Extending south from the settlement of Noordhoek on the Cape Peninsula is a 4 km stretch of gloriously wide-open, wind-swept beach. Best viewed from the approach road to Chapman’s Peak, Noordhoek Beach is up to 400 m wide and is mostly backed by undeveloped dune-slacks grading into strandveld and seasonal wetlands. One of its more important and unusual features is a tidal lagoon that is periodically filled by spring tides and forms a shallow waterbody that sometimes runs the entire length of the back of the beach. The beach and its adjacent habitat are owned and managed by South African National Parks (SANParks) as part of the Table Mountain National Park, and have considerable conservation and biodiversity value.
As one might expect, Noordhoek Beach attracts plenty of visitors, with walkers and their dogs, joggers, horseback riders, swimmers and surfers lured by the golden wildness of it, and mussel-pickers and spear- and line-fisherman drawn by the ocean riches it supports. I’ve been a regular user of the beach myself for more than 30 years and over that time I’ve seen levels of human activity rise in synchrony with the number of people living and working in the area. Arguably the most remote section of the beach is right down at the southern end, where the headland of Klein Slangkop juts out to the west and the Wildevoelvlei – a wetland located just to the east – occasionally drains into the sea. This is where birds have always tended to aggregate and they still do, even though luxury seaside housing is now encroaching on the nearby dunes. Over the last couple of years I’ve enjoyed some special moments at ‘The Corner’, marveling at the richness of its birdlife. I’ve also become increasingly concerned about the fragility of both the site and its avifauna in the face of a suite of escalating human impacts.
The Corner doesn’t really feature a high diversity of birds or any particularly rare species, but it offers a combination of habitats – open beach with a rocky promontory, tidal lagoon, freshwater pooling or flowing into the sea – that isn’t readily available anywhere else on the Peninsula, so it supports common coastal species at relatively high densities. African Oystercatchers still breed there, Greater Flamingos, Pied Avocet and Black-winged Stilts still regularly forage there, and thousands of terns and gulls of multiple species still roost there in the summer. Also, it is set perfectly against a rugged backdrop of mountains and fronted by the rolling, blue breakers of the open Atlantic, so has enormous aesthetic appeal.
Early in 2019 there was plenty going on along the west coast of the Peninsula, with large numbers of terns and cormorants feeding close inshore on shoals of small pelagic fish. The lagoon at the back of the beach was about half-full and was being used by an interesting mix of gulls and shorebirds and an aggregation of possibly >10 000 terns, roosting along the seaward edge of the lagoon. Common Terns in non-breeding plumage made up the bulk of the roost, here on migration from northern and eastern Europe, with a smattering of Sandwich Terns (also migrants, mainly from western Europe), and perhaps a few Arctic Terns too. Along with these migrants were hundreds of Swift Terns and two or three Caspian Terns at any given time. My son Ruben and I visited the corner multiple times over the late summers of 2019 and 2020 to watch and photograph this roost, and were completely enthralled by what we saw…
Like most large gatherings of birds, the terns were fidgety, and prone to regular flushes into the air – either because of false alarms prompted by a few overly cautious individuals, or else sparked by legitimate concerns about the presence or approach of a predator. In some instances, only a fraction of the roost took to the air, usually settling again quite quickly. In others, the entire flock would lift up and swirl back and forth over the beach, forming dynamic patterns in the sky as squadrons of birds changed direction in sequence, swathes of them flickering from dorsal grey to ventral, bright white. Less frequently, the entire assembly would pour out into the bay, streaming in close concert low over the raised platform of sand along the shoreline before spreading out into a loose cloud over the sea. The sights and sounds of this close passage of thousands of vital, buoyant bodies were magical – audibly stirring the air around us as we stood transfixed on the beach, the quiet, querulous voices of the multitude building in volume and then seeping away into the rushing of the wind and the boiling surf. The setting added drama and atmosphere to the spectacle, with low layers of morning sea-mist shrouding the ghostly presence of the “Kakapo”, a skeletal shipwreck sunk into the beach about a kilometer away, and the craggy heights of the Sentinel, the Karbonkelberg and Chapman’s Peak describing a towering skyline to the north, glowing orange in the late afternoon sun.
Sandwich Terns were more common at the roost in 2020, maintaining a constant presence in the area, either at the roost or hunting energetically in the surf-zone. In contrast, Swift Terns were more prevalent in 2019, regularly hunting anchovies and other small pelagic fish within sight of the shore, and with pairs feeding fledged young waiting impatiently back on the beach. Common Tern numbers also dropped off in 2020, with the flock foraging more exclusively out at sea and completely absent from the beach for long periods of the day. During these times, and in the lonely days of autumn when all the terns finally vacated the beach, they left behind a complex pattern of tiny, star-shaped footprints, discoloured by the washed-out stains of avian pollution and decorated by scatterings of moulted feathers, some sodden and flat on the sand, others still flickering gently in the breeze.
The Corner also supports a healthy breeding population of African Oystercatchers. At least 5-6 pairs nest each summer on the open sand at the back of the beach, laying clutches of one or two wonderfully camouflaged eggs in shallow scrapes, usually made adjacent to tangled strands of dry kelp on hummocks of sand, left isolated and elevated by the wash of tides and the winds. I spent some quality time with these characterful birds in 2020, as tern activity started to subside in February-March.
