Birdwatching is fast becoming a very popular pastime among nature lovers. Once thought to be exclusively the interest of old or upper-class men, it has now spread to millions of people around the world, especially in the last 40 years or so, creating a global community. Cape Town is a major epicentre for birders in South Africa. Even the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology has its offices at the University of Cape Town!
While Cape Town lacks the bird-rich savannas and forests of Limpopo or Kwa-Zulu Natal, it is home to a large number of unique and endemic species and a range of iconic land and seabirds. Alongside the veteran birders, more and more people are becoming inspired to pick up a pair of binoculars or a camera and go in search of these birds.
Luckily, in Cape Town, you don’t need to travel far to visit birding hotspots like Kirstenbosch Gardens or Strandfontein. Even visiting a local park, a stretch of coastline or sitting in your own backyard can offer some memorable birding moments. The bird species in Cape Town are well adapted to their particular environments, but many have also managed to cope with the changes brought about by urbanisation. So the birds are now coming to the birders.
- Look for greenspaces in your neighbourhood (parks, rivers, wetlands, plantations, fynbos)
- Listen out for bird calls, as many species can be located by following their calls
- Try to make your garden as wildlife-friendly as possible (indigenous vegetation, areas of thicket, wood piles)
- Be mindful when installing bird feeders. While these are great at attracting birds to your garden, they can also have negative effects. For example, the wrong mixture in a sunbird feeder can kill the visiting birds. In addition, don’t rely solely on bird feeders to attract birds
- If a bird has made a nest, be very careful not to disturb the birds when observing it
- Try and make a list or keep notes of the birds you see in your garden and your area
27 beautiful common birds in Cape Town
These are some of the best native birds to watch for in the city – they can be found in gardens, along the coast, and on the slopes of the expansive Table Mountain National Park.
Looking for more? Check out our post on the best bird-watching spots around Cape Town!
Endemic to the fynbos biome in the Western and Eastern Cape, the Cape sugarbird is one of the most easily recognisable birds that can be seen in the Table Mountain National Park. The long tail feathers of the male birds are used in the display flights that they do to impress the females, showing their strength and vigour.
They rely heavily on mature fynbos to survive, so they can feed on the nectar of specific protea species (including the King Protea, South Africa’s National Flower), but they do visit gardens in the suburbs close to the mountains, including Kalk Bay and Noordhoek.
In my opinion, this species is the most extravagantly coloured of all the sunbirds in Southern Africa. Like the Cape sugarbird, they are also endemic to the fynbos biome and feed on the nectar of certain species of ericas and proteas. In fact, several species of erica are specifically designed to be pollinated by these sunbirds!
It is not common to see these sunbirds in gardens, due to them being more reliant on healthy fynbos than other sunbird species, but they do enter gardens close to the foot of the mountains. The best time of year to see the orange-breasted sunbird is at the start of spring, when pincushion proteas flower, and in the first months of the year when a number of key erica species flower.
If you want to attract sunbirds and sugarbirds, check out our guide on how to grow a fynbos garden!
The Verreaux’s eagle is a symbol of South Africa’s mountain ranges, as well as the favourite raptor of many birders (myself included). They can be found in mountain ranges across Southern and East Africa, from the Cape Fold Mountains to the Ethiopian Highlands. They can usually be seen soaring high on thermals, the white patches near the tips of their wings and the white v-shape on their back being key identifying features.
They are apex predators, predominantly hunting dassies, but also other prey like monkeys and game birds. Given their size, they require large territories in order to find enough prey to survive. A breeding pair can range over an area of up to 28 square kilometres. In Cape Town, there used to be a number of pairs of eagles but now only one breeding pair remains. Their nest can be viewed from a specific trail on the Noordhoek-facing side of Silvermine Nature Reserve. Around Cape Town, they typically occur in mountainous areas like Rooeils, Jonkershoek Nature Reserve and the Kogelberg.
One of South Africa’s most iconic birds, the African penguins of Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town have become one of the biggest drawcards for tourists visiting South Africa. With up to 2000 resident breeding pairs, Boulders Beach is one of the most important colonies for this increasingly endangered species.
With space often limited, a number of the houses surrounding the beach are now visited by penguins looking for places to nest. It’s not uncommon to see groups of penguins crossing the roads in Simon’s Town (look out for penguin crossing signs). When not on land, these birds travel far out into the open ocean in search of the fish they hunt and can dive to depths of over 100 metres.
