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Birding Africa pt. 11 - Cape Town Pelagic

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, October 30, 2013 

I’ll be the first to admit that birding generally is recognized as a hobby of retirees.  To many people it comes across as something boring, I mean come on who cares about a couple of stupid pigeons right?  I often get asked questions about birds by co-workers and friends, because they know me as the bird-guy--and frequently they are astonished by what they don’t know.  Like the fact that there are almost 10,000 species of birds on the planet seems impossible to them.  Or that birding isn’t just sitting in your car at the park looking at the ducks.  Granted there can be quite a bit of boring birding--there are certain types of birding that get almost any birders hearts pulsing.  Pelagic birding is one of those things.

Pelagic Birding--5 species in one view.
L to R: Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Shy Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Cape Petrel, and Cape Gannet

Months before heading to Africa as I planned where and when we were going I looked for ways to get in as much birding and as many species in between stops as possible.  After all, this may be the only time I ever go to South Africa, so I needed to maximize.  When we inked in Cape Town as a definite stop, my first thought wasn’t what will we do in Cape Town, but instead was, “there has to be a pelagic company there”.  For those unfamiliar with pelagic birding, it is simply put, birding at sea.  Once you get 25 or so miles off the coast of pretty much any land mass you start to see a change in bird life.  Typically this is related to underwater terrain, currents, and food sources--and with it comes birds that you will almost certainly never see from the coast.

So anyways, I immediately typed Cape Town Pelagic into Google and sure enough Cape Town Pelagics was a company.  They run weekly pelagic trips off Cape Point--the kicker is you don’t know whether your trip will go Saturday, Sunday, or at all.  When you book you basically pay to block out the entire weekend, in case the weather or swells make the trip impossible the first day.  I looked at the calendar, made sure we would be there over a weekend and went ahead and booked--however, when I booked I knew that if the trip didn’t go on the Saturday, I wouldn’t get to go--because we booked something else for Sunday with the Monday following as a back up day (more on that in the next post).

My trip was booked for September 7th, and as my last post mentioned, I called on the 6th and confirmed (thank goodness) that the trip was on for Saturday.  The trips the previous 2 weeks had had weather issues, but it looked like clear sailing for this trip.  Sam stayed in Cape Town, while I was up at 5:00am getting ready to go.  After throwing my gear in the car, I drove down the highway in the dark, arriving at Hout Bay Marina well before I needed to be there--I easily could have slept another 30-40 minutes.  After eating a bagel and some orange juice, and dropping some Dramamine, I still felt a little uneasy.  Usually this happens to me before pelagic birding, so I wasn’t too worried, but its never a  great feeling hopping on a boat with your stomach turning.  By 7:00am everyone was present and we met our captain Dave (I believe), and our guide, Cliff Dorse who was simply put, excellent.

After a quick briefing  and meeting the other 7 participants, we headed to the boat--boy was I surprised.  This was my 4th-ish pelagic and all had been on decent sized boats--the kind where 20-30 people could be aboard.  That wasn’t the case today--this trip was aboard a sport-fishing boat, maybe big enough barely for the 10 people on board.  There wasn’t even enough room for everyone in the cabin during the ride out--where swells were 10-14’.  I being the youngest on the boat, one guest from England, and the Cliff all headed to the back of the boat to let the older, and those already looking green sit for the ride out in the cabin  The next 2 hours would be the wettest boat ride of my life as crashing on the waves sent water flying over the top and sides of the boat--all three of us were soaked from head to toe by the time we reached the trawling grounds--and 2 months later I am still sick (more on this in my final recap).

