Eastern Cape


Warm waters, unspoilt beaches, malaria free game parks, a dry but beautiful interior and many historic reminders of South Africa's turbulent history make the Eastern Cape a top class destination for visitors and for birders. Leading on eastwards from the Garden Route, the Sunshine Coast and the Wild Coast offer hundreds of kilometers of pristine beaches, unspoilt wilderness and mountain ranges. The regions two principal cities and ports of entry are Port Elizabeth and East London. Other important towns of note are Graaf Reinet with its superb Karoo architecture, the settler city of Grahamstown and Umtata.

The province boasts thousands of hectares of pristine protected wilderness areas, of which the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area is one of note. The Addo Elephant National Park, which is now in the region of 164 000 hectare and stretches to the north as far as Zuurberg Mountains and East to the Sundays River Estuary, offers the biodiversity of five biomes and fantastic birding. Hotspots of equal beauty and tranquility stretch from the breathtaking showcase of the Tsitsikamma forest and coast, inland to Willowmore and Steytlerville in the Karoo and across to the Great Fish River. Heading inland to Queenstown and across to Barkly East in the foothills of the natural Drakensberg Mountain beauty one can see Bearded Vulture and Drakensberg Rockjumper. Birders from around the world have come to tour this collection of biomes and natural vegetation enjoying many hours of birding and other ecotourism activities such as game viewing and hiking.This is the only birding route in South Africa incorporating 7 different biomes (Fynbos, Coastal thicket. Forest, Succulent thicket, Savannah, semi-desert, grasslands) which give rise to a number of different bird communities for visiting birders to enjoy.

The area is dominated by a series of parallel mountain ranges, running east to west, that have a profound effect on the natural vegetation and the subsequent biome diversity of the area. The rainfall decreases generally from east to west.


The Cape Fold Mountains, approximately 10-15km from the coast and 30km wide, stretching from the west, peter out at Port Elizabeth. Port Elizabeth itself has a number of fantastic birding spots in easy reach including Cape Recife a fantastic representation of coastal birding hosting species such as Roseate Tern and African Black Oystercatcher whilst Bridled Tern have been known to make an appearance from time to time. The gently sloping coastal plain is a mixture of Fynbos and farmland (Humansdorp) where large areas are covered by invasive Pines, Black Wattle and Australian Cyclops, Longifolia and Saligna Accacia. Many of the deeply incised gorges offer shelter and water for Valley Bushveld (thicket) which reaches almost forest proportions in places (Van Stadens). Fynbos (Cape Floral Kingdom) covers large parts of the mountains with succulent thicket, also almost reaching forest proportions in places, growing in many of the valleys and water courses (Baviaanskloof) and valley bottom savannah (mainly Acacia Karoo) in some of the larger river valleys in these mountains. Certain of the south (sea) facing slopes are covered by cool temperate forests (Tzitzikama).

birds-african jakanaThe semi-desert plain (Karoo) extending northwards and inland behind these mountains is in their rainshadow and therefore unable to support little more than stunted drought-resistant bushes, not much taller than half a metre (Steytlerville / Willowmore) [R329] and yet surprisingly even in this area of low rainfall, pockets of typical savannah (free-standing trees with karoo-bushes in between) can be found (Kleinpoort). The trees are slow-growing and drought-resistant and are not much taller than 3-4 metres. Key species in this area include Ground Woodpecker and Denhams Bustard.

North and east of Port Elizabeth is the Zuurberg fold mountain range which extends eastwards beyond Grahamstown. Grahamstown in itself can be used as a base for birders exploring the area with Karoo Scrub Robin and Cape Robin-chat, Bokmakierie, Southern Tchagra, Bar-throated Apalis and Cape Bunting are prominent, with Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Fiscal Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Drongo, Spectacled Weaver, Malachite and Greater Double-collared Sunbird are easily found. Specials such as Martial Eagle, Black Korhaan, Blue Crane, Denham's Bustard, Black-headed Heron and Secretarybird may well be seen. Much the same vegetation types occur here, with thicket and forest on the south-facing slopes and in the sheltered gorges, fynbos on top and karoo to the north behind them. A feature of the thicket and forest that occur here are the leafless candelabra-shaped Euphorbia trees, often rising higher than the surrounding valley bushveld.

The gently sloping plain behind these mountains, also in a rainshadow, is drier in the west and therefore predominantly covered in karoo-type vegetation (Golden Valley, Cookhouse, changing to grassland (Bedford) gradually giving way to Acacia Karoo savannah, valley bushveld and thicket the further east one goes, right down to the coast (Bathurst/Port Alfred). To the north, this plain extends to the foothills of the first escarpment. (Bruintjieshoogte, Kaga and Amatola mountains)birds-malachite sunbird

In the drier west these mountains are predominantly covered in Karoo-type vegetation (Bruintjieshoogte) with montane forest growing on some of the south-facing slopes (Somerset East) reaching ever-higher proportions the further east one goes, to become true Montane forest (Bedford, Hogsback) where one can find species such as the endangered Cape Parrot, Starred Robin and Crowned Eagle.

Above the main escarpment, the Winterberg, is a mixture of Karoo (Queenstown) becoming more grassland further east (Maclear, Elliot), with numerous pine plantations replacing the natural grassland and farmland in places. Unfortunately invasive Black Wattle trees cover large areas of the landscape. As one climbs up the Barkly Pass to the top of the Drakensberg, the vegetation is true montane grassland. Patches of indigenous forest grow on the south-facing slopes of the mountains.

The coastal plain from Port Elizabeth in the west to the Fish River mouth in the east, ranges from coastal thicket and low canopy forest (south and west of Port Elizabeth) to succulent thicket as one moves north and east (Colchester). Birders visiting the Eastern Cape should definitely take in the numerous estuaries along this stretch of coastline including Swartkops which has yielded a number of rare migrants such as Terek Sandpiper, Greater Sand Plover, Bar Tailed Godwit and Eurasian Curlew. From here to Alexandria the vegetation is a mixture of dairy farming and agriculture, grassland, coastal thicket, low canopy forest and true forest incorporating tall Yellowwoods, Erythrinas and many other giant trees. The banks of the numerous short, tidal rivers from the Bushmans to the Fish are covered mainly in dense Euphorbia thicket and forest where a separate population of Barred Owlet was recently found as well as reports of a solitary Pel's Fishing Owl on the Kelinmond estuary. Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Victorin's Warbler and Green-backed Camaroptera, Dark-backed Weaver, Chorister Robin Chat and White-Starred Robin, Forest Canary, Black-backed Puffback, Greater Double-collared and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, and Cape Sugarbird can all be seen in these areas. Spring is usually heralded by the arrival of the Emerald, Klaas' and Red-chested Cuckoo.

Birder Friendly Establishments in this area: