Port Elizabeth and surrounds – Swartkops River Estuary

About the Birding

Situated to the east of the city of Port Elizabeth, the Swartkops Estuary is made up of several intertidal banks, salt marshes and salt pans. The river flows from its catchment in the Groot Winterhoek mountains to the west of Uitenhage, descending down a relatively steep and narrow valley. The estuary itself is considered the most important estuarine and salt-flat habitat anywhere in the Eastern Cape and is tidal for roughly 16km upstream, flowing through a permanently open mouth into the Indian Ocean.

Given the extent of the habitat, at least a morning is required to cover the area thoroughly with visits best timed with the low tide.

The Swarkops Estuary hosts globally significant numbers of nesting African Oystercatchers, roughly 20% of the South African breeding population of Caspian Terns, colonies in excess of 700 pairs of Kelp Gull, over 600 pairs of Grey-headed Gull, and the second largest breeding colonies of White-breasted Cormorant anywhere in South Africa. Moreover, the vast mudflats – teeming with small intertidal invertebrates – are widely regarded as one of the premier wader-watching sites in all of Southern Africa. The estuary complex supports, on average, 14 500 birds of 77 species each year though this occasionally passes 20 000 birds. Roughly 3 300 of these are Palearctic migrantes, present mainly during the summer months, and including globally significant wintering populations of the Red Knot, Euraisan Curlew, Greater Sand Plover and Terek Sandpiper. Perhaps most numerous in the wader flocks are Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, both Grey and Common Ringed Plovers, and Ruff.

Explore various areas of the salt marsh and intertidal banks from the public roads in Bluewater Bay, Swartkops and Amsterdamhoek (see details below). Alternatively, park on the bridge over the Swatkops River at -33.8568, 25.6000 and walk south scanning the shore edges and mudflats constantly for waders. The eastern edge of this island, opposite Riverside Lodge in Bluewater Bay, is usually most productive. Swift (Greater Crested), Sandwich, Little, Caspian and Common Terns can usually be seen foraging over the river itself while Kelp, Grey-headed and Hartlaub’s Gulls follow fishermen. Goliath Heron is sometimes seen on the salt marshes with large flocks of Greater Flamingo. Important numbers of Black-necked Grebe, Greater Flamingo, Lesser Flamingo, South African Shelduck, Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Pied Avocet, Curlew Sandpiper and Sanderling also occur on the nearby Redhouse Salt Pans.

The site is equally famous for the number of shorebirds it supports, as it is for the frequency at which which vagrant species are reported. Notable mentions in recent years include Hudsonian Godwit, Red-necked Phalarope, Baird’s Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper and Franklin’s Gull.

The Valley Bushveld in the surrounding Swartkops Valley Nature Reserve holds Cape Bulbul, Grey Tit, Olive Bush-shrike, Southern Tchagra, Karoo Scrub-Robin, Cape Penduline-Tit, Black-bellied Starling and Knysna Woodpecker.

Key species:

Terek Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Red Knot, Greater Sand Plover

About the Birding Site

Port Elizabeth, an idyllic coastal city, is perhaps the most accessible port of entry into the Eastern Cape. Known as the ‘Friendly City,’ Port Elizabeth offers a superb value-for-money holiday base with a diverse selection of attractions, within easy reach, including a number of scenic nature trails, historic heritage, cultural experiences and several bird and wildlife viewing hotspots. Perhaps most important are the core section of Addo Elephant National Park and the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Complex; both under 1hr drive from the city’s international airport.

Other notable hotspots within easy reach are Settler’s Park, the Swartkops Estuary, Tankatara Road, Cape Recife Nature Reserve, and the Island Forest Reserve.

Key species:

Terek Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Red Knot, Greater Sand Plover

Other Related Information

Travel east from Port Elizabeth towards Grahamstown. Swartkops and Bluewater Bay are both signposted from the national highway ‘N2,’ roughly 15km east of the Port Elizabeth harbour. In Swartkops, any turning to the right will lead to the river. In Bluewater Bay, any turning to the left will lead to the river. The best viewpoints are listed below:

  1. Off Mariners Road in Swartkops at -33.8671, 25.6054
  2. Off The Strand Street in Swartkops at -33.8606, 25.6008
  3. Off Amsterdamhoek Drive at -33.8523, 25.6039 and at -33.8550, 25.6177
  4. Off Edinburugh Drive at -33.8531, 25.6124

Other related information:

To visit Redhouse on the upper reaches of the Swartkops River, turn left at the crossroads in the centre of Swartkops. Note that access to the salt plans is strictly prohibited and birders are limited to scanning visible areas from the public roads. Straight on at the main crossroads in Swartkops wil take you across the single lane bridge at -33.8568, 25.6000 where you are able to park and walk down onto the mudflats.

The Swartkops Valley Reserve is on the north bank of the Swartkops River, access by a track upstream of the brick factory at -33.8364, 25.5950. Access is difficult and requires 4×4 with high clearance. The Aloe Reserve is accessible through Bluewater Bay following the well-marked signs.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
No Birder Friendly Establishments are currently listed for the wider Port Elizabeth area. However, there are many accommodation options in Port Elizabeth and Bluewater Bay that cater for diverse budgets and requirements.

Suggested accommodations in Bluewater Bay include:
The Riverside Lodge: www.theriversidelodge.co.za

Local guide information:
Local birding tours within the wide Port Elizabeth area can be organised through:

Bird & Eco-tours
Tour/guiding/free information service in the Port Elizabeth area
Tel: +27 (0)41 466 5698

Text prepared by:
Daniel Keith Danckwerts (Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Tours)

Key species:

Terek Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Red Knot, Greater Sand Plover

Contact details:

Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism

Tel: +27 (0)41 581 7540 / +27 (0)42 582 2573
Fax: +27 (0)42 581 7544 / +27 (0)41 582 2573
Email: info@nmbt.co.za
Website: www.nmbt.co.za