The Black Harrier is probably the most striking bird of prey that can be seen close to Cape Town and yet it is also one of the most threatened and range-restricted raptors in the Western Cape. Agriculture and urbanisation has eaten away at the natural fynbos and Karoo scrub where the harriers hunt and breed.
Unlike other raptor species, harriers nest on the ground and require large areas of natural vegetation in order to breed successfully. They can often be seen flying low over the landscape in search of prey, which is primarily rodents and small birds. Their main stronghold close to Cape Town is the West Coast National Park, which has a large enough area of natural fynbos within and surrounding it to support a viable breeding population.
African Black Oystercatcher
The African black oystercatcher is another iconic bird of South Africa’s shorelines. Jet black with a strikingly red bill and eye-rings, they are easily recognisable. Formerly endangered, they’ve been making an impressive comeback thanks to conservation efforts.
Oystercatchers can be seen foraging for shellfish in any place along Cape Town’s coastline and they nest in the dunes on certain beaches, which need to be protected from people, dogs and cars.
A favourite bird among photographers, this tiny bejewelled kingfisher is a common sight across South Africa’s wetlands and waterways. While they prefer natural wetlands, they can also be seen deep in urban areas in places like Greenpoint Park and the Liesbeek River. When in flight, these birds look like tiny blue darts and it is a special moment when you get a close look at one perched on a reed.
The ocean south of Cape Point is considered to be the best place in the world for pelagic birding, and albatrosses are perhaps the most sought-after species by birdwatchers. A number of albatross species can be seen off Cape Point, and one of the most common is the shy albatross.
Shy albatrosses breed on remote islands off the coast of Tasmania, but juveniles and non-breeding adults range across huge areas of ocean in search of food. While they are one of the smaller species of albatross, they are still impressive birds with a wingspan of up to 2.5 metres! They hunt for fish and crustaceans, sometimes diving to depths of 5 metres to catch them.
In their search for food, they will often follow fishing vessels which puts them at risk of getting entangled in fishing gear (a threat facing many other species of seabird too).
Several boat companies take tours out past Cape Point, which gives bird watchers the opportunity to see these and other pelagic birds soaring over the open ocean.
The Cape Spurfowl has become a common sight in the streets and parks of a number of neighbourhoods in Cape Town. Endemic to the Western Cape and part of Southern Namibia, it is in fact the largest species of spurfowl in Southern Africa. While they are adaptable, they need to have enough areas of vegetation in which to roost and nest. As is typical with ground birds, they have incredibly well-camouflaged eggs and their chicks are also very cryptically coloured. And just like any spurfowl, they have a very loud and recognisable call!
One of the smallest birds you will see in Cape Town, swee waxbills are some of the most endearing garden birds. Almost always seen in pairs, the males have black faces while the females have grey faces, and both sexes have prominent red rumps.
These birds naturally occur in forests, so any well-wooded garden can attract them. Being seed eaters, they are also one of the species Cape Town birders can expect to see visiting their bird feeders, especially in the Constantia and Newlands areas.
This raptor is now probably the most common and widespread in Cape Town, due to the presence of large areas of heavily wooded suburbs and plantations. Before the spread of Cape Town, they were rare in the area, as they rely on areas of forest in which to build their nests and hunt. Their usual prey is birds like pigeons, doves and other smaller species, which they either ambush among the trees or in people’s gardens. There are two colour morphs in this species, all-black and white-chested. Cape Town is unique in being the only place where the black colour morph is the more common of the two.
Perhaps the most recognisable waterbird in the world, flamingos appear simultaneously elegant and ungainly. Both of Africa’s flamingo species can be seen in Cape Town, with the larger Greater flamingo being by far the most common. Aside from natural wetlands and estuaries, they also gather in great numbers in artificial pans (including Strandfontein) and even in the polluted Black River. Greater flamingos are filter feeders, using their sieve-like bills to filter out microscopic plants from brackish water.
The lesser flamingo is the more strikingly coloured of Southern Africa’s two species of flamingo. It is also significantly smaller than its paler counterpart, the greater flamingo. In fact, it is the world’s smallest species of flamingo.
It is only known to consistently breed in four sites across Africa, one of them being Kamfers Dam near Kimberley. It can be found in other parts of South Africa though, as they feed in coastal estuaries and saline water bodies, where they can find the food (small crustaceans) that they have adapted to eat. Because it is such a specialised forager and breeds in so few places, the Lesser Flamingo is very vulnerable to any changes in water quality or levels brought about by human activities or weather changes.
