The Forest Biome is the smallest of South Africa’s nine biomes. In the Garden Route we have one of the most extensive areas of remaining indigenous forest in South Africa. This specific indigenous forest is known as Southern Afro-temperate Forest, home to an array of bird species that have become forest specialists.
For birds to live in the depths of a dark forest, where the canopy forms a dense layer of leaves that prevent most of the sun’s rays from reaching the forest understory, they have to adapt to make the best of what this habitat has to offer.
Forest birds are often very colourful, but their colourful feathers are usually limited to certain parts of their body, such as the chest or the wings so that they can use them to flash signals to their mates or to their rivals. Consider, for example, the Knysna turaco (Knysna loerie), with his bright red wings which act as a “follow me” sign to the rest of his travelling party as they move from tree to tree. Once a turaco has landed, the red wing feathers are hidden and the green colouration of most of the rest of its feathers helps it to blend into the forest canopy.
Several species of robins, thrushes and brownbuls take advantage of the rich mulch layer that is the forest floor. Here, between the leaves, live a thriving community of insects and other small invertebrates. They become prey to these smaller birds that call the forest floor and understory their home. Some of them, especially the terrestrial brownbul (boskrapper) are very elusive and their brown feathers give them excellent camouflage on the forest floor.
Due to the darkness of their environment, forest birds rely heavily on calls and songs to communicate and to stay in contact with one another. In fact, few habitats have a dawn chorus that can compare to that of the forest biome. Some forest birds like the sombre greenbul (gewone willie) that lives in the forest canopy has a loud, piercing call that travels far across the canopy. Others, such as the buff-spotted flufftail (gevlekte vleikuiken), who lives in the forest understory, have a low frequency call that travel better between the dense foliage of the understory.
Where to go birding
We are privileged to have good access to most of the forests of the Garden Route. There are several walking trails that take you deep into the heart of the forest, where you will have the chance of finding most of the forest specialists, including Narina trogon (bosloerie), chorister robin-chat (lawaaimakerjanfrederik), white-starred robin (witkoljanfrederik), yellow-throated woodland warbler (geelkeelsanger) and blue-mantled crested flycatcher (bloukuifvlieëvanger).
One of my personal favourites is the trail that starts at the Woodville Big Tree near Hoekwil, and leads you through pristine Afro-temperate forest. Another excellent trail is the Brown-hooded Kingfisher Trail that follows a stream up to a waterfall, with lush forest all along the stream. It’s well worth exploring either of these trails or any of the other trails that lead into the forests of the Garden Route to experience encounters with these colourful forest birds with their beautiful songs.