One nesting pair proved especially rewarding. The birds were confiding from the get-go and became even more so with my repeat visits, apparently resuming normal operations soon after I arrived to watch them, busily preoccupied with raising their two chicks. The chicks were about two-weeks old when I first found the nest and were ridiculously cute and quite beautiful to watch. They spent long periods sleeping with their protective parents in close proximity, but became restless when they awoke, usually prompting one of the adults to limber up briefly before flapping off to the exposed reef at the southern end beach. This is a prime foraging site for oystercatchers and is used by most of the breeding pairs in the area. The rock closest to the shore is bristling with mussels and limpets, while adjacent areas of the beach are rich in polychaete worms, buried deep in the sand. Feeding birds target the wet areas of rock or sand coincident with the highest reach of the rising or falling tide at the time, constantly running the gauntlet of incoming waves. While quite prepared to get soaked while foraging, the danger of being swept away is real, and sometimes they are forced to back off hastily through the spray. Oystercatchers are experts at playing chicken with the sea.
Provisioning adults generally returned with food after only a few minutes at the reef, bringing worms when the chicks were younger and switching to shellfish as they grew and became better equipped to do some food handling of their own. Limpets were generally delivered ready-shucked, but mussels came shell-and-all and were very deliberately worked on in front of the chicks. For their part, the youngsters keenly watched the tricky business of mussel extraction and were presumably picking up some key tricks of the trade. Once a bout of feeding started it usually went on for some time, with the same adult commuting back and forth to the reef at least four or five times while the remaining bird stayed on guard. Sometimes the two exchanged roles, and occasionally both adults travelled to the coast leaving the chicks on their own, but never for long.
As the chicks grew and became more mobile and adventurous, they competed more actively for food, engaging in heated chases around the beach and even in vicious, physical fights in which the dominant bird pinned its sibling to the ground. The adults had to contend with a fair amount of conflict too, with neighbouring pairs or groups of up to five or six non-breeders approaching the nesting area at least daily, presumably with designs on taking over the site. These provocative moves invariably set the resident birds off on a highly ritualized and very loud song-and dance-routine, trotting together and in parallel, heads down and piping loudly and in unison. Intruders usually took this as an invitation to do a bit of cabaret of their own, resulting in a raucous explosion of concentrated activity as the two parties converged, sometimes erupting into a chaotic skirmish, with legs, wings and feathers flying. These fractious events culminated in long aerial chases, with one of the pair seeing off the most determined offender. The evocative, piping calls of battling oystercatchers, coupled with the strident energy of their acrobatic dogfights over the strand and the ocean, will always remind me of what was an enchanting time spent immersed in the private lives of these wonderfully charismatic birds.
Unfortunately, life for birds at The Corner is not without its drawbacks. During January and February 2020, when the tern roost was at its height, it attracted the attention of many beach goers who quite understandably wanted to experience and photograph the myriad birds milling around over the beach. Perhaps predictably, some refused to wait for this to happen naturally and instead chose to expedite matters by deliberately flushing the terns up. In any given evening, this could happen two or three times, and each time it took the birds 10-15 minutes to start settling back on the sand. Also, several people seemed quite comfortable with their dogs rampaging all over the beach, terrifying the entire community of birds, including the tern roost when it was there and the oystercatchers when they were actively breeding. This even though The Corner falls within a designated sensitive zone of the Table Mountain National Park, where unleashed dogs are prohibited.
Early in March ‘my’ oystercatchers were hard hit by an unusually high spring tide. One of their chicks was lost and the other was displaced to the very southern end of the beach, right on the main human thoroughfare connecting Noordhoek Beach with Kommetjie Beach to the south. As the chick grew and started to accompany its parents down to the rocks, the family was plagued by a slow but consistent stream of pedestrian traffic. People and leashed dogs were generally tolerated, but free-roaming dogs often actually chased the birds, causing huge amounts of stress, and clearly reducing the time the oystercatchers were able to spend feeding themselves and their youngster. This critical time was further reduced by people who came to The Corner to harvest shellfish, encroaching directly into the birds’ feeding area and directly competing with them for food.
As much as I have and continue to derive enormous pleasure from my stolen time at The Corner, I’ve found the way in which this special place is treated by others in my community extremely disappointing and problematic. Surely this kind of careless behaviour should be a thing of the past? What hope do we have of surviving the looming environmental crisis if we continue to treat nature in such an ignorant and dismissive way?
The stretches of beach closest to the residential areas of Noordhoek and Kommetjie are frequented by crowds of people and dogs every day. They are also devoid of nesting oystercatchers and attract much lower numbers of other birds. I guess this is to be expected and is probably unavoidable. But unless the attitudes of people change, unless we start seeing, caring for and accommodating the vestiges of wildlife still hanging on in the more distant reaches of the beach, we will lose what remains in this and many other enclaves of nature. And what then? We will be left alone, just people on a lifeless beach. A beach washed clean of the footprints of birds and ironically bereft of the enriching soul we went there to find.