Thursday 6 February 2014

Cape Town Pelagic, Cape Town, Feb 2014

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 Cape Town.

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.

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 the sightings.

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 Shearwaters too.

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 trawler.

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 presents itself.
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 us.

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 surface.

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;

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.


  1. You certainly made the most of your opportunity. Regarding the query Albatross, I can't pick it. The wing pattern does look like a Black-browed one, but the bill has a Yellow-nose look to it. When I get home, I'll have a look at some previous pelagics and see if they help - just under 3 weeks away.

  2. Great content, Great info, thanks so much for sharing,