Cape Town is fortunate enough to have several fantastic places to go bird watching within or just outside its boundaries. There are places for beginner birders who are just getting started as well as spots for those birders keen to search for a specific bird species or a national rarity. Many of these places are also very easy to access!
There are also a couple of areas within an hour or so’s drive of the city which are of national importance for the conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity. While Cape Town may not be the place to go for the Big Five or the iconic birds of the bushveld, it offers some truly beautiful wild places. Places that hold incredible levels of biodiversity of which just a small part of that is a range of unique bird species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.
Birding gear – what to bring along
- A good pair of binoculars
- A camera – this can be good to review IDs later on
- A bird guide – Roberts, Newman’s or SASOL; Apps can also be purchased, which are especially helpful with bird calls
- A spotting scope – optional but good for spotting distant birds, especially waterbirds
- Miscellaneous – Sunhat, sunscreen, backpack, water bottle
- A good attitude – this goes a long way, especially in terms of enjoyment and meeting fellow birders
Where to go bird-watching near Cape Town
I’ve put together the seven best bird-watching sites around Cape Town, along with a few of the birds you can look out for at each!
1. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
One of the most popular places to visit in Cape Town, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is also a great place to observe a number of bird species. It is an ideal place for beginner birders to get started, as well as a great place for avid photographers to capture intimate images of the local birds.
The diversity of native plant life in the garden ensures that there is always something to attract various birds. The patches of forest in the Dell and Enchanted Forest attract several local rarities, including lemon doves. In fact, this is the only reliable place to see these birds in the South-Western Cape!
From September to April, the various fynbos species flowering in the upper levels of the Garden attracts a range of sunbirds and the endemic Cape sugarbird. Even after flowering, the seeds still attract large flocks of three species of canary. Two pairs of spotted eagle-owls regularly make their nests at opposite ends of the garden. Even national rarities like the European Honey-Buzzard can be seen in Kirstenbosch and in 2017 the stream leading into the ‘Otter Pond’ played host to a family of buff-spotted flufftails.
When to visit Kirstenbosch
The Gardens are accessible any day of the year and entrance fees are easily affordable. However, it can get very busy on weekends, which can hamper birdwatching. It is best to visit during the week, in the mornings and evenings when the crowds are reduced. This is also the best time to look for birds.
My favourite time is in the evening, as the sun disappears behind the mountains early and this creates beautiful soft light in which to photograph the sunbirds.
Birds to watch for in Kirstenbosch
- Orange-breasted Sunbird
- Spotted Eagle-Owl
- Lemon Dove
- Cape Sugarbird
- African Olive Pigeon
- Brown-backed Honeybird
- Olive Woodpecker
- Forest Canary
2. Cape Point Nature Reserve
On the whole, Table Mountain National Park is not particularly renowned in terms of bird diversity (it has a far more diverse floral community). Yet certain parts of the National Park do support a considerable number of bird species. The Cape Point Nature Reserve is one such place.
I have always loved visiting this place for day trips, as it always seems to produce a surprise sighting without fail. Olifantsbos Beach is, in my opinion, the best place in the reserve for birds in both summer and winter. The coastal fynbos surrounding the beach is normally full of birds, including species that are hard to see elsewhere on the Cape Peninsula (like the bokmakerie).
The beach itself is always packed with shorebirds and waders, from Kittlitz plovers to grey herons. Buffels Bay, just north of Cape Point, is a great place to watch ostriches feeding by the ocean and was the place where in 2019 a very lost king penguin chose to rest for a few days. At Cape Point itself, I always look out for the resident peregrine falcons and rock kestrels and at Dias Beach it is possible to spot groups of ground woodpecker.
The oceans surrounding Cape Point are also a great place to look for birds – in fact, they are probably the best place in the world to look for pelagic birds.
While some may be seen from the lookout points along the coast during stormy or windy weather, the best way to see these birds is to take a boat trip out from Simons Town (Birding Africa and Shark Explorer offer pelagic birding trips). The oceans south of the Point are full of life and this draws huge numbers of seabirds up from the Southern Ocean.
The more common species include white-chinned petrel, great shearwater, storm petrels, Sabine’s gull, shy albatross, and black-browed albatross. However, it is also possible to spot some of the rarer (and larger) seabirds including spectacled petrel, and even the gigantic wandering albatross.
