Tag Archives: RAMSAR site

Walvis Bay – A Ramsar Birding Site

Walvis Bay is a rather shabby, depressing-looking harbour city about thirty kilometers from Swakopmund on the west coast of Namibia.  On entering the city from either side, one is greeted by waving palm trees, but these soon fade out and you are left with the somewhat drab houses and buildings that immediately make you wonder why it’s on your list of places to visit.  But don’t be fooled by appearances, especially if you are a birder.  Walvis Bay has significant wetland areas that have received recognition by Birdlife International and been declared one of the “areas of global significance for bird conservation.”

Great white pelican

Make your way down to the lagoon and you can immediately see why this area received Ramsar Site status in 1995.  (Wikipedia definies a Ramsar Site as follows :  “The Ramsar Convention (The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat) is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands, i.e., to stem the progressive encroachment on and loss of wetlands now and in the future, recognising the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands and their economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value. It is named after the town of Ramsar in Iran.”)

Ruddy Turnstones on the shoreline

Stretching for about seven kilometers, the shallow waters of the lagoon are filled with palaearctic (migratory) birds of every description.  Depending on the tide, one gets to see both the waders and the shoreline birds feeding vigorously in the rich waters.

Flamingoes in the lagoon

The incredibly beautiful Greater Flamingoes live on a diet of invertebrates, whilst the Lesser Flamingoes can be seen shuffling their feet to shift the algae on the sea bed.  Other key species are shown on the photograph below – click on the photo to enlarge it.

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At any given time, the lagoon hosts a minimum of about 20 000 birds, but this figure rises during spring and summer to anything up to 250 000, influenced also by the rains inland. (Walvis Bay is one of the driest cities in the world, receiving less than 10mm of rainfall per annum.)

Birds everywhere you look

The wetland area extends beyond the lagoon to the mudflats and the nearby salt refinery, and different birds frequent these areas for the food that they offer.

Pied Avocets

It’s magical spot, and if you choose to dine at The Raft restaurant in the lagoon (where the food is excellent), you can watch scores of birds flying past as you eat.  Look out too for the different jellyfish that are found in the water – all shapes, colours and sizes.

Flamingo about to fly

For non-birders, Walvis Bay bay offers Dune 7 – a marvelous dune climbing experience; boat trips for fishing, seal and dolphin viewing; kayaking; quad-biking and trips into the desert.  Plenty for everyone really but a real delight for twitchers!

A visit to Sandwich Harbour

It is not a simple matter, reaching Sandwich Harbour, just 50-odd kilometers south of Walvis Bay on the Atlantic Ocean coast of Namibia. Lying within the Namib Naukluft National Park, it is jealously guarded by towering sand dunes that plunge straight down into the cold waters of the Atlantic, leaving very little flat and firm sand at the water’s edge, even at low tide. There is no easy access.

Dunes en route to Sandwich Harbour

Dunes en route to Sandwich Harbour

However, for keen birders, it is worth putting in the effort required to reach this important RAMSAR site where, at times, there may be upwards of 200,000 birds present. The area between Sandwich Harbour and Walvis Bay is also home to around 90% of the world population of Chestnut-banded plover.

Chestnut-banded plover

Chestnut-banded plover

We decided not to drive ourselves on this challenging trip, but to rely on the experience of a local tour operator who, as we understood it, ran regular trips to the isolated spot. Hmmm. We left Walvis Bay at about nine in the morning and were very soon deep in the “Sand Sea” that makes up the Namib Desert between Walvis Bay and Luderitz Bay. No roads. No Tracks. Just dunes, one after the other without end.

En route to Sandwich Harbour - No place to drive!

En route to Sandwich Harbour - No place to drive!

The Land Rover Defender coped quite well with the soft sand, although it was defeated by many of the steeper dunes of soft sand that had us sliding backwards or, perhaps worse, semi-sideways, when forward momentum was lost. It was not possible to reach any of the firmer sand at the edge of the sea because the tide was too high and access blocked, and eventually our guide advised us that we would have to walk the last stretch.

Fair enough. Off we went.

Tricky even to walk!

Tricky even to walk!

At about eleven o’clock, still making our way down the coast, knee deep in ice-cold water most of the time, our intrepid guide said that he would return to the Land Rover and see whether he could find a way to Sandwich Harbour as the tide would be retreating by now. We should carry on just a little further and we would reach Sandwich Harbour, where he would join us shortly. I never saw him again until after 5 o’clock! That is, after I had visited Sandwich Harbour on my own (Jane was really ill and, finding a wonderful spot with lots of bird activity, sat out the last stretch to Sandwich Harbour), and after I had walked back to where we had left the Land Rover. Thank goodness not all guides are as irresponsible as this thoughtless soul!

Flamingo in the wonderful setting of the dunes at Sandwich Harbour

Flamingo in the wonderful setting of the dunes at Sandwich Harbour

The bird life is astonishing along this stretch of coast, though, and that was the main reason for the trip. Gulls, terns and plovers of all varieties. Flamingoes. Avocets. Herons. Ducks. Cormorants. All in numbers that would be difficult to find elsewhere.

A Cape teal in the brackish water that seeps through the dunes

A Cape teal in the brackish water that seeps through the dunes

Pied avocet

Pied avocet

Incidentally, in spite of its name, Sandwich Harbour has never been a harbour at all, although it served as a refuge for whaling ships and the like in years gone by. A misnomer, really. Like calling the fellow who drove us on this trip a “guide”.