Rietvlei Nature Reserve is a small protected area managed by the City of Cape Town, centred on the floodplain of the Diep River. It features a seasonally expansive freshwater wetland that drains into the nearby Milnerton Lagoon, and is home to a variety of birds, including large numbers of waterbirds. The reserve is a seagull’s flap from the famous Table Bay, and has the rocky ramparts of Table Mountain as a dramatic back-drop.
I visited Rietvlei on a chilly day last week. There was a brisk south-easterly wind rippling the open waters and some light cloud periodically masking the sun. As I was making my way to one of the two hides that both secrete and shelter visiting birders, I heard a short, metallic bird call – a grating kind of twangy sound that wasn’t immediately familiar to me. Searching the sky I picked up a small white bird, and then two more, all of them flapping buoyantly but purposefully overhead. The birds were Whiskered Terns – visitors to the Cape Town area from further north in Africa. Although this isn’t a rare or unusual species, and it occurs quite commonly at Rietvlei during the summer, it is a subtly beautiful and highly photogenic little bird.
That morning there was a steady stream of Whiskered Terns working the fringes of the permanent lake in the centre of reserve, chopping away into the wind and low over the water, periodically dropping down to delicately pick edibles – insects, small fish or even amphibians – from on or just above the water surface. Some were either young birds or still transitioning into breeding plumage, but others had completed their moult and were resplendent in a rich colour combination of grey-scale, black and deep-red.
In keeping with my recently acquired obsession with photographing terns, I decided to sit quietly on the edge of the lake on the up-wind side of a slight inlet to see if I could get some decent pics of them as they screeched and fluttered by. Not sure if I succeeded in getting any decent images but I had lots of fun trying…