In any event as we left the marina we had CAPE CORMORANTS, HARTLAUB’S and KELP GULLS, and a few GREAT CORMORANTS.  From Hout Bay we headed due south and then slightly west out towards the Cape Trawling Grounds.  Most of the birds the first 5-10 miles were the ones mentioned above.  Bird life starts to dip off in that 10 mile range, before we started seeing a few of the ocean goers.  We did see one SWIFT TERN along the way, but our first ocean going birds came in the 10-15 mile range with a SHY ALBATROSS and a WHITE-CHINNED PETREL--both lifers that we didn’t stop to look at because Cliff guaranteed we would see more.  I spotted three terns flying over that appeared to be ANTARCTIC TERNS, the only of the trip--and not seen by anyone in the cabin.

3 White-chinned Petrels with an Albatross hiding in the back

As we continued to deeper water the captain started spotting ships in the distance.  The key was to find a trawler to follow, and that took a while as the first boat we went towards ended up not being a trawler.  Once we eventually and luckily found one (this doesn’t always happen), we made a bee-line towards it. As we were approaching we spotted a CAPE FUR SEAL feeding on some fish and nearby were a few birds picking up the scraps.  The birds ended up being 3 WHITE-CHINNED PETREL and a gorgeous prize bird a WANDERING ALBATROSS.

The first rarity of the day a stunning Wandering Albatross

The wanderer was considered rare on these trips--they show up in small numbers but are never guaranteed--lucky for us this lifer was super cooperative and the captain lined us up perfect for photos. After the trip our guide posted a note that there was some indication that the bird we saw may actually have been a Tristan Albatross due to its overall pattern and smaller size.  But he lamented that at this time not-enough is known about all the subspecies of Wandering to really be sure.

Wandering Albatross close-up (note the pink sheen on the neck)

As we headed towards the trawler it became apparent we were in for a treat--it was unlike anything I had see before, as in the distance 1,000’s of birds swirled, swooped, dove, sat on the water, flew, glided and followed the trawler as it went.  It was a spectacle.

Various Seabirds following a trawler off Cape Point

Had I not been there to see I don’t know if I would have believed it.  I had seen video like this before, but couldn’t imagine it being like this.  The majority of the birds were CAPE (Pintado) PETRELS and their striking black-and-white patterns really made them stick out as they swirled in flocks behind the boat.

Cape Petrel flock in flight

The occasional SOOTY SHEARWATER passed by, and were soon joined by a new species for me, GREAT SHEARWATER.  These birds were pretty stunning when the light hit them just right, showing the details of the edging on the feathers of the otherwise drab--black, white, and brown birds.

Great Shearwater with its striking feather detail

At one point I looked up and a PARASITIC JAEGER flew past--I yelled it out, but no one seemed to look for the bird as they focused on other things--such is life on a boat.  Pretty soon we were right behind the boat, in the mix with the masses of birds.  Aside from the above mentioned birds there were quite a few SHY ALBATROSS (now called White-capped) following the boats--you could look any direction and see this species as well as the second most common--BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS.

White-capped (Shy) Albatross was the most abundant Albatross 

Black-browed Albatross was the 2nd most common species

As we followed along and the swarms of birds swirled around it wasn’t long before the great hunter of the southern seas joined the fray--the BROWN SKUA (formerly Subantarctic) came in to take its turn finding breakfast.  We saw several during the course of the day, but this first one eventually landed right next to the boat and I was able to watch it slurp up a fish before taking flight.

Brown Skua slurping down a meal

Skuas and Jaegers are by far my favorite seabird--and watching these guys in the mix was a lot of fun.  We followed the first boat for some time, occasionally drifting off far behind it to watch something out of the ordinary that came by--and on this day those birds were the various species of Albatross.

Fly by (Northern) Royal Albatross

I can’t tell you in what order or exactly when each species was seen as the 4 or so hours we spent with the trawlers seemingly passed much faster.  Short periods of excitement following a rarity that arrived were followed with periods of pure amazement watching the throngs of birds.  I could've seen just the common stuff and the experience would have been memorable--but the rare birds made it for a once in a life-time trip.  We soon had our first of 3 or 4 NORTHERN ROYAL ALBATROSS come by the boat.  

(Northern) Royal Albatross on the water with a Black-browed

Technically its just Royal Albatross because the Northern and Southern species were grouped.  For good measure though we did a short time later have a single SOUTHERN ROYAL ALBATROSS come by as well--so if they ever split again I have that species too!

(Southern) Royal Albatross fly by

In between these birds it could be called the “Day of the Wanderers”.  As luck would have it we had no less than 6 WANDERING ALBATROSS for the day.  I put 7 down in my notes as I didn’t photograph one of the distant birds--but made sure to catch each of the closer individuals.  Some passed the boat just feet away, while others sat in the swells providing excellent looks on the water.  Some passed a short distance away providing great comparisons to the more common albatrosses. The WANDERING ALBATROSS were surely the birds of the day.

4 of the other 6 Wandering Albatross seen during the day

The Albatross weren’t the only big seabirds that came in though.  Several times entire flocks of CAPE GANNETS joined the mix.  They were probably there the whole time but kept circling back to the trawlers as they moved.  When they were close though, the looks were amazing, and the birds were the most stunning in terms of overall beauty.

Cape Gannet almost too close to photograph

After following the first trawler for several hours the captain spotted another and opted to move towards it to see what different birds might be with that boat.  The tricky thing is deciding if its a good move or not.  It was apparent at the first boat that new birds were coming and going frequently enough to make following it worthwhile.  But the second boat could potentially have other following it that are completely different.  So we decided to head to the second boat.  En route were 2 of the above mentioned WANDERING ALBATROSS.

1 of the other 2 Wandering Albatross seen

At this point we also started picking up a few more new birds for the day.  First came a SOUTHERN GIANT-PETREL, one of two for the day.

Southern Giant-Petrel making a pass

Then came the YELLOW-NOSED ALBATROSSES.  We had 2 of each subspecies--ATLANTIC and INDIAN--another species which eventually may be split again.  These birds were all single fly-bys that didn’t give us the photo ops that some of the more common--and more obliging species allowed.  In fact I only was able to get a couple shots of one of the Atlantic and Indian--and they aren’t great.

Best shot I could muster of an Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross

"Awesome" shot of an Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross

We eventually caught up to the second trawler that was being followed by an impressive flotilla of CAPE PETRELS.  At this point it was past midday and we were mostly just floating along following the trawler.  We had seen all of the expected species for the day and were just relaxing hoping for something uncommon to find its way to us.  I used the time to try and photograph WILSON’S STORM-PETRELS.  I had first seen this species 10 years ago from land in New Hampshire as a summer storm brought 100’s within viewing distance of the coast--now they skittered across the water just feet from the boat.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel gliding over the water

I would argue that storm-petrels are one of the hardest birds to photograph--at least on water.  With the swells still heaving us 6-10’  every time they past and the birds dipping and dodging between smaller waves, it was often hard to get the birds in the viewfinder.  I eventually managed to catch a few.

Wilson Storm-Petrel with a Cape Petrel

Additionally upon reviewing my photos it appears I photographed 2 LEACH’S STORM PETRELS, which are much rarer but occasionally mixed in with the more common cousins.  This was not a species that any of actually noted during the day--I think most focused on the bigger birds--specifically the albatrosses.

Leach's Storm-Petrel with a Black-browed Albatross

At some point while we were floating along we snagged a NORTHERN GIANT-PETREL to go along with the earlier southern.  At this point we had basically gotten every single species we could have expected to get on a Pelagic this time of year.  We were in a window between several other species that show up with regularity in August and October but had little chance to see any on this trip.

Northern Giant-Petrel too close to fit in the frame

As our time on the boat watching seabirds neared an end most of the passengers were in the front of the boat or sitting in the cabin.  Myself and the gentleman from Britain that road out in the back were in the back watching the streams of Albatross flyby.  At one point he grumbles something and ended up saying something to the effect of, “hmm, was that a Salvin’s?”  I quickly looked where he was and shot off a handful of shots.  Luckily one turned out pretty good showing what appears to be a SALVIN’S ALBATROSS. This species is typically found in the southern oceans near Australia and South America but is classified as accidental in African waters.

