St Francis Bay – squeezing in some birding

It feels like it has been absolute ages since I last posted a blog.  That is exactly what a holiday will do.

We recently returned from our annual holiday at St Francis Bay on the Eastern Cape coast.  It was a family holiday first and foremost with a lot of time spent with cousins, in-laws, parents, kids and close friends. At our peak (on New Year’s eve) we had 23 people staying in the house and surprisingly it all went very well.

Anyway, I am not going to dwell too much on the family holiday but rather spend this blog talking about the birding (my mother will be disappointed).

The birding during the holiday was mostly limited to sites within close proximity of St Francis Bay.  Knowing that I wanted to spend much of my time during the holidays with friends and family I generally limited my birding to the early hours of the morning.  It was not too difficult getting up early as we were sharing a room with our little 4 month old, Emma, who made it a consistent habit of waking up at around 4:30.  Once she started squeaking I was up and ready to get out for some birding.

Since I knew I was going to limit my birding time to those early morning hours I decided to atlas the St Francis Bay pentad (3405_2445) as often as I possibly could.  I know I blogged about this pentad at the beginning of 2011 so forgive me for some of the inevitable repetition.

When all was said and done I managed 4 separate cards for the pentad with the 5 day protocol being applied to each of them.   I had personally covered the pentad on a number of previous occasions (during previous holidays) but it has also been well covered by others with over 100 cards submitted.  With a high species count of 240 it is a really exciting pentad to atlas with card totals over 100 more the norm than exception.  The highest card total was 124 before this most recent holiday and I was determined to see what my highest total could be.

My four cards had totals of 116, 143, 145 and 121 indicating that a little bit of extra effort can really produce a diverse list.  I had targeted 150 for a single list but I just couldn’t get there despite the fact that there were several species across the 4 lists which were only seen on single occasions.  Birds like Common Swift, Peregrine Falcon, Black-winged Stilt, Great Egret, Terek Sandpiper, Swift Tern, Thick-billed Weaver and Red Knot only made it onto the list a single time.  My total species count across all 4 lists was 170 species.

Terek Sandpiper

Red Knot

Swift Tern

The reason for the long lists is due to the diverse habitats that are available within the borders of the pentad.

The southeastern corner has some estuarine mud flats which host plenty of waders as well as large tern roosts (both of which are severely impacted by dogs, boats, kite surfers and fishermen during the busy period).  My strategy for covering these areas was to make a very early start to ensure that I got in before the holiday makers.  Most of the wader species were run of the mill but there was a single Greater Sand Plover amongst the commoner species for most of the visits that I made.  There were several good photographic opportunities for the terns but the waders were remarkably frustrating.  By the time the holiday came to an end I had stalked the Greater Sand Plover more times than I could care to count.  Even common waders such as Common Ringed Plover and Common Greenshank had driven me around the bend as I had tried to get close enough for a reasonable photo.  I had to be satisfied with what I got.

Early morning on the Kromme

Little Egret

Sandwich Tern

Common Tern


Grey Plover

Greater Sand Plover

Greater Sand Plover

Common Ringed Plover

Common Greenshank

Early morning on the Kromme

The northern extremities are covered in grassland and farmland with a few pockets of “fynbos-type” scrub which on the very odd occasion produced a Cape Clapper Lark.  The grasslands are a stronghold for some good birds including Denham’s Bustard, Long-tailed Widowbird, Grey-backed Cisticola, Blue Crane, Black-winged Lapwing and Rufous-naped Lark.  It is also a good area for White-bellied Korhaan but unfortunately during this holiday I did not have the good fortune of bumping into any.


White Stork

The most exciting bird of the grasslands was eventually finding an Amur Falcon.  A few years back I found several of these birds in the farmlands north of the river and was hoping to see them again this year but for some reason they remained elusive.

Well, not elusive, really – just not there.

But, almost right at the end of the holidays I finally saw a single male whilst on one of my rides along the farm roads.  A return to the same spot the next morning revealed many of these birds with a mix of males and females.  Despite the supposed rarity status of these birds in this part of the world I suspect they are regular on an annual basis in small numbers.

The Kromme River and its tributary, the Geelhout, meander their way from west to east and deliver most of the really exciting birds in the pentad with riverine bush harboring birds like Blue-mantled Flycatcher, Half-collared Kingfisher, Tambourine and Emerald-spotted Doves in close proximity, Knysna Woodpecker and Olive Bush-shrike.  An early morning boat trip before the water-skiers were out would allow for good views of most of these birds as well as a decent opportunity to photograph some of these and other birds.

Upper reaches of the Geelhout

Great Egret

Grey Heron

Goliath Heron

Common Sandpiper

Black Crake

Olive Bush-shrike

Half-collared Kingfisher

Giant Kingfisher

At this time of the year the warm early mornings are characterized by millions of airborne insects creating an environment conducive to plenty of aerial feeders.  Swifts and Swallows were abundant and with a bit of patience the mixed flocks would reveal 4 species of swift (White-rumped, Little, African Palm and Common) whilst the hirundines would number 8 (Swallows – Barn, Greater Striped, Lesser Striped, Black Saw-wing, Pearl-breasted; Martins – Rock, Banded and Rock). With even more patience I was able to get one or two photographs of these fast flying creatures.

White-rumped Swift

Little Swift

African Palm-swift

Banded Martin

Of course much of the town lies inside the pentad giving access to some of the commoner species of the area.  It is always worth taking a pic or two.

Red-necked Spurfowl

Sombre Greenbul

Fiscal Flycatcher


Bokmakierie (juvenile)

Bar-throated Apalis

The only birding we did outside of the St Francis pentad was a re-visit to an indigenous forest 20 kilometers west of Oyster Bay.  The usual forest species were in evidence but the two most noteworthy birds were a small party of Lazy Cisticolas (the only bird in all 5 of my cards that produced an ORF) and a very vocal Brown-backed Honeybird – a bird that is hard to predict anywhere in the country but seems to have found its way onto this pentad’s card two years running.  A distant perched view was not good for a photo but I managed to catch it in flight as it flew over our heads into the distance.

Forest birding

Lazy Cisticola

Brown-backed Honeybird

So, it was a more than satisfactory holiday of birding but let’s be honest – holidays are more about spending time with the family than time out in the field…




The Buckham clan

Sunrise over the Kromme

6 comments on “St Francis Bay – squeezing in some birding

  • Great post, Mike. Had a similar Plett narrative: my two-month old woke early so I darted off for some pre-breakfast birding. Your pics are great, what are you shooting on? I tried to get the Palm-Swifts nesting near Keurbooms, but I’m finding my old 300mm zoom increasingly frustrating. Also, did you see Emerald Cuckoo? I was told that St Francis is good for those and I missed them the whole time I was in Plett.

  • Tony Archer says:

    Wow Mike Those are amazing photographs. It really looks like you all had a wonderful time as well. What camera/lens do you use?

  • ALAN COLLETT says:

    I looked at your blog while working on a speech for our daughters wedding so the family theme came through strongly. Photos good too.


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