March 2010 Trip Report

Spectacled Petrel by Patrick Cardwell

By Patrick Cardwell

The run up to the pelagic was characterized by gale force conditions through to Friday evening when the south easterly finally abated leaving behind a flat and fog shrouded sea in its wake. A southerly wind of around 20kms failed to materialize as forecast and we set off for the trawling grounds from Simon’s Town on board ‘Destiny’ skippered by Alan Blacklaw at 07.30 with six on board.

Apart from a Bryde’s Whale appearing unexpectedly for a brief moment only the usual list of coastal birds were in evidence inside of False Bay along with the ever present pod of Cape Fur Seals off Partridge Point. From a photographic point of view our brief stop to radio in our destination intentions to the radio officer on duty at Cape Point proved disappointing as the south peninsula was still shrouded in fog. This was no doubt largely due to the water temperature having dropped to 11 degrees as a result of the upwelling induced by the prevailing south easterly weather pattern.

Our bearing was set at 250 degrees south west of the point with the canyon area as our destination objective - this with a working trawler foremost in mind. On heading out to Bellow’s Rock a single Dusky Dolphin joined us for a brief moment of half-hearted surfing in the wake. Given the lack of sun and limited visibility due to the fog it was very much a case of ‘silhouette shooting’ as pelagic seabirds appeared at intermittent intervals out of the gloom for a subliminal glimpse before disappearing almost immediately.

Even so the list of pelagic sightings was beginning to take shape with a Shy Albatross opening the batting followed by views of White-chinned Petrel and Cory’s Shearwater. By 10.00 the fog was starting to lift and patches of blue sky started to appear to the south and, for the first time in 2 hrs, we could take stock of happenings in the immediate vicinity. While there was never a super-abundance of birds around us the activity was continuous with many repetitive views to reinforce sightings made earlier and to confirm key diagnostic features.

By now both Indian and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross had been added to our list with both species targeting ‘Destiny’ for a close ‘fly-by’ along with an immature Shy Albatross well versed in the art of careening across the wake. Cory’s and Great Shearwaters were regularly encountered along with an increasing number of White-chinned Petrels and the odd Sooty Shearwater zig-zagging across our line of travel.

Sabine's Gull

By now the water temperature was increasing steadily with Wilson’s Storm Petrels pattering across the wake at regular intervals and the occasional European Storm-Petrel fluttering past in seemingly agitated flight. On arriving in the vicinity of the canyon we were treated to close up views of a Sabine’s Gull at rest on the surface and a Oceanic Sunfish lazing in a pocket of warm water liberally populated by Portuguese ‘Man-of –War’ Jellyfish. Add to this several repeat albatross sightings and a lone Sub-Antarctic Skua on a reconnaissance flight above us, nothing new was added to the expanding list.

At this stage no trawlers appeared to be in evidence so we headed further south in the direction of a vessel that had been spotted some 5kms away. This proved a good move as the target, which turned out to be a tanker, was steaming past a working trawler with the usual list of camp-followers in tow. Black-browed Albatross was added on arrival to give us four albatross species for the day. Flatter sections of the wake attracted good numbers of Wilson’s Storm Petrels pattering across the surface feeding on minute items welling up in the trawler’s wake. But it was the numbers of White-chinned Petrels in the vicinity that intrigued us and prompted a systematic sifting of surface roosting birds in search of a Spectacled Petrel. In this we were not to be disappointed as a superbly plumaged bird presented itself for close up inspection and direct comparison to the conventional form of White-chinned Petrel.

With this sighting now firmly secured on our flash cards we headed back to Simon’s Town picking up fleeting views of Arctic Skua along the way and African Penguin inside Cape Point. A brief stop at Partridge Point added Bank Cormorant to the list along with African Black Oystercatcher and the mix of coastal birds before tying up at our mooring at 15.30.

An excellent lunch on board, served within sight of Cape Maclear in windless and flat sea conditions, was up to the usual standard of excellence and a good time was had by all thanks to Alan Blacklaw and his skippering ability and role as thoughtful host for the day.

Species list with approximate numbers for the day is as follows:

Shy Albatross - 30
Black-browed Albatross -10
Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross - 2
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross - 1
White-chinned Petrel - 250
Spectacled Petrel - 1
Sooty Shearwater - 20
Cory’s Shearwater - 40
Great Shearwater - 50
Wilson’s Storm Petrel - 50
European Storm Petrel -10
Subantarctic Skua - 2
Arctic Skua - 1
Sabine’s Gull - 10
Kelp Gull – 20
Hartlaub’s Gull - 10
Cape Gannet - 100
Cape Cormorant - 400
Bank Cormorant - 12
White-breasted Cormorant - 5
Crowned Cormorant -1
Swift Tern – coastal
African Penguin – coastal
African Black Oystercatcher – coastal
Cape Fur Seal – 50
Sunfish – 2

What was lacking in quantity due to the poor visibility was more than offset by the quality of good sightings during the course of the day.

Patrick Cardwell
Avian Leisure 21/03/10.

To book a Pelagic birding trip out of Cape Town, contact Patrick or Marie-Louise at Avian Leisure.

Avian Leisure's accommodation, located only a few minutes drive from Simon’s Town harbour, is the closest Birder Friendly Establishment to the pelagic departure point, and so is ideally located for pelagic birding in Cape Town.

Combine your Cape Town pelagic birding trip with a day's land-based birding in Cape Town either with a bird guide booked through Avian Leisure to help you sight as many birds as possible, or on a self-drive basis. Either way we will help you to plan your birding excursion to ensure you have a safe and successful day.With an extra day, we can book you on a shark trip in False Bay to view the spectacular shark breaching behaviour, unique to False Bay in the winter months.

The combination of pelagic birding, shark trips and whale viewing in the winter months makes for a complete nature at sea experience in Cape Town!
Ph/fax: +27 21 7861414 mobile: 083 272 2455 or 083 560 5510.

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