Possible Salvin's Albatross (note the bill pattern and hooded appearance)

The other fellow alerted Cliff but by that time the bird had disappeared into the mix.  It was very similar to the Shy Albatross, so it could blend in fairly easy.  Unofficially it was the 8th species of albatross for the day--although only 6 show up on my list because of the 2 lumped groups (Yellow-nosed and Royals).  A truly spectacular day on the ocean

I never imagined seeing an actual "flock" of Albatross

Soon we were headed back towards land--we had spent a little too long following the trawlers and were going to be late back to the marina--we ended up being about 90 minutes later than I had planned--but the birds made up for it.  The ride in seemed to take forever and for some on the boat I think the day as whole probably felt that way.  From the moment we left the safety of the bay till we re-entered it, there were 2 individuals on the boat who left the cabin only to lean over the edge of the boat and let their insides loose.  These folks paid to go on the boat--and really didn’t get to see all the great stuff because they couldn’t handle the motion of the ocean.

This kind of view made for a spectacular day

I felt bad that they missed out but some people just aren’t made for the high-seas.  There was one other guy who just looked green the whole-time.  He never puked but spent at least ½ the day in the cabin as well.  Despite my stomach not feeling great in the morning, I patched things up with another bagel, 2 small bags of Swedish Fish, a fistful of Hi-Chews, and a couple gulps of some Coca-Cola.  Essentials for Pelagic birding--really any kind of fruit flavored candy does the job for me at least.

Once back to the marina, I had to rush back to Cape Town to get Sam and head to our hotel for the next 3 nights--unfortunately this meant I missed the recap with the group.  All being said I ended up with 15 life birds, and 19 new trip birds during the course of the day.  The fact is many of those birds I very well may never see again--although I would gladly do another pelagic with Cape Town Pelagics and their excellent staff.

100's of Cape Petrels swarming

As a last note checkout the eBird lists below to see the actual numbers for some of the birds seen.  for instance I estimated it to be about 5,000 Cape Petrels--Cliff estimated closer to 8,000--regardless it was lots of birds.  I leave you with this video that shows what it was like in live action!

15 life birds on the Pelagic / 275 total trip life birds / 295 total trip species

photos from the pelagic:

eBird Checklists:
Offshore--Cape Pt. to trawling grounds, Western Cape
Offshore--Cape trawling grounds, Western Cape

and a shorter trip report from the guide:
Cape Town Pelagics Trip Report

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Birding Africa pt. 10 - Cape Town & Robben Island

posted by Tim Avery at
on Monday, October 28, 2013 

The morning of September 5th we ate our last breakfast in Johannesburg and were promptly whisked back to the airport for a noon flight to Cape Town.  The flight took about 2 hours and as we approached the Cape the pilot told us to check out the mountain tops--freshly dusted with snow from storms the previous week.  This was a concern for us when we booked our trip as weather in Cape Town in September is historically--questionable.  2 out of every 3 days receive precipitation, and sometimes there are weeks straight where the weather doesn't open up.  As for our stay--well as the plane came around and looped in to land, it was sunny, with just a few clouds over the mountains.

Once on the ground we had a serious decision to make.  Do we rent a car and get thrown into driving on the opposite side of the road in a major city--or do we hire a car and only have drivers to get form point A to B when needed?  The costs were comparable--but the rental gave us freedom, something that tipped the scale favorably in that direction.  So we headed to the rental office, picked up a Toyota Corolla, and queued the most stressful couple of days driving I have ever had.

Me figuring things out on the other side of the road

Getting from the airport to our hotel in Sea Point wasn't difficult--I managed to hop on the highway, and make my way around the north end of Table Mountain and onto the main drag in Sea Point without incident.  From there it was a quick drive past the condominiums, apartments, restaurants, shops, and waterfront to the Atlantic Affair Boutique Hotel.

