Anne Albatross’s Cape Town Pelagic Trip Report 3rd March 2012, by Patrick Cardwell

Weather conditions remained ideal for offshore pelagic birding, so by 7Am on 3rd March we were all aboard ‘Obsession’ owned and skippered by Dave Christie,  with Anne Gray a.k.a. ‘Anne Albatross’ on board as well,  for our Cape Town pelagic  birding trip out of  Hout Bay.

Spectacled Petrel Cape Town Pelagic, Avian Leisure                                                                                                        Rarity of the day: Spectacled Petrel!

Soon after radioing in our intended course of 240 degrees and estimated time of return to Scarborough, as a ‘sound’ precaution in terms of safety procedure, we set off on our heading for the outbound run to the trawling grounds.

Shortly, after passing to the south of the Slangkop lighthouse, we received a radio call from ‘Osprey’,  in prompt response to Dave’s call for sighting assistance regarding the fishing fleet, confirming the presence of a working trawler no more than 10 miles to the north of our intended bearing.

After checking the radar we switched to 280 degrees and soon after not one, but three working trawlers, appeared ahead of us in close proximity to one another on the distant horizon.

With swell and wind conditions very much in our favour, we realised we would be spoilt for choice in deciding where to start within the trawler selection, on top of which two pole boats targeting tuna were headed our way as well.

On the way out, with the water temperature up to the current line at around 16 C, only high flying Swift Terns cut across our line of travel, but once into the warmer water of close to an almost tropical 22 C, pelagic seabirds started to appear in increasing numbers.

First off were the seemingly ubiquitous White-chinned Petrels careening at leisure in the steadily stiffening north westerly breeze.

Here and there distant Cory’s Shearwaters, a wintering migrant to the South Atlantic, lifted off the surface ahead of the boat when all of a sudden a single Great Shearwater practically side swiped the port side as it banked away from us as the first of several close-up sightings for the day. Great Shearwaters are synonymous with the return of Long-fin Tuna to Western Cape waters in angling circles, and its presence as the first sighting of the season was warmly received by our skipper and deemed a good birding omen for the day!

In this regard we were not to be disappointed, even though time of year is not optimum for the regular crowd of wintering pelagic seabirds to our latitudes, as we started off with great views of Shy Albatross across the age class spectrum winging their way towards and across us as we made our way up the first trawlers wake.

Here and then rafts of White-chinned Petrels, Shy and Black-browed Albatross lazed about on the surface waiting for the gong-like clang of the trawlers steel otter doors to strike the stern gantry signifying the start of the net retrieval process.

Sure enough, at exactly 10.00a.m. the ‘tory’ bird scaring lines and blaze-orange plastic cones were recovered by the crew and the warps tensioned to herald the end of the first trawl of the day. Soon thereafter the well-filled net broke surface under a swirling melee of seabirds accompanied by porpoising Cape Fur Seals participating in the feeding bonanza.

Such activity ushered in our first Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross for the day and a sprinkling of Sooty Shearwaters in amongst the hundreds of White-chinned Petrels squabbling over titbits breaking away from the heavily sagging net as it was winched aboard.

Other regular attendees of this four hourly feeding opportunity included adult and immature Cape Gannets and Kelp Gulls along with a steadily increasing number of Black-browed Albatross and an influx of several Sub-Antarctic Skuas in klepto-parasitic mode weaving their way in and out of the collective throng.

Sabine's Gull, Cape Town Pelagic, Avian Leisure  Sabine’s Gull
 
Wilson's Storm Petrel, Cape Town Pelagic, Avian Leisure  Wilson’s Storm Petrel
 
Cory's Shearwater, Cape Town Pelagic, Avian Leisure Cory’s Shearwater
 
Immature Shy Albatross, Cape Town Pelagic, Avian Leisure Immature Shy Albatross
 

 

Add to this a steadily increasing number of the tern-like Sabine’s Gull , swooping and dipping for tit-bits in the company of a steadily growing number of Wilson’s and European Storm Petrels, and you have some idea as to the composition of seabirds within the unfolding scene as we drifted back along the trawler’s wake.

