There can be few more enjoyable pleasures in the Western Cape for any keen birder than ‘ticking' your way at a leisurely pace along the Porter Drive track on one of those rare windless days at the height of spring …
From the very start as one gazes up from the parking area to the impressive buttress of Klein Hangklip towering above, and then on to the southern sweep of the False Bay horizon and the undulating profile of Cape Point in the far distance, the setting is nothing short of spectacular and, indeed, the opportunity to walk along the scenic track, courtesy of the landowners, is a very special experience indeed.
Aside from the spectacular setting the birding is relatively ‘easy', while botanically the surrounding area comprises of a rich and highly diverse and colorful selection of typical fynbos species scattered about at random along the boulder strewn slope and coastal strip of marshy terrain towards the rocky shore. Add to this the sun to your back and the near perfect light for a morning walk in a southerly direction with your camera and binoculars in hand.
Indeed the contrast of color within the surrounding environment adds definitive meaning to the halcyon descriptive of ancient origin for the perfect day and along with it the realistic chance of recording over 20 bird species, including a number of the more colorful and sought after resident fynbos ‘specials' found mainly in the Western Cape.
Before setting off on the walk a few moments should be spent searching for Cape Sugarbird , Cape Bulbul , Cape Robin Chat, Speckled Mousebird and Cape White-eye in the taller stands of mixed Proteacea along the track in the vicinity of the parking area.
Here too, and within the residential road network, one can expect to encounter Cape Francolin strutting their stuff or crowing vociferously in constant contact with one another.
Proceeding beyond the locked gate one usually encounters a Familiar Chat, with its characteristic ‘wing flicking' action, living up to its name as it forages about in close proximity along the stone studded slope.
Checking the roof tops of the holiday houses below the road can turn up a pair of Cape Rock Thrush as well as the odd Speckled Pigeon preening and sunbathing at leisure.
Above and along the track Rock Martin circle lazily about often in association with Greater Striped Swallow or the resident pair of Common Kestrel.
Orange-breasted Sunbird are omnipresent as the flit about frenetically between the flowering Ericas in a dazzling display of iridescence complemented by the occasional presence of the not as common Lesser Double Collared Sunbird. With luck a Malachite Sunbird in full breeding dress could unexpectedly grace the occasion as an added bonus to complete the suite of locally listed sunbirds for the area.
Carefully scanning the cliffs above may reveal the presence of the resident pair of Black Eagle near their nest site and, if one is especially lucky, the birds could take to the wing in a spectacular display of flying ability as they wheel about and soar above the buttress.
Here too one can expect to get good views of White-necked Raven, most often heard before being seen, as they soar along the ridge line and forage about the coastline.
Yet it is not all the way of the larger more conspicuous birds that captivate ones attention.
Grey-backed Cisticola perform bubbling aerial displays, while the less common Neddicky lives up to its phonetic title by monotonously repeating its single note call from an exposed vantage point. Spotted Prinia are regular sightings usually comprising of family parties calling and chasing about after one another in exaggerated displays of tail flirting activity.
Closer to the rocky shore areas of mixed Restio on marshy ground support the vocal Grassbird, calling in trilling response to one another, while Yellow Bishop males in full nuptial plumage buzz back and forth across demarcated territories in bumble-bee mode.
Similar by call to the Grassbird but far more secretive by nature is the Victorin's Warbler, a skulker of note that frequents the areas of higher fynbos vegetation along damp seeps and drainage lines on the seaward side of the track. This highly endearing warbler normally remains well hidden and rodent like in its behavioral pattern linked to a highly repetitive tinkling call. Patience can be rewarding however for the dedicated observer prepared to spend time locating a clear view of a vocal bird as it creeps about in the dense interior of a chosen Rhus thicket.
Scanning the rock studded slopes above the track will almost certainly turn up sightings of Cape Bunting and Red-winged Starling. A careful search in the vicinity of the larger boulders along the track could reveal the unobtrusive presence of the locally nomadic Cape Siskin and, if lucky, the regionally uncommon Sentinel Rock Thrush, distinguished from Cape Rock Thrush by the pale blue on its hind crown extending onto the back of the bird. Here too the strident and arresting alarm call of Ground Woodpecker may well be heard from the higher slopes as a family party sun themselves conspicuously on the high point of a prominent boulder.
Yet of all the avian delights the one bird species that consistently draws dedicated birders from all over the world to Rooi Els is unquestionable the highly energetic and charismatic Cape Rockjumper. Carefully scanning the larger rocks and boulders above the track and listening for their far carrying piping call is the best way to locate an active pair of these highly localized birds. Happily too numbers of these showcase birds have increased steadily at Rooi Els since the fire that ravaged the slopes above the village a few years ago.
Today several pairs now exist along the boulder strewn western slope and all exhibit the inquisitive and endearing behavior of taking as much interest in the birders as the birders take in their own antics as they energetically bound from rock to rock with their strikingly distinctive tail feathers spread wide for maximum visual effect.
For some reason as yet not satisfactorily explained the Cape Rockjumper does not occur on the Cape Peninsula and neither does the Victorin's Warbler. This makes Rooi Els by far the most accessible location to view these charismatic endemic birds thanks to the local community and their ongoing conservation efforts to safeguard the well being of the resident Cape Rockjumper population by limiting public access to the track itself.
Add to this responsible birding practices and ethical considerations regarding undue disturbance, particularly by photographers during the sensitive Aug – Nov breeding period, and you have an all round environmental initiative that will ensure the birds' continued presence and future well being for years to come.
Other birds recorded in the vicinity of the track on occasion include Peregrine Falcon, Jackal Buzzard, Spotted Eagle Owl, African Black and Alpine Swift, Hottentot Button Quail, and African Quail. Birds of the rocky shore and pelagic species have not been listed and constitute additional sighting opportunities for the astute observer looking out to sea for cormorants, gannets, terns, skuas, gulls and oystercatchers along with the chance of a whale or dolphin sighting.
Indeed it is both a privilege and a pleasure for dedicated and amateur birders to be afforded the opportunity to ‘tick the track' in leisurely search of what must surely rank for most local and international birders' as one of the top ‘ticks' on the South African birding list ... the Cape Rockjumper.
Rooi Els article by Patrick Cardwell