View of Lion's Head from the Hotel

We parked the car, checked in and put our bags up, and then headed right to the waterfront to walk around and look for something to eat.  I didn't bring a telephoto since we were walking in an area where I didn't expect to see a ton of birds, that I wouldn't have an opportunity to photograph later.  I put a 50mm lens on which limited what I could shoot, but ended up being alright.  From the moment we left the hotel the HARTLAUB'S GULLS were calling from the roofs, and building all around us where they perched.  From our hotel it was only 1 block to the Sea Point Swimming Pools which looked amazing--but it was a tad cold for a swim in my opinion.  The locals must have felt the same as the only thing in the pools were numerous KELP and HARTLAUB’S GULLS.

Kelp and Hartlaub's Gulls at the Sea Point Pools

We walked north as the waves crashed in.  The beach sat about 10 feet below the walking path, from where numerous people strolled in the middle of the afternoon.

Sea Point Beach with Robben Island in the background

It was a great vantage point to scan the shore which aside from the gulls held very little.

Hatlaub's Gulls, taken with a 50mm lens--they were very approachable

Several AFRICAN OYSTERCATCHERS ran along the rocks and a handful of CAPE WAGTAILS bobbed around at the base of the sea wall.  If I had brought my telephoto I could have gotten great photos of both species, but I figured there would be time for that later… oops.

African Oystercatchers on Sea Point Beach

We only made it a mile or so before hunger got the best of us so we stopped and had an early dinner.  After we headed back to our hotel and called it a day--I could have slept for a week at this place because the bed was the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in.  But the next morning we had to get up and be to the VA Waterfront to catch the 9:00am ride to Robben Island.  Using the GPS we headed to the area, but soon found that the route it took us ended up on a street that was closed till later in the day--go figure.  Eventually after making several U-turns and several wrong turns, we ended up in a parking garage at the waterfront.  After asking someone where to go we found ourselves in line with about 150 school children--and maybe 50 or 60 tourists.  We already had tickets so it was just a matter of waiting to get through security.

The boat to the island is alike a giant 3 decker speed-boat.  The bottom deck is theater style row seating and probably holds close to 200 people.  The second level is tables and maybe holds 40 or so.  The top was open-air and only has room for 16 I think--we were too late for the top--plus it was cool this morning so we sat inside.  Despite the huge boat the 12’ swells rocked the thing from side to side while we sped across the open water towards the island.  This made for an interesting time as number of the school kids couldn’t handle it.  I think in all at least 6 kids puked, and several puked all over other students and even a couple tourists.  The smell was atrocious and all anyone I think wanted was off the boat.  Because of this fun I didn’t even bother to look for birds on the way out.

Once at the Island we exited and grabbed seats on one of the tour buses.  Birding from the buses was difficult given they packed 5 people across in space typically for 4.  I did see CAPE FRANCOLIN and CHUKAR as we drove, both new trip birds, and the Francolin was a lifer.

Cape Francolin on Robben Island

At the South end of the island we were able to exit the vehicle to view Cape Town and Table Mountain.

Table Mountain from Robben Island

While the view was amazing there were few birds to go with it.  CAPE CORMORANTS flew by in the distance, while AFRICAN SACRED IBIS passed overhead.  There were a few LITTLE EGRETS along the beaches as well as AFRICAN OYSTERCATCHER.  Missing surprisingly from anywhere along the beaches here were shorebirds--I just must have been in the wrong spots.

African Sacred Ibis over Robben Island

After the tour of the island you get to tour the actual prison, with someone who actually served time.  Our guide was a political prisoner named Sparks who I believe spent 8 years as a prisoner, and served during the time Nelson Mandela was a prisoner.  Now Sparks, and others actually live on the island and lead these tours--it’s truly incredible.

