I am not sure which came first;
whether Capt. Barry Stringer had already decided to go out and kindly acceded to
my joining his little group of friendly fisherfolk, or whether my request to go
piggy-back on a fishing boat had piqued the idea of a day at the helm. Which-ever
way round it came to be, I am very grateful to Anne Gray of Anne Albatross Pelagics
for brokering the boat ride out to see the pelagic birds on the ocean south of
Anne had put me in contact with Barry
because no-one was running a special pelagic birding trip that weekend. The
Cape Town route will soon be passed to our younger, fitter
colleagues, so it had become a priority to get a ride out onto the ocean as this
might be my last chance!
Barry’s vessel “Devocean” (it takes a
certain punning cunning to name a boat it would seem), is a Lee Cat 800 that sails
out of Hout Bay on the western coast of Cape Town’s peninsula. The Harbour can
be seen at Google Earth ref; 34 3 0.26S 18 20 46.11E.
The day dawned wet and misty as I
waited at the harbour (the photo above was taken on the following day from Chapman's Peak Road). Fernando came to say “hello” and made a call to chase newly-married
Barry from his bed to get the boat pushed off by 07.00. We made up four with
Paul, a fisherman to the bone. They were all very experienced on the water, but
had never really taken much notice of the birds at a species level. Still, they
kept an eye out for me and told stories of days when birds were so thick around
the boat that they couldn’t fish properly.
Today was not one of those days. Visibility was poor and birds were scarce. The lads had to revert to stories of quick mist dispersal to lift my spirits. But the list
was opened with a bang shortly out of the harbour when we stopped to look at a
small flock of birds on the water. The birds flew as soon as we came close, but
before Barry put the power back on, a ghostly form rolled on the water before
disappearing into the mist. Orcas! This
surprised even the salty sea dogs and the day was already a good one no matter
what happened after that. It’s amazing to think that four Orcas, 1 calf and 3 female I
think judging by the short fins, should surface in our small circle of visibility. What were the chances
that they were passing just at that moment? If the boat hadn’t slowed for the
birds we would never have seen them through the mist. If Barry hadn't slept in, we would have been way out to sea by now.
The first birds to be properly
identified were White-chinned
Petrels. They were easily recognised with their pale bill and the
white chin, when visible, made them unmistakeable. They were also easily the most common bird of the trip, being seen all through the day. A few other birds are
predominantly brown. I was hoping for smaller Sooty Shearwaters and Flesh-footed
Shearwaters, or even a Great-winged
Petrel, but a cursory glance was usually enough to confirm the larger White-chinned Petrel and discount the others..
We had been going a little way before
the first albatross showed. It is known as a Shy Albatross in SA birding circles,
but I had to enter it as a White-capped Albatross for eBird to acknowledge
It took a while to get my eye in on
the storm-petrels. There were two likely contenders in the European Storm-petrel and Wilson’s Storm-petrel, though potentially
a third uncommon summer visitor, Leach’s Storm Petrel.
European and Wilson’s are
superficially similar but can be told apart by Wilson’s trailing feet and
European’s under-wing flash. The under-wing marking was not as conspicuous as I
would have liked and I had to look twice to assure myself that I wasn’t seeing
the upper-wing marking of the Wilson’s, but all was well and my photos bore out
Talking of photos, there must be a
knack to taking pictures on a pitching and rolling boat. It was a trick that I
never quite mastered today and what with incorrect exposures too, I felt like
dropping the camera overboard on a couple of occasions. Getting a bird in the
frame was difficult enough in itself, but auto-focus was completely hit and
miss. The sea was quite calm, but the boat was small and rolled at the whim of
the swell. As the morning progressed, we motored further from the cape and the
mist cleared. At least now there was some light. Most of the photos accompanying
the text were taken after we passed beyond the mist.
A Black-browed Albatross was second of the four likely candidates to
be found, but the “yellow-noses” escaped me. A guide would have been helpful for the individual above. It has the under-wing pattern of a Black-browed Albatross, but shouldn't the bill have been orange? Juveniles have dark bills, but a different under-wing pattern. Any thoughts? Anyone? Brown shearwaters with pale
undersides passed on a few occasions. Mostly they were Cory’s Shearwater, but there were at
least a couple of dark-capped Great
The fishing had been slow so far. We had
been chugging along with a few lures trolling behind the boat, but nothing had
shown any interest in them. Captain Barry was conscious that I had not seen
many birds at the time and was keen to find some. He had heard reports that a
distant trawler was pulling up its nets. This is what the official pelagic
birding trips pray for and the lads pulled in the lures and we sped out to the
A dozen or so small fishing boats were already clustered
around the stern of the trawler as the nets were winched up the rear ramp.
There was a lot of fish debris in the water and birds swooped down to pick it
from the water.
A Subantarctic Skua (known to eBird as
a Brown Skua)
still preferred to harry other birds for their titbits rather than dropping
onto the water to take advantage of the plentiful food there. Eventually one
realised that there was an easier way.
Even though this was the most birds
that we had seen all day, the lads on the boat were not impressed by the
numbers. This was a trip during the southern summer and apparently birds are
infinitely more abundant during the winter months. Different species prevail in
different seasons too, so it would still be worth another trip if ever the chance
The way home was marked by a fish.
Paul brought in a 35kg Tuna and Fernando lost the “big one” of angling story
fame. Visibility was much better for the return journey and I could see that
there were more birds than we had realised. The mist had been keeping them from
A flock of Sabine’s Gulls were horribly
over-exposed. Terns troubled me. There were certainly some Common Terns, Swift Terns and Sandwich Terns, mostly seen as we approached land on the return. I suspect that Arctic Terns featured as well, but could not pin one down for sure. Sooty Shearwaters
were seen at last as we passed what may have been a shoal of Snook near the
To round out the day, a few gulls
were seen to be chasing terns in the distance. I managed to get my binoculars
onto them and they proved to be my seventh lifer of the day in the form of Parasitic Skuas.
I believe that we travelled about 30
nautical miles south from the peninsula and had to travel a good part of that
before seeing any albatrosses. Some of the coastal birds might have been
visible from land. I might have been able to identify Cape Gannets for example, but I would need much more experience
before I would try to call shearwaters and skuas from there.
Thanks again to Anne and Barry for sorting the trip and thanks to Paul and Fernando for making it a very pleasant
and productive day. Anne's pelagic tours run twice monthly throughout the year and weekly during the prime months of September and October. The tours depart from Simon's Town on False Bay. Let me emphasise that this was not an official Anne Albatross tour which always carries an expert bird guide. Anne knows many of the boat captains and in the absence of an official charter, put me in contact with Barry so that I could piggy-back on his fishing trip. I had to identify my own birds, but at least I was out on the water.
Fishing charter is not Barry's main occupation. He runs a wetsuit business in Ottery, Cape Town. However, I bet he could easily be enticed away from the shop and out for a day fishing.
Just in case try him on; email@example.com
Bird list for Cape Town Pelagic; 20
White-capped Albatross 30, Black-browed Albatross 2, White-chinned Petrel 600, Cory’s
Shearwater 30, Great Shearwater 2, Sooty Shearwater 6, Wilson’s
Storm-petrel 15, European Storm-petrel 30, Cape
Gannet 60, Cape Cormorant 6, Sacred Ibis 6, Sabine’s
Gull 200, Hartlaub’s Gull 60, Kelp Gull 40, Sandwich Tern 150, Common
Tern 120, Great Crested Tern 60, Brown Skua 3, Parasitic Jaeger 15, Speckled Pigeon 3.
Birding, Pelagic birds, Birdwatching
in Cape Town, South Africa.