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Urban Birding in Cape Town, South Africa

Raptors over breakfast

with Ross Wanless

Raptors hold a unique fascination for birders because in our own hearts we admire and relate to the predatory instincts in other creatures: after all we are (or were in our recent past) predators too. I’ve lived in Cape Town (on and off) for 20 years. It’s a fabulous city, of course, with a gigantic and photogenic mountain parked smack bang in the middle of it.

The huge areas of natural spaces and the abundant stands of plantations on the slopes of Table Mountain provide excellent raptor hunting and breeding habitat. I live in an apartment kinda in the middle of suburbia, but with great views of the mountain and with sufficient elevation to catch sight of birds through the extensive windows of my living room.

I was pondering David Lindo’s invitation to write a piece for this site and inspiration was lacking somewhat. I am a seabirder by profession and it’s stretching things a little to construe a piece about pelagics, albatrosses and open ocean boat trips as being relevant to a site dedicated to urban birding. While sipping on my morning coffee and contemplating the pre-dawn bowl of muesli, I caught the movement out the corner of my eye and looked up in time to see an African Fish Eagle cruising past a couple of hundred meters away. Inspiring stuff!

The raptor list from my flat is pretty fabulous, with the highlight (sadly no longer a feature) a nesting pair of African Goshawks, which fledged a chick from the Australian gumtree on the premises. The Booted Eagle is a regular Cape Town raptor that I have added recently. Gymnogenes (African Harrier Hawk) are on my several-times-seen list, while Peregrine hunt around the apartment all the time – although the alarm calls of the resident Olive Thrushes are more often the only evidence of their fleeting presence.

Yellow-billed Kites and Steppe Buzzards are occasional summer sightings and for some reason perhaps related to effort and perhaps not, Saturday mornings seem to be a prime time for the world’s biggest Accipiter: the Black Sparrowhawk. I guess most birders and listers have a bogey-bird of sorts associated with whatever lists (mental or physical) they keep. So for my apartment, that would have to be the Red-breasted (Rufous-chested) Sparrowhawk.

I had a distant view of an Accipiter the other morning with bright rufous streaking on the breast. After consultation with Callan Cohen, who runs Birding Africa and has been watching raptors in Cape Town since he was a kid, the ID was confirmed as a juvenile Black Sparrowhawk (yes, yes – I know they are very different sizes, but it was perched long way off and slightly backlit). I should have known better – it was a Saturday morning after all.

Ross Wanless