Sparks was a former political prisoner at Robben Island

During the tour I only noticed one bird--as we walked between two buildings we stopped next to a tree and while we stood there I watched a brilliant MALACHITE SUNBIRD fly in, land long enough for me to snap a couple shots with the 50mm lens, and then take off and out of site.  It was the one and only of the trip, a lucky snag!

The only Malachite Sunbird of the trip, captured with a 50mm lens

The island is actually home to a feral population of Indian Peafowl that do reproduce and are recognized as being “wild”.  I had hoped to see one, but strangely did not.  I guess I need to make a trip to India to actually get one!  After the tour we headed back to the boat and snagged a couple seats up top.  No point in sitting in the enclosed portion again and risk having to smell that smell again.  Plus the view from the top was amazing--so that made it all the better.

As we sat in the harbor waiting to take off a pair of AFRICAN OYSTERCATCHER chased each other flying by the boat several times.  I was able to get the telephoto on for some shots finally and snapped one decent one on one of the passes by.

African Oystercatcher cruising through the harbor

When the boat finally departed we slowly left and I could see there were dozens of CAPE CORMORANTS on the jetty leading out to the ocean.

Cape Cormorants on the jetty at Robben Island

Mixed in was something a little more special in no less than 6 BANK CORMORANTS, and endangered species with only 4000 individuals left in the world.

A pair of the endangered Bank Cormorant

There was also a CAPE FUR SEAL that was laying on the rocks with all the cormorants, so I had to take a picture.

Cape Fur Seal taking a sun bath on the jetty at Robben Island

The ride back wasn’t quite as rocky--maybe it was just the fact we had the fresh sea-breeze now.  Flock of cormorants and AFRICAN SACRED IBIS passed heading either to the island or to the mainland.  There were few gulls, but one small group also had a few SWIFT TERNS mixed in, another lifer and one of the few birds seen on the crossing.

Bad shot of a Swift Tern on the crossing 

The highlight of the ride back though came just about half way when I looked to the right and added a new family to my life list, spotting a couple JACKASS PENGUINS swimming.  I snapped a bunch of shots of which not a single one turned out--I did manage to salvage one of the soft but not as bad shots just to have.  Most of the frames came back of just empty water as the motion of the boat made it difficult to get the shot.

My first ever PENGUINS!!! Jackass Penguins

I wasn’t overly concerned about not having gotten a better look--I knew I would see a lot more on the cape the following days…

Cape Town, Lions Head, and Table Mountain from the boat

Back on land we did some sightseeing around Cape Town en route back to our hotel. After a quick break we decided to go out again.  This time we had to make a quick stop and had trouble finding the place we were going--when we finally did, I had to flip around to find a place to park.  I promptly veered towards the curb but judged the angle incorrectly.  The tire blew on impact.  Less than 24 hours and I had rendered the car inoperable.

I managed to get a hold of a repair service that came out and changed the tire out--then because I didn’t want to be driving on the spare all week, we returned the car right in downtown Cape Town.  By the time all was said and done it was 5:00pm and there wasn’t much to do.  We made a few stops in down town before returning to our hotel for the night.  It wouldn’t be fun travel without some adversity to mix things up right?

Sunset at Sea Point Beach in Cape Town

Lion's Head from the beach at sunset

First things first I had to call Cape Town Pelagics to make sure my trip for the following day was still on--they often cancel or move trips due to weather, or even swell conditions. I called and confirmed it was--and as a plus it was leaving from Hout Bay which was 25 minutes closer than Simon’s town.  I packed my bags and got everything ready to go for the next day--Sam was going to stay and have a spa day.  After I would pick her up and we would make our way south to the Fish Hoek area where we would be staying the following 3 nights.  As for now I dreamt of seabirds.

10 life birds from Cape Town / 260 total trip life birds / 277 total trip species

photos from Cape Town:

photos from Robben Island:

eBird Checklists:
Cape Town--Sea Point, Western Cape
Robben Island, Western Cape
Robben Island Ferry, Western Cape

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