Birds to watch for at Cape Point
- Cape Grassbird
- Peregrine Falcon
- Ruddy Turnstone
- Shy Albatross
- Spectacled Petrel
- African Black Oystercatcher
- Jackal Buzzard
3. False Bay Nature Reserve (Strandfontein and Rondevlei)
False Bay Nature Reserve is situated in the middle of the Cape Flats, between Muizenberg and Mitchells Plain. It protects large areas of unique Cape Flats Sand Fynbos, two large wetlands, Rondevlei and Zeekoeivlei and Strandfontein Sewage Works, which is an internally recognised RAMSAR site.
Over 220 species of bird (60% of the species recorded in the Western Cape) occur within the False Bay Nature Reserve.
Strandfontein Sewage Works
I once read somewhere that birders are probably the only people who will willingly visit sewage works, and after visiting Strandfontein Sewage Works in Cape Town several times, I understand why! It is the best place in the Cape Town area to see waterbirds and waders, and it is also home to a variety of coastal and land birds too.
I was unsure about what to expect the first time I visited it but what I saw there and what I have seen there since have left me hooked. It is somewhat surprising that out of the three wetland areas, the most productive and important would be the man-made one.
Rondevlei and Zeekoeivlei
This should not discount the other two, as both Rondevlei and Zeekoeivlei are very important wetlands. Rondevlei is in fact home to a family of hippos, which adds a further exciting element when watching from the reserve’s network of well-maintained hides.
All three wetlands are home to large numbers of both species of flamingos, pelicans and numerous species of duck. In Strandfontein, the first two pans are always covered in vast numbers of ducks, including uncommon species like maccoa ducks and southern pochards.
The pans attract large numbers of migrating waders and often ends up becoming a popular place for national rarities and vagrants to pitch up. Rare raptors like the African marsh harrier and fish eagle rely heavily on these wetlands. The fynbos also supports a number of land-based birds, including the Cape longclaw.
Birds to watch for in False Bay
- African Fish Eagle
- Maccoa Duck
- Blue-billed Teal
- Black Crake
- African Swamphen
- Southern Pochard
- African Marsh Harrier
- White Stork
4. Paarl Bird Sanctuary and Mountain
In the shadow of the Overberg Mountains, the town of Paarl holds two lesser known, but very special, birding spots. The Paarl Bird Sanctuary, essentially a smaller version of Strandfontein, supports a large number of wetland species. Despite its small size, it is can be very productive.
Several duck species that are locally uncommon, including white-faced whistling duck and white-backed duck, can be seen here. The reed beds are full of weavers, red bishops and warblers, and also hide secretive waterbirds like the little bittern and African swamphen. Hundreds of greater flamingos are always present too.
The Berg River that runs next to the sanctuary also supports a number of birds, including African fish eagle and African black duck. Entrance to the sanctuary is free but be sure to check here to learn when it is open.
Paarl Mountain is clearly visible from the bird sanctuary, and it is here where birders have a chance of finding the elusive and endemic protea canary. While this bird is the main drawcard, a number of other species can be found in the fynbos.
Millwater Wildflower Garden also attracts a number of bird species and from here several hiking trails can be accessed. Only one road leads into the reserve and entrance fees are very affordable.
Birds to watch for in Paarl
- Protea Canary
- African Snipe
- White-backed Duck
- Malachite Sunbird
- Blue-billed Teal
- Giant Kingfisher
- Little Bittern
5. Rooiels and Betty’s Bay
Rooiels is a small coastal town situated on the eastern side of False Bay at the base of a mountain, just over an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
The boulder-strewn slopes on the far side of the town are perhaps the best (and my favourite) place in the world to see the endemic and incredibly beautiful Cape rockjumper. This bird is one of the species I love the most, and there are several families living in the area. They are often found in small groups hopping between the boulders (which they nest under and hunt around) and if you are patient, they can come quite close.
Groups of ground woodpeckers are another bird that I love to look for here, along with Cape and sentinel rock thrushes. A pair of Verreaux’s eagles nests on the high cliffs of the mountain and can sometimes be seen soaring overhead.
About 10 minutes down the coast from Rooiels is Betty’s Bay, a town famous for its land-based colony of endangered African penguins. Four species of cormorant (Cape, bank, crowned and white-breasted) also breed here, whereas African black oystercatchers prefer to breed on the beaches close by.
