Superb Cape pelagic birding

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Subject: Superb Cape pelagic birding
From: Trevor Hardaker <>
Date: Mon, 27 May 2002 13:14:01 +0200
Greetings from Cape Town,

We have had a number of exciting pelagic trips in the waters off of the Cape
Peninsula in recent times, but yesterday's one was truly one to remember and
we thought we would share our excitement with some of you out there. We know
that this doesn't really cover birds from your part of the world
necessarily, but know that many of you have actually been on one of these
trips on your birding visits to the Cape and hope that you would be
interested to read about what we saw anyway.

A group of rather apprehensive birders gathered on the pier at Simonstown on
Sunday morning (26 May 2002) at 7am. Fresh in everyone's minds were memories
of the huge storm and mountainous seas that had assailed the Peninsula at
the beginning of the weekend, and even though False Bay was flat calm, we
were not certain what we would experience in the open oceanic waters. The
wind had dropped significantly overnight, however, and we knew that if
conditions were too turbulent we would always have the option of turning
back for home.

A number of White-chinned Petrels and a Sooty Shearwater joined us for the
last few miles of our journey southwards through 
False Bay, and a single Pomarine Skua was seen just south of Cape Point.
Once south of the bay, we were delighted to find that the 
South Westerly wind that had been blowing at 05h00 had subsided to a mere
whisper, and this was to be the case for the rest of the 
day. The swells were enormous, reaching 6 metres at times, but in the
complete absence of wind they lacked any maliciousness and 
we were able to comfortably motor our way southwards.

We very soon saw our first Antarctic Prions and were quickly surrounded by
great collections of these attractive dove-grey and 
white birds. We searched avidly for the very similar Slender-billed Prions
in amongst them, and saw four or five very likely looking 
candidates, but in each case their fleet winged flight carried them over the
nearest swell before we could pin down all their features. 
While picking through the prions, we were lucky enough to see an excellent
Soft-plumaged Petrel, and a couple of Great-winged 

While making our way towards the fishing grounds, we were delighted to
encounter a school of 100 or more Common Dolphins 
which joined the boat for 10 to 15 minutes. We had stunning looks as they
sped alongside us, visible as colourful shadows under the 
water and then bursting into crisp detail as they lept clear of the water
within metres of the boat.

We picked up a pair of trawlers in the fishing grounds just west of the Cape
Canyon, and altered course to approach them. The first 
trawler had recently pulled its nets, and had a breathtaking mass of birds
swirling and gourging in its wake. Pintado Petrels, Great 
Shearwaters, Black-browed, Shy, Atlantic Yellow-nosed and Indian
Yellow-nosed Albatrosses and Wilson's Storm Petrels were all 
present in good numbers, and there were also occasional Northern and
Southern Giant Petrel, Cory's Shearwater, European Storm 
Petrel and Subantarctic Skuas. While picking through the birds, an excellent
Stage 3 Wandering Albatross appeared on the 
water alongside and gave us great views over the next 15 minutes. The best
was still to come, however. As we traveled back down 
the trawlers wake, a Fregetta storm petrel flew into view and with
excitement and incredulity we realised that this was not the 
expected Black-bellied Storm Petrel, but a cracking White-bellied Storm
Petrel. The bird gave us brilliant views for the 
next minute or so at 30 to 40 metres.

Buoyed on by this success we turned for the second trawler, which by now was
some 6 miles to the seaward. Within a short while we 
picked up a Black-bellied Storm Petrel, and within a few miles of that, a
brilliant Grey Petrel which appeared low over the water 
from the left and flew the length of the boat before disappearing ahead of
the bow. While we were still recovering from that, a 
Spectacled Petrel flew past but unfortunately was not seen by everyone.

The second trawler had far fewer birds, but did not give an inch in quality.
A younger, Stage 2 Wandering Albatross, still 
showing brownish shadows of its juvenile plumage, flew past our boat a
number of times, dwarfing the surrounding mollymawks. As 
we picked through these mollymawks, we noticed an immature "Shy" albatross
with striking dark triangles over the full extent of 
the underside of the primaries and a continuous solid grey hood, nape and
mantle (and whiter face), and we realised that we were 
looking at an immature Salvin's Albatross. This bird also showed itself
brilliantly, returning to the boat many times over the 
next 15 minutes and at one stage flying low overhead.

The time was passing fast and eventually we reluctantly had to turn for
home. We were still, however, searching intently for any other 
vagrants that might have been pushed in by the storm, and were richly
rewarded when we spotted an immature Grey-headed Albatross flying in from
the stern. We again had great looks before it flew off back towards the
fishing grounds.

As we approached Cape Point we had brief views of a Humpback Whale blowing
and arching briefly. By this stage the seas had 
subsided somewhat, although this did not prevent the skipper setting a new
surfing speed record of 25 knots as we were pushing 
towards the shore by another large swell. The boat normally cruises at 13

As we cruised gently towards Simonstown we reflected on what had probably
been the most stunning local pelagic trip we had ever 
experienced. We had seen an incredible total of 26 true pelagic bird
species, including seven albatross and four storm petrel 
species, in addition to a number of coastal species. If this is a sign of
how the pelagic birding is going to be this winter, we cannot wait 
to get to sea again to see what else might be out there. 

The full list of birds seen is as follows, with numbers being approximations

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) - very common at Boulders Beach, 15+
at sea
Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) - 2
Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta) - c750
Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini) - 1
Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) - c1500
Grey-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma) - 1
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche carteri) - 3
Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos)  - 3
Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli) - 1
Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) - 3
Pintado Petrel (Daption capense) - c250
Great-winged Petrel (Pterodroma macroptera) - 5
Soft-plumaged Petrel (Pterodroma mollis) - 1
Grey Petrel (Procellaria cinerea) - 1
White-chinned Petrel (Procellaria aequinoctialis) - c2000
Spectacled Petrel (Procellaria conspicillata) - 1
Antarctic Prion (Pachyptila desolata) - c3500
Great Shearwater (Puffinus gravis) - c75
Cory's Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea borealis & C d diomedea) - 4
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) - c250
Wilson's Storm Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus) - c1000
European Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus) - 4
Black-bellied Storm Petrel (Fregetta tropica) - 2
White-bellied Storm Petrel (Fregetta grallaria) - 1
Cape Gannet (Morus capensis) - common coastal, c250 pelagic
Subantarctic Skua (Catharacta antarctica) - c10
Pomarine Skua (Stercorarius pomarinus) - 1
Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) - common coastal
Hartlaub's Gull (Larus hartlaubii) - common coastal
Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) - 3
Swift Tern (Sterna bergii) - common coastal
Bank Cormorant (Phalacrocorax neglectus) - 3
Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis) - common coastal
White-breasted Cormorant (Phalacrocorax lucidus) - common coastal
Crowned Cormorant (Phalacrocorax coronatus) - 2

Hopefully, by now you can understand the excitement that we are
experiencing. All these birds in a single day from Cape Town!! For us, it
doesn't get much better than that.

Kind Regards
Trevor Hardaker and John Graham
Cape Town, South Africa
Pelagic Trips and Bird Guiding
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