excursion for the weekend was an outing for the whole family.  We took all the kids en masse to Stony Point to see the penguin colony.  It really is an amazing tourist attraction and it belies the real risks we have that our own endemic penguin may not be with us that much longer.  The masses of them sprawling amongst the boulders and the large numbers off the rocks bathing in the cool waters gives us the impression that they are here to stay but our declining fish stocks, pollution and diminishing suitable nesting habitat have reduced their numbers to a fraction of what they were.  It will be a very sad day indeed if they can’t be saved.

As much as it may not be appropriate to relay this story it really should be told: Adam (my middle son) noticed two penguins at very close quarters (okay, they were copulating).  His question of what they were doing was answered in a very straight forward, honest way by his mother – they were making babies (we have always had a pretty open policy when it comes to the “birds and the bees”).  Adam was not that keen to leave it at that.  He weighed in with a comment which could only sound innocent coming out the mouth of a 5 year old:  “the mommy penguin really looks like she is having fun but the daddy penguin is working really hard”.  I think let’s leave it at that.

The weekend was over too quickly and while the kids continued with their school holiday I had to make the mad dash back to Cape Town for work on Monday morning, leaving Rooi Els at 5:30am to avoid the traffic.  No rockjumpers but certainly a few stories to tell.

7 comments on “Rooi Els – Penguins and Warblers

  • Great story Mike! I would love to know how, with your and Jean’s open and honest approach about “the birds and the bees” to the kids, you responded to Adam’s second comment about the penguins…:)

  • Margaret Maciver says:

    You have a real way with words, Mike, enjoyed reading this. I was at LSC about 10 days ago and took my friend up the Robinson Pass to prove to her that its the best place to see Victorins all year round. OK, I know its a long way from Cape town, but if you are in the area, its easy.

    I have been there a few times now, all seasons of the year, and every time, without fail, as you pull up in front of the sign at the top of the Pass and open your car door, it sounds as though you have a flock of Victorins a few feet away. Once we get out, they are not too hard to find as you stand there with the traffic roaring behind you, especially the huge trucks, but nothing deters these warblers. My friend has crawled around Harold Porter and a few other sites without any luck, but she soon had 2 Victorins in the bag.

  • Ha ha, trust Adampie to come up with a comment like that 🙂 Tommy must be so chuffed to finally see the Peregrine Falcon. Awesome pics Mike, looks like a great weekend.

  • Mary-Ann says:

    Sounds like a great weekend and even as a non birder enjoy reading these blogs! Loved Adam’s comment – so funny! Well done Tommy for adding to your list.

  • Thanks to all for all the positive comments. Much appreciated. Makes the hard working of posting so much easier.


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