Anyone who has spent time walking through mountain fynbos in the south-western Cape will know that birds, of any kind, are few and far between. It’s actually quite startling just how few birds – or other vertebrates – inhabit what is widely known as one of the most diverse floral kingdoms on the planet. Nectarivores such as sunbirds and sugarbirds can be abundant at certain times, but it is otherwise just a few nomadic seedeaters and a handful of hardy insectivorous species that are able to make a living among the astonishing array of proteas, ericas, pincushions and conebushes that cover the hillsides. Insects certainly seem to be sparse, and this low ‘invertebrate productivity’ on soils that are said to be nutrient-deficient, is evidently responsible for the paucity of birds.
Since arriving in this part of South Africa about four years ago, I have been forever on the lookout for one of the most unusual birds of the fynbos – a woodpecker that doesn’t peck wood and rarely even perches in trees. I have had a few people tell me that they’ve seen these woodpeckers in the mountains above Hermanus, and I’ve walked those trails flat with my companion Josie, our energetic labrador. Rockjumpers, siskins, prinias and grassbirds we have encountered, as well as three species of sunbird and the charismatic Cape Sugarbird. But never a terrestrial woodpecker, not a glimpse, not a knock, not a peep.
My favourite afternoon walk is a little-used trail on the lower slopes of the mountain in the Fernkloof Nature Reserve. I have come to terms with not seeing or expecting many birds on this route, but it is an invigorating walk that traverses several micro-habitats and there are always fascinating and often lovely flowers to be seen. I much prefer the mountain walks in winter, but after an unseasonal summer downpour this week, followed by a Friday morning of drizzle and mist, I decided to venture out onto this pathway after work. At around 17h45, while ambling along the lower flat section I was stopped in my tracks by an explosive, rasping call, coming from the hillside above. I didn’t recognise this strange call at first, but then the penny dropped. Woodpecker! . . must be Ground Woodpecker!! I scanned the exposed rocks with my binoculars and soon picked up the distinctive shape on the rim a large sandstone outcrop. Then there were two more woodpeckers, and the calling continued as they bounced across the lichen-clad rocks, and flew short distances between outcrops. Luckily, the second part of the trail follows a contour of the hillside and I was able to get into a position where I could watch the woodpeckers without disturbing them. In my limited experience, these are very alert and shy birds, so I was fortunate indeed. It was clear that they were picking up food from the rocks and open ground, so when they moved on I went off the trail to investigate. Numerous ants were moving around, many carrying papery seeds larger than themselves – these were Harvester Ants and I suspect that the rain and wet sandy soil had stimulated their activity. The woodpeckers were clearly having an ant feast, but they were not alone. In a period of about fifteen minutes, I observed three Olive Thrush, four Cape Robinchat, two Fiscal Flycatcher, two Streaky-headed Canary, several Brimstone Canary, two Cape Bulbul, a Karoo Prinia and a flock of about 20 Cape White-eyes moving through the area. Of these birds, I had previously only seen the prinia and canary on this part of the trail and, all- told, I think I saw more individual birds here than ALL previous walks combined! There were sugarbirds and sunbirds about too, and to cap it all, a Peregrine Falcon passed high overhead. It was a memorable afternoon!
Fernkloof Nature Reserve, Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa
** The Ground Woodpecker (Geocolaptes olivaceus) is endemic to South Africa (as well as parts of Swaziland and Lesotho) where it occupies high altitude grasslands in the summer rainfall region, and mountain fynbos in the winter-rainfall region.