The surprising diversity of Tokai Forest

Written by: Callum Evans

For 10 years, I have lived just down the road from Tokai Forest. In the first few years it was mostly pine forest with a few patches of fynbos and I didn’t pay much attention to the animal and plant life. But after a massive tree felling operation, the park gradually went through a dramatic transformation.

The beautiful Tokai Park in Cape Town, South Africa

The beautiful Tokai Forest in Cape Town, South Africa

Five years later, fynbos grew where massive pine trees once stood in an otherwise barren forest. It still took me a while to become interested in the diversity, but in 2014 I began to start listing the wildlife that I spotted in the area, especially the birds. In the same year I joined Friends of Tokai Park, a group of locals and scientists dedicated to helping to restore this patch of fynbos, and it was there that I began to really uncover the secrets of this small, yet remarkable place.


Sunbirds abound in the fynbos

Tokai Park now has an extraordinary diversity of plants with some 700 species now growing here, some of which are critically endangered. Blombos bushes dominate in many parts, turning the park snow white when they flower. In spring, dozens of wild flowers suddenly appear from the ground and make the park come alive with yellows, purples and oranges. Around some of the wetlands whorl heaths have been planted as part of an effort to return this beautiful species of Erica back to the wild, and they are slowly making a comeback. Several species of spiderheads, such as Rondevlei and cluster, are also now growing in the park. Other beautiful and bizarre plants include the marsh pagoda and Cape Flats silkypuff. Every time I walk in Tokai Park, the sheer variety and beauty of the plants always amazes me. I have to thank Dr. Tony Rebelo of SANBI for introducing to me this wonderful world that we often take for granted.


Whorl heath (Erica verticillata) making a comeback in Tokai

Despite the plants making up much of the diversity of this area, it is always the birds that I long to see. To walk through the fynbos and watch a pair of jackal buzzards soaring high above, calling to each other, is a sight that I never tire of seeing. Flocks of common waxbills, with a few attendant swee waxbills, live in every single reedbed, and fiscal shrikes and Karoo prinias are everywhere. Now and then a fish eagle soars high above the park, crying out the call of Africa. In summer, yellow-billed kites, greater-striped and barn swallows, and paradise flycatchers make the park their home too.

A yellow-billed kite calls the park home

A yellow-billed kite calls the park home in summer

I have been very fortunate to have been able to follow several bird families. A pair of black sparrowhawks occupies a nest in a common of large pine trees next to the park. Seeing them has now become the main objective of my walks, and it is always a joy to find one or both perched in the trees, preening or looking down at me. Sometimes I’ll see them feeding or chasing a squirrel. The first year I watched them, they raised at least one chick, but failed last year. Hopefully this year they will do so again and so far they look set to.


A black sparrowhawk occupies a nest in a common of large pine trees next to Tokai Park

Last year, a pair of spotted eagle-owls raised a single chick in the same common. It was my first opportunity to watch the family life of one of my favourite birds, and I loved every encounter I had with them. Two years ago, a pair of rufous-breasted sparrowhawks also tried to nest in the little patch of remaining pine trees, but failed. Nevertheless, it was thrilling to go out and find these tiny raptors perched three feet away, feeding on a bird or mouse.

A spotted-eagle owl in Tokai Park

A spotted-eagle owl in Tokai Forest

Now and then, some rare birds pop up in the park. Cape grassbird and yellow bishop live in the wetlands, and Burchell’s coucal make their bubbling calls in the mornings. Little rush warblers hardly ever let themselves be seen, which can be very frustrating. I have seen fiery-necked nightjar twice, a flock of African olive pigeons live around the Porter’s Market, and lanner falcons occasionally fly over.

This January I was able to spot the first orange-breasted sunbird that was seen in the park in 17 years. I have also been incredibly lucky to have recorded olive woodpecker, wood owl (which other people see more often than me), southern grey-headed sparrow, and red-billed teal. Other people have even seen black-crowned night heron and lesser honeyguide.

A Cape grassbird lives in the wetlands of Tokai Park

A Cape grassbird lives in the wetlands of Tokai Park

An African olive pigeon

An African olive pigeon that lives around the Porter’s Market in Tokai

The birds of course are not alone. Several hundred insect species call the park home and, although I haven’t spent as much time watching them, they are still fascinating. Black longhorn beetles with red stripes adorn practically every bush for a few months each year and then disappear. Dragonflies and butterflies are everywhere, and cocktail ant nests are becoming more and more common. Cape dwarf chameleons are some of my favourite animals in the park and it is always a thrill to spot one clinging against a branch of blombos. The park is also a prime spot for the iconic western leopard toad, which I still have yet to see there. Although I have almost stepped on a massive mole snake.

Dragonflies abound in Tokai Park

Dragonflies abound in Tokai Park

A Cape dwarf chameleon

A Cape dwarf chameleon clings to a branch

In terms of mammal life, I have only seen striped mice and the two Tokai baboon troops. Otherwise, I have to rely on the signs that the more elusive mammals leave behind. I’ve found porcupine diggings and scat, the crushed crab shell left by a water mongoose, the spoor of genet and Cape clawless otter, and the remains of a guineafowl that had been killed by a caracal. All these are indications of who’s roaming the park under the cover of night. Although I long to see a caracal striding through the wetlands at dawn, I am content just in the knowledge that they are there. Perhaps one day, I will see one.

I can safely say that I will never get tired of walking in Tokai Park. I never know what I will find there and, no matter how many times I walk there, there will always be something that takes me by surprise. Change could be coming, as the March 2016 fire burned most of the upper plantation, and maybe the elusive honey badgers might make a home here too. Only time will tell what happens to Tokai Park but, as long as there are people who care about its survival, I’m sure it’ll be fine. It is places like Tokai that can teach us why we conserve nature.

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