No birding tour or photographic tour up the West Coast of the Atlantic (South Africa) would be complete without a couple of hours at dawn or dusk to view and photograph the Cape Gannets flighting in and out of the roost on Bird Island.

As a setting the island is scenically well placed with evenly spaced Atlantic swells rolling in to crash in spectacular fashion against the outer most bastions of Cape Fur Seal encrusted boulders shielding the central interior as they have effectively done through the ages. This sanctuary in the heart of Lambert’s Bay is both roost and breeding ground to thousands of seabirds seeking shelter and security from the worst of the northerly gales and winter storms sweeping up from the Antarctic.

Cape Gannets – Patrick Cardwell
Cape Gannet – Patrick Cardwell
Cape Gannets – Patrick Cardwell
Cape Gannet – Patrick Cardwell
Cape Gannet – Patrick Cardwell
Cape Gannet – Patrick Cardwell

Activity within the gannetry is captivating and continuous as one visually soaks up the action starting with inbound birds circling low overhead before dropping into a vacant space within the raucous crowd of territorially obsessed gannets, each of which vigorously defends its chosen patch of real estate!

Within the melee departing birds shuffle their way through a maze of jabbing bill thrusts to the take off zone on the edge of the colony facing into the wind. With a proverbial hop, skip and jump to the tune of a rasping farewell and a clattering of wing beats the bird takes off and heads out to the Benguela fishing grounds in classic careening flight interspersed with seemingly effortless glides over the spray crested swells of the Atlantic.

Interaction between birds within the mass is highly frenetic and reminiscent of peak levels of excitement exhibited by football crowds during a hotly contested cup final or a deafening open air rock concert of a thousand fans…

All around individuals spar with one another in aggressive defense of territory or attempt to elicit courtship through highly overt bowing and fencing displays accompanied by frenzied ‘arah-arah’ calls in a continuous bid for constant attention.

Couples already bonded engage in sky pointing and nape biting ahead of copulation as the breeding cycle gets underway, while overhead young birds circle above the colony in search of a possible landing site or settle out of frustration within a non-breeding bachelor group on the outer fringe of all the interactive excitement.

Aside from the spectacular display activity it is the birds themselves that are so visual engaging from the close proximity of the strategically placed lookout tower on the shoreward side of the colony. Adult birds in pristine breeding dress come packaged complete with buff heads and necks and porcelain smooth white plumage offset by black primary flight feathers at the end of long, narrow wings well suited for low level flight between rolling swells.

On closer examination with binoculars one is struck by the pale blue ringed eyes at the base of the ornately decorated dagger like grey bill that leads to the black gular stripe running down the throat that distinguishes the Cape Gannet from its closely related Australasian cousin – a rare vagrant to SA waters.

Yet it doesn’t stop there for the black legs and large webbed feet are artistically tattooed with yellow and green luminescent lines that play an important part in the regular display ritual between bonded partners.

All in all an hour or two on Bird Island is time well spent for birder and non-birder alike as a medley of visually entertaining vignettes unfold, also a photographer’s dream! These in turn add up to an enlightening experience unlikely to be forgotten as the senses are assailed both visually and audibly by the maddening crowd of gannets – little wonder the early Dutch settlers named the bird ‘malgas’ which translates to mad goose!

Aside from the gannetry as the star attraction a number of other sea and shore birds can be viewed in close proximity including African Penguin, White-breasted Cormorant, Crowned Cormorant, Cape Cormorant, Kelp Gull, Hartlaub’s Gull, Grey-headed Gull (occasionally), Swift Tern, Crowned Plover, White-fronted Plover, Grey Heron and Black Oystercatcher.

Bird Island is accessible from 08.00 in the morning to 18.00 in the evening at a cost of R20.00 per person.

Situated conveniently just south of the town is the delightfully positioned and extremely well appointed Grootvlei Guest Farm and seashell encrusted ‘Op die Duine’ cottage complex on the dunes, which comes complete with its own suite of Strandveld birds including the highly localized Cape Long-billed Lark.

Also present in the immediate area are Cape Francolin, Karoo Thrush, Cape Weaver, Southern Masked Weaver, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Layard’s Titbabbler, Bar-throated Apalis, Bokmakierie, Namaqua Dove, Southern Grey Tit, Penduline Tit, Yellow Canary, White-throated Canary, White-backed Mousebird, Karoo Scrub Robin and many other delightful birds.

Aside from the bird watching on the West Coast, an evening seafood meal under the stars at the Muisbosskerm Restaurant on the dunes opposite Grootvlei Guest Farm is a culinary experience of seafood delights that one is highly unlikely to ever forget…

For more information contact Marie-Louise on

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