The best places around Cape Town to see them are the Langebaan Lagoon in the West Coast National Park, Rondevlei Nature Reserve and False Bay Nature Reserve.
The national bird of South Africa, the blue crane is one of the most iconic birds to be found in the country. They are very tall birds, standing over a metre tall with a 2 metre wingspan. Adults form monogamous pairs and perform elaborate courtship rituals, during which they will bow to each other, leap in the air and toss plants around. When they are not breeding in winter, they gather in large flocks to feed, sometimes numbering 300 birds.
The Western Cape is one of the bird’s strongholds, with close to half the world’s population now living in the farmlands of the Overberg. They can also be seen in the farmlands just outside Cape Town. While they are a common sight in the Cape (and actually increasing in numbers here), they are in fact the world’s most range-restricted species of crane and listed as Vulnerable.
The most widespread and adaptable of Southern Africa’s owl species, the spotted eagle-owl can be found from the deserts of the Kalahari to the suburbs at Sea Point. They are generally hard to spot during the day unless you are lucky or know where a particular bird is likely to roost. At night, they are usually seen as a silhouette on a rooftop or lamp post, hooting in the darkness.
They can be seen right across Cape Town, in the mountains and wetlands as well as in golf courses, urban areas and the suburbs. They also hunt a wide range of prey, including rodents, moles, guineafowl chicks, frogs and insects. However, they are at risk from vehicle collisions as they are attracted to road lights to hunt for insects.
All three species of Southern Africa’s mousebird can be found in Cape Town, but the white-backed mousebird is the species I have seen the most (and in the most gardens). They have very small bodies, in comparison to their long tails, and they often clamber around in the branches of trees in a very mammal-like way.
These mousebirds have striking black and white striped backs, which are usually only visible when they fly. However, they are very grey in colour in comparison to the speckled and red-faced mousebirds, and they also have white beaks. They’re fruit eaters, so are often attracted to gardens with natural fruiting trees, as well as to those gardens where people leave out fruit for them.
One of the most common garden birds across the Western Cape, the Cape bulbul tends to get overlooked (in fact, bulbuls in general do). With quite dark brown plumage, this bulbul’s most distinctive feature is their white eye ring. They are very adaptable and are regular visitors to many gardens across Cape Town, especially those where fruit or sunbird feeders are left out for birds. This makes them a great bird for beginner birdwatchers to start learning to identify.
The Southern boubou is heard far more often than it is seen, especially since it has a range of calls. These birds skulk around in dense thickets in search of prey, and often only emerge into the open when crossing between these thickets. Their hooked beaks are perfect tools for catching prey like geckos, locusts, chameleons and bird nestlings. The males have jet-black backs and very white chests, while the females tend to have brown backs and more orange chests. Despite their secretive nature, they are nonetheless frequent visitors to gardens in Cape Town.
Voted ‘South Africa’s favourite bird’ on several occasions, the Cape robin-chat is definitely one of the most endearing birds that live in Cape Town. With their orange chests and white eye stripes, they are also quite distinctive birds. They are common visitors to gardens, hopping through flower beds in search of food, which can include a variety of insects and fruits. They tend to prefer areas of thick vegetation and are quite hyperactive, so if you see one perched in the open for more than a minute, then you are lucky!
Southern Black Korhaan
Anyone who has woken up in the Karoo or the West Coast National Park will know the raucous call of the Southern Black Korhaan. These large ground birds occur in the southern parts of the country, with the northern black korhaan occurring across the rest of Southern Africa.
The male korhaan are particularly distinctive, with black heads, necks and chests, along with a white cheek spot on either side of the bird’s head. They also have brown barring on their backs, with the cryptic females having that all over.
Sadly their numbers have declined quite rapidly in recent years, as agricultural areas have overtaken their natural fynbos and Karoo habitats. While they will forage in fields, they rely on large areas of natural vegetation to be able to successfully breed and survive.
Around Cape Town, the only places to reliably see these birds is in the West Coast National Park and along the Darling Wildflower Route.
The Cape Rockjumper is very sought after by birders visiting the Western Cape, as its entire range is restricted to the fynbos-covered mountains of the province. Specifically, they live on high altitude rocky slopes. It is also a special bird genetically, as the only other member of the family is the Drakensberg Rockjumper, and they have no other close relatives.