This is also a good spot to look for pelagic birds, especially under windy conditions, and I’ve managed to spot Subantarctic skua and Northern giant petrel from here. But the best birding site around Bettys Bay has to be Harold Porter Botanical Gardens.
Situated at the base of the Kogelberg Mountain and nestled between two river valleys (Disa and Leopard Kloof’s), the Gardens are comprised of a cultivated section showcasing the diversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom and natural riverine forests and fynbos. The bridge over the Disa Kloof river at the start of that trail is a good spot to listen for Victorin’s warbler, which is easy to hear but ridiculously difficult to spot.
Further up the trail, the calmer sections of the river are a good spot to search for the resident pair of African black ducks. The forests that shroud the banks of the river are home to Cape batis, Klaas’s cuckoo and, in summer, African paradise flycatchers and the hyper-active blue-mantled crested flycatcher. While strong winds are common here and in Rooiels, the birding opportunities are always worth it in my opinion.
Birds to watch for at Rooiels and Betty’s Bay
- Cape Rockjumper
- African Penguin
- Bank Cormorant
- Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher
- Victorin’s Warbler
- Ground Woodpecker
- Sentinel Rock-Thrush
- Verreaux’s Eagle
- African Black Duck
6. West Coast National Park
The West Coast National Park is one of my favourite places to visit in the Western Cape. The spring flowers in the Potberg section are what draw many people here and for good reason! Added to this, the viewpoints from Seeberg and Potberg overlooking the Langebaan Lagoon are a sight to behold. But most of my visits here have been to see the diverse birdlife that can be found here.
Although the best time for birders to visit is in summer, when over 20 000 wading birds arrive at the Lagoon, there are still plenty of species to be seen even in winter. While most people visit the Park in Spring, it is worth visiting at any time of the year.
There are three bird hides throughout the Park, with two of them (Geelbek and Seeberg) positioned on the shores of the Lagoon. Geelbek is by far the most popular, and in summer the immense flocks of greater and lesser flamingos are joined by wading birds that travel from as far as Siberia to escape the northern winter.
The best time to visit the hide is when the rising tide pushes the birds very close to the hide itself. It is worth checking the tide times in Table Bay.
The stands of eucalyptus surrounding the Geelbek restaurant often produce a lot of birds, in particular cardinal woodpeckers. The fynbos that dominates the park is one of the most important breeding sites for the endangered black harrier, which can be seen soaring low over the bushes anywhere in the park.
At the far north of the Park, Seeberg Bird Hide is also a good place to look for shorebirds and waterbirds. A pair of Cape penduline tits regularly build their nest next to the walkway, and chestnut-vented tit-babbler and Karoo lark can also be seen here.
The third hide, Abrahaamskraal, overlooks the only fresh-water source in the Park that can be accessed by visitors. African spoonbill, African swamphen and black crake are usually present here, and it is also home to the elusive African rail (though I have yet to see one). The area surrounding the hide is also a good place to look for Southern Black Korhaan, whose raucous calls are a common sound in the park.
Birds to watch for at West Coast Park
- Lesser Flamingo
- Black Harrier
- Cape Penduline Tit
- Great White Pelican
- Southern Black Korhaan
- Bar-Tailed Godwit
- Red Knot
- Grey-winged Francolin
About a half hour’s drive north of Langebaan, the small town of Velddrif sits on the banks of the Berg River as it meanders across a large floodplain before reaching the ocean. This floodplain is just as important as the West Coast National Park for waterbirds and migrating wading birds.
Furthermore, the man-made salt pans that border the estuary are home to some very exciting birds! These can be accessed through the Kuifkopvisvanger Campsite, which is a great camping spot on the banks of the Berg River. The owners give visiting birders access to the surrounding pans, which are one of the best places in the world to see the rare chestnut-banded plover.
This is also probably the most reliable spot in the Western Cape to see red-necked phalaropes. Large numbers of flamingos and other birds also use these pans and several rare vagrants have pitched up here over the years.
The farmlands surrounding Kuifskopvisvanger are good places to look for Southern Black Korhaan, as well as several lark species, and spotted eagle-owl and barn owl both roost around the campsite.
Birds to watch for at Velddrif
- Chestnut-Banded Plover
- Red-necked Phalarope
- Greater Flamingo
- Southern Black Korhaan
- Caspian Tern
- Barn Owl
- African Marsh Harrier
- Great-Crested Grebe
- Karoo Lark