Pelagic Birding Tours, Cape Town

by Patrick Cardwell - Avian Leisure

 A fine day off Cape Point with thousands of seabirds accompanying a trawler.

Simon’s Town has long been recognized as the official gateway to Cape Town’s pelagic birding delights as seen off Cape Point and further southwards out of sight of land beyond the shipping lanes south west of Cape Town.

Keeping abreast of the pelagic action aboard a chartered deep sea ski boat

 Hartlaub’s Gull

Shy Albatross

Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross
Great Winged Petrel

Soft-plumaged Petrel

Juvenile Black-browed Albatross

Northern Giant Petrel

Great Shearwater

Wilson’s Storm Petrel

Wandering Albatross

Humpback Whaleflipper slapping’ off Cape Point

Pintado Petrel (Cape Pigeon)
The very first tailored departures in search of pelagic seabirds from Cape Town started in the early 1980’s. Since then thousands of enthusiastic birders from all over the world have set off in search of petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses to add to their life list of scintillating bird sightings and exciting experiences. Indeed setting off for the trawling grounds in search of pelagic seabirds is reminiscent of the air of eager expectation associated with a dawn or dusk game drive while on safari in the African bush. You leave in a state of high expectation hoping to connect with a mix of pelagic possibilities but with no guarantee as anything is possible, ranging from year-round regulars to a chance encounter with a rare and very special sighting or even a species new for Southern Africa...

As such you can never be sure as what to expect. Anything could turn up at any moment. It is this sense of eager anticipation that gives pelagic birding its special ‘edge’ of expectation along with the possibility of ‘bonus’ sightings in the form of turtles, sun fish, fur seals, dolphins and whales.

Typically the day begins early with a safety briefing on the quay before boarding the boat with binoculars and camera in hand. Heading south out of False Bay along the eastern edge of the Cape Peninsula is always a very special scenic and memorable experience as one savors the stratified heights of the south peninsula range in the dawn light and reflective effects of the sunrise across the bay.

All along the shore is dotted with huge granite boulders that form the solid foundation on which the stratified layers of rose-pink and purple sandstone and shale have been deposited over the millennia to form the south peninsula. Several giant boulders are regular breeding and roosting sites for a variety of seabirds that regularly frequent the sheltered bay, including the endemic Bank Cormorant, with one particular granite outcrop off Partridge Point supporting a year round rookery of Cape Fur Seals.

First off in the bird mix are the Hartlaub’s and Kelp Gull’s that frequent the harbour area as a reliable source of scraps discarded by returning fishing boats. Crowned Cormorants are normally present in the sheltered bay adjacent to the quay and it is also worth checking the gull mix for a possible Grey-headed Gull as an outside but not unusual possibility.

As the boat heads out past the Naval dock yard check the mooring buoys and pipelines for roosting Swift (Great Crested), Sandwich and Common Tern. Once clear of the harbor zone the boat will pick up speed and head directly for Cape Point. Along the way wavering skeins of Cape Cormorant are usually encountered streaming off the larger offshore outcrops in the vicinity of the Boulder’s Coastal Park. White-breasted  Cormorant and African Penguin should be self-evident along the rocky shore line. Further out plunge diving Cape Gannets and the odd Bank Cormorant and White-chinned Petrel are likely to be encountered before the boat pauses below the Cape Point lighthouse for a photo opportunity. Views all round to far off Cape Hangklip are spectacular and the pause to absorb the complexity of the immediate surroundings and towering cliffs and weathered gargoyle like sandstone outcrops at this the south western tip of the African continent is indeed a very special moment to savor and enjoy.

Beyond Cape Point the bearing heads south west past Bellow’s Rock, the offshore granite outcrop where the Portuguese liner the ‘Lusitania’ foundered in 1911. This shipwreck  resulted in the relocation of  the lighthouse to a lower more visible position as the peak is often shrouded in cloud and therefore of little cautionary benefit to shipping.

Depending on time of year Sooty Shearwater are likely to be in evidence with numbers varying from infrequent birds to hundreds crossing the line of travel in both directions. Here too White-chinned Petrel become increasingly more numerous as careening birds cut back and forth across the wake.

As Cape Point starts to recede into the distance the first Shy Albatross is likely to make its appearance as it crests the top of an approaching swell in effortless flight before sweeping past on stiff set wings. Soon the number and variety of pelagic seabirds starts to pick up appreciably as water depth and temperature increase on the way to the trawling  grounds. By now Shy Albatross will be regular sightings with the possibility of Atlantic and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross coming into view in leisurely flight.

Depending on time of year Soft-plumaged and Great-winged Petrel could grace the scene in towering flight before plunging out of sight beyond the wave crests while a sharp eye out could well be rewarded by fleeting views European and Wilson’s Storm Petrel zig-zagging back and forth in fluttering flight across the wake.

By now with luck a working pole-fishing boat or deep sea trawler will have been sighted and with it the awesome sight of hundreds if not thousands of pelagic seabirds wheeling about the vessel or alighting in its wake to take advantage of what ever feeding opportunities present themselves as the catch is retrieved. So focused are the birds  in the competitive search for scraps that the charter boat is all but ignored making for fantastic up-close and almost personal viewing opportunities. From a photographic aspect it represents a time of abundant opportunity as the birds wheel about and interact with one another in a squabbling melee in the immediate vicinity.

Within the mix Black-browed and Shy Albatross in all age classes are likely to be the dominant albatross species with Indian and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross competing for scraps along with both Northern and Southern Giant Petrel.

Subantarctic Skua are normally present and favor holding an observational position well above the wake or even perching on the fishing vessel between opportunistic forays in search of scraps.

Also present in varying numbers depending on time of year are Great Shearwater and Pintado Petrel with Cory’s and Manx Shearwater and European Storm Petrel likely to be encountered sporadically during the summer months.Sooty Shearwater and Cape Gannet are usually present year round while further back in the wake of the trawler Wilson’s Storm Petrel are likely to be found pattering energetically across the surface.

Other birds recorded regularly during the summer months include Sabine’s Gull, Arctic Tern, Arctic and Pomerine Skua.

While the above represent the more regular sightings the list of pelagic possibilities includes Wandering Albatross, Southern and Northern Royal Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross, Antarctic Fulmar, Grey Petrel, Antarctic Prion, Spectacled Petrel, Black-bellied Storm Petrel, Long-tailed Skua and Gray Phalarope.

On the return to Simon’s Town a sharp eye should be kept open for cetaceans including Southern Right and Hump-back Whale in winter while Bryde’s Whale has been sighted on several occasions during the summer months. Dolphins are well represented off Cape Point and Common and Dusky Dolphin are the two species most commonly encountered.

The opportunity of a chance encounter with a giant sunfish or turtle lazing on the surface also exists for the persistent observer on the way back to False Bay.

All in all a pelagic birding trip to the trawling grounds off Cape Town, is a unique and exciting experience enriched by many special pelagic sightings and wonderful photographic opportunities.

To book a Pelagic trip, contact Patrick or Marie-Louise at Avian Leisure
Ph/fax: +27 21 7861414 mobile: 083 272 2455 or 083 560 5510.

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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