The male rockjumper is particularly striking, with a white ‘moustache’ set against a black face and a deep rufous chest and belly, as well as bright red eyes. They live in small family groups and forage for insects in amongst the fynbos and boulders. They will hop along the ground and across rocks, a trait which gives them their name.
The best place around Cape Town to see Cape Rockjumpers is Rooiels, but they can also be seen around Sir Lowrys Pass and the Kogelberg Nature Reserve.
Unusual among the subregions woodpeckers, the ground woodpecker is unlikely to ever perch on a tree in its life. They are actually one of only three species of woodpeckers in the world that forage and live on the ground. They are also the largest woodpecker in Africa.
They typically live in mountainous regions, moving between rock areas in small family groups. They primarily feed on ants, and one member of the family will act as a sentry while the others feed. They can be found across South Africa, from Namaqualand to Mpumalanga.
Ground Woodpeckers can be spotted on Table Mountain and Cape Point (as well as other parts of the Table Mountain National Park), as well as in Rooiels, Sir Lowrys Pass and above Bettys Bay. In fact, the species was first discovered by ornithologists on the Cape Peninsula.
While not restricted to the fynbos, the Cape grassbird is certainly synonymous with the fynbos biome.Their melodic call can be heard in wetlands and mountainous areas across the Western and Eastern Capes, as well as in the Drakensberg.
They are a large species of warbler, easily identified by the reddish crown on their heads and their heavily streaked backs. These birds tend to clamber about in dense bushes in search of insects and are often located by their call. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the bird to appear at the top of the bush.
They are quite a common bird to find on top of the Cape Peninsula’s Mountains and can also be seen regularly at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Away from Cape Town, they can be found all over the Cape Fold Mountains and in areas of coastal fynbos.
The Victorin’s Warbler is perhaps the hardest fynbos endemic bird to actually see. While its distinctive call can be easily heard, the bird itself prefers to hide in the densest thickets. You could hear one calling less than half a metre from your position and you still would be unlikely to spot it.
Their call is very similar to the Cape Grassbird, but has a more consistent and melodic tempo. They are also almost exclusively confined to damp areas of fynbos (like bogs) and forest edges. When they do show themselves, they are most easily recognised by their grey faces.
While they do not occur on the Cape Peninsula, they can be found in the fynbos on top of Sir Lowrys Pass and around Harold Porter Botanical Gardens in Bettys Bay.
The lemon dove is a shy and elusive resident of forested areas across South Africa, as well as other parts of Africa. These shy birds spend far more time on the ground than they do perched in trees. If you see a dove walking over the leaf litter in a wooded area, it is more than likely going to be a lemon dove.
They have a pure white head and a cinnamon chest and belly, with a band of iridescent green feathers around their necks. They can often be found foraging in pairs, searching for the seeds of forest fruits.
Your best chance to see a lemon dove in Cape Town would have to be in Kirstenbosch Gardens or in Newlands Forest. They will also visit well-wooded gardens close to these areas as well, as long as there is enough cover.
A common sight in the forests of the Garden Route and Kwa-Zulu Natal, the olive woodpecker is decidedly trickier to track down in Cape Town. Both male and female woodpeckers have a olive green body with a grey head and a red rump, with the males also sporting a bright red crown.
Like most woodpeckers, they are largely arboreal, with specialised feet to grip onto trees and stiffened tail feathers that act as props when they are foraging for beetle larvae. They also create nest holes in the trunks of large dead trees, with pairs excavating a new one each season.
Kirstenbosch Gardens is one of the best places to spot them in Cape Town, but they can also be seen in Newlands Forest and even in Constantia and Tokai.
A small bird that draws a lot of attention, the chestnut-banded is one of the most sought-after birds of the Western Cape. Most of the world’s population in fact occurs in Namibia and Tanzania, with the populations in South Africa being highly localised.
Very pale in colour, their most distinguishing feature is the thin chesnut band that runs across their breast and onto the neck. The males also have a black line behind their eyes and on their foreheads. Like flamingos they are mostly associated with alkaline or saline water, including lagoons, salt marshes and inland salt pans, where they hunt insect larvae and small crustaceans. They never venture far from the water’s edge and avoid any area of vegetation.
The only reliable location to spot this bird anywhere near Cape Town is the Kuifkopvisvanger salt pans just out Veldrift on the banks of the Berg River.