Switching to the next trawler provided us with good views of a single Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, as an adjunct to several Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross sightings already recorded, amongst the many Shy and Black-browed Albatrosses orbiting about the trawler.

As we made our way towards the third trawler through hundreds of White-chined Petrels squatting on the surface, and loose flocks of mixed Wilson’s and European Storm Petrels pattering about across the trawlers wake, Anne Gray spotted a Spectacled Petrel as the ‘rarity’ highlight of the day. In no time Dave was able to close the gap to secure definitive shots of this striking petrel as it presented itself for all to see in close proximity to the boat.

By now the steady breeze was starting to gust from the north, and the swell complexion of the sea had begun to pick-up noticeably, as we headed steadily into the wind with a tuna pole boat close beside us.

Storm petrels in ever increasing numbers zigzagged about us and pattered with impunity into the wind and across the wave crests, much to my personal delight. These one-ounce birds known to the mariners of old as ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’ seemed to thrive in high winds as titbits float to the surface between the breaking crests of the swells. Trying to get sharp images of them in flight on camera proved impossible, as the boat pitched and yawed about, but most of us tried with predictably poor photographic results.

At this time a single ‘white-rumped’ Arctic Tern appeared above the stern, followed shortly thereafter by an Parasitic Jaeger in hot pursuit, as the tern attempted to flee the scene with a prey item in its bill.

Shortly afterwards, a Pomerine Skua passed through the milling flock of seabirds to herald our decision to head back to the shelter of Hout Bay across a now rapidly rising sea driven by a gusting northerly wind of increasing intensity.

At this point the ‘sister’ pelagic boat of the day in the form of ‘Decadence’ reported an odd looking seabird between us, which turned out to be another Spectacled Petrel, and soon afterwards a radio prompt triggered the sighting of the only Giant Petrel of the day. Unfortunately, the steadily rising wind and distance precluded us from picking up on the bill colour making positive identification between North and South Giant Petrel impossible.

And so we set off for Hout Bay, picking up on two more Pomerine Skuas on the way, and stopping for an obliging raft of Cory Shearwaters on the current line for all to view at leisure as they loafed on the surface in association with half a dozen Cape Fur Seals.

Another highlight in an otherwise dolphin and whale free day was two separate sighting Sunfish on the surface for all on board to see as they flapped about leisurely in the clear water providing good photographic opportunities.

For the rest we quartered our way slowly back to Hout Bay across a now choppy sea, without incident bar constant spray, with only the usual mix of inshore seabirds for company.

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

Shy Albatross 150

Black-browed Albatross 50

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross 10

Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross 2

Giant Petrel (species unknown) 1

White-chinned Petrel 1000 plus

Spectacled Petrel 2

Sooty Shearwater 20

Cory’s Shearwater 30

Great Shearwater 20

Wilson’s Storm Petrel 200

European Storm Petrel 100

Sub-Antarctic Skua 10

Pomerine Jaeger 3

Parasitic Jaeger 2

Sabine’s Gull 30

Arctic Tern 1

Swift Term 30

Kelp Gull 100

All and all a great day at sea dominated by White-chinned Petrels as unquestionably the most abundant species present on the trawling grounds.

Highlight of the day for most were the two obliging Spectacled Petrels, which afforded all on board close-up views, thanks to the alacrity and competence of our highly experienced skipper.

Thanks to Anne Gray for organising the trip and Dave Christie as skipper and host and caterer, as I understand he rose early to make the sandwiches and to ensure the snacks and refreshments were sufficient to cover our victualing needs for the day.

For more information on pelagic birding trips out of Cape Town, contact Patrick on info@avianleisure.com or visit our website www